One of the biggest challenges I face as a writing teacher is getting students to trust in mess. Writing is messy, but most of the finished products we see are neat, tidy, and easy to follow. Students start brainstorming and tell me that the draft they’ve produced is “a disaster” or “terrible.” I try to tell them that the draft they’ve produced is perfectly fine, just unfinished.
To help drive that point home, I often compare it to Thanksgiving dinner.
If you’ve ever prepared Thanksgiving dinner for a lot of people (or even just for a few people), you know that it makes a mess. It seems like every dish in your kitchen–including some you didn’t know you had–gets dirty and finds its way to the sink. Pots boil over, desserts spill, and flour explodes.
Most Thanksgiving cooks would not welcome anyone into their kitchen mid-process. They don’t want their guests to see the work it took to present that beautiful dinner spread; they want it to look seamless and smooth, if not downright easy.
We hide the work. As our guests walk in, we might be in an apron and taking a casserole out of the oven, but we’ve hidden the mess.
That’s what happens in writing. We make a huge mess to get to one neat and clean finished product. If we’ve never been on the backend of that deal, it can seem like we’re doing it wrong when we actually get in the kitchen and start pulling out all of those bowls.
Once students understand that the mess isn’t a mistake, that–in fact–the mess is a sign that things are going well (who, after all, wants a Thanksgiving dinner that can be prepared without any fuss?), they are suddenly free to explore ideas and make mistakes. They are suddenly free to write.
Sure, by the time the turkey is ready to come out of the oven, we want to have things tidied up a bit, but now is not that time.
Two great sources to help students see this perspective through a writer’s eyes are Anne Lamott’s essay “Shitty First Drafts” and several sections of Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers. Writing is a mess for everyone, even the professionals. Learn to embrace it.