During my 2nd year of college I was majoring in Business, taking courses like marketing and accounting, and while I generally enjoyed the classes, I soon decided to take a different path. After completing an internship at a high school in the Atlanta area as a requirement for an elective, I decided to shift directions and go into Education.
At that point, changing my major would have added on to my time in college, I wasn’t really interested in doing that. After speaking with my advisor, I learned that the college offered a one year Master’s in Education, that I could go into with any undergraduate degree, that would certify me to teach as well as get me my Master’s.
So I finished my undergraduate degree, and headed into the Master’s program. I’d like to note, that, due to some flaw in the system, I was able to graduate in 3 years. I switched over to the night program, and somehow, my credits multiplied, they accepted some courses from my previous school that they had originally not accepted, and I was able to finish my undergraduate degree in three years, and complete my Master’s in my fourth.
Night school, by the way, is very much like you think it would be. I’m not knocking anyone who has gone to night school, but in my particular situation, it definitely made me question the actual value of my degree. I mean, I gained an entire, additional year of “education” just by attending school after 5 p.m.
But I tell that story, because the “extra” year I gained helped me make some different decisions in the future. I figured I’d gained this year, I might as well put it towards some additional education, namely, pursuing an Ed.D.
So I enter the Master’s program, and I’m sitting next to a guy I’d played some basketball with, who was becoming a friend, and we heard about Doctorate degrees in education, and we both agreed that we’d go through a program together as soon as we completed the Master’s. We’d do it together, and it would be easier together, and we’d help each other, and hold each other accountable…
And then I entered the Doctorate program and he changed his phone number and I was all alone.
Fast forward six long years of the program, and I think I’m about to complete my dissertation. While I enjoy writing, I did not particularly enjoy the mountains of research associated with writing a dissertation. There is not a great deal of room for creativity and self expression when writing a research paper.
As you go through that process, you continually submit your paper to a committee, who continually tells you that your research stinks, your paper is not following the latest APA format, and that you probably will never complete your dissertation. And to please submit a new draft.
By the third or fourth time of submitting something that I thought was complete, and having a group of people, each with different opinions and remarks, telling me that I needed to try again, it’s starts to get a little depressing.
I was talking to my friend Drew the other day who is working on his dissertation, and his committee told him to start over. Not edit or revise. Just start all over, pick a different topic, research something brand new, and begin again.
Eventually I created something that was deemed acceptable for final submission, and that allowed me to complete that process and move on.
And so will Drew.
And so will you.
I’m reading this book titled, “It’s Not About The Shark”, and there is a cool story in there about how we should not get attached to the first draft. In fact, there are many times when we should burn it all together, and start again. The challenge is, that many times after we put that first draft on paper, it becomes very difficult for us to adapt, or change course. Everything that we do next is just a revision of the first draft. We have a hard time getting past our original idea.
Before he was Spielberg, plain ol’ Steven was working on the movie Jaws, with the idea that it would be a great horror story, with the shark as the central character. There was a lot of money invested in making a huge, scary, realistic shark that would be like anything ever seen before in a movie. People would be frightened by the constant image of the shark on screen. The shark would be the star, front and center.
The problem was, that once they put the shark in the ocean and began filming, they experienced all sorts of problems. The salt water corroded much of the mechanics, making the ability to control its’ movement difficult and sporadic. Some days it worked, and some days it didn’t. Prolonged exposure to the water also caused the shark to appear bloated, less like a shark and more like a ferocious, floating marshmallow.
Spielberg’s first draft was to feature the shark on screen as much as possible. When these problems arose, he had to change course, or risk having the movie shut down. It was becoming too expensive to continually fix the shark, and prolonging production was not an option.
Spielberg created a classic, by throwing away the first draft.
He shifted focus to featuring the shark less, not more, and the effect was dramatic. Viewers would know the shark was around through menacing music, and the brief appearance of a fin, and people thrashing about in the water. In his new and final draft, the shark didn’t appear on screen in all his glory until 81 minutes into the film. And the critics and audiences loved it. And have continued to love it for the last 40+ years.
Gay Talese, famous for writing a 1966 piece in Esquire titled, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”, when discussing his writing process, talks about intentionally treating his first steps in the process as just that, first steps. He often takes his first notes on the cardboard that he gets back from the dry cleaners where he sends his shirts. From there, he begins taking his next set of notes on legal pads, before finally moving to a typewriter.
It seems that many of us want to start and end with the typewriter, refusing to (or being terrified of) moving on from the first draft, when actually, as Gay Talese practices,
“The first draft of a story is just another set of notes. It has no standing. It is not nearly finished. It is just a step.”
” I write and rewrite and rewrite and write.” – It’s Not About The Shark, by David Niven
And so, what about us?
Are we still stuck on the first draft? For some reason, the script for most of us calls for us to determine a college decision at 16, 17, or 18, then a major (connected to a future career) soon thereafter, and to generally stick to that plan for the duration.
I don’t know about you, but I was ill equipped to be making such decisions, and I remember myself as a fairly responsible 18 year old. I also, however, made my first college choice because it was late in the decision making process, and the school was close by, and a friend was going there, and I didn’t know where else to choose, so, why not? I mean, my college decision making process was just shy of incredibly foolish.
Rather than being willing to adapt, and rewrite, and begin anew, we often get stuck on the first draft. And when we find ourselves stuck, even when all of the signs may tell us it’s time to write a new draft, we often double down on something that we are no longer passionate about, or is no longer the right path for us.
Because it was our first draft, dadgummit, we are sticking to it. What would it say about us to change? What would everyone say? Does it mean I was wrong? Does it mean “they” were right? Have I failed?
I want to encourage you realize that wherever you are, it’s a part of the draft. Maybe you have moved on from the first, and are working on the second or third. Maybe you are stuck on the first. The encouragement is, to keep writing, and rewriting, and writing again. The great news is,
At any point, we have the power to say: this is not how my story is going to end…
Please don’t be afraid to adjust, start over, or revise. Keep writing.
There probably isn’t a final draft in your future. It’s all editing.
Eventually, you will produce something you can be proud of. And share with the world, and tell your kids, and be confident in.
But it’s still editing…
So if you screwed up a few times, and your draft is filled with red ink, edits, whiteouts, and notes in the margin, GREAT.
Just revise, and sit back down, and start writing.
And keep writing…