“Shitty First Drafts” and the Three Ps

Anne Lamott’s advice about a “shitty first draft” is the most liberating advice I’ve gotten about writing. But, internalizing that advice by giving myself permission to write a shitty first draft is not so easy. When I went back to Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, to re-read the chapter on shitty first drafts, I was surprised to discover that a chapter entitled “Perfectionism” follows it.

Now, perfectionism is something about which I know a great deal. Does it surprise anyone to hear me say that I am a perfectionist? Of course not. Why else would I be hanging around writing and writers’ blogs. Perfectionism is the eldest and principal member of a triad of creative energy sapping demons. Together with Procrastination and Paralysis, they form an unholy trinity the sole purpose of which is to block creative expression. Characterized as a fire-breathing dragon using scorched-earth tactics to stifle creativity, Perfection arrives on the creative scene with Procrastination and Paralysis bringing up the rear to ensure the devastation of creativity is complete.

So, it’s easy to understand that getting around such powerful adversaries is more than an act of courage. In the face of fire-breathing dragons, it seems impossible. But, is it?

I decided to try a new tactic. If just saying “No!” can work for Nancy Reagan, it can work for me. So, I pulled myself up straight, picked up my pen, looked the dragon in the eye and—somewhat tentatively, at first—said, “No? No! Perfectionism, I’m not listening to you! I’ve given myself permission to write a truly shitty first draft. I’m just pounding it out.” Emboldened by the tenor of that initial thrust toward creative actualization, I continued. “I’m not even going back to read what I’ve written. I’ve decided I’m writing a hundred thousand words. I’m starting at the beginning and when I reach the end, taking the caterpillar’s advice to Alice, I’m stopping.”

Then, I pounded out the first one thousand twenty-five words. To be sure Perfection and her siblings heard me, I added, “Perfection, get off my dress! You’re ripping the train!”

That done, I thought, “why not claim my progress.” So, I added a progress meter to my blog to track progress on my non-fiction book. And that’s what I’m really after: progress, not perfection. Progress dampens Perfectionism’s fires and renders impotent her followers, Procrastination and Paralysis.

What made the difference? As I began writing, I acknowledged that what I am writing is shitty. It’s a shitty first draft that no one else will ever see. The strength of that simple affirmation is amazing. The words just came and I let them come. When I got to the end of the fourth page, I quickly scanned through what I’d written to note and to correct words underlined with that squiggly red line MS Word puts under misspelled and unrecognized words. I didn’t read what I’d written. I know what’s there and there’s no need to read it. If I start reading, I’ve given the fire-breathing dragon of perfectionism a thin-entering wedge. The next thing I know, I’ll find myself in a non-creative fetal position in a corner of my room.

The bottom line… A draft of a hundred thousand words begins with the first word.