Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writing A01, installment 4: Bad Dates and Great Writing

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This is the final installment in Writing AO1. Unless I do another.

I have an assignment for you.

To begin, close your eyes.

Wait! Wait! Don’t close your eyes! This is an on-line assignment. Open your eyes!

Damn it. Those of you who closed them are now doomed to sit like that forever unless someone wanders into the room and asks, “You’re not doing some stupid on-line assignment where the first instruction is to close your eyes, are you?” and how often does that happen?

For those of you not sitting shut-eyed in front of your computer screen, just pretend your eyes are closed. No, I have no idea how to do that either. OK, forget about eye position and try to imagine this.

You’re on the worst possible first date. It’s bad. The conversation is stilted, unfluent. As unfluent as… well, some unfluent thing. You can’t figure out the person you’re with at all. They ramble, or say nothing. If they describe their hopes, dreams, past or present they sound like a Movie of the Week or your own diary. You suspect there might be someone interesting in there, but there’s no clarity or connection. Everything out of your own mouth sounds cliché. You finish the date discouraged, frustrated, determined that the next time you go out with someone it is not going to be the person you were with tonight.

That, in a nutshell is the perfect first draft of any writing project. Awkward, grossly overwritten or underwritten (sometimes both) with no real insight into the characters, who in any case seem superficial or ridiculous. A first draft is like a bad first date. This is true for almost every writer I know. A classic Far Side cartoon pictures a wild haired writer dressed in 18th C garb, hunched over his writing table, entirely surrounded by wadded up balls of rejected manuscript pages, on which were written, “Call me Bob,” “Call me Phil,” “Call me Arnold.” One assumes that “Call me Ishmael” (one of the three best opening lines in all of literature) would still be a long time coming.

So, the obvious question is, how do bad, bad first drafts get to be very good, sometimes wonderful finished products. There are three answers.

#1: Like the writer in the cartoon, most of the key to making a bad first draft into a good final copy is to simply stick with it. Similarly, if you never date that person again, you’ll never get to know them better or find the hidden possibilities of charm, wit or interest that may be there. And, if you abandon every first draft that isn’t perfect or even comprehensible, you’ll never find the hidden gems of insight and interest that may be there either. Plus, and this is important, you’ll never have any finished product. Ever.

Resign yourself to the fact that your first draft is going to be total crap and that you’re going to keep at it anyway. In fact, embrace the crap (words to live by). When I write humour I know that there may be 50 ways to express a statement and only one of them will be funny. I don’t always find it. The point is, to keep at it.

#2: Your worst enemy in writing is not a lack of time or talent it’s your tendency to judge yourself. A very accomplished writer I know says he sticks one post-it over his desk every time he starts a new project. It says, “Don’t judge.”

Give yourself and your work the respect and space necessary for you/it to be what it wants to be. Write. Create. Wade about in the mud of your own thoughts and ideas. See what emerges from that character or story that at first seemed so incomprehensible. Your work has something to say. Your job is to stay out of your own way so that you can say it.

That “Don’t judge” stickie is the best tool a writer can have.

#3: Worry about the “what” and the “how” will look after itself. I think Julie Cameron identified this in her book The Artist's Way. Don’t worry about whether you’re writing a short story or a novel or a magazine article (unless of course you’ve contracted for a short story or a novel or a magazine article, in which case your employer will be expecting something vaguely along those lines), just write and let the project tell you what it wants to be. Don’t worry about getting published. Your job is to bring this piece of writing into the world. “How” it will find it’s audience or what that audience may look like is not your problem. Many writers have stymied their own work by being sure they would never get published, so they never wrote.

Write. When you’ve got the “what” the “how” will present itself. Truly.

Commit yourself to the fact that you will write very, very bad first drafts. And, if you’re very lucky, marginally better second drafts. And that by the third you’ll start to see something that looks like a person you really want to know or a story you have to tell. Don’t judge yourself. Don’t censor your own work. Let what wants to come into the world come. And, do not under any circumstances attend a class or read a book on how to get published until you’ve got a “what” in your hand that you’ve written. Or you’ll lose sight of the point of writing entirely.

Wishing you lots of wonderful writing and many very, very bad first dates.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Anne Hines

Anne Hines is the author of three novels, Fishing Up the Moon (Pedlar Press, 1998), The Spiral Garden (McArthur & Co, 2005) and Come Away: song of songs (McArthur & Co., 2007) and one collection of nonfiction humour, A Year In HineSight (McArthur & Co, 2002). A series of essays, Parting Gifts: notes on loss, love and life is due for publication by McArthur & Co, fall 2008.

Go to Anne Hines’s Author Page