Most high schools have done a pretty good job of making people groan when the words “English” and “Class” are uttered in the same breath. How much time did we all spend in those classes? I understood what most students (the good and the not-so-good ones) were thinking and feeling when getting basically the same thing right out of the shoot in college. It was a real “you gotta be kidding me” moment. After all, hadn’t they suffered enough in high school?
But the beauty of teaching college English was that I was able to get into some of the interesting stuff about the language and the creative process that apparently no one had ever gotten to in high school. My class was a bit of an eye-opener for students and I had a heck of a lot of fun. I was neither a grammar Nazi nor a fine-toothed editor, though I could be both when appropriate.
I was far more attuned to the creative process…that thing that gets stomped out of most people by teachers. The creative process is what writes proposals and emails and resumes and copy for radio and letters of intent and advertisements for your business…everything, really. Without the ability to utilize your creativity, you sit there staring at a blank paper or computer monitor and become pissed off because you know you can’t do it. How do you know you can’t do it? In many, many cases it's because of crappy experiences with crappy grading systems.
Unfortunately, what we rarely if ever were graded on in school was the first draft: the horrible version of the eventual product. And it's the most important thing you will do when writing anything. Nobody seemed to tell us that. So much attention was given to what a paper looked like in the end that we began to believe that every word needed to come out “right” or we were just wasting our time. Then when at first we could not get it to look “right” (whatever that means), we would become frustrated, and BOOM! Suddenly what we were doing was writing something horrible and we would give up. That’s most people’s creative process.
A true creative process is just that: a process. A writer must process his or her thoughts and feelings, and it can be difficult. Perhaps I should write that it can't not be difficult. A process should not only be difficult, however. We process to learn. And we clarify the process in order to turn around and share what we've learned. At some point the process will be enlightening. That exchange, that communication was something I tried to emphasize to my students.
So what I did as a teacher was to say forget the finished product. That is secondary, if that, because if you have nothing to work with in the first place, you will end up with nothing. Your first ideas, dumb as they may be, are the most important part of creating anything. I would say jot them down – all of them. Map them, list them, web them, write them – use whatever technique from whatever textbook you want. It is all the same idea – get the good and the bad stuff on the page. Once a student got as much as he or she could onto the paper, we could make the rest happen in class together. But we needed something to work with in the first place.
I would say, “Write it on a napkin or a cereal box and turn that in.” For some reason, students loved that idea: the first draft could look like crap and still be worth something in my class. I really didn’t care what the draft looked like at first read, as long as it was something. The first draft, in any condition, was half the paper’s grade. That’s pretty good encouragement when you’ve already got 50/100 just for writing something…anything.
I actually was encouraging crap. It was often a very new concept. You can see why the so-called problem students did well in my class! Even a crappy writer can turn in crap. In fact, with most of my students, they felt that their specialty was, in fact, crap. In my class, we could work with crap. After all, we’ve all got to start somewhere. Starting with something awful meant only that we were starting, and that was at least half the battle. I was amazed how many people didn’t understand that concept prior to the class. It was like a life jacket for someone who was drowning in a perception of his or her own awful writing ability. Half your grade was based on doing something awful. Talk about good news for someone used to barely getting Ds in writing. Heck, it was good news for someone who was used to getting As.
Then, of course, the bad news would come, but in a slightly new light. Quite simply, each paper would have a version of this written on it: “Here’s how many more points you would get if you called this your final draft and here’s what to do to get more points” – or – “Here is where the draft you just turned in falls on the continuum between the 50 points you have now and the 100 points that will get you an A+.” A paper could, for example, score about 60/100 if turned in again as it was and someone could walk away with a D on the paper.
That was a pretty normal occurrence, a rough draft equaling 60/100 points were it turned in as a final draft. Once in a while someone would take me up on the 60/100 on their paper, but usually students would look at my comments and say, “This is all I need to do to get an A!?!” Once you have something to work with, the editing is so much more achievable. Sometimes the editing is hard and sometimes it is easy, but if you do it in steps, a little at a time, it really isn’t the perplexity that we've been led to believe. It’s just like any other process. You do it until you are satisfied and until you think your audience is going to understand it. I was just there to help at that point.
Everything needed to be modeled several ways several times and I did that for them, writing along with them during my own exercises. They needed to see it as many ways and times as it took to get comfortable with the process, and they needed to see it from me as well as their peers. Trying and trying again was integral to the class. Once students saw and began to try the creative and the editing processes, the whole thing turned into small steps that were tolerable and knowable.
There was no limit on drafts. If someone turned in draft #2 and was satisfied with 70/100, so be it. If someone turned in draft #8 and still wasn’t satisfied with 98/100, a draft #9 was fine with me. Complete control of their own destiny with lots of help or no help if someone didn’t want it – everything was up to the student. I set the standard and they could take it or leave it knowing they had the control and the help. That is communication. That’s how you keep people interested and learning even though they initially don’t want to be there. The quality is not compromised and neither is the students’ integrity.
I loved seeing people who were adamantly against writing turn completely around and try. I marveled at my students as they did. The excitement was electric and I went home charged up more times than not. Now I encourage everyone to try writing: blogs, travelogues, emails to relatives, whatever. Find someone who inspires your writing – an author, a teacher, a blog show host – and soak it in. Then turn around and try it. For me, it has been an incredibly rewarding pastime: my way to sort through all kinds of bullshit I am hanging onto, to get it out of the way, and to live again.
We all need something that helps us process our life, and writing can be it. I still have students who get in touch and let me know they are still writing…without groaning! Whether I was the one who opened eyes or not isn't really important. The importance was in their trying. After having tried, the process and the result can be quite enlightening and exciting; in my case, extremely liberating. After all, as I used to tell my students, each of us has suffered enough.