Throughout this investigation of my childhood writing, I've been excited to get to the thick folder of eighth grade work. English class that year placed a heavy focus on writing, with an emphasis on the planning and revision stages. I was eager to examine pages of crossed-out sentences and scribbled notes that might reveal my early story development process.
Alas, while at least two drafts of every piece survive, the differences between versions are minimal in most cases, with only a few word choices improved, punctuation errors fixed, and maybe an occasional sentence rewritten. And really, that's not surprising, since I was a 13-year-old kid who'd always been praised for strong writing skills. Why would I bother to alter my stunning prose?
Based on my own experience and what I've observed in others, it tends to take a long time for writers to understand and accept that what pours out in the first draft is often nothing close to the best possible version of a story. Revision is time-consuming, difficult, and frustrating, so it's no wonder we resist it. Still, I applaud the Sudbury (Massachusetts) Public Schools for teaching revision in the eighth grade writing curriculum, even if this step was only cursory in practice:
This breakdown of the writing process graces the outside of the folder that contains all my work from eighth grade English class. I endorse the steps outlined -- Prewriting, Planning, Drafting, Revising, Editing & Proofreading, Publishing -- and am pleased to see that Revising contains the most sub-steps.
The work I remembered from that year is fiction, but when I went through the folder this morning, I discovered more nonfiction pieces. We covered a variety of forms, including personal essays, persuasive writing, and short stories. At the start of the year, I filled out a worksheet for "Composition Topics on Which I'd Like to Write":
The five events I counted as milestones in my rather uneventful life were: "My brother's birth, Having an eye operation, My parents' divorce, Going to camp for the first time, Moving". I didn't end up writing about any of these in the year's compositions. I did a bit better on the "other topics" -- "Books/Reading, Fiction, My feelings about things" -- assuming I meant that I wanted to write fiction, rather than that I wanted to write about fiction.
We'll get to some of that fiction in future installments, but to provide the proper orientation to my eighth grade mind, today I want to share an introductory essay from early in the year. This piece was displayed on an autobiographical poster that was shared with the class or maybe the whole school, so keep that in mind as you read. You can enjoy it in the original dot matrix font, printed from my Apple IIc on tractor feed paper, or you can read the transcription following the photos.
Why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from my stupid jokes! No, that wasn't supposed to be funny, it was stupid. It was actually too stupid, even for me, because it didn't even cause a groan. The sign of a good stupid joke is that it causes groans, but not laughs. You see, I am an expert on stupid jokes, because I love to tell them. I should break this habit, because it sends people running away from me, just like the chicken.
"Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow." This is my motto, another bad habit that I need to cure. I'll stop procrastinating ... tomorrow.
A little about my exciting life: I was born in Durham, North Carolina, in the same hospital in which my father was born. When I was three months old, we moved to Dayton, Ohio. We came to Sudbury when I was two. When I was three, we moved to a different house, where we lived until this June, when we moved again. This may seem like a lot of houses, but I really feel like I've lived in only two. All I remember of Dayton was that the house was blue, and I remember falling out of bed in our first house in Sudbury. I told you my life was extremely exciting.
I am probably one of the few people in the world who collects poodles. I have been collecting them for about three years, and I have 316 of them. Impressive, huh? Most of them are china or porcelain, but some are glass, wood, plastic, or cloth. I even have some weird things like a bubble bath bottle shaped like a poodle and something that claims to be, "A poodle comb for your poodle hair-do." Thirty-nine of the poodles are pins. And the 316 doesn't include all my cards, pictures, and comic strips of poodles that I have on a bulletin board.
I also have six live dogs, consisting of one real toy poodle, four maltese, and a half golden lab-half golden retriever. Also there's this nine-year-old named Benjamin that I'll pay you to take. Anyone, anyone?
I love to read. I will read anything, including cereal boxes, if necessary, but I prefer fantasy and realistic fiction.
I was born to shop. I especially love antique shops and malls, but I'll shop anywhere.
I like babysitting, because I love little kids, and I'd like to be a child psychiatrist when I grow up. I can even spell it. I-T. Ha, ha, ha. That was stupid. I don't think I ever will grow up.
Oh, Young Lisa, what a strange and cringeworthy child you were. I have nothing to say about the writing quality of this essay, but I believe the content requires some commentary. I'll take it paragraph by paragraph:
→ I'm taken aback to learn I had such an affinity for stupid jokes that it was the first detail I chose to declare about myself, particularly in work that would be read by the classmates who tended to run away from me. I mentioned before that I was an unpopular, nerdy kid, and it seems I really embraced the traits that made me an object of ridicule. My instinct now is to pity my young self and wish I'd had the self-preservation to blend in a bit, but I should probably be more impressed by my ability to not care what my peers thought of me.
→ I also would not have expected the topic of procrastination to receive such prominence, but it's true that throughout my school career I did everything at the last minute. Too bad this paragraph is entirely cliches.
→ The biographical details check out, but it's weird I didn't say anything about the aforementioned milestone of my parents' divorce, since joint custody resulted in additional houses.
→ I really did collect an impressive number of poodles during my childhood. A couple of my parents enjoy antiquing, and they wisely encouraged my brother and me to start collections so we'd have something to hunt for while we accompanied them. The close to 500 poodles are now in boxes in my parents' basement, so if anyone wants an instant collection of their own, just let me know.
→ Yeah, I grew up with a lot of dogs. But I mostly liked my brother more than I let on.
→ I'm surprised my love of reading comes so late in the essay, especially since it was first on the earlier list. Today my speculative fiction interests lean toward science fiction rather than fantasy, but the split between that and realistic fiction still applies.
→ I am flabbergasted to read that "I was born to shop." Yes, as I explained, I did visit a lot of antique shops when young, and I hung out at the mall with friends sometimes because there was nothing else to do, but I had no memory of ever considering shopping a beloved activity. I really dislike shopping now and engage in it only as a practical necessity, never as a form of entertainment. I believed I'd always felt that way. My identity is shaken by this revelation.
→ My goal of becoming a child psychiatrist persisted throughout high school and the college application process and ended upon my arrival at college, when I decided to pursue something more stable and lucrative, like writing unpublished novels. Ha, ha, ha.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ George Saunders shares the timeline of his writing education in the New Yorker's Page-Turner blog: "For me, a light goes on: we are supposed to be--are required to be--interesting. We're not only allowed to think about audience, we'd better. What we're doing in writing is not all that different from what we've been doing all our lives, i.e., using our personalities as a way of coping with life. Writing is about charm, about finding and accessing and honing ones' particular charms. To say that 'a light goes on' is not quite right--it’s more like: a fixture gets installed. Only many years later (see below) will the light go on."