The Importance of First Drafts

Dear readers, 


This December marked my five-year anniversary of living off-grid on three acres of tropical rainforest in rural Hawaii.  It’s the longest relationship I’ve had with a place since leaving my parents' house at seventeen, and the first time I’ve been solely responsible not only for maintaining a home, but for building one from the ground up—painting every board, laying every stone, and slowly coaxing the magic of running water and electricity out of previously-inscrutable piles of wire, fuses, and PVC pipes. 

A few months ago, I decided to build a solid roof over my bed to replace the tent I had been sleeping in ever since I moved onto the land. I hauled in the lumber and hardware, and my next-door neighbor framed in a simple shoebox of a structure with a sturdy metal roof and half-walls on two sides to let in light and air. Over the holidays, I caulked and painted, stapled mosquito screens across the openings in the half-walls, and finally retrieved my grandmother’s painting from a friend’s house and hung it on the wall. 

For most of the five years I’ve lived on my land, the infrastructure has been provisional and haphazard—temporary placeholders propping up yet more temporary placeholders. The kitchen sink is held up by two sawhorses, its faucet hooked up to a garden hose. A handful of nails banged into a two-by-four passes for a tool rack; a length of PVC pipe suspended between two hooks serves as a closet; a couple of old wooden boxes stacked one on top of the other functions as a staircase, provided you have good balance.  

At the time that I put these things in place, they felt like amazing improvements: no more washing dishes in a five-gallon bucket, or storing clothes in garbage bags. Now, I am slowly replacing these resourceful but flimsy solutions with sturdier successors—overwriting my exuberant but sloppy first draft with something a little more elegant, sure-footed, and pleasant to behold. 



Creativity takes many forms, but I’ve found it to be an essential practice to a happy and fulfilling life. And whether you’re building a homestead, choreographing a dance piece, establishing a spiritual practice, or writing a book, chances are you’re going to go through one or several first drafts before arriving at the final expression of your vision. Our early attempts are sometimes exuberant and bursting with beginner’s luck; other times, they’re halting and uncertain, bits and pieces coming together as we feel our way through the dark. We know there’s something juicy in there, and we have a feeling if we just try a little bit of this and a little bit of that, we can slowly summon it into existence. As a writer and editor, I am well-acquainted with first drafts with their endless placeholders and notes-to-self. Need better anecdote to illustrate this point, I’ll write. Or, End-of-chapter exercise will go here. 

A first draft often looks like one long to-do list: Fix this! Replace that! See if this works better over there! You call your creative vision into being by sketching out what will be there someday, erecting a crude version of it as you go, while promising to eventually replace those preliminary gestures with the real thing. You dream, ruminate, and gather inspiration from others who have trodden a similar path—and you make endless lists of what you’ll do to make your creation even better. 

Every now and then, a little piece of the final version will make itself known to you: a few paragraphs that just happened to come out right the first time, a chord progression you feel confident about, an aspect of your project that just makes sense. These moments of clarity offer a sneak preview of the polished gem to come, and often give us just enough encouragement to keep going through the more difficult aspects of the work. Starting at one of those solid points, you can slowly claim more and more territory, coaxing the rest of your creation into being. 

Although the decisions involved in undertaking a creative project seem endless, an infinite fractal of possibilities that can easily overwhelm even a seasoned artist or creative, each new point of clarity helps to narrow those options down. Huge structural decisions give way to modest organizational ones, which in turn yield to subtler aesthetic ones. What was once an unwieldly and impossible jumble of ideas mysteriously transforms into a generous, coherent, and meaningful work of art; a contribution that might help, inspire, or even shelter someone, someday. 



The platform on which my tent used to sit, and on which my shoebox now stands, was the first point of clarity in the process of drafting my homestead. When I first arrived on my land, I had no idea how long I would stay here, or what kind of shelter I’d need. All I knew was that I had to get above the thick brown mud that swallowed my boots to the ankle every time I took a step.  

My need to be dry was so urgent that I couldn’t afford to spend weeks carefully evaluating where the platform should go. Instead, I picked a spot, cleared a few spindly guava trees that were standing in the way, and banged the thing together. As it so happens, I was lucky: the spot I chose has worked well over the years, the surrounding trees providing both privacy and shade.  

Having just one permanent element of my homestead in place gave me an anchor point from which to build the rest. The overwhelming fractal of possibilities resolved itself into a somewhat smaller subset of options; I set about plotting other chapters, and sketching out where other elements of my homestead would go. Any visitor to the land could see that my vision was far from realized, the tarps and sawhorses dragged to more promising locations every month or so; yet every now and then, a new point of clarity would emerge, and like a constellation revealing itself amid the stars, the final shape of my home began to come through. 

Now that the tent is gone, I am slowly replacing many of the other original features of my home: that ridiculous sink, those dangerous stairs. As I erase the exuberant, ramshackle, sometimes-bewildering traces of my first draft, I feel grateful for the way these things held space for the better versions to come. These structures didn’t come out perfectly the first time, and they didn’t need to—like the placeholders in a manuscript, their job was to say, Do this thing, but better; and by their mere existence, to give me the confidence that I could. 



Few artists know exactly what they’re going to say when they pick up a paintbrush, tune their guitars, or sit down to write a book, but the process of creation teaches them. Following our creative passions challenges us to go beyond what we already know and become more capable than we already are. In our first drafts, we throw our intelligence into a kind of sandbox, saying, Go play, go try things! I trust that you’ll figure it out. Eventually, a handful of words becomes a song; a hazy vision becomes a clearly defined path, and a determined amateur becomes a knowledgeable practitioner. 

When I decided to build the shoebox, I wondered if I would feel nostalgic for the tent which so defined my first five years on the land. But now that I’m sleeping under a solid roof, I’ve discovered that I feel no more nostalgic for the tent than for one of the many haphazard and provisional first drafts which have passed across my desk as a writer and editor. The books that emerged out of those drafts were far superior to the drafts themselves; and the shoebox is indisputably superior to the tent. 

First drafts aren’t meant to be clung to. Like seedpods, they are meant to break down and fade away when the true flower emerges. We might look back fondly on planting those seeds, but we would never trade the flower to get the seed back again. Once they’ve served their purpose, first drafts disappear; it’s our job to let them go, even as we honor their role in bringing the final version to life. 

In this new year, I look forward to keeping authors company as they transform their own first drafts into sturdy, beautiful, and worthy books. May your own seeds of inspiration receive the water they need to bloom—in whatever form your creativity takes—and may you perceive the potential in those first, uncertain gestures towards your vision, no matter how approximate they are. 



Hilary Smith 

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing 

The Power of Story

Dear Readers,


As long as I can remember, I’ve collected people’s stories. Whether it’s a close friend or a stranger I’ll never see again, there are few experiences I treasure more than sitting up late in a darkened kitchen, or riding a bus through an endless sunrise, listening to someone tell me about their life. I’ll gobble up as many stories as they’ll give me, and ask as many questions as they’ll let me: What did you do next? How did you decide? What did the other person say? How did you find your way back again?

I think my love for stories arose in part due to my very orderly and predictable childhood. My parents were cautious and well-organized, with backup plans for their backup plans. Everything went according to the script; it was extremely rare for anything unexpected, dangerous, or exciting to happen. As an adult, I can appreciate the benefits of so much safety and orderliness, which allowed me to thrive at school and in my extracurricular pursuits. But as a child and teenager, I sometimes felt suffocated by the routine. It seemed to me that all the good stories belonged to other people—people who’d lived more dangerously and contended with higher stakes. I’ve spent most of my life seeking those people out and warming my hands on their stories, like a campfire whose flames I can admire but never quite possess.

Lucky for me, the remote off-grid community in rural Hawaii that I call home is teeming with stories. Anyone who’s visited this place even once has a story about it, and the people who live here never seem to run out. No matter how many times I hear about the afternoon a pair of neighbors blocked the water head so they could gather prawns from the streambed, only to have another neighbor stumble across the makeshift dam and “helpfully” unblock it, I never get bored. Told one after another, the stories form their own hypnotic music, casting a spell of belonging, remembering, and appreciation. I love nothing more than to be surrounded by this music, soaking it in, letting it saturate my consciousness. I hope someday to be part of it, woven into it, my own thread joining all the others and tying me to this place.



A few weeks ago, I was chatting with an acquaintance—a friend of my neighbor’s—when he told me one of the best stories I’ve heard in months. One day, my acquaintance and his friend hiked out to visit my neighbor, since they lacked the truck required to make it down the steep four-wheel drive road to his house. But when they got there, after walking through the forest for a little over an hour, my neighbor wasn’t home. They sat down in his living room and played a board game to pass the time while they waited for him to appear.

Night fell, and my neighbor still hadn’t arrived. Unsure if he was coming at all, his friends decided to hike back to their car—but the only flashlights they could find were almost out of batteries, their light faint and weak. It was a new moon, and the forest was completely dark. “I know,” said one of them, “Let’s turn the flashlights on for a second, then run to the edge of where we saw the light fall.” They set out, turning their flashlights on for just long enough to see the next fifty feet of road, then running through the darkness to the edge of where the flashlight beam had fallen. The whole time, it seemed to my acquaintance that they were being followed through the dark woods by some otherworldly presence—the Night Marchers of Hawaiian legend.

This jog through the darkness seemed to last forever. The thong on somebody’s sandal tore out; a set of keys was dropped and groped for and found again. Had they taken a wrong turn? It hadn’t felt this long when they did it in the daylight. And why did it feel like they were being watched, followed, tracked?

Just when they were about to reach their car, sweaty and unnerved, a pair of headlights appeared. It was my neighbor, coming home in his truck after a long day in town.

Although this isn’t a sad story, I tear up when I think of it. There’s something about those weak and fading flashlight beams, illuminating the road for a split second, that I find deeply moving. I love the image of two friends running through the darkness together, pursued by Night Marchers, lending each other the courage and boldness neither of them would have possessed on their own. There’s an innocence and exuberance to the adventure that reminds me of my favorite children’s books. I imagine some plucky frog or talking mouse turning to his companion and saying, I know! Let’s turn on the flashlights for one second at a time! And of course, there’s the happy ending, when the travelers are safely reunited with their friend.



Many years ago, I took a trip to a remote beach with my partner at the time. Our truck flipped over when he attempted to drive up an extremely steep and tilted off-road track. After crawling out the shattered windows, we sat on the grass in a daze, not speaking. Night was falling, and there was no one around. Wanting to enjoy a day of freedom from the screen, I hadn’t brought my phone, and his had flown out of the truck and been crushed under the side view mirror. We were well and truly stranded.

It took a while for us to recover from the shock, much less formulate a plan. Should we sleep right there, beside the ruined truck, and figure out what to do in the morning? Should we hike out to the main road and flag someone down? The road was so far away, and there was no guarantee that anyone would come along at this hour, much less stop to help us.

I felt distressed by the sight of the wreck, and spooked by the thought of spending a sure-to-be-sleepless night in the grassy dunes above the beach. There was a full moon, and I thought it might feel good to walk—grounding, even. Perhaps we’d get lucky and hitch a ride home, where we could gather the tools and supplies we needed to deal with the mess. My partner didn’t have a better idea so, salvaging what we could from the truck, we set out for the road.

As we limped along the dirt trail, the tall grasses whispering all around us and the ocean below pale with moonlight, I realized this was the most present my partner and I had been in months—with each other, and with life itself. We’d both been moving at a hundred miles an hour, caught up in the stress and chaos of moving to a new place. But the accident forced us to slow down. Walking above the moonlit beach, I felt more at peace than I’d been in months. I felt grateful to be alive—not just in the sense of having survived the accident, but in the awakening of my senses to the warm air, the fragrant grass, and the soft dirt beneath my feet.

Suddenly, I felt deep appreciation for every little thing: the sweater and snacks I’d packed that morning before setting out, the fact that it wasn’t raining. I felt grateful to sit in the back of the white Prius that stopped to pick us up when we finally got to the main road, even though it was going in the opposite direction from where we wanted to go; grateful for the cheap motel where we spent the night, for the shower and little bar of soap, and the paper bag of papayas at the front desk. The “disaster” had shocked me out of my mental preoccupations and returned me to my body. The truck was broken, but my soul had been restored.



As an editor at Hierophant, I work primarily with self-help and spirituality books, where the author’s own story often supports and illustrates their message. I feel grateful to be entrusted with these stories, which are often deeply personal. We’re all running through the dark with only the occasional, precious flash of light to keep us going; we’re all doing our best to make the most of that light, and to do right by the friends with whom we share it. Reading and listening to people’s stories, I’m reminded over and over of the basic truths of life: the importance of humility, generosity, patience, and courage; the value of friendship; the kindness of strangers; the grace of the unexpected. It is a blessing to be reminded of these things.

This summer, may you all hear stories which move and inspire you—and may you all have just enough light to make it to the end of the road.



Hilary Smith

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing

Pruning Trees, Words, & Life

Dear readers,


My land here in Hawaii is bordered by a guava thicket. The first year I lived here, I gathered entire buckets of the round, fleshy fruit, and spent many happy afternoons making juice and jelly. The following year, I eagerly awaited the return of guava season, only to discover that the harvest was rather smaller. The third year, I hardly gathered any guavas at all—the ones I found had all fallen from a great height, smashed open on the ground, and rotted. 

I was puzzled by this change in my guava fortunes. The trees were healthy and fast-growing. Why wasn’t I getting the abundant fruit which had so delighted me in Year One? 

After consulting the internet, I found my answer: Guavas only grow on new branches, not on old wood. With every passing year, the trees were growing taller, and the new branches were appearing higher and higher off the ground, until the fruit was so far out of reach it was as if the trees weren’t fruiting at all. 



I researched how to prune them. I felt some trepidation about cutting off so many apparently healthy branches. But the sources I consulted were clear: when it came to getting healthy, accessible fruit, the old wood had to go. I added some bar oil to my smallest, handiest chain saw, sharpened my loppers, and went to work on my guava thicket. Before I knew it, I was standing next to a pile of branches nearly as tall as I was. Where the thicket had been dense and impenetrable, it was now airy and open. I could see the sky where the over-tall trees had blocked it before. Returning my tools to the shed, I felt a flicker of nervous excitement. What had I done? Had I gone too far? Would this really work? 

I thought it would take months to see new growth on the guava trees. But a flush of new branches appeared almost overnight, skinny and smooth and shining with clean new leaves. I picked some of the young leaves, which are highly medicinal, and brewed them as tea. Meanwhile, I waited for the next crop of fruit to appear. When summer came, the new branches had thickened, and round yellow guavas appeared within easy reach of where I stood on the ground. Far from damaging the trees, the heavy pruning had stimulated them to grow. 

Sometimes, the fruit we long for is waiting to appear—as soon as we cut off the old wood. This is true in life as well as in horticulture. I think often of the times in my own life when I’ve pruned old wood, whether by moving away from a beloved town, leaving a relationship in which I’d invested heavily, or setting aside a project which had consumed my energy for years. I remember the trepidation I felt at the prospect of each pruning: How can I take down that branch? What if I kill the whole tree?  

It took me a long time to understand that, just like the guava trees, my life would not only grow back, but flourish in the wake of every shock. We tend to think of loss as a negative thing, but skillful deletion is a highly creative act. Empty spaces hum with potential. Although the forms of life can be altered or destroyed, the force of life remains undiminished. Life wants to grow back. All we have to do is let it.  



As an editor, I’m keenly aware of the ways that courageous pruning can allow a book’s true message to emerge. Sometimes, we have to bravely wield the saw, cutting off entire sections of a manuscript which may have been necessary in the first draft stage but are no longer serving a purpose in the final version. No matter how interesting or well-researched a given section may be, it needs to go if it’s not giving readers something nourishing, memorable, and necessary—in other words, the branch gets pruned if it’s not producing fruit. 

Just this week, I took a two-hundred-and-eighty-page manuscript and trimmed it down to a hundred-and-seventy-five pages. Even though I am confident that this pruning will result in a beautiful, focused, productive book, I must admit I felt a few moments of vertigo as I watched the word count dropping precipitously with every cut. Would the author be shocked when she saw the enormous pile of branches I’d removed from her tree? Or would she trust me when I told her that the tree was now stronger, healthier, and soon to be overflowing with fruit? 

As a project moves along, the prunings become more subtle: a sentence here, a word there. It always amazes me how even these subtle deletions can dramatically alter the feeling of a book, lifting unnecessary weight, injecting lightness, and allowing the beauty of the language to shine through. It’s tempting to think that an extra word or sentence won’t make any difference, but as the extraneous material falls away, I swear I can hear a book breathing. 



This Thanksgiving, I was invited to stay on a remote piece of land in a part of Hawaii that few people get to see. Accessible only by helicopter, it is the site of an ancient Hawaiian village, and has many beautiful waterfalls and archeological features, which a small team of stewards are restoring. One of the stewards took me for a walk around the land, showing me the rock walls he’d rebuilt, the agricultural terraces he’d restored, and the ancient stone walking path he’d uncovered from under layers of brush. 

This person had lived and breathed this restoration project for several decades. His knowledge of plants, aquaculture techniques, and archeological features was exhaustive. I commented on the fact that he seemed intimately bound to the land, to the point that I could scarcely imagine the project going on without him. I was stunned when he shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Nah. One of these days, I’m going to walk away, and they’ll carry on without me just fine.” 

It was humbling to listen as this master stonemason explained to me that when he rebuilt a wall or restored a terrace, that was it—he was done. Why hang around and gaze at his creations, impressive as they were? Those branches had fruited, and were now spent. It made no sense to linger for the sake of lingering, to hang on to what was finished when life is constantly urging us to begin again. His love for the land was deep and genuine, but he had no fear of leaving it, knowing there were an infinite number of places he could love. 




I realized that the artists and spiritual teachers from whom I’ve learned the most all share this quality of detachment. It’s novice writers who cling to the words they already have on the page, not trusting themselves to generate equally good or better material to replace what has been deleted—master writers can cut with confidence, knowing there’s more where that came from. The spiritual masters on whose books I’ve been lucky enough to work at Hierophant emphasize the importance of embracing change. They remind us that our lives come with us wherever we go, and whatever we do.  

This quality of detachment requires a deep trust in life. At the same time, practicing detachment is the best way I’ve found to gain trust in life, if you don’t already have it. Cut a paragraph or chapter from your book, and you’ll find that you do, in fact, possess the skill to write something even better. Accept a change without resisting it, and you’ll discover that life rushes in to fill the empty space. When a thing is complete, bow and move on. By learning to let go of specific things, we embrace the infinite, discovering more and more to love. 

 I look forward to pruning my guava thicket in another month or two, and I look forward to puttering around in the garden of words here at Hierophant, tending the many excellent books we’ll be releasing in the upcoming year. May you all be happy and safe, and may your buckets always overflow with fruit. 



Hilary Smith

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing


Click here to read Hilary's previous essay, "The Magic of Nature."


Cover image for Think Like a Publisher by Randy Davila







Looking for guidance for pruning your own thicket of words? Check out Think Like a Publisher by Hierophant President Randy Davila. This detailed guide for authors explains the basics of the publishing industry in clear and concise language, including what publishers (and readers!) look for in a manuscript, the importance of a good editor and how to find one, author platform building, marketing strategies, and even how to find the right self-publisher for your manuscript.

Flora Bowley

Flora Bowley is an artist, author, and guide whose soulful approach to the creative process has touched thousands of lives.

Blending over twenty years of professional painting experience with her background as a yoga instructor, healer, and permission giver, Flora’s intimate workshops and online courses have empowered a global network of brave painters and truth seekers.

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Books by Flora Bowley

Jacob Nordby

Books by Jacob Nordby

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