Shitty First Drafts

My decision to start writing came late in life. I was 50, a half-century in age, when I decided to throw all caution to the wind and start writing with purpose. Recognizing my age and eventual mortality, time wasn’t on my side. There was much to do, and, to make matters worse, I had no idea what I was doing. I still don’t, but I know a lot more now than I did four years ago. Okay … the cat’s out of the bag. I’m 54.

I was in Baltimore, Maryland on business. The day was over, and I was in my hotel room that overlooked the harbor. I had my laptop out pounding out an article for my sailing club’s newsletter. Bored to death with the truth, I put that project aside and started writing something else. It was a sailing story, but fiction. I stopped writing and stared at the screen. What are you doing? My only answer was … I don’t know, but I like it.

Moments later I was speaking with the hotel concierge. “Where is the nearest book store?”

He directed me to a Barnes & Noble a few blocks and a short hike away. I entered and bought a six dollar latte as my first order of stupid business–no cup of coffee is worth six dollars. Then I approached the counter and said to the clerk, “Writing … I want books on writing.”

I followed his directions and navigated myself to the section. I stood amazed at how many titles existed. After several minutes, I returned to the clerk and said, “Okay. Let me be clearer. I don’t want all the books on writing. I just want a couple of good ones. Any suggestions?”

The clerk said, “You should probably talk with John.”

When John arrived I explained my situation and needs. In particular, I was only in town for a few days and I didn’t have time to sort through all the various volumes on writing. I wanted good books to get started on immediately.

Without looking too judgmental, John looked over his reading glasses that were slid down to the tip of his nose and asked, “What’s the rush?”

I said, “I have this damn New York Times Best Seller bouncing around in my head, and I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.”

John studied me with a smile and said, “Follow me.”

He didn’t pause or hesitate. With singular purpose he went straight to the books he had in mind. He pulled the first volume and handed it to me, “Read this one first.”

It was Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. I began flipping through the pages. Then he tossed another book at me, which I had to catch against my chest. “And then read this one.” I looked at the cover; it was On Writing, by Stephen King. Then John said, “When you get done with the King book, go back and start all over with Anne.”

"Bird by Bird" and "On Writing"

“Read them both twice?” I asked.

“If you’re serious, you’ll read them a lot more than twice before you’re dead.”

I stood there looking at the two books and asked, “Okay. Then what?”

John tilted his head down, peeked over his glasses and with a wink said, “Start that best seller.”

John did me a huge favor that day. He gave me two books which I still hold dear and continue to refer to. Both have been instrumental in helping me advance my writing skills. There have been other books, for sure, but these two got me off the starting block and I can’t recommend them enough for new writers.

Both of these books are outstanding. But if I had to pick a favorite, it would be Bird by Bird. It is the book I grab when things are going rough and I need help with the challenges writing brings. Not only does the book cause you to smile, it keeps everything real and simple and true, as it should be. Plus, Anne’s continual reference to the shitty first draft does more than add levity to her guidance and lessons; it uncovers a certain honesty and truth about writing. That with the exception of a few rare writing immortals, everything started in writing is shit. If this is true of all writers, even the very best, I figure that puts me in some damn fine company.

Kirk Out!

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