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Crappy First Drafts of Great Books

Good books begin as bad drafts.

Charles Dickens at work

When I teach freshman writing, my first job is to destroy my students' illusions. TV shows and films give them the dangerous idea that great authors just wait to get inspired, and then genius pours out of their pens in an unstoppable flood. The reality is different. Writers—especially the great ones—mostly sit at desks feeling rotten, struggling to write crumpled sentences that they can smooth into something acceptable. (This may be part of the reason that writers have higher rates of substance abuse, depression, and suicide). The science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut wrote hilarious, poignant novels like Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Galapagos. But most days he didn't feel like a poignant genius. "When I write," Vonnegut said, "I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth."

So the next time you are struggling with your own writing—if only in an important email or Facebook post—recall this selection of pages from the drafts of great novels. Take solace in the fact that almost all the stories you love began as bad first drafts. And ask yourself, "If writing is a struggle for immortals like Proust and Dickens, why should it be different for me?"

From draft of Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past"

From draft of John Updike's "Couples"

From draft of J. G. Ballard's "Crash"

From draft of Dickens' "Great Expectations"

From draft of Shirley Hazzard's "The Great Fire"

Jonathan Gottschall is the author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.

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