Finishing Our First Drafts
Painted in white letters on a lane of the high school track where I sometimes run or walk is the word, “Finish.” Each time I passed it on Father’s Day this year, I thought of how my own father made sure I understood the importance of completing what I started. I know I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating now. Whenever I complained that I couldn’t do something he wanted me to do—loosen a nut, fit a grease gun to a zerk—he’d say, “Can’t never did nothing.” How true about so much, but especially true when it comes to writing. Can’t never finished nothing.
On the Saturday before Father’s Day, I finished my writing session the way I always do, in the midst of a new scene, or in this case, a new chapter of the novel I’m working on, so I’d have forward momentum when I started writing the next day. Sometimes I can see a long way down the road when it comes to the way the plot is progressing; other times, and yesterday was one of them, I can only see as far as each word that I add allows me.
So when I walked at the high school track on Father’s Day, I didn’t have much confidence that I knew what was coming next in the novel. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about my father, and about finishing things, and about each step I took around that track. Then, suddenly, I knew what had to happen next in my novel, and, what’s more, I knew more than one move along the trajectory of the plot. It often happens that to finish, we have to immerse ourselves in an activity other than writing. Such immersion frees the unconscious mind to do its work.
The most important thing about writing the first draft is to finish it. We can’t be afraid of our early efforts. All writing first existed in imperfect forms. We can’t shape and revise and improve until we first have the rough manuscript.
So, as we all strive to finish those first drafts, here are some things that we let stand in the way of completion.
We become sentence or paragraph torturers. We want everything to be perfect, and we stop our momentum because we want to hone each sentence; we want each paragraph, each page, to sparkle. That’s what revision is for. Keep moving.
We become too aware of the marketplace. We worry over how the finished product will ever find a home and how it will fit into current trends. Stop worrying about defining your own product; it’s not your job. Your job is to create. Write what you want and need to write.
We become too aware of our censors. Sometimes they’re the people we walk around with every day; sometimes they’re people long gone—parents, former teachers, anyone we think would be displeased with what we’re writing. Find a way to silence them. A first draft is an intimate act; it’s just you and the blank page. No one else exists.
We doubt our abilities. Maybe we listen to those censors we failed to silence; maybe we put too much stock in our memories of rejection. Each new draft is exactly that, a new thing. Each new draft is full of possibility.
We claim we don’t have the time. How many minutes can you spare out of your day and when can you spare them. Protect that time for your writing. Stick to a steady routine, and little by little, you’ll write that first draft. We don’t finish quickly, but by gradual accretion. Hold faith in yourselves. Watch the pages pile up.
There always comes a time during each of my runs when I doubt that I can finish, when I’m tempted to stop. What would it matter if I did? Who would know? I would. I imagine my father’s spirit would as well. He kept going despite the loss of his hands. He encouraged me to get the word, “can’t,” out of my vocabulary. When I hit the wall during a run, I tell myself, “One more step, one more step.” The same holds true for writing. One more word, one more sentence, one more paragraph, one more page. It all adds up. If writing matters to you, keep going. When I run, I eventually break through the wall. I keep going because I don’t know how to stop. Eventually, I finish.
It never ceases to amaze me that good teachers of writing not only produce pieces that I wished I’d written but give advice I want to claim. So much of the best of what is written seems corollary to what is known, but it is always fresh.
Thank you for next day exhortations, Lee!
Thanks for your comment, Deron. It seems to me that what should go without saying still needs saying from time to time. Good luck with your work, and thanks for being a reader of my blog.
Thanks for these reminders. It helps to see ideas in black and white and know others have the same issues.
Hi, Cathy. You can bet if we’re experiencing something, some other writer is,, too. All best wishes to you.
My daddy used to say something similar about “can’t.” My siblings and I would say, “I can’t do it.”
Daddy would say, “Can’t do is dead.”
To this day I don’t think in terms of what I can’t do, and that includes writing my first drafts. Thanks much for this excellent reminder.
That’s a good saying that your father had. Thanks for sharing it!
Great piece Lee. I finished a first draft and did pretty well just staying with it. My problem now is that I’m completely stuck in the revision phase. I have no idea which direction to take. Even knowing that I should probably flush out scenes that are sparse, fill in the details, etc. Do I completely start over? It seems like anything I do might significantly change the entire thing unless I just flush out scenes and layer what I already have. Am I making any sense here? Thanks!
Hi, Kelly. I always find that I have to stay away from a first draft long enough for it to seem like it was written by someone else when I reread it. Then I can be more analytical about revision. I can go to the end of a piece to see what that final move is. Then I can go back to the manuscript and ask myself how each scene, etc, contributes to that end. Good luck with your work!
My Mom would say “Can’t died in the poorhouse,” which I attribute to her rural Ohio, Depression-era upbringing.
Lee, we met briefly at one of your Thurber House readings a couple of years ago. You suggested I check out the Vermont MFA. Instead I took a few courses at Otterbein and have now “re-set” my life (no paid employment) and will pick up writing as my occupation. Thanks for your encouragement then.. and via your blog.
Another great saying, Kate! I’m glad to hear that you’ve had some clarity in your career path, and I wish you all the best!
Hi Lee! I love this piece. I have one novel finished (over 20 years ago), and others I just can’t seem to finish, for all the reasons you cite above. After working with a lot of writing books and reading blogs like yours by writers who help other writers, I feel charged up! My goal for the July Nanowrimo is to write another 50K words to FINISH my first draft of a mystery novel. I’ll keep going!
Keep going, Kate!