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Friday, March 22, 2013

Friday Speak Out!: Always Recycle, Guest Post by Judith Newton

The best piece of writing advice I ever got came from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It had to do with accepting the idea of “shitty first drafts.” The second best piece of advice came from a professor whose teaching assistant I had been in English graduate school in the 1960s. He had struck me, when we first met, as incredibly brash, an effect that he was deliberately seeking to achieve. He’d barge into the classroom, send the blinds crashing up or down, and lie on the desk with a cigar between his teeth. “I’m Smith,” he’d say to a wide-eyed class. He went on to become a rock star of literary criticism, publishing countless books, writing regularly for the New York Times, becoming an internationally famous intellectual. He even appeared as a character in a well known novel.

His advice? “Always recycle.”

“First,” he said, “I write a talk. Then I give it in several times. I turn the talk into an essay and publish it. Maybe it becomes part of an anthology edited by someone else. Then I use it as a chapter of a book or include it in a collection of my essays.” I remember him chewing on a cigar when he told me this. But I may be making up the cigar.

I feel comfortable with Lamott’s advice. I am perfectly capable of producing “a shitty first draft” and of feeling, as she does, that I’d just as soon not die while it is lying on my desk, lest someone read it and assume my death was suicide. But following the guidance of my brash professor was another matter. Who me? I thought. I’m allergic to cigars. But, in the end, I tried his system. As an academic I wrote talks, wrote them into essays that I published, saw them anthologized, and gathered them into a book. I did not become an academic rock star or take up smoking, but the method served me well. I published, and at each stage became a better writer.

When I retired and began taking classes in creative writing, I fell into the system out of habit. I wrote pieces for my writing classes. I turned the pieces into blogs. I posted them on a collective site. Then I posted them on my own. Eventually, I did guest posts with the same materials. After four years, several posts have been anthologized and most of them are chapters in my memoir. Others are beginning to look a lot like a collection of essays on food and place. Good job, I told myself, thinking this would be the end, but then I hired a publicist who told me “No.” Now I had to link my book to larger issues. So, in preparation for the memoir’s launch, I began to write some essays that made those links. One is to be published but, even better, I have begun to see more clearly what the book is all about, and I have a new set of ideas to explore. So recycling? I’m a fan and I’m passing on my famous professor’s advice to you. Because once you’re past the stage of “shitty first draft,” it’s not just about recycling. It’s about revisioning and writing better as well.

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Judith Newton is Professor Emerita in Women and Gender Studies at U.C. Davis. Her latest release is Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen, a culinary memoir.

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!



  1. Great post and very good advice. I'm a fan of recycling too. Sometimes just a small tweak with a new audience in mind gives new life and a new meaningful twist to an article, story or post.

  2. I love the story of your old professor. I am curious as to who that is. :) I think maybe if we all chewed on cigars, it would be easier for us to recycle our work? :) Thanks for the post.

  3. Thanks, Julia. And, as you say, it's neat when the twist takes you to a new place.

    Margo, definitely true about the cigars. We need mental cigars at least. Have you read David Lodge's Trading Places? Note the character of Morris Zap.

  4. Anonymous8:56 AM

    Great idea Judy! Of course the concept of recycling depends on having produced something to recycle...... :) Edith xxx

  5. Yes, I do this and it sometimes felt like I was "cheating" so thanks for the permission.

  6. Very good advise. I was just relating the recycle concept to my daughter who is faced with writing multiple essays for college aps and scholarships.

  7. Ah, but Edith you do produce those lovely blog posts!

    Recovering Church Lady, I love your title. I know the feeling, but if you add something, revise something, tighten something the piece becomes new or just better. My famous professor says "Go thou and recycle."

    Lynne, I've been through that with my daughter too, and I've given her just the same advice.

  8. I too loved the idea of shitty first drafts and have practiced that philosophy for years. When it comes to recycling, it's also appealing but I feel like the "younger you" in the story. Can I do that?? I'm curious if it's a deliberate process for you. Do you come up with recyclable ideas from the outset or is it more of a process done in hind sight? Once you have a piece you look for ways to recycle?

  9. One of my English profs gave the same advice. He didn't have a cigar, though. ;)

    I try to recycle every piece I write. It makes sense and makes me a better writer.


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