Cover the Canvas
Is the first draft the hardest? Is it different from a third draft, or a twelfth? Does a first draft possess unique challenges that we have to attack in a one-of-a-kind way?
Yes, yes and yes.
First drafts are killers
A first draft is different from (and more difficult than) all subsequent drafts because in a first draft we’re filling the blank page. And we know what that means: Resistance.
Here’s my mantra for first drafts. Cover the canvas.
What that means is get something done from A to Z, no matter how imperfect. A first draft doesn’t have to be great; it doesn’t have to be pretty. It can have gaping holes; it can leave every “t” uncrossed and every “i” undotted. Momentum is everything in a first draft. Get it done. Cover the canvas.
Resistance and first drafts
Why is this so important? Because in the first draft, Resistance is at its most powerful. The blank page, day after day … Resistance has ten thousand chances to come up with reasons for us to quit. The work is too hard, it’s too painful; a jillion other people are doing the same thing better; we’re too old, too young. We’re not worthy!
If we dawdle on our first draft, even good news can destroy us. A raise, a new baby, a winning lottery ticket. Aw shit, there goes our symphony.
Cover the canvas. If our new piece is “The Last Supper,” sketch in the apostles, lay in Jesus, get the table down. Don’t sweat the details. It doesn’t matter if Matthew’s hair isn’t right, or Peter’s left hand has four fingers. We’ll fix that later. Get the picture down. Cover the canvas.
Some smart sonofabitch once said, “There’s no such thing as writing, only re-writing.” He was wrong. The first draft is writing. Pure blue-sky, blank-sheet writing. But he was right too. Because after Draft #1, it’s all rewriting.
Our priority in the first draft is to beat Resistance. Quality is secondary. Brilliance can come later. Get something down, however crappy, that looks roughly like a book, a doctoral dissertation, a new business proposal. Once we’ve got that, we’re over the hump.
Advancing on Baghdad
Gen. James Mattis commanded the 1st Marine Division in Operation Iraqi Freedom. His mission was to capture Baghdad and remove Saddam Hussein from power. His plan was exactly like ours for writing a first draft. (This was the same scheme, by the way, employed by Gen. Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm, Erwin Rommel in the blitzkrieg conquest of France, and Caesar and Alexander in every battle they ever fought.)
Gen. Mattis made known his “commander’s intent.” Here’s what he told his Marines: speed is everything, keep advancing no matter what; if we hit resistance, bypass it; keep rolling north, stop for nothing.
When Mattis and his Marines were trying to do was to demoralize the enemy and weaken his will to resist. Mattis wanted to sow panic among the foe by moving his attacking forces so fast that the enemy would believe that nothing could stop them. It worked. Iraqi soldiers defending Al Kut and An Nasiriyah went into battle wearing civilian clothes under their uniforms, so they could bolt at the first chance and melt back into the populace.
When our “commander’s intent” is Cover The Canvas, we’ve got a powerful directive ordering our priorities. Get to the finish line. Don’t stop. Bypass problem spots. Keep advancing.
Why Cover the Canvas works
The genius of this conception is twofold. First, we discover that the strongpoints we’ve bypassed often melt away by themselves. Second, once we’ve reached our objective, however shakily, the enemy frequently gives up. He can’t believe we’re on his doorstep. He waves the white flag.
Our enemy as artists is Resistance. If we make the mistake in our first draft of playing perfectionist, if we agonize over syntax and take a week to finish Chapter One, by the time we’ve reached Chapter Four, we’ll have hit the wall. Resistance will beat us.
But if we can stay nimble and keep advancing, slapping paint on the canvas and words on the page till we’ve got something that works from east to west and north to south, however imperfectly, then we’re like Mattis’ Marines on the threshold of Baghdad. True, we’ve got plenty more fighting to do, but at least we’re here. We’ve got something we can work with.
Cover the canvas.