Inspiration: Leslie David, “Ornette”
I’m proud of a thing I did this weekend. I wrote 14,000 words in about two days. With chapter breaks and double-spacing, that translates to about 50 pages of the story I’m working on for my writing group. It’s my first draft and it’s a horrible mess with undeveloped characters, a wonky timeline, and lots of variations of the phrase “she looked,” but it’s there, and it’s done, and it’s the most I’ve ever written.
I had seven weeks to write this piece. I waited until two days before its deadline.
I read this article on the Atlantic about why writers are the worst procrastinators, and it resonated with me on a deeply emotional level (aside from the parenting tangent the author takes toward the end). Consider this quote by Alain de Botton from the piece: “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”
God, that’s me. And I feel like that’s a lot of people when they’re faced with the monumental task of creating something out of nothing and proving their worth.
For seven weeks, I sat thinking about my story — no, I sat thinking about anything but my story. About week six, I started sketching out an idea, and spent an hour working on my opening paragraph. I came up with what I thought was the perfect working title. I wrote sentences with semicolons, and then removed the semicolons, and then replaced them for artistic flare. I cleaned my fridge.
I did these things because I feel like I have something to prove. I feel like I need to write the very best I possible can every single time, and if I don’t, this major and this degree and every single saved bit of fanfiction on my computer’s “Archive” folder, hidden behind the “Taxes” folder, will be for naught.
That’s terrifying. And also hugely unhealthy.
Once I sat down on Saturday to write the brunt of my 14k, I entered this zone where I knew that everything I was typing was circular and unpolished and just not pretty. But aside from the frantic tick-tick-tapping of my fingers against the keys and knowledge of my looming deadline, a part of me understood that there was no possible way this could be something completely ready yet, because it was a first draft.
The author of that piece via the Atlantic, Megan McArdle, points out that we don’t see the ugly first drafts of great novels. We see the final product, after it has been labored over for a decade and editors have slashed bits of it out with red pen. And since I knew what I was writing on my first go wasn’t pure gold, I kept comparing myself to the writers I admire, and figuring that if I couldn’t compete with George Saunders or Amy Hempel or Benjamin Percy, why bother?
As I woke up early Sunday morning to write out my final two scenes, I realized why all of these gross first drafts matter. In the process of writing my first, complete, long-form story, I learned more than I’ve ever learned in two years of study. I was given a practical understanding of the idea that I still have a long ways to go in regards to character development, pacing, motivations — and I still have a lot to learn about confronting the emotions and experiences from my life that I want to incorporate into my stories.
It’s hard, and it’s messy, but it was goddamn worth it, and I think that’s why I’m proud of what I did. I waited until the last minute, sure — but when I finally did it, in two leg-numbing, blood-clotting sittings, I got a true sense of where my weaknesses lie.
And that’s a pretty great deal.