As another new school year begins, students and teachers get themselves ready – perfectly sharpened pencils, clean white notebook paper, bright, shiny three-ringed binders . . . okay, who am I kidding?  It’s 2014, not 1984, so it may be more like new tablets and laptops and ereaders with headphones; but nonetheless, it is a time to start afresh.  The whole year stretches ahead of you with so much possibility.


As a former teacher and school librarian and as a former student myself, I have experience that fresh new start many times.  For me it was always a favorite time of year because I love when things are fresh and new – no mistakes – at least not yet.


But then the school year begins, and the students come, and you love them as much as you love your new school supplies and the new way you arranged your classroom.  You are happy and expectant of all the good things yet to come.


But then, it starts to happen.  The students, who you so eagerly awaited and who you fell in love with that very first day of class, start to mess with your perfection. None of the books in your classroom library are in the right place, the students’ desks are never straight, your students’ worksheets are barely legible, and someone spilled pencil shavings all over the brand new carpet.  Ugh!


It’s not even the end of September and your beautiful classroom with its fresh, clean, perfectly-arranged, new school supplies doesn’t look anything like it did on that very first day of school.  There are moments when you think, maybe, you’re in the wrong profession, and you sit at your desk and sigh, pondering what it would be like to work in an office, where no one messes up your stuff, and you get to go out to lunch every day.  But then you look out over your classroom and realize that all the mess and the imperfection means you’re on the right track.  The books are messy because the students are reading them.  The desks aren’t straight because students have pushed them together to help each other.  And if the student’s handwriting isn’t neat enough, well, I guess that’s just one more thing you’ll have to work on this year.  And those pencil shavings on the floor, well okay, that does make you a little mad, but I’m sure it was an accident, and besides, I bet if you leave a nice note for the janitor, he’ll have it cleaned up by tomorrow morning.


Now that I am no longer a teacher and school librarian, that perfectionism I strived for every fall in my classroom has spilled over into my life as a writer.  Sometimes I let my super organized, everything-in-its-place workspace actually keep me from writing.  Who can sit down to write a messy rough draft when everything looks so good?  Other times, I let my love affair with the neatness of my first draft keep me from scribbling much needed revisions all over my story.


My writing method involves creating a first draft, printing it out, punching holes in it, and popping it into a brand new, mega-sized three-ring binder.  There’s nothing like the sound of that binder snapping closed over those pages I’ve worked so hard to create.  I love how shiny and new the binder looks, and I’m absolutely crazy about how neat and clean the white pages look inside.  But I know, that if I can’t let go of that perfection, I’ll never really write another book that’s any good because that draft is only the beginning.  Unless I’m willing to make it messy, the story will never be what it’s supposed to be.


I’ve realized, as a teacher and a writer, that learning is usually messy and often involves a lot of mistakes.  That can be hard on a perfectionist like me, but if I keep reminding myself that the goal is progress not perfection, it helps me to let go a little so that progress can occur.  And progress trumps perfection every time.


EightRatchetPaperbackCoverFinalABIGAILfinalCoverWithBlurbNancy J. Cavanaugh lives in Florida with her husband and daughter.  She spends summers eating pizza in her former hometown of Chicago.  Always, Abigail is her second middle grade novel.  Her debut, This Journal Belongs to Ratchet, earned a Kirkus star – “A book that is full of surprises . . . Triumphant enough to make readers cheer; touching enough to make them cry.”  This Journal Belongs to Ratchet also won a gold medal in the Florida State Book Awards.

Like Abigail, Nancy enjoys writing lists.  Her secret to turning an unproductive day into one she can feel proud of is writing a few things on her “To Do” list which she has already accomplished just so that she can cross them out.

In the past, Nancy’s lists helped her stay organized as an elementary and middle school teacher and also a library media specialist.  Presently her lists help her organize her life as a writer.  Nancy enjoys doing school visits and writing workshops as well as sharing teaching ideas with librarians and teachers at conferences.  Visit her at for more information.