(taken from a paper I wrote in my creative writing class in college)
Writing is rewriting.
—Donald M. Murray, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, teacher, and author
Growing up, this kind of thinking would not fly in my schools. Formulaic writing was not only customary, but mandatory. It’s as if all the English teachers gathered around a campfire at midnight every night and doomed the souls of a generation of would-be aspiring writers to one-draft hell. I saw it, you saw it, we all saw it. And we experienced it firsthand. There are no revisions on timed essay exams, and forget about changing that C into an A. One draft, one shot, one grade. That’s all she wrote.
It is amazing how revision can open up the door to the exact answers you were looking for, or perhaps weren’t even trying to find. But they come, nonetheless, and surprise writers into realizing how much potential they might really have. This is an important focus I want my students to experience for themselves. To draft a piece and look back over it only to realize the latent possibilities of their minds. It’s sad how so many of us were deprived of the kind of self-confidence that kind of revelation brings. As Murray states, “The real mistake is to see the surprises as mistakes.” I think that most students, as I would have done in high school, tend to view correction of anything as a devaluing act, a blight on the face of perfection. Schools teach revision like its an evil word, or perhaps not even taught at all. I strive for imperfection, in my own writing and in visions of my future classroom. Imperfection is the key to something great, something beyond ourselves. Somewhere we never knew existed.
Murray described writing and rewriting as an exploration or a journey. The writer must follow the text’s lead, not the other way around. Once you put something to paper, it has a voice if you can find it. Life springs up where once was only a blank page. In school, I was NEVER taught the term “voice.” The writer also has a voice. It is the most important part of a piece, and it comes directly from the writer’s soul. I want to teach my kids to write from their heart, to think from their soul.
The only revision I ever saw in school came in the form of peer review. What a concept! You hand something you’ve tried to pour your heart and soul into (yet not really because your teacher never taught you how to do that) over to another student with that gleeful look in their eye. You pray they don’t laugh at what you’ve written. The only response you get is either laughter or boredom, and a returned paper marked with every spelling and punctuation error you made. But that’s not revision. I want my students to learn that. I want them to experience that. I want them to LIVE that.
As I’ve grown in my writing over the years since I stepped out of the box of high school, I’ve learned many lessons I wish to pass on in ways I never got a chance to hear. I don’t expect to change the world with a classroom full of Mary Shelleys and John Miltons. But I will take one. One kid to “get” what I’m trying so hard not to teach—but to instill—in young minds. Perhaps even one is a higher aspiration than I should hope for, but it’s one I’ll cling to.
The beautiful thing about writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time—unlike, say, brain surgery.
NOTE: Now, I’m not saying I didn’t learn a great deal from my English teachers in high school (R.I.P. Mrs. Monroe). The teachers really gather together and plot some sinister plan to rid the world of good writing. But I am saying that the environment isn’t—and never has been—conducive to this type of experience. As a current English teacher, I know this isn’t the fault of the teacher themselves, merely the byproduct of a system spiraling slowly but surely down to the depths of some unknown place I hope to never see. Until then, I’ll continue to steer them away from formulaic writing, even as they grumble about putting pen to paper. Every day.
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