By Mark E. Smith
When my daughter told me that her first reading assignment in her college freshman English class was Ann Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” I was thrilled. Now there’s a professor who knows how to teach!
“Shitty First Drafts” was never a stand-alone essay, but an excerpt from Bird by Bird, Lamott’s 1994 book on writing, aimed at writers living the writing life, and goes back to Hemingway who coined the subject of shitty first drafts. Yet, Lamott, who you might recognize as a very pop-culture and, interestingly, irreverent Christian writer, infused Bird by Bird with life lessons, where I, for one, have always viewed “shitty first drafts” as another one of Lamott’s ultimate metaphors for life.
Lamott’s assertion is that, as writers, the only way we ultimately get to clarity and success is by having the courage to embark on shitty first drafts:
…All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts…. Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do – you can either type, or kill yourself.” We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time.
Chances are, you’re not a writer. But, if your life is like mine, it’s certainly checkered with shitty first drafts. As Lamott puts it, we typically have no idea what we’re doing until we do it. And, I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of hardly any success in my life that didn’t begin as a shitty first draft – from living with my disability to school to career to finances to relationships to working out, and yes, writing. In fact, I have shitty first drafts every day, where based on my disability, two or three tries at any daily living task is the norm. However, I’m always thinking, learning, getting wiser as I do a task, so rather than getting frustrated, I hone in on getting better, improving with each “draft.”
When it comes to our lives, it’s vital to give ourselves permission – and have the courage! – to have shitty first drafts, namely because, as Lamott puts it, they lead to good second drafts and terrific third drafts. Do you know how I learned about finances and relationships, two cornerstones of life? Shitty first drafts! In my 20s, I got into debt up to my ears, by my 30s I paid everything off, and today I haven’t used credit in over a decade, living totally debt free. Relationships have had a similar path, having to learn about love through a lot of painful trial and error, but I think I’m a better partner today than I was 20 years ago. There are so many aspects of life that generally start with shitty first drafts; but, if we’re cognizant, self-aware and dedicated to growth, those shitty first drafts aren’t shitty at all – they’re assured paths to ultimate success.
So, as my 18-year-old daughter moves through her first semester of college, she’s not just reading about shitty first drafts, she’s undoubtedly living them at times, as we all have and do. Yes, it’s hard as a father not to jump in and correct my daughter’s “shitty first drafts,” but I know that by allowing her to learn and grow from them, her second and third drafts – read that, her accomplishments – will be amazing.