Susan Choi on Powering Through a First Draft
"Sometimes the first draft is best."
The following is an edited excerpt from a 2020 conversation with Courtney Balestier on WMFA, a show about creativity and craft, and first appeared in Lit Hub’s The Craft of Writing newsletter—sign up here.
For anything that [you’re] consciously trying to get to the finish line, move it forward. I make a joke to my students: if you decide mid-stream that all of the characters live on the moon, they’re on the moon from now on. Just don’t go back and spend a bunch of time, like, changing Earth to Moon in chapters one through five. Just keep going. You’re going to have so many things that you have to contend with once you have the full structure of a draft that you’re just, in my opinion, wasting time if you go back and tinker before you figured out what that structure is like.
I wrote my first two books that way, in circles, just going in a circle and then going forward and then going in another circle and then backing up and going in a circle. And it was very, very confusing and frustrating.
I hate to say this, but … sometimes the first draft is best. I don’t mean the first draft of a whole thing, but sometimes the first version of a moment or a scene, or even a line of dialog, is the best one. And sometimes the twentieth or fiftieth is the best one. It’s really weird and hard to account for. There are things in Trust Exercise that I feel that I never got right, and there are things in the book that I tried multiple versions of, and finally felt like I got them right. And there are things in the book that are very much as they were when I first put them down on paper.
I don’t think it’s so much a question of getting into the right mindset. It’s just weird luck, really. Sometimes the first pile of words that you used to try to convey something is the right pile.
It’s hard, but it gets easier, I find, the more I write and the longer that time goes on. I forget that when I was a younger writer or a student writer, if I managed to write anything—because it’s so hard—I was like, oh my God, something must come of this. It was not easy. But it gets easier to leave stuff in the dark.
There’s also the way in which the whole thing is this kind of messy, ongoing process, where the stuff that doesn’t necessarily work in the first context that you place it into, it doesn’t mean it’s not important or worthy, or it doesn’t mean that it’s not going to work somewhere. Stuff gets folded in later, unexpectedly.
I feel like it’s all about, don’t be afraid to write lots of garbage, but also don’t throw any of it away. Have a very large storage system for all that garbage, because it’s only garbage in context. It may turn out to be a treasure in some other context you haven’t discovered yet.