I ran into a former student recently and we ended up talking briefly about a friend's novel-in-progress. I said it was great. I've read a lot of it, and I believe in it.
Well, the former student said, a lot of it still reads like a first draft.
I said something mundane, like Sure.
But what I was thinking, and what I'm still thinking is that of course it does. Of course it does, and that doesn't make it weaker, or less than what it will eventually be. It makes it a draft. A novel-in-progress.
I've been teaching creative writing for nine years. If I had been bothered by things sounding like first drafts I would have quit -- roughly nine years ago. Very, very rarely have I encountered students who probably shouldn't be writing at all. Very, very often I have students who are writing what will eventually become great, but that need encouragement. Along with the praise, they need to see the weak spots, the spots where they rested, where they didn't push hard enough, or trust enough, or bleed enough. Sometimes, these pieces could be way, way better. And when I tell you that, it's because I believe it can be. And even when these pieces are rough, it's important to look past them, at what they can be.
Annie Dillard says, "there's another way of saying this. Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block."
Not just with the writing, but with the critique too.
I try hard not to pretend I know more than my students do. I try hard to be entrenched. To be, like a war journalist, embedded with the troops. We're all doing the same thing, at different speeds, at different times, while juggling a lot of other stuff. I am my own first draft. You can stop there, or you can look past it, to what else I might be.