Day 14 of #1000wordsofsummer 2020
Today you will write 1000 words. It is the last day, and you will finish what you have started. You have done incredible work here. You have been diligent and resourceful and creative and determined. And you did not need this project to be this way. You know this. You can do it every day forever if you want. You can write those 1000 words.
I am an imperfect person. Nearly forty-nine years old and I make mistakes all the time. I keep wondering when I will learn from them already and the only answer is that I just have to keep trying. No one gets to give up, no one ever gets to coast. Not if we want to live a life of meaning. Not if we want to make art of any value. I take my mistakes, I learn from them, I start over each day hopefully a little further along.
And yet every day I still wonder if I know anything at all.
But I do know one thing, as it turns out: that writing has saved my life. It has kept me sane, it has put food on my table, it has opened up the world to me. It has fulfilled me when nothing else in my life did or could. Whatever you need from writing I want you to have.
Thank you so much to the guest contributors on this project. They do this for free, because they are generous people. It has been days, weeks, months of chaos, and I am beyond grateful to those who were able to show up and offer us this gift of their impeccable words. Please consider buying their books, reading their articles, watching their television shows, listening to their podcasts.
If you would like to support me, I have written seven books, and here is the most recent one. An organization close to my heart is 826 New Orleans, which provides space and support to young New Orleanians to tell their stories.
Our final contributor is Mychal Denzel Smith, who is the author of the New York Times bestseller Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching. His forthcoming book, Stakes is High: Life After the American Dream, is absolutely crucial reading, and I highly encourage you to pre-order it.
“I am extremely lucky in that I have practically all the time in the world to write. I don’t have any other job besides writing. I’m not saying this to brag, but to hold myself accountable for the fact that i have nothing to do but write and still somehow manage to be late with every first draft. I like to think editors enjoy working with me, but I temper that with the knowledge that every single editor, whether they say it or not, is a little peeved at me for the number of extensions I request in getting that initial draft to their inbox. It’s just a first draft.
Except I have never been able to think of a first draft as just a first draft. I am ten years into my writing career (and feeling every ache of it) and still stress over first drafts as though they will go straight to print.
Part of this is a result of starting my writing career in the internet era. There is very little editing that goes into the work that goes online. Sure, at some of our more august publications, with money and copy editors and fact checkers to spare, there’s a fairly rigorous process. But I didn’t start out writing for those places. I began my career writing for online publications that needed content, lots of it, as quickly as possible. Little care is given to craft in this situation.
But I can’t blame it all on the culture and economics of the internet. I am slow. I write very slowly. I write first drafts at pace that frustrates and infuriates. I spend weeks not writing at all. I’m a bit lazy, and it’s much easier to do nothing than to agonize over words and ideas. The Golden Age of Television will not watch itself (though maybe, at some point, it will?). Still, that’s not the reason I am on the couch, laptop open, blank page staring back at me. It’s because I’m scared.
If you’re reading this I assume you’re a writer and you’re familiar with how intimidating the blank page can be. On its own, it’s frightening. But I have also come to believe that I can’t ever make a mistake, that I must turn in perfect, ready-to-print first drafts, or else I will never be able to write again. There are a number of reasons for this, and I’ll save the act of enumerating them for my therapist. For now I’ll simply say that this idea, which grows with each new work, holds me in a cycle of self-hatred and self-pulverizing.
I have, as stated, been writing professionally for ten years. I can not survive another ten years being this unkind to myself. But I never thought I would make it this far. I have written this way because I have genuinely believed that each piece would be my last. I have not believed in redemption.
It’s only now, two books in and preparing to teach writing in earnest, that I’m coming to believe there is more to my career than a single moment, a knockout essay to end all essays, a calling card. I have built a body of work; I am building a body of work. You are building a body of work. The first draft is never the last draft—it isn’t even the first draft anymore. You approach each blank page with the experience and wisdom of the previous blank pages that you’ve conquered. You will do something new with this one, but it is not something you’re unprepared for. Everything you’ve done has led you up to this moment. And you will get some of it wrong. Then you will revise until it is right. And you’ll keep building your body of work.
I am learning now to let go, to believe I am worthy of a messy draft because I am worthy of a career that is not defined by one book, one essay, one paragraph, one sentence. You are. We are.”
Please take a moment here to be proud of yourself.
Now go and write something.