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Monday, November 26, 2007

Burn the House Down

By Susan L. Eberling

On my journey back into writing after a long, motherhood-induced hiatus, I encountered fellow writers along the way who have served as guides to me. Ray Bradbury and Anne Lamott inspired me to turn off my inner critic that says I have to crank out a wonderful piece of work in the first draft. Really, they unchained me from myself.

“The first draft is the child’s draft,” Lamott wrote in her book, Bird by Bird, “where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” Anne Lamott advocates writing “crappy” first drafts. (This is not the exact language Lamott uses, but for now it will suffice.) Ray Bradbury encourages writers to “burn the house down” as they generate a first draft. He teaches to write what you love, what you hate, your passions, dreams and desires. Don’t write what you think you should write or what will get you published. In a 1956 article in The Writer, Bradbury says, “If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market . . . that you are not being yourself.”

Why is getting a first draft out so pivotal? Simply this: the rough draft is the clay from which we sculpt our finished work. Without a rough draft, no matter the quality, we have nothing to work with except growing anxiety and writer’s block. Both Bradbury and Lamott encourage writing first drafts with gusto and abandon. (Incidentally, this is largely the concept behind NaNo. If you look in their FAQs, someone asks what good could ever come from writing a novel so quickly? For NaNo’s answer, follow this link: Sit down at your computer and tell yourself not to expect anything except a bad first draft. It takes the pressure off. When the pressure is off, your inner editor is silenced and you can more easily find your voice and tap into your creative wells.

One day I decided I was going to “burn the house down” as I wrote a “crappy first draft” of an article I needed to write for a newsletter. I penned those phrases on a sheet of paper and put it next to my monitor where I could see it as I wrote. It worked. I quickly cranked out the draft that I needed and set it aside for a day to age like a fine wine. The next day my husband sat me down after lunch. “So, I found a strange note next to your computer, are you doing okay?” he asked, somewhat pensively. Seeing my note by the computer, he thought that I was about do terrible things to our home because of writing angst. It took some convincing to let him know that I was actually trying encourage and motivate myself.

So, what’s the bottom line? As writers, let’s release ourselves to write from our passions with zeal. Don’t hold back. Write everything that comes out of your brain. Everything. You can hack your work to pieces later, but go for the gusto, write a crappy first draft and burn the house down as you go.

Susan L. Eberling


  1. Susan, your post is a great inspiration to me! Lately, I've been stuck in high editor mode on my own writing, and it really can be debilitating.

    Your post is a great motivator at a harried time of year! Thanks. ;-)

  2. Perfect advice after a holiday hiatus from writing--my inner editor just left my office in search of a fire extinguisher :-)

  3. LOL!!!!

    Susan, that's so funny about your hubby leaving the note at your computer. ;-) He sounds like he really loves you to take the time to write that.

    You know, it's true. To achieve that pure moment in our writing, we have to be strong enough to put away our own inhibitions. That's not an easy task to do!

    In life we're told to think before we speak. If we don't have anything nice to say, then don't say it anything at all. Play nice. Share. Write like the whole world is reading. I love that one... talk about pressure!

    I think each of us has an inner editor that stems from many, many things we're taught in our upbringing and in our writing guidebooks. That's what makes us good, if not great, writers. But, there's a time and a place for all that. Without letting your unruly inner-child play, she's not going to grow into a woman. We should give ourselves some slack. So what if our writing is horrific and crappy? At times, that's needed to learn about yourself, and, learn about yourself as a writer. We have to remember that Miss Manners, Ms. Snark, and the teacher with the red pen isn't looking over our shoulders when we write. Be free! Burn your bra and your barriers. (LOL)

    Thanks for reminding us to do just that.




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