Last fall, I took a nonfiction writing course with Professor Marzano-Lesnevich (ML). I’m not an English major or minor and have never considered writing as a career. I took this class because I enjoy writing, and I think it is a very applicable skill. Yet, I was shocked by the unexpected lessons I took away from this class. Professor ML not only helped me improve my technical writing skills but instilled in me the value of growth, both in my writing and in my life.
Professor ML set aside the last few weeks of class for workshopping. From my understanding, this meant we would peer review each others’ final essays. I had done this many times before in various classes, and it had gone well enough. I volunteered to go first.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I submitted the first draft of my 5,000 word essay to my 11 peers who had a week to read it, make comments in the margins and write a one-page letter with three points of praise and three points of constructive feedback. Luckily, the content of my essay was not particularly personal—it was a longform nonfiction essay about bartering at the local farmers’ market. But sharing one’s writing is vulnerable and scary.
Needless to say, when I sat down at a round table among my peers, who each clutched a copy of my essay, wrinkled, marked with coffee stains and filled with streaks of blue and red ink, I immediately started sweating.
On the blackboard, Professor ML had outlined the itemized itinerary for the workshop. First, my peers would go in a circle explaining the “situation” of the essay—where and when it took place and what was going on. Ok, simple enough. Next, was the “Round of Praise.” A circle of compliments; I could handle that. Then, the class would move into interpreting the essay’s “story.” Getting the story right, Professor ML explained, was usually impossible on the first try and therefore would inevitably lead us into the “Round of Constructive Critique.” Surely my ego wasn’t so fragile that I couldn’t withstand a little criticism. Oh, and one important rule: I had to remain silent until the very end.
That workshop was one of the most intense and overwhelming experiences of my Bowdoin career. To be fair, my peers were extremely generous with their praise and gracious with their criticism. But, after earnestly thanking all of them as they handed me marked-up copies of my essay and their one-page letters, I walked out of Adams Hall feeling the staggering weight of the thick stack of papers. My head was spinning as I thought about all of the possible directions that I could take the next draft in and all of the holes that my peers had exposed that I could not readily patch. When I got home, I wanted to shove that stack of papers in my closet and close the door.
As seniors, we can all collectively chuckle thinking about our professors’ mantras about starting our essays early and writing multiple drafts before the deadline. Laughable indeed. Instead, we type late into the night, frenetically checking the clock and chugging coffee. I had gotten used to submitting what writer Anne Lamott calls the “Shitty First Draft” (which Professor ML abbreviates as “SFDs”). I would scrap together a SFD, replace words like “weird” and “great” with “preposterous” and “rapturous,” slap on a two-part title cleverly separated by a colon and hit print (just to find a glaring sentence fragment in the second sentence). A few weeks later, the professor would hand the paper back, I would flip through and find the grade, shrug, and toss the essay into the recycling bin.
Maybe that’s why I felt so overwhelmed after walking out of the workshop; someone was actually forcing me to write a better draft.
I’m not advocating for mandatory revisions at Bowdoin, because, well, that’s ridiculous. Rather, I’m proposing something far more onerous and absurd: using the revision process as a metaphor for our lives.
In many ways, Bowdoin was a workshop. We gave and received praise and criticism to and from professors, friends and even strangers. Maybe we took too much criticism to heart, or not enough. Maybe we praised too little while criticizing too much. Or, maybe we were too busy looking at the good that we overlooked the flaws. But, we all grew.
For me, graduating feels like walking out of an intense writing workshop. It is overwhelming. I feel proud with the version of myself I drafted at Bowdoin and daunted by the prospect that there is so much more to learn and do. It takes courage to admit that maybe this is just my Shitty First Draft. But, a simple conversation with my grandmother—who has been “writing” many different chapters of her life for over seven decades—never fails to remind me how much more I have to aspire to. And that is exciting.
The last item on Professor ML’s workshop agenda was designed to recognize the accomplishments and bravery of the writer and enthusiastically propel them into the next phase of revision. It is a “vociferous applause.” So, friends of the class of 2020, we will have to wait until next year to gather together and enjoy giving and receiving this applause. But, for now, let us all close our laptops after our final Zoom sessions and vociferously applaud ourselves and each other to celebrate the versions of ourselves we have already written and plunge into writing our next drafts.