Loosening the Reins

We all know what Anne Lamott says… “The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

Working on it, Anne!

But here’s the thing. She also says this:

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go-but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

This month, I’m finding myself thinking more and more about what Anne talks about here, and I’m reminding myself to loosen the reins on my writing. I don’t usually have much of a battle with my inner editor over prose, but about heading into a story without knowing pretty well where I’m headed, well, that’s where I get into conflict. Not with my editor, but with my muse. We frequently have words. It usually goes something like this.

MUSE: Just write. Be creative. It’ll come. I promise.

ME: Just write? Are you crazy? I have no idea what is supposed to happen in this scene, who my hero’s supposed to be in conflict with, what she WANTS, where she’s heading next.

MUSE: Just write. Be creative. You can answer those questions in the second draft. (And the third. And the fourth.)

ME: What if I can’t, even then? What if it never comes together?

MUSE: Just write. Be…

You get the picture. She can be annoyingly repetitive.

Here’s the thing. What Anne is talking about above is trust–in the muse, or in the process, or in the skills you have been developing over the years. Logically, rationally, I believe in all these things. I believe it will come, and I will see the patterns, and I will get them on the page. But emotionally…yeah. Trust.

Mostly, I have that, too. It takes me a day or so of scrabbling around on the page, with each new scene, trying to force things into place before I’m ready, but then I whack myself upside the head and say… “Shitty, Becky. Anne said, ‘shitty.'” And the only way to even get shitty on the page is to actually write.


I’ve ridden a few times. I am not a horse person, although I did my share of galloping around the playground when I was a little girl. I had friends with REAL horses, and you know–they’re VERY tall and VERY fast. When I’m on a real horse, I’m all about pretending I do have control, about holding those reins still and not moving a leg until I’m totally ready to send that animal a signal. And then I’m all about hanging onto the pommel and doing my best to let that horse know I’m perfectly happy at a walk. No trot needed, and we seriously don’t need to gallop.

When I write, I remind myself to loosen up on those reins and give the horse its head.  I might fall off (but, honestly, THAT’S not going to hurt as much as the real thing, thank you very much!), and I’m sure to give the horse a few misleading cues, but mostly that horse is going to amble along, letting me lurch back and forth on its sun-warmed back, and it’s going to take me along a few different, maybe confusing trails. If I’m lucky, it’s going to toss its head and run a little crazy.

Horse football

At some point, though, that horse is going to smell the barn. Or the stable. Or the paddock. (WhatEVER!). And it’s going to head home and take me with it. And I’ll know more about the places that we’ve been together than I could have ever imagined when I put my foot into the stirrup and pulled myself up into the saddle.

And that’s when I’ll start over, pulling all the shit together into something better. That’s what I trust in. That it will happen, even if I can’t see it today.

Right? Of course right!


  1. I love Anne Lamott. Glad to hear you’re getting your shit together 😀


  2. Enjoy letting go! And as someone who got thrown from a horse the first time I tried to cantor, I am a bit skiddish about letting go. Bet you didn’t notice. 😉

    (I even landed on my feet but still…) I like being in control.


    • beckylevine says:

      You’re letting go beautifully! I’ve fallen off at least one horse. When we went to Zion National Park (or Bryce?), my pony insisted on following my sister’s pony. Which would have been fine if my sister’s pony didn’t LOVE walking to the VERY edge and looking down into those deep canyons. Again–the horse is in control!


      • Oh, wow! I’d so die right there at the edge of the canyon. I walked down the trail to the Kalaupapa leprosy settlement because I was too scared to ride a mule. What if one of them got spooked and threw me out into the water – thousands of feet below?


        • beckylevine says:

          My older sister got a mule, and–supposedly more “sure-footed” than the ponies, it walked along THE EDGE THE ENTIRE TIME. Freaked me out!


  3. I love Anne Lamott, and love your post on trust.

    I’ve ridden horses too, not very well (and never gracefully).

    And, I’ve been scribbling around on pages, too, trying to get it all together before I sit down for that next draft – worried those questions about story & character won’t get answered in this draft. So, thanks for the reminder that sometimes those answers come in draft two, but sometimes not until draft three or four.


    • beckylevine says:

      Yeah, I know that–trying to get it all together. I’m okay, usually, once I start writing, but driving in the car or cleaning house–all the things I haven’t figured out yet come rushing in. Maybe I should just stop cleaning house! 🙂


  4. Jenn Hubbard says:

    I think that sometimes the really good stuff throws up a protective barrier around itself. And that’s why we have to put a bunch of junk on the page–we’re wading through the randomness, the guards, and once we get that out of the way, the good stuff has no choice but to follow, and finally show up on the page.


    • beckylevine says:

      Do you think that’s protective for the stuff, or for us? I’m beginning to think it’s the latter–that this is the book where just about everybody has a piece of me in them, and I’d better dig down to it!


  5. Jeanie W says:

    I flew off the back of a horse the first time I rode at a gallop. I landed on the back of my head. Good thing I was wearing a riding helmet. I actually felt most of the impact on the bridge of my nose from the way the helmet shifted forward.

    Maybe that’s why I’m an outliner. 🙂 Seriously, I prefer to carry a trail map when I head out of the stableyard. I do occasionally deviate from the route I’ve plotted (and the extra bit of sightseeing stays in the novel if it enhances the journey), but I’ve gotta know my ultimate destination. I used to travel without a map and found myself wandering aimlessly for years.


    • beckylevine says:

      It’s why I outline, too, Jeanie. This story just feels so complex, though, especially character-wise, that I’m having to go way beyond what the outline says to get anywhere. New battles! 🙂


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