Organic Matter

lavenderWhen I was in graduate school, my friends Mary and Berto had a beautiful garden in their backyard, and they recruited their friends to donate scraps for their compost bucket:  egg shells, fruit and veggie peels, the like. I kept a grocery bag on a doorknob in my kitchen and deposited orange peels, egg shells, scraps and ends of things I wouldn’t otherwise use, and every week, I dropped the little bag off on their porch to contribute to the garden.

The use of organic matter, be it composted food or manure, has become more interesting to me lately. Not because of gardening. Alas, my garden hopes were dashed by a gloomy lack of full-sun at my new apartment. No, organic matter – manure, specifically – has been on my mind because of writing.

You see, at every turn, we writers have lovely quippy quotes to make us feel better about writing first drafts that are, in our estimation, shitty. Take this gem from Hemingway:

The first draft of anything is shit. 

Or this from Anne Lamott. I actually used to have this hanging on my bulletin board as a way of convincing myself that the first draft of my novel must be written and I mustn’t fret over whether it’s good. Good could come later, once it actually existed.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. 

Writers will often talk about their writing in a self-disparaging way. We fling poo, in a sense, when we fling around words like “terrible” and “shitty” to describe our writing. “How’s your novel coming along?” someone might ask. “Terrible, terrible,” we reply. “Utter shit.”

I do this myself. I apologize for my work, and I degrade it even though, quite often, I find myself liking it. This is not to say it’s complete or even good (see, here I go again) but rather that I’m happy with the way the work is progressing. I like spending time in that fictional world with those characters and unearthing the conflict and desires within.

The idea of this constant evocation of organic matter in writing has been nagging at me lately. Awhile back, The Millions published an installment of “Ask the Writing Teacher” that featured famous novelists talking about how they tackle the first drafts of their work. The collective wisdom is that, in the first draft, a writer must do whatever they can to make it to a second draft. As novelist Tayari Jones once told me, it’s all about “surviving the draft.” You get through that first one, and you can make it because you’ve survived that initial process of creating something out of nothing.

But what strikes me is that, even though some of the authors acknowledge that some material will later be discarded or disappear, not one of them offers apologies. Not one of them says, “my first draft is shit.” And don’t get me wrong:  they all cop to the fact that a first draft is just that:  a first one. To be followed by many subsequent drafts that will need work.

Words are powerful; we know that. Writing is the execution of that power. So why, at every turn, do we look to evocations of shittiness as the mantras of our creative process?

The garden metaphor is apt here. One of my favorite quotes from the article on The Millions is by Ramona Ausubel:

But the first draft is all dirt and water and seeds and, hopefully, a little magic.

I want to challenge myself to stop apologizing for my work. I want to challenge myself to stop calling it shitty. I want to think of it as a garden, like the garden my friends made that was so pretty, so well-crafted, so obviously the product of hard work and trial and error and careful planning and daily care. I may sprinkle manure over it, table scraps and the like, but that’s only to make it grow, to fill it with nutrients. To bring about that magic that Ramona Ausubel speaks of.

I want a first draft that makes use of organic matter, that is a growing, living, dynamic thing.

I don’t want a first draft that is, at the end of the day, offered up as merely shitty.

This is the first installment of an ongoing series I’m starting called From the Writing Desk, a series of meditations on craft and the writing life. 

13 thoughts on “Organic Matter

  1. Here’s the really exciting bit. Do you have any idea what a pile of fresh cow manure smells like? Yeah, it will make your toes curl. But let it sit for a while, and it begins to break down into the most incredibly rich stuff. It’s like pure gold for gardeners. So maybe, just maybe, writers can begin to say say that their stuff is shit and do it with the full knowledge that it’s the source of all the magic in the end.

  2. This is an eye-opening perspective. It’s not at all what I expected the post to say, and I appreciate the confidence boost. However, as a note to self: this is not to say we need to publish these newly rosy first drafts, I think the main point of the “shitty first draft” camp is to encourage the insecure writer to keep pushing forward even as it feels nothing is falling into place.

    I like your idea, too. Maybe some combination of both can create good works. One can only hope.

    1. Right you are, Erica. I think by virtue of calling it a *first* draft, we should intuit that subsequent drafts will follow. There is an essay, I believe on the Ploughshares blog, debunking the myth of the first (and perfect) draft. Continued work and attention is essential, though perhaps with a different rhetorical bent.

  3. Yes! I do it too. When it comes to my writing, especially drafts, my usual response to how things are going is: “Shit, shit, everything is shit!” I wish I could love my first drafts, but I think that what is really happening is that I am having the fear that comes with knowing something is worth revising…

    1. I think you’re absolutely right; that fear of the manuscript is at the heart of it. When you know you’re doing something worthwhile and valid, it becomes scary and immense. It’s easier to joke about it and call it shitty rather than to let other people see that fear. It requires a lot of vulnerability, and not all people are good stewards of our vulnerability.

  4. “the first draft of anything is shit.” man did i ever need those words right at this second, because that is SO true. i needed to hear someone else say them so i knew that it wasn’t just MY first drafts of everything that were shit. WHEW. 🙂

    thanks, Dana.

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