Writing is Rewriting (and then Writing Again)
By Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar
My senior year at university I had a traumatic experience in our seminar for English majors. We came into the room, upstairs in the library, and sat at an oval, wood desk. There were eight of us students and our indomitable professor who served in the Peace Corps whose salt and pepper corkscrew curls bobbed when she was sitting.
All of the students received a worksheet. The sentences on the paper were taken from our own work, the senior projects we had been writing all semester. Of the ten or so sentences, more than five were mine. None of our names were next to the offending sentences, the ones our professor explained to the group, “Needed rewriting.”
Yet, because I was the only one writing about Biblical depictions of women, it was clear whose writing we were working on: mine. I sat through an hour or so of other students dissecting my prose. I seethed. I knew my sentences, indeed my entire project, was better than theirs. Here we were, discussing my subject verb agreement and use of tenses.
I fled from the room to my dorm (on a small campus the journey didn’t take long) and flung myself on my bed. Floor mates heard my howls of fury; my suitemate saw my tears of frustration. They advised me to go talk to my professor, my heroine and mentor, the same woman who convinced me to be a double major in English though I was firmly on the path towards clinical psychology. I took their advice and broke down again.
“But we were looking at your sentences because they were good,” she said to me in her office, her brown eyes squinting in consternation. “And we were making them better.”
I clutched the tissue in my fist and took several deep breaths. I learned a crucial lesson that spring afternoon. If you want to be a writer, you can always improve. You need to leave your ego at the door. You can take feedback from anybody. You must take feedback.
The truth is the sentence re-write exercise is so effective I use it now with my own writing students. Nothing makes you sit up like knowing your sentence may appear next on the worksheet. I do begin with a preamble that we are not judging but learning. So far no one has come into my office in tears. That was before I accidentally left someone’s name on yesterday’s worksheet.
Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a South Asian American who has lived in Qatar since 2005. Moving to the Arabian Desert was fortuitous in many ways since this is where she met her husband, had a baby, and made the transition from writing as a hobby to a full time passion. Her work has been published in Variety Arabia, Brownbook Middle East, Isola Magazine, AudioFile Magazine, and Society Magazine, as well as Explore Qatar, Woman Today, The Woman, Writers and Artists Yearbook, QatarClick, and Qatar Explorer. She has been a guest on Expat Radio, and was the host for two seasons of the Cover to Cover book show on Qatar Foundation Radio. She was the Associate Editor of Vox, a fashion and lifestyle magazine.
Currently she is working on a historical novel set in the East Asian country of Laos in the 1970s. She writes because words can help us understand ourselves and others. Catch up on her latest via her blog (www.mohanalakshmi.com) or follow her on Twitter @moha_doha.