Sometimes I have to take a step back from all the writing theory I’ve read and my personal writing experience that reinforces what I’ve read and consider what my writing practices were before I knew what I know now about revision. Specifically, I want to separate writing practices for publication and writing on demand, i.e., school writing. As a writing teacher, I have to assume that at least part of the goal in taking a writing class from me is to become a better writer. I also know that another part of the goal in some cases is to fulfill a general education requirement in order to graduate; I’m thinking more of the undergraduate experience here. I should really do another post about growth as a writer in graduate school, and may do that later. So, the main writing-intensive courses I teach for undergraduates are ENG 310: Writing for Graduate or Professional School; ENG 203: Introduction to Creative Writing/ Poetry; ENG 366: Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature; and an occasional ENG 110: Writing I. A common thread for each is analytical writing that refers to texts read, either assigned texts or texts found through a research process in order to think more deeply about an idea. In other words, in these classes I try to replicate a generative process that is self-starting for professional writers. Academic writers have ideas. They are compelled to reason through those ideas using writing and to hone them into shape until others are able to follow the reasoning.
That concept may seem like a bit of a stretch applied to poetry drafting, but I believe it works there as well. Poets have ideas. They observe the world around them and are compelled to make connections in new ways using writing. The thing about poetry though, is it becomes clear much sooner that poetry drafting demands constant and lengthy revision to reach the point where the poem functions as more that surface-level wordplay or something artificial. Students can believe far longer that academic writing can be successfully done in one sitting. It doesn’t take long for poetry students to see that one sitting is not enough. If not, then it is a sign that the student needs to read much more contemporary poetry in order to develop a realistic aesthetic.
Now, back to my pre-professional writer experience, and I’m going to have to go pretty far back to get there. I sold my first poem to Seventeen magazine as a teenager in 1970, thus leading me to believe for too long that a) Poetry is easy, b) Getting poems accepted for publication mostly involves a typewriter, paper, the correct address, and stamps, and c) People pay you for poetry (I got paid for the poem). Just for the record, the previous sentence is dripping in situational irony; getting published in a respected national venue takes more than stamps and getting paid is rare. Just to add to the irony here, that first publication was easy and the draft was in one sitting. Worse, it was a four-line poem and it was a single-image poem with a variable left margin. Being so short meant each word carried a great deal of weight, something I would never advise a beginning poet to attempt. I didn’t know then about Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro or how long he worked on the draft to end up with two lines. I also did not analyze my own process, which was more extensive than I realized at the time.
My first publication was written outside of school and had no connection to any class whatsoever. A year later I took a creative writing course from a teacher who was the king of Expressivists, which upon reflection, might have been the best fit for me at that time. None of those poems reached publishable status, but one of my short stories won a cash prize from a local women’s club who set up the prize to encourage young writers. So, no publications from the school writing, but I learned a few things anyway. I learned that good writing happens more often when you write every day, or near to it. I learned that I had ideas all the time and writing was my idea-enabler. I learned that what made other people happy was far less than what it took to make me happy with my writing. Needless to say, given that the bar wasn’t that high for readers/ assessors of my writing, revision was not a big part of that experience. I did, however, do extensive revision as I drafted, as detailed in Nancy Sommer’s Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers (link is to article PDF). I looped extensively, which meant I looped back and returned to the draft again and again and again, rereading each time and adding/ deleting as I went along. That meant that my single draft was really a multiple draft of longstanding, usually based on something I had been working out internally for some time, usually somewhere between a few months to a year previously.
Through teaching, I have learned that my process is not that common for school writers. They tend to look for direction in “revising” in terms of surface-level changes such as spelling, punctuation, or a word-change here or there. Truly, I can’t say that my school-writing experience was much different, thus the lack of publication credits for poems generated from that high school class. I did not touch the drafts except to “clean them up” for spelling or typos. Revision is bigger than that, and this week’s video on revision for my Intro to Creative Writing/ Poetry class attempts to show how. In it, it shows a sequence of drafts by Larissa Szporluk that she gave me long ago so that I could share with poetry students how a professional poet drafts. The video also lists a series of revision “moves” based on Nancy Sommer’s work. So far, students in the forum thread on the video see how Szporluk’s process functions and some analyze it to find new revision “moves” to try, such as moving whole stanzas around. Others are not yet connecting to what Szporluk does as something they personally could do, seeing too big a gap between pro and student. I hope that changes. Truly, revision ain’t rocket science. It takes almost as much time it seems, but the moves themselves are dead easy. It mostly takes tenacity, a keen insight into what excellence is, and enough gall to reach for it.
My job as a writing teacher is to open up the possibility that writing can be more than a free-standing assignment that lives and dies in the limited space of the classroom. After all, why is it taught at all? Because good writing is needed in real life. Because writing allows writers to think things through in a way no other medium does. Because good writing (especially poetry) can blow the top of your head off. That’s why.