Note: This blog entry spans the course of three months during my Fall semester at North Idaho College. Specifically, it details my experience of writing my first college essay at age 31. This won't apply to everyone, but in the hopes that some aspiring writer will read it and remember: "Hey, we all start with a first draft, I can do this!" then it's worth every moment it took to write. It's meant to be a reminder that we all start, and finish, somewhere. This was my first experience in a college classroom. I was overwhelmed, I was a bit terrified, I was self-conscious. I thought I was going to fail. This is the story of how I didn't. (Yes, yes, I realize the class is "English 101" and you could argue that it's the easiest--and I'd tell you to be quiet, and let people dream, damn it. "English 101" or not, it's my first English class, my most important class, the only class I couldn't handle failing if everything else fell apart. This is important to me.)
Finally. My first writing assignment in English 101. This is what I've been waiting for, right?
I was excited. A little scared. It was a Narrative Essay on an event in my own life that changed my perspective of higher education. We were asked to write a 1-2 line description first, so I'll share it here:
In order to understand my perspective on higher education, you must know...
About my father, who was illiterate, and the night my mother read him a story I wrote because he couldn't read it himself. I knew the value of education through what my father did not have; and what it would mean for me.
I proudly wrote my first draft, printed it and brought it to class over the course of the week. We had something called “Peer Review.” This was where our first draft was handed to other class mates and everyone was given a review sheet. An anonymous review sheet.
If you're interested in viewing the first draft of my narrative essay, I've made it available as a .PDF; I've included a watermark for my website. I've included this not because I believe it is an excellent first draft (we know that isn't true), but I wanted to fully document my experience, and sharing the first draft is a part of the experience as a whole.
Something happens when you give students something anonymously. Well, when you give anyone an anonymous task. There's a good chance they're going to be a dick. I didn't photograph my own review of my peer's work—but I can assure you that I was constructive with my feedback and polite. The two stories I read had viable strengths and weaknesses. At the very least, I don't believe my feedback was... comparable to what I received.
I was more angry than heartbroken, I think. I said a lot of bad words for a very long time. I may have crumpled the review sheet in frustration. I may have considered “losing” it. I let it set by my desk for a few days.
I had two friends read my first draft of my Narrative Essay. They agreed, perhaps, it wasn't as awful as my peer reviews suggested. (That's a very biased opinion, however, as they are friends of mine. Other people may read it and hate it, but that's the risk you take as a writer!)
And then the night before the final draft was due—I began my revision process. I accepted that my conclusion was not very concise, and that I struggled through the story to get to the point. I denied that my story wasn't descriptive enough (the couch is dusty blue!). So I began to rework it, trying to take some of the feedback and incorporate it.
My revision took around four hours to complete. My Narrative Essay went from 676 words to 1,000. If this is indicative of how I'll be editing the Trials of Blood—2 hours for every possible page, and an increase of 40% word count—I'll end up with 427 pages and it'll take me 620 hours to finish! On a side note, I'm wondering if I could utilize some kind of peer review to help me find all the problems in my first draft instead of me trying to find them all, which will be impossible...
I use Open Office (update 01/2016: I've switched to the more supported Libre Office) and they have a feature called "Track Changes." The yellow/golden rod text indicates any changes made to that specific document. It's really helpful to keep track of changes you've already made. It can be a little messy, so when it gets too much to handle: I'll accept the changes, save it as a new file, clean it up just a bit, and start a new revision sweep. On to Revision 2!
I realized after I turned in my paper that my concept of “higher education” technically focused on secondary education (mostly the disadvantage my father had from dropping out of middle school). I waited anxiously for my English Teacher to return my paper—but I had also resolved myself to a grade of a C based on stories from other college students. I had to accept that my writing style and skill may not be satisfactory to my teacher.
As awful a realization as that was—all I could do was wait.
Three weeks later—my paper was finally graded. I understand my English Teacher has many students, and I didn't expect it to be completed soon, by any means. I had hoped it would, of course, so that I could get over some of my initial fears of, “Did I understand the assignment right? Was I writing about the right topic?"
My teacher provided feedback about my Narrative Essay in the form of small (but meaningful to me) remarks in the essay itself. I took screenshots to share below.
The most meaningful addition to my graded paper was my teacher's recorded response. Two minutes and forty one seconds of his voice changed my entire writing experience. The conversation was one-sided, but he was speaking to me about the essay I had written and I hung on every word. I won't share my teacher's voice online but I'd like to share the transcript because it meant a lot to me personally.
“Hey Michelle, this is really nicely made, I think that you're doing a lot of things here that are quite nice and quite sophisticated in a lot of ways too. One of the things that I'm most taken with in this essay is the way that you are weaving in the idea elements throughout it, that's something that I think that non fiction is especially adept at doing and you've really taken a hold of it here, and that you open up these ideas early in the essay, that are not just scene setting, they do set the scene, and they give us information that we need, in terms of like your father's education, but they do a lot more than than scene setting, right, they sort of lay in the kind of themes, that are going to come through the story itself and will emerge on the other side, fuller, for having taken this journey through the story, and you kind of set that up in this essay. You build it really fluidly, in a way that allows the reader to move in to the scene and out of the scene and to have this sort of whole thing that comes out of it, so I think that's really quite good. And I think you should be pleased with the result. Another thing that I think is quite nice is that you have this move, you know, you're setting a lot of things up early in the essay, but then around the top of page two, you begin to move in to the scene, and you kind of slowly shift in to it, and there's this nice sort of quietness and subtlety to the shift, to the moving the camera in to the scene, and then once you get in to the scene, it's this really quiet scene, and it moves kind of patiently, and I think that you are using the sort of tone and pace of the telling of the story to echo the content of the story and similarly you use details that are quiet—because, there you are, you're hiding and you're listening to this quiet interaction between your parents, and all the pieces are sort of reflecting one another in a way that makes the essay feel very whole. And I think that that's great, I think that you're doing some really nice work here. I like the move at the end to begin to reflect on some of these things and to begin to sort of pull them together, and ultimately I think that you're just doing some really nice and, as I said, very sophisticated things in this essay. So, good work. Keep up the good work. And I think this sets a great tone for the term for you. Nicely done.”
In the end, the reality is this: it's English 101, arguably a basic English course. Is that to say that I cannot be excited, at 31 years old, to be doing well in a class meant for students presumably aged 18 to early 20's? Probably. Does that fact stop me from being damn proud? No. And it shouldn't stop you from being proud of yourself or your work. Am I going to be convinced every time my teacher says something "nice" and "constructive" about my writing, that somehow, they're just passing me through the class because they have a hundred other students? No. I'm going to believe that my teacher is giving me the kind of attention I am giving the essay.
Update (06 Jan 2016): I had a total of four papers and one annotated bibliography for my first semester in English 101. I didn't score anything less than a 95% one each and every paper. At the end of the year when we were having our chat with the teacher, he asked for feedback about his process. Timidly, I told him that his audio feedback was very helpful. What I didn't include was that it was helpful from a self-esteem perspective as well as from a literary one. Now, I know teachers are not in the business to be mending self-esteem... but he did, and it's hard to be vulnerable at my age, so I'll take any kind of triumphs that I can get. So, thank you, Mr. Frey, for having your own life, opinions and a professional career--and not forgetting that your students are just what you once were: aspiring writers.
If you'd like to read my final draft, I've also made it available as a .PDF. It's a personal memory (albeit distorted by time) from my youth about my mother reading a story to my father, because presumably he could not read it himself, and how that moment changed my perception of the importance of higher education.
This concludes my first experience as a non-traditional college student and aspiring writer. It's not going to be easy, but I'm looking forward to what I can learn and will take my knowledge in stride. I very happily enrolled in "English 292: Creative Writing: Fiction" with the hopes that I'll succeed, with effort, in a class I'm more comfortable with.
As a reader, I hope that this experience inspired you, from first to final draft. I hope that I can look back and remember I was once terrified of English 101, and it wasn't as scary as I thought, because I had a teacher who made it work for me.
Basic English course or not--I'm stubborn, I'm creative, and I am dedicated. I AM MIGHTY.
This blog was written between October 2015 and January 2016: it seriously took me that long to get back to my computer long enough to finish writing this.