The best piece of writing advice I ever got came from Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott. It had to do with accepting the idea of  “shitty first drafts.” The second best piece of advice came from a professor whose teaching assistant I had been in English graduate school in the 1960s.  He had struck me, when we first met, as incredibly brash, an effect that he  was deliberately seeking to achieve.  He’d  barge into the classroom, send the blinds crashing up or down, and lie on the desk with a cigar between his teeth. “I’m Smith,” he’d say to a wide-eyed class.  He went on to become a rock star of literary criticism, publishing countless books,  writing regularly for the New York Times, becoming an internationally famous intellectual. He even appeared as a character in a well known novel.

    His advice? “Always recycle.”

    “First,” he said, “ I write a talk. Then I give it in several times. I turn the talk into an essay and publish it.  Maybe it becomes part of an anthology edited by someone else.  Then I use it as a chapter of a book or include it in a collection of my essays.”  I remember him  chewing on a cigar when he told me this.  But I may be making up the cigar.

    I feel comfortable with Annie Lamott’s advice. I am perfectly capable of producing “a shitty first draft” and of feeling, as she does, that I’d just as soon not die while it is lying on my desk, lest someone read it and assume my death was suicide. But following the guidance of my brash professor was another matter.  Who me? I thought.  I’m allergic to cigars. But, in the end, I tried his system. As an academic I wrote talks, wrote  them into essays that I published, saw them anthologized,  and gathered them into a book.  I did not become an academic  rock star or take up Havanas, but the method served me well. I published and at each stage I became a better writer.

    When I retired  and began taking classes in creative writing, I fell into the system out of habit.  I wrote pieces for my writing classes.  I turned the pieces into blogs. I posted them on a collective site. Then I posted them on my own.  Eventually, I did guest posts with the same materials. After four years, several posts have been anthologized and most of them are chapters in my memoir. Others are beginning to look a lot like a collection of essays on food and place. Good job, I told myself, thinking this would be the end, but then  I hired a publicist who told me “No.”  I had to link my book to larger issues.  So, in preparation for the memoir’s launch, I began to write some essays that made those links.  One is to be published  but, even better,  I have begun to see more clearly what the book is all about, and  I have a new set of  interesting ideas to explore. So recycling?  I’m a fan and I’m passing on my famous professor’s advice to you.  Because  once you’re past the stage of  “shitty first drafts,” it’s not just about recycling.  It can be about revisioning your material and writing better about it too.

      • David Lacy

      • April 9, 2013 at 6:23 pm
      • Reply

      I need to consider this in order to get myself producing some “new” material!

    • Yes, produce them for a different audience and they do become new. Of course the collective blog I refer to is iPinion. I improved a lot of chapters by writing them into iPinion blogs. I’ll always be grateful!

      • Carolyn Wyler

      • April 9, 2013 at 10:00 pm
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      I’ve done this once or twice. I also know about the shitty first through tenth or so draft until I’ve reached a point where it’s barely readable by others.

    • Oh, yes, the endless shitty drafts! I have one right here on my desk!

    • I love this post! Thank you for sharing (or recycling?) it. 😉

      As a synchronous aside, I just read on the Writer’s Almanac that today happens to be Anne Lamott’s birthday.

    • Great post Judy and inspirational advice. Thanks! xxx

      • Wendy Schmidt

      • April 10, 2013 at 11:23 am
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      I like Smith’s advice but I would have hated his behavior as a teacher. Probably would have tuned him out. But then, I’m introverted and his brash display seems tailor made for an audience of extroverts. I’m pretty sure there are famous writers who quietly write and talk to aspiring writers and don’t make a lot of noise when they enter a room. The teachers I remember are the ones who talked about writing so intensely and passionately albeit softly, that I couldn’t take my ears off of them. Am I missing the point?

      • Hi Wendy, I think my point was that despite being intimidated by his teaching style and brashness, I followed his advice. I wasn’t recommending his style, though, in fact, it really worked for him. I, too, like to be spoken to softly, but sometimes you do get good advice from people you think you could never imitate in any way.

      • Maya North

      • April 11, 2013 at 8:45 pm
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      “I’d just as soon not die while it is lying on my desk, lest someone read it and assume my death was suicide.” BAhahahaha!!!! Writer’s humor. I get it. Does this mean I’ve arrived? I love this 😀

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