The One Thing You Need to Finish a First Draft

NHww11-9 It is Writer’s Week in New Hampshire! The NH Writer’s Project is putting on a week-long series for aspiring writers, and last night, along with four other local authors, I spoke at the Pease Public Library in Plymouth about the one thing you need to finish a first draft.

The other four speakers were fantastic: hilarious and inspiring, (more about them in a following post) and the audience was warm and engaged. Jeff Deck did a great job organizing the event. And I will note, for those of you who know me and wonder if I have, finally, learned to talk without using my hands, that this photo captures the one moment when I was not gesticulating wildly. So: no. No progress on that front.

Here is a synopsis of what I had to say:

The one thing that I believe a writer needs to finish a first draft is curiosity. Curiosity is the other side of the coin opposite judgment. Curiosity holds open the door to possibility.

There are two parts to the question of the night: the finishing and the draft itself.

Finishing is all about you, the writer, and your writing process.

Your inner critic is probably one of your biggest hurdles to finishing. My inner critic begins by saying that my writing is awful and quickly moves on to saying that I am awful. From there, it seems only logical when it suggests that I stop writing– stop embarrassing us all– before I go any further with what is so obviously a disaster. There are a million variations on this theme, but one of the best antidotes for it is curiosity. Curiosity says in response, “Maybe it is awful. Maybe not. But let’s just write one more day and see what happens. Let’s just get another 250 words down and see where they take us.” And if you do that every day, you (along with your inner critic) will eventually find yourselves with a finished draft.

I know of no way to absolutely silence the inner critic, but you can learn to work despite its presence. As I say in Parenting in the Here and Now, fear (a.k.a.: the inner critic) says: “You aren’t enough. You don’t have what it takes.” What fear means is something quite different: “This is important. You are the one. Have courage.” Curiosity can go a long way toward filling in for confidence.

I love hearing other writers describing their writing processes: their habits, their schedules, their tricks. I wrote my first book in the warm room of a hockey rink and the second in our pickup in the parking lot of another hockey rink. I am working on my third at home, but if I get stuck, I may be heading out to the rink again. Some writers will say “you must:” write every day, write first thing in the morning, write only new material without looking back, etc. But most just describe how it works for them, and that is liberating because even the “musts” are all different. There are as many variations as there are writers, and it is your job to be curious about what works for you. Be inspired by how other writers do it, but don’t be bound by it.

Some writers are planners. Every plot point and scene is worked out in advance. There may be a considerable supply of post-its involved, and outlines and lists. I admire these types of writers because I am not one of them. Every other part of my life is organized and planned down to the last detail. But not my writing. Even though I am a non-fiction writer, when I sit down each day to write, I have no idea what I am going to say. Just as Stephen King says in his book, On Writing, I have the seed of an idea but beyond that: nothing. Not till I get to the writing. That is how I excavate the story. Even with my parenting book, where I supposedly had expertise to share, I was still flying by the seat of my pants. I did go so far as to make a list of ten topics before I began, but I never checked the list again. I had a rough idea, and then I let the writing take me where it wanted to go.

And that is the second part: the draft. The draft comes from you, but it is not you. It is more than you. And if you leave room for curiosity as you write– regardless of how much or how little you have planned in advance– you will start to see connections and patterns that you didn’t know were there, that you couldn’t have thought of on your own, on purpose.

I have written two memoirs. Theoretically, I know the story in each because– well, duh– I lived it. The truth? No clue. I had no clue what the story was all about until I had written it.

Approaching your first draft with curiosity opens the door for discovery and inspiration and surprise. And it invites in the reader, as well, because that is why a reader picks up a book in the first place: to see what happens, to discover, to be inspired or surprised. And if you have found those things on the page, then they will, too.

Ultimately, your final draft is your gift to your readers. Your fist draft is your gift to yourself. It is all yours. You write it in utter freedom. In fact, writing a first draft may be the only thing that we adults get to do in utter freedom.

I encourage you to bring curiosity to your first draft: to see what you will bring to the draft, and also, to see what the draft will bring to you.

A Shot at Forgiveness

A few years ago, when I was struggling with forgiveness (and don’t get me wrong–I had struggled with it since long before then and will, it appears, continue to struggle–I am just fixing this particular moment in time) I picked up Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. It is a stunning and thought-provoking book that poses this question: “You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness.  What would you do?”  The responses of over fifty people follow.

I was deeply moved.  And also a bit confused.

Because, for me, it was as if they were all driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

Do I have it backwards? I always thought that forgiveness was a process that the victim engages in to release him/herself, not the perpetrator. The perpetrator finds absolution– and self-forgiveness–by making amends, not in seeking forgiveness. Even if the amends can never erase the harm, the perpetrator puts the stone of his intention to make things right onto the balance– and he does so not to fix the victim, but to heal himself. As much as is possible.

This is one of the reasons why I spend so much time in my parenting book, Parenting in the Here and Now, encouraging parents to treat their children’s transgressions as mistakes, as signs that their children need more guidance. Mistakes need to be noticed and corrected without shaming. If harm has been done, amends can be made. By teaching our children to not fear their mistakes, but to be responsible for them and, when needed, to make amends for them, we teach them mercy–self-mercy.

And no, I am not equating childish mistakes with the Holocaust. I am just saying that we all need to be educated– practiced– at making amends and forgiving. Starting with the small stuff, so that we have a template for when the stakes are higher.

I am coming late to that class. I am still learning. I am humbled to acknowledge where I am in the process, but stating the truth is part of it. Here is one story of my journey:

What is your understanding of forgiveness? I really want to know.


I am slung back in an armchair in the living room, reading a memoir of sorts: Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas.  I laugh at one passage and turn the page and then am slammed—she does this, with the simplest of details—and glance into the study to see if my son and husband notice that I am crying.  They don’t.

Thomas is going to high school part-time this year.  He wanted to get out of the house, which makes sense to us.  We’d like to get out of it, too.  It is dark.  The whole state is dark.   But that is another story.

But my son wanted to keep doing math with his dad.  For the last few years, they have been working together through courses from “The Art of Problem-solving,” courses which are heinously and deliciously challenging.  They sit together at my husband’s desk in the study—I can see them from my chair—bent over their papers, murmuring to each other, scratching their chins, working to figure out the starred problems, which are designed to be nearly impossible.  They love this.  But every once in a while they both sit back after a particularly long wrestling match and sigh with frustration and chagrin.  It is often a simple matter of computation that gets them off track.  They can do the hard stuff.  It is that elementary multiplication that bites them on the butt.

Today, while I am sneaking in my tears, they do this again—sit back laughing and shaking their heads.

“The usual stumbling block?” I ask, smiling down the hall at them.

“Yeah, 8 times 7,” says Thomas.  They are grinning cheesey grins at me.  They are proud of themselves, thinking that these blind spots confirm their genius.

“Ooh.  That’s a rough one,” I say sarcastically. I have a role to play in this, too.

“Oh yeah… what is it?” says Thomas.

“56,” I say.

“Just checking,” says Ray.  And then he whispers loudly to Thomas, “write that down.”

He looks up at me, bouncing his eyebrows, enjoying his small coup. “There’s more than one way to get to the answer.”

Then they set their elbows on the desk and rest their chins in their hands, mirror images, and start on the next problem, their pleasure in themselves so absolute that it sheets off of them and sloshes up against the walls.

I hold my book up again, but instead of reading, I look past the pages at them and let those waves wash over me.