Friday, February 24, 2012

Necessary Cuts (Or, the problem with outcomes)

When I was in graduate school, I wrote a novel. It wasn’t particularly good, and it won’t ever see the light of day now that workshop days are over, but there was one section in one chapter I adored. I revised it over and over until each word felt perfect, until the description was just right, the details distinct and evocative. It was one of my better pieces of writing, and for a long time I resisted what I knew deep down was true: I needed to cut it. It just wasn’t working for that section, and keeping it there because I liked the writing threatened the integrity of the project.

A few weeks ago, I was feverishly revising the last couple chapters of my book. They were rougher chapters—big, unwieldy, complex chapters that I threw all kinds of ideas into, knowing they needed refining and chopping. And late one night I realized I needed to cut a whole interview portion I really liked, about a subtopic that was really interesting. As strong as the ideas were, they weren’t essential to the chapter’s narrative. In fact, they prevented the arc I needed from forming.

I knew what I needed to do, but it was still hard. Hard to see that even if that section didn’t make the cut, that it was still valuable, that it was still a part of the process involved in writing and drafting a successful chapter.

I thought about that after I cut it, and looked around at the piles and piles of research stacked up all over my office—not to mention the thousands of electronic resources filed away in Gmail folders. How many of those have I read and forgotten? More than that, how many of those did I annotate and underline, scribbling notes on and tagging for use in iterations of chapters that don’t even exist anymore? I spent years compiling research, and what is staggering to me isn’t the amount that made it into the book, but what didn’t.

And yet it is all part of it, it all contributed to the process that ultimately resulted in a full draft of the book. Whether it led me to another source that proved useful, whether it sparked a question I asked during an interview, or if it just expanded my understanding and fluency on a particular topic, each piece had a role.

For better and worse, I am an outcome-based person. As a child, I cared more about my grades than my parents ever did. I see traces of myself in the students who bemoan a B+, who ask not how they can improve their writing but how they can get an A, who have a difficult time seeing that huge improvement from a rough draft to a final draft is an indication of success. I can empathize with that struggle.

The older I get, the less useful an outcome-based perspective seems. Perhaps it’s because so much of life resists clear-cut outcomes like grades or test scores. I know writing certainly does. Even though I am ranked and evaluated every academic year, I find it is the student feedback I get that is most meaningful to me. Maybe it’s also because the older you get and the more you risk, the more failure you open yourself up to, and sometimes all you are left with when things fall apart is the journey itself.

(Small proof I have evolved? I lose of Words with Friends, yet I keep accepting rematches with my husband and (gasp!) still find it fun, anyway.)

Clearly, being a patient with incurable conditions has shifted my perceptions on outcomes. It’s not a question of the ultimate outcome—a cure—but more an issue of the everyday ebbs and flows of chronic illness. We can take the medications and follow the rules and still experience flares, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t inherent worth in keeping up with the minutia of daily maintenance and preventive strategies to minimize disease progression.

And becoming a parent? That has been the biggest influence of all. After our long journey to parenthood, and the intensity of our high-risk pregnancy, I have seen what is possible when we let go of outcomes altogether and the end result surpasses every expectation or dream we ever had. Watching this little girl grow into her own unique, independent person is a daily reminder that living in the moment, that appreciating the journey and the discovery, is a blessing.

I delight in what I learn she knows, and I love when she bursts out with new words, or recognizes new letters, or figures out how to do something new. But I find that the older she gets and the more she shares with us, I care less and less about pre-school placement, kindergarten readiness, or summer camp enrichment. I want the smile of pride she gets when she screws a bottle cap back on a seltzer, draws a picture, or drinks from a cup without a lid, the earnest smile that lights up her whole face, to follow her—no matter the spilled cups, the missteps, the experiments that don’t pan out as planned.

For an incredibly thoughtful, candid view on outcome-based parenting, I recommend Katie Allison Granju’s post on Babble. In a nod to writing, parenting, and (Weekly) Grace in Small Things, four other posts I am grateful for and suggest you read are
Aisha’s post on being present, Maggie May’s post on being a “good enough” mother, Glennon’s Momastery post on gifts and talents, and Brooke’s post on choosing love again.


Jessica said...

So much of this resonated with me - from how much is left out when a book is written (I just published one) to seeing myself in students who bemoan a B+ (I'm a junior high school teacher) to living in light of the everyday, rather than the ultimate goal (a cure for the terminal rare disease that I have). Thank you for your wisdom in putting all these thoughts together. Sometimes my deepest inspiration comes from people with whom I share such (normally unspoken) commonalities.

Laurie said...

Hi Jessica,
Thanks so much for the comment. Congratulations on publishing your book! I clicked over to your site and it looks great. I will definitely check it out. It's always so nice to hear when things resonate with others out there, even if I wish we didn't have to share some of these commonalities.

Aviva said...

The whole concept of the journey being more important than the destination is something I've been trying to explain to my 7-year-old lately. We've been spending time coloring together lately, something I love but find painful due to joint pain in my hands and wrists so doing so is an act of love for spending time with my daughter. She was crowing over having finished three pages from this amazing coloring book in the time I had spent on a single page and still wasn't done with yet. I kept explaining that I was taking my time because I was enjoying doing the coloring, and coloring isn't a race. She doesn't get it, of course, but I'm pretty sure I didn't get it at age 7 either. :)

While I haven't written a book, I remember the pain of having to cut favorite anecdotes, quotes and people out of the feature stories I loved to write. So painful. And with the amount of time and effort it takes to write a book, I can only imagine how magnified that becomes. (But I can't wait to read your new book, Laurie!)

Nurse and Hospital Stories said...

"Watching this little girl grow into her own unique, independent person is a daily reminder that living in the moment, that appreciating the journey and the discovery, is a blessing."

Ah, I absolutely agree. A child is always a blessing and a source of joy even in an unexpected moment. :)

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