Wednesday, October 24, 2012
The Tradition Continues
The annual writing endeavor known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) begins in less than eight days. I have been a participant in NaNoWriMo, with varying levels of success, since 2006. Each year I look forward to writing, and, each year, I appreciate the extrinsic motivation to write. I have actually “completed” a novel twice in the past six years, which, compared to many participants, is not a great average. However, I always assuage any feelings of literary inadequacy by reminding myself of my busy life; my dedication to my job, which takes more time than most would like; and anything else that I can use to justify not giving adequate time to feed my writing jones.
When I first started doing NaNoWriMo, a friend of mind sort of scoffed, saying it was impossible to write a novel in one month. She was right, of course. You don’t just sit down on November 1, start hammering away at a keyboard, and get up on November 30 with a completed novel on your hard drive. But it is possible to write a first draft of a novel in a month. At the very least, it is possible to write a collection of 50,000 or more words (the length of a short novel) in a month. What one does with it after that is up to him or her.
After my first NaNoWriMo experience, in 2006, I felt an amazing sense of accomplishment, having dashed off (over a month…maybe not dashed off, but anyway…) the longest piece of cohesive writing I had ever done, short of my Master’s thesis. In many ways, it was more of a challenge (and more cohesive) than my Master’s thesis. However, I knew when I was done that I had a creature with a host of warts. There were unresolved plot points, random digressions, fake chapters, all in the name of getting finished. When forcing myself to produce words, only thinking about getting something on the page, completing my goal for the night, the week, the month, I let logic and any idea of an end result go. It was far more important to get the novel written than it was to make sure it was in something close to a polished state. That is what drafting is. The experience of participating in this madness reminds me of what the writing process really is, and it helps me, I believe, be a better writing coach to my students.
It is one of the hardest things to do with young writers, getting them to forget about the end product and to just write. It is understandable. I am asking them to engage in a certain action to perform a particular task. They know that I will be evaluating their published draft. It will be consumed, weighed, assessed, and assigned a value. This is an A, this a B, and so on. It is school writing. But their best writing always comes from some other, more personal place. After all, I don’t enjoy NaNoWriMo because my draft will be evaluated at the end. Hell, no one has even seen either of the novel drafts I have written in the last six years. Not even a paragraph. But, I want them to engage in the writing process without the goal in mind. (It is perhaps more accurate to say “the goal they set for themselves,” since, really, my goal is not to assess them—I would rather never put a grade on another paper again as long as I live. My goal is to have them learn, through experience, how to effectively communicate their ideas through writing. It is only a necessity of the system of education we have that that learning is expected to have a letter assigned to it that more or less reflects student learning and standing when compared to standards and (don’t tell anybody) other students. After all, why have class rank if you are not comparing students to each other…but I digress.)
It really is a kind of Zen exercise, writing without the goal in mind. Once a student sits down with a vision of what an essay should be, it influences every choice they make, and it is nearly impossible for them to write honestly about what is important to them, or at least what is worthwhile to them to say. And who can blame them for considering the end before they even imagine their beginnings? So, I try to build assignments in such a way that students can arrive at topics that are meaningful to them by giving them choice and open-ended prompts. I try to constantly remind them not to worry about questions like “How do I start this essay?” Frustratingly for them, my most common answer to such a question is, “You start by writing.” Or, “Start at the beginning.” There are always those kids so wrapped up in the rubric or their grade that it takes a short conference on strategies for introductions. And, honestly, I hate having that conversation. What I really want students to do is to just sit down and start making that music that I love to hear, the tick tack tick of the keyboard being exercised.
For that is how the process begins, not by writing an awesome attention getting sentence that takes a student twenty-five minutes to write and agonize over and edit and rewrite and delete and start again. After a class period, she might have a really excellent pair of sentences, but she hasn’t really been writing. Not really. She’s been practicing building sentences, or fitting her words into a structure that she thinks is what writing should be. What I would like her to realize is that writing is messy, that first drafts always suck, that you can’t write a novel in a month, but you can have a hell of a time grinding out a first draft.
And then, she can go back and excise the dead weight, add in some detail, shore up a shaky foundation. I have been slowly revising an ancient draft for six years. Of course, one might say, a student doesn’t have six years. That’s true. But we aren’t asking him to revise 50,000 words.
Sometimes, one of my kiddos gets it. Sometimes, like today, I say, “Start at the beginning,” and she does. And, as she works her way through that mess that she is slapping down on the page, I watch her struggling. But I can tell she is not struggling with the writing. She is struggling with the natural tendency to fix something and with the tendency to ask me if a paragraph or a choice she has made is “alright.” I sense that she really wants to, but she doesn’t. That’s when I know that she really is engaging with the first stage of the writing process.
Which is exactly what I will be doing, again, when all the little ghouls and goblins wake up on All Saints Day and realize they have eaten way too many Butterfingers the night before. I will be engaging in the first stage of the writing process, and, if I am lucky, when the last of the turkey and stuffing leftovers are consumed and Santa Claus has strolled down Fifth Avenue once again, I just might have another massively problematic first draft that will take me a lifetime to fix.
By the way, if you are interested in joining me on this fabulously maddening writing adventure, go to the Office of Letters and Light website and look me up, my username is underdog30.