Friday, September 30, 2011

My writing life.

The class I'm taking this semester for the degree I'm working on --Certificate of Advanced Study (C.A.S.) in Writing and the Teaching of Writing-- is a writing class conducted all through email correspondence, in which I write for and work with a real, live editor. That's the class. I write. The editor reads and responds to my work, and then I write more. This “class” doesn't involve a classroom and I don't know the other students, so I really get to pretend that I have an editor and that she is officially interested in my work. Part of this fantasy means I also pretend I have an agent and a beautiful writing studio full of plants and sunlight, a bottomless hot cup of coffee, and uninterrupted time to write.

Working with this editor, whose name is Anne, has been really good, hard work. I had to submit 12-15 pages of writing, of my choosing, that I wanted to work on as a starting point. My genre of choice is personal essay (not as in “it's personal” but as in, “I like to write about myself,” duh, I have a blog), and at the beginning of our work together, I sent her three essays. Within twenty minutes, she wrote me back and said that two of the essays were not worth working on because while they were “pleasant enough,” they had no “forward movement.” The third essay she liked, and by “liked” I mean she saw some “potential” as long as I was willing to start totally over.

I have to say that working with Anne is very much like taking medicine. I know that it is totally worthwhile to have someone who will tell you exactly what he/she thinks of your work, but it is a little hard to swallow. It's good for me, though. I mean, what's the point of working on my writing with someone who will just tell me that I'm great and talented and could I please be sensitive to the fact that I am moving her to tears with each and every paragraph? I don't get that from Anne. She uses phrases like: “cut this.” “trim this,” “you can't get away with using this shortcut,” “weak language,” “you are telling the reader what to think,” “you are over explaining,” and “this paragraph wants to die a slow death” (Okay, she didn't say that. I'm just being dramatic.).

I had a whole two-page section of the essay I am working on that I thought was fantastic, and she kept saying that it wasn't working and felt “tacked on.” Oh yeah? Well that's interesting. Because it was the part of the essay that I wrote first, so how could it be “tacked on?” I didn't actually say that. I did finally come to my own conclusion to cut that whole section out because it turned out to not really fit with the direction the new essay was moving. 
The process reminded me of an amazing and totally influential creative writing teacher at University of Michigan I had during my senior year named Tish. Like Anne, Tish did not give praise freely and was brutally honest and sometimes very cutting. I loved her. I never had to wonder what she thought about my work, or me, or anything else. One night in class, we were talking about how sometimes we start with an idea or an image or a really lovely, lyrical line, and then as we keep writing that piece, it turns out the original idea or line doesn't fit anymore and we need to cut it. The way Tish explained this to our class: “Sometimes, you have to kill your babies.”  I obviously never forgot the metaphor.

So, I deleted the two pages that I had started with and loved, and now, dammit, the essay works much better. Anne was right, okay? After my third draft and hours and hours of writing, Anne gave me some feedback I could be proud of. “Now you are doing good work.” “This is a powerhouse of a line.” “These images are so energized.” When she saw that I cut the whole section in question, she said: “We know we’re becoming better writers when we start throwing away the good stuff. That section was good stuff, but difficult to incorporate into this essay.” So, the baby was a nice baby, but I had to kill it anyway.

Working with Anne has made me think a lot about my own role as a writing teacher; I tend to err on the side of being really encouraging to student writers and celebrating their strengths. I employ the compliment sandwich when I comment on student work: “You have done excellent work here. The middle section needs reworking. Overall, I'm really proud of this draft.” I save the harsher criticism for the kids I know can take it because they see themselves as writers already and have confidence in their craft. Being a writing student is good for me as a writer and as a teacher. I like to work hard for Anne. I love getting her emails back and reading her careful notes and comments. In the end, a compliment from someone who is brutally honest and clear means so much more. I feel totally motivated to write more and work harder.

The essay I'm writing is about the process of dying and being born told through the experiences of my dad's death and Skyler's birth. I might share it here eventually.

Speaking of good writing, try reading a chapter of Bossypants during a quiet study hall in a classroom full of hard-working teenagers and not spit out your water. I dare you.

I'm off tomorrow to run the Maine Half Marathon in Portland.  This is the race I've been training for since August, so I'm looking for a smart, strong race.   Gun goes off Sunday at 7:45 am, so good vibes, please! 


Defining Moments said...

My husband always tells me I should write a book.. i think he just really loves me but it sure would be such a dream todo that one day. I think you should think about it too Em. You are an amazing writer and that's not just because I know and love you! - christie

Erin said...

I'm also in this course. And just had this conversation with a second grader about how I had to describe my character more thoroughly (Anne's suggestion) in my story (I read my story to my students.) He said, "Oh, so you have to do for your teacher what I have to do for you." :). I'm finding it tough to stay motivated but I am enjoying it.

Kerrie T. said...

What a great post. I need an Anne. Maybe I'll look into taking some classes. You know, I skipped college English because I passed my AP test in high school and I've always felt that not taking some college writing classes (at least) was a huge mistake.

I'll be thinking about you on Sunday. Good luck!

Carver Fam said...

I love that you get to do this. The idea of it thrills and terrifies me. I think (know) that blogging has made me a lazy, casual writer and I love the idea of being so accountable and working every word so hard.

I had a college professor like Anne and I had so much respect for her.

Maybe once you're all done with this and you get your certification you could be my Anne?

Rowgirl08 said...

I'm sending my husband to this program - oh the joy that will come from such amazing hard work.

Speaking of hard work - it's all behind you and go run, run, run loving it all the way!

Grump, it doesn't seem like the "high humidity" that has haunted your races this year is going to leave you this time around though....go away rain!

Liz said...

I've recently discovered your blog and it could not have happened at a better time. I am also an English teacher in Maine. I have twin seventeen month old boys and am trying to balance running, work, and soaking up as much fun with them as I can. I always feel great about my running by the end of the summer but then struggle once the school year begins and the daylight hours grow scarce.

I'll be running the half marathon tomorrow as well (with my mother), and while I'm confident I can finish, I wish I had kept up my training so that I could finish feeling strong as well.

Thank you for your great posts and helping me keep faith that I can somehow manage to fit in running between teaching and parenting.

Good luck tomorrow and let's hope the rain stays away!

Running Monologue said...

I am using this in my writing classes tomorrow! I love the "kill your babies" metaphor. I've been trying to explain this concept to my students but not in such graphic terms. I think this may drive the point home quite nicely.

I also struggle with being "too encouraging" when, in fact, the writing is just not good. There's always the fine line, isn't there?

Enjoying your work as always.


Eileen said...

Jealous ... I was a writer, but mostly gave it up when I had my kids. I've been inching back into it, but I'm so rusty. I love your writing. But I also love a good editor!

Kirsten said...

This is awesome! And also something I'd probably never do gracefully.