“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
“Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft.”
― John McPhee, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process
My students tell me that we write too much. I tell them that all you will do is try to communicate in life so you might as well get used to it. I tell them to stop worrying about writing or thinking about writing. Do Lamott’s shitty first draft or fling it like McPhee. Just write.
As you may have noticed, I have not posted in awhile. I have engaging in fun writing prompts and activities with my class and as a result, have churned out more shitty first drafts instead of spending time to refine one piece at a time.
I spent the morning reading 64 drafts of blog posts I never published, some dating back to 2014. (Actually, let’s make the number 65 if I don’t publish this one.)
It is such an interesting way for me to observe my thoughts that I did not resolve, finish, or publish. I read them to see my process, to look back at myself, to try to solve mysteries, and to discover if what I choose NOT to share has changed over the years.
My earliest blog post draft that remains unpublished is dated January 4, 2014 and I titled it, “new (old) habits.” Before reading it, I tried to think about where I was at that time in my life. At that moment, my children were the following ages: 15 , 10, 8, 6, and 4. We were homeschooling and AJ was getting ready for her first big trip abroad without us. I was 35 years old.
It was the dead of winter in Toronto just after the holidays so I took a guess that I was writing about re-establishing my exercise habit, among other healthy habits??
I click on the draft. I am dead wrong.
Here is the draft in its incomplete entirety:
My kid’s love the story, The Emperor’s New Clothes.
The story about that fool who actually believed that the new outfit would be “invisible to those who were incompetent or stupid.” Oh man, I would think, who would be so idiotic that they would believe something like that??
Well, it turns out that I am said idiot.
The word “habit” has many origins one of which includes “condition, demeanour, appearance, and dress.” – Online Etymology Dictionary Our current definition of habit – a behaviour pattern – came later.
But don’t we all sometimes wear a particular behaviour pattern like an outfit, almost an everyday uniform?
For example, I have a habit of leaving things to the last minute. I hear the gasps from all those who actually think I have my life planned months in advance. I’m sorry to burst the bubble but I do like the rush of sewing that special birthday outfit on the eve of the birthday or pumping out an article with minutes left on a deadline or planning a three-week homeschooling block for each child the day before the start of the block. That’s how I roll.
In the beginning I believed that I was more creative and spontaneous when I waited to the very last minute to do things. I thought that I was more inspired when under pressure. I would walk around freaking out and feeling anxious about the project that needed to be finished and no one would say anything. No one would tell me how foolish I was for leaving things to the very very last minute. I was wearing this procrastination outfit without anyone ever saying, “Hmmm, maybe you should do it now instead of waiting until you are crazy with anxiety???”
And that’s it. Nothing more.
I have re-read this several times trying to understand because I am currently not the mega-procrastinator that this woman claimed I once was. As I sit and recall my life then, I do remember the triage aspect of it. In hindsight, I wouldn’t call it procrastination but prioritization. Things were always left to the last minute because there were so many things (and people) to attend to first. I could never get ahead enough because something urgent always came up.
Drafts allow for re-framing when we take a second look.
Three days later, on January 7, 2014, I wrote another draft entitled, “Life’s Work.” I am excited to read the post with this title. What did I feel was my life’s work? Would this be about parenting? About writing? About self-care?
I click and find this:
When I was little,
That’s it. What took me away from writing about my life’s work? Why is it left unsaid? These three words and this unfinished draft tell me more about my life than an entire post could – a life of interruptions even when I may have found my life’s work.
To try to understand this time, this month of rough drafts, January 2014, I go back and look up what posts I published at that time, the ones that I felt were ok for public consumption to try to understand the context of these two drafts.
On January 8, 2014, I wrote a piece called, “Silent.” Oh, I see. It all makes sense.
As I explore the other 62 drafts, I am struck with how I keep writing even when I don’t know where it is heading. I find a few buried in 2014 that were previously published in 2013, so technically they are not drafts. (My 2011- 2013 posts were mostly deleted by WordPress and I salvaged some and planned to re-post them in 2014 on my new blog but didn’t.). These are the forgotten ones that I vow to re-publish soon.
And then there are drafts that were never meant to be published but left for future me. The me of today. They were left as a reminder of what was going on in my head and as messages for my children.
Recently, I told a mom of littles how that time for me is now a blur – those first 15 years of raising little people. That decade and a half of no sleep and physical endurance. But then I read the draft entitled “Wake laughing” with details of the time in the trenches when all the kids went down with illness while my husband was away. I know why I never published it. I was in the middle of it all. It was raw and I felt decimated. And I distinctly remember thinking, why would anyone want to read it except me in the future to at the very least feel grateful for that woman? Here is an excerpt:
Wake laughing. (April 28, 2014)
At home with sick kiddos while Ever-Patient is away on business has been tough. I’ve steered clear of this blog in fear that I would talk about the gory details of the last few days and come off sounding whiny and all woe-is-me. But one by one they fell, like pins toppled by a thundering bowling ball, by illness. Some were completely thrown into the next lane while other wobbled ever so slightly until finally tipping over in the end.
When they’re sick, I feel the five. Most days, I don’t feel them – some need me more than others. Some occupy themselves nicely throughout the day only coming to me now and then for an occasional hug or to ask me a question before trotting off into their own worlds again. But when they’re sick, when more than one falls ill, there is no break, no wandering off so I can tend to another. They are all in need. All the time. All at once.
This morning, I felt the need to write it all down. Write down what the last few days felt like. Write it down so I will remember to tell them what it was like when they are parents and are caring for their own children. Write it down for the purpose of sharing it all – the good days, the bad days, and the super ugly, grotesque days that compose my life. Write it down to move on and move past. Write it down to be absolutely grateful for the days when they are all well.
But it is still hard when they are sick. It is still hard to be on-call 24 hours a day for five days. I don’t want to gloss over these days as a blip. I want to include them in my stories and hope my experience shows that yes, we have great days outside and in the home, but there are days when I lose it. I lose my patience and my stamina when they need me most.
Life is being lived moment to moment. Patient to patient.
The score was 4-1. 4 healthy, 1 sick. She stopped throwing up on Thursday and wanted to rest. In full fever mode, #5 slept with me last night although it felt like I was sleeping beside a campfire all night.
I remember how this ends. The final score was 0-5. There was an exhausting trip to IKEA to buy a new mattress with all of the kids wearing diapers or feminine pads. There was an incidence with a child trying to “help” wash the sheets in the washing machine without soaking the sheets first. There was also a dear friend that dropped off a big pot of soup on our doorstep. There were also multiple reassuring messages that it was ok to put them in front of a screen and reminding me to eat. Of course, nine years later, they do not all get sick that same way but they all can still hurt at the same time for different reasons. I still feel the five in these moments and find myself sleep-deprived these days from worry and heartache with no medicine available to offer but time and space.
Then there are the posts with just a title and nothing written in the body of the post. A declaration. A valiant attempt. A cryptic message.
“I am a failure.”
(I probably was too ashamed to write about it.)
(It is likely that I ranted out loud instead and took everyone else down with me.)
“A letter to an old friend.”
(I hope I sent it privately instead.)
(Maybe I decided to look forward.)
(I hope I wasn’t being sarcastic and it was going to be a post of beautiful links to my favourite things.)
“I have a secret.”
(This one I will always wonder about. What was I planning to reveal? And why, in the end, did I keep it to myself? Or keep it from my future self?)
And my favourite blank post is entitled:
“How I learned to Shut up.” (I guess I gave up on this lesson and probably wrote the title to invoke the intention to learn it one day.)
It is March 2023 and my life is vastly different than the life of the woman of these drafts. I am grateful for the draft in all of its definitions as a noun – a flow of air, a rough copy; and as a verb -to draw something up. I love my draft folder. This is where the flow of ideas live. The well I draw from when I am thirsty for details of the past. The release of a held breath. The land of impulses of imagination and thought. The place where I can be free to escape or to begin again or to keep to make flesh one day. The shitty and the sublime mud from which I learn the same lesson – keep writing.