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A Thousand Bad Drawings

Our friend Dan recently told about an art student who brought him four unfinished drawings. Okay, not bad, he said, “but why didn’t you finish them? You need to make a thousand bad drawings before you get a good one. So finish these and get back to work on all the next.”

She insisted on a critique of the unfinished work, so he delivered, and she defended.

Which doesn’t help either. Agree or disagree, but use either to finish the work.

Bad art comes before the good isn’t just a rule for the beginning of a possible career, but it’s something I practice every day. My habit is to move my pen before making judgments. Everyone knows a cake looks like a mess before it gets to the oven, and not great even while baking. Anyone who’s sewn knows a dress or quilt starts from thread, scissors, and cloth. Writers often start from the junk in our minds: overheard conversations, everyday worries, deep-rooted obsessions. I pour some of the stuff of the day, the worries and appetites, into great unwashed journals, which unclutters my mind for hopefully better things. I offer myself space and time for the clumsy or clichéd, which frees me to cross to places I’d never have otherwise imagined.

If I don’t let myself write anything whatsoever, I can’t write much worth giving to someone else to read. I think I had some good lines in Borrowed Names, but if you know me or met me, you wouldn’t guess I’m a poet. I mumble and mutter about dogs, dinner, movies, and whether I should I get up and find a sweater. But if I stay with my mind long enough, I can get past to something good. And to do that most efficiently, it’s best to move my hands. Starting with any old thing that's before my eyes.


"Write anything whatsoever" is a great way to think about it. I certainly found it freeing when I was drafting my wip to be able to say, this is just the first draft/making marble/sewing baggy pants that will be fitted later. It kept me moving forward with the story, and that forward movement was key.
Yes, I agree it's about the motion, before you get close to moving your eye to what the finished project should look like. The motion that takes us to a new and better place.
There is a part of being a writer that requires courage -- courage to push away the doubts while writing and to keep moving forward. There are times when it is good to let a project go, and to recognize when something just isn't working. But I think you have to finish a lot of projects -- good and bad -- to be able to discern when a project truly should be put on the shelf and when the urge to do so is just doubt or insecurity getting in the way.
Jenni, that's a good point about courage and doubt, something all of us have. And have to figure our best ways to live with both. And another great point about finishing things so we an see how well we can do something -- and not just guess that it will be great or clumsy. But to see.

Thanks for the brilliant comments!
Yes to all of the above! Especially the mumble and mutter. Sometimes I wonder if there are any coherent thoughts in my head that can make it onto paper. And finishing something- is so much harder than starting isn't it?

"If I stay with my mind long enough..." I love that. It really expresses the writing process for me so brilliantly. I'm going to write that one down :)
Mumbling, muttering, whether from my mouth or on paper, it seems to be the only way I can get to some clarity.

And I agree: finishing has its happy moments, but there's a lot of fussiness and mind-changing to get there! Thank you for your good ant totally coherent thoughts!
Oh, yes! The bad feed the good. I have a quote by William Stafford hanging in my home which says, "I need my bad poems." We have faith that by muddling through enough bad arrangements, eventually something good will grow. It's like a Rubik's Cube or those '15' puzzles, where we move and shuffle and imagine and play hoping that symmetry and beauty just might peek around the corner.
Beautifully put, Amy.
Here's to more bad poems from us both, and stumbling into the good.
In college I had presented a project to my class. The teacher asked me what my process had been to arrive at the idea. As she looked over some of my thumbnails and writings, I slung my hand back and forth over the sketches, stating there were a lot of terrible ideas in there. She laughed, then I told her I have to get all the cliche and bad ideas out on paper before I can start concentrating on the good ones. Once it's down, documented and recognized I can finally move past it and start being creative. haha
Before I graduated she told me she now tells her students that anecdote about the bad ideas. haha
Love your honesty and clear-sightedness and beauty, Rachel. Way to go to becoming a legend!
Good luck with moving your hands this fall -- sounds like it promises to be a busy time.
Treasures from trash! Recycling. Reusing. Repurposing!
Great motto, Joyce.
And we get to play with all of history!
At different times in my life I've poured into great, unwashed journals, too, uncluttering that way. Now, with the computer's wonderful ability to move and delete entire blocks of junk in nanoseconds, I do my muttering and mumbling within the pages of the book I'm writing. Then I take my pick axe and pick my way through, chiseling and chopping. Sometimes I find something good under a rock. Thanks for this post, Jeannine.
I love computers so much. I can't even imagine all the paper I would waste, and how my eyes would burn trying to decipher crossings-outs and added words and wiggly pointing lines, if we couldn't do so much right here.

Good luck for finding words under those rocks, Toby!
I don't know where I got the idea that writing had to be a neat business. Probably from school? It's a notion that dies hard in me. But sometimes when my writing feels like a complete mess, I shut my eyes and picture myself in the kitchen, baking a lemon tart -- eggshell and sugar on the counters, gloppy bowls at my elbow, half-juiced lemons scattered everywhere. It always makes me smile and breathe easier.
I love your lemon tart analogy; and am sure the tart itself is good.

I wonder if it's different for young writers growing up with computers, that tidiness is not so prized for so long. I meet many teachers who seem passionate about revision in ways none of mine were, and maybe it's in part because it's more possible without going through reams of paper.