In my last blog in this series on writing a book for your business, “Part 5: Lay the Words, Make a Pattern, Get the First Draft Done,” I talk about how the only way to get through your first draft is to be a machine, a typist, one who closes her eyes, tunes out the noise of her thoughts, and lets the words fly.
Understandably, the optics on this are a bit screwy. Write a book without thinking? That’s nuts!
On one hand, totally agree; imagine what kind of horrid unreadable mess of a book you’d have if you were to yank the last page from the typewriter as dramatically as they do in basically every movie with a writer in it (it’s not nearly as fun to see a writer working on a computer finish a draft, is it?) and sent that whole messy affair off to the publisher.
Fortunately, no worthwhile book on any shelf is published from that first draft. (Except for Christopher Hitchens’ work, which he wrote and published almost entirely without touching the backspace key. But as one of the finest literary minds ever, we can safely say his process was not normal. Author Stephanie Golden (who has a terrific blog on writing craft) also talks about how John O’Hara was said to put the first sheet in the typewriter and write straight through, without revising. “Of course he had a prodigious output, so he had plenty of practice.”)
So, for the rest of us normal folk whose backspace key is so loved it now says “akspe”, whether you’re going the way of Part 4: “Writing a Business Book- Getting Started” and following an outline, so your first draft involves filling in the sections, or you’re doing the inverse and free-writing your way into the structure and sense of your book and will organize it into a working outline after you have something to work with, the first draft will almost always be rangy, a bit wild, and contain about equal parts unusable and useable material (not unlike this sentence!).
We want this wooly mass of pages because they are where the ideas are allowed in and given space to evolve in a way they might not elsewhere, under more controlled circumstances.
By not thinking, meaning not controlling your unconscious thoughts, and forcibly turning off your left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which plays a crucial role in thinking and reasoning, your mind goes to town, diving into places it normally doesn’t, making connections, and saying the unsaid.
While this ultimately creates more clean up in aisle seven, it’s also where the energy comes in, a very important element upon which all of your successive drafts, and the book at large, will be built.
Why Thinking Too Much Is Damaging When You’re Writing a Book
If we went about our first draft the way we go about our lives, which is to say with a stiff measure of control over our thoughts and actions so they’re socially acceptable, our first draft would be about as exciting as you at a networking event before your drink kicks in.
Here lies the paradox for artists and entrepreneurs: while we must be socially acceptable to get invited out to dinner (mostly), sell our products, or acquire and keep clients, and while our finished work must be tight, refined, and fluid, in order to get to the new innovations and explore new ideas in exciting formats, we have to initially forge ahead with free-range thinking.
It’s a little dual-personality, but it’s the only way to get to the best, most exciting material.
Performance Anxiety and Your Book
I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.
– Erica Jong
When you’re home alone, you can belt out Aretha Franklin like nobody’s business (rest her soul); yet when your family is staring at you, somehow you can barely squeeze out a note.
“This is what happens when we write,” writes the incomparable Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones,
“The writing hand wants to write about what she did Saturday night: “I drank whiskey straight all night and stared at a man’s back across the bar. He was wearing a red T-shirt. I imagined him to have the face of Harry Belafonte. At three A.M., he finally turned my way and I spit into the ashtray when I saw him. He had the face of a wet mongrel who had lost his teeth.” The writing hand is three words into writing this first sentence-“I drank whiskey … “
-when the other hand clenches her fingers tighter and the writing hand can’t budge.
The editor says to the creator, “Now, that’s not nice, the whiskey and stuff. Don’t let people know that. I have a better idea: ‘Last night, I had a nice cup of warmed milk and then went to bed at nine o’clock.’ Write that. Go ahead. I’ll loosen my grip so you can.” If you keep your creator hand moving, the editor can’t catch up with it and lock it. It gets to write out what it wants.”
(As an aside, this book about writing has single-handedly launched innumerable writers into writing careers. Plus it’s lovely to read).
Good News in Favor of the Art of Not Thinking
No one will read your first draft. Not a soul. And don’t even think about showing it to anyone!
The reason we can fully let loose in the first draft is we know it is a private document meant purely and solely to yield the innovations of the unconscious mind.
Only after you’ve examined the mess of it, then begun the tidying and refining, once it begins to find an actual shape, then you can slowly bring it out into the light.
Writing a Business Book Is the Same as Running Your Business
You’re an entrepreneur, so your whole work life is based on John Burrough’s idea of, “Leap and the net will appear.” Writing your book is exactly the same.
Books are written by people willing to break through boundaries to say something valuable.
Businesses are run by those who stick their their necks out, take risks and tread into new territory; books written by the people who run those businesses are an extension of this, and are what put your book into people’s hands.
“Progress always involves risks. You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.” — Frederick Wilcox
To be clear: it’s extremely vulnerable to let go and write a rangy unwieldy first draft, and looking at it afterwards is even worse. Fear and doubt will creep in no matter how hard you try not to think.
Evaluating ourselves based on our product is inevitable and gets exponentially worse when some well-meaning person who knows you’re writing a book asks, “How is the writing going?”
But this is how you write a first draft.
If you’re letting go and letting the writing flow, you’re doing great. (Practice saying it aloud!) Here is a fact about the first stage of writing a book: the less you think, the more good things will happen.
Pages are getting written. You are returning to the computer the next day and the next as is your job, closing your eyes, taking care of business. The book is on its way.