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SLANT LETTER: Rough Drafts. The Struggle Is Real.
Rough Drafts. The Struggle is Real.
Last summer, my husband I were traveling for a conference and spent some time in Paris, where we visited the Rodin Museum. Auguste Rodin was a French sculptor, world-renowned for his works such as The Thinker, The Kiss, and The Gates of Hell, and while we got to see these masterpieces, it was another display that intrigued me most.
Shelves of sculptures in dappled miniature lined the walls: some were smaller scales of his larger works, and some solitary limbs, wrinkled palms, torsos, half-sketched postures melded into naked plaster. As I walked the room, I suddenly realized what this was: a gallery of rough drafts.
He was practicing! As even (especially) the masters have to do.
There is no romanticizing the rough draft. The rough draft is torturous, because despite its ridiculously straightforward name, we secretly expect it to be a sparkle draft every time. It’s where the writer is forced to confront the very real gap between their brilliant idea in theory and their alarmingly underwhelming execution. We always begin with noble expectations, don’t we? And the rough draft is where we are humbled, rankled, infuriated, and ultimately where we decide if we’ll allow Resistance to win this round or we'll set our jaw and get back to work.
Here’s what I’ve learned makes the difference between rough draft and masterpiece: risk and trust [tweet this]. Fear will keep you from creative risk which will keep you from your best work. But trust turns the tables on fear. So when it comes to the rough draft, here are a few risks worth taking, and a few truths you can count on.
Risk "Spending It All"
In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says, “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time...Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
These are sobering words, but essential advice. The rough draft is your space to make a mess and own it. Let the loose ends fray, let the fragments fly. Give yourself permission to scratch out your very worst. Release yourself to write primal, because that is the only way to write true [tweet this].
Withhold nothing. Think of it as a free-for-all download, mind to page. And do not seek pardon for your dust, for it is out of the dust that life springs.
Risk Writing Amateur
The truth is you will never sit down to the open page a ready expert, because what you are attempting to do has never been done before. What you are here to say has never been said before. Whether you’ve been writing for a lifetime or a week, beginning is a journey with no maps—every time.
So let yourself off the hook. Your draft is not supposed to be Hemingway; it’s supposed to be a hot mess. The only metric that counts at this stage is the ratio of black text to white space. That’s your one job: keep inking that next letter, syllable, sentence.
There are no shortcuts to finding your voice; there is only practice [tweet this]. All anyone can do is show up to the blank page time after time, amateur anew. But the perks of amateur hour are real: the stakes will never be lower! You can crumple the whole thing up, begin again tomorrow, and no one will ever know. Hallelujah!
Trust that Nothing Is Wasted
Even if you do scrap everything tomorrow (and you might), you still showed up. You gained a day or an hour of practice that you didn’t have yesterday. Despite the multitude of reasons you could have opted out, you pressed on and pushed through.
This is exactly how a muscle builds. You might show up to to the drawing board an amateur, but you leave it strengthened. Just as musicians practice their scales, time and repetition train our impulses and intuition. Nothing is wasted, friends. Trust that practice builds muscle.
Trust that Words Are Gentle Guides
You’re not the only one with muscle. Words are living things, wild things, with muscle and movement. They can head off in surprising places, and we can learn from them if we allow ourselves to be carried where they call us.
It is a mistake to set out writing as an act of conquest. That would imply control, and who has any control when they’re stumbling their way through the entirely unknown territory of a rough draft?
No, we are in no position to control our words. We are guests in their domain, and they are gentle guides if we allow ourselves to be curious, to chase stray sparks, and follow wherever surprising places they might lead.
If inspiration strikes you, and especially if you have no idea what it means yet, don’t question it—follow the glimmers. See where it takes you. Trust your creative intuition to search out its significance.
Trust that You Have What It Takes
This might be the gutsiest high-wire act of them all.
Whatever you do, don't count yourself out of the work before it’s even started. The biggest threat and to your creative potential is not an external source, it's your own self-doubt. Writing is sacred work. Do not desecrate it by counting yourself out before you’ve even begun.
Yes, the words are imperfect, unfinished, and sometimes truly, objectively terrible. But the process builds the muscle, and that muscle is behind every honest, hard-won word you and I have ever fallen in love with. This is exactly the kind of writers we need: those who keep at it. I hope you will.
So what's on your drafting table right now? What are you working on, and what are your tricks for keeping at it? Hit reply to this email and/or tag #slantletter on Twitter or Instagram and let me know!
In the meantime...
Take heart. Write on. You got this.
P.S. // A Prayer for Writers
SLANT LETTER is for the craft and soul of what you do as a writer. So for each issue, I want to focus on an element of the craft as well as a prayer for all of us anxious, ambitious, internet-exhausted writing folk. I hope this will refresh you as it does for me. Read it, print it, share it, whatever you like.