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.