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Mindful Writers: The Wisdom of the First Draft


Starting a new piece of writing is a fantastic opportunity to practice.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how to tackle the smushy blob of too much work. But often when you’re beginning a piece of creative writing, there is no clear path from

 beginning to end. Sometimes, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction or poetry, you don’t know what the ending IS. You don’t know what the MIDDLE is. You don’t know who your characters are, or what they like to eat for breakfast. The list of unknowns goes on.

But still, there’s something. You’ve got something. Maybe it’s an idea, an image, a bit of dialogue, a feeling. And whatever it is, it excites you, inspires your curiosity. Something is telling you that this subject, this idea, needs to be written, and you need to write it.

I like to think of this moment as an expression of basic goodness. That part of us in touch with creation and with play is healthy and full of energy. When such a moment happens to us, we should feel grateful. This does not happen every day.

Let's acknowledge how especially fragile this kind of moment is. How easy it is not to accept our own inspiration. How easy it is not to write.

That’s because the writing is still unknown to us at this point. It’s “just” an idea or “just” a feeling. We don’t understand it yet. We need to discover it like we’re an explorer on a trek across the ocean to some new, unknown land mass. We have no idea what we’ll find there. It might be an exotic paradise and we’ll want to stay there for a while. It might be an uninhabitable swamp and we’ll need to turn back home. Probably it’s somewhere in between. But we won’t know until we get there. And there's travel time involved.

Pema Chodron writes in The Wisdom of No Escape:

“There’s a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable…A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet…Inquisitives or curiosity involves being gentle, precise, and open—actually being able to let go and open. Gentleness is a sense of goodheartedness towards ourselves. Precision is being able to see very clearly, not being afraid to see what’s really there, just as a scientist is not afraid to look into the microscope. Openness is being able to let go and to open” (3-4).

Scientists perform experiments without knowing the outcome, aware they will need to make adjustments along the way to improve their research. Musicians practice their instruments knowing they will not get it right the first time. Why is it so hard for writers to do the same? To be open and curious about the process at the beginning, and less concerned with the product?

Like so many of us do, I suffer from the pressure of the “marketplace.” If I watch my thought process at the beginning of a piece of writing, I often see that I’m already wondering how to make this “publishable” or "appealing." I haven’t written two sentences yet and I’m already anticipating the rejection letters. I know that this energy is not going to help me produce my most genuine, honest writing.

I have to let go. I have to get curious. I have to discover. I have to explore the territory ALONE before I draw the map, before I invite others to join me there.

I have a friend who has written almost a dozen different first chapters—not 12 different drafts of the same chapter, but the first chapter of 12 different novels. She thinks she has commitment issues. That’s certainly possible. But maybe she began to investigate those stories and figured out they just weren’t novels. Maybe they are better suited as short stories.

I have a folder on my computer devoted to beginnings of short stories, essays, and poems. I don’t consider this a folder of failures or false starts. They are ideas that I began to investigate, and once I looked into them, I found that they didn’t contain what I thought they contained, or I wasn’t ready to write about them yet. But I’m saving them, because they all began with that moment of confident inspiration, and to me that is not something to throw in the trash.

Right now I’m working on a personal essay about a topic that’s been nagging at me for years. It’s a topic I’ve always meant to write about, but I just wasn’t sure if there was anything there. I still don’t know. This weekend I interviewed a family member to help me fill in the blanks in my memory. It may seem like a lot of effort, but I’m curious, and regardless of whether or not I end up putting it in my beginnings folder or submit it to literary magazines, the investigation will have been worthwhile. 



Emily Herzlin teaches Mindful Writing classes at Columbia University and here at the Interdependence Project (beginning February 9th) and is blogmaster for the IDP blog. Email [email protected] for more information.

Photo credits: Photo still from Breakfast at Tiffany's, from susannekober.wordpress.com; Aran Islands photo by Emily Herzlin.

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