Fertilizer Drafts

Have you ever worked on a project and just known it was shit?

That was me last week.

You always hear “show, don’t tell.” Well, my writing didn’t show my point—it didn’t even tell it. It was so far beyond “telling” that it was evangelizing.  

But that’s okay, because it’s a first draft. I’m a pro, I tell myself in my most confident internal voice. I’ve been working on this creative process thing for a while now; I know what I’m doing. I’m familiar with the nine steps. Thinking my work is terrible is just part of that process. Especially when I’m trying to do something new like this.  

I still send the draft to my editor, wise reader, best friend, and partner in crime Dave, with the caveat “This is shit” attached to it. Why? Because I’m a pro at this, and I know my nine steps. And the next step is clearly ranting at anybody who will listen that my work is awful.

Dave is also a pro, and clearly smarter than me (and may have listened to more than one or two of my rants previously). “It’s great that your work is shit,” he sent back to me. “Shit makes good fertilizer.”

Now, Dave claims he was just paraphrasing something he read on Twitter. But I’m convinced that the application of advice, like humor, requires perfect timing. And that perhaps the delivery is far more important than the actual message.

Which is to say, I had kind of an “aha” moment. I’d come to accept not liking my writing as part of the infamous creative process. I’d learned to grudgingly acknowledge that bad work was a setback, but not the end of a project. But I had never thought of the bad parts as something that supported and contributed to the project itself.  

I have a habit of trying to create things fully formed the first time through. Blog posts are written from beginning to end. The same goes for my other pursuits in music and modeling: I always try to get it right off the bat. 

Of course, I rarely do get it right the first time. I’m sorely tempted to post all the different versions a single blog entry goes through before it’s done. A post might have four or five reject drafts before Dave even hears about it. Worse, all of those previous drafts feel like failures. It feels like I’m waiting to reach that mythical “final draft,” and everything before it just isn’t good enough.

But if I’m not trying to make it perfect the first (and each subsequent) time, I can start actually creating earlier in the process. I don’t have to dwell on a blog post topic for weeks until I feel like it’s fleshed out enough and all the points are mentally in the right order.  

Instead, I can start writing when I have a thesis statement, or a paragraph, or just an idea. Sometimes I put all my ideas down on paper, and THEN try to organize them (gasp), rather than trying to do it all in my head.

I can make big, overarching changes before I’ve put on all the filigree.

I’ve started calling these documents “fertilizer drafts.” They’re messy. I scribble. I cross a lot of things out. It offends my perfectionist sensibilities. But it means the overall process is quicker. I can actually look at what I’m creating earlier, which helps with perspective. I can get feedback easier and earlier too.  I can realize it’s shit and make big, overarching changes before I’ve put on all the filigree.  

And even better, realizing that something is shit is no longer a setback. Every draft no longer feels like a failure. Instead, each feels like a promise of something even better.