About four weeks into the semester, I write these words on the board, inside a pyramid:
Proofing and Grammar
Then, I explain the pyramid to my students, but in a very careful way.
I learned a lot about how to teach from being a step-parent and in the classroom, as on the step-homefront, I don’t tell them what to do, I share what I do. I teach from the side. I even act slightly puzzled, just slightly disinterested—probably this wouldn’t work for you slides my tone. Nothing to see here. But I’m also very engaged—with my own process: I act like I’m sharing a secret, too—step inside my studio, if you want to. I don’t let everyone in. This is not the standard curriculum. This is a writing class. We are co-alchemists and my job as teacher is to be sly and stealthy.
Here’s what I want to get across to my students in my revision lesson sneak attack. Revision is writing. But I don’t want to say that sentence. Not ever. Because I have a feeling this sentence makes little sense to a new writer, a young writer, a college student/writer. “Revision is writing” certainly made no sense to me as a student: it sounded to my nineteen year old ears as something teachers say to sound teachery when they are trying to make something boring and time-wasting sound helpful, like broccoli. But the truth is every single working writer I know creates a draft, a piece, and then she begins to work. And it’s the act of “revision”—re-seeing—on which we spend most of our time as writers. I don’t think students are lazy; I really believe they want to improve as writers. I think students simply don’t know how to spend the time on a piece of writing. They don’t know what to sit down and do for hours, all the hours it takes to craft something potentially substantial and significant.
So, I show them exactly what I do.
I draw the pyramid. I tell the truth: about 80% of my time is spent doing what I call re-seeing the piece. After I writing out the images and scenes, I read the piece aloud and see what I have. I read to stabilize the narrative in place and time, layer in the dialogue, and clarify confusion. I print, read the piece it aloud again, and adjust, cutting and adding, sharpening and tuning, over and over. I will do this for as long as I have time (depending on the deadline). For a poem to take to my writing group, I will do ten or twenty rounds of this seeing and re-seeing on the page, in the course of a week. I read the work aloud to my writing partner, aloud to myself, aloud to a close friend who happens to be an editor, catching, each time, parts that aren’t clear, parts I need to see more fully.
Editing—making the sentences more artful, fact-checking, formatting, etc., takes about 15% perfect of my writing time for any given piece and proofreading for typos, spell checking and grammar checking—5%.
When I gave this lesson last week in my introductory poetry class, Aaron sat up, took his feet off his skateboard-cum-footstool, and he said, “This is the most helpful thing so far.” “Like ever.” Natalie took a cell phone photograph of the board, and several others followed suit. Yuni got out a Hello Kitty notebook for the first time this semester, and drew the pyramid, which now had the percentages written by it and she said, “Could you say this one more time?”
“Why does no one tell us these things?” Danica said.
“Do other people do this?” Chantelle asked, holding her hand in the air as she spoke.
I nodded solemnly. My friends who are writers, they do this. We have talked about it, I say. And I make sure to always say each one of us has to find the way that works best, our own way. It’s very individual.
Then, I pull out from a folder one of my poems in progress—a thick packet of pages. I make it seem like I just happen to have this with me. I say I don’t usually share my work in progress or talk about my process with my students. In this case, I pulled out a poem about meeting my 80 year old aunt in St. Augustine, very near the Fountain of Youth, as it happened. I held up the first draft, which was written on the inside cover of an issue of Poetry while I was in the car. I hold up the printed out typed versions with all my many notations, all my re-seeing. I show them the drawing I did after struggling to get the opening of this poem clear, a quick sketch of the fountain at Columbia House with my aunt and her partner and my friend and his hat. Then I show them the copies my writing partners have written on, and I hold up the printouts of the emails I got back with notes on various versions of the from Dylan, Elaine, Norman, and Stephanie. Elaine’s—with track changes and many, many more words of commentary than are in the poem—draws a gasp.
“How freaking long does this take?” Joe asks. I’m dying for Joe to spend more than five minutes on anything, ever. I look him dead in the eye and say “The whole thing? From start to finish?” I hold all the pages in my palms as though I’m weighing time itself. Long dramatic pause. “Probably 25 hours?”
“For one poem?” Ken says. “Shit.”
“Shit,” Coral says. “I need to spend more time.”
“I’m editing,” Danica says. “I thought I was a great reviser. I’m editing.”
“You’re a great editor.”
I don’t ask the students to track their time or do anything with the revision pyramid. Most semesters they ask about it again, later in the course. I see their work improve, week by week. I think learning how to spend more time on a piece of writing takes time. For my introductory courses, presenting the pyramid and a cold hard sausage-being-made look into one writer’s folder of drafts is enough.