First drafts are a lot like other challenges in life. So often I am told by those that do not write, how impossible they think it would be to write a book. I am confident though, that like any challenge, if the desire exists, the challenge can be met. I must admit that there are some aspects of writing that come easy to me. Others though, not so much. Most of my struggle can be found during the first draft stage of writing.
The first draft of any project is somewhat like preparing a special birthday dinner. Let me explain. This past December, my son requested a Chinese dinner for his 18th birthday celebration. The list included sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken, chow mein, beef and broccoli and the almighty fortune cookie among others. No problem you may think. Take out is only ten minutes up the road my husband pointed out. Me, being the “Mom” and wanting to make the day a special one, decided to make the feast from scratch.
After all how many of these milestones will we have left to celebrate with a young man on the verge of adulthood? This doesn’t take into account the fact that one, I don’t eat much in the way of Asian cuisine. Two, I have never attempted to make such a meal. And three, and only upon reflection after the fact, I do not have enough stove top burners to pull off such a feat.
So there I sat, a few weeks before the big day. I scoured the internet for the perfect recipes. My grocery list resembled something of a foreign language quest. I visited seven, count them, seven stores in search of ingredients I had never known to exist. Pulling my hair out, I sought guidance from store staff only to be greeted with a blank stare and a shrugging of shoulders.
This in a nutshell is a writer’s first draft. I make a plan. I am excited at first. The thought of creating this new world rich with flavors of a time long since passed fuels me forward. Characters enter my world like new best friends coming each and every day to visit over tea. I can visualize what I want to create, but I struggle with putting my hands on the precise ingredients to ensure a stellar result. Others listen politely as I try to describe and grasp hold of the story in my head but assistance is not theirs to give.
The morning of the party arrived and I have to admit I was feeling pretty proud of myself. I had spent the previous three days preparing what I could in advance. The homemade fortune cookies, complete with fortunes, sat waiting in a container. The vegetables were chopped and organized by recipe. All ingredients lay ready and waiting. The counters were covered in organized chaos but I was eager to dive in.
When I endeavor to write a first draft, I mind map, I plan, and then I write bullet points on what I want to accomplish for each section of the story. The day arrives and I am excited and ready to sit down at my computer and dive into the actual writing. Words and phrases swirl about my head but the desire to get those scenes out of my head and onto the page propels me forward.
Two hours in to cooking the birthday dinner, I am distraught. I am grumpy. The kitchen is a disaster. I swear my hair is standing on end. I am overwhelmed and lost in the middle of mayhem. Tears are a mere sliver away from falling like rain. Everything, and I mean everything needs to be done at exactly the same time in order for dinner to be ready and on the table.
I soon discover that I do not have enough measuring cups and spoons to tackle this kind of operation. Feelings of inadequacy and failure loom over my head. As unfamiliar scents fill my kitchen, I turn in circles unable to locate an empty corner of counter to put another pot down on. I am about to call defeat and consider the humiliation if I were to beg my husband to drive to pick up take out.
I sit at the computer, tea cup as empty as my mind. The words won’t come as easily as they did just moments ago as I showered and readied myself for the day. Uncertain of the story’s path, yet certain that I do not possess the skills necessary to write a coherent sentence, I sit there. Frustration builds. I consider spending the day reading instead of writing. I flip through my notes and wait for inspiration to strike.
The guests arrive for the birthday celebration. I should be embarrassed at the state of both myself and my kitchen. Instead, I am comforted with the knowledge that they have come to celebrate, not to criticize. Once a Mom, always a Mom. Without a hint of disappointment, my Mom puts on an apron and begins washing the piles of dishes that lay scattered about the counter.
She chatters away about her week as she guides me through the steps. The same steps that are quite literally already there in front of me. She never scolds. Never raises her eyebrows. Just simply goes about putting one foot in front of the other until each dish is well on its way to completion. Every time I drop a dish into the sudsy water, she washes it. When I panic about the state of the chow mein, she calmly reminds me that we can keep dishes warm while others finish their cooking.
I become my own parent when I am in the middle of a first draft too. She is there, reminding me that I have the skills it takes to write. Often, she offers a patient word, that these things take time. My frustrations are calmed when she reminds me to only write the next sentence and ignore the thousands of sentences that will follow. “One step at a time”, she says.
The first draft is messy and incomplete. There are story lines that are left out. Characters are unfinished. Settings are not yet immersive. Don’t even get me started on proper grammar or the lack of it. A first draft is a messy kitchen in the midst of a Chinese dinner birthday celebration. But this I know for sure. Once dinner is on the table and the first draft is complete, something that wasn’t there before has been created. That alone is worth striving for.
Special thanks to my Mom for getting me through my first attempt at a homemade Chinese dinner. The good news is that once you’ve done something for the first time, it gets easier every time there after.
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