In Praise of Sh*tty First Drafts

Art + Creativity, Thoughts + Life

I’ve been thinking about the seductive power of “perfect work”, a fantasy which lives just out of sight of the creating mind. That near-future vision will drive you in circles if you let it, spinning round and round like a compass so close to magnetic north that you can’t see north any more. We call it “finished work”, and it’s the enemy of creativity. How on earth are you to work through the muck and the mess of creating, how are you supposed to see the present moment clearly or take the risks you need to, while the fantasy of some perfect finished work hovers over your shoulder? No wonder we often struggle through the middle stages of making: we’ve come down from the giddy, immaculate high of our first flawless lines, and now we wallow in error (or so we perceive). Redemption lies in finishing the work, whatever that means. Correcting artistic transgressions? Erasing our sins?

I think we’ve got it all wrong. Redemption lies in making: making marks, messes, and mistakes. Redemption lies in shitty first drafts.

When writing this and other essays, I lie on the floor and talk through my ideas as they come. I don’t write – I make words out loud, one after the other, and then some more. I rest my phone on my chest and record whatever comes up off the top of my head, then transcribe from spoken word to the screen. Ninety percent of what I say you’ll never see. I will trim, turn, chop, rearrange and murder my darlings. It’s worth the carnage, because the greatest hurdle to doing any of this was to start.

A writer friend of mine once told me, “Writing is like choosing constipation as your vocation.” He’s not wrong.

Sitting in front of the screen with my words facing me down, I stall and stall again. But, when not confronted by those words, my speech can be my friend. It rolls me forward moment by moment. It allows me to respond to the sound of each word just laid down with another new word, an interaction in surprise, in discovery.

Apply this to any creative practice. Painting, make a colour swatch. Sewing, stitch a sampler. Find whatever presents least barrier of fear or hesitation, be it speaking, writing, smearing, dancing. Do what you will, but make. Make. Make.

Make, for twenty minutes or an hour, or if you can, three hours, and if you commit to three hours it’s best not to see what you have made. For if you can see it, what you have just made will reflect to you what you have not accomplished. Put it away. Best not to see clearly what you have made, for it will tempt you to revise and make better, and this is not the time for that.

To be clear: if you already know every step of the way forward, that’s another story and we can talk about that another day. But in this quest for creation, perfection with its glaring mask of judgement is the enemy. It has no place here.

When first making, make messily. Make marks you can retrieve but need not face at the outset. There is no disgrace in making what you did not intend to, no shame in mistakes. Seek perfection later, when you know the steps. For now, a shitty first draft is exactly what you need.

You can listen to the shitty first draft of this essay, if you like. I recorded it on my walk, in the elevator, in the entrance to my apartment and while lying on the floor with my cat beside me.

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