WRITING LIFE: Teaching Myself to Revise by Tara DaPra

As a student in high school and college, I was plagued by both perfectionism and procrastination. I had no idea how to engage in a good writing process, I underestimated how long work would take, and I worked best under the stress of deadlines. I am a “Perceiver” in the Meyers-Briggs Personality Test, someone who reflects continuously on my work, never satisfied that it is good enough. I could have used Saundra Yancy McGuire’s advice in her book Teach Students How to Learn: “[Perceivers] need to understand that there is literally no end to making improvements.” I had no idea how to turn in work that was imperfect but punctual; I would rather have gotten no credit for a late assignment that I felt proud of. In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck calls out the folly of this thinking: “Genius is not enough; we need to get the job done.”

Of course, I was not creating genius-level writing at an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota; instead, I was nurturing the toxic habits of what Dweck dubs a “fixed mindset.” And that professors often overlooked late work, or penalized it minimally, only served to reinforce my bad habits. We were judged by the products we produced, not the process by which they were created.

It wasn’t until my junior year of college, when I took my first creative writing course, that I saw how process could be valued by a teacher. Suddenly I was given permission—encouraged, even—to write unfinished work. Writing was given space to breathe and grow and develop over time. Some of it was even allowed to wither on the vine. I didn’t yet have the language to articulate it, but for the first time, I was engaging in writing as a process, growth mindset in action. This process work also nurtured my sense of self as an imperfect being, one who could learn from mistakes and “try again.”

But even as I continued to take creative writing courses, and was accepted into an MFA program, I struggled to write in a process-oriented way. It was hard to break a 20-year habit, no matter how anxiety-provoking it felt to binge-write against a looming deadline. I struggled to generate freely, where I gave myself permission to make mistakes, and I struggled to create a routine and structure to write in a more measured way. I struggled to create space for my process.

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Today, as a lecturer of composition and creative writing, teaching process is the foundation of everything I do. I continually refine my assignment designs, watching for the places where students stumble, and re-work the assignments the following semester. Everything I do as a teacher revolves around breaking down the process into more and more pieces, until the student learning runs as smoothly as possible. When students aren’t meeting a particular goal I’ve envisioned, I’ve come to see that it’s a failing in the process I’ve laid out.

But I didn’t always see learning this way. For example, in creative writing courses, students struggled to revise in a meaningful way; they did little more than fiddle around the edges. Initially I found this frustrating, but then I wondered, what had I really taught them? What had I modeled? What had I valued? I’d valued the quality of the final product, no matter how much or little they revised along the way. And I hadn’t truly show them how to revise, in a deep way.

I have always found writing hard work. I generate slowly because I’m tweaking and perfecting as I go. It’s painful to sit down and write because I struggle to separate the generating from the editing, as I instruct my students to do. Then, in November 2017, I took part in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) for the very first time. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write a 50,000-word draft of a novel in 30 days, which means writing about 1700 words per day. I told my creative writing students about NaNoWriMo, encouraged them to participate, and committed to doing so myself. I modified the framework to suit myself, writing nonfiction rather than fiction, with the modest goal to simply write for an hour or two each night after putting my kids to bed.

I committed to NaNoWriMo because I knew it was an opportunity to practice growth mindset. The point was to simply generate—to get words on the page, without fiddling along the way. I knew that I had to keep moving or I’d never make a dent in the word goal. I wasn’t allowed to think for days about what I might write about and then how I could work different strands of a narrative together; I just had to write one word after another. In the end, thwarted by household colds and Thanksgiving, I wrote 9/30 days and generated about 13,000 new words.

To some, it may look like I failed to reach the goal of NaNoWriMo. I only wrote on 1/3 of the days and accumulated 1/3 of the word count. But I was thrilled with my achievement, which was this: For the first time in my life, writing felt easy, not like something I dreaded. I had given myself permission to complete only the first step of a project, and then I left it to sit. I didn’t have to perfect anything, and so I didn’t have reason to put off writing what I feared would be imperfect.

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The material I generated eighteen months ago is still waiting, and it’s going to keep waiting for now because I’m not sure what else to do with it. But this past summer I finally returned to my thesis manuscript and made serious headway. After years of it sitting in my desk, giving me side eye, I could finally see a way back into a painful story that for so long was only an outline of events, captured in time so that I wouldn’t forget what had happened and how it had felt. That first draft, the recording, was essential but incomplete. Only now, with time and a new understanding of revision, am I able to revise in a deep and meaningful way. And in the process, the cloud of fixed mindset that I’ve lived with for so long, the one that tells me, “I’m not a real writer,” has largely dissipated.

 

Tara DaPra teaches creative writing and English composition at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She has an MFA from the University of Minnesota, where she received the Walter H. Judd Fellowship for creative research in Ireland and the Gesell Award for excellence in creative writing, poetry. Her writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Washington Post, and The Rake.
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