There’s a saying most writers are familiar with attributed to Ernest Hemmingway. He is quoted as saying, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Okay, he should know, and I mean no disrespect when I write that. Someone who has written such classics as “The Old Man and the Sea,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and “A Farewell to Arms” obviously knows how to write. He also must know what it takes to write and write well.
Do you recall how you learned anything? From something like riding a bicycle to driving a car. Did you just hop on and do it? Probably not. Unless that was you who backed into my AMC Matador one day in the Restaurant parking lot in Weedsport, NY. Most of us learn from someone who has done it, and usually done it competently. We will not be good at first. If you remember back to when you first learned to ride a bike you were probably a bit wobbly, unsteady. You improved over time. You probably even had an accident or two before you gained confidence and climbed onto the seat and took off without even thinking of what you were doing. If you ever learned how to drive a manual transmission car your first starts and stops were probably less than smooth. Let’s not even talk about stopping at a red light on a hill and some jerk pulls up close behind you. Eventually you took it all in stride and didn’t give it any thought.
Why should writing be any different? The answer, of course, is it isn’t. You’re first attempts, as Hemmingway alludes to, will be crap. Even when you know how to write the first draft will still be crap. I hear from too many people writing and saying they would like to write. Of course they’re lying to themselves. What they’re really saying is, “I would love to write well. The first time. The first draft” I suppose some people can. I’m not one of them. You probably aren’t either. Hemmingway didn’t believe he was either or he would never had made that famous statement. So the people writing to me and conveying their wish to write are saying they want to do something even one of the most talented writers could not do. Sound unrealistic? Yeah, to me too.
So what should they be saying? Well, that’s hard to say. I usually respond to them by saying, simply, “Then write.” Of course they come back with the reasons they cannot write. Busy with life and family, busy with the job, they aren’t talented enough, and many, many other reasons. Those reasons are all valid of course. Who am I to say they aren’t? However, if those reasons stop someone from writing then that simply indicates to me that the person doesn’t really want to write. Writing takes effort, it takes passion and it takes sacrifice. If you are not willing to bleed for your art then you’re not interested in being a writer.
Take Stephen King for example. He threw his first success, “Carrie” into the trash and his wife fished it out and convinced him to finish it. Obviously he thought it was crap. He has said of “Carrie,” “…my considered opinion was that I had written the world’s all-time loser.” Another highly successful writer acknowledging that early work can be considered crap. However, like Hemmingway, Stephen King did not let that stop him. He went on. Before he was famous he lived in a trailer, couldn’t pay his bills and even had his phone removed because he could no longer pay for it. He sacrificed in order to write. He taught in order to make a living and still wrote. He lost confidence in his writing ability and still wrote. He bled for his art. He wanted to write, and he did.
So, my advice to everyone out there who wants to write? Write crap. I’ll make it even simpler. Write. Sit down and write. Turn off the radio. Turn off the TV. Put on some background music if it sets the mood but don’t let it distract you. Then write. Then write some more. Then write even more. Write crap. Just like riding that old bike or driving that jalopy you owned as a kid, you’ll know when you’re improving. You’ll get turned down. It’ll hurt. It’ll smart. You’ll probably bleed. That’s Okay. Keep writing. Unless you’re writing you’ll never be a writer. Unless you first write crap, you’ll never be a writer.