Your most important grade

awc-talk*From Member Spotlight talk at Atlanta Writers Club monthly meeting, February 18th, 2017.

Mr. Cronk was my favorite high school teacher. He taught 10th grade social studies, and I think I liked him best because he was a storyteller. One might go so far as to say he didn’t just tell stories, he created legends. About himself, mostly, but yeah. Legends.

The starkly bald, middle-aged teacher talked to us kids like regular people, from what I remember, and he liked to fool around with us a lot. We used to ask him where he lived. He could’ve told the truth – he probably just lived in a normal two story in some regular cul de sac in one of the other area suburbs. But that wouldn’t have been much of a legend at all, now, would it?

So instead Mr. Cronk told us he lived above the Bar Bill.

Now, you have to understand our little town. Elma, NY. Frankly, there wasn’t much there. A few stoplights, churches, farms, little neighborhoods. The school. The town of East Aurora was next door, and that had more. A real, live main street. Fast food restaurants. Actual grocery stores.

And the Bar Bill, that was in East Aurora, too. The Bar Bill was – for me, anyway, since my parents didn’t frequent those sorts of places – this very mysterious tavern – an old house turned bar that I shouldn’t have any reason to be near. For Mr. Cronk to say he LIVED there, upstairs, so he could pop down at any time and grab a beer, well, this was fascinating.

Hushed whispers in the hallway. “Do you think it’s true?!?”

Mr. Cronk stuck to his Bar Bill story relentlessly. I’m sure I didn’t realize back then how his tenacity would later teach me to hold on to my own stories. All year long, whenever asked, he would tell us he lived above the Bar Bill, shocked that we’d question his claim. I remember even back then I had my doubts – but that’s all they were. Doubts. Because of the way he never wavered, I have to admit a big part of me thought it could actually be true.

Maybe Mr. Cronk DID live above the Bar Bill.

There were other legends that revolved around Mr. Cronk, like planets stuck in the orbit of a massive star. Some proved true, some seemed to have been merely rumor. One of the true ones was that, at the end of the year, to get your final grade, you had to go up to the front of the room and talk to Mr. Cronk about it.

(At least, I remember a friend telling me this might happen. I also remember it DID happen to me. I confess I’m not sure everyone got the same treatment. The details are a little fuzzy.)

Sure enough, the time came for me to head up and get my final grade, and I have to admit to being pretty nervous about the whole thing.

I knew I’d earned a good grade – aced most of the tests, did all the homework (yes, I was THAT kid) – but this “meeting” thing (or whatever it was) of Mr. Cronk’s represented unpredictability. Where grades and me were concerned, unpredictability was NOT a welcome thing.

At home my dad expected me to get As. A B could be tolerated – maybe – but anything lower than that was definitely WAY out of bounds. What if Mr. Cronk graded me on something other than the tests and the homework and all that? What if it was how many questions I asked in class? (Did I ask enough questions?) With him, you just never knew. After all, he lived above the Bar Bill, and a guy like that…

He had a grade book open on his desk and, in a blurred way, I could see other grades for other students. 75, 92, 84. He ran his finger down it to my name, and across from it, there was…nothing. A blank.

I held my breath. Looked down at him. He was grinning.

Grinning.

Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer. “So…what’s my grade?”

And, still smiling, Mr. Cronk replied, “I don’t know. What do you think your grade should be?”

Seriously, he let me give myself my own grade.

But the actual grade (which was – wait for it – awesome) is beside the point. Mr. Cronk was trying to teach me something that day besides Social Studies. Something I still wrestle with a bit today.

Sometimes the most important grade you get is the one you give yourself.

Self-evaluation is really important, I think, in all walks of life, including writing. I don’t want to get political, but sometimes in politics we seem to find people who appear to incapable of self-evaluation and self-criticism. Maybe you can hold public office without that skill, but I don’t think you can write without it.

I’ve learned the most important part of writing is revision. At first you don’t think so. Despite all the blogs you read and podcasts you hear from more experienced writers, that “writing is rewriting,” you still start out sort of resistant to change.

You think you’re killing your darlings, but you’re really not.

You think you’re examining every word and sentence and plot point and point-of-view decision, but you’re really not.

Honestly, I know for me anyway, I thought I had this willingness to change anything to make my stories better, but it took a lot of writing for me to really get to that point. It took a long time for me to have the tools to properly self-evaluate and self-criticize my own writing at what I would consider a successful level.

Because, probably more important than knowing when you deserve a good grade is being able to see when you haven’t done enough work yet, being able to admit to yourself that more is required before you give yourself that top grade. And what does that even mean in writing? Probably, in a way, that it’s ready to submit to others to review. It’s a sort of personal responsibility, not to do that until your piece is ready. And sometimes I feel like I’m still working on that.

I practice kyudo, Japanese archery. I think I’ve blogged about it here before, so I’m not going to go into a ton of detail, just that learning it takes a great deal of repetitive practice and attention to the fine points. Many of the Japanese “ways” (the “do”s – kendo, shodo, chado, etc.) are like this, lots of repeating practice, always pushing forward. The 10,000 hours, as Malcolm Gladwell says.

One of the really frustrating things about kyudo is, after a whole lot of practice, you usually reach a point where you can hit the target. And that’s also usually around the time your sensei comes in and changes something, a little different (more correct) way to hold the bow, spreading your feet wider, raising the bow differently in the initial movements of the draw.

And – boom – you stop hitting the target. Soooo frustrating.

It’s that whole two steps back to take three steps forward thing, but it’s more than that.

It’s diving completely into your internal motivations and goals vs. the external ones. Because hitting the target is an external goal. If that’s the only reason you’re practicing kyudo, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

Hitting the target’s a gift, one of my senseis used to say. A result, rather than a goal. If you push yourself to do all the internal stuff right, that external result will sort of just come on its own.

The other thing about kyudo is the type of thing you never completely learn. You’re always growing in it, changing, moving forward, and that internal willingness to change is a really critical facet of this type of continual learning.

Another thing that happens in kyudo is eventually your instructor might tell you you’ve reached a point where most of the evaluation and change has to come from yourself. You have to reach a point internally, like Mr. Cronk was trying to teach me, where you can self-evaluate and self-criticize effectively. Practice at home and have an awareness of what went wrong with a particular shot or draw.

This internal self-evaluation and motivation is really important in writing, too. Don’t get me wrong, I love critique partners and workshops and anyone who takes time out to teach writing. And feedback is gold – I gobble it up.

But you can’t be too external. Writing is full of external goals that can really trip you up. You won’t be happy until you get an agent, then you won’t be happy until you get published, then you won’t be happy until you have a certain level of sales, then you won’t be happy until you get great reviews and critical acclaim. Awards. A movie deal…whew.

The problem with these external goals is you don’t control most of them. And so when they’re the things driving change, you’re not in control of the change either.

I think it’s really important to be internally focused about your writing. After all, having something to say is a lot different than needing to be heard, right?

I struggle with all that. I’m going to guess I’m not the only one (God, I hope I’m not the only one). Sometimes when I feel a little lost, I remember Mr. Cronk’s grin. I remember the time he let me give myself my own grade. I think he knew that, back then, the reason I worked so hard in school was more external than internal. It was for someone else. He helped me see that wasn’t the only reason – shouldn’t be the only reason – to work so hard, and every day I think I understand his lesson a little bit better.

I guess I should probably thank him. You know, I still have never stepped foot in the Bar Bill. Maybe next time I’m home, I’ll stop in and look for Mr. Cronk . He’s just upstairs, right?

UPDATE: The Bar Bill has a website! Progress! Look at those wings!

 

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Revision, like Sandpaper

sandingEver do any woodworking? Yeah, me neither.

Actually, I’ve done a little. One of the things I liked most was sanding. I remember my father having lots of different sandpaper, each with progressively finer grit. 180, 220, etc. The higher the number, the finer the grit.

I can remember entering a contest where I had to make a little wooden car that would race other cars down a track. The track was simple: basically just a hill that leveled out into a long straightaway. Your car had to be aerodynamic enough to speed down the hill and beat the other cars to the finish line.

My dad helped with me with the project. He liked to build those sorts of things. Before we painted it, we had to sand it, to make sure it was as smooth and rounded as possible. Sleek and fast.

NOT my car

NOT my car

I remember using that sandpaper, starting with a lower number until it was as smooth as I could make it with that grit, then graduating to a finer paper, sanding more and more, each time increasing the grit and making that car smoother and smoother still.

It’s a lot like revision.

Revision is complicated. It has lots of stages. Sometimes, very early, you’re not sanding at all. You’re still building. You’re taking the back of the car and putting it in front, changing the wheels out, re-thinking your whole approach.

But, hopefully eventually, you’re sanding.

The other day I was reading the Revising chapter in The One-Hour MFA by Michael Kimball, which is a great little craft book that zeroes on the essence of certain aspects of writing. He includes a bunch of quotes from various writers on how they approach revision. I really liked a couple of them:

“If I reach a point where I am glazing over, or replacing, one day, a comma I omitted the day before, then I let the story go, for better or worse, and move on.” – Noy Holland

“A work is finished when we can no longer improve it, though we know it to be inadequate and incomplete. We are so overtaxed by it that we no longer have the power to add a single comma, however indispensable. Whatever determines the degree to which a work is done is not a requirement of art or of truth, it is exhaustion and, even more, disgust.” – Emil Cioran

I think both of these quotes are saying a similar thing – you revise and revise until you’ve used the finest grit sandpaper you possess, until the work is as smooth as you are capable of making it, until you’re almost disgusted by it.

Then you let it go.

Finish LineAnd it doesn’t mean it can’t get any smoother. It can always be smoother. You might still run your hand over it and get a sliver. Such is the nature of art. It can always be better.

But learning “smooth enough” is as big part of understanding revision and being able to do the thing some writers never achieve. FINISHING – you have to finish.