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:
- transcribe previously underlined passages onto computer;
- re-order passages in logical manner;
- write down own thoughts about them;
- create a rough outline (optional);
- start and complete initial draft of paper;
- identify thesis statement, usually which emerged at end of said initial draft;
- completely rewrite paper, beginning this time with my newly-found thesis statement; and,
- 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?
Heather, I love this, thanks for sharing. I flip flop between over editing and keeping true to the original flow. I favor writing and reading personal essays that aren’t over edited because they pull you in, making you feel like you’re drinking tea with the actual person at their table, or on their couch. Some of the most memorable and teachable moments in my life happened just like that, in an organic, non-scripted way. It’s refreshing to hear from someone with so much experience, talent, and love for writing to highlight the importance of this part of the writing process. Keeping the original human element alive. True connection helps us understand ourselves in ways that even the finest argument simply cannot achieve. We cannot be connected if we commit ourselves to the fear of others. Because isn’t that the real reason we put so much effort into presentation? For protection? When something is shiny and new, people admire from afar and ultimately leave it alone. On the other hand, when something is broken and interesting, it’s only natural to step in.
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I love your image of a good essay being like drinking tea with the essayist at her / his own table!
Funny isn’t it how the “broken and interesting” things, as you say, are the ones which catch our attention?
Thanks for your comment, and astute thoughts!
I don’t revise. All of my writing is for my blog or low-key magazines and I don’t get that bent out of shape over nailing the perfect essay (that’s kind of sad as I reread what I just wrote). Where I *do* put my effort is in the wording. Every time I return to an essay in progress, I reread what I’ve written (my stated purpose is to regain the mood and the voice) but I wind up editing heavily. I doubt I’d even know where to start on a revision. I liked this essay. It made me think.
Thanks for your comment! I like to hear about the writing process of fellow writers. Sounds like you’ve got a good system in place. I must admit, I was a bit shocked by your initial statement “I don’t revise,” probably because I’m envious! (I still have a tendency to revise.)
As I read what you wrote about your editing process, I wondered if perhaps there is less of a distinction between revising and editing heavily than we may ascribe . . . or maybe that’s just me still being in denial!
I’m glad you enjoyed the essay, that it made you think. Your comment did for me, likewise. Thanks for posting it!
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This doesn’t directly answer your question, partly because of how what I write differs from what you do, but you reminded me of something I consciously do with my first draft fiction. My essay approach is very structured. (The one time I wrote a paper in which I didn’t follow my typical structure, my professor thought I had plaigerized it, and later, on realizing I hadn’t, requested to keep a copy to share with future students.) That kind of structure can leave a novel feeling like it lacks movement. As a result, for fiction, I opt to plan as little as possible (while still knowing where I am going) so that my own process of discovery is authentic on the page.
You reminded me of a quote by Robert Frost: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I’d never read the quote in context, however, and so looked it up after having read your comment. It appears in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” a sort of “ars poetica” essay which looks like Frost included as a Preface for a 1939 *Collected Poems of Robert Frost*. I read the entire thing, (about 4 pages); it’s fabulous. And it seems to me to speak directly to what you were saying about your process of authentic discovery on the page: “It must be a revelation,” Frost writes,”or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader.”
In exploring the concept of discovery in creative writing, I was referring to personal essays, you to fiction, and Frost to poetry, but we all seem to essentially be saying the same thing.
I really love to see how the writing processes of these different genres aren’t as different I might have assumed them to be; how what applies to one can be equally practiced or learned in another. Thanks for sharing your experience and insight on this!
I’ll leave with another quote from Frost, also from “The Figure a Poem Makes”: “A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it.”
That is really lovely. Thank you for sharing that with me! I think I will look up “The Figure a Poem Makes”.
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“The Figure a Poem Makes” poses an interesting idea about the natural movement that the poetic turn embodies. My first introduction to the turn was in Shakespearean sonnets, which are so structured in where the turn occurs, that the progression can seem upon analysis to be very premeditated in the construction. I like this understanding of the turn as something that gains its significance from its process of creation and not its adherence to poetic or literary values.
It reminds me of a poem I wrote in the last year (free verse). I began because I wanted to think about the feelings one may espouse when contemplating stones. In the last line, it occurred to me to refer to the stones as “us” instead of “these”. It surprised me, and I had to go back and see how my unintentional metaphor played out. I ended up very pleased with it, and I kept it. I feel I may have foreshadowed too much or otherwise edited the first part of my poem in too obvious a way if I had caused it to reflect my later feelings.
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What an excellent example of preserving your discovery on the page! Thank you for sharing it! And thanks, also, for taking a look at “The Figure a Poem Makes” and engaging with it as you have. Your engagement with it is making me think deeper about the piece . . . and wondering, if perhaps, there is an equivalent of a poetic turn in other kinds of writing (i.e. personal essays), and what that might look like. Nothing conclusive, but it’s got me wondering, which is always a good place to be.
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