Te Papa Tupu Workshop Two saw us mentees heading out into the wild world of the Auckland Writers’ Festival. It was a flurry of voices, words, and ideas. Immersed in the menagerie, new questions emerged each day about the characters we’re carving across our pages and our processes as ‘writers.’ It was an incredible opportunity to hear from authors on their methods, inspirations and kaupapa. Their generosity floored me. It was an incredible week, to say the least.
It came at a crucial time, too. I’m facing the halfway point for my manuscript and doubts are creeping in. I’ve set myself the challenge of waking up early each day. Cup of tea in hand and the birds slowly waking outside, I open the manuscript and dive in, hoping to end the session fifteen-hundred words richer than I started it. Yet, I’m finding that along with progress grows self-doubt. Annoying questions, the hard to answer type, wriggle in my brain like worms: Is this story really good enough? Are my characters believable? So what? Why do these things matter?
Thankfully, this experience isn’t unique to me. When I caught up with the Te Papa Tupu whānau, I took heart in our shared stories of self-doubt. Perfectionism is something I think we all grapple with. We’re all caught in its web, simultaneously being driven by it, and crushed under its weight. For me personally, it sows a hunger to keep going, to come back again and again to the same sentence and really craft the writing. At the same time, it can leave me scrolling through the screeds of words with a litany running through my mind: “Trash. Trash. Trash.”
I’ve never worked in the novel medium before. It’s a long creation- marathon-like in the process. At times in the writing, I feel like I’m running out of steam and that my characters are losing their sharpness. In my head they are as lively as my whānau and friends. Sometimes in that early morning light, the words appear lack-lustre. My characters fail to get up and walk or voice their passionate words. I worry I’m not carving them on the page with the clarity they deserve.
I carried these doubts with me into Graeme Simsion’s workshop ‘Step by Step.’ Thank God. Prolific author of ‘The Rosie Trilogy’ among other works, Simsion packaged practical tips and tricks for the writing process into our hungry mouths, all in a pithy hour-and-a-half session. His focus orbited around structure and routine; something my Type A brain sank its teeth into. Simsion’s approach to writing as a craft and a practice wasn’t new to my ears, thanks to the wisdom of the Te Papa Tupu mentors, yet it was encouraging to be reminded of the permanence of the message. As writers, we must write. We must sit down every day and work on our words, hauling our characters up from our minds and out into the world of light.
Perfectionism has no place in that.
This was a horrific concept for me: a Class-A perfectionist.
“It doesn’t have to be right; it just has to be done” Simsion told us all matter-of-factly, his eyes grave over the screen he beamed into us from. I scribbled down the words frantically, wishing to brand them into my brain.
It doesn’t have to be right; the writing can be flawed, half-formed, poorly articulated. It does have to be done. To be made stronger, to be carved, to reflect the truth the words are trying to carry- it must be down there on the page in all its awkward gore. Liberating. Terrifying.
Helon Habila echoed a similar idea in his workshop ‘On Character.’ “It’s unsightly,” he said on his first stumble with the words. “No one sees the first draft. It’s for me only.”
Having these powerhouses of literature reiterate the same message is a huge source of comfort to me. Yes, it’s hard to be a writer. It’s exacting. It’s a lesson in patience; something I’m told I don’t really possess. It’s a challenge to sit down and watch something form on the page which you never quite intended. The more time I spend with words, the more I realise they are slippery things and hard to nail down. (Not to mention, my unrefined love of auxiliary verbs and baby-writer stumbles that my mentor points to with grace).
Now in the writing, I’m learning to put down my attention and just write. Don’t police it. Don’t delete it. Just get it down. Slowly with the help from my mentors and friends, I’m seeing perfectionism doesn’t belong with the drafting process. It has its place, much later down the track. This is the time to be voracious, but gentle, and to write indiscriminately with the reminder that the good can be salvaged. I remember once coming across a quote from Hemingway when looking for a gift for a friend. It was a poster, the words scratched and crossed out in the brutality of the editing process. ‘The first draft of anything is always shit,’ it read.
There it was.
The first draft of anything is always shit.
I love it: I want to tattoo it on my hands and remind myself of the plain truth of it each time I sit down to write.
First drafts are shit. Writing is hard. But our stories are important. They deserve to be brought to the surface and shared, no matter how hard or challenging it may be.
It doesn’t have to be right; it just has to be done.