Wednesday, May 14, 2008

love, death, and writing

I've been meaning to write about this since the semester ended, but I haven't been back to my office since, and I needed the paper so I could directly quote. I'm back taking care of a couple of errands, and while waiting to meet w/ someone, figured it'd be a good time to share my (or my student's) thoughts.

One of my star students this semester (and I'm not just saying that because she's likely to read this post!) had quite an honest take on the writing process that I thought was worth reflecting on and responding to. At the end of the semester, I often ask my students to reflect on themselves as writers and on the writing process.

She wrote two things that struck me.
The first: "The dictionary defines revision as the act or procedure of providing a newly edited version. College students would define it as a lot of ego killing hard work."

The second (in response to the question If you had to boil your [class] experience down to one thing, what is the most significant thing you learned?): "I have learned that starting an IV, standing for ten hours in surgery, or pulling a chest tube is nothing compared to the emotional drain of writing. In the medical field we get one chance to do a procedure, and to do it right. In writing, there are a million rewrites and changes that could take place in everything you produce. This is really morbid to say, but when a patient dies on a table, you know that you have done everything possible to save them. But, when you have to stress for days over whether or not something you have spent weeks working on is good enough or not... well, that is enough to cause an ulcer."


There's so much in there that I could (and want to) respond to. For one thing, I think she's right, but only to a certain degree. College writing is a whole different ball game from creative writing. And at the freshman level, I think her definition of revision as "ego killing hard work" is so emotionally loaded for me. At first, I revert to my own ego: My god, what have I done? What did I write or say in feedback that totally illicited such a visceral metaphor -- ulcers? surgery? But a part of me also wants to say, Right on! Ego begone! Let's get down to business now! And certainly my own ego has taken a pounding on many occasions when it comes to someone reading my writing, especially someone whom I respect.

It also draws attention to this idea of college writing as painful, a perception I've been trying to change (or, at the very least, minimize). But there may be something more to it than that. A couple of weeks ago, I had to write a conference paper proposal that was only a few paragraphs long, at best.
I procrastinated.
I thought.
I blocked.
I dreaded.
I ranted.
I wrote and re-wrote.
Dare I say, I suffered.
Was it painful because it was academic, or was it painful because my interest in such writing has waned considerably, and I am coming to a crossroads in which I am considering leaving the academic world in favor teaching in less traditional ways and places? Incidentally, I enjoyed it much more when I workshopped my proposal w/ my co-panelists, and the collaborative process kicked in.

(And yet, for all my hemming and hawing and wondering, when I am in the classroom, when I am face to face with a student like this one, when I am wrestling with these texts with them, I wonder how I could even consider leaving.)

But there's something to my student's answer that I also find troubling: the lack of joy. And hope, too. I think the dictionary definition is quite lacking in scope and enormity. Revision is re-seeing. It's unchartered territory. It's the amusement park, the haunted house, the concession stand all in one. Revision is the glorious place for possibility. I've said it before and I'll say it again -- writing is an incredibly selfish act. For as much as we lecture about audience, I know that 99% of the time I'm writing it for me. I'm not sure if the right word is paradoxical, but it seems to me that for all the self-absorption of writing, there's also the understanding that if you don't get that ego out of the way, nothing good is going to happen on the page. There's got to be another reason to write, something way beyond the grade (and to me, grades are nothing but ego appeasement) or the agent or the bestseller list, or even yourself.

The one thing I would challenge my student on is that her metaphor is slightly faulty in that writing, although richly human, is immortal. And that's why, for all the blood, sweat, and tears that revision is (and I drill that one into my students like there's no tomorrow), there's always life and breath in a piece of writing.


Nevertheless, I would also argue that my student, whether she knows it or not, is a writer-- her struggle tells me so.


Sarah said...

funny (but certainly not surprising), to me re-writing is the most freeing thing there is. it's exhilarating.

it's challenging and exciting to try to completely reinvent the piece every time you touch it. to see it with completely foreign eyes. to make it cleaner, stronger, tighter, deeper.

it's visceral.

and i love that - unlike the forms of visual art that i worked with - i could always save a draft and come back to it. it was okay to be radical and daring because i could always retreat back into the comfort of a previous draft it my changes didn't work.

and in the end i was left with a piece of art frozen at every step along its creation (i always loved watching the piece unfold and seeing how comments and problems in one draft were handled in the next) something else almost unique to the process.

so there you have it - the challenge to see and resee, the freedom to be as daring as you dream, and the safety of saved drafts all coming together to form a stop-action evolution of expression.

what more could you want??

what could possibly be better?

The Purple Panda said...

I couldn't have said it better myself. (your writing teacher must have loved you...)