BY SARAH KELLEHER
For me, writing used to move in cycles. First is the inspired phase. I’d put my laptop by my favourite window, wear my favourite I’m-not-going-out clothes and make my favourite tea. A dozen enthusiastic pages would fly out of me.
I’m doing it, I’d think.
Then I’d read it. And I swear the little blinking cursor had read it too. It would keep a straight face, but I always knew it was bracing for the rest.
So I’d hit delete and start again. It was a cycle of failure. This was my novel? The one I always assumed I’d write? The one I told grown-ups about when I was five?
Don’t those ones write themselves?
My breakthrough came when I read a quote from award-winning novelist, C J Cherryh: ‘It is perfectly okay to write garbage as long as you edit brilliantly.’
My writing course tutor, award-winning novelist Alex Smith, echoed this when she urged me to just get it down and leave the rest to editing. I didn’t have to love my first attempt. I didn’t even have to like it.
A first draft has only one job: to be a first draft.
And in the famous words of Ernest Hemingway, ‘The first draft of anything is s***.’
My need for instant perfection was hampering everything. I was writing politely, as if someone were reading over my shoulder. Art, after all, is all about honesty and grit. You don’t find that in politeness.
So I decided to stop fearing the ‘garbage’. I joined a five-day creative writing challenge online, which was a heck of a leap outside my comfort zone. I had to come up with a few paragraphs of creative writing every day and post them to the group.
How would I ever think of something new, five days in a row? And worst of all, what if it was garbage?
Of course, it was. Each day, a wave of inspiration would turn into a fun paragraph or two and fizzle quickly into stilted, confusing, ham-fisted nonsense. But I didn’t have time to think of another idea. I had no choice but to push through my discomfort.
What was on the other side of this previously unbreached threshold? Another wave of inspiration. Yes, it comes back! I played with the problems. I rewrote the worst bits; sometimes all of it, multiple times. I completed something I was actually happy with.
Intrigued, I followed it with a 28-day writing challenge. I practised pushing through my discomfort. It culminated in my first proper short story, which was far from perfect, but I actually liked it.
So when the next five-day writing competition rolled around, I’d gagged my inner critic enough for me to jump in with gusto. I’m going to have fun, I thought, and I’m not going to fear the garbage.
I wrote like no one was reading. I dug deep. I meant everything I wrote.
And that time, I was placed second-equal out of hundreds of participants. I won’t describe the little dance I did when I found out.
Of course, I still find myself sitting at my writing window, chin in hands, staring at the screen after stringing together three dialogue scenes in a row, all as essential as they are tedious.
How do I fix it? I don’t have to; not yet. My inner critic will have its moment, but for now, my only job is to push through the paralysis and get the draft done.
So I continue my manuscript of garbage and reflect on the successful writers who feel how I feel, but write regardless. It turns out I was sitting on the answer all along, in my I’m-not-going-out Nike sweatpants: just do it.
About the Author
Sarah Kelleher is a freelance journalist specialising in practical health, psychology and mindfulness. When she’s not spending time with her son or flying aeroplanes, she’s pursuing her love of travel, fitness, sewing and writing fiction.
Sarah is the winner of the May 2021 My Writing Journey Competition.