Thursday, January 20, 2011

Everyone Poops: The Value of Shitty First Drafts

Taro Gomi's book Everyone Poops tries to take what might be a scary experience for some children and show them that pooping is totally normal.

It might seem a strange comparison, but in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott shares an aim similar to that of Gomi. Writing can be a scary process, but as Lamott explains to her readers, all good writers produce "shitty first drafts." This process is not only normal, but a good way to begin any writing project.

In Writing Without Teachers, writing theorist Peter Elbow explains that some writers are nervous about the idea of freewriting because it runs counter to all the hard work they have done to become better, more careful writers. According to Elbow, writers worry that that this process will infect their writing and ruin future writing projects.

Elbow sees this concern tied to a larger feeling of helplessness in the face of new writing projects. For this reason, he sees freewriting, or freeing the expectations of a first draft, as a way to get beyond some of the anxiety that writing can produce and begin the process. In response to the skeptics he states:
Yes, it produces garbage, but that's all right ... It might [infect future writing] if you did nothing but freewriting - if you gave up all efforts at care, discrimination, and precision. But no one asks you to give up careful writing. It turns out, in fact, that these brief exercises in not caring help you care better afterward.
To prove this idea that "shitty first drafts" can develop into something writers can be excited about, it would be great to provide an example of a paper that has grown from a "shitty first draft" into something worth submitting, but for the sake of time let's try to isolate some smaller, yet still important, part of writing that can benefit from this process.

To do this I will use an example thesis to show how embracing the process of writing can help writers: first, to generate ideas and questions and, eventually, to refine those ideas into something that helps focus future writing.

Let's imagine that I have been given an assignment to write an argumentative paper about a famous speech. My mind goes blank as I struggle to think of a speech, any speech, I actually know anything about. The recent holiday has inspired me to choose Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech and write about that.

As is often the case for writers on a deadline, maybe I don't know that much about the speech. I might also feel like there is nothing new to say about my topic. It's important for all you writers out there to remember that feeling like this is okay. As you tackle your own writing assignments, just remember that how you approach the assignment will impact how it turns out. Stay optimistic and open-minded, and as you continue with the assignment, hopefully you will find some way to take ownership of the project and make it unique. For this example, I'll get a basic idea down and see if I can find something that makes the speech unique and interesting to me as a writer: something worth getting excited about.

Thesis Draft One (My "Shitty First Draft"):

The speech "I Have a Dream" was very important to the people of the time.

This is certainly true, but not exactly exciting. It is also hard to imagine anyone really disagreeing with me. The important thing is that I have my first thought down, and now I can continue to play around with it.

When you find yourself at this stage of the writing process, ask yourself questions and try to answer them. Maybe you know the answers, or maybe your questions point you to places where you need to do further research.

In the example above, I can look at "very important" and ask myself how it was very important. Push yourself to be more specific. For example, I also mention "people" and "time," and so I might ask myself who are the people involved, who is the speech given by, when and where was it given? I don't have to answer all of these questions immediately, but I should keep them in mind as I try my next version of the thesis.

Thesis Draft Two (Continuing the Freewriting Process):

With his "I Have a Dream" speech, Martin Luther King Jr. moved people to action.

What do you think? It seems like this thesis is moving in the right direction. By freewriting this draft, and by keeping those questions in mind, I now have indicated that Martin Luther King Jr. is the person who gave the speech. I have also started to address how it was very important: it moved people to action. What are some questions I still might ask myself about this thesis?

Well, first I still have some of the original questions floating around (e.g. who are the people?), but I also might ask myself what "action" was taken and what was the result? What did King move them to do exactly? Again, during the drafting process give yourself space and time to play with the drafts without stressing about answering all your questions. If you think it is helpful, especially with longer papers, jot your questions down and take a break. Then come back and freewrite again. Write anything that comes to mind and allow the questions to guide you without dictating where your writing goes.

Thesis Draft Three (The Final Freewrite):

With his "I Have a Dream" speech, Martin Luther King Jr. united Americans to confront racism.

By this draft, I have addressed a couple of my questions: the people were Americans, the action taken was to confront racism. One thing I will want to keep an eye on as I write my next draft is the part where I say "united Americans" because this could give the sense that all Americans were united against racism following the speech. That would be nice, but is obviously not true.

After you have done some freewriting, asked and answered as many questions as you can, and have begun to gather scholarly sources, it is then time to really draw on your research. For the sake of space, I'm only going to provide one more thesis example. The example will have a little bit of research behind it, but I hope at this point you recognize that, even though it is the last one provided, it is just another draft in the process. As you gather research, you will find that it is more difficult to contain your thoughts in a single sentence, as demonstrated below.

Thesis Draft Four (The "Final for Now"):

Many people remember Martin Luther King Jr. for his "I Have a Dream" speech, and what they remember from the speech is probably his famous line about his children being judged not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." As a result, it is likely best remembered as a speech about uniting Americans, across color lines, to confront the issue of racism. What is often forgotten is that "The Great March on Washington" was actually called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Recognizing this, it becomes easier to understand economic metaphors in the speech, but it also highlights King's increasing interest in economic injustice toward the end of his life. His final speech, "I've Been to The Mountaintop," was given as he attempted to support Memphis sanitation workers who were on strike. By looking at his final speech, and the events that led to the speech, it becomes easier to see how King recognized economic and racial injustice as interconnected.

So what do you think? I know there is a pretty big jump between the last two drafts, but remember that this is the first draft that I did not freewrite. I spent time reworking lines and looking at my research.

One thing I did was to look at other speeches by King to see what I could find. Ultimately, a credible timeline helped me to put his life and work in perspective. The timeline states that before his final speech, King announced a march on Washington for an "Economic Bill of Rights" that would, among other things, guarantee employment to anyone capable of working. Given the current economic crisis, this seemed like an important part of his life to discuss. Also, because I couldn't remember hearing about it in any history class when I was growing up, it seemed like it might be new for other people. The timeline, the relevance to current situations, and the potential newness encouraged me to do further research. All this made the idea of writing this paper exciting.

My research helped me to understand King's interest in economic freedom, and that helped me to notice and to understand certain lines in both of the speeches I mentioned in my still-developing thesis paragraph.

I first thought of his "I Have a Dream" speech, and I thought about it in terms of civil, not economic, rights. To be safe I could double-check my claim with an instructor, but you can also see that I have phrased the lines carefully so that I don't overstate my claim.

Ultimately, the research made me want to write about his final speech. It is worth noting that, depending on how much time I allowed myself to write before the due date and how much research I did on the other speech, this kind of change might not be possible.

The final thing to keep in mind is that, while my argument isn't the most controversial thing in the world, my thesis is starting to take shape in a way where it is actually possible to imagine someone disagreeing with me. My confidence that this is "new" information for many in my imagined audience, and the fact that it might be a contentious claim, allows me to move forward more confidently with my paper.

As writers, it can sometimes be frustrating to look at "good" work, but this is because "good" writing eventually hides the process. A blog post about process is no exception. Our hope is both that the content and writing of our blogs can always be of a certain, high-quality level. Hopefully, you find it encouraging that even for this work, after I used freewriting for the first draft, there were:

10 drafts before it was posted, 2 people who gave me feedback during the process, and there was 1 person who proofread my work.

Additionally, there were 9 outside sources consulted about the speech and process-based writing.

If you are interested in checking out either of the speeches, you can go to American Rhetoric's database of the top one hundred speeches to read, watch, or listen to them.

1 comment:

BaileyJane said...

Thanks. This is amazingly helpful. I always thought free-writes had to be long--like five minutes of mindless writing--and this is so much better because it give the writer less to attend to and it stays on point. The example is hugely helpful in learning to look for vague words, the bane of my writing.