30 April 2012

On shitty first drafts

What to write, what to write, what to write.

That’s how it begins, usually. Those exact words. I’ll stop, take a sip of coffee, and turn on This American Life or surf over to Orangette or Smitten Kitchen, surround myself with some great writing (osmosis has to work, right?). You can do this, I’ll say. All you need to do is invite people into your kitchen. Invite them in, and say hello. Chat awhile. 

Amos leaves for work bright and early, and I begin to stir shortly after. I mosey into the kitchen and boil water for coffee. I usually stand and zone out, staring at the drying dishes that I should put away. Almost always deciding against that, I go back to staring at the teakettle. I tap my fingers gently on the white countertop, and I think to myself: What do you do today? What’s on the docket? 

Writing, that’s always there. So is basic housekeeping: laundry and dishes and groceries. I try to study Japanese every day, if only to keep up with Amos, who seems to be making much more progress then me (lesson learned: marry dumb. Smart husbands keep you on your toes). Most of the time I’ll have a couple of puzzles to figure out, like how to get futons delivered to our place before the in-laws visit or double checking how insurance reimbursements work abroad.

Writing, though, that’s the big one. It’s what I center my day around and what brings me the most joy. Back home, my writing almost always took the form of short stories and literary fiction. Putting characters on paper and watching them go. They develop, unexpectedly and unpredictably, and I let them run, run, run, all over the page. That’s my shitty first draft, to quote Ann Lamott. Then I take a comb and I run it over the story and straighten it out as best I’m able. I go over it again and again, working towards some semblance of order before I switch tracks and its all run, run, run, run again. I comb it out. I tease, I straighten, I add bits here, I take away bits there. I write things that are unbelievable, utterly believable, bizarre, mundane, and sometimes not half bad. I put it away for weeks before pulling it out again to see if it was really any good at all. It’s private, all happening behind the scenes. 

But that process? It requires me to be in my head, to shut out the world, to isolate myself into my crazy little non-reality. I stretch as I come out of it, and I crave people. I go and visit friends, run, check into work, plug back into the world. 

You see where I’m going with this, right? I can’t do that in Japan. Without meaning to, by moving over here, I’ve found myself in my own head every day, for much longer than I’m used to. I’ve begun talking to myself, much in the same fashion as my Grandmother, except she was 77 and I am 27, so it’s less social-acceptable and a bit more worrisome. 

As I sit and watch the water boil and grind coffee beans, I find myself turning away from short stories and toward Jackson Riley. When I’m here, I am decidedly out of my own head. I’m sitting in my kitchen, and – for a couple minutes, for a couple hours – my friends are sitting with me. My mom and aunts are laughing as I break eggs on my bike and nodding as I process pausing a career to be a expat trailing spouse. For the first time in years, I’m commenting on blogs, reaching out, asking people if they would step into my life, take a look, stay awhile. I’m opening up my kitchen door. I'm hoping people show up and simultaneously freaked out if they do.

The blog is a strange beast. It’s such a unedited voice, a (way too?) personal story sent out into the world wide web. It’s a collection of my best and worst shitty first drafts. I actually hate that work ends up being read before it gets to simmer and be reworked. Far too little is thrown away, edited out. But, but!, I remind myself, it’s a deadline, and it’s something I love. I’m reaching out to a world beyond what is right in front of me. My writing is sometimes good and sometimes (quite) ugly; it reminds me of a favorite quote from Ira Glass:

“What nobody tells beginners – and I really wish someone had told this to me…is that all of us that do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is a gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, and its just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but its not. 
“But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, that’s still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work didn’t have the special thing we wanted it to have… 
“It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close the gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure this out then anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
So here's to that: to youth, to inviting people in, and to shitty first drafts.

Image: Moncrief London by Silja Magg

1 comment:

  1. You have summarized my day - just substitute (currently) Mad Men for This American Life; walking the dogs for running, and you pretty much have it. And Ira's right, it does feel like a fight..

    When do we get to the make-up sex part??


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