Almost all good writing starts with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.
I’m finding Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird to be quite funny. She writes well, with humour and a confident grasp of how the choice of even one word can alter the direction and feel of a sentence.
Yet, more than that, I find Lamott to be perceptive about the writing process. In fact, this week has been a week for the ‘getting it down draft’ for me. People ask me how the research is going and I tell them I’ve had a week of writing rubbish but that I’m OK with that.
And I am.
Because actually the writing is intensely cathartic in itself after the fake extroversion overdrive disaster that was the preceding fortnight. If I don’t produce anything of value, it doesn’t really matter. (For one week only, of course. By next week, the drivenness will have kicked in again and no doubt I’ll be very frustrated if my writing comes to nothing. But, for now, it is well.)
But it’s not just the catharsis of writing which makes this week of terrible writing OK with me. It’s the fact that sometimes you have to write down what you do know before you can work out what you don’t know. Sometimes you have to write it all out with footnotes to realise that you only read two books. And that those two books were both by the same author. (Yeah, I know…!) Sometimes you just have to get it down in order to fix it up, you have to write it in order to have something to edit.
And, you know, every time I do this, every time I allow myself to put pen to paper even though the writing is not going to be perfect or even close, I discover anew this idea that Lamott is talking about. I remember that, if you can live with the mess of loose ends (which is obviously the forte of my personality??!!), you can move relatively quickly to the ‘dental draft’, the writing which surprises you with its coherence, the writing which even – albeit only on a very good day, admittedly – might lead you into the revelation of something which you didn’t know you knew!
This is why I write. This is why I write for an audience and this is why I write even when there is no audience. Because to put pen to paper is to have faith that I have something to say and that, with enough drafts and edits, it will find its way out. (Even if that is a lot of drafts and a lot of faith in the case of a PhD thesis!)