My floor-mates in college always knew when I was working on a paper by the size of my hair. Slowly but surely my curly red hair would grow into quite the inferno (think of Merida from Brave but with more hair product). And no, it was not from all the electricity generated by my fast and furious writing. It was the blank screen, and that nefarious flashing cursor. Minute by painstaking minute of “writing,” I would run my fingers through my hair rather than typing words–larger and larger would I fan the flames!
You may not turn into a Chia Pet when you write, but you probably do some pretty odd things when that cursor stares you down. Writing just doesn’t come easily to a lot of us, and yet we expect ourselves to write beautiful, eloquent, quotable prose as soon as we open a document. Most of us just can’t do that (and none of us like the people who can), so instead we stare at a blank screen, clean our room, reorganize our closets, call up an old friend, and pretty much anything else we can think of to avoid writing.
These days, when I sit down to write, I try to take a different approach. Instead of opening the document that will eventually contain the final product, I open a blank note in Evernote and make a serious commitment to myself. Between me, the thing I am writing, and God, I commit myself to writing a really, really terrible first draft. Run-on sentences? Check. Incomplete, half-baked thoughts? Done. Politically incorrect stories? Absolutely. Overuse of italics? You know it. Words like “super-duper”? Oh, yes. And if I can throw in a couple of keyboard smashes (you know something like: a;lksdfja;sdkl jfa;), so much the better.
The point is that most of us get blocked up because our perfectionism and impatience get in the way of the writing process. We try to generate ideas, sort the good ideas from the bad, put the good ideas in a logical order, and come up with profound wording for it all–before we even touch a keyboard. Those are all attention- and energy-dense activities. No wonder we act a little bizarre when we try to do them all at once!
Anne Lamott, in her writing memoir Bird by Bird, has a great chapter with a title I can’t even directly quote. She implores us to write [crappy] first drafts so we can get enough words on the page to find the good ideas and clever turns of phrase that are the basic building blocks of good writing. [Crappy] first drafts are how most of us get to decent second drafts and great third drafts. If you’re anything like me, there are a lot of thoughts cluttering my head, and it’s vital to get that mess out so I can turn my attention in a more creative direction. [Crappy] first drafts are a way to focus on generating content, and delaying organization and revision for when there are plenty of words on the page (even if most of them won’t make the cut).
When you sit down to work on your next paper, personal statement, or other essay, try starting out with a [crappy] first draft. Write what you are thinking, what you wish you were thinking, and what you shouldn’t include in your paper. Misspell words, start a train of thought but let it derail to start another train. The point is to let yourself just write without judgment or revision, letting the creative juices flow.
With that blank screen staring me down, and my fingers itching to turn me into a human torch, I just remind myself, “Make it [crappy]” and start writing exactly what I’m thinking. It’s a mess, of course, but I’ll clean it up later and make that crappy draft a good draft. At this point, anything is better than a blank screen and a ginger who looks like he stuck a paper clip in an electrical outlet.