Lilly Dancyger Wants You to Embrace Your Bad First Draft

Resisting the urge to self-edit to the point of paralysis, and other writing advice

In our series “Can Writing Be Taught?” we partner with Catapult to ask their course instructors all our burning questions about the process of teaching writing. This time we’re talking to Lilly Dancyger, editor at Narratively and author of the forthcoming memoir Negative Space. Lilly’s next Catapult class is an online nonfiction workshop about how to make your messy life into a neat life story—but she’s got another nonfiction workshop immediately after that one, and another one after that. Check out her upcoming classes here.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?

I did a weekend workshop with Lidia Yuknavitch at the Corporeal Writing center in Portland, and she talked about how we all have core metaphors that we return to over and over again in our work. The way she talked about examining the same concepts or images from different angles—potentially forever—made me realize that I wasn’t returning to the same things in my writing over and over because I was bad and stupid and had limited ideas… But because I’d discovered my core metaphors and was writing into them, discovering something new each time. It was such a nourishing and affirming thing to hear, and it really shifted my perspective on my own work. I actually wrote about that workshop and everything it unlocked for me in my memoir, Negative Space (which is forthcoming from the Santa Fe Writers Project in 2021! This is a plug!). 

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?

You know, I can’t really think of anything! I’ve always been good at identifying when advice is not useful for me and immediately flushing it out of my mind. So I’m sure I’ve gotten bad feedback or advice in classes and workshops before, but I’ve intentionally and completely forgotten it!

What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?

Your only task for a first draft is to put words on a page.

I am constantly reminding students (and myself) that first drafts are supposed to suck. If you’re self-editing along the way it’s almost impossible to ever finish anything! Your only task for a first draft is to put words on a page. Try to resist judgement, and just get something down so you have something to work with—then you can hack it to bits and find the soft spots and rearrange it and do all the fun and grueling work of writing. 

Does everyone “have a novel in them”?

Eh, no. Or maybe yes, but they don’t all need to come out. 

Would you ever encourage a student to give up writing? Under what circumstances?

I don’t think I could bring myself to do it. Even if what they’re doing right now isn’t working, or I don’t see how it’s working, I don’t think highly enough of myself to believe I have the authority to tell someone to stop trying. I do sometimes push students to consider what they’re trying to accomplish, whether they’re in the right place at this moment/working with the right material to accomplish it, etc. I will encourage them to shift their lens, try a different approach, but I don’t think I’d tell anyone to quit.

What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?

Both are valuable—sometimes you really are on the right track and just need that affirmed by someone who’s not personally invested in your work (friends telling you you’re doing great is so easy to doubt and disregard). But most of the time you’ll get more out of honest criticism than you will out of general, bland praise. Asking for feedback and hearing only “it’s great!” is so frustrating and useless. I respect my students enough to tell them the truth and challenge them to get better. 

Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?

I think that depends on where they are in their development as a writer. If you’re just getting started and getting a feel for a new genre or for writing in general—try to just play for a while. It can take some time to find your voice and get comfortable. But if you’re a little further along than that and you’re taking a class to push yourself or hone specific skills, then I think having a particular publication in mind can really help clarify what you’re aiming for. It can provide models to work from, and a goal to work toward, both of which can be so helpful. 

In one or two sentences, what’s your opinion of these writing maxims?

  • Kill your darlings: I don’t kill my darlings, I just banish them to a scrap document from which I may or may not someday rescue them for a future project. 
  • Show don’t tell: An oversimplification that’s too often treated as gospel. It’s useful because for many beginners telling is the first instinct, and they need this reminder as a way to nudge them toward balance—but the goal is balance, not all showing and no telling.
  • Write what you know: Sure, but also write to discover. 
  • Character is plot: This one feels fiction-specific, so I can’t really speak to it. I have only ever written one piece of fiction and it was godawful and will never see the light of day.

What’s the best hobby for writers?

When I get tired and fed up with writing, drawing something, even badly, feels like such a treat.

I love switching to something else creative that doesn’t involve words—when I get tired and fed up with writing, drawing something, even badly, feels like such a treat and can get my brain working again.

Also anything that gets you out of the house once in a while, I guess! I used to play a lot of pool, but that fell off since I don’t hang out in bars anymore. Maybe I should start going to pool halls during the day…

What’s the best workshop snack?

I have severe misophonia so the sound of people eating is actual torture for me. I can’t hold onto a thought while horrible wet smacking and squishing sounds are happening, so I ask students not to eat in class when I’m teaching in person. Sorry! But when I’m writing at home alone I eat a probably/definitely unhealthy amount of peanut butter pretzels and chocolate. 

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