Excerpt from bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lammott
Shitty First Drafts
Anne Lamott from Bird by Bird
Born in San Francisco in 1954, Anne Lamott is a graduate of Goucher College
in Baltimore and is the author of six novels, including Rosie (1983), Crooked Little
Heart (1997), All New People (2000), and Blue Shoes (2002). She has also been the
food reviewer for California magazine, a book reviewer for Mademoiselle, and a
regular contributor to Salon’s “Mothers Who Think.” Her nonfiction books include
Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year (1993), in which she
describes her adventures as a single parent, and Tender Mercies: Some Thoughts on
Faith (1999), in which she charts her journey toward faith in God.
In the following selection, taken from Lamott’s popular book about writing,
Bird by Bird (1994), she argues for the need to let go and write those “shitty first
drafts” that lead to clarity and sometimes brilliance in our second and third drafts.
Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of
shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good
second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers who
are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think
that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling
great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they
have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their
necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages
as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some
very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal
of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and
confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but
we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that
God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest
friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you've created God in your own image
when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)
Very few writers really know what they are doing until they've done it. Nor do
they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff
warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the
snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to
himself nicely, "It's not like you don't have a choice, because you do -- you can
either type, or kill yourself." We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those
writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and
sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time. Now,
Muriel Spark is said to have felt that she was taking dictation from God every
morning -- sitting there, one supposes, plugged into a Dictaphone, typing away,
humming. But this is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad
things to rain down on a person like this.
For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the
only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.
The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp
all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it
later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions
come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, "Well, so
what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to
get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all
down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that
you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be
something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just
love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you're supposed to be
writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go -- but there was no
way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.
I used to write food reviews for California magazine before it folded. (My writing
food reviews had nothing to do with the magazine folding, although every single
review did cause a couple of canceled subscriptions. Some readers took umbrage at
my comparing mounds of vegetable puree with various ex-presidents' brains.) These
reviews always took two days to write. First I'd go to a restaurant several times with
a few opinionated, articulate friends in tow. I'd sit there writing down everything
anyone said that was at all interesting or funny. Then on the following Monday I'd
sit down at my desk with my notes and try to write the review. Even after I'd been
doing this for years, panic would set in. I'd try to write a lead, but instead I'd write a
couple of dreadful sentences, XX them out, try again, XX everything out, and then
feel despair and worry settle on my chest like an x-ray apron. It's over, I'd think
calmly. I'm not going to be able to get the magic to work this time. I'm ruined. I'm
through. I'm toast. Maybe, I'd think, I can get my old job back as a clerk-typist. But
probably not. I'd get up and study my teeth in the mirror for a while. Then I'd stop,
remember to breathe, make a few phone calls, hit the kitchen and chow down.
Eventually I'd go back and sit down at my desk, and sigh for the next ten minutes.
Finally I would pick up my one-inch picture frame, stare into it as if for the answer,
and every time the answer would come: all I had to do was to write a really shitty
first draft of, say, the opening paragraph. And no one was going to see it.
So I'd start writing without reining myself in. It was almost just typing, just
making my fingers move. And the writing would be terrible. I'd write a lead
paragraph that was a whole page, even though the entire review could only be three
pages long, and then I'd start writing up descriptions of the food, one dish at a time,
bird by bird, and the critics would be sitting on my shoulders, commenting like
cartoon characters. They'd be pretending to snore, or rolling their eyes at my
overwrought descriptions, no matter how hard I tried to tone those descriptions
down, no matter how conscious I was of what a friend said to me gently in my early
days of restaurant reviewing. "Annie," she said, "it is just a piece of chicken. It is just
a bit of cake."
But because by then I had been writing for so long, I would eventually let myself
trust the process -- sort of, more or less. I'd write a first draft that was maybe twice
as long as it should be, with a self-indulgent and boring beginning, stupefying
descriptions of the meal, lots of quotes from my black-humored friends that made
them sound more like the Manson girls than food lovers, and no ending to speak of.
The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the
day I'd obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second
draft. I'd worry that people would read what I'd written and believe that the accident
had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my
mind was shot.
The next day, I'd sit down, go through it all with a colored pen, take out
everything I possibly could, find a new lead somewhere on the second page, figure
out a kicky place to end it, and then write a second draft. It always turned out fine,
sometimes even funny and weird and helpful. I'd go over it one more time and mail
Then, a month later, when it was time for another review, the whole process
would start again, complete with the fears that people would find my first draft
before I could rewrite it.
Almost all good writing begins 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.