The Future Imperfect

The draft is complete, and so it’s put to rest and done. The thing incorporeal–the thoughts and ideas that coalesced into a tangible, readable entity–have been given life outside the author. There they lie on the page, complacent…and inchoate, yet fawning over themselves, arrogant and self-obsessed. What is the name of this draft?

Shitty is the name it answers to. Even if no one else agrees (case study below)…

…Anne Lamott would agree (read bird by bird for proof). You’re first draft is in fact shitty. Your first draft demands analysis and revision. Lamott is no stranger to the notion of the unpolished draft, the blissfully imperfect. It praises itself and seeks praise, satisfied merely with existing. All the while, it drowns in its own inadequacy.

When the draft is born, when its first iteration has been solidified, that is when a saddening truth becomes evident: now it must die; now is the rebirth. It’s easy to walk into a bookstore and believe that every novel or cookbook or encyclopedia lining the shelves emerged from the primordial goo of an author’s subconscious, fully-formed and flawless. But such is fantasy; such is the work of arrogance infiltrating the thoughts of the better-minded. Those of clear mind recognize that “often, the writing we encounter has been heavily revised and edited and is sometimes the result of a great deal of failure” (Brooke and Carr 62) and accept the inevitability of those shitty first drafts.

Wisdom teaches the fallacy of chasing perfection. It also informs us of the benefits of chasing it. Writing is no exception to this. The wisest authors understand that “failure is an opportunity for growth” (62) and take those errors in stride. Those who manifest the arrogance of their unrefined drafts suffer in perpetuity. And those who strive to become accomplished–to become better–suffer through the trials and tribulations mandated of that goal.

Because heavy lies the crown. And heavy lies the head that wears it.

To merit an increase in one’s talents, one must accept the fallibility of first drafts and accept that room for improvement exists; and the author must additionally be willing to accept that improvement, to allow the throes of inadequacy their due space before clearing the floor for the idea that “writers always have more to learn about writing” (Shirley Rose 59) such that they can manifest that idea into eventual revision.

Every self-respecting first draft cries into the night, yearns to hear the tap of fingers against keys, the telltale sign that the draft’s author hasn’t forgotten it and delegated it to inadequacy forever more. And though the future of that draft is forever imperfect–because “all writers always have more to learn about writing” and can thusly never compose what they might consider a perfect piece–there is still the impetus that drives those with enough ambition toward that uncanny valley, so to speak. It is those writers who understand that “…unrevised writing will rarely be as well suited to its purpose as it could be with revision” (Downs 66) and strive for evermore to stretch as close to that purpose as possible. Part of that stretch depends on external forces, if one would dare it: to throw their word-child into the relentless abyss, to subject their self to peer review. It shouldn’t come as a shock that “[t]o create the best possible writing, writers work iteratively, composing in a number of versions, with time between each for reflection, reader feedback, and/or collaborator development” (66), and yet the process is often tossed to the wayside.

So edit, dear reader. Edit as though the perfection of the imperfect is your sole purpose on this planet. But do not mourn if your pursuit ends in vain, because “[w]riters never cease learning to write, never completely perfect their writing ability,” (Shirley Rose 61) not for as long as they live and grow and understand the world around them in fuller terms, not for as long as the sun rises and falls on those willing creatives, not for as long as ambition informs the decisions of those who believe, and dream, that their words may impact those who read them.

So read this, then: this shitty first draft; and take from it all you can take. And take those partial things into your own writing; and understand that there is neither no depth too deep nor no peak to high to aspire to. Wherever this craft beckons, grant it permission to grasp your hand in its and ferry your creativity and growth onto plateaus before unknown.

The future is forever imperfect, but it’s the journey isn’t it? The destination is rarely so memorable.

Errors present in this shitty first draft of mine: wrote you’re instead of your (paragraph 3, line 1), needless comma following consciousness (paragraph 4, line 4), wrote mandated of instead of mandated by (paragraph 5, line 5), improperly formatted in-text citation (paragraph 7, line 4) missing in-text citation (paragraph 8, lines 3-4), improperly formatted in-text citation (paragraph 9, line 3), wrote to instead of too (paragraph 10, line 2).

Sources

Brooke, Collin and Carr, Allison. “Failure Can Be An Important Part of Writing Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 62.

Downs, Doug. “Revision is Central to Developing Writing.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 66.

Lamott, Anne. bird by bird. Anchor Books, 1995.

Rose, Shirley. “Writers’ Histories, Processes, and Identities Vary.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 59-61.

3 thoughts on “The Future Imperfect

  1. Ime, your style this week was unusual, which was a nice break from conventionality. What inspired this choice?

    I’m glad that you chose to address the concept of the shitty first draft, and doubly glad that you brought in Anne Lamott. In Bird by Bird, I was really stricken by the image of her writing out an entire first novel that she decided to trash, even though she claimed that having that shitty first project was a useful exercise in learning the long form of a novel.

    How do you plan to incorporate your understanding of the shitty first draft into the classroom? Do you think it’s something students need to know in order to escape perfectionism?

    See you in class!

  2. Ime,
    I really thought it was a nice touch that you put into practice the idea of editing by pointing out your mistakes at the end of the post. When I read Bird by Bird, it was one of the first times that I really thought about the concept of a first draft as a DRAFT. I used to hold myself to a wild standard that first draft=final draft. Anyways, thanks for the reminder.

  3. Ime, what you did with this post was certainly on the bold side. I love the language that you used and how you addressed both the fallacy–and wisdom of–pursuing perfection. It can never be reached because it doesn’t exist. And yet this amorphous, intangible thing becomes our goal. Hell of a “word child” you made here.

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