As an essayist, I spend a lot of time reflecting on my experiences. In fact, I just wrote a whole thesis of reflections on different happenings in my life. However, for all the time I spend thinking about what in my life has happened, I spend very little time thinking about what is happening, right now. Like, right now.
Right now, I am hurtling toward graduation. This will be the first time since I was five that I am not in school and, frankly, that terrifies me. I love being in school. I don’t know how to not be in school. So, these days, I am trying to spend more time reflecting specifically upon the experiences I have had in the last three years which have brought me here, to this right now. What did I learn? What went well, and what did not?
When somebody leaves a job, often that individual writes an exit memo. Sometimes exit memos read like love letters, detailing the individual’s appreciation for his or her experience. Sometimes exit memos include information that would possibly otherwise leave the company with the individual who leaves. Sometimes exit memos are encouraging; sometimes exit memos are angry.
In trying to force myself to think about the now, I reflexively reach backwards. Examining the past isn’t necessarily easier, but I know how to do it. I am not sure that I know how to do what comes next. (What does come next?) So this is my attempt at reaching backwards to understand what is coming. This is my love letter to the American University MFA program. This is what I’ve learned, and what I wish I’d learned. This is my exit memo.
Exit Memo: On Reading
My very first semester of graduate school, back in the fall of 2014, I spent a lot of time reading essays and short stories wrong, and offering feedback that was not thoughtful, careful, or gracious. I crashed through that semester relying on my opinion and my taste, and, for that, I owe all my fall 2014 workshop colleagues a series of deep apologies.
By the end of the semester, I had submitted two short stories in a fiction workshop, and two essays in a nonfiction workshop. In each of those four experiences, I received feedback that I felt deeply misunderstood what I was doing. I received manuscripts back that were completely blank, devoid of edits or suggestions or comments or anything at all. I received manuscripts smeared with food. Each of these were frustrating to me, and made me feel as though my readers didn’t value the time I had spent on my work. However presumptive that was, I knew that I did not want to make any other writers feel like I did not value their time and work. I came up with reading routine that I’ve remained committed to for the last two and a half years, and that I believe has made me a better, more understanding, more empathetic reader.
Full disclosure: it’s a little much.
I read every manuscript I receive four times, twice before putting a single mark on any of the pages. Usually I try my first read either on the bus or metro, or in the bathtub. (I love baths. Leave me be.) I choose these locations because they make the act of putting a pen on the page very difficult, if not impossible. This read is to gain first impressions, and is not meant for me to ponder much. Read it and go. I then wait at least 12 hours, but preferably 24, and try a second read. On my second read, I focus on the story, the narrative, what I remember from the first read, what I feel is missing, what I adore, what I want more of, what confuses me, etc. I pay close attention, reading each sentence slowly–often aloud–so I can feel the essay or story as closely as possible. Then, I put the manuscript down for another day.
I bring a highlighter and a pen with me to my third read, and everything I love or appreciate or admire gets highlighted, then commented upon. I found it very important to be generous in my praise and generous in recognizing what works in my colleagues’ work because, in the workshop setting, it is all too easy to head straight for what to fix. I read so many beautiful essays and stories in the workshops I participated in, and it was truly a privilege to do so. Offering due praise to my colleagues is the least that I can do.
My last read is spent reading sentence to sentence, looking at grammar and rhythm and movement at every level of the piece. This is where I offer critiques and suggestions, grammatical edits and musing notes in the margins about what is happening on the page. This read takes the longest, sometimes upwards of five hours, but this is where I find that I feel the most connected to the writer. This is where I feel I am the most prepared to enter the workshop, a sacred space, and look the writer in the eye.
Of course, every workshop I’ve taken has required a letter of feedback from the reader to the writer, and I spend a few hours on this, as well. Usually the whole reading and letter-writing process takes between eight and ten hours total per manuscript and, though that equals a lot of time each week, I truly believe I grew as a writer by practicing the act of reading, praising, and critiquing actively and thoughtfully. My obsessive and long process likely won’t work for everyone, or maybe anyone besides me. It feels important, though, to articulate and think about the ways I grew as a reader and writer in the last three years.
So. The short and sweet? Give all the time you can afford to give when you’re reading and critiquing for workshop. Not only will the writer appreciate your thoughtful feedback, you’ll also grow leaps and bounds in your own writing.
Image via Pinterest.
Emily Moses is the outgoing editor in chief of Café Américain and a third-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.