I stood in the class today, sharing with my students, what Anne Lamott calls a shitty first draft. The word shit is a well known word – often overlooked in favour of what it connotes when it is used – and appears as an innocuous assault on our imagination and mannerisms. I was prepared when the students said out loud, in amazement, the word shitty, knowing that Anne Lamott has helped me to keep their attention, if only for a while. Once the initial teenaged murmurs and emphasis subsided, I tried to explain what a shitty first draft would do for their writing.
A shitty first draft is the beginning of things. It is the result of a stuporous effort that rises against the gravities of internal criticism and external emergencies. It is a refusal to cow down to the mental images of annihilation, worthlessness, and the most preferred instinct, to put the pen down. Some of my students are writers. To my delight and mortification (mostly in myself), they have shared prose and poetry, metaphorically rich memoirs, casual scribble written while looking at the moon, and crisp couplets on antagonistic love affairs. When I listen to their works of art, I feel duty-bound to believe that human beings deserve divine opportunities to survive, again and again. For that reason, I knew that they understood what I wanted to tell them.
The material rewards of writing are few, if not rare, unlike its spiritual rewards. Writing permits one to descend and ascend, in sacred righteousness, into the abyss one has chosen. As human beings, desperate for that deep divine connection, we feel good when we read good writing, mutually, even though good writing itself could be exclusive. The layers of contempt, resentment, envy, and jealousy speak of our conditions when we have fallen to the lode of our separate lives. In that sense, a shitty first draft is a revolt – to bring back humanity together, if only, in silent appreciation of the full moon, seen by one but felt by twenty.
As a teacher, who teaches writing, I am at a considerable disadvantage, for I need to practice in deliberation what I ask of my students. I need to write as much as I need my students to write. When I closed the discussion today – in plead, in praise – asking them to continue writing, I repeated the same to myself. This social contract is about writing shitty first drafts – is about the art of writing nonetheless. It is as simple as that.