Against the Rewriting of Personal Essays

While in my undergrad in English literature, when someone asked me how a paper was coming along, I would often respond with, “Almost finished. All I’ve got to do is write it.”

I wrote most of my academic papers throughout that degree using a writing process which I did not deviate much from. I would read the primary text (often a novel), underlining key passages and noting interesting ideas as I went, paying close attention to my thoughts throughout.

Then, the Saturday before my paper was due, I would sequester myself into a small computer room in the basement of the university library, and there remain until I’d written my paper, beginning to end. This typically took about ten hours. I’d emerge, triumphant, pick up my printed paper upstairs, and take a bus home.

I used this writing process for the majority of my undergrad and got good grades, for the most part.

Let’s fast forward a few years.

When I began writing personal essays in my MFA, I approached them in much the same way. I’d think about an upcoming essay long before my workshop submission deadline, and carry the idea around with me like it was a primary text, reading and underlining aspects in my mind, paying close attention to my thoughts.

And then I would retreat somewhere to write.

My ten hour writing block in the library as an undergraduate had looked something like the following. I would:

  1. transcribe previously underlined passages onto computer;
  2. re-order passages in logical manner;
  3. write down own thoughts about them;
  4. create a rough outline (optional);
  5. start and complete initial draft of paper;
  6. identify thesis statement, usually which emerged at end of said initial draft;
  7. completely rewrite paper, beginning this time with my newly-found thesis statement; and,
  8. revise as many times as necessary, and as long as required, until completed.

(Or until the library closed, which often seemed to coincide with the former.)

I’d developed a fairly sophisticated system, which I apparently grossly downplayed with my casual remark of “All I’ve got to do is write it.” (There was a lot more reworking in that computer room than I gave myself credit for.) The most important aspect had been to take the idea found at the end of the first draft, and then rework an entirely new paper around it; essentially, to rewrite it.

I brought these techniques with me when I attempted my personal essays in my MFA. In the end, however, these essays didn’t turn out so well.

As an MFA candidate who was relatively new to the genre of the personal essay, I figured that I must not be putting in enough time or effort.

So I started my essays much earlier, and gave myself additional time – more than I’d ever permitted myself for undergrad papers, or probably even seminar papers which I’d written during a previous MA in English literature.

But no matter how much time I spent, I couldn’t seem to write personal essays that I was satisfied with.

During my second year in the MFA program, I attended a writing conference near when one of my workshop essays was due. I decided to attend the panels, and so didn’t have the usual time to rework and rewrite my essay. The essay in question was a near initial draft, clunky and rough, I thought, but I necessarily had to submit it, and did, feeling half-guilty, hoping others would pardon me for its unpolished state.

I was surprised, then, when classmates responded favourably to this essay, more so even than previous ones I’d written. I was further puzzled when my professor, a gifted essayist, commented that he thought this was my best essay yet.

At first I thought people were mistaken, that they’d misjudged the quality of my work. Then I thought that maybe the content of this particular essay had swayed their opinion – but no, that wasn’t it either. And then, finally, I thought about my writing process.

In my MFA, I’d been trying to model the writing process I’d used as an undergraduate, adapting it where necessary, but maintaining its core, which was to rewrite once I figured out what I was actually writing about. I’d change the order of ideas and paragraphs, reworking them again and again. The fact was that all my rewriting had left my prose feeling stilted, and without a natural flow.

It occurs to me that, in my undergrad, I had consistently entered the library with one essay in mind, and emerged ten hours later with quite another in hand. There was something in the act of writing – and rewriting – which changed one paper into another. In my MFA, the secret for me was to write the first, and resist revising it into the second.

In academic writing, we write to persuade, using strong argument and solid evidence. We are confident, and include counterarguments in order to refute them, which ultimately strengthens our argument. Yet the process of personally coming to these arguments and conclusions is often invisible in the actual paper. (And there’s little room for uncertainty or self-contradiction.)

This seems to me the antithesis of the personal essay. Part of the delight and reward in reading personal essays is to experience the process of the essayist’s discovery (whatever that may be). I’m not suggesting that we cease revising personal essays. Revision is a vital component of the process, even major revisions. But for me, I needed to learn how to revise in a more light-handed way, one which allowed the germ of the initial idea, and its progression, to still be present.

In rewriting my personal essays, I had inadvertently removed the part that was perhaps most valuable: the process of how I came to my ideas. I was overwriting them.

This post was originally going to be on something completely different – research in personal essays. But I followed my narrative train of thought instead. I’ll save the other for another day.

Question: What does your revision process look like?