Why We Should Keep Broken Things

by | Jan 4, 2018 | Writing Tips

You’ve probably all heard the phrase the ‘first shitty draft.’ Anne Lamott coins it in her fabulous book on writing, Bird by Bird (which if you haven’t already read, needs to go on your Urgent Books to Read list).

First drafts are shitty. It’s in their nature to be bad. Our problem lies in our expectation that first drafts should be good.

Think of the first time you tried anything – a kiss (how sloppy, how ‘where-the-hell-should-the-tongue-go?); a recipe (overcooked, raw, unflavoured, soggy in the middle); a musical instrument (how the hell can it be so hard to strum?). Why do we expect that our first writing attempts will just sing on the page? We will be clumsy. We will be verbose. We will tell too much and not show at all and we won’t even know the difference. We will sink into cliché and think it’s marvellously profound and we’ll write in the passive voice believing it sounds fancy and professional.

Our first drafts will suck. They are meant to.

The problem is that we think it means we suck. The shittiness joins forces with our inner critic and very soon we’re in the shame zone, feeling like we’ll never write again.

But I’ve got a different way of thinking about shitty and sucky first writing attempts. I call them ‘wabi-sabi’ drafts. ‘Wabi-sabi’ is a Japanese term (derived from art) which denotes the beauty of that which is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. We can learn so much from our broken attempts, from our ineptness, from our misshapen inelegance. We can grow in acceptance and compassion, and find the joy in effort and grace.

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

Alice Walker’s poem “I Will Keep Broken Things” offers some insights here:

I will keep broken
things:
the big clay pot
with raised iguanas
chasing their
tails; two
of their wise
heads sheared off;

I will keep broken things: the old slave market basket brought to
my door by Mississippi a jagged
hole gouged
in its sturdy dark
oak side.

I will keep broken things:
The memory of
those long delicious night swims with you;

I will keep broken things:

In my house
there remains an honored shelf
on which I will keep broken things.

Their beauty is
they need not ever be “fixed.”

I will keep your wild
free laughter though it is now missing its
reassuring and
graceful hinge.
I will keep broken things:

Thank you
So much!

I will keep broken things.
I will keep you:
pilgrim of sorrow.
I will keep myself.

The questions I ask writers about their first drafts are:
What is imperfect about this draft?
What is incomplete about it?
Where are the cracks?
Where is the wisdom and beauty in this draft?
And most importantly:

What do you love about this draft?

Find what you love in what is broken, and brokenness will become part of the story you are telling.

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1 Comment

  1. Heather McKay

    All the questions you have posed to ask ourselves have enabled me to see more of my story that would have stayed hidden. I can feel these questions helping elaborate the stories I am hoping to convey.
    I think of your advice as teaching me to answer open ended questions like as a counselor to paint my story instead of telling it.
    The writing tips I have read that you have shared between your short stories are so much more helpful than I ever could have imagined!
    Thank you for doing this workshop for want-to-be writers like me!

    Reply

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