Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Worst Thing I've Ever Written, by Delilah S. Dawson

(This is my first post for YA Outside the Lines, and I'm so happy to be here! I'm the author of Servants of the Storm, a Southern Gothic Horror YA out now from Simon Pulse. Please feel free to ask me anything in the comments here or on Twitter, @DelilahSDawson.)

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Want to know the single worst sentence I've ever written?

“Since the dawn of time, man has struggled.”

That's how I began the first paper I wrote for my 11th grade AP English Lit class. The teacher had extensively schooled us on how she wanted a paper to be written. From note-taking to synopsizing to outlining to the proper way to construct a sentence, I thought I had all the right tools. She wanted the paper to begin with an opening statement that spoke to the reader, that would be their gateway into the ensuing arguments and logical progression of facts. And I was pretty proud of that first sentence, because... it's true. Inarguable. PURE GENIUS. Every human can relate!

And so, when we got that first paper back, I expected what I always expected: An A+ and a smiley face. Maybe some compliments, like “Great point!” or “Well written!”

Instead, I got a 59.

The first 59 of my straight-A school career.

There was so much red ink on that paper that I'm surprised it didn't stain my hands permanently.

At first, I was in denial. Uh, this can't be right. Surely she added it up wrong? *does math* Uh. Nope.

Then I got angry. How dare she? Every other teacher had swooned at my papers; why did she think she was any different? Who did she think she was?

Next came bargaining. Could I get some extra credit? Bump it up to a C? Something?!

Depression followed. I was now a person who got 59s. I couldn't write a decent paper. I wasn't as smart as I thought I was. I sucked at English—my native language. My life was going down the toilet.

Basically, I went through the first four stages of grief... all in about five minutes.

Lastly, of course, comes acceptance. And acceptance is the hardest part.

Fortunately, the entire class had the same problem, and the teacher was there to help us get through to the other side of the process. I had to accept the truth: there was nothing wrong with me as a person, a student, or a writer. There was something wrong with how I wrote papers, and this teacher was here to set me straight. That was the whole point of the seemingly endless notes, the hasty slashes, the scribbled corrections, the editing marks I didn't yet understand.

It was all there to make me a better writer.

That teacher gave me several great gifts that year, but the first one was the chance to start over and completely redo the paper. Armed with new knowledge, I felt in charge of my writing and my destiny, empowered to communicate and energized to succeed. Instead of feeling smug and superior, I felt humble and eager to learn. I can't remember the first sentence of my redo, but I got a 93.

I forgot most of this lesson until I got my first edit letter as a novelist (at age 33) and instantly catapulted myself right back into the stages of grief as if I had learned nothing in 11th grade English. As if, because I was an adult who had written a book and gotten an agent, I should have automatically been showered with roses and chocolate and praise. As if just because I had leveled up once, there were no more levels to which I had to climb.

Ha freakin' ha, y'all.

There's always another level. There's always something to learn. And five published books later, I still have to clear some mental space for each edit letter, knowing that I'll follow the predictable pattern of the stages of grief, which now also requires a big plate of beignets or a cupcake to wash down the denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.

But once I turn the corner to acceptance, I relish that same swoop of energy and excitement, when I know in my bones that I'm armed with all the tools I need to make my story sing. When I feel that I have the power to be great, and all I need to get there are time on task and tenacity.

The theme of my first book? Easy things are worth nothing.


And I know this because, since the dawn of time, man has always struggled. And that's okay.

10 comments:

  1. It's tough to learn from an editorial letter--tougher still to learn from reviews. But you are so right about seizing the opportunity to grow. I would hate, hate, HATE to think my first book was the best thing I'd ever written. Does feedback sting? Sometimes. I have to consider it a "growing pain."

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  2. As someone who taught first-year college composition very recently, I can tell you I've read some variation on this first sentence many times--even after explicitly talking about why we don't do this. I probably wrote this sentence at some point, if I'm honest. Feedback is always rough: my feathers are usually ruffled until I reach the stage where I realize it really does make the work better. You'd think I'd reach some point where I'd realize that from the start, but in fact, no. I've just gotten better at locking the office door until those first stages pass.

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  3. Since the dawn of time, writers have struggled with criticism.
    :-)
    Welcome aboard!

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  4. This is so awesome and true and painfully familiar. Thank you for posting, Delilah - and welcome to YAOTL!!

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  5. Welcome, Delilah! Oh, I so relate to this post--as a writer and as an English teacher. My first marked up paper didn't come until college, and I was stunned. I remember looking at all the red marks and counting the words that WEREN'T marked up. Three. As an English teacher, I never saw the dawn of time line, but I did see "My paper is going to be about..." too many times to count.

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  6. Oh, just like when Courtney blogs, there's so much here to respond to!

    First, I never before thought about the visceral response to an editor being like the five stages of grief but that's exactly right. That will help tremendously the next time I'm grappling with it. Thank you!

    Second, the grandiose opening sentence. Ugh! Like Courtney, I also teach writing, most recently to college freshmen, and I was dismayed at how many of them went this route. But it's not their fault. THEY ARE TAUGHT TO WRITE THIS WAY. I wish I could post the graphic my son's 8th grade teacher had given out that same year (which I used in my PowerPoint entitled "Everything You've Been Taught Is Wrong"): it begins with an inverted triangle for an intro paragraph, as in, start big and broad, kids, and narrow down as you go. Thus, "since the dawn of time, man has struggled. But now we are getting better through the magic of pharmacology." ;)

    Finally, and I tell my kids this a lot even though they don't listen, I hated my 9th grade English teacher. But she taught me a lesson I'll never forget. She gave us a book report assignment on a ditto sheet (remember those?) with a series of questions, no extra pages allowed. Of course I chose the massive "Watership Down" to report on. I wrote all over that paper: into the margins, on the back... She gave me a... well, it was bad. When I got over my fury and asked why, she said, "Because you didn't follow the rules." Oh. Right. Got it.

    Love posts like this that inspire so much response in me. I will definitely be coming back for more (if you can stand it).

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    1. Ack, the inverted triangle! I was taught that in ninth grade, and every time I teach comp now, I draw the diagram on the board and draw a big X through it. I blame the inverted triangle for so much.

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  7. I loved hearing about your learning journey, and how it repeated itself. :) Thanks for sharing.

    Yvonne

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  8. Welcome, Delilah! I loved your post and for what it's worth, thought that was a brilliant opening line :)

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