“I’ve never had so much fun and freedom drawing! I’m going to keep a trash can next to my easel from now on.” The effusive young woman seated across from me was a far cry from the frustrated ball of nerves I had encountered a week before.
The trash can wins every time.
This student had received lifelong praise for her artistic ability, but years of cultivating this identity, along with a perfectionist streak, caused her to hate her art. She wanted to write her college admissions essay about her evolving relationship with her artwork, so I urged her to take an initial step before she put fingers to keys: Draw as if the work would go directly from her easel to the trash. At our next session, she emerged with a happier relationship to her artwork, and also developed some great insights for her essay.
In the decade before and the decade since, I have successfully coached hundreds of anxious college applicants and other writers. Their eagerness (and anxiety) to please their audience almost always creates a stumbling block to telling their most effective story.
I think every writer has this same issue at one point or another, no matter what their topic or format. They are so focused on writing exactly what they think their audience wants that they lose all the joy and creativity that comes with the act of writing.
So I encourage every writer I encounter to “write for the trash can.”
The trash can version of your writing will never see the light of day, so it’s your friend.
The trash can asks only that you feed it something, and it doesn’t need anything smart or funny or pretty. Just something. And the best way to do that is to write with abandon and indifference.
Writing for the trash can fits into my general approach to the writing process: Make a mess, then clean it up. You make the mess to have fun, get in gear, and create juicy bits to work with; worrying too much about your audience at this stage can stymie your productivity and creativity.
All that you need to do to write for the trash can is take some paper, write on it, and then ball it up as if you plan to throw it out.
For many people, this physicality gets us partially out of our heads, which can be a boon to creativity, and at the very least feels like we are doing something, which can feel good if we are stuck. Many writers find that the physical act of writing is enough to get moving and prime up our creative juices.
Write down your musings or your fits and starts. Doodle or draw a “mind map” or schematic detail of a piece if words aren’t coming quickly, or if you find yourself censoring and editing as you write. Just keep moving your pen. If something feels like it’s not flowing, crumple it up and start over. But don’t throw out your pile of crumpled paper — it might contain some treasures for later.
Not a fan of your handwriting, love to hear the sound of clicking keys, or feel that writing by hand is just too slow? No problem. Open up a new file and call it “Shitty first draft of ____.” (“Shitty first draft” is one of my favorite technical terms, coined by Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott.)
Then start typing. Just keep moving, without judgment of whether you are writing trash or treasure. The physical act of typing works like the physical act of putting pen to paper. As long as your hands are moving, you’re getting something done.
The act of simply getting words down is the most important step in the writer-based part of the writing process. For many people, writing and thought are so linked that writing generates, and oftentimes clarifies, our thinking. So write as if you and your trash can are the only audience.
Writing for the trash can may feel like an unnecessary step for seasoned writers, but I think we can all use the sense of optimism that comes with seeing words show up on paper or screen and that feeling of physically writing.
At some point (whether you wait five minutes, five days, or five months), you will need to sort through that mess and discover what you think your readers need to hear. Cleaning up your writing still requires curiosity and kindness toward your work (and yourself). Knowing that the work was designed to be trash can help promote a neutrality toward your work; you will be less likely to dismiss usable material. Eventually, you will move toward reader-based prose.
In addition to getting you started on a writing project, writing for the trash has the effect of advancing your work for emotional, creative, and practical reasons. Let’s consider them in turn:
Writing is among the most personal practices out there. Whether we write by hand, dictate, or type, writing transforms our thoughts and emotions from our brains, through our bodies, and out into the world. Thus, the tasks involved as we travel from inspiration to the final product can incite a range of emotional reactions. Writing for the trash, which provides a neutral audience, can tone down the emotionality of the process, for a few reasons:
Many of us shut down in the face of a daunting task, or in front of what we think of as an intimidating audience. By giving yourself permission to write garbage, you take anxiety out of the equation.
When we perceive a threat (in this case, a tough audience), our parasympathetic nerve chain activates our stress response, and our nervous system gets kicked into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. While most writers won’t fight their computers, we usually do want to flee, or freeze up. Writing for the trash can bring down the sense of threat associated with writing for a specific audience, meaning we can calm down and fill our writing with ideas, insights, and sometimes plain old crap.
For many writers, a daunting audience can keep us from getting started. Or, it can cause us to self-edit and censor so much that we accomplish little, or rack up harsh judgment toward our process and work. Writing for the trash can is a get-your-ass-in-gear strategy that promotes a sense of being productive. For many of us, this productivity in and of itself feels validating. In this way, writing can offset any of the shame-spirals at the heart of procrastination.
Writing for the trash gives you a sense of accomplishment, which in turn, creates the momentum to drive more accomplishment. You have written something, even if it’s a shitty something, and for many people, that provides the momentum to write something that makes them proud.
Moreover, if you are someone who finds great value in the revision process, you will feel like you have an abundance of raw materials with which to work. Write for the trash can to feel accomplished so you can plow on and get to the juicy stuff.
With your mind and hands (whether by pen or keyboard) temporarily liberated from the yoke of high standards and self-editing in the moment, you can not only get moving, but make the kind of mess that can produce lots of juicy material.
Embedded in the pile of garbage that you might produce, you will likely find really good ideas for your piece. When you are free to create garbage, more garbage emerges, but, of course, it’s not all trash.
As you sift through your ideas, you may find that you have some that won’t fit into the current framework. You can save those for future work. But you will likely also find lots of material that will work for the current project. More so than if you did the kind of editing while writing that can restrict your thinking and the flow of ideas.
It’s a lot easier to find your authorial voice when you don’t feel like you are performing for an intimidating audience. This is the case even if the audience is all in your mind, due to having set impossibly high standards for yourself. When you go to edit, you can always shift your voice or tone it down, depending on the context.
When you move along at a quick clip, it’s easier for you to develop material that your self-editing, straightforward writing self cannot produce. If you are capable of seeing patterns in your ideas and your work, you are more likely to make clearer connections during the editing phase. Then, you can identify patterns and insights about your work as you begin to clean up your gorgeous mess.
Although it may seem counter-intuitive to go through a messy process at first (Isn’t it more efficient to edit while writing?), the habit of writing for the trash can has practical benefits. This stance toward early writing enables a free flow that not only produces a volume of text, it also helps create more gems for your writing project. And once you develop clear and efficient habits of cleaning up your mess, your writing will become more efficient.
When you write for the trash, you are producing material, and it’s generally more than you will need. Much of it will likely be garbage, but some will turn out to be treasure. Unlike the process of trying to start with the final audience in mind, when you write for the trash, you stand a good chance of producing workable material for your current piece.
When you finally sift through what you’ve written, your trash can drafts can prove more precious than gold. All that garbage is likely to produce material for other pieces of writing.
I like to keep a notebook with a list of future projects, and as I edit and discern what’s useful for a particular writing task, I also keep track of what’s usable for these future projects. This approach assures that you will have more to write about for a good while.
The more seasoned you become at the practice of writing quickly and with abandon, the more efficient your writing will become. Getting faster and more efficient comes as good news for those of us who write with high production in mind.
Trying to write in a way that perfectly pleases your audience can cause stress and anxiety in any writer, regardless of experience level. One of the best things you can do to alleviate that stress is to write for your trash each day.
By writing for the trash, you will:
When you’re done with your trash writing, you can read through it for anything you can pull out then, or you can save it for review later.
As a writer, even if you indulge in the luxury of storing all your garbage on your hard drive, you might want to keep a ream of paper next to you, along with a recycling bin. After you have produced your daily wad of trash, draw a happy face on the paper, then smooth it back out to read later.
Donna Kirschner, PhD. has coached writing for over 20 years. Trained as an anthropologist, she has a knack for helping people find their stories and put them into a wider perspective. She coaches all aspects of writing, and especially loves helping people make a mess and clean it up. Find her on her blog, or check out her writing coaching business.