MY BEST FRIEND taught me a writing phrase that I use every day. We’ve been friends now for, oh, thirty years. Since we were already hard-working writers when we met, and I use the phrase every day, that means I’ve employed it somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand times. And you know what? Every time I do, it gives me the ooomph I need to keep typing.
My best friend is Gary Taubes, hands-down best science writer on the planet, and creator of memorable ways to describe what we do for a living. He calls the first pass through, or first draft, the vomit draft—and for good reason, since there is no such thing as a good first draft. In her marvelous book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott calls the same thing the “shitty first draft,” and I love that, but Gary’s term reminds us that real creativity includes both physical pain as well as a soundtrack. Retching and moaning. Writing may require both.
The biggest shock of writing is that it’s difficult. Why? As St. Teresa of Avila famously said, it’s because “more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” Done with purpose, writing is hard work. When you practiced with prompts, something always flowed, though all of it remains in some notebook. Much like playing tennis with a pro who hits every shot right to you, those exercises convinced you that you had this writing thing nailed. When you’re alone in a room trying to write with intent, it’s mind-slammingly hard. Though not impossible.
And right after my students experience the difficulty, perhaps the next most shocking piece of information they receive is that NPR saw draft number 45 of my Spam Chop Suey essay. And then I tell them that it was the third total rewrite of my book about red hair that got the check from my publisher. And always they dismiss it; I now recognize a default look on the faces, that precise gauzy gaze they get when, instead of listening, they revert to planning their Oprah wardrobe, thinking that this rewrite/edit thing happens to everyone but them.
Enjoy the thought. And then have a look at that vomit draft of yours.
And please don’t tell me your husband liked it. Of course your wife liked it. Do you think that someone who depends on you for food, sex, and shelter is going to say something else to you? That they liked it means nothing. It’s a mess, it’s supposed to be a mess, and if it’s not a mess, then you don’t yet have what you need, so chuck up another one, and let’s see what we’ve got.
It’s called the vomit draft, too, because it will both stink and be pretty much everything you’ve got inside you. In there is beauty and success and everything you ever dreamed of. So learn to love a vomit draft like it’s your new best gal.
See a typo, a grammar flub, my (ever-present) overuse of commas? Point it out, and I’ll throw you in the pool for a monthly free book giveaway. Which book? One of mine – your choice – all of which were professionally copy edited, thank goodness.