When I write, I am alone with my failures. Every day I make mistakes, but writing’s solitude protects me from the shame of at least a few of these daily gaffes. I type, halt, erase, begin again. I either halt or I spill my thoughts so that I don’t have to feel them rattling in my head anymore. I don’t outline, I spew. Then I delete or rearrange. No one will see my first draft and I find freedom in that.
My students often come into the Barnard Writing Center flummoxed by the task of writing The Perfect Essay. They have a prompt, sometimes a thesis statement. But they can’t get started because they don’t know how to ensure success. They don’t have time to fail because they have exams and problem sets and parties. More importantly, they can’t afford to fail because this assignment “determines their entire future.”
Students can feel vulnerable in the Barnard Writing Center. No one need feel ashamed that she used an m-dash just to impress or that her thesis statement is too broad. We have all been there. But if failure is an inevitable part of the writing process, what should students do to cope?
Learn from these failures and move on. As I approach the last few months of my undergraduate career, I find myself cherishing my past failures. My favorite classes are the ones that almost drove me (or rather, my GPA) to the ground. My professors asked me to analyze cities and societal pressures and immoral motivations and racism and adjectives and the nature of beauty in ways I didn’t understand before I started writing. One of my professors would question my repetition of “and” in that last sentence; another might circle that semi-colon and call it pretentious.
The trick isn’t to be perfect. The trick is to stop being afraid of your errors. At the Writing Center we will help you: we will talk about focusing your thesis and integrating your quotes more smoothly into a paragraph. I might ask you why you thought to write five “and”s instead of using commas or if you found the semi-colon in the last paragraph necessary. We will talk about writing and you might credit me with the A you get on your paper.
But I cannot teach how to write right. Through the years I’ve acquired the patience for outlines, finding all my quotes before I solidify my thesis, and making lists in threes. You may have figured out different strategies (feel free to share them in the comments section). Bring your uncertainties to the Writing Center and we can design new tactics.
You will always blunder, though. May you blunder gracefully.