Nancy McCabe, Spalding MFA Faculty, Fiction
My first semester as an MFA student, my classmates often strolled into workshop, flung newly printed manuscripts onto the seminar table, and said, “Oh, this is just a rough draft.” In two cases, a few weeks later my classmates sold those “rough drafts” to The Atlantic.
My secret shame was that my rough drafts made me sound comparatively illiterate. It wasn’t just that they were a mess; it’s that I needed them to be a mess for anything interesting to emerge from them. Anne Lamott has legitimized this idea with her concept of the “shitty first draft.” I consider this to be more than a step that we must grit our teeth and tolerate, but a necessary one in a good process, along with the flexibility to follow mistakes where they want to take us. Our mistakes, our failures, our misunderstandings and imperfections, can sometimes be the engines that propel our writing into new territory if we are willing to just bear with frustration and be open to the process.
This was an inadvertent lesson I began learning in the sixth grade. My English teacher announced that she had decided to offer some extra freedom to the best students in the class. These select students, she said, would be placed “on contract,” designing their own assignments and due dates, choosing their reading material and exploring it through creative and analytical exercises that we would create ourselves.
This sounded incredibly cool to me. But as Mrs. Marshall read her list aloud, I was stunned. My name wasn’t on it.
Suddenly, the class exploded. “Why isn’t Nancy on contract?” they were yelling. “She reads more books than anyone! She writes all the time!”
“Nancy McCabe is not on contract,” Mrs. Marshall said, “because her handwriting is so sloppy that I can’t read anything she writes.”
Much to my surprise and eternal gratification, the mutiny continued until Mrs. Marshall backed down and agreed that I would be placed on contract— but only if I would take more care with my handwriting.
I vowed to be worthy of my classmates’ faith in me and to nail my probationary period. I wrote the first sentence of my first assignment slowly and carefully and neatly. But as I became more and more absorbed in the process, my handwriting loosened up and then turned to a scrawl and then, gradually, to hieroglyphics, and when I yanked myself out of my writing trance I realized I was going to have to copy the whole thing over again. So I set out to do just that.
But then I thought, wait, what if I changed “said” to “yelled” or “stumbled” to “staggered”? And then I was off and running, substituting one word for
another, adding a descriptive phrase here, throwing in another transition there. My handwriting deteriorated. I started again. And again. And again. And it was actually kind of fun. And in the process, I learned how to revise. My imperfections led me somewhere neither I nor Mrs. Marshall expected me to go.
In another sixth grade classroom twelve years later, I became the writing teacher who taught a lesson other than the one I had intended. As a writer in residence at an Arkansas elementary school, I passed out headlines from a tabloid, The Weekly World News, then instructed the kids to imagine a story that could have appeared under each headline and write a poem from the point of view of someone in that story.
“He needs a new card.” The classroom teacher, lips pressed together, hovered over a boy. “We don’t use language like that here.”
I sidled over to look at his headline: “Terrified parents held hostage by their hell-bent ten year old.”
I’d forgotten that hell was considered a bad word in elementary schools. I figured that a lot of these kids regularly heard preachers talk about hellfire, and would therefore understand the gravity, the recklessness, of a hell-bent ten-year-old.
I covered “hell-bent” with my finger. “Why don’t you just leave out this word?” I suggested.
The boy looked confused, but he nodded and set to work. Pretty soon, he handed me a poem. It was titled “Terrified parents held hostage by their bent ten-year-old.”
I’ve always remembered this as a missed opportunity, a chance to help this kid take his writing in a new direction, to ponder why this ten-year-old was bent and what that meant to his or her life. Was she born without spine or abdominal muscles? Did he have a habit of sleeping doubled over in the kitchen sink? I’m afraid the actual lasting lesson for that boy was that poetry and adults are really weird.
Many times I was struck by the truths that young writers stumbled upon. Like the 13-year-old girl who wrote about “betraded love,” a phrase that simultaneously captured her sense of betrayal and her indignation at her boyfriend trading her in for someone else. Or a 10-year-old boy, who, in between flirting with girls on either side of him, wrote, “The warmth of love engulps me,” expressing his feeling of being engulfed by love—and a fear that love might swallow him up. These “mistakes” reminded me how much creativity can be a process of mining our missteps and failures, of learning how to turn the accidental intentional.
Gradually, in my MFA program, I realized that my classmates’ “rough” drafts were rarely first drafts. Generally, they had been through multiple revisions, likely enriched by accidents along the way. Maybe their authors hadn’t been engulped or betraded by love, maybe no bent ten-year-olds had suddenly dropped into their stories—but I wouldn’t be surprised if those stories didn’t owe much of their strength to their authors’ willingness to put up with the mess and follow the process where it took them, surpassing their original conceptions to make new discoveries.
Nancy McCabe is the author of five books, most recently the novel Following Disasters and the nonfiction book From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, Brain Teen, Los Angeles Review of Books, Newsweek, Every Father’s Daughter: 24 Women Writers Remember Their Fathers, and Oh Baby! True Stories about Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy Pregnancy, Labor, and Love. Her work has received a Pushcart and six times made notable lists in Best American anthologies.