Friday, September 19, 2014

Learning to love the second (third, fourth, and fifth) draft

A few days ago, I attended a faculty development workshop on writing across the curriculum. Since all I teach is writing, it seemed to make little sense for me to be there - isn't this more appropriate for history or sociology or political science professors?  But it popped up on my calendar, which meant the assistant to the dean put it there. Which meant: you better go.

And so I went, and listened to a thoughtful presentation about the importance of drafts.  No news there.  But a few faculty members objected.  "That essay better be right the first time," one said.  Others agreed.  I listened to the argument for a few minutes and then jumped in, unable to help myself.  Writing IS drafting.  There is no such thing as a perfect first draft, except perhaps in an alternate universe, where polished prose flows effortlessly from the fingertips to the page.  I would like to live in that universe, but while I'm waiting to be whisked away there by some form of literary magic, I'm teaching - and practicing - the necessity of multiple drafts.

Anne Lamott comes right out and calls it the "shitty first draft" phenomenon.  Writing is a layered process, akin to making music. First, the melody - or maybe the rhythm, or the beats. Next, lyrics, then the voice, then harmonies and instrumentation.  It depends on what I am writing, but my first drafts of personal essays are messy, words streaming directly from the creative unconscious.  The narrative follows a symbolic or visual logic like the logic of dreams.  It is not linear.  It is not "crafted."  The craft comes later, draft after draft.  That's when I translate the language of feeling, memory, impression, sensation, and intuition into the language of structure and sense.  It takes time.  Trying for a "perfect" first draft almost always leads to stiff, constrained writing, lacking depth and imagination. Even in academic writing or narrative journalism, the same is true. Thinking is better, arguments are more nuanced, insights are greater with each draft.

I've learned to enjoy this act of translation. Maybe (back to the music analogy) it's a little like a musician in the recording studio, headphones on, sound engineers at the ready.  The raw material filled out and arranged, deepened and expanded, note by note, until the song is a complete artistic creation. In my writing studio, I arrange the words.  Stop and listen.  Arrange again, rewrite, polish. Listen again.  What might seem tedious has, over the years, become a deeply pleasurable act.

My students are learning to trust this process.  If there is anything I can give them, that would be it: don't let your inner "editor" write your first draft. Let the artist speak first, and then invite the editor in.  Both are necessary, and both will will serve your writing.  And both, over time, can be richly rewarding - if you give each the time.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Guest blog post: Eating Cake on 9/11

Kate Whouley, a memoirist and instructor in Bay Path's MFA in Creative Nonfiction program, wrote this beautiful piece, "Eating Cake on 9/11," originally published in Obit magazine and which I'm sharing today with you.  Why today and not yesterday?  One reason is that I find the official commemorations sometimes drown out individual voices on the actual anniversary. There are speeches, civic events, news articles.  The booming language of the official - the codified gestures and words of public memorializing -  make it hard to hear one person speaking.  One person illuminating, in a quiet voice, what it was like to be alive that day - and the days since.

And so I post Kate's essay today, September 12.

Eating Cake on 9-11
         This year on 9-11, I plan to eat cake. Chocolate cake with chocolate icing—my mother’s favorite.
         My mother turned 67 on September 11, 2001. It was a time in her life when she went to a lot of doctors. Accompanying her in the weeks and months—and even years—after the attacks, I felt wary whenever I provided her date of birth. I tried out September 11th, rather than 9-11, hoping to skip the beat of stunned silence before a receptionist, a pharmacist or a health professional would ask, “What was the year again?”
           On that blue-skied September morning ten years ago, I planned to fly to New York.  I’d meet with my clients—who published law books—and by late afternoon, I’d be back on Cape Cod. Just in time to pick up a cake and prepare my mother’s birthday dinner. 
For reasons I no longer remember, I postponed my 9-11 meeting, opting to catch up by phone instead. Strange, I thought when I made the call: no voice mail, no receptionist, just a fast-busy. It wasn’t until I made another call--to a friend in Chicago--that I learned why I couldn’t reach anyone in New York. 
 “Do you want to come over to watch my TV?” my mother asked me, when she called a few minutes later.  I didn’t.  I didn’t feel any need for video verification. Instead, I wanted to make phones calls and send e-mails and perform a sort of virtual-shepherding.  I was especially worried about my friend Tina, a Boston-based flight attendant for American Airlines.
“Should we still have the cook-out tonight?” I asked my mother when I called to report Tina was fine—or at least on the ground.
I hoped she’d postpone.  In the face of so much loss, it felt wrong to fire up the grill and keep on living. Maybe by the weekend, I thought, we won’t feel so numb, so sad. But my mother did not favor a change of plans.
“This is not a time,” she said, “for us to sit in our separate houses.”   

Traffic was eerily absent when I ventured out to pick up a birthday cake; the whole world seemed to have stopped. My errand felt absurd and almost sacrilegious, disrespectful of the dead.  At the bakery, I was the only customer. A yellow-haired woman about my mother’s age was patient with me, pointing at each cake, repeating as I failed to take in the information.  The one with the white and yellow roses, I finally decided.  The baker loaded her frosting pen and squeezed, spelling out Happy Birthday Mom in green cursive before she pushed a tiny candleholder and a single yellow candle into the center of the cake. 
“It feels so strange to get a birthday cake today,” I said. 
“It is a terrible day,” she agreed. Like me, she had been listening to the radio since she first heard the news. “But even so, your mother still has to have her birthday.” 
 A few hours later, my mother, her companion, Bill, and I sat on the deck, eating hamburgers spiked with chopped tomato and onions, miso, beer and black pepper. We shared reports we had heard; we swapped theories and we shook our heads.  Both Bill and my mother had memories of Pearl Harbor; both Bill and my mother agreed we’d witnessed another act of war.  But none of us knew exactly what war it was. Not then.  Not yet.
After dinner, I carried the cake to the table, placing it in front of my mother, instructing her to make a wish before she blew out the single flame.  One wish did not seem enough that night. I should have loaded her cake with candles.
We moved indoors to eat the cake, and for a few minutes, we were lost in its goodness, and in the memories of cakes past—all delicious, and all from the same yellow-haired baker who wanted my mother to have her birthday.

            I wonder now whether my mother already knew—or feared—that something was amiss. Did she depend on Bill to drive that night because her always-challenged sense of direction was morphing into an inability to find her way? Did she notice she was losing her car keys more often, and forgetting how to use the coffeemaker?  Or did she inherently understand that that every day, every moment spent with those we love is precious?
Four and a half years after our 9-11 cookout, my mother moved to an assisted living residence.  She participated in the selection process; she agreed to move.  At least that’s my version of the story.  Hers was much different.  “You had no right to just pack me up and send me here.”  For many months, she was angry with me. “You are the only kid in the family who put her mother away. You took the path of least resistance.  You should be ashamed of yourself.”  My English-teaching, Latin-speaking mother could no longer spell—even her signature was hard to write, but she hadn’t lost her ability to string a sentence together.  Sometimes, we exchanged harsh words.  But I came to realize she never remembered them.
It was about this time that my mother—a lifelong reader, writer, and promoter of language arts—embraced the role of editor.  She blue-lined the less pleasant elements of her life story. As her memory grew less reliable, her disposition improved.  It was as if she were happier, as if her living were lighter when freed of her old sad stories, freed of the memory of her younger, troubled selves.
Visiting, we laughed together; we had fun. I might show her a picture: the black and white shot of a glamorous young woman directing a high school play—or share a story I remembered from her bouffant-hairdo days. 
“Well, wasn’t I something!”
“You still are something, Mom.”
The next day, she would complain on the phone: “You haven’t visited in ages.”
Eventually, I stopped reminding her that I’d visited the day before. I came to understand what she meant to teach me with her birthday cook-out: we must not only seize the day, but make the moment matter. Even when we know the moment will be forgotten.
As my mother changed with her forgetting, I considered how many variations compose a single life. “She just wasn’t herself anymore,” said an unthinking mourner at my mother’s wake. 
Who are we, anyway—any of us, at any time? If we are lucky to live long, we are all—a hundred, a thousand—different people.  I am not the same person who picked out that birthday cake 10 years ago.  Minutes after the attack, no one in our country could claim to be unchanged.
When I light my mother’s candle this year, I will think of all the souls who left the planet prematurely, of their friends and families, who begin another decade of living without them.  I will think of my mother—in all her versions and variations.  And I will not eat my chocolate cake alone. My mother and the bakery lady were right. In joyfulness or in sorrow, in celebration or in mourning, in remembering or in forgetting—now or then—this is not a time to sit in our separate houses. 
 copyright 2011 by Kate Whouley
 This essay originally appeared in Obit Magazine

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Will Teaching Enrich Your Writing Process?

Many times I've heard writers who teach complain about the difficulty of sustaining a writing practice when reading, grading, and discussing so much student work.   It's a legitimate problem, especially for writing instructors who care about their students.  We spend many hours thinking about their development as writers, how to give feedback that will strengthen what they do well and address what they have yet to learn.  We read every word of every draft they produce; we recommend books and essays to read; we spend hours in our offices talking over writing issues with students (and often, other issues as well).  Soon, it can seem as if our students' voices have infiltrated every corner of our lives, talking to us even in our sleep.

I've been thinking about this problem as our fall semester has gotten underway and I've become immersed, once again, in student work.  But I haven't found that teaching is taking away from my own writing or leaving me too drained for creative thought. In fact, the opposite is true: my students are inspiring me.

How is that?  There are a lot of reasons but here's the most important one: I'm working with people passionately dedicated to writing.  Who are sacrificing sleep, free time, Netflix, vacations, dinners out, lazy Sunday mornings and god knows what else (I hope not food) in order to make the most of their talent.  To learn to be stronger writers and better readers.  To contribute something meaningful to the world of literature, in the best way they possibly can.  Watching my students take risks (can I really be this honest?), try things they never tried before (can I really use a strange image like this?) is an honest thrill. In three weeks, I've already seen students get stronger, their voices more confident. And there are gems everywhere.  One student, after reading Ted Kooser's essay, "Hands," wrote about the touch of her father's hand on her knee after she had fallen asleep on the rooftop of their house, where they had gone to look at the night sky during the first moon landing.  Another student wrote about ears that "don't hear"; a third described her burying her nose in the grandmother's nicotine-scented blouse  - this grandmother who lived a life of hard labor and told stories about snakes and birds, and also gave her granddaughter a blank book with the whispered instruction to write her own stories down.

When I see my students taking creative leaps, how can I do anything less?  It's exciting to witness, and hold a space for, the act of artistic expression.  And holding a space for my students reminds me to do the same for myself.  They are committed to their work.  We teachers must be committed, too.

Recently I got an idea for a new essay, about women, midlife, and folk-tale archetypes.  It's time to get started.