We’re reaching the end of the semester here in central Indiana—what I like to call the revision portion of the class. We finished workshop last week and now I am talking to my students about how they can revise—“fix,” they say—their essays before they turn in their final portfolios in early December. For the past four years, I’ve taught this section of the course by talking to my students about my own revision process.
In graduate school, I would write an essay—a first draft—all the way through, without self-editing or censoring. (Okay—I can hear my MFA thesis advisor scoff from 200 miles away—without self-editing or censoring as much as I could have.) I didn’t think very much about what the essay was going to be “about” until I was done. I just wrote.
When I was finished, I’d print a copy of my 15-25 page draft, read it once all the way through, and then, upon my second read, I’d re-write things. I’d move things around. I didn’t fix my commas or run-on sentences or take out the extraneous semi-colons (my favorite form of punctuation from ages 20-25) or make the sentences sound pretty yet. Instead, I was, as we say, killing my darlings. I drew X’s through entire paragraphs. I chopped off a section on page 4 and stuck it in the middle of page 12—sometimes I even got out a pair of scissors and some tape and literally chopped and stuck. I re-wrote sections in the present tense, or changed things to the second person, just to see what would happen.
Then, when I knew what the essay was going to look like, I set it aside. I never threw it away, but I didn’t let myself look at it. Instead, I opened up a blank Word document and started typing my second draft, entirely from scratch. Perhaps this was not exactly the most efficient way to do things. I probably would have finished much more quickly if I’d edited the original document instead. But then I would have looked at the document—so pretty, so finished, I’d think—and I wouldn’t have wanted to chop it up. It would have been harder to make a mess of the first draft. It would have hurt.
By forcing myself to start over again, I got past the mental block we often have when we try to make our essays better. I tell my students all the time that second drafts are often messier than firsts, but that this mess is absolutely necessary for a good third draft. The first draft is how you figure out what you’re writing about, I tell them; the second is when you bring that subject to the surface. The third (or maybe the tenth, depending on the essay) is when you can make it look pretty. Start over, I tell them. Read everyone’s comments, and then start over.
This isn’t really a blog post about revision. It’s about exercising.
I end almost every class I teach with a writing exercise, as do most creative writing teachers I’ve ever met. Write about the earliest memory you have, I told my students last week. Make a list of choices you’ve had to make and then write about one of them. Make a list of all of your identities, and then write about how two of them are in conflict with each other. Spend ten minutes drawing a detailed picture of a room you’ve spent a great deal of time in, then put it aside and start writing about something that happened there.
When they’re done, sometimes I have them start over: Write the same scene in the second person instead of first person. Write it in present tense instead of past tense. Write it from someone else’s point of view.
Virtually every time I give one of these exercises, a student asks, “Are we going to turn this in?” Often, they do. I sometimes have my students work on them outside of class and turn them in for a grade, or else I collect them that day just to make sure they can do whatever it is we just talked about—write a scene, describe themselves as a character, provide reflection.
But I’m always careful not to call these essays. They’re not essays; they’re exercises. They’re practice. My students are writing—exercising—not because it’s going to lead to a perfect essay they can turn in for workshop or maybe even publish; they’re writing because this exercise will make them stronger writers for when they do write an essay.
One of my favorite exercises to give them is what Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paolo called the “hermit crab essay” in Tell It Slant, or what David Shields and Matthew Vollmer call a fraudulent artifact in their recent anthology, Fakes.
If you haven’t heard of this form before, the quick definition is a piece of writing that looks like something else on the page—a syllabus, an outline, a letter, a how-to guide, etc. Some great examples are Lorrie Moore’s short story “How to Become a Writer,” Brenda Miller’s essay “Table of Figures,” Ander Monson’s “Outline Toward a Theory of the Mind vs. the Mine and the Harvard Outline,” and Michael Martone by Michael Martone—a book of contributor’s notes.
I love teaching this form, and giving my students the exercise of writing one for themselves, for two big reasons:
1) This form can sometimes trick the writer into saying something they wouldn’t normally allow themselves to say; they can get to more complicated and complex subject matter, and darker and more difficult topics because they are often too busy thinking about how best to utilize the form to worry about saying too much. There’s less self-censorship.
2) These forms create new possibilities for their essays. Students often default to narrative memoir because it’s familiar to them. Many of them haven’t read much nonfiction before they come to my class, but they understand how stories work because they’ve read them all their lives. This structure feels safe. This is why we get so many essays that are written like short stories about (insert important life event here: the death of a grandparent, going away to college, traveling outside the United States for the first time). But when they decide to write in the form of a Facebook profile, they’re forced to think more carefully about their subject. It’s no longer about a life-altering moment, but about something bigger than that. It’s not an essay about how sad they were when their grandmother died, but an essay about how we grieve—particularly in the public sphere. They ask bigger and better questions about their own experiences—questions that move the work from anecdote to essay.
But back to my original point, which is that making a mess and exercising for the sake of exercising is good for us. This writing exercise is exactly that—a messy, wonderful exercise.
In the end, very few of my students end up leaving their pieces in the form they originally chose. Some start over with new forms—a syllabus instead of a Facebook profile, a Twitter feed instead of an outline—or with new subject matter, once they’ve figured out, thanks to their first draft, what they have to say. Some take away the shell or artifact entirely and write a more traditional essay—maybe narrative, maybe lyric, maybe something in between. Many abandon the project entirely by the time they have to focus on one essay for workshop. But across the board, their work is better for having tried it.
So what’s the point?
Exercise. Forcing yourself to think critically about the choices you’re making in your essays instead of choosing what’s easiest, or least risky. Getting to subject matter and questions you wouldn’t have written about in a different form. And, sometimes, if you’re lucky, you discover a better way to write your essay.
I have been thinking about the importance of exercising recently because I think it’s something we all forget—or, at least, it’s something that I recently forgot. Most of us start in that mindset where we are too attached to our first drafts and original ideas, but we eventually break out of it and became better writers for having experimented with new ideas, made mistakes, and learned from them. Eventually, though, many of us forget it, or stop prioritizing it. We give these exercises to our students, but we don’t do them ourselves. We don’t have time, we say; we’re too busy.
Remember what I said about how I revised in graduate school? When I’d write a draft, read it, and then start over from scratch? I don’t do that anymore.
I finished graduate school a couple of years ago, spent a year working two jobs and adjuncting, and am now—luckily, thankfully—thirteen weeks into my first year as an assistant professor. I found the time to write last year, and still do, but it feels like the stakes are higher now. When I was in graduate school, the point was to experiment and make mistakes and grow and get better. Now, the point is to finish work and publish it.
When I find time between department meetings and planning for three classes and filling out the paperwork that comes along with a job in academia to finish a first draft, I don’t want to think about starting over from scratch. I don’t have the time to waste, I tell myself, and so I try to skip that messy second draft and jump right to the cleaned up, perfectly revised final draft. I treat everything I write as if it’s going to be an essay—a perfect, publishable essay.
But those cleaned up, revised drafts aren’t nearly as good as the would be if I treated each first draft as an exercise and let myself, or maybe even forced myself to make more messes.
How do I know whether or not the essay could be better in present tense, or second person, or in something other than clear chronological order, unless I try writing it that way? What if I could discover or notice something new through the exercise of rewriting it?
We tell our students this all the time—to try something new, even if they already like their essays the way they are, because we know it might make their work better, and the exercise will definitely make them stronger writers.
Perhaps I (and maybe you, too) need to take our own advice and keep exercising for the same reasons.
Silas Hansen earned his MFA in creative writing from The Ohio State University and is currently an assistant professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. His essays have appeared in Slate, Colorado Review, The Normal School, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere.