Friday, September 30, 2016

The Dirty Side of Writing

You spend six weeks of your life on the research paper—in the library, in class, at home—immersing yourself in the arguments.  You outline, you draft, you revise, you arrange and rearrange so many times that arranging and rearranging becomes a remix of “Home on the Range” now called “Home on the Arrange” . . .

You’re home, home on the arrange, where all you do is rearrange; a sentence is good, no wait it’s not good, and you arrange and rearrange all day

Halfway there, with aching joints and weary eyes, you reflect on an inspirational quote from Stephen King: “To write is human, to edit is divine.” 

Then you edit that quote to, “To write is grueling.  To edit is to eat gruel.” 

Or at least roll around in it, in the muck of misplaced sentences, deleted words, confused counterclaims, uprooted paragraphs —your outline now as obsolete as the Walkman, LaserDiscs, and whoever finished third on The Bachelor.  Or first on The Voice.  You mud-paint with punctuation, tug at sentence structure, jam paragraphs together like a 3rd grader too proud to admit the puzzle pieces don’t fit—“It’ll work if I just shove it in there—come ON—puzzle’s broken, manufacturer musta messed up.”  And for some it is broken: elbow deep in grime, the puzzle just don’t fit.  It’s not the writing; it’s the topic, as ill-conceived as inviting Chad to Paradise.   You trash paragraphs that became sections that became days.  You only have a finite amount of time as a teen and it’s being spent in this toilet of a place: in the mire of revision and reorganization.  In a tub of gruel.

At some point, when the thought of reading another word makes your stomach turn, you trudge through one last time, re-read and print. You clean yourself off and present to the class (ugh!) and hallelujah you’re finally, finally, done! 

We’re all done!  Now a celebration, a break, a vacation—

Oh right, crap: 100 papers that are an average of 7 pages to read and edit.  And if there are 100 papers and each takes about 15 minutes, that’s a total of 25 hours of time at home to give them back. 

But to see how young people can raise their ceiling and realize they’re better than they think they are (“I’m actually proud of myself, for real,” many have said), can write longer than they think they can  . . . to equip them with confidence, character, resiliency and pride . . . Worth it, I tell myself.  And something within me—maybe my left kidney or my intestine—believes it and knows it to be true.  True, my large intestine says.  Worth it

So after all the grading and sharing papers with my family and beaming about growth, I hand the papers back, eagerly awaiting . . . something. Something’s gotta happen right? Something does:

They stare at the number and fixate on its impact — How much longer is the quarter and how many more grades and is this my final grade and OMG it went down 3.25 points — then they move on.

“Wait,” I say, "let’s learn from the edits — let's reflect on a piece of looseleaf.”  And they do, but three ask if the reflection will be graded.  

This is when I think of sunsets.  And yoga.  And trading jobs with Guy Fieri.  

And then respond with something like, What’ll be important 2 years from now, when you’re a freshman in college and you’re assigned a lengthy paper? 

Answer: Well the grade, of course, that you just got back in Blackstone’s class!  You’ll just breezily stop by a professor’s office hours and say with a wink, “Sorry to bother you and all, Dr. McThompsonberg, sir, but I earned a 91% on my paper junior year of high school.  So, yeah . . . I’m excused from this, right bro?”

Still, it’s a hard concept to get: that the mark can be less important than the muck.  That the grade can be less important than the gruel. 

That the gruel—that thankless, slippery process where you tossed your work out to sea and started again, where you lost your way but found your voice—is infinitely more self-defining and lasting than a number.  You learned not to give up, not to panic.  You saw things from other sides, from others’ eyes.  You belly-flopped in mud and emerged a better thinker, writer, maybe even a better person.  And in the end, no—you didn’t become cleaner; you learned to like the muck of a world not black and white. You realized that the truth—or the one truth, or the one perfect way to state it—is as slippery and slimy as your toes at the bottom of a lake.  

But the grade—without it, you don’t even get into Dr. McThompsonberg’s office!  Sometimes, unfortunately, that can be true.  It's also true that skills matter, to Doc McT-berg and beyond.  

Also true: coffee, olives, Portlandia, herring, Louis C.K., anchovies, mustaches—these are acquired tastes.  So is gruel.  You can’t change everyone’s taste buds, but if you help students acquire a taste for it, a hunger and appreciation for it—how hard it is, how it works, how long it takes (this article took a week, my second book two years)—if they get a paper back and still want to learn from it, still want to rework it—if they hum Home on the Rearrange the next time and the next time they write and edit—and you helped them get there . . . yes, large intestine, yes: So worth it.

And yes, Stephen King: To [teach them to] write is human. To [teach them to] edit is divine.

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