Atlin Merrick and Natalie Conyer share thoughts on writing, in their She Said/She Said series, entries alternating between Improbable Press and Clan Destine Press.
NATALIE: For nearly four months now – yes, that’s right, four months – I’ve wrestled with the start of a new book. Every day I write something, agonise over it, pronounce it unworthy and delete it. It’s agony, and I’m getting nowhere.
Then I realised I’m ignoring one of writing’s cardinal rules. I’ve been trying to produce the perfect draft straight up, instead of doing what all writers need to do; that is, to start off by writing rubbish.
Ann Lamott, in Bird by Bird, devotes a whole chapter to writing rubbish. It’s titled Shitty First Drafts and in it she tells us to start a writing project by getting something – anything – down on paper. We should trust the process and write without reining ourselves in. Editing and correcting, she says, can come later.
Lamott says that at this stage we should quiet the voices in our head, the inner critics who tell us our writing is boring, or won’t sell, or is inarticulate and clumsy. This idea – that writing involves holding back the critical voice so the creative one can flourish, is also taken up by Dorothea Brande in her excellent book Becoming a Writer. When we write, says Dorothea, we need to suppress our rational, critical side until the flow of the story is well under way.
So that’s what I’ve started to do. I’m putting words down without overthinking or judgment. I’ve already found new ideas and pathways and things to explore, and for the moment I’ll go with that. Later, I’ll get out my red pen. I’ll do draft after draft until the critical me is satisfied. For now, however, I’m happy writing ‘rubbish.’
Natalie Conyer grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and now lives in Sydney. Her debut crime novel, Present Tense, is set in Cape Town.
More from Improbable Press:
So You Want Some Writing Advice?
Manuscript Wrestling 101: Words for Aspiring Writers
ATLIN: Yes, I believe in this with every fiber! If it weren't for writing garbage I'd write nothing. And if it weren't for writing so, so, so much bad, I'd never find the scattered seeds of good amidst the mess of words.
I just wrote a short story for an anthology that'll come out with Clan Destine Press, and the story I started with was nothing like the one with which I ended. It was so much stronger, and the only reason I got there is I kept putting every idea down on the page. It was a thicket of things that didn't belong together…and didn't…and didn't…and still didn't…and then there it was, the thread tying the new story together. I was so excited to know where I was going at last but I'd never have found that new direction without wandering my forest of ideas and words and garbage.
So much with the garbage.
The amazing/frustrating thing about knowing the garbage will do and that you must write without editing until, like you say Natalie, "the story is well under way," is I seem to have to learn it every single story. I've been writing for over twenty years and I still must remind myself that writing bad is always part of writing good. Maybe not for some genius out there, but for me and every other writer I personally know.
I think the gift we can take from this is knowing we're not alone, that if we keep going we get there. So we have to keep going.
And we'll get there.
Atlin Merrick is the publisher of Improbable Press, an imprint of Clan Destine Press. She's the author of The Night They Met. Natalie Conyer grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and now lives in Sydney. Her award-winning debut crime novel, Present Tense, is set in Cape Town.