Chasing Perfection: A Meditation on Writing and Learning

By October 21, 2013Writing about Writing

Today on the UCWbL blog, new UCWbLer Hannah Bender has some excellent advice for those among us who yearn for that occasionally elusive “A” at the top of the page. Read long with her story of how she learned that process is more important than the end result.

“A” or bust. That was my motto for the longest time. Perfect grades were not just an expectation—they were an addiction.

It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that learning wasn’t all about getting an A. But it was when I was finally able to embrace my imperfections that I learned how to write.

It was my junior year of high school, and I was writing a research paper on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Though I had written analysis essays before, this was my first large-scale research paper.

Writing had always come easily to me. I cannot remember being challenged by a prompt or an essay before writing this paper. It became formulaic. Read the book. Analyze. Prove my argument. Get an A.

But when I handed a draft of my research paper to my teacher, Mrs. Nagle (to whom I owe for fostering my growth as a writer), I was a little taken aback when she told me, “You’re so much better than this draft, Hannah.”

While she told me I had some good points, she showed me how my execution was lacking. Mrs. Nagle was always wonderful at generating metaphors or colloquial sayings for what she wanted us to try with our writing. So, as we discussed The Awakening, we discussed how sexual desire, passion, and forbidden love were at the thematic forefront.

“She wants him, Hannah,” said Mrs. Nagle in reference to married Edna’s desire for an affair with Leonce. “Show me,” she challenged me. “Reflect this desire through your writing.”

So I went home and I wrote, partly because I was still chasing my “A,” but mostly because I wanted to do better. What she said was true—I could do better than that. So I wrote.

From that point forward, I would take her a draft every few days. Each time, I would take her suggestions and apply them to my paper. But each time, I would hand it back to her, and she would provide me with a whole new set of questions that needed to be explored. So I kept revising and revising and revising. At times it was invigorating, at times it was frustrating, but it made me a better writer, and it encouraged me to compose a better paper.

But on the day we handed in our final drafts, I realized that getting an “A” was no longer my concern. Though I had previously been driven by perfection, the process helped me to realize that my draft will never be perfect.

My grade became secondary. I was more proud of my achievement and my growth. From draft to draft, I could see the development. And Mrs. Nagle’s probing questions encouraged me to think beyond the surface, which is something I have carried with me, no matter what I’m writing.

But it took me this long to realize that the process is more important than the end result. As a writing center tutor, this is something that I hope to convey to my fellow writers. Some tutors or scholars disagree with the philosophy to “create better writers, not better writing,” but I think that with proper guidance, these things can go hand-in-hand.  Like Mrs. Nagle did for me, I want to encourage my fellow writers by creating an environment that results in not just creating “A” work, but an environment that allows a writer to grow in their ability, rather than just getting the grade.

Beloved author J.K. Rowling said, as they keynote speaker at a Harvard commencement ceremony, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might has well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” We’re not always going to produce the perfect paper, but if we don’t try–if we don’t take risks, if we don’t take advantage of the opportunities for learning and growth that cross our paths–we are doing ourselves even a greater injustice.