'Shitty First Drafts'

Yesterday, in the midst of jumping around my room trying in vain to help all the students with questions, I noticed a student in the front corner of my room. She was writing tirelessly, beginning paragraph after paragraph with fervor, and eventually sighing, crumpling the paper in her hands, and pushing the makeshift paper snowball off to the the side into what was becoming a whole mound of makeshift snowballs.

We had just read a paper of one of her peers, as an exemplar piece, and the student with the paper snowball pile wanted her writing to be as good as the one we read. It was a blend of perfectionism and competition that I recognized and understood.

I sat down beside her and started tossing some of the balled up pieces of paper at some students who looked like they weren’t quite focused. The student looked up and broke from her frustrated writer face to a smile at her childish teacher. She was thinking why she had to be the most mature one in the classroom.

“I’m thankful for ‘shitty’ first drafts,” I told her with a smile. Kids love when teachers drop a well-timed cuss word.

This wasn’t my own idea. Anne Lamott, one of the best people out there, coined the “shitty first drafts” idea in her book Bird By Bird. It’s a good read, especially if you teach writing or like writing. The balled up pieces of paper yesterday had me thinking about my week.

It’s Saturday morning now, and I’m on a second cup of coffee while my daughter watches “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” beside me. This has been a week of revision. It could be the stress of the possible Pittsburgh teacher strike, the normal buzz of teaching, the long drone of February in the classroom, or just the reality that most of us don’t get it right the first time. I feel like I have spent the whole week tossing really “shitty” drafts off to the side.

High School teachers often have the advantage of trying the same lesson a few times. This week, for some reason, I crumpled up a few lessons and chucked them in the trash can. I tinkered over my lunch break, shifted my delivery, changed some of the questions, and threw some things out. My poor 1st period class, along with the other classes that only have one section, always deal with my sometimes “shitty” first attempts. Just like the student who was balling up papers in the front of my room, I was seeking perfection. Or, at least I was looking for something that worked a little better than the first time.

There were a few times when my changes were almost perfect. The second or third draft eliminated the blank stares and the sleepy eyes and replaced them with energy and excitement. However, there were also times that the sloppy attempt at revision actually looked worse than the crumpled up paper on the side of my desk.

Writing second drafts is a tiring task. It would be much easier for the student in my class to submit her first endevor and assume that because she is an excellent writer that she will get an “A” on what she knows is her own half-assed attempt. Likewise, there have been many times in my career when people have watched or observed my own first drafts in the classroom and told me how great it was. In so many instances, we are programmed to accept mediocrity, and even reward it, because we are not good at revision. I would probably be guilty of giving that student an “A” and praising her for work that we both knew wasn’t her best. The feedback would be meaningless to her though, because it didn’t recognize the fullness of her ability and her own possibility for excellence. Good, as Jim Collins says, keeps us from great.

An “A” on the top of her paper keeps her from getting better.

A “that was an amazing lesson” or a well-meaning “you are a great teacher” could keep us from making the revisions that would actually make us great.

This is true everywhere. As my daughter watches the TV beside me, I’m aware of the bad drafts of parenting that I threw at the wall this week. And my wife, if she is being honest, would tell you that I let the stress of the week creep into our brief and kind of hectic interactions. My tendency is to feel guilty for letting my work push into my relationships and apologize, but we may all be better off if I simply follow the example of my student and crumple those broken paragraphs into a ball and chuck them toward the trash.

I told the student she was a huge inspiration, and that we could all learn from her willingness to put the pencil back to the paper. She smiled and said I was cheesy because I live in bad writing metaphors. I told her that I was going to write a blog centered on a bad writing metaphor and she was going to be in it. Then I snapped a picture of the balled up paper on her desk so that I remember to keep revising.

Let’s not beat ourselves up for those bad first drafts.
But let’s also be willing to throw them aside for something better.