Tyler Robert Sheldon: Memoir : February 2021

SOUTHERN LEGITIMACY STATEMENT I’ve lived in Louisiana for a handful of years, and I’m now working on a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition at LSU. In my time here, I’ve tried many different gas stations’ boudin (they always have the BEST boudin. My favorite: Nonc Kev’s in Rayne); done too many shots during Mardi Gras in Lake Charles; learned how to peel crawfish the right way; and have read a lot of Marx (Karl, not Groucho) during the ongoing pandemic.

Revising Lives: Writing and Revision as Personal Philosophy

At age five I move with my parents into a ranch-style home in the middle of Hutchinson, Kansas. After unpacking, Dad sets up the cutting-edge Macintosh in the office and fires it up. It’s a deceptively simple machine, the green screen and blinking block cursor all I can think about through dinner. There were no mice in those days, and one had to keep floppy disks at hand at all times (indeed, they were larger than my own hands) to store whatever typing one would do. With my parents’ permission, I sit down after dinner and begin composing a story about cows who can speak. The cursor jumps ahead of each letter haltingly as my fingers on the keys shunt it forward. I type the whole whopper out in one sitting—over a page!—and call Mom and Dad down to read. They look it over, they smile, and they shake their heads. I don’t think yet of how they teach English to college students, and how I would follow in their footsteps despite by best attempts at rebellion. I never revise the story. They print it and hang it on the fridge, where I steal glances at it every morning.

In the fifth grade, apropos of nothing much, I begin thinking up a story about a sadistic babysitter. My class has the opportunity to publish short books, even do our own illustrations, and so I begin typing about this babysitter. I call her Mrs. Krum, and her favorite pastime—as best I figure out—is torturing Thomas, the righteous, handsome, and youthful protagonist. Here I finally begin to revise: what would her hair color be? She can’t be less than six feet tall. I make a hard call and give her a monocle rather than glasses. Regal and menacing traits in the same character; I know this will be a hit. I write three drafts of the story, for the first time printing and writing on physical pages—what Dad calls “mark-ups.” Several pages end up crumpled, or else in little wordy strips that malinger in the trashcan. I finish the book by the end of the year, and most of my classmates love it. I tell them I wish my shoddy colored pencil drawings lived up to my writing. A few agree.

At seventeen, after reading collections published by my father and several family friends, I begin to compose poetry. I buy a black-and-white composition book at the dollar store and write during uneventful classes about whatever comes to mind: driving around with friends, my guitars, my then-girlfriend. Several of these are worse than poor, with the line breaks in awkward places and phrasing amounting to hackneyed drivel. I tear these pieces out with vehemence and practice shooting baskets into the classroom trashcan. After class I retrieve them quickly, so that nobody has the chance to laugh at my attempts. Over the course of a year I fill the composition book to the back cover with rough and revised poems. My subject matter becomes slowly more mature: I write about the death of a family pet, and about the death of my own twin brother three hours after our birth. This last topic proves more difficult. Of the numerous “brother poems” I record in the composition book, I keep only one. This piece goes through several drafts before I need a break; I avoid looking at the poem for almost six years.

In community college I ignore all hints that I should focus on writing as a fulltime occupation. I take Pre-Med classes and work as a writing tutor but tell myself that it’s only a job. I meet my Alex, my future spouse, in the writing center, and they eventually become a tutor as well. Before long I take up poetry again, writing little couplets and eventually tentative longer free verse pieces. These I leave on Alex’s desk to find on-shift. I coedit an issue of the college literary magazine, Tulgey Wood, working a few of my own pieces into the layout, and I cross my fingers that readers will enjoy them. Later Alex tells me about saving all of my poetry notes in a box. I laugh at first, and cringe more than a little after reading the old snippets.

After moving away to Emporia State University, I decide to finally become an English major. My parents say, Oh no, we’ve failed him, but I can hear them smiling through the phone. I join an Intro to Creative Writing course a day late and begin writing short fiction and a ten-minute play. I am happiest once we arrive the poetry portion of the class, where the professor hands the class copies of a call for submissions: a journal at Drake University is looking for undergrad poetry from the Midwest. I polish up a few poems that night and send them right away. A few weeks later I hear back: they like one poem, and they’ll publish it if I make their suggested revisions. Thrilled, and not yet wise to my own principles, I adhere to their every suggestion. I begin to write feverishly, almost a draft a day, and find more venues to send to. Quivira, the student lit mag, is very accommodating toward my work, but before long a journal introduces me to the form rejection. Soon I have an accordion folder full of paper from journals whose editorial needs I don’t meet at this time. Yes, I understand that rejections are sometimes due to a large volume of submissions. I listen to these bearers of bad news, and then bombard them with more work.

Throughout undergrad, I attend numerous poetry readings through the university’s Visiting Writers Series. With each poet I encounter, such as Donald Levering and Jimmy Santiago Baca, I attempt to incorporate an element of their writing style into one of my own pieces, or even into my writing style as a whole. I learn that revision can stretch further than just altering a paper; one can revise their entire literary perspective, through exposure to and appreciation of the writings of others.

In graduate school, my first class—Introduction to Graduate Studies—poses the most formative revision yet of my writing abilities. I study a five-line poem by Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” and compose an essay in which I analyze the poem as an anti-elegy. After completing the first draft only to receive a negative assessment from my professor, I revise the entire essay a week before presenting the final version as part of a panel. Though the paper earns a good grade, this is one of the most nerve-wracking weeks of my academic career.

When I begin teaching English Composition as a graduate instructor, I stress the importance of careful proofreading, editing, and revision to my students. I also impress upon them the importance of creative writing. Incorporating creative impulses into academic writing can lead to work you enjoy more, I tell my students. We discuss poetry in class, and how metaphor and other elements can enhance what they might view as dry analytical prose. My two sections of Comp I are carefully observant of this behest, and they make the most of their Peer Review Days (in which students exchange papers with a friend to lend another pair of eyes to each other’s writing). 

When I receive and grade the final versions of their papers, the effort put forth by the class is obvious; few students receive lower than a B grade. I also notice something else: they have begun to think like creative writers, using metaphor and simile, alliteration and assonance to spice up their academic essays. I mention this to the class and note how enjoyable I found their work. They repay me with satisfied smiles. But what stands out most is how my students have revised their perspectives on the world—and their confidence is palpable. As we carry on with class, a few sit up straighter in their chairs.