Friday, May 15, 2009

First Drafts and the Writing Process "Bird by Bird"

I'm not a writer who really enjoys reading books about writing. I've been teaching writing for so long -- 17 years formally and much tutoring before that -- that most "how to" books on writing simply bore me. But that was before I ran across two books, one old and one new. The old one (1930s), Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer, I wrote about here, and one more recent book (1994), Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

Lamott has been one of my favorite writers since I first read her pivotal nonfiction book, Traveling Mercies, a collection of autobiographical sketches/essays about her life, her faith, her politics, all wrapped up with a dry, sarcastic wit that won me over even if our politics are polar opposites. I attended her second interview with Dean Nelson of Point Loma Nazarene University at the Writers Symposium by the Sea a couple of years ago, and she is just as transparent, genuine, and funny as her books are. I have purchased and read her subsequent books in the same genre, Plan B and Grace Eventually as well as reading her novel Blue Shoes. Her writing entrances me -- it is simply THAT good.

So I suppose that, despite my iffy attitude toward books on writing, it was fated that I would indeed purchase and read her book on writing, Bird by Bird, which was composed long before she became the success that she is after her three autobiographical/faith-related essay collections. And indeed, her book on writing parallels her books of personal essays simply because she is writing from her core. From the heart, if you will. A longtime teacher of writing, she offers some extremely practical advice about the process of writing, again with her signature dry wit that while cracking me up, also speaks Truth. Here's a selection from her chapter entitled "Shitty First Drafts":

Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. [italics mine]. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her....

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.
I can't tell you how freeing this process is to me as a writer. And I'm sure that those of you who are writers are either nodding sagely along with Lamott's wisdom here or are splitting a gut laughing. Or both. Recently I have written about this idea of writing crappy first drafts when it comes to poetry as a guest writer on Kathy Grubb's The 10 Minute Writer blog. In fact, I wrote so much that she had to post it in two parts. You can click here for the first post, and here for the second.

Yesterday my high school college prep writing class at our homeschool group's co-op Class Day had completed rough drafts of their MLA research papers, a culmination of over a month's work of researching, paraphrasing information, outlining, and finally drafting their five to seven pages of persuasive material. They were so proud to be done with the intense research, parenthetical citations, and Works Cited, Although they groaned at the idea of having read-arounds in which they were to read and comment on each other's papers, they were pretty self-satisfied about being "done" with this project.

And then I read them the same passage I quoted above, plus a little more of the chapter in the same vein. Of course, this being a Christian school, I substituted "crappy" for "shitty." As I looked up after reading the passages aloud, their proud smiles had been wiped from their faces, and several sets of eyes held a sense of panic. "Did I scare you?" I questioned, and several nodded. Silently.


They have two weeks until their final projects are due. And I want them to do more than simply edit their five-to-seven pages for typos, spelling, and punctuation errors. I want them to revise their papers. I love the word "revision" -- it's a re-seeing of a piece of writing, looking at it from all angles and seeing it anew. The ability to re-see their writing, acknowledging the portions that work well and bolstering those that need work is the heart and soul of good writing. Novelist James Michener wrote, "I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter." And that's why his novels, long as they are, simply sing. Because he puts all he is as a writer into re-seeing every aspect of his work. He cut what didn't work, smoothed what begged for better flow, added needed detail, and then cuts out more unnecessary stuff. And that's the role of revising our work. It's something I've been trying to get across to my students all year, every year: revision is the different between mediocre writing and good writing. To put it in language easily understood by high school students, especially homeschooled ones who are eager to score good grades: "Revising makes the difference between a 'C' paper and an 'A' paper."

After my students have written their rough drafts of their MLA research papers, I offer them the opportunity to come to my home where I will comb through their entire draft with them, side by side. We'll look over their title page, outline, formatting, introduction, body, conclusion, and Works Cited together while I note areas that need editing and revision. This way I have the assurance that they fully understand the MLA format and have developed their ideas to the best of their ability, and they have the assurance of receiving a grade that will make them happy and please their parents. It's a win-win situation, even if I do spend about an hour per student times 20 students in a one-month period.

But revision is the key. I think that reading this section of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird has scared them a little and will help them to fully understand the importance of revision to the writing process.

I hope they get it. I really hope they do.

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