Saturday, December 4, 2010

"Shitty First Drafts"

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

"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."

Thanks for your contribution, Anne. I appreciate it. I agree heartily, and I felt moved enough to write these words into my fake-moleskine notebook (which, since I got it at Target, is probably made out of beavers);

However, although your words are nice, I don't quite know how to stop looking at my feet. Have you seen the stepping stones at Duke Divinity School? They are not stones. They are jutting, jagged rocks, like the ones on Tom Hanks's Castaway island. They would kill me if I fell.

But alas, I know you are right, Anne. I know that writing a paragraph should not take me 4 hours. I know that I should not write one sentence and then yell at the dog, "This is too impossible. I am the worst sentence writer in the world!" The dog doesn't understand why I'm yelling anyway, and the people that I'm dog-sitting for probably have one of those teddy-bear-nanny-cams that is filming me as I sit at the kitchen table and yell neurotically at their canine therapist. I know that writing one sentence and then leaving the house to go buy chocolate is ultimately impeding me from creativity and insight and joy. The idea of stepping carefully on all of those stones is just too incredibly hard, and so instead I find a canoe and paddle erratically in no fruitful direction. All I want to do is walk leisurely on the stones, but I cannot. It is too hard.

Writing is too hard for me. I am writing a spiritual memoir for one of my classes, and I cannot do it. It is personally taxing, and besides that fact, the words that I try to put on the page are vapid. I try to cure my writing affliction with chocolate and with warm soup, but the words still will not come. I have been in an informal, non-graded writing class this semester. The others write so easily. In the time it takes them to write 200 beautiful sentences, I have written 10 sentences that contain no good in them at all. They read their writing, and I feel as though we're on Writing Survivor: Outwit, Outcharm, Outlast. I persistently lose the competition and have to go back to the island, cold and unfed.

However, it has actually never even been a competition. It's a spiritual formation class, for goodness' sake. I am there to grow in and by the presence of others. I am there to relish the presence of these women of God. I am not there to walk the stones carefully and to outperform. It is wrong for me to be a competitive monster. It is wrong for me to want to Gladiator-fight the other girls off the stones and to run triumphantly and alone to the other side.

I know that you must struggle in the same way sometimes, Anne. Has it become easy for you to write shitty first drafts? I can't seem to do it without the aid of gin. And so I languish, yelling my feelings at dogs and eating too many chocolates, and then after many, many wasted hours of self-pity, I finally produce a shitty first draft that happens to be my only and final draft.

Perfectionism is leaving me cramped and insane, but I frankly don't how to get off the train. I think that my professor, for whom I'm writing this paper, sensed that we might struggle with the pressure to write well for him. As such, he sent us an email with this quote from Flannery O'Connor: "You do not write the best you can for the sake of art but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit."

In writing, my telos ought not be personal success. My telos ought not to be to Outwit, Outcharm, and Outlast. Frankly, my telos in life ought never be any of these things. I do not exist in God's world to outperform. As a friend of mine wisely says: "That's not the Gospel."

It's not the Gospel.
I still don't know how to stop looking at my feet.
I still don't know how to rejoice in my walking.
I still don't know how to run freely across the stepping stones.
But I know that it's not the Gospel.