by Peter Marino

I want to pass back your papers today. I’ve read them and made comments on them and we’ll talk about them and then you will write a final copy.

I always want to encourage young writers, and what I’m trying to do in this class is establish a community of writers. I hate for any negativity to go down. But I need to say, how to put this? Surprised, I guess, was what I was. That they were so short. Really, really short. Since it was a topic of some substance. The assignment was to write on whether you thought there were significant differences between the sexes, other than physiological, and whether you thought the causes of those differences were environmental or genetic. Or both. So, again, that’s pretty big, and I just assumed that with such, you know, bigness of topic, the papers would be quite a bit bigger. More thorough in analysis. Maybe more thoughtful. At least a page worth of thought. One side of a page.

But of course this was a first draft—rough draft, crappy copy, shitty first draft, whatever you want to call it—and the purpose of a first draft is to get the ideas down. Then develop them later. Generate a thoughtful final version. Final draft. That’s where my eyes are now.

Okay, let’s go over some key sentences which I’ve culled from various drafts, and work on how the author could improve his or her work. I shouldn’t say “improve,” because that insinuates the person did something wrong. And of course a rough draft can’t be wrong. Even if I expected them to be a little longer. What I should say is, what opportunities for revision does the author have? Opportunities.

Okay. The topic is, are there significant differences between the sexes? First paper starts like this: There are many differences between men and women which are too hard to explain in just one paper. Okay, good. The person has obviously learned something from writing this, because they’ve realized that the question is very complicated. So, by saying there are a lot of differences and they are hard to explain, it shows that the writer has really struggled with the question. And is baffled. That’s good, you know? Because confusion is part of learning. And it’s not just the students who learn in a class, but the teacher, because I am confused about why so many of you…

Anyway, let’s keep moving forward. Keep moving. Where can we go from here? What suggestions can we make for the writer, for future revisions? Yes, good! How about listing the many differences. And after making the list, which probably they could have done first and already, they can examine the differences on that list. Yes! Good! Determine the most important differences, good good good. Keep the scope of the paper more manageable, instead of trying to sort out every single difference. Which the writer has not actually listed yet…

No, sorry, that’s not appropriate. I have to say I don’t like the word bullshit in group critique. That’s just your opinion, that the writer is trying to bullshit me by saying the topic is too hard. Look, it’s not the point, but yes, in fact it was the only sentence in the paper. And, okay, the first time I read this one sentence essay I must admit, the thought did cross my mind. But of course if we make negative assumptions about the writer, we’re not providing opportunities, not opening doors for him but rather slamming them shut. Slamming them really hard, in his face. Or she. I’m not saying who. Let’s use they, plural but gender neutral. Because people are very sensitive about their writing. It’s a very intimate piece of them that they’re going public with, even if going public means submitting a paper in class. A paper with one-sentence.

So, I think the writer has a good start. Just needs to generate more ideas based on what’s already here. The seed is planted. Now it has to germinate. Write about the ideas that really appeal to you. That get you excited. Excited enough to fill up a whole double-spaced page. That kind of excitement.

Okay, next example from a paper on this assignment entitled “Are there significant differences between the sexes?” This next person writes, There are differences between the sexes, and it is not for mere mortals to try to figure them out.

Okay, good start.

Raw material here.

What suggestions can we make? Opportunities?

Yes, it was in fact the only sentence. Just like the first one. Minimalism, which is a theory. There are theoretical underpinnings to everything we write, even when we don’t write much. But remember, we’re talking drafts here. Lincoln didn’t come up with the Gettysburg Address on the first try, I’ll bet. Although maybe he did. So, how can we suggest that the author of this paper examine those significant differences between the sexes that, for all we know, higher beings, non-mortals, might still be trying to sort out?

This student is also trying to avoid the assignment? That’s not what I asked. What I asked was for other opportunities the writer has for revision. Rough drafts, all about potential. Opportunities to grow. In length. Okay, well, yes, by stating that the topic is impossible, the door is pretty much slammed shut again, isn’t it? Reminds me of the Environmental Science course I took in college back in 1980, and how the kid next to me wrote on his exam that all environmental problems would be taken care of by his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; and oh boy the professor just went car-alarm crazy the day he passed the tests back, told us whoever wrote that didn’t have the brains God gave the swelling in a baboon’s anal gland; said anyone who wrote that kind of crap should be in a study of lower primates; needed a cage rather than a desk.

Then he ripped the test up and blew the pieces out of his hand, and asked if Jesus H. Christ would like to make fish and/or bread out of them, that he would wait.

But I don’t condone that. Writers don’t respond well. So, no, your suggestion that the writer of this uni-sentence-paper conveniently became existential so he didn’t have to do the assignment…We have no idea really. I just want to encourage you away from such judgments. What can we suggest to help the writer generate some ideas? Maybe even generate a whole paragraph, of several lines?

Listen, contrary to how they do things in the military, writers do not become better writers by being shamed and humiliated, by having their motives analyzed. This is not a Catholic school! And that’s not a slam against Catholic schools. I know things have really changed these days. The ones that are still open. And they take anybody, Catholic or not. Now I’m lost. Where was I?

Process, yes. First drafts and revision, the foundations of all writing. Last paper, because we need to go on to the next activity, one that works. The question was: “Are there significant differences between the sexes?” This last student wrote, simply, No.

Okay, we work with what we have. What can we do with this paper? Excellent, yes! We need to ask Why No!? We need to draw the writer out, discover what leads him or her to such an absolute, decided No! on such a subject that I didn’t see as being answerable by yes or no, or any other lone word. What we can say is there is a confidence here, and we need to ask why so confident? That’s what I’d like to know. Because if I had turned in one word and called it a paper when I was in school…

The important thing is where do we go from here? Perhaps the person could make a list of the things that led him or her to that big, strong No! Clue the rest of us in. Us, your reading audience. You know, we’ll gladly read your words, but we can’t read your mind.

But like I said, it’s important to get something down to work from. Just get something down. Anything. Please.

Peter Marino is an English professor at SUNY Adirondack in upstate New York. He has published two novels for young adults, Dough Boy (Holiday House) and Magic and Misery (IntoPrint). His plays include the comedy “You’re Right—I’m Dead” and the ten minute “Ralph Smith of Schenectady, New York….”


One thought on “Opportunities

  1. I love this piece and wish I’d written it to my many first year composition students. "Just get something down"!


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