First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish

A book with blank pages lying open on a white background

A few months ago I read this blog post by Marc Laidlaw: “Writing for Half-Life“, in which he talks about working at Valve on the story for the computer game Half-Life (1998).

This paragraph in particular spoke to me:

“The crucial milestone for me was the completion of our first rough mock-up of the entire game—in essence our first rough draft. I knew that once we could move through the maps from beginning to end, without cheating, we would all discover a new vision of the game. Something closer to the final vision. This was something I believed very strongly, based on my experience as a writer. First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish.”

That final sentence “first drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish” is what really stood out. I wrote it down in my to-do app and have referred to it on more than one occasion since then.

It reminds me of a passage from Tom Shippey’s book J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century who reveals that this was also Tolkien’s experience while writing The Lord of the Rings:

“Tolkien had no clear plan at all […] It is is an interesting, and for any intending writer of fiction rather an encouraging experience, to read through the selections from Tolkien’s many drafts now published […] and note how long it was before the most obvious and seemingly inevitable decisions were made at all. Tolkien knew, for instance, that Bilbo’s ring now had to be explained and would become important in the story, but he still had no idea of it as the Ring, the Ruling Ring, the Ring-with-a-capital-letter, so to speak: indeed he remarked at an early stage that it was ‘Not very dangerous’.”

(pp. 52–54)

Tolkien, in many ways, wrote himself into the story and, like the rolling countryside of the Shire around him, the plot began to develop and evolve. It was a gradual revelation to him: some aspects were obvious, others had to be teased out, and there was much revision.

I have found that a very useful thought to hold onto this year, not only while working on writing projects but in life in general. I don’t need to get things right first time. I don’t need to know how it ends, I just have to make a start.

This quotation from Ernest Hemmingway in A Moveable Feast (1964) has also been close to my heart:

“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”

All you have to do is write one true sentence… First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish… Now there is a plan for going forward into 2017: step by step, living forwards, living without fear, open to failure, open to living in the moment.

Who knows where 2017 will take us but I pray that we do it with integrity, with grace, and with compassion.

Separation

Which path should I follow? (Image from Dear Esther)
Which path should I follow? (Image from Dear Esther)

Back in January 2014 I wrote a post about needing to rediscover honest blogging. It’s funny looking back at that now, almost two years later. A lot has happened in that time. I may not have fully rediscovered honest blogging, but I think I have definitely made a good stab at living a more honest life, and being more honest with myself and those around me.

I remember last summer, it was about 02.00 am, I was sitting in my hospital bed hugging my knees feeling utterly terrified. I had never felt so small and so vulnerable and so utterly afraid to die. I had gone into hospital, as many of you know, with suspected viral meningitis but having reviewed my family history I was told that they were now exploring the possibility that I’d had a brain haemorrhage like my dad, who had greedily had three.

What I realised that night and the nights following was that I wasn’t only afraid to die, I was actually afraid to live.

I looked back over the previous fifteen years or so and recognised that I had slowly and gradually lost something essential of who I was. I had lost my spark. I had lost myself in a vocation, in a job, in a relationship. And I realised that I didn’t really like the person I’d become. I realised that I’d let myself go. I realised that I couldn’t even look myself in the mirror any more, I had become so ashamed of who I was.

But here’s the remarkable, grace-filled thing about this personal epiphany: I simply observed and asked questions of myself without judgement. I, thankfully, recognised that beating myself up about it would solve nothing. This was a time for self-forgiveness, for listening, and for doing something about it.

Live without fear

I sat in that hospital bed in Kirkcaldy and I promised myself that if I got through all of this then I would live without fear, I would grasp life again, I would join the adventure once more.

This past year has been one of the happiest I’ve ever known. I think this has been the most content I’ve ever been, certainly the most consistently content. I’ve felt empowered, and as I’ve listened to myself without judgement I’ve learned and grown.

All this despite what’s going on.

Separation

After years of struggling together, a couple of months ago Jane and I agreed to separate, with a view to divorce.

It wasn’t a decision that we took lightly. I cried for about three weeks. But I think in terms of our own personal growth and happiness I think this is the right decision. Obviously, we now need to guide the children through this as gracefully as we can.

We told the boys a couple of weeks ago; it wasn’t as difficult as I had anticipated. Now is the time to make it public.

There is still a lot to sort out, a lot of practicalities as we untangle seventeen years of life together. But we’ve agreed to be as gentle and kind to one another as we can. There is no animosity, there is no resentment. We’re still friends, we just make terrible partners: we still don’t really get each other. We’re like bright, colourful lights that when brought together cancel one another out and produce white.

It’s important to both of us that we model to our children a positive, healthy approach to separating: that even though it is terribly sad that we weren’t able to make things work (and boy! did we try) that we can wind things up gently and courteously.

So… that’s where I am. A lot of uncertainly ahead, but within myself I’m in a good place. I’m healthier than I’ve been for a long time; I’m happier too; and I’ve got my zest for life again. Time to make it count.

And what amazing family and friends and colleagues I have around me—I’ve never felt so supported and so inspired by these amazing people. Thank you, thank you, thank you lovely people. I am truly and deeply humbled by your love.

As I tweeted a couple of weeks’ ago:

Signed off

Statement of fitness for work: You are not fit for work
Statement of fitness for work

A few months back I promised that I would write more honest blog posts this year. Last month I blogged elsewhere about mental health in web development. How about a blog post today that combines the two, in a spirit of transparency?

This morning I made a same-day appointment to see my GP as I’d had a sore mouth for a couple of weeks and it didn’t seem to be getting any better. I expected him to take a quick look, make a diagnosis, and send me packing with either a prescription or a handful of advice. Instead he signed me off for a week. (And gave me a prescription.)

I’ve only just read what he wrote: “stress related illness”. That about sums it up.

It turns out that your oral health offers clues about your overall health. And my mouth told my doctor that my general health was terrible and that I needed to be signed off. And when I say “my mouth told my doctor” I don’t mean the speaky bit of my mouth.

What has brought me here is a combination of

  • being hugely understaffed at work (two vacancies, two off on long-term sick, one secondment; leaving our potential team of seven as a team of two);
  • not having had a proper break (being off sick with a bad cold or a chest infection doesn’t constitute a proper break, does it?) since mid-October 2013;
  • the usual night-time interruptions related to having small children;
  • general (and specific!) family stresses and strains;
  • other (probably)

It all came to a focus this morning in that doctor’s surgery. And I cried.

I resisted his suggestion of time off, of course. I tried to negotiate a week’s grace to see if I needed to be signed off next week instead, as I didn’t want to let the team down. And when I say ‘team’ I am now, of course, referring to one person (!?)

I do feel bad about it. I have colleagues who have said during the last few months, “I don’t know how you keep going?” Today I acknowledged that I can’t just keep going. It also highlights very much, I hope, that our current way of working within the University web team just isn’t sustainable.

Something had to give and thankfully it was my physical health first rather than my mental health. But as the GP said it would only be a matter of time if I didn’t stop now. Without exactly saying “a stitch in time saves nine”, my GP responded by saying something along the lines of “a week off in time saves nine”.

In the end, after a thorough examination, bloods eventually coaxed from my veins, and the promise of some ‘tasty’ liquorice-flavoured medicine, I relented and agreed to a week.

Believe me, the irony is not lost on me: weeks of trying to unsuccessfully negotiate time off at work and when the GP offers it immediately and for (please choose) one or two weeks, I hesitate.

So… doctors orders are to rest. I took him at his word, returned home, made a couple of calls, had a spot of lunch and then slept until 3:00pm.

Here’s to a few days of healing.

I’m now five-shelves of books lighter

Piles of books and rubbish on my study floor
Piles of books and rubbish on my study floor mid-clear-out

Okay, so whose bright idea was it to try to simplify life a little and get rid of books that I haven’t even opened in years?!

In the end, this afternoon I cleared out five shelves-worth of books which will be donated to charity shops in St Andrews tomorrow afternoon.

I had to be ruthless. I find it really hard to throw away books because there is usually something of me in them (for many books I remember where I was when I carefully selected that particular book, what I was hoping to get out of them) and for many there is something of them in me, a part of who I am today is because of something that I read in those volumes.

And then there are the books that I bought or acquired (freebie hand-me downs from retired clergy) that interested me at the time or reminded me of something that found really interesting at university and was keen to follow up … but never did!

Strangely, between the initial weeding out of my bookcase and my packing them into boxes to take to charity a few of them crept back onto my shelves.  Saved for another purge in a couple of years time.

It feels good, though. No regrets.

Future rounds of my patented game “Win it or bin it” will feature: PCs and accessories, games (board and computer), videos, DVDs, guitar sheet music, and folders of who-knows-what that have sat on my shelves for the last 10 years.