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On Being A Watcher of Vowels and a Master Procrastinator of Words

February 13, 2014

“For me and most of the writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (page 22)

“The writing we most admire, the writing that takes us into other worlds, the writing that allows us to live the experience of others, the writing that influences our thoughts and emotions has evolved through a  process of exploration dna discovery. That process is both frightening and thrilling for the writer since progress is made, as it is in science and sports, by instructive failure.” Donald Murray, Craft of Revision (page 3)

“Most writers manage to get by because, as the deadline creeps closer, their fear of turning in nothing eventually surpasses their fear of turning in something terrible,” writes business blogger “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators” which is based on her brand new book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success41lk-LSKrUL._SY344_BO1204203200_ (2014 Viking). “Failure,” McArdle states simply on her website, “is what makes success possible.”

“Work finally begins,” says Alain de Botton, “when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

In “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators”, McArdle argues that fear of failure or even just the fear of writing  something bad paralyzes writers. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, one of the best-known experts in the psychology of motivation and who has studied how people react to failure, agrees. However, Dweck also found in her research that “some people thrived under the challenge. They positively relished things they weren’t very good at—for precisely the reason that they should have: when they were failing, they were learning,” writes McArdle.

What Dweck figured out is there are two types of people, those with a fixed mind-set, and those with a “growth mind-set.”

“For growth people, challenges are an opportunity to deepen their talents, but for “fixed” people, they are just a dipstick that measures how high your ability level is,” reports McArdle. “Finding out that you’re not as good as you thought is not an opportunity to improve; it’s a signal that you should maybe look into a less demanding career, like mopping floors.”

Worse is the fear that others will discover the truth of your incompetence–that you’re actually an imposter. Clinically called “Imposter Syndrome,” some folks  even go so far as to handicap themselves. McArdle cites Edward Hirt’s example of a student who heads to the movies instead of studying the night before an exam:

“If he performs poorly, he can attribute his failure to a lack of studying rather than to a lack of ability or intelligence. On the other hand, if he does well on the exam, he may conclude that he has exceptional ability, because he was able to perform well without studying.”

Sound familiar?

For those students who have found school, and especially writing easy, and have been rewarded for being smart and getting ahead, Dweck says that these students have learned “that being smart is not about overcoming tough challenges. It’s about finding work easy. When they get to college or graduate school and it starts being hard, they don’t necessarily know how to deal with that.”

Our traditional schooling system reinforces the fixed mindset. It is a revelation for too many of my students when they read Anne Lamott’s essay on “Shitty First Drafts” and they discover that EVERYONE writes them.  Anne Lamott says that writing is like brushing your teeth–you brush down, then up, then have the dentist check every tooth. The down draft, she says, is a child’s draft, every doodle, every drool, love them all, and get them down on paper. Then, the task is to fix it up. Lamott writes that she will “go through it all with a colored pen, take out everything I possibly could, find a new lead somewhere on the second page, figure out a kicky place to end it, and then write a second draft. It always turned out fine.”

The down and up draft process includes the kind and friendly editors, readers, and tutors who come in and play with you, help your ideas, your argument become clear. Then finally it’s the dental draft stage: you’ve cleaned it up as best you can,  and now you carefully check every toothy word for cavities, and polish them to make them shine.

The problem is, in school, all we see is the literary masterpiece, the finished formula. We don’t see the drafts or the revisions or the notes from the editor or other readers. We only see the successes because we trashcan the failures.

That leaves my students facing their blank pages with few models of how to get from here to there.

While my students have been writing short reading responses twice a week now for five weeks, and getting responses from me and from their classmates during that time that they can use to revise or for reference, they are about to embark on their first essay of 4-5 pages where we will being doing writing workshops and going through the revision process, getting feedback and rewriting.  By now, most of them have gotten used to having someone give them feedback and we’ve developed a community of writers, a family even, in the classroom so it is safe to reveal our failures.

Requiring students to produce a down, then an up, a dental and a final draft helps with the issues of being “fixed” and afraid of failure–because it’s just a draft, a piece in process we learn how to let go, to get feedback, to take risks.

The article continues on to discuss how this mind-set has led to the generational problems of “Trophy Kids.”  These are students and now graduates who are so afraid to fail that they require everything to be spelled out for them–they are afraid to think for themselves.

What school and life needs to teach is, according to McArdle, is “the ability to learn from their mistakes, to be knocked down and to pick themselves up—the ability, in other words, to fail gracefully.”

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s just because we writers, especially we poets and artists, are lovers and watchers of vowels…distracted by the sudden gust of breeze in the trees, the light on the clouds, the whiff of jasmine, the lure of the foamy cappuccino on our palates…and the desire to describe all of it, with just the right words, for the sheer pleasure of doing so. At least some of the time!

Above is Robert Bly’s poem ‘The Watcher of Vowels’ with Design & Animation by Matt Van Ekeren, Director of Photography by Catalina Kulczar-Marin, Sound Design by Carly Zuckweiler. This short film is Property of Motionpoems and I look forward to discovering and sharing more of their work.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 13, 2014 11:32 am

    Reblogged this on whisper down the write alley and commented:

    why writers procrastinate and what it might mean for your education

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