Gratitude for Writing Mentors--by Ellen Jensen Abbott

I am in the middle of an experiment. I have been given an 8-week sabbatical from my teaching job and my plan during that time is to write a sh*itty first draft (ala Anne Lamott). It’s going pretty well. I have close to 100 pages after three weeks, and though I need to step it up a bit, I’m making decent progress.

The experiment is that I’m writing in a totally new way. Usually, I write, revise, write, revise, write, reimagine, toss out most of what I’ve done, write, revise, etc. You can see the problem. There’s nothing wrong with tossing everything out, but why polish it first? (One of my friends calls this “polishing the turd.”) My theory is that by pushing myself through the first draft without stopping to polish, I will know better what is turd and what is a diamond in the rough. I’m hoping for a far more effective revision process.

But it’s scary as hell.What I’m writing is really terrible at times. Most of the time. Luckily, I’m not alone on this journey. There are lots of folks out there who support this style of writing. One of the books I’m consulting, Alan Watt’s The 90-day Novel, is one. For example, on Day 28 he told me: “Let’s give ourselves permission to write poorly so that we can create a space for our imaginations to soar. Our first draft is rough. It may not always even make sense. That’s okay. We are writing quickly in order to stay ahead of those sensible voices that want to keep us in our place.”

Another voice that I can totally relate to is Anne Lamott when she says in Bird by Bird, “I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I’d worry that people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot.”

Another book I’ve turned to in the throes of this experiment is Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Each day I begin my writing session--I shoot for 6 pages a day--with a snippet of this book. Today, they reminded me that  “People who need certainly in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous. What’s really needed is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way. Simply put, making art is chancy--it doesn’t mix well with predictability. Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding.”

So at this time of year, I am grateful that I’m not alone, that I have folks like Anne Lamott, Alan Watt, David Bayles and Ted Orland who have gone before me and experienced the doubt and worry that I’m experiencing. The experiment will continue at least through my next post. I’ll let you know how I’m doing!


  1. I'm constantly shaking up my writing process. Congrats on taking on a new experiment!

  2. I love ART & FEAR. It's a book I like to pass along to young artists :) Happy writing!!!!

  3. I'm so happy I just wrote a short story because it reminded me relatively quickly how something can go from a really sh*tty first draft to something actually not so bad. I'm also working on a first draft of a novel, though, and it is rough seas, so I am right there with you.

  4. Thanks--now I have a couple more craft books to add to my list of reads!!!! #fellowturdpolisher


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