I love that moment in class when a light goes off for a student or when someone tells me that her writing is going in a completely different direction than she expected. I love being a part of that discovery. (And yes, I do realize that I sound like a sap.)
Yesterday we read “Mother Love” from Andrea Buchanan’s Mother Shock, and “Memory and Imagination” from Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories. I almost always use Hampl’s essay to kick off creative nonfiction classes because it gets students thinking about what memoir is, and makes them realize that, as memoirists, we don’t “write about what (we) know, but in order to find out what (we) know.”
One of the most important things I hope my students get from this essay is that a careful first draft is a failed first draft. In a first draft, “the piece hasn’t yet found its subject.” You should write from your heart without censoring, then go back and figure out what you’re trying to say, what the piece is really about.
One thing that I didn’t anticipate was how nicely Hampl’s and Buchanan’s pieces went together. I picked Buchanan’s piece as a way to start dialogue about motherhood models and this idea of “mother love” (and because I really like her writing, of course). But it turns out that the way Buchanan looks back on her early months of mothering in this essay perfectly mirrors the way Hampl talks about first drafts. At first, Buchanan worries that her daughter isn’t really connecting with her. (And in the midst of those first months of crying and burping and changing diapers, who doesn’t worry about this?) But it’s only when Buchanan looks back on videos of those early months that she finally can see how attached her daughter really was to her, “how clearly (she) was her whole world.”
You need to be able to look back in this same way on your writing. When you’re writing a first draft, you don’t know if it’s any good. (At least I don’t.) You’re in the middle of it, and it feels like a mess (just as the early months of parenthood do). Then, when you look back on it, you can see what really exists there—you can see what your piece is really about. (Or in Buchanan’s case, she could see her child’s intense connection to her.)
I just love when two pieces of writing talk to each other. All I have to do in these situations is eavesdrop.