Some Thoughts for Teachers

Joseph is done.

Well, almost done.

I’ve finished the journey in terms of having completed a satisfactory manuscript. Now it’s time to reread, correct, check facts, fill in blank spots, make sure things flow, get tenses right, elaborate and compress where necessary, and generally get the manuscript dressed up for the dance.

This is an interesting stage. It’s like getting a house ready to sell: it’s too late to change the structure or the fundamental soundness, but you can make sure it shows well and feels comfortable to live in.

Too many people — especially young people in school — never know the pleasures of this stage of writing. But authors know. In fact, I’ve read comments by authors who say this is their favorite part of the writing process.

Just yesterday I ran into this with my son, and I run into it constantly with students. They think you write something once then you’re done. It’s almost impossible to convince them that rewriting and editing is essential. They see rewriting as penance and editing as criticism. How wrong they are.

I encourage any of you who are teachers to make sure that your students learn to rewrite. It makes hard work for you, but it benefits the students a thousandfold. Many have never even considered the possibility of rewriting. Their attitude is, “Just give me my grade. I’ll try to do better the next time.” Very often they don’t even read your comments on their papers except to see where they were praised or where they wish to argue with you. If, however, the comments are guideposts for a rewrite, they will take both you and your comments much more seriously.

Here’s another reason to learn to rewrite: If you never have to rewrite you get into a creative rhythm that has you completely depleted by the time rewriting and editing comes around. You learn to be a sprinter as a writer, so you begrudge the longer races and you simply don’t know how to run them. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to pace yourself, and you can’t be out of energy for a project when you have completed your first run-through. If you become accustomed to rewriting, you have a psychological relationship to a project that says, upon finishing your first serious draft, “I feel a sense of accomplishment, but not a sense of completion.” You take a deep breath, forget about it for a couple of days, then dig in again. It is, believe it or not, really exhilarating.

Of course there’s the other phenomenon that few casual writers ever experience — the rediscovery of a work that has “gone cold.” These are works that you finished six months or six years ago, that you return to and revisit and reread. Sometimes you say, “Hey, this was really good. I’m a good writer.” Other times you want to throw up. But always you face the awareness that you could never write that piece again. You are a different person, your perception of the world is different, your language is different, the spaces between your thoughts are different. You realize that each creation is a magical moment in time and space. So you learn to respect the magic of the creative moment and commit yourself to always doing the best you can on any project, because you know it is one that you can never do again.

So, teachers — you folks with the most difficult and important job in the world — make your students rewrite. Give them gentle critical guidance on how to make their thoughts clearer. Or, better yet, have them pair up and read each other’s work and make suggestions. That way they learn to critique as well as be critiqued. And they move beyond “that sucks,” “that’s boring,” and “that’s cool.” Have them tell each other not what’s wrong, but what would make their work easier or more fun or more interesting to read.

Start early. I’ve done this with fourth graders. Once they begin to be able to get a narrative on paper, they’re ready to share and respond to each other’s writing.

If you teach children about rewriting, you are really teaching them about revisiting any project to make sure it is done properly, whether it be mowing the lawn or taking a test. The first time ain’t the last time, gang, if you want to do something right.

Deep Winter and the Emergence of Joseph

There is really very little to say when the mercury hits -38 (and that’s fahrenheit for those of you in centigrade countries). The mind, like the body, stills, and focus or hysteria is there for the taking. There have been years when this annual cold spike has immobilized me. But this year it has induced concentrated effort.

What this concentration has wrought is a finishing up of the Joseph book. There’s still much to do, but the story has been roughed in and the voice and tone are clear.

This book has turned out to be a fairly closely observed, ground level recounting of the Nez Perce plight and flight. That is not what I set out to do, but I have warmed to that approach. If, in the last analysis, I have written a book that brings people to the story and engages them in a visceral, meaningful way, the approach will have been justified. If it ends up being a flat chronology, I will have betrayed my literary trust.

Right now I think I have a story, not a catalog or chronology. That’s what I’m hoping, because that’s what I do best. I am no historian, and I truly dislike having to put out alternative readings or qualifiers when I create a narrative. I just want folks to pick up the book and feel compelled to keep reading. I’m less concerned about what they know at the end of the book than what they have experienced. Facts you can always get; emotional involvement is more elusive.

So I’m spending about another week finishing up the draft, then my editor and I will work together to determine how to make the work ‘breathe’ through chapter divisions and headings. After that, I’ll reread the whole thing and put it in the hands of a few readers who are both honest and merciless. If they think I’ve told a story, I’m over the first hurdle.

This process will probably engage me for the next several weeks. During that time I may or may not feel inclined to do much blogging. I’m just not sure. But keep coming back. Fairly soon I’ll put a few pages of the book here on this website so you folks, too, can see what I’ve been up to for over three years.