Embracing Your Shitty First Draft

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

What keeps you from writing that shitty first draft?


  1. Nikki Di Virgilio says

    Nothing—anymore. I finally, after many, many years of being unwilling to write anything, other than a blog post or journal entry, feel free enough to play, practice, and discover what can be done through me.

  2. Hollye Dexter says

    Yes! The shitty first draft- I’m in the middle of one right now, and am so disgusted by it that I’m stalling by reading this blog instead.

    LOVE Anne Lamott and I always share that “Shitty first draft” story with my students. Writing a great book that your agent will love- scary. Writing a shitty first draft doesn’t feel so intimidating. But OH how I wish gold just flowed from my fingertips….instead of the chiseling and months of revisions and rewrites that I know lie ahead!

  3. Cathy Gabel says

    Everyday it’s the same semi-excuse: I don’t have the time or I’m not in the mood. The last twenty mins. of work was Hell and I have a splitting headache and the left over b.b.q. spare rib I’m eating takes two hands. My plants outside are thirsty, it’s getting dark, I need to hurry, and I want to check on the eleven tiny yellow cucumber flowers on the vine while there’s light. A porch swing is waiting and the cicadas are singing for me to go outside to sit and relax. But the phone keeps ringing, there are tons of dishes in the sink, bills to pay. I’m seldom home, seldom goofing off, always in a rush, and whatever I’m doing, it takes two hands and all my attention. Write a first draft of anything other than a long To Do List? Somehow, I think the cucumber flowers will win but it’s difficult to write in the dark.

      • Ellen O'Neill says

        I SO can relate to your post Cathy!
        I tend to be deadline driven. That’s always worked, be it news features or fiction. Tho now that I think of it, I wrote some great news features published in very good newspapers w/o deadlines – but news isn’t news long, so it carries it’s own urgencies. Poetry for me is different again. Poems tend to come to me, and tend to be simple to write down. Then tinker with. I have had some published, none rejected. But as I type right now, I realize I could give some attention to finding homes for them. The biggest challenge I realize now is that my keyboard has been screwy for days, and the letters I type are constantly flying to other places in the text I am typing. Got to get it fixed. Is time consuming to keep correcting the flying letters. See, a new excuse!

  4. Carolina Evans-Roman says

    Chains That Silence
    By Carolina Evans-Roman
    I can find every reason to not settle down and write, something I find great pleasure in doing once I’m doing it. I think it began in grade school, this little voice telling me I have absolutely nothing to say, nothing to write. It chants that I have nothing anyone one would enjoy reading or even worse nothing I would want anyone to know about me. School was so different than my life at home. I never saw myself in the books I read, or the stories I heard. Even the language spoken in school was different than the language I heard at home. My family spoke both Spanish and English. I never heard any Spanish spoken in school and the English I heard was not like the English at home, longer sentences, bigger words telling stories about worlds I would never know.
    And I was poor. How could I share my story? I was sure the other children would laugh or even worse feel sorry for me. Would they listen? Did anyone want to hear that my mother worked in a cookie factory and cleaned houses? Could I tell them that I never met my father? I couldn’t tell them that my mother made my school clothes or that we didn’t have a car and had to ride the bus everywhere we went. I didn’t go on ski trips to the snow or have any vacation stories to tell. I had never seen snow or even left Los Angeles. I saw other children in my class who felt their lives didn’t count either. They were silent, too.
    Somehow I made it through school and much later attended the university, still thinking I could not write or even have anything to say. I went into teaching and was faced with teaching children to write. How could I teach them something I myself could not do. Sure, I could teach them to form letters and copy sentences off the board, but I knew there was something more to writing. I enrolled in a summer writing institute for teachers through C.C.W.P. (Central California Writing Project) at U.C.S.C. for six weeks. I began to understand that writing is the expression of what one has lived, of what one thinks, feels and dreams. The chains that were holding me down started to break apart one by one. I began to feel freedom and the power of writing. I began to write about the things that were important to me, my family, my culture, my history, my truths. My writing was much like giving birth, which I had already done four times, like going through the pangs of labor and then showing off my creation for the world to see.
    I became a better teacher of writing as a result. I shared my new passion with my students and encouraged them to share their lives through their stories. They wrote about their favorite foods, unashamed that they liked “arroz y frijoles” and hand-made tortillas and about how they loved making tamales with their families at Christmas. They wrote about their family fiestas when their uncle got so drunk that he had to be taken home. They wrote about visiting their father in prison and the sadness they felt when they had to leave him. We laughed, we cried and we celebrated our stories. I felt I had broken through the barriers that kept me, and others like me, from seeing ourselves as writers.

    • Heather Blue says

      Carolina, Thank-you so much for sharing your life experiences with us! I can truly relate to you & your struggle of rebirth. As I read your story, it felt as if you were articulating my thoughts… telling my story with only a few minor differences. I am sincerely overjoyed that you have
      broken the chains of silence! You are an inspiration! You give me, give all of us, hope that if you can break through barriers then so can we. Keep writing & teaching our children that they do have a voice… one that is worthy of hearing! We all have a story to tell!

    • says

      I was particularly touched by the part of your story where you were silenced because you had no vacation stories to tell….never seen snow. And its amazing that you have become a teacher….understanding their lives and giving them tools and wings to fly. You are a gift to those kids.

  5. Heather Blue says

    Hum? What keeps me from writing my shitty first draft? You’re not going to believe this one… the fear of success. This is not to say I think I have a New York Times bestseller up my sleeve, on the contrary! I guess I’m afraid of who I’ll become if my writing is published… uh… maybe I’ll finally become – ME!
    I’ve been suppressed for most of my life that I’ve yet to find my own voice…
    There, I said it! Now I guess I just need to write my first shitty draft in order to
    discover the REAL me! ( lol! I find that funny for some reason.)

    • says

      Success is scary, by the way. It should be feared. It has its gifts and its rewards, but then you’re expected to repeat it….and everyone who reads your words has all kinds of ideas about who you are or who you should be–and the rarely have anything to do with who you really are.

      • beverly Boyd says

        Hmmm…seems you speak from experience! And it’s one of the things that is keeping me from my shitty…third!…draft

        • says

          I guess I should have added that it has been worth it, absolutely, positively worth it. But you have to take your ego out from the equation. If my mood or well-being was dependent on whether someone loved something I wrote or hated it, was a fan or an enemy, I’d be in deep shit.

  6. Theresa Parrish says

    I blame it on the absence of a desk. I can expound at length about how a desk is essential if I am ever to produce a finished piece of writing. How can I possibly write a coherent sentence if I don’t have a completely private space, equipped with a spacious cherry desk, lit with a vintage brass lamp with green glass shade? Never mind that Anne Frank created a masterpiece on tiny scraps of paper in a crowded, ill-lit attic. She didn’t have any other demands on her time.

    Time is another culprit. How can I possibly devote my precious free time to writing? I hoard leisure time like a miser clutching at pennies. I tell myself I deserve to play computer games, drink red wine, watch baseball. If I let go my obsession with leisure and force myself to sit with pen and paper, I sacrifice something, forfeit my reward. After years of working full-time and raising a family, I resist the writing project that represents commitment, duty, obligation.

    But I’m fooling myself. Stripped of all the scenarios I create, the procrastination is simply hard, cold fear. The notebook and pen represent a wall wedged between my terrified thinking brain and my fully expressed creative self. I re-construct the wall every time I feel challenged to push past what comes easily, to take the plunge of all-out exposure, full-throttle devotion. I am scared to death to give all of myself — even to things I love, like language and writing, and, in my youth, athletics. I reach a comfortable level of proficiency, then wallow in complacency with fantastic alibis. If only…

    • Laura Davis says

      Theresa, thanks for your honest, funny, poignant, realistic response. I hear you! You speak for many of us.

  7. Rachel Staples says

    Fear, failure, success, life long dream, self-doubt, completion, they are the immediate reasonable answers that flow through my brain when I think of the prompt question, which I have posed to myself many times before as well. The truth is the other question that hides behind it in the deep dark shadow “What if people I know read it and they think it is about them?”

    I have begun a journey to correct this though, which has been very cathartic. I am finding my voice! A voice that has been locked away now for the last thirty years due to personal issues and self imposed opinion prison. As I look back, the thought of letting others dictate what I thought or if I should follow my dream has boggled my mind once I realized it and was finally able to let go. So my writing journey begins by taking writing classes, buying self help writing books, joining competitions, posting on writing prompts, my blog (boy was that scary!), joining Twitter (quite comical as I am still learning) and letting my ideas out into the great big world finally.

    So here I go on my journey to finish, without editing, that first shitty draft!

    • says

      Dear Rachel,

      It sounds like you’ve been on quite the healing journey–and now that is extending to your writing as well…so glad you’re taking all those risks with your writing. They’re going to pay off for you…Keep coming back. I’d love to read your work here.

  8. Camilla Sørensen says

    If life was a bonsai-tree would it stand so pretty in the garden with the water flooding so nicely around it – while the flowers – with their almighty beauty – are cut down so we can see them directly in the eyes – thus the sky is so blue – the sun so yellow – the clouds to white – the trees so green – but that don’t mind – we have our garden – thus the snails – on the other hand – we cut up – they’re slimy and eat the leafs on our bonsai-trees – my question is -is life in that garden or does it only exsit in our heads?

    • Camilla Sørensen says

      I think you’re right. I ask a lot of questions. My theapist, master, elder, wisdom or mystery knows, she is a writer to – by the way I’m still working on my first story, funny how you meet people when you dare to see with your heart:)

  9. Bobbie Anne says

    I’m afraid my first draft won’t be good enough. Yes, I know its a draft, but I want it to be perfect! Obviously, then, I wouldn’t have to rewrite it. There’s the story that Ernest Hemingway rewrote his stories many times. Over and over again. When asked how may times he did this, he was quoted as saying “until I get it right”. When you get it right, you know. You just do. So, I guess I’ll just plunge right in and write. This reminds me of journal writing. Hmm, that is a “first draft”. I’m pleased to say I’ve started to journal again. So, I guess I do write “first drafts” after all. Now, I have to do this if I want to write an article, a memoir, and a short story. I can do it!

  10. says

    A first draft being good enough is an oxymoron. It can’t be good enough–that’s why it’s a first draft. Most beginners don’t realize that you learn to write through revision and rewriting–words don’t just “come out that way.” and if they occasionally do, it’s a gift.

    • mary k says

      Your not alone Dianne! Mine sounds so similar!
      Time. Energy. My yummy young children. A feeling of being displaced from the familiar since moving. Plus, I’m not sure what to write. Do I write about the ugly memories of my childhood? Do I write about the boyfriends who were mean and young and addicted? Do I write about my innermost self, deep down, almost unreachable and untapped thus far? And for what? I’m conceited. I’m selfish. I’m narcissistic. I can’t shut up about myself. Who would really want to read about my life and me anyway? The life to read about is Mother Theresa’s or Mick Jagger’s or Bill Clinton’s or a doctor working for Doctors Without Borders. Or maybe a life to read about is one of the hundreds of children I’ve served in my work, the children who have resiliency of spirit and body and mind oozing out of their pores, so much so that I am awed by them even by just thinking of their bravery and strength. Those are lives that are fascinating and compelling and worth a good read. To make my life’s quirks and stories and expressions even remotely noteworthy to the modern reader, I’d have to drone on about my suburban upbringing and my two-parent family that held nasty secrets behind closed doors. I’d have to indulge myself and the reader into monologues about how shitty my life was and sometimes still is, yet, knowing full well, that I am abundant beyond the thought of many people on the globe. How do I reconcile all of that swirl and then sit down quietly and write?

  11. says

    Julie, I think you’re being awfully hard on yourself. I think you’ve got a raging critic sitting on your shoulder tearing you down. If writing has been a steady part of your life, a tool for self-knowledge, sorting out feelings and needs, understanding your life, or simply coping–honor it. If you’re aware that you have a tendency to avoid engagement with life, work on that issue and challenge yourself to do so, but take your writing out of the middle of it. That’s my two cents, anyway.

  12. Jean West says

    Usually nothing keeps me from writing other than the usual real-life demands on the time of a caregiver who is also chief bottle-washer, cook, groundskeeper, dog-walker and housekeeper. I’d like to think sleep is over-rated, but evidently it isn’t. But, that having been said, I usually cobble together time each day to write. There is, however, one huge exception to that rule. I have wanted to try my hand at writing fantasy for three or four years now, but the shitty first draft never seems to get beyond the first four or ten pages. I have researched. I have journaled. I’m here responding to writing prompts. But, to date, nada. I seem to waver between time travel, apocalypse and epic fantasy. I’ll think I have an idea I love, start writing, and then read it and decide it isn’t a shitty first draft, it’s just total crap, and chuck it aside. But, like Charlie Brown at the beginning of each baseball season, I pick myself up, start over again with hope in my heart. Just maybe, one of these days, it’ll click.

  13. Pamela Papas says

    What keeps me from writing a shitty first draft? The voices in my head keep me from putting words down on paper the first time. The voices are a committee. And they are always bickering, bickering, bickering. “Write about yourself” they say. “Write fiction” “No, what about non-fiction?” and so on, they rant and rave.

    Fear is another hindrance. Fear that, what if I could write for a living?

    And procrastination is another big one. My life is not together enough or I’m not financially stable enough (that’s a BIG impediment) to write. When my outward life is “settled” then I can “settle” down to write.

    Or that writing “too much” will cause me to live my life vicariously rather than live my life in the real world.

    In the meantime, I feel as though I’ve been living a life of others’ outrageous expectations, and here I sit. Stuck. Stalled. Analysis paralysis. Neurotic. Angst-filled.

    Maybe if I pretended that writing is like barfing (!)…like the ancient Romans (I am Greek, so close enough) lying around in togas wearing exquisite gold jewelry and eating grapes, figs, wine, goat meat and then….barfing. All while looking at the picturesque Italian coast side.

    Would that help me bring down my own inner barriers?

    I’ve kept a journal since childhood – first a plastic blue “Barbie” Diary my mother gave to me. Then in college, (when I first began dating boys), my journals were full of angst about boys. I didn’t know how to connect – how to form deep relationships with men or with women, for that matter. I was lonely.

    So now I have boxes of journals in storage. Anxious sentinels.

    And, why should I write? I’m not “original” enough, I have nothing “new” to say.

    I used to own Anne Lamott’s book. I tossed it in a move nine years ago, convinced that I would “stop” writing. Give it up. Do something else. Thank God for Anne Lamott. I’ll have to re-purchase her book. Thanks for this writing prompt, Laura.

  14. Sonia Morrison says

    Today as I was driving to work, I contemplated how I finally get into the groove to write, just when it is time to return to work. Lovely to chuckle and commiserate with all of the thoughts other writers have shared. Thank you one and all. I began my very editing on my first shitty draft last month and was struggling not to give up when I saw how unfinished it is. Grateful for this resting and regeneration place. It feels like the garden, compost and all. The real Heather, Cathy and her cucumber flowers, Camilla’s bonzai, journey of Rachel. I will find Anne Lamott’s dirty first draft, so I can be on the same page with everyone. Thanks again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *