The Perfection of Imperfection
I’m hardly the first teacher to express the desire to improve upon the methods of instruction he or she encountered in their own youth. By extension, I also doubt I am the first to recognize my own weaknesses and mistakes. As high school teachers, our objective is to improve the lives of our students. We utilize professional development, blogs such as these, our college experiences, all as the basis for what can be done better. Of course, in life, it all comes down to putting the idea into practice. But before that, in school, it comes down to putting that idea down on paper.
The rough draft.
Be it creative writing or other areas of expression, the most common fear I encounter in my students is that of the rough draft. Students are afraid to write something they consider substandard, as if this initial output would be their only output. I recognize this in myself, both as a writer and as a teacher. I’m not ashamed to say that even this blog post holds its own level of bewildering terror. There is nothing like the pressure one places on themselves.
With stress going part and parcel with wellness, how do we attempt to sway students from this kind of thinking? How do we help them realize it is acceptable to write something that’s bad on the first try when they have likely been told they must always put their best writing forward at all times? Is it a matter of simply giving them permission? Presumably, any teacher who has thought about this before utilizes their own methods. Anne Lamott’s chapter about terrible first drafts in her book Bird by Bird comes to mind as I reflect on the collective fear of “shitty first drafts.” The resistance to try remains and the lesson is only an afterthought.
However...why not put the afterthought first?
In early November of 2020, I attended a workshop hosted by the DFW Writer’s Garret led by local poet and author Joe Milazzo. I had the privilege of studying under Joe in college so it seemed a no-brainer to attend. The workshop itself addressed writer’s block, the causes, and how to get past it. Joe presented a long list of writing prompts, and the cento, or a creative literary work made up of quotations from other literary works, stood out as I usually begin my Creative Writing poetry unit by asking students to write a cento and a borrowed poem. The flag raised, it lead me to one prompt in particular:
“Write an unoriginal and uncreative poem.”
Intrigued by the idea and the cento fresh on my mind, I went about the work only to find that I had to be creative in order to be uncreative. At the subsequent share out, others in the group seemed interested in the process. Aaron Glover, the moderator of the workshop, commented on how he saw something similar in another workshop with poet Logan Cure where attendees were asked to fill a poem with every cliché, bad rhyme and bad idea they could come up with. Then, with the poem written, they could begin removing the bad parts and replace them with something better.
This was the afterthought I had been searching for. I would ask my students to write an intentionally bad poem with every preconceived notion of what that entailed thrown in, maybe even the kitchen sink as well; perhaps if they could get the “bad writing” out of the way, they could proceed to edit their poems with more confidence and see that their subsequent drafts were improvements on their first attempt.
It just so happened that I was only a week or so shy of teaching terrible first drafts in class. I gave them fifteen minutes to create their unoriginal masterpieces. Most found the exercise enjoyable even if some still pushed themselves to get their imperfection perfect. With the poems complete, many of them shared with the class, and I asked them to reflect on the experience. Even with the inherent need to get things right, they found the ideas flowed. Their experiences were similar to my own: they needed to be creative to be uncreative. When I stated that they had just completed a rough draft and that they could now start taking those bad phrases and terrible rhymes away, a new understanding dawned on them: their idea was on paper and now existed in a tangible form which they could manipulate.
The next week, I presented the idea to my English department and concluded by saying that I hadn’t quite figured out how to translate the idea to my senior English class. Teachers being teachers, the group-think rose to that challenge and within seconds the ideas flowed. As luck had it, my seniors would begin tackling a longer synthesis essay as their culminating written product for the semester. My department’s ideas now in my quiver, I presented a modified version of the free write exercise to my students: “Write the worst introductory paragraph possible, including everything you’ve been taught not to do.”
Some struggled, habits being what they are. With their free write time complete, I asked this group to reflect on their experience.. One commented on how hard it was to break away from what they had been taught, but this happened to be a student who often admitted she would wait until the very end to work on a rough draft because she wanted everything to be right. Another student gave my favorite answer:
“I’m actually pretty angry at what I wrote.”
The rest of the class laughed, but the tenor changed when I told them they had just written the rough draft for their essay’s introduction. I continued by stating they had made it past that initial speed bump of starting the paper and it only took them fifteen minutes. They had something on paper, and those imperfections could be now removed and the work of writing could begin. In the days that followed, I asked them to apply the same principle to an outline and the claims they were seeking to create. Many fell back into their old habits, because their internal editor knew the rules of the game now, proving our natural hesitancy to be messy and imperfect with our writing, and hence, our performance.
However, this is only the rough draft of an idea.
It can and will be improved upon.
Kyle Lee is also known as our Literary Hephaestion and Occasional Vocational Tumbleweed