One of the things that’s been joyously freeing about my writing program is that we’re given permission to do something important: Write badly.
In order to create a sculpture, you have to start with a big block of clay, or a stone, or a chunk of wood. At first, you’re just hacking pieces away and getting it into the general shape. Over time, you add more details and then begin to polish it up.
In the beginning… Make a colossal, unapologetic mess. Write disconnected chunks of text and snippets of conversation. Let characters emerge without worrying too much about how they fit. Write cringe-inducing dialogue and scenes dripping with cliches. Just let the story emerge.
Once it’s emerged… Put it into some sort of order, know your characters and why they exist, but let the mistakes and gaps and bad dialogue and cliches stand. Just make a thing that has a beginning, middle, and end.
Then! Then you start cleaning it up. Then you start polishing. Then you pull out the sharper tools in your box and make your rough thing into something more artful.
For me, a first draft is an emergence. I have a pretty good grasp on my story, but it’s still revealing things to me. It’s still whispering its small confessions, and I’m still exploring all the different pieces of it.
Free yourself from expectations and pressures. Give yourself permission to be messy, and most importantly – write badly. Write badly as hard and painfully and truthfully as you can.
As a young child, I had a small music box that played Fur Elise. I carried it everywhere. It looked much like this…
My childhood one was smaller, and enclosed in plastic, but you get the idea.
A really nasty adult, who was irrationally upset by my innocent obsession, took it away from me. Years later she admitted to having thrown it out.
I can’t begin to speculate as to the motives of someone who takes a harmless, beloved toy from a child. What I can do is say that this tiny piece of heartbreak has been mended >30 years later, as I happened upon the small device pictured above and purchased it.
It’s cheaply made and slightly off-key. If you play it slowly enough, it sounds like the soundtrack of a bad horror movie trailer. But I don’t care – this silly little contraption with it’s high-pitched song has made that sad little child crying over the loss of her toy unbelievably happy. No longer a lost little ghost, that particular restless spirit-memory has been laid to rest.
It’s a small reminder that the person who took things from me can’t do so anymore. And while I can’t reclaim all that was list, I can and have recovered a lot.
Last night as I drove home from my writing class, there was a gentle, lackadaisical snow falling in Denver. The restaurant and microbrewery patios were empty. The homeless had taken shelter somewhere – at least I hope they did – as the temperature dropped. Less people roamed the sidewalks. It was quiet, in that beautiful but eerie way that only snowy nights can be.
I’d forgotten what it felt like to shiver. Suddenly I was reminded of winter, and it was jarring. Something about this past summer felt really long to me. Then September came, with its tidal waves of pumpkin spice, and I felt a dissonance – it *felt* like summer, even though people were embracing fall.
Now fall is here, and winter is creeping up behind it. I feel like I need to embrace every small moment of it, because it feels fleeting and malleable. I work in a field that deals with the effects of climate change, so I talk all day about ‘extreme weather events,’ even though sometimes none of us know for sure what that really means. Hurricanes, certainly. Extreme high temperatures, and extreme low temperatures. Increased precipitation.
I suppose I fear how we’re careening into a world where all of us will forget what it feels like to shiver. Perhaps not literally, but a world in which the changes aren’t slow, or subtle. A world that becomes drastically altered.
For now – there was some snow, and a shiver, and it felt gentle and safe and beautiful. And I want to hold on to that.
In my writing class, there’s a certain format to things. We read a bit of this, then reflect. Read another passage, discuss. A literary liturgy of sorts.
There’s something about this class that reminds me of Catholic masses, only without the standing and kneeling. (Though, I would say, our literary docent probably wouldn’t mind if we stood or knelt or did handstands – this isn’t a formal environment.)
If I’m honest, there is something prayerful about this process. If a prayer is, as the dictionary informs me, “a solemn request for help,” then I am a praying person. I may not direct that energy at an omniscient being, but I do constantly commune with my characters in my mind, pleading with them —
“Tell me what happened to you.” “How did you feel about that?” “Thank you, thank you for sharing yourself with me.” “I’m sorry, I’m really truly sorry I have to expose you like this. I’m sorry I have to make this hurt.”
I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
I will get better at this. I will write less, but say more. I will be ruthless and intentional. I will navigate the terrain of this story without fear. I will keep going, even when my devotion begins to crack and my faith in the thing starts to evaporate away. I will continue. I will persevere.
Killing time before my writing class, perhaps waiting for something in the way one waits for Godot. A blue-haired girl with large, round rimmed glasses is to my left, Misfits sticker prominently placed on her laptop, studying for what I think is a chemistry exam with a raven-haired girl with thick-rimmed black glasses. To my right, a young man in torn pants typing away on his laptop, which is in his lap instead of on the table. Is he hiding something?
Old men sit and talk of people they know, or have known; their tenses shift as often as they do, clearly uncomfortable on the hard wooden chairs. On the patio, a group of colleagues has some beer after work, badges still hanging around their necks. Flies buzz around, tempted, I suppose, by the general stickiness of the place.
Beast of Burden plays loudly, drowning out the white noise of the traffic outside.