THE SECOND BEST PIECE OF WRITING ADVICE I EVER GOT

Tasting Home Cover ThumbnailThe best piece of writing advice I ever got came from Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott. It had to do with accepting the idea of “shitty first drafts.” The second best piece of advice came from a professor whose teaching assistant I had been in English graduate school in the 1960s.  He had struck me, when we first met, as incredibly brash, an effect that he was deliberately seeking to achieve.  He’d barge into the classroom, send the blinds crashing up or down, and lie on the desk with a cigar between his teeth. “I’m Smith,” he’d say to a wide-eyed class.  He went on to become a rock star of literary criticism, publishing countless books, writing regularly for the New York Times, becoming an internationally famous intellectual. He even appeared as a character in a well known novel.

His advice? “Always recycle.”

“First,” he said, “I write a talk. Then I give it in several times. I turn the talk into an essay and publish it.  Maybe it becomes part of an anthology edited by someone else.  Then I use it as a chapter of a book or include it in a collection of my essays.”  I remember him chewing on a cigar when he told me this.  But I may be making up the cigar.

I feel comfortable with Annie Lamott’s advice. I am perfectly capable of producing “a shitty first draft” and of feeling, as she does, that I’d just as soon not die while it is lying on my desk, lest someone read it and assume my death was suicide. But following the guidance of my brash professor was another matter.  Who me? I thought.  I’m allergic to cigars. But, in the end, I tried his system. As an academic I wrote talks, wrote them into essays that I published, saw them anthologized, and gathered them into a book.  I did not become an academic rock star or take up Havanas, but the method served me well. I published and at each stage I became a better writer.

When I retired and began taking classes in creative writing, I fell into the system out of habit.  I wrote pieces for my writing classes.  I turned the pieces into blogs. I posted them on a collective site. Then I posted them on my own.  Eventually, I did guest posts with the same materials. After four years, several posts have been anthologized and most of them are chapters in my memoir. Others are beginning to look a lot like a collection of essays on food and place. So recycling?  I’m a fan and I’m passing on my famous professor’s advice to you.  Because once you’re past the stage of “shitty first drafts,” it’s not just about recycling.  It can be about revisioning your material and writing better about it too.

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16 Responses to THE SECOND BEST PIECE OF WRITING ADVICE I EVER GOT

  1. joel says:

    every great writer i work with uses the s***** first draft approach (and i do the same – not because they do, but because that’s just naturally the way i write)

    when others ask me how to write or indicate they have writer’s block, i tell them “just write – don’t think – just write”

    consequently, the s***** first draft – followed by the process of editing, editing, and editing some more – until it’s just right

    so “don’t think – just write”

  2. joel says:

    every great writer i work with uses the s***** first draft approach (and i do the same – not because they do, but because that’s just the way i naturally write)

    when others ask me how to write, or indicate they have writer’s block, i tell them “just write – don’t think – just write”

    consequently, the s***** first draft – followed by the process of editing, editing, and editing some more – until it’s just right

    so “don’t think – just write”

    (as for recycling – seems reasonable – unless you prefer reinventing the wheel)

    • judith says:

      Hi Joel, I confess that I do outline before I write, but then I just write it. There’s nothing like having a draft!

  3. Tiffany says:

    Loved this, love Anne Lamott, and love recycling. Paper, plastic, paragraphs! It can all be used again.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. Yep, I’m a re-cycler too. Posts from the hungry writer ended up in a prose memoir. I’ve changed free verse poems into short prose. Pieces of prose have been surgically operated on until they’ve become haiku. A series of poems ended up becoming a novel. There is the sense of becoming a better writer through re-visioning, perhaps also a better person: attaining precision, a deeper understanding of myself, my life, my place.

    • judith says:

      Hi Lynne! I like the idea of becoming a better person and going deeper. I do think that’s true but it hadn’t occurred to me. Brilliant! Also love your surgical metaphor. When I dropped lines of poetry into the memoirr, I had to doctor them a lot. Otherwise they struck me as wearing a sign labeled, “I’m from a poem.”

  5. Getty says:

    Hi Judy,
    I know it’s a bit irregular to contact you here, but if you’re still planning on joining the private excursions you signed up for on your upcoming cruise, please respond to the e-mail I sent you on Saturday.
    Thanks!
    (I’ve enjoyed looking at your blog. It’s beautiful!)

    Getty

    • judith says:

      Getty, Thanks for stopping by. We are going and I found your original email and answered. Thanks for making this effort to get through! And glad you liked the blog.

  6. Marit says:

    LOVE this! This is probably one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received too. I’m still working on it but the person who taught me sure knew what they were talking about :)

  7. Marit says:

    I LOVE this! This is probably one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received too. I’m still working on it but the person who taught me sure knew what they were talking about :)

  8. Here, here! Great advice! <3

  9. judith says:

    Thanks, Jodi! And thanks to my cigar chewing professor!

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