Shitty first drafts, or learning to love failure

Anne Lamott talks about the importance of the shitty first draft when starting a new writing project.

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page.

I want the Fail Zone to be a space where we can practice the shitty first draft of whatever we’re working on.

What is the equivalent of a shitty first draft for a dance piece, or an elevator pitch, or cleaning out your closet?

We’ll find out this Sunday! Bring a project, an idea or a goal, and we will find a way to practice it with romping, child-like glee.

Here are some ideas to of how it might play out:

GOAL: get a fantastic new job. SHITTY FIRST DRAFT: We take turns asking you questions and you answer them as badly as possible. Or you could draft a shitty resume with crayons.

GOAL: rock a karaoke power ballad. SHITTY FIRST DRAFT: sing it in front of us as badly as you can. If you want, we can back you up with shitty backup dancing/singing.

GOAL: get your 2 year old to sleep through the night. SHITTY FIRST DRAFT: brainstorm stupid solutions with the group and put together a ridiculous, wildly inconsistent sleep plan.

GOAL: make a full length dance piece. SHITTY FIRST DRAFT: choreograph a shitty 5-minute version of the piece you imagine. Show it to the group.

GOAL: submit a grant application. SHITTY FIRST DRAFT: write a self indulgent way too long project description. Read it out loud to us.

GOAL: keep your house clean. SHITTY FIRST DRAFT: what is the laziest, dumbest, least efficient way to clean up a mess? Brainstorm with the group. Or practice cleaning up a corner of the room like a 3-year-old.

GOAL: perform a standup comedy routine. SHITTY FIRST DRAFT: try out some awkward, tasteless, not funny jokes on us.

GOAL: do a keynote presentation at a conference. SHITTY FIRST DRAFT: put together inane powerpoint slides and practice bombing in front of us.

There are so many ways this could go. Bring anything. Or come with an empty mind and receive a wild card failure assignment from me.  

And if this is making you anxious, let me assure you: the point is to make it FUN and EASY to fail. No one will be forced to do anything. This is an opt-in, laugh at yourself, take the pressure off situation. If it feels hard, that means we need to rethink it until it’s ridiculously, stupidly easy for you to do.

Ready for failure practice? YEAH! Dig out your ripped up sweatpants and an old t-shirt and let’s do this.


My grand experiment

This weekend, I performed my manifesto-in-training to a fantastic crowd at the Risk/Reward Festival here in Portland.

Can I be honest, guys? (Or as Joan Rivers would say, can we talk?)

Going into this weekend, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue with this strange performance experiment that I’ve spent the last year working on. I thought this might be the end of the road, at least for a while.

It’s been a beautiful experiment. When I started, the aim was to see if it was possible to make a show that fit into my current lifestyle, and that actually improved my day to day life instead of requiring sacrifice. I used to make shows as if they were the sun and I was the moon. Everything I had went towards making them. And that’s okay! For a long time it was exciting. And then slowly it became unhealthy. And then when I gave birth to my son it became impossible. So with this show, I wanted the sun to be me — my body, my life, my family, my actual son — and the moon to be this show. It would exist to serve me, and not the other way around.

When I first had this thought, it seemed radical. I had a lot of questions:

  • Could I make a show whose #1 goal was to make my life better?
  • Could I use the show as an excuse to procure resources that I want in my life?
  • Could I rehearse a show by jotting things down in a notebook and inviting people to watch me try out those ideas once or twice a month? And could those ideas just be stuff I think about in the shower?
  • Could I make a show with zero collaborators?
  • Could I make a show with no set or costumes aside from what catches my eye at goodwill?

The short answer is: yes. I rehearsed at a very lackadaisacal pace (at least, compared to how I used to rehearse). I had a notebook next to the shower, and much of the material for the show came from what I mused about in there (or while nursing my son at 2am). Here’s what I spent money on:

$12 – jumpsuit

$14 – shitty easel (I wanted to return it and buy a better one, but it turns out easels are nonrefundable)

$10 – big paper

$24 – 2 fuzzy blankets on clearance, 2 pillows and one “carpet” which is really a bedspread from goodwill

$5 – an “altar” from goodwill

$15 – tape, markers and small objects for the altar

$27 – laminating 4 sheets of big paper


$107 TOTAL

(Oh and of course, childcare — but I won’t include that number since I have a small seizure whenever I see it.)

I had no official collaborators and thus no meetings or emails or stress — but I did have help making the show from great artists I love and respect, whose insight I’m grateful for.

I wasn’t able to do all the things I originally built into the plan/budget — for instance, I still want to do intensive hypnosis training in Tacoma, and as I talk about in my show, originally I was going to pay a costume designer to make me a fabulous outfit. But I did in fact procure everything by wandering into thrift stores and seeing what caught my eye. And even though the Seattle Times thought that “with more polished production design it could easily become a ruby,” I am very happy to be a defiantly unpolished rhinestone.

So all in all, I’d have to say it’s an experiment that WORKED, and that is what I’m most amazed by. I always knew it would result in SOMETHING. But I didn’t know if that something would be good, or interesting to other people. And it turns out, it is! And the thing I’m second most amazed by is that I honestly don’t care (much) if people think it’s good or not. Somehow, after giving birth and embarking on all this self-exploration and Creative Guide-ness, the part of my brain that cares about what people think of me or my work onstage has switched off. (Or maybe not off, but to low burn.) I feel comfortable onstage. I feel comfortable talking about my work with people offstage, no matter what they think. If they don’t like it, that’s okay with me. Maybe this sounds like a small thing. But for me it is HUGE.

And I’m grateful and surprised as hell that the result of my experiment is a show I love warts and all, and that other people love too. And the upshot of it is, I want to continue this grand experiment, and make it into a 45-minute hybrid performance/seminar/ted talk. I want to keep doing it my way — no meetings, no emails, no crazy expectations, and if I can, money for pedicures built into the budget. And I want to take it all the way to Vegas. Well, maybe not to Vegas (though Celine, if you need an opening act, I’m available). But maybe to SXSW Interactive, the Canadian Fringe, the World Domination Summit…

Are those big goals? Does it seem a little nuts? Well, a year ago this whole idea sounded beautifully nuts, and I pulled it off.

So let’s drink a toast to following our beautifully nutso dreams and dance badly for 2.5 minutes to Celine Dion singing I Drove All Night.

ALSO: if you’d like to get some practice failing, flailing, falling, sprawling and doing things badly, come to my Sunday Morning Fail Zone workshop! Next one is this Sunday (July 19) at 10am. When we fail, we learn, evolve, grow and become stronger. We might as well enjoy the process.