Revision and Narcissism

Working with the tutors at the Writing Center I coordinate this week, we came across the perpetual and exhausting question of what to do about student writers who come to us for help, but then immediately get defensive of their writing.  I’ve worked with a lot of these students myself, both as a tutor and in workshop.  We talked about the issue as a tutorial problem—how do we facilitate a productive session in that context?—but since then, I’ve started thinking about it from a writerly perspective.  What do I do when I realize that I am that writer?

As a tutor, dealing with students in First Year Composition classes, this kind of defensiveness makes a certain degree of sense.  Many students in their first college writing class are coming out of a high school experience where they were very successful at the specific demands of the high school writing classroom.  Many have mastered the five-paragraph essay, and many write grammatically functional sentences, and in most high school writing classes, that seems to be enough to mark a student as exemplary.  (This is about all I was capable in high school, and I received the best possible scores on the Advanced Placement [i.e., ostensibly college level] Composition and Literature tests.)  Many of them were taught some model of the writing process in high school, and so understand that we’re working with a draft.  Most of them come in wanting to figure out their next steps, only to find the session devolving into an argument about the paper’s merits.

It’s harder for me to understand why, in grad school, I would sometimes see these same students in MFA-level writing workshops.  If they didn’t jump in in the middle of the class conversation, they would emerge from their workshop-imposed writerly silence with a list of explanations and defenses.  ”Jane, you said I did X, but what I was really doing was Y.”  I had already been a writing tutor for approximately a billion years, so it drove me crazy.  Didn’t they understand that this was just a draft?  That the whole point was to get feedback, so that we could revise?  I took pride in my revisions, mentioning the essay that I completely rewrote from the ground up seven times or so, the last of which prompted a workshop-wide discussion of what “revision” even means.

That didn’t stop me, though, from storming out of a workshop and wandering the streets of Madrid when Lee Gutkind was so obviously insane as to suggest that my writing might possibly need changing.  (Pfft.  What does he know about Creative Nonfiction?)  And it hasn’t stopped me, in the years that have passed since, from assuming that a rejection from a journal simply meant that the readers didn’t understand my mission in the work, or the mechanism by which that mission was undertaken.  Last year, I had two separate experiences where journals requested I submit a piece, and thereafter rejected the piece.  Instead of being flattered by their interest, I was incensed by their rejections, which usually don’t bother me. The idea that someone could like one of my pieces, but not accept another, was too much of an affront to me.  Just because I wouldn’t defend myself in workshop didn’t mean I wasn’t thinking the same things half the time, and ignoring good comments from people who I didn’t think were on my level.

I’d like to think I’ve grown since then, but even now, when I send a first draft to my wife and she informs me it isn’t working, I feel that same deep sense of injustice and hurt—even when she is obviously, unquestionably right.  Even when I know the draft isn’t working, and that it has a long way to go.

One of the most commonly expressed sentiments I’ve encountered about writers, especially CNF writers, is that writers have to be a little bit narcissistic. In his fantastic essay “Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt,” (from his equally fantastic (Not That You Asked)), Steve Almond refers to himself as “an itinerant narcissist,” which descriptor delighted his fellow-travelers in a workshop where we read the essay.  The idea that we’re supposed to be blindly self-important seems built in to the CNF identity.  I brought up this idea to refute it, but the more I think about it, the more I think of this as, at least to a point, a beneficial thing.  As Steven Church put it, we have to at least believe we’re worth writing about.  And that’s the thing: for these writers (whether FYC student or post-grad MFA), what’s at issue  is not the writing at all, or even the writing process, but the writer’s image of self-as-writer, and that’s a difficult—and possibly not even a desirable—thing to change.

So I feel like I end up holding two completely different, completely dissonant truths about the matter: on the one hand, I am a great, perfect, unquestionably awesome writer, no matter what the evidence says.  On the other, I recognize that each piece of writing I produce is flawed, is imperfect even in my own eyes, holds room for growth and development, and sometimes, is simply not working.  But I wonder if it’s not the case that the former thought makes it possible to endure the latter.

I wonder if that isn’t why so many of my students give up on revision entirely: because they don’t believe any amount of work will produce a piece worth reading.  Because they don’t think they can make something great.  By the same token, what frustrates my tutors is the fact that many of our students at the Writing Center get defensive—they have the narcissism without the commitment to revision.  They come in expecting to hear that their paper is perfect, and don’t know how to accept the fact that there’s room for change.

What I told my tutors is to ask questions, to try to maintain a friendly tone, and to try to guide the student into challenging his own paper, rather than letting the challenges come from the tutor.  In short, to encourage that commitment to revision without challenging the self-image.  I wonder if it shouldn’t go the other way, too: I wonder if self-importance is as important to teach writing students as the writing process.  Not that their writing is perfect, but that all writers have the potential to make something great.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to incorporate some clearly terrible feedback into an essay.  Can you imagine?  A reader suggested that my writing needed something changed!