Hemingway once said “The first draft of anything is shit.” But how on earth
would he know?
Wasn’t Hemingway considered a Godfather of American Prose? Could such a
consummate craftsman ever produce… in his own words… shit?
He could. He did. And so should you, if you know what’s good for you.
Let’s take this apart:
As almost everyone knows, Hemingway published in a plain, direct style
considered arresting for its lyricism and sparseness. But the key word here is
Most people don’t know it, but that Hemingway “voice” we’ve come to know —
the crisp, unadorned prose that made him a literary icon — didn’t come naturally
to him. An obsessive revisionist, Hemingway could only produce his “voice” at
the end of a long and arduous process.
In other words, Hemingway only became Hemingway over the course of many
drafts. And sometimes many, many drafts.
Consider these examples:
● “I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times,” he told
aspiring writer, Arnold Samuelson, in 1934.
● His novel, The Old Man and the Sea, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The
Nobel Committee cited the book when they lauded Hemingway with the
Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. All well and good. But remember:
Hemingway rewrote The Old Man and the Sea more than two hundred
times before approving the book for release. Actually, it started out as a
much longer novel, which Hemingway called The Sea Book. But the damn
thing never seemed finished, even after it ran more than 800 pages, which
the author revised obsessively. So finally, he decided to publish the book’s
epilogue on its own. That portion we now call The Old Man and the Sea.
● In 1956, Hemingway was interviewed in The Paris Review. Here’s a snippet of
what got published:
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last
page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that
had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
So what does this prove?
It’s time we dispel this ancient, potentially toxic myth that good art — hell,
good anything made by man — simply pops into being, fully formed as Athena
leaping from the cracked-open noggin of hoary old Zeus.
In my experience, many fledgling and even some journeyman artists invest in
this myth too readily. They protest that a project will look or sound “overworked” if
you so much as glance at it more than once. Howling and thumping their chests
about the importance of spontaneity, they refuse to consider that real spontaneity
can only ever be rendered in art after serious planning and work.
Think about it.
Did your favorite film simply drop to earth from heaven above? Of course not.
It was mapped out over the course of years, during which it went through various
phases: development, script drafts, location scouting, casting, pre-production,
principal photography, second unit shooting, post-production, distribution, and so
What about your favorite performance by your favorite actor in that favorite
film? Quite likely, that scene you love so much was one out of dozens of takes
the director shot from various angles. It may have been the one your favorite
actor hated the most. It may have been added last minute to fill in a gap, or cut
down to nothing from 2 or 3 pages.
Dare we go on?
How do you think your favorite song, TV show, book, play, or opera were
produced? By immaculate conception?
You see where I’m going with this. These days, most people have no
appreciation for process. They don’t want to learn how a sausage gets made,
they’d rather bite down on the casing and chew.
In our instant-gratification society, the myth that brilliance comes easy has
never been so ubiquitous, nor so damaging to artists. I know many young actors
and writers, for instance, who became disenchanted with their craft for the
unlikely reason that it wasn’t easy to master. And yet they still called themselves
artists, which of course is inappropriate.
Imagine how that principle might play out in other disciplines:
Would you take your sick child to a “doctor” who, as a medical student,
attended one autopsy, hung out his shingle, and set himself up in a practice?
Would you trust your important legal suit to an attorney who never went to law
school or passed the bar exam, never cracked one textbook nor glanced at so
much as a page or two before diving into case work?
We learn by doing. Always, always. Mistakes must be made for success to
take root. That rule holds true both in life and in art. No lasting understanding of
craft can be gained by nailing something the first time around, even if you should
be so lucky.
Which is why we must grant ourselves the indulgence of writing a raucously
shitty first draft. Enduring an righteously shitty rehearsal. A fight with a loved one.
Bad day at the office. The list goes on and on.
To call yourself a craftsman in any discipline, you have to imagine the finished
product, then let it go and embrace the process of reaching it, staying open to
changes along the way.
As the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, wrote: “The journey of a thousand
miles begins with but a single step.” Translation: nobody leaps from nothingness
straight to completion. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The tortoise won that race, not
the hare. Slow down. Commit to the learning, instead of the knowing. Commit to
the road rather than the destination. The work is the means, the end, and the joy.
Do this over and over again, and who knows? You might surprise yourself.
Whatever you end up producing — a book, a play, a scene, a song, or a life…
well, it might not be what you first imagined it would be. But who knows?
In the course of your exploration, you might discover something better.