Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: How to Write a Shitty First Draft

Unqualified Analysis / Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

I’ve mostly been writing about fiction for these analyses, but I also think it’s important, now and then, to read books about writing. It’s like a brain shower, honestly; you might be feeling like everything you’ve been writing is dumb and formulaic and your characters are cardboard cutouts and your plots make no sense, and you want to throw it all away. Don’t throw it all away! Read a book on writing by an established and clever writer. I guarantee it helps.

This past week I’ve been leafing through the well-thumbed copy of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I ordered it from the library that I live a block away from (I KNOW) and it’s a tattered paperback loosely held together with scotch tape with peculiar and random ink underlinings. Like, they’re mostly inscrutable. Usually when someone underlines or writes in a book (which, by the way, is anathema to me and if you’re a person who does this to library books, please admit your wrongs and swear never to re-offend), you can see a pattern or something. Like, they were picking up on certain themes and highlighted shit accordingly. Not so with this wild inker. Every twenty pages or so, this mysterious daredevil underlined ONE seemingly unimportant word, then moved on. One time, when Lamott referred to God as “him,” the Underliner scratched it out and scrawled “Her” instead. So yeah, that’s been adding to the experience.

Anyway, Lamott’s a really great writer. I hate to throw the word “inspiring” around too much, but I can safely classify Bird by Bird in that category. It not only encouraged me to review the fiction I write with fresh eyes, but it’s helping me analyze my nonfiction as well. It’s weird, but until I’d read this book, I hadn’t consciously realized how beautiful the personal anecdote can be a non-fiction piece of writing.

A book on writing is, of course, more personal than other works on non-fiction because writing itself is so personal. Lamott interweaves the narrative about writing with a variety of stories about her childhood, her dear friend Pammy who dies of cancer, her beloved son Sam, and a variety of wacky writer friends peppered throughout. 

I’m enraptured with the entire book and could easily write a chapter-by-chapter response (and maybe I well. It’s my blog. You can’t stop me). But one of my favorites was “Shitty First Drafts,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Here’s an excerpt:

“The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters want say, ‘Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,’ you let her.”

I love this. When I think back on stories I’ve written and stories I’ve gotten hung up on, it usually turns out that I reached a block somewhere. I couldn’t mentally or logically figure out what was going to happen next, and so I just stopped. But this is a terrible mistake, because the best that can happen if you don’t write anything is that you have no story. The absolute worst that can happen if you write recklessly sometimes, letting it all “romp all over the place,” is that you’ll have a shitty first draft. Which can turn into an okay second draft and a better third draft. See there, how the best outcome of NOT WRITING is still worse than the worst outcome of WRITING?

And there’s this, on writing a terrible first draft:

“I’d worry that people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot.

The next day, though, I’d sit down, go through it all with a colored pen, take out everything I possibly could, find a new lead somewhere on the second page, figure out a kicky place to end it, and then write a second draft.”

I love this idea of taking out “everything” she “possibly could,” because that’s the magic of the shitty first draft. Because it’s unrefined and freeform and a little bit wild, you will look back at your work the next day and think, woah, Jesus, what? And that’s when you get rid of all the crazy stuff. Most of it. Often, in going back to it, you’ll find the “new lead” that Lamott refers to, the place in your process that actually made some sense that you can use to narrow the focus of your second draft.

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something–anything–down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.”

It’s balm to the soul to hear a successful writer say this. Sometimes after I finish writing for the day, I quickly re-read what I’ve written. Sometimes, it’s so bad that I am literally shocked. Like, the dialogue is stilted and wooden; the descriptions are awkward and cliche; and the characters are acting all sorts of outrageous ways that make no sense. Often I’ll find this happening in the very midst of writing. I’m staring from my keyboard to my chromebook screen wondering if my brain was consulted at all for the crap spewing out, or if my hands just went rogue.

But then I step back. And even if I’ve written a huge jumble of absolute shit that’s gonna bite me in the ass in a couple months when I go back to make my first-and-a-half draft (I’m not jumping right to second, no sir), I do feel proud. Because I did it. Everyday that I write, I’m a writer. Published or not. Successful or not. Good or not. I’m a writer, cause I wrote.

I, unlike Anne Lamott, am probably not going to be honky-d-satisfied after my third draft, as she suggests she is. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. Maybe it takes you seventy drafts (I really hope not though) to iron out your plot, fluff out the characters, spruce up the scenery, and fix up the dialogue, but that’s okay. Because your first draft is there.

I think of it in terms of cooking, I guess, ‘cause I like to cook. Approach this like you’re a Thoreau style cook so you feel the need to be “self-sufficient” and grow all the stuff yourself in your garden. You plant the carrots and onions and potatoes for your soup, wait a while and prune endlessly. Then at the end of the season you really get in there, dirt on your nose, scuffs on your kicks, and harvest all that you’ve sewn and dump a shit ton of raw vegetables on your counter top.

Okay if the writing process is cooking, then the first draft is all that lengthy, time consuming messiness of planting your veggies, harvesting them, and throwing them on the counter. You haven’t even really started to cook! The kitchen is a mess! You’re a mess! But you’ve got all the ingredients together for your Way Better Second Draft. So get cooking.

(Originally I wrote that analogy as like, you’re a sculptor and you have to start with a big chunk of marble, etc, but then I was suspicious and I looked it up online and it turns out every other writer blog person in the history of the internet has used the sculpting metaphor for the first draft. I’m purposely not looking up if someone’s used the cooking one because I can’t handle the emotional distress. Please don’t sue me).

Obviously, I wouldn’t be writing a review of Bird by Bird if I didn’t think it offered a valuable reading experience for the amateur (like me) or seasoned writer. I can only hope, if you decide to order this one from your inter-library loan service, that you get the same haphazardly underlined one that I had, or one similar.

Go plant those veggies, people!


Writing Prompt a la Anne Lamott

Throughout Bird by Bird, Lamott offers writing prompts like this:

“So: sometimes when a student calls and is mewling and puking about the hopelessness of trying to put words down on paper, I ask him or her to tell me about school lunches–at parochial schools, private schools, twenty years easlier than mine, or twn years laters, in Southern California or New York.”

So that’s a great idea but SURPRISE that’s not the prompt we’re doing because that’s Anne’s, not mine (of course, you can do it if you want. If you like her better than me. Whatever I don’t care anyway).

I like the idea of tapping into specific memories from childhood, because I think those memories are rich in depth and will provide you more to work with than you might initially think. More than that, they will allow you, if you’re feeling stuck, to get that shitty first draft down on paper.

That said, here’s my prompt (OR USE ANNE’S,  I DON’T CARE):

  • Think about a make believe game you used to play
  • What was the game? Princesses? Bank robbers? Cashier (weirdly, a personal favorite)?
  • Who was it with? Was it a kid in preschool, or someone down the block? Was it your sister or your cousin? Or even your mom – did you rope that lady into playing make believe with you? Maybe your friend was imaginary? 
  • What details do you remember? All of them? You specifically remember the feel of using hair clips as fake fingernails? Do you not remember anything from your childhood? That makes a good story too! Did you not play make believe games? I wanna hear about it.
  • Just go for it with this story. Don’t worry about the shape the story or essay will take; follow its lead, allow yourself to be led by the memories from your childhood, then take it from there.

4 Replies to “Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: How to Write a Shitty First Draft”

  1. Not only does reading about writing help, but also making sure one reads books that are exceptionally well-written. That’s why I love re-reading The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence, even though I disagree with many of Lawrence’s early 20th Century biases. I always notice a significant bump in the quality of my writing after I read it for a few days.

    Also, writing in library books is an unforgivable sin. If one must deface books by scribbling in them, why not do it in books one actually owns?

    1. I’m so glad you agree about the library books – you’re one of the good ones!
      And I’ve been so busy lately that I’ve had trouble settling into novels – is there a short story or essay by T.E. Lawrence that you would recommend? My fiction writing lately could use a little “bump,” as you say, and I’ve been looking for excellent authors.

      1. Unfortunately no, the only major piece written by Lawrence is The Seven Pillars of Wisdom: a lengthy memoir about his experiences in World War I. So it’s not actually a fictional story either. He’s actually Lawrence of Arabia, if you’ve heard of him.

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