CRAFT: What to Do When You’ve Written an “SFD” by Amy Evrard

Like many writers, up until that point I had approached my writing practice with resistance, self-doubt, and fear...

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When I first read Anne Lamott’s infamous chapter on “Shitty First Drafts” (SFDs) from her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, I felt as if someone had scooped me out of choppy waters and brought me to the safety of shore. Like many writers, up until that point I had approached my writing practice with resistance, self-doubt, and fear.

So Lamott’s words were soothing. “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts,” she wrote. Ahhh, so calming, I thought. “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then romp around all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” With that, I curled up in a ball and fell asleep on the soft warm sand.

I spent several months on this soft sand, happily letting every thought and story in my head romp around on my computer screen. I was writinghours at a time, wherever I happened to be, without a care in the world. I was working on a memoir of family and the rural South, which had been almost impossible to conceptualize. But I didn’t need to conceptualize it, I thought with relief. I just had to keep writing my SFD. Soon enough I had written hundreds of pages.

Then it was time to shape that SFD, and suddenly I was back in the oceanonly this time I was so far from shore that it seemed impossible to swim back. I kept reading and rereading all of those stories and anecdotesall written in stream-of-consciousnessand I felt myself going under. I had no idea what this manuscript was about or how to identify the narrative thread that would pull it all together.

Fortunately, Lisa Cron was the one to scoop me out of the water this time. I heard her interviewed on The Creative Penn podcast talking about her book Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel [Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere]. From the title, you can probably guess her opinion of the SFD idea. Cron’s book captures exactly how my SFD had actually made my life harder: 

“[T]rying to shape it only makes it worse, because there’s nothing to shape. What’s more, you’ve grown so attached to everything in it, that editing, cutting, or rewriting feels a bit like sacrilege. So you massage it a bit, moving things around here and there, hoping that’ll do the trick. It won’t. The very fact that you can move things around is a telltale sign that the novel has no internal logic.”

Even though Cron’s book is about writing a novel, it saved me. Turns outwho knew? a memoir should also have a story, an internal logic.

I’m still in the midst of writing a new Less-SFD, and I thought I would share what I’m learning in case any of you are in the same boat. (See that? Now we’re out of the water and in a boat. It’s a nice feeling, isn’t it? But we still have to get that boat back to the shore eventually.)

The first step was to stop reading sections of that SFD and allowing them to drive my thoughts and actions. In fact, I had to put all of that material aside for a few months so that I could start to forget what I had written.

Next, I followed the steps in Cron’s book to establish myself as the protagonist of a story, just as a fiction writer would do for a novel. I wrote pages and pages answering Cron’s prompts to think about who my protagonist is, what she desires, what misbelief (or fatal flaw) she holds that keeps her from obtaining what she desires, and what in the story will happen to transform her misbelief. In other words, I wrote the main thrust of a story about myself, and I wrote it from the heart rather than from fragments of stories and thoughts written down in a SFD.

And then I came up with a general outline of how that story could be told and what big moments in my life could help tell that story. I didn’t worry about all the little bits and pieces of life as recorded in that SFDjust the main stuffbecause I didn’t want to get bogged down in the details.

I sought out those big moments in my SFD and copied and pasted them into my new story. Now I’m in the process of interweaving the big moments with the narrative I have drafted. New stories and anecdotes are surfacing as I continue to write from the story rather than through stream-of-consciousness. I stick to the general outline. That general outline will probably change a lot over time, but that’s okay because I will be changing it consciously, from above. That’s very different from trying to shape an outline out of chaos, from the bottom up.

There’s a lot of good stuff in that SFD, I’m sure, so at some point I’ll dive back in (stop with the ocean metaphors already!) and pick up more of the small moments. But I won’t dare do that until I feel my narrative is secure.

Overall I’m staying true to the intent behind Lamott’s advice, which is, of course, not to worry about perfection. Perfectionism is just another form of resistance, and it will keep you from getting anything down in a draft at all. And that’s why so many writing instructors assign the piece: they know that a writing class is a step taken by many people who think, “First I’ll take a class and learn how to write and then, once I’m good at it, I’ll finally start writing.” This is the thinking of a perfectionist, and the SFD piece has been useful in helping calm perfectionists down for many years.

But just like any advice“If it makes you feel good, just do it!” comes to mindyou can take it too far. And I, for one, do not want to drown.

Learning, like writing, is a long process, and I’m still figuring out how to bounce back from my SFD. Please leave a comment if you have had a similar experience and have more advice or insight to share.

Meet the Contributor

amy evrardAmy Evrard is associate professor of anthropology at Gettysburg College and the author of The Moroccan Women’s Rights Movement. She is currently writing a book using family stories to look at Southern history over the course of the 20th century. She also blogs about the relationship between humans and nature here.


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