Returning home from an early morning dental appointment, my jaw throbbing and my head still buzzing from the nitrous oxide, I open my laptop. I stare at it vacantly for a moment, read an email from Hope Clarke about e-publishing, feel monumentally overwhelmed and shut it. I retreat to my bed, attempting to drink coffee without scalding my numb mouth and to get warm under my fluffy duvet.
Not exactly a “go get ’em” start to my day. Inside this very computer lie pages waiting to be filled. Can I do it today when I feel so depleted and defeated and it isn’t even noon yet?
I need pampering, gentle-sweet affection. I look to the cat; she looks away. I pick up my dog-eared copy of Bird by Bird and instantly feel better. I’ve spoken before of my fondness, nay, my reverence for this book, its clear, sane advice on how to write. But as I leafed through it this morning, I didn’t need advice on plot or characters. I just wanted a friendly, funny, gentle voice in my head. Gentleness combined with a truly wacky sense of humour. Like having a slightly dotty aunt tell you a story before bedtime.
Anne Lamott seems like every writer I’ve ever known: smart, self-deprecating, hugely insecure but enormously talented. She’s just like the rest of us, sitting down in front of her computer screen every day, waiting for the voices to hush to a dull roar in the background and praying the blank page doesn’t remain blank when she looks up at day’s end.
The blank page freaks most people out. It doesn’t scare me. Blank pages are opportunities. For better or worse, words never fail to tumble out of my head. As I tackle The Novel, I find the hardest thing is knitting one day’s work into another. I look it over and think,”What the frick was I thinking? That’s awful!” Or, “That makes no sense – who in their right mind would try to talk to a seal?” and then I’ll turn it into a dolphin. Things tend to go from bad to worse. I spend the first hour of every morning’s work rocking obsessively in my chair, over-thinking the previous days’ words.
At some point during the day I wrestle with fear. I have a deep-seated fear a lot of what I’ve written is very, very bad; if read, some might think they were written by the cat after she’d got into the brandy. More worrying is that someone might read it before it has been fixed. (Aka “The Shitty First Draft”). There are at least two approaches to this problem: one, don’t worry about it. If I get mowed down by a streetcar tomorrow, I can only hope that God has a sense of fair play (I will come back as a writer again and/or my cat will not get published before me). Option 2 is I can put the words “SHITTY FIRST DRAFT” at the top in bold, italics, underlined at the top of every piece of unfinished work on my hard drive – just in case.
As Ms. Lamott says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor…it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft…” Without the shitty first draft, I’ve got exactly…a blank page. A blank page won’t get me or the cat published. Numbness has been replaced by throbbing pain but off to work I go.