That prams and art are not mutually exclusive.

What you really need to write that first draft

By Karen Charlton

Anna Funder wrote Stasiland, a tale of life in East Germany under Stasi rule, as ‘an exercise against forgetting’. When the book was published in Germany, after 23 rejections, Funder was berated at the book launch by a female audience member. The German woman demanded to know “Who gave you the right to write about us?” Funder rebutted by asking “From what authority should I have sought permission?”

Along with Funder’s superior control of language and the ability to recreate the ‘nuclear mustard’ of the Stasi regime, of my study of the book, this is the Funder quote that remains with me.

It’s true of any book. From what authority does one seek permission to write any story? For no story truly belongs to us. Who are we to take slivers of life away from the world and then turn it back around?

If there were an office somewhere downtown where I could show up with my files and apply for a book writing permit, I would be there in a splash. But book writing isn’t like that; it’s tentative, experimental. It’s a gamble.

In the case of a first time writer, often one is looking for, but never really finding, permission to write a story. Stories are born through a desire to reveal a truth or create a world or resolve an issue, and at this delicate time in their creation, the only person that believes in this world is the writer. Who themselves probably does not even consider themselves a writer. It takes precision and dedication to create a world which balances on a breath.

Is it confidence? Is it boldness? Faith in the creative process? Faith in oneself?

Striving to finish my own first draft, I’ve tried everything. I’ve studied creative writing; I’ve written professionally; I’ve entered short story competitions; I’ve shared my work with the world. In every book or newspaper I read, I’m looking for a way into my story, even when I don’t mean to. The only thing I haven’t tried – and is by far the most difficult – is to dedicate time to sit and write every day. I have productive spurts, followed sharply by lulls.

I write around my book, but often I find some other reason not to work on it. Do I have everything I need for this journey? I pat my pockets and check my bags but I don’t know precisely what I feel I’m missing.

I see the dilemma in my mother, who piles travel brochures high on her coffee table, getting quotes on prices, cross-referencing dates on her calendar, checking airport bus times, but only after every single box is ticked does she actually proceed with her booking. No matter all the family pets have died and no longer need her, the children are grown, she has the money, she has the time; there is something else holding her back. Is it caution? Is it doubt?

I actually don’t believe writing is about the writer at all. The biggest struggle seems to be to get the writer out of the way so the real story can come out. Like a difficult birth; the mother must get in the right head space to allow herself to open up for this child to enter the world. Why is it so hard to get out of the way?

So while I probably I have everything I need for my journey, there’s actually one thing I need to get rid of in order to make the distance. This self-consciousness has to go. Deliberateness is the death-knell for creative writing.


Any advice for a newbie? What do you consider essential for finishing a first draft?

12 Responses to “What you really need to write that first draft”

  1. middleagebutch

    Thanks for this. I am in the process of trying to write a memoir. I sorta dance all around it. Scribbling notes in a notebook and thinking about the project a whole lot more than actually doing it. I meet with a bunch of other like-minded writers once a week. That keeps me motivated to want to write. Last week, someone had passed around an article from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird book on writing. Lamott advises that it’s ok to write a shitty first draft. The most important thing is just writing and getting it all down on paper.

  2. sara

    i have no advice for you – but I just wanted to tell you I agree that we just have to get out of our own way and let the process flow. I love that feeling where the words flow out of me and there is a ‘high’ feeling – yes, I am meant to be writing this, yes, it’s coming out right, yes I am fulfilling my purpose. How do we get out of our own way? Meditation probably 🙂

  3. debbrightandprecious

    You describe the process so well. Yes it’s boldness and faith in ourselves, but also getting out of the way for the real story to emerge. Difficult birth, yes. Going through very similar reflections myself.

  4. jennifersmart

    Like you Karen, I was looking for the magic formula to writing a 1st draft. i did exactly the same things you did, until it eventually dawned on me, that there is no magic formula other than to write. I know, not fair is it? I also strongly recommend a writing group – once a month worked for me and sometimes I literally rushed off 500 words the night before, but it was 500 words I wouldn’t have written otherwise! The wonderful Margo Lanagan said to me, make it big ,make it ugly & then you can work with it. I figured I could do big & ugly & away I went.

  5. Gemma Hawdon

    My first draft feels so unnatural. It doesn’t flow from my fingertips, rather I have to push out each word (a bit like labour as you’ve used that comparison!!). It’s only when I have the full arc of the story forced onto paper that I can revisit and breath the magic inside . That part I love 🙂

  6. Lulu

    I love this post Karen, and your honesty is so refreshing. I’m writing my very first short story ( I’m new to this writing gig so thought it might be a good place to start ) and I can so relate to your analogy of ‘patting your pockets’ and ‘writing around the book’ (or in my case, the short story). The big and ugly draft concept is where I’m at right now. Just get something, anything down on paper. Then work from there to pretty it up.

    In all honesty, I sometimes feel like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, and that actually writing a short story is harder than writing a novel! Both are massive challenges – and why I admire the great writers and novelists who make it seem so easy when you read their works – but I’m up for a challenge! Like you say, a disciplined approach and some big and ugly may just be the way to go. Don’t be dismayed!

    • rhythm & method

      Novelists make it look so easy, don’t they? I think you just have to write until it sounds like it’s singing. I also have to remind myself of why I started writing in the first place – to get lost in the sheer joy of creating something out of nothing. There’s that too. If you enjoy doing it, that is reason enough to keep going.
      I’m so glad you’re writing stories. You have a great voice.

      • Lulu

        Thank you! I’m very flattered. You’ve just made my night. Perhaps even my week! You’ve described what motivates me also – to create something out of nothing. You’re right. It is sheer joy.

  7. Lucy

    250 words a day! It’s not much, but over a year it adds up to over 90,000 words! At the start of this month, I made myself a commitment to finish a manuscript I’ve had sitting in my bottom drawer for a few years now. I already have a fair bit of existing material and I couldn’t work out how to find time to write more. After a few quick calculations, I worked out that just 250 words a day would add up before I knew it. It’s easy and quick to achieve the goal and I often find myself writing more than needed. I keep my word counts in a spreadsheet so they’re easy to track. I’m already nearly 3000 words past my goal to date and it’s been painless. No extreme measures required!

  8. Sarah Somewhere

    Brilliant! So much wisdom and truth here. Big and Ugly! Yes, let’s do it, if that’s what it takes to give ourselves permission to forge ahead!


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