Writing advice, Writing and Editing

You May Now Write Garbage

The first draft of everything is shit.
Ernest Hemingway

Mr. Hemingway was correct. The first draft is called “first draft” precisely because it is expected that several newer, better versions of the work will follow. Any writer who has been involved in this thing we do for any length of time realizes this. The real work of writing occurs during the re-writes, much more than during the initial creation process.

Yet, knowing this, how many stories, poems, and essays have died a premature and possibly unwarranted demise because we look at those first few lines and decide they are garbage? All because we listen to that harshest of critics, our internal editor?

Was it truly garbage? Possibly, but sometimes we have to give ourselves permission to write badly.

It just sounds wrong, doesn’t it? We aren’t doing this writing stuff because we admire bad fiction, or aspire to produce awful poetry. We want to be good. I want to be great at what I do. I want to create fiction that my grandchildren will study in their college literature classes. We all do.

So why would we want to enable our own bad writing?

Because of what Hemingway said. Great writing is not born great. It is not a mythological god who through some mystical process is born mature and wise of a mortal woman. Great writing is the result of a lengthy process of revision and re-writing, trial and error, polishing and general hard work. In other words, great writing begins its life as bad writing. So we must be willing to write badly in order to get to great writing.

That means you have to defeat and silence that greatest enemy of writers everywhere: the self-editor.

I admit this is probably the most difficult struggle I deal with in my own writing life. I cannot tell you how many times I have begun a story or poem, written a few lines or paragraphs before deciding everything I’d done was garbage and abandoned the effort. (I lean toward the perfectionist regarding my written work; the rest of my life, not so much.) The problem with this method is not that my work wasn’t really garbage; I’m sure it was. (My self-editor, while harsh, is also pretty accurate). The problem is my expectation that I should be creating a world-class work of literature with my first attempt. That is simply not the way the process works.

Sure, occasionally, a work will come to us almost word-for-word and all we have to do is write it down. But those inspirational moments are rare and we writers, trying to perfect our art cannot sit around waiting for those rare inspirations to strike.

Nothing is more destructive than that internal editor. How many truly great stories, poems, and articles have never seen fruition because someone’s self-editor squashed them before they could fully form?

We cannot be afraid to write garbage, or as Mr. Hemingway eloquently stated it: shit. By definition, that’s what a first draft should be: a pile of garbage with the sparkling nugget of great story hidden somewhere deep within. It is the work we do in revision that uncovers that sparkling nugget and creates the great writing we are striving for.

So what we all need to do is find a way to make that internal editor of ours shut up. Ignore her. Distract him. Drown him out with rock music. Do whatever it takes. But get past whatever that self-editor tells you. Yes, what you’re writing might not be the finest art around, but you aren’t finished with it yet either.

Are you?


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