When I first start publishing personal essays, I almost exclusively submitted work from my MFA Creative Thesis. The essays in the thesis had been worked over for about two years, starting with the initial drafting during my first or second semester. During the final semester, they were collected into the thesis and then revised as a whole. But I didn’t order a bound copy of my completed creative thesis. I never thought of the thesis as “my book.” The essays weren’t “finished,” and I knew it.
Over the course of the following year, I submitted the best essays from my thesis to literary journals, and received quite a few rejections. Each time a piece was rejected, I battled the usual feelings of frustration and self-doubt. But I listened to the advice from my teachers; in most cases, it was time for yet another revision. In just one or two cases I stuck to my gut feeling, and kept submitting a particular essay.
Persistence and the willingness to revise paid off. I was thrilled to finally get one essay published, and over time to receive several more acceptances. Each time I got the happy news, I called my husband, a friend or two, and my parents.
Then one day, my mother said this: “Well, that’s great, but these pieces are still all the old ones, right? When are you going to write something new?”
In a moment, all my happiness imploded.
What my mother didn’t realize was that I had been writing new work. I’d been starting new essays all along. But the newer pieces were still in that early drafting stage. Maybe I had worked on one or two of them for weeks, but they still weren’t even close to “there.” Most pieces, for me, take months to draft and revise.
Also, I was working without my teachers for the first time. I had to seek out solid readers to help me with drafts that felt stuck. No one hovered in the wings to nudge me and my work in the right direction anymore — I was learning how to do that myself.
The other day in class, one of my Expository Writing students expressed dismay that I had given two writing assignments over the course of a five-day break between classes. The students were asked to revise their first written assignment, and also to write the first draft of the next one.
“I don’t think it’s fair that we have two assignments,” the student said. But what she doesn’t know yet is that rarely in the writing world (and I’ve worked in journalism, business writing and creative writing) do you ever get the luxury of working on just one piece at at time. I’m not even sure that’s a good idea. You have to be able to switch gears when you feel stuck.
Of course there are exceptions to every rule. I am always amazed by prolific writers who can put out a book every year, or draft a new novel over the course of a summer. But even those writers, I am sure, have other projects to complete, and a process that gets them through their work. And published novelists, of course, have professional editors who help them shape, edit, and proofread their final products. None of it happens overnight.
I am thinking about the writing process today because I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and decided to work on one of my essays. I started writing this piece almost a year ago. After numerous drafts, and after comments from four different readers at three different stages, as well as three hours of revision early this morning, I think — I think — I am nearing my final draft. It’s almost time to send this piece out.
But whew, what hard work. And the length of this essay? Five-and-a-half double-spaced pages — 1555 words.
At first, the time required to do justice to most writing projects was both frustrating and a surprise to me. But I guess it’s much like the old cliche — it’s best to enjoy the journey, or the work. The destination, as great as it finally feels, is just part of the overall process. I have to tell this to myself almost every day.