First drafts: allowing the worm to navigate the soils of your mind

I decided to go on a retreat a few years ago. When people asked me why, I tried to explain, but always got a sense I’d left something out; I circled back to the beginning, tried again. Words followed words, my voice grew shrill. I felt there was one piece of information that would clarify it all, but I didn’t know what it was. I kept searching, talking; overcrowding my thoughts with exhausting analysis.

It’s rather like the beginning of a story.

At first, I feel a gentle sense of pressure. I wonder if I imagined it, but no, there it comes again – a jab now. It’s driving me on, but I can’t explain it. I keep searching for answers, starting, having to go back – certain I’ve overlooked the most important detail. But now it’s too crowded – I can’t find my way through.

That’s when I know I need space.

How can writing grow into something if it doesn’t have that?

If we fuss with an idea too soon, then all we have are layers of anxious flapping – all sense of story squashed.

 CIMG3944

Before I went on the retreat, my writer’s head was solid earth. All I was able to do was make a slow worm’s path through it. I was often worried about missing something in this dense terrain. How could I be certain I was crawling the right path? The story might be over there! But no openings offered themselves, just dark black earth.

I didn’t realise I was jamming my stories up with unnecessary thought. I needed to make space – throw out some earth. But how?

For a while, I tried ranting, splurging on the page – but the writing made me despair. I stopped it coming. Then I felt clogged up again. Finally, I packed up my bike, got on a train and found myself at a house in Somerset with good people who understood the importance of space.

CIMG3879

The first time I sat in silence, I had no idea what I was doing. This wasn’t a course, there were no other retreatees, only the ‘family’ who ran the house.

I woke up at 6am and joined them in a large room, which had several pictures of gurus over an alter, including the founder of the house who was an elderly woman I thought of as Mata, because I couldn’t remember her more convoluted name. I sat on a wooden stool with a rug over my lap and spent an hour trying not to fall asleep, move or cough. And then I got so hungry I went in search of a banana I’d seen in the sitting room the night before.

What if that had been a first attempt at a story? Sitting at my desk, fighting everything that tried to come, trying to fit in.

No, I can’t fall asleep!

Doesn’t it make sense that the first time I sit and look inward all I pick up is exhaustion, when I’ve been pushing myself non-stop for years, surrounded by people doing the same? The first attempt at a story will be hard – we’ve not done it before; perhaps others, but not this one.

And what’s wrong with moving or coughing – writing an unsuitable word, or starting with a plotline that splits down the middle?

When I think of a room of monks, I don’t see them fidgeting and spluttering: they’re still and perfectly calm. But even monks were boys once: running around, shouting, wetting their pants.

Does Hilary Mantel’s precise prose make me fear my clumsy first attempts?

‘Why does the act of writing generate so much anxiety?’ Hilary asks in her memoir. She’s had her times of spluttering and fidgeting; the difference is that, over a dozen books, she’s learnt her anxieties to the point of familiarity.

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How can we progress as writers if we hold ourselves like a statue and allow nothing to come for fear that it isn’t the very best? How do we think the very best is got to? By exploration, surely. How can the worm navigate the soils of our mind if we turn those soils to stone?

I felt like a failure the first time I sat in silence on my retreat. I thought I’d never be able to do it. The trouble was, I didn’t know what ‘it’ was, and therefore didn’t realise I’d just done it.

‘It’ is the act: the act of sitting, the act of writing.

Because I held greatness up as my model – great literature, great enlightened souls – my expectations were far ahead of myself. I wanted to open my eyes and discover I was levitating.

All we can do with a first attempt is allow ourselves the chance to see what happens. A first draft is a quest. How can we hope to improve, if we reject every clue that comes to us?

 CIMG3927

There was a church near the house where I was on retreat. I was grateful for the clock, which chimed on the quarter. Otherwise, I’d have felt as though I was staring into never-ending time. It was strange to me that when faced with something endless, without perimeter, the feeling was often one of claustrophobia.

Sometimes I’d wait for the chiming, counting the moment I could leave. Other times, I’d spend each 15 minutes lost in contemplation, jumping from one idea to the other: going over troubles, problems, arguments, concerns, thinking about my writing, working stories out, going over dreams, going over past events, thinking about recipes, food, exercise, clothes; aware of my body – feeling my hips tense, my back hurting, my feet beginning to go numb, my ankles stiffening up, desperately needing to move, but thinking, no, no, I shouldn’t make a noise. I was aware of all the other sounds in the room, every time someone moved, sneezed; every time someone left, someone arrived. Aware of it all and thinking that I shouldn’t be, thinking that what I should be was in a state of absolute unknowing, unaware of everything that was going on around me: not able to hear the chimes of the clock, not thinking: I wonder who that is? when they come in the room; not inclining my head and slightly opening my eyes when someone sits next to me. And certainly not – on one particular morning when I’d come to sit, listening to everyone leave the room, suddenly knowing I was alone, and saying: it’s just me and you, babe! to the image of Mata above the altar.

By this point I thought I was a very bad retreatee.

I found a map in a cupboard and went for a fourteen mile walk. I wished I wasn’t me. Then I wondered who I could blame for the fact that I was me. Then I felt angry and pathetic because all I wanted to do was cry.

This was how I used to feel about my writing.

Why? I would wail at a calamitous first draft. How could I have written something that makes no sense?

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‘Work out what it is you want to say,’ Hilary Mantel says.

But how can we work that out if we’re too busy berating ourselves?

Later in the retreat, I was sitting in the evening. Something had shifted – though I didn’t realise. I was now in total despair. I thought I’d gone backwards, but actually this was progress: I was giving my feelings attention. Rather than trying to ‘behave’ by staying awake and not squirming on my stool, I was simply sitting there in total desolation. It felt horrible – terrifying – but there wasn’t anything else I could do. There’d been this large deep black pit, tagging along behind me, and I was too tired to dodge it anymore. I wanted the chase to end, so I threw myself in.

At some point, I noticed the strange feeling of claustrophobia had left me. I was no longer holding myself in. This black pit was dark, but spacious – frightening, but not constricting. The feeling of being hemmed in had been replaced by endless sadness. Suddenly, I didn’t want to criticise myself anymore.

In my mind, I saw Princess Leia.

I have no idea where she came from. I liked Star Wars as a child, but I’m not a fanatic. It’s the moment where Luke finds the recording of her in R2D2. He plays it over and over, fascinated. At the end of the recording, she bends over – to press a button on R2D2. That was the moment she came into my mind, bending like that – to me it seemed to represent compassion. But there’s also her message: help me, Obi Wan Kanobi, you’re my only hope, she says – although I didn’t remember that when I first saw the image in my head. That evening at the retreat, when I saw Princess Leia, she was standing behind me, bending over to my ear. She said two words. With Love.

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How do you create space? For me, the task has been a dissolving. I started with a head full of earth. Everything was coming at once, and I wasn’t listening to any of it. But slowly I began to pay attention – with love. I took a handful of earth, held it in the palm of my hand, watched it – asked for help.

You’re finding this story hard, it told me.

I continued to watch. Asking, why? would only pile on more soil.

I comforted the person who found the story hard, rather than criticised them. I continued to watch the clump of soil; see if there was anything else it wanted to say. After a few days, it began to crumble. This lump began to break up into fragments, which became specks. They got to the point that they became so tiny they were just air.

These days my head is far less dense. My stories have a lot more room. The process is the same, but now I recognise the fear – my tendency to constrict myself when I’m embarking on a new piece. It even happened with this post, but its familiar now – a feeling of being overwhelmed, out of my depth, wanting to run.

With love, I always remember.

I treat myself how I would treat my favourite author if they told me they were trying to get a first draft out, but finding it hard. I’d make them comfortable and safe. I’d cook them lovely things. Tell them to rest, to take a moment to get outside and look at the sky. I’d reassure them.

The next time you want to wail, put that thought in your hand and look at it. Don’t question it, don’t criticise. Speak it to yourself, whatever it is. At some point, you’ll feel comfort and you’ll have the strength to explore a little further and allow that first draft to come – messy and scrappy but infinitely beautiful for the clues it holds for you to continue your quest.

Interesting articles

Helen Mackinven on Freefall Writing

http://helenmackinven.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/freefall-writing/

Chris Barnham on Mining Loneliness

http://chrisbarnhamwriter.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/mining-loneliness/

About gabrielablandy

Some history, a bit of fiction, with me in there somewhere.
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63 Responses to First drafts: allowing the worm to navigate the soils of your mind

  1. Vincent Mars says:

    Fancy writing.

    I Googled you, Gabriela.

    This is what I got…

    ‘Gabriela Blandy of Oxford, England is the winner of the 17th annual Tom Howard/John H. Reid Short Story Contest sponsored by Tom Howard Books… a top prize of $2,000.’

    Question: what books did you buy with the money?

  2. Lovely words and thoughts as always. I love how you take us gently through your thought processes. I’m not overly keen though of the visual I now have of worms crawling through my mind, but ok, I’ll let them do their stuff…

    • Yeah, it’s not the best visual. But if you can let them do their work, I know you’ll thank me! By the way your booby cakes are starting a trend on twitter, I’ve seen #cupcakeporn doing the rounds. Hope your bananas are blackening. (If anyone else is reading this comment they are going to wonder what you and I have going on!!)

  3. Hi Gabriela, Firstly, I’m flattered that you’ve posted a link to my blog- thank you! What a very moving and honest account of freeing your mind and learning to let go during a first draft. I too suffer from the fear of failure. When you spend lots of time reading the work of brilliant writers, it’s easy to think, “What’s the point? I can never write as well as that…” But I’ve slowly realised that i’m writing MY story and it doesn’t need to measure up to the work of great writers. What matters is that it’s something that I’ve enjoyed creating and that alone is enough of an achievement. Best of luck with your writing!

    • Thanks for stopping by Helen – and it’s a pleasure to link to your article here. Yes, you are right in thinking this is MY story. No one else has the same. But the other thing is those great writers that we read had their demons too – they had many failures and many abandoned drafts. We only get to see the polished finish.

    • Mayumi-H says:

      I love this comment – it says so much about why I love writing, too. Cheers, Helen and Gabriela, for a joyful journey (I’ve always liked worms). 🙂

  4. Reblogged this on T. W. Dittmer and commented:
    This post by Gabriela Blandy is extremely well-written, and talks about a dilemma that confronts many of us.
    DEFINITELY worth your time.

  5. A very well written post, that sounds a lot like situations I can relate to. Also to let you know, it was Tim’s reblog that brought me here..

  6. Kim says:

    Great post. What an eloquent way to translate the crazy we all feel during the first draft!

  7. Beautiful and thoughtful post.

  8. Wow, right where I’m at right now. Went out and watched my behives and thought about this. Excellant post.

    • Behives! That’s so cool. I was actually given a pot of honey the other week from someone who has their own hives, and it was the most delicious honey I’ve ever tasted. Really appreciate your comment.

  9. annewoodman says:

    Gabriela,
    I think the wonderful thing you’ve done with this post is to make me realize how much writing is like meditating (which I’m horrible at). Unless a story pops up in my mind, unbidden, and won’t let go until I write it down (happens sometimes), I have those wide-open, fearful moments when I wonder if I’ll ever write another word. Or if I write a word, if it will make sense or be a story or if I will hate it.

    The Princess Leia part was sweet. And yes, I would love to retreat and have people cook me lovely things and say lovely things and let the sun shine while I think. Sublime. But for much of the time, we writers have to write whenever and wherever we can. And perhaps loving ourselves is the best we can hope for. ; )

    Lovely, thought-provoking post, as always.

    • I think if we can’t love ourselves then we are missing out on a huge endless resource! It’s funny because I’m going to start on a short story this week (my writing days are thurs and fri). It’s the first fiction piece I’ve worked on in a while. I know it’s going to feel weird and scary, but I feel – having got my thoughts straight on the whole first draft process – that it’s not going to be so bad. Always a pleasure to see you, Anne 😉

  10. diannegray says:

    This is a beautiful post, Gabriela and when I started reading it I wished it was a novel! Your words are so eloquent and the struggle we all face is so real. Even the writers of the ‘classics’ have felt this. It’s wonderful when we stop and realise that all we have to do is find our own voice – there is no comparison to other writers, just us – and what we have to say 😀

    • Hmm – this is not the first comment I’ve had about people wanting my posts to be novels. It’s certainly growing my confidence! I think you’re right about voice – finding that can unlock a great deal. It also makes you understand how we don’t have to be anything other than who we are – that’s enough.

  11. I love how you describe your mental space, full of thoughts and questions and recipes! It made me think how differently we must all perceive our inner landscape. I realise that I see my mental writing space as a jewel in a cave, an emerald buried very deep but always there when I go and check, throwing darts of light into the darkness. I gather these shards of light and one brave day they come outside with me and gather on the grass in the dusk, and we see what we’ve got. x

    • Lovely, Alison – I love the sound of your emerald! You’re right about the diversity of inner landscapes out there. I think that’s why I’ve enjoyed reading writers’ memoirs so I can get a glimpse of something that we don’t see when we read the finished, polished book.

  12. Gorgeously put. I loved this…”Asking, why? would only pile on more soil.”

    This over-thinking we writers like to do is a gift and a curse, to be sure. We should try building sand castles with childish enthusiasm more often.

  13. I loved this. Came across from TW’s blog to read about your retreat experience and got so much more.. 🙂

  14. This post was so Virgo… and so wise. 😉 Loved it. I’ve learned, a little late in life, but better late than never, that reassurance is a magical gift. I’ve gotten into the habit of giving it – to myself, my family and anyone else in distress, by repeating the simple words: Everything is going to be alright. And somehow, it always is…

    • Made me smile that you could see the Virgo shining through! I agree with the whole reassurance thing – somehow it puts you in a more positive and calmer place, which means that at least everything has a far better chance of working out, and as a result it usually does!

  15. Other times, I’d spend each 15 minutes lost in contemplation, jumping from one idea to the other: going over troubles, problems, arguments, concerns, thinking about my writing, working stories out, going over dreams, going over past events, thinking about recipes, food, exercise, clothes; aware of my body – feeling my hips tense, my back hurting, my feet beginning to go numb, my ankles stiffening up, desperately needing to move, but thinking, no, no, I shouldn’t make a noise.

    Does this say anything….? This sentence without a full stop? Your voice has been found, first draft or nay we are individuals with our own stories to tell, tell it in our own fashion. If drafts are required they are required, if edits are needed they are. Maybe we take on way too much as writers. Perhaps it is difficult to just let go and write what we want. We are consumed by what the reader wants to read, what the publisher will take, what an editor deems worthy…peal that banana sweetheart. Relax in the knowledge that your writing is worthy either through a publisher or self published. I think I have sold about 30 of my memoir, I have perhaps made the grand fortune of $35.00, but it is the fact that others in this vast world have read my words, that is the reward. Dig up that piece of earth xxxx

    • I really appreciate this – thank you. It does seem to come down to the pleasure of having other people read your words. I thought I had experienced that before starting this blog because I’ve had quite a few short stories published. But it makes a difference when you can actually ‘talk’ with your reader and feel directly that you’ve made a difference. That paragraph or sentence you picked up on, saying I’d found my voice. I actually worked on that piece on my dictaphone, which I do quite a bit when I really want to get at the heart of something – stops the try-hard writer getting in the way, and just allows the story to speak. I was then fussing about where to put the full stops when I was transcribing it, and suddenly I realised: there aren’t any, there can’t be!! Now, I’m just going off to dig…

      • I support you Gab, you’re heart tells you your inner voice. We so want our words, our thoughts acknowledged by others and seems worthy. With my memoir I have come to the conclusion it doesn’t matter in the scheme of things…someone has read, I take solace in that. You are magical with how you express and I just don’t want you to be hard on yourself. xxx

  16. Your thoughts sound, or read at least, like my thoughts, but you’ve got more direction in them, which is very cheering to me. I love the way you develop an idea

    • I’m glad you’re cheered. Imagine me a few years ago – same thoughts, absolutely no direction. Practice, practice and the clarity comes!! As for developing an idea – you should see my notes on this one – got every single thought under the sun down on paper and then joined up the dots that I most liked and went from there. Think I’ve got two other posts in all the material that was left 😉

  17. eleanor lubbock says:

    what a process this writing is! what is wonderful is that you just never give up….and all the while you are clearing a space not just for the writing but also for you ! hugs…xxE

  18. Gabriela,

    What a timely piece. I’ve been struggling to write a short story for the past month…filled with moments of getting stuck in that earth and finding that I have a wimp of worm, scared of every little piece of dirt that seems out of place. The result has been many false starts and sudden retreats and it has gotten to the point where I’m afraid of writing and it’s now ever-so-easy to put it off. Sounds ridiculous, I know. But it’s the honest truth. Your beautifully written entry was comforting and inspiring. Now it’s up to me to transform it into action.

    Like others, Tim guided me here and I’m thankful for that. You have a new fan.

    -Phillip

    • Phillip – great to meet you. I’m so glad this post was here at the right time for you. I know what you are talking about to the very last feeling. There are so many short stories that I abandoned because of that. Only now am I realising that they are not lost causes – just starved of space. When you begin to experience fear over a piece it’s really crippling. The best thing though is that you’ve acknowledged that. Keep going 😉

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  20. What a lovely talent you have. I enjoyed your keen observations and turn of phrase. That’s not always so easy in such an introspective piece. It also tells me exactly why RamblingsFromAMum chose you as one of the people to showcase as a blogger people would love to read. Thank you.

  21. Chris Edgar says:

    Definitely an inspiring story of the linkage between meditation and the creative process. In my experience, writing requires enjoyment of the process of creation, and not simply a craving for the possible fruits of the writing (recognition, etc.) Over the years I feel like I’ve come to actually appreciate the act of writing more than the presentation of it, which has been such a welcome shift in perspective.

    • I like your views on the key difference between creating out of an enjoyment of the process rather than for gain. With my students, I can always tell who is writing to ‘sound’ like an impressive writer, and who is simply writing for the love of storytelling. When you care that more honest perspective it turn the act into one of pleasure rather than something fraught and often disappointing. Thanks for stopping by again, Chris – I do enjoy your insights.

  22. bg says:

    Reblogged this on Bullzen and commented:
    What a great post! I especially liked the realization that expectations can be set beyond ourselves because we are comparing ourselves to masters. When we can step back and realize that we are in fact doing what we should be doing it is freeing.

  23. Marny Copal says:

    Tim pointed me in the direction of this excellent post. First drafts are misery for me, but I’ve learned to trust that they’ll get better, word by word.

    • Hey Marny – thanks for visiting via Tim. There are few writers who don’t find first drafts heavy. It’s like you said – eventually when you’ve don’t enough of them we know the bad feelings don’t last and the story keeps improving.

  24. ejrunyon says:

    We may begin in earth, but with wings of self-forgiveness we manage to find ourselves in air, finding we do have something worth saying. With releasing of dread we discover fire in our newly freed thoughts. And with the empathy of sense memories, we reach water in our words; in which others will want to swim.
    ej

  25. gotasté says:

    I can totally relate to this inspiring post. In my TV career, there was a long period of time where I got lost in promo production. I can’t differentiate what works and what doesn’t..I don’t know which promo tool is appropriate to create a good spot. it was devastating. I even thought of giving up this career because I thought I may have lost it forever. I didn’t thought of going for a self retreat then..but i did a lot of studies and research to finally realize the essence of this trade. Those few years were truly painful and challenging fighting against myself. I am very lucky to have found the light and I remember feeling like I was being reborn. This is such a great great story Gabriela. I read it in the bus on my way home from work. I just couldn’t stop reading till I finish the last line. Because I see myself in it..You are not alone. Thank you.

    • Danny – I love the thought of you reading this on the bus. When I started this blog, I did imagine people on their way to and from work, passing the time with my posts. I guess there are the types of people – like you and I – who, when they come up against an obstacle, rather than turn and go back, keep searching for a way around it. Education is the best way – like you studying to find the essence of what makes your trade work. I think there are other people who discover that they don’t know things – how to write or film something that is effective, and they think this means they shouldn’t carry on. I’m glad you stuck at it – it’s so much better when you come out the other side of a trying time.

  26. danniehill says:

    Beautiful post on writing, Gabriela. First drafts are the reason many writers write. Then the hard work begins. They say that a writer leads a lonely life and it’s true, but many good writers seek out this solitude to free their minds. Once found a writer can find ones own solitude anywhere.

    • Hi Dannie. Thanks for your visit and astute comment. I sometimes feel lucky when I hear other writers complain about not being able to socialise enough. I actually wanted to be a writer so I could indulge my love of solitude. To me there is nothing more rewarding than putting the effort in to open up that creative space and then relaxing everything and watching it fill!

  27. Eve Vamvas says:

    I approach every first draft with fear and dread but have found that going back to paper and pen really helps (on the laptop I can delete and rewrite the first sentence for hours!), and will now investigate this freefall approach further. Thanks, Gabriela, for another incisive blog and v. informative links.

    • Hey Eve. For me that dread still exists, but it’s so familiar that it doesn’t freak me out. It’s like a message that says to me ‘be good to yourself this is going to be hard’. It makes me think of those yellow signs they put out when people are mopping the floor. When we see those we don’t scream, but we do look around and walk cautiously. Pen and paper works for me too.

  28. Pingback: Exploring First Drafts « Sherrie's Scriptorium

  29. jcckeith says:

    Reblogged this on Jcckeith and commented:
    Very insightful thoughts on the matter

  30. Pingback: What’s the problem with being up a mountain with no phone signal or orienteering skills? | Gabriela Blandy – The sense of a journey

  31. Hi Gabriela,

    I had trouble at first reading this post, not because it lacked anything, but because it took me out of my comfort zone and into my own reality. I’d rather be thinking of the other side of writing when all the creating is done than the struggling side when I feel the depths of despair and wonder if I’m deluding myself. Sometimes the process of writing seems futile and we don’t see the results when we want them. Results? Other times, I fight with the lack of response I get from other readers and forget that my motivation needs to be internally driven. I forget the “with love” part…

    Vincent

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