I know, I know: a lot of people swear by her. And a lot of writers find her inspiring.
People especially like to quote the writing guru on the subject of first drafts. She’s apparently very reassuring for anyone who fantasizes that established authors get it right the first time–though are there really folks naive enough to believe that? They can’t have thought too seriously or deeply about writing. But then there are also people who tell me that they’ll write a book if they ever get “some free time”–as if that’s all it took.
Lamott’s unsurprising points about revision are certainly valid: you have to keep revising, and revision is the heart of good writing for most writers. Where I think she goes seriously wrong in Bird by Bird is when she uses the word “shitty” to describe first drafts. And she says that all good writers write them. Really? How does she know this for a fact?
“Shitty” is an adjective I’ve never used to describe a first draft of my own and it’s a word I’ve never used in any creative writing class or workshop I’ve taught anywhere. I think it’s more than just pejorative, it’s gross and inappropriate. Messy is fine. Disordered, unfocused, rough, undisciplined, chaotic, jumbled, scattered, unfinished, inferior–any words like that will do.
But shitty? That vulgarity degrades your own work, and it’s a slippery slope–even though Lamott is ostensibly trying to make people relax and feel confident. You get writers used to applying a word like shitty to a first draft and it’s too easy for them to survey other work of theirs in dark times and think, “This is shit.” It can plant the wrong kind of seed in people who already have to deal with doubts about their abilities and cope with their jealousy of other writers.
Of course, if she says it, she must be right, and she’s spawned hundreds, maybe thousands of writers who throw the words “shitty” and “shit” around in connection with their work without thinking through its implications.
I once had a graduate writing professor call a story I’d worked very hard on “shit.” Luckily I’d won that MFA program’s literary prize for the story so I was partly armored against his slam, but I was still offended. I feel the same way when I hear reports from my own students who report what other professors have said to them about their work.
In that same Bird by Bird essay, Lamott also talks about how much writers suffer, and how writing is never rapturous. Well maybe some writers do suffer the torments of hell, and maybe for some writers their work is like a series of root canals without anesthesia, but never rapturous? Her writer friends must be really miserable. Many of the writers I’ve met actually enjoy writing. Yes, it’s true! They’re not martyrs–they love what they do.
You do not have to suffer to be a writer. It is not a requirement. It is not a badge of honor. It is not a proof that you’re a professional. And you definitely do not have to disparage your own work.
None of my 25 books has tormented me when I wrote them, and none of the first drafts of my hundreds of stories, essays, reviews, or blogs were “shitty.” Hell, some of the first drafts were pretty good. Surprisingly good. But I always knew they were just a starting point and I knew they would need more work. For me, any draft is just opening a door, that’s all. I don’t need to label it or dismiss it in any way, even if I’m dissatisfied or disappointed. I just keep working.
Publishing is where I’ve encountered misery, true misery, because I had so little control once the work left my desk. And that includes even publishing in magazines and newspapers where editors could sometimes make changes I objected to, changes that distorted what I’d written.
But writing itself? Yes, I do find that intensely pleasurable; I always have and likely always will. Writing is a high for me, one of life’s great joys. Some of the happiest times of my life have been writing a book or a story. And that was even before I started earning money as a author. How cool is that?