Reclaiming the Freedom of the Rough Draft

In a rough draft, I was told, anything goes. Write quickly, ignore mistakes, plow on despite grammar errors, keep the awkward wording. I was told that this kind of writing releases bursts of wild creative energy and honesty, that it is a way to evade the “internal censor” – the nagging inner critic in every writer that inhibits free expression. Still, for a long time, rough drafts never felt “free” to me.

Every time I read over what I had written – containing a trite expression, a dull sentence, or a falsely dramatic sentence rhythm – I cringed. Unwanted emotional qualities – such as “sentimental,” “preachy,” or “pretentious” – thrust me into a painful examination of my personality that made me dread writing. Why was suspending my inhibitions so difficult, even when I gave myself permission to let them go?

Maybe because, by the time I had been taught the radical trick of “letting go” in writing, I had been conditioned for many years to avoid mistakes at all costs. I could not accept that there really is no right way to do a rough draft, even though I was writing something no one was ever going to see. I even had an expectation of what it should feel like when I wrote a rough draft – ideally, a blast of euphoria driven by an insane, honest energy.

This was partly because I had read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg many times. It is an inspiring book on writing, and she stresses that writing should be wild and free, which I, being bipolar, interpreted as a manic creative burst.

I managed to achieve this kind of inspiration sometimes, but when I was put on mood stabilizing medication for bipolar disorder, my “wild” creative bursts became all but impossible. Concluding I was blocked due to my medication, I gave up writing for years, depressed in part because I could not summon tidal waves of creative energy on demand.

Natalie Goldberg, when stressing the “wild” mental state, intended to liberate writers from fussing too much over their work, and her advice to keep the hand moving across the page and to not over-think is good advice.

But for me “wildness” became just another expectation, and not meeting it was just another way to fail. My real problem was an unwitting self betrayal. That is, I would promise myself that anything I wrote was okay, that nothing I could write was wrong, but all along I was expecting the writing to be inspired, even if it was grammatically imperfect.

Reading over my rough drafts was hard, not because of poor grammar, but because they shook my confidence. They showed me just how dull, sentimental, or trite my writing could be, and if these qualities appeared in my writing, which had come from me, I thought I must be those things too.

Sometimes books on writing, to encourage readers by showing how rough a rough draft could be, would present examples, showing shameless sentence fragments and run-on sentences, and thoughts that jumped around – but the models always had an editorial cleanness mine lacked.

No one, it seemed, was willing to show how rough a rough draft could really be. But fretting over the quality of rough drafts and comparing them was a flawed approach. I finally realized what was happening. I was generously giving myself permission to write badly. But then, when the writing actually did fall short, I reversed my leniency, castigated myself, and sank into a grim mood.

A rough draft could be bad, I believed, but there were limits. It could be ungrammatical, but not trite. It could jump around without transitions, as long as it was wildly imaginative. It could be nonsensical, but never dull.

I believed that the main goal of a rough draft was to suspend inhibitions so that the creative side would be seduced into writing brilliantly. I had not really freed myself into an “anything goes” mentality. I had just replaced my expectation of polished, grammatically correct writing with the belief that it should be inspired.

I view rough drafts differently now. I have accepted that rough drafts are not always wildly energetic, and now only view them as exceedingly useful. A rough draft is only a stage of preparation. It is a way to determine what you want to say before worrying about how to say it.

This is important since creative block often comes from trying to do everything in one step. It is hard to figure out what I want to say and at the same time determine – and execute – the best expression of it. Prematurely judging my rough drafts was causing me to get hung up in the beginning stage, so that I never moved on to developing my ideas.

I had not yet learned that, sometimes, inspiration comes only after writing a rough draft, and that no matter how rough a first draft is, it can still lead to good writing. Even the most sterile rough draft can be useful because when I am reading over it, my imagination rebels at how boring it is and will often suggest exciting alternatives.

Having no expectations at all of how a rough draft should feel or look is real freedom. I know now that anything goes. I still prefer “wildly” energetic prose, but now I view rough drafts as a means to an end, as only shorthand for what I want to say. For that reason, I can throw them all away after I have completed a writing project and feel no regret.

Although destined for the garbage can, my rough drafts, penned in cheap spiral notebooks, are helpful. When I am rewriting on my computer and I lose concentration as I fret over what to write next, I can reference my rough draft for new content and keep going.

Rough drafts, while useful, do not flatter my ego, but they are the freest, and often funnest, stage of writing. They can be, as I used to think, like racing down a ski slope while everything goes by you in a blur. But keeping the rough draft in its place as a means to an end removes all pressure.

So does recognizing that a rough draft is not really bad but incomplete, in the same way cake batter is an incomplete cake. As an incomplete expression, a rough draft can be anything – silly, pretentious, sentimental, or dull – and still be useful. Accepting that a rough draft is only an instrument opens the door to creative exploration built on full permission to write anything at all.

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