What Nobody Told You About the First Draft

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Image: Marvin Meyer/Unsplash

“When you get an idea, don’t hold it,” architect Vittorio de Feo said.  Recalling his master’s quote in Why Architects Still Draw, Paolo Belardi adds that when you get an idea, not taking action right away risks destroying the idea’s vitality. Sketch the idea immediately; draw impulsively, and transcribe unconscious energy from the brain to the paper by doing so.

Like Belardi, author Natalie Goldberg praises the power of first thoughts as having “tremendous energy” which is what underlies her freewriting exercise (don’t stop writing, for an allotted amount of time or number of pages). She explains in Writing Down the Bones that the power of the very first thought is that each of our internal self-editors haven’t had a chance at “squelching” them yet.

While this principle makes sense, it’s not so easy to put into practice. First thoughts are not always our friends. Sometimes, they’re irrational, selfish, and impulsive. Moreover, expressing first thoughts publicly  is a terrible idea. With the viral potential of the Internet, each of our actions hold greater potential than before. A simple example: dumb tweets can hurt a lot of people (and are subject to public shaming).

From childhood we have been conditioned to think before we speak, to consider  other people’s feelings, and how we may best say something. In a non-peer reviewed survey of 11,000 mothers, Popsugar reports that “No,” was the 7th most popular first word. Too often, most of us say, “No,” to our first thoughts, immediately thinking more about it before expressing it. This is a byproduct of self awareness and self consciousness, two forces necessary to get along with other people; but, taken applied to creative work, both of them suffocate the ideas with most originality and potential.

It’s easy to get paralyzed by these two factors, amongst many others; that’s why so many great ideas stay stuck in people’s heads. The remedy is simple: find a safe, private, place to store your first thoughts.

Create A Safe Place to Perform First Thoughts

Producer Rick Clifford recalls in Jake Brown’s Tupac Shakur: 2Pac in the Studio that when Tupac was recording All Eyez On Me, he wanted spontaneity and to record his verses in one take to keep “the feel.” While Tupac may have used a different word for it, his insight bears resemblance to Belardi’s and Goldberg’s descriptions of first thoughts (“vitality” and “tremendous energy”).

Tupac and his collaborators used a variety of methods to make this happen. For example, he would record in no more than four takes, and leaving spaces to fill in mistakes. Outlawz member Napolian recalls Tupac’s words, “Whatever you lay, we keepin’ it, go on to the next song. We don’t have time to play, we don’t have time to be on the song for 30 minutes.” In this context, the first take can be seen as a sort of performance art.

This type of constraint and speed could cultivate intensity needed for great creative work. Performance artist Marina Abramović describes her process, writing in her autobiography Walk Through Walls, “… to achieve a goal, you have to give everything until you have nothing left.” U2 lead singer Bono describes in his tribute to Frank Sinatra, “The Big Bang of pop music telling me it’s all about the moment, a fresh canvas and never overworking the paint. … Fully inhabiting the moment during that tiny dot of time after you’ve pressed ‘record’ is what makes it eternal. If, like Frank, you sing it like you’ll never sing it again. If, like Frank, you sing it like you never have before.”

Allow Yourself to Improvise

After a disappointing commercial debut release, recording artist Gucci Mane would go on to start freestyling with a similar improvisational method to Tupac’s, starting with No Pad, No Pencil. Despite the similar approach, Gucci Mane’s goal was slightly different from Tupac’s; inspired by Lil’ Wayne’s prolific approach to mixtapes, he wanted to make enough music to “flood the market” as well.

Those that choose not to listen to their first thought, and wait, not only lose the vitality of the thought; the momentum might turn into drag. In The Art of Thought, Graham Wallas quotes William James’s “Habit” chapter in Principles of Psychology, in which he says, “Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on any emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain… When a resolve or a fine glow of feeling is allowed to evaporate without bearing practical fruit it is worse than a chance lost; it works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge.”

Make your first draft following the rules of improvisation; accept your and other people’s ideas, expand upon them, and forgive yourself when your idea didn’t live up to your expectations.

Draft Quickly, Edit Slowly

Once you get an idea, bring it to reality as soon as you can. Scope down the idea to as low fidelity as possible (i.e., a tweet instead of a draft, a music loop instead of a complete production, a sketch instead of a painting/schematic, etc.). Only after your initial burst of thought is complete, should you allow the editor inside yourself to speak and criticize, and not a second sooner.

Many first thoughts have the outlines of potential, but most of them will not be the best version of the product. Even if you buy into Tupac’s value of spontaneity, and approach the first version of your work like performance art, there is no reason you need to make your first version the absolute final. Sorting through your work, and ensuring that you release only the best, is a surefire way to start your legacy and make a higher quality product.

But always keep in mind, as Belardi writes, there’s something powerful about a sketch or drawing. To borrow his metaphor: Inside a little acorn are the complete plans and potential of the tree. So it is with architecture, the total potential of the building is encapsulated and complete inside each first sketch.