The Writing Process » Final Papers » The Disappearance of Creative Writing

The Disappearance of Creative Writing

In his book, Peter Elbow teaches the student how to write without a teacher. But, uh, what about the rest of us? Sure, I can relate to the concepts of Elbow now as a near-college graduate, but only because I was introduced to them by a teacher. Writing with a teacher seems to be the more difficult task for most writers out there. How is it possible for students to feel comfortable creating something expressive when they have been under the influence of teachers who teach nothing but academic writing? The biggest hindrance to student writers is the focus on academic over creative writing, and this starts early. Note: Early does not mean year-one of an undergraduate education. Early means childhood.

When we are young, we are given few rules. “Write a story about an elephant!” This amount of imagination and creativity is awe-inspiring. I know few adults who would be as thrilled and as able as an eight-year-old to create such a tale. It is my belief that many of the problems writers face when developing their writing, whether it be finding their voice or tapping into their emotional outlet, stems from lack of practice. I was twelve years old the first time I diagramed a sentence, and from there on out, very little of my academic writing could be considered “creative” or even of the “out of the box” idea. Curriculums have become so obsessed with producing college-ready academics that creativity is pushed out of the classroom and onto the stage or into the art studio. Even inside the English class, teachers often say, “make up a small skit” instead of “write a short story.”

And even when teachers do find ways to encourage students to find expression through writing with voice exercises like freewriting, it is most often in an elementary context; by the time high school comes around when students are more equipped at expressing these ideas, the outlet has disappeared, or rather reformed in extracurricular activities. While musicians at my high school had chorus, band, orchestra, theater, and even an annual Battle of the Bands, writers had three, more narrow options: Creative Writing, the class (which was never feasible to take since no one could afford to “waste” electives on things other than AP Spanish or AP Psychology), the Yearbook (which really dealt more with layout, photos, and superlatives than writing creatively), and the Newspaper (which, enjoyable as it was, did not really allow for the elephant story). Our school’s literary magazine was impressive, but drastically unread despite heavy promotion, and one infamous case of major plagiarism soured many students from trusting it as a reliable source of poetry and fiction.

Students need an outlet for personal and creative writing that isn’t their diary. Creative writing provides a forum for students to explore personal issues or interests in a substantial way that validates the importance of these issues or interests. When teachers do not encourage this type of creativity, it tells students that creative writing is secret, heavy, and inappropriate for academic people. These may seem like generalized claims with no evidence, but it’s true! According to most English Literature classes, creative writing can be studied, but not replicated. Unless you’re writing Silas Marner or Great Expectations, the creative aspect is not nearly as important as the academic one. Students are forced to “earn the right” to write creatively, which for most people might never happen. By the time they have earned the right, many have lost interest and lack the actual training to be able to channel their creative self. This needs to start earlier.

Bartholomae says, “There is no writing that is writing without teachers.” If this is true, then bring teachers into the discussion of academic versus personal, creative writing. The two are not mutually exclusive. I promise, any student can write a memoir or a fictional story at the same time as a research paper and not mold the two together.

Bathlomoae quotes many teachers with saying, “I want to empower my students.” “I want to give my students ownership of their work.” Sure, maybe professors are able to do this, but outside of college, what teacher is he talking about? From my experience, many teachers — or rather, curriculums, since teachers are slaves to them — acknowledge creative writing as important, but deny students the actual time to create it. Understanding how something is made furthers comprehension of the topic. Students who love listening to music are encouraged to make music, and few musicians self-identify as only a maker or only a listener – they are both. So why are readers less encouraged to write creatively? My best friend since first grade reads at least two novels during a normal week, and up to ten during weeks that she is on vacation or lacking in projects. Yet last semester, during her senior year of college, she would break into cold sweats before each Creative Writing class. How have the interests become so separate? Because writing is lost for many students by the time they reach puberty. Specifically, teachers hinder the experience through several standard devices.

Page limits have taught students that quantity is of greater importance than quality. Anyone who wants to refute this should think back to the four-page paper you were assigned in ninth grade. It doesn’t matter how much your teacher might have liked it — if you had turned in one-page of writing, you would have failed. And any student knows the secrets of changing fonts, margins, and spacing to stretch out their essay that feels complete but is half a page short. Yes, of course, page number requirements are crucial in assessing effort and completion. But this focus on numbers takes away the focus on words.

Traditional education in the United States has brought with it sentence-diagramming, grammar sentences for students to correct, and extensive homework exercises focusing on vocabulary and mechanics. These are great (well, “great” is probably debatable) ways to teach students academic writing, so why not use these to adapt to creative writing? Assign a homework exercise that teaches vocabulary and allows the student to elaborate on a topic of his or her choice. Teachers can use traditional methods of teaching academic writing to incorporate creative writing into the learning process.

One of the best attempts at breaking away from academic writing comes from the countless math and science teachers who assign papers in their classrooms with the disclaimer, “…but this isn’t an English class so I won’t be grading you on grammar, mechanics, or spelling.” In theory, this frees writing from the confines of rules and tradition; it shows students that writing does not have to be regulatory in every context. Unfortunately, in practice, this tactic seems to promote the notion that writing outside of English class is not important or valid, so therefore must not be taken too seriously. But this subtle action does show students that writing exists in a real form outside of the English classroom.

Bartholomae says we need to highlight the classroom as a real space, not an “idealized utopian space.” How does expressive equate to utopian? Self-expression is by no means (necessarily) idealized, nor is it false or not real. It is a huge misconception that creative writing lacks in actual substance. It is this mentality that causes students to classify creative writing as “weak” and academic writing as “strong,” and no American student wants to be considered “weak.”

But ultimately the debate of academic versus creative writing is a silly one. Like any two-sided dilemma, the answer is both. Academic writing teaches students organization, grammar, and rhetoric. There is a lot to be said for any curriculum that can teach this to students. But creative writing carries a lot as well. Non-academic writing encourages self-discovery, word experimentation, and creative risk-taking. Why not take five minutes out of every class for students to freewrite? “Write about an elephant…who is fifteen and just got dumped by her boyfriend.” Bring the student to the forefront. If students are being forced to write creatively for ten minutes every day for twelve years of schooling, the emphasis on the importance of this type of expression would drastically change. Not only would students become less intimidated by their personal interaction with words, but they might be more willing to accept academic writing if they know they also have an outlet for creative writing. The structure and discipline of academic writing are not bad things – we just all think they are because we’re tired of it! Creative writing has a place in academia – teachers just need to trust it.

The Writing Process » Final Papers » Hi, My Name Is Claire, and I’m a Grammar-holic

I’m sorry — I hate to a be a bore, but if I’m really honest about it, the most pivotal moment in my writing life was not when my grandfather died or on September 11, 2001 or even out of classroom setting — it was my ninth grade English class. I know. How dull! I wish I could attribute it to a family crisis or a worldly experience, but no, it was simply at the time when everyone’s writing is supposed to change from bad to good, from childish to scholarly, from jumbly-bumbly to grammar-perfect. And so that’s all. I went to this class, and I learned how to write well. It was a joint class.

Like many high schools, mine had the bright idea of creating a class that the catalog should have just called “The Hell Class.” It was history and English combined into one, which initially sounded pretty good to me as a natural-born “history and English person.” Going into it, I had no idea that the work load would be so great. But I also had no idea that the English part of the class would be taught by a woman who would come to be known as simply The Devil to some, and merely the Queen of Rigidity and Bitchiness to others. (To most others in the world, though, she was known as Ruth Covella.) But even those who hated her learned how to write. Even the most static, frigid, and unmotivated student would write when Mrs. Covella told them to. And even the most prodigal and pretentious of students grew and changed with her teaching. I don’t know where I fell on that scale, but somehow her lessons made sense to me. I clung to the rules of grammar, and I felt proud that I could master such a task. My good grades in the class brought me attention and respect from my father, the former professor, and my mother, the perfectionist nurse.

Every morning was the same: I’d come into class about 90 seconds late, just enough time for most of the other students and both of the teachers (one for history, one for English) to notice. “You sure smell an awful lot like cigarettes there, Claire,” my history teacher Mr. Fitzpatrick (Fitzy, as we called him) would say. He’d had my older brother two years earlier so he’d understand when I’d tell him that Peter had been smoking in the car on the way to school, which was the truth, but always felt like a lie for some reason.

Flustered and a bit embarrassed, I’d toss my backpack and books onto my desk, scrounge for a pen in my bag, and frantically rip out a leaf of notebook paper, worried that whatever grammar sentences Mrs. Covella had put up on the overhead projector for us to correct would disappear before I could read them — Mrs. Covella always made us work fast. Three minutes would pass, and they’d ask for a volunteer to come up to the projector and make the grammar corrections. My arm would tremble in indecisiveness — do I raise my hand and show the class how a true Grammarian would do it? Or do I sit quietly and watch my peers fumble around dangling modifiers, feeling more and more positive about myself and my retention of the rules of grammar? I almost always chose the latter, so maniacally obsessed with my own sense of regulation and control that I didn’t need to flaunt it to the rest of the class. I was confident in my perfection.

The timing of Mrs. Covella’s arrival was perhaps the most perfect part of this perfect obsession. My mother didn’t physically move out until the end of my freshman year, but the divorce had been such a long time coming that its effects had hit me well before she left. Prior to freshman year, my writing had been softer, less argumentative, and certainly less rigid. I had always accounted for the rules of grammar when writing papers for school, but never to the extent that I did after Mrs. Covella entered my life. From there on out, I was bound to grammar’s rules. I was a grammar Spartan, out to endure anything for the sake of proper word placement and punctuation. No instant message of mine would ever use “u” for “you.” No “r”s for “are”s. No “c”s for “see”s. And never, ever any “2”s for “to”s. Words were spelled out in full; even a contraction could get me in trouble. How trashy, I’d think, when a friend would send me a “how r u?” instant message, not seeing the question behind it. Like the bulimic who thinks she can control nothing but her eating, I was a grammar-holic, lost in the chaos of the impending divorce of my parents and convinced that perfection was the only option if I wanted to maintain my family. I was arrogant and brash, unwilling to indulge in the notion that poor grammar was not an indication of poor character or poor control. My world at home was erratic and unpredictable; grammar was structured and reliable. Home was madness; grammar was regulated. Rules were not made to be broken, I would tell myself.

Unfortunately for my emotional state, my obsession with grammar and rules was rewarded: I was an A+ paper writer. In January, Mrs. Covella (and Fitzy, though he hardly counted as a teacher — he functioned more as a lovable and mischievous uncle than an educator) assigned us a five-page paper in which we had to argue for the most important invention prior to the year 1500. This paper counted for more than a grade — the three best papers in the class would move on to a regional competition, History Day. I worked meticulously, throwing in perfectly-placed appositives and adjective phrases. Oh, no, a misspelling?! How could this be! Click, click, click, my computer would say, deleting the error with its head hanging in shame. No linking verbs. No passive voice. No flaws. And certainly no sleep until perfection. Nearly two months later I turned in my paper on the importance of Gutenberg’s printing press, and not so much to my surprise, I made it in the top three. I went on to get Honorable Mention at History Day, and boy oh boy, were my parents proud. They were proud, and they were happy, though I’m sure their faces were aching later, their muscles not used to smiling so much.

By junior year at age sixteen, I was rebelling like a madwoman, and this time it was real rebellion. I got caught sneaking out and drinking with friends. When I got my license, I sped on the highway. I even failed tests and skipped class. But I never skipped a paper, and I never got a bad grade on one. I later competed again at History Day and won Third Place — my father flaunted that paper around his office for years, beaming with pride and self-worth, I’m sure. But from every stupid rebellion or rejection of my parents rules (usually just out of spite), I’ve found new levels of maturity and understanding within myself. So why has it been so hard for me to rebel against Mrs. Covella?

It wasn’t until I got to college that I finally realized good grammar doesn’t equate to strong writing. All those years I had won awards, I was winning them as a teenager whose writing was formatted and prescribed, making it easy for me to succeed by throwing in a few phrases of impressive grammar. Classes I’ve taken at college that rely more on creativity than research skills or format have brought me shockingly low grades on papers. Other times just the opposite has happened: I’ve thought I’ve shamed myself using dreadful grammar in a paper written while in a sleep-deprived stupor, only to find that though my syntax was poor, my content was commendable, and my grade reflected it. I’ve let go of other grammarisms, too: if I still thought that grammar was in any way linked to character, well, then I’d be alienating myself from a lot of intelligent and compassionate people. But I still can’t text message a friend the letter “u” when I mean “you.” And even now, I cringe at the thought of a dangling participle. And hey, ultimately, that’s O.K. The two aren’t mutually exclusive anyhow. I just wonder what it will take for me to be able to unlock the box and allow myself to write without any limitations or fears. Now at 22, I would like to think I’ve learned enough about myself to feel unrestricted by something as structured as grammar. And I would like to feel as though my writing is free from the burden of obsession. Yet I still can’t shake it.

My parents have been living separately for seven years now and have been divorced for five of them. My need to create a perfect environment for them obviously couldn’t stop them from splitting up. Years of group therapy, family meetings, and self-help books have patched my wounds and released me from my fear that my behavior was somehow linked to their ability to stay together. Both of my parents are happier in their new lives than they ever were in their old ones, and seldom these days do I ever even think about the tough times of my adolescent years. The uneasy, resentful feeling in my stomach is gone; I am at peace with the divorce. But the changes in my writing still linger with every paper I write.

Mrs. Covella’s diligence and structure clung so tightly to the mind of my fifteen-year-old self that it has become a part of me. I am hoping that recognizing this wall to my true inner writer will help knock it down, even if the bricks have to fall slowly, one at a time…or maybe this sense of control is O.K. Perhaps it’s possible that I’m still looking for perfection in my need to let go of my obsession with grammar. But I don’t have to be perfect — I can have a flaw. I can accept that my structure is my flaw. After all, writing and grammar do no damage to my physical body, nor do they encourage a negative mental state (anymore, at least); there are worse obsessions in the world than mine with grammar. So, I guess I’m going to try turning off my spell and grammar check on my computer, and I’m going to explore free writing as much as I can in the hopes that such practices will help retrain my mind to see meaning over revision. Maybe I’ll even text a friend, “how r u?” But I’m not going to obsess over it. I don’t have to be perfect.

The Writing Process » Final Papers » Writing in The Eleventh Hour

Procrastination generally tends to imply laziness, apathy, and boredom. As the daughter of motivated parents and as a student of a fast-paced, goal-oriented pre-collegiate environment, I was always made to believe that my incessant procrastination was rooted in my lackadaisical attitude, my lazy and unmotivated mentality, and my ambivalence towards school. Indeed, I always agreed with this notion, and I still do. So imagine my shock when seeing “the fear of failure often causes people to procrastinate” in my computer’s dictionary. Could this be true? Could there be something deeper to my procrastination? Am I not just a lazy, apathetic writer, but an emotionally tortured insecure wreck of a writer as well? Does my fear of failure paralyze my inherent and phenomenal writing abilities? Can it even be as simple as this? Like any habit, my writing procrastination can’t be summed up in one final statement — it is a mixture of a variety of behaviors and fears.

As a self-proclaimed “slacker,” I know that the most obvious reason for my procrastination in writing is the same as my procrastination of cleaning, car maintenance, and correspondence: laziness and poor time management. While many reward their hard work with leisure, I preface mine with leisure so as to delay said hard work. As a senior in college, few activities motivate me to plan ahead, especially those having to do with academic writing which requires effort, critical thinking, and of course, time. The amount of energy needed for academic writing is often so foreboding that I feel tired and stressed just thinking about it. Procrastination acts as a time-saver that allows me to get done what I deem more important than academic writing (also known as everything else in my life) but still produces a decent end product to turn in to my professor.

Another reason for my procrastination is as simple as disinterest for the process of academic writing. Growing up, I always loved to write, both in school and in diaries. I even won several awards for writing when I was in high school, and I enjoyed it — I enjoyed writing research papers! But over the years, the tired and rigid format of academic papers has dulled my vigor for writing, even academic writing. In an attempt to create and preserve a standard, the academic community ended up turning the writing process into a dull, static exercise instead of the explorative and quasi-rebellious activity that it can be. The confines of this standard add levels of stress and boredom not found in much non-academic writing, such as citations, annotated bibliographies, abstracts, and of course the five-paragraph form. I actually do understand and respect academia’s interest and investment in scholarly writing — I just don’t want to do it! By procrastinating, I will have to experience the boredom of academic writing in only one session of writing instead of over the course of several sessions during which I might brainstorm, map, or plan.

Scholarly papers, though lifeless and uninspiring, are at least relatively easy to produce because of their prescribed form, and if I fail, all I’ve lost is a good grade. Creative writing is a much larger and more intimidating battle — if I fail here, I’ve lost not only a good grade, but I feel as though I’ve lost part of myself as well. When a professor reads my writing, they take my words with them, but usually those words are quotations, paraphrases, and scholarly ideas that I cannot claim as originally mine. When a professor reads creative writing by me, they take not only my words, but my ideas, opinions, and voice as well. One of my most dominating fears is appearing unintelligent, which is probably rooted in my parents’ obsession with knowledge and intellect. In any case, with this amount of pressure to appeal to my reader (most often a professor), I begin to doubt my abilities and my fear sets in.

Procrastination alleviates my sense of doubt by providing me with an excuse for my creative writing. If I finish my work ahead of time with a plan and then receive a poor or mediocre grade on it, I know it is because of poor writing. But if I procrastinate, then I can blame a mediocre grade on my poor planning instead of perhaps accepting that I am not as strong of a writer as I would wish. I rationalize all behavior surrounding this procrastination as well. I lie to myself and insist that the strongest writing is rushed, pressurized, and thus, completely natural, as if it will just pour out of me given the right ticking time box. Planning ahead appears impersonal, dispassionate, and boring. Preparedness kills the intensity of spontaneity and the rush of the eleventh hour. Preparing ahead of time has become such a daring, vulnerable move for me as a writer that I will say anything to myself to prevent feeling potentially untalented or unintelligent.

So where does this leave me? I procrastinate because I’m lazy, bored, and insecure? Maybe it is that simple. Maybe it is that clear. Maybe it can but summed up in one final statement…but the true irony of my exploring the topic, “why do I procrastinate when writing?” is that I have procrastinated in writing this exploration. This self-analysis could perhaps be more thoughtful, more thorough, or more developed. There is no doubt that I could have found deeper insight to my questions if I have simply planned a bit more. And in my rush, I failed to truly test the boundaries of form that were permissible for this assignment and instead opted for predictability: the five-paragraph structure. But if I procrastinate writing this paper, I will not have to feel embarrassed when a room full of English majors tear apart its inconsistencies, flaws, and lacks. I can justify, rationalize, and explain! It is not my best, but I procrastinated! I feel frightened! I feel intimidated! …Or maybe I am just being lazy today.

The Writing Process » Final Papers » Memoir Final Paper, take 2

Memoir Paper 2

WC: 1,506

“…your own short memoir - a memoir which will take up a pivotal/transformative moment in your writing life.”

What?

“A pivotal moment in my writing life.” I can name plenty of pivotal moments in my life, but moments pertaining to my writing? Not so much. When I first read in our class syllabus that we would have a memoir assignment, I was thrilled. I’ve gained a substantial amount of life experiences in twenty years, a lot more than most people my age. I’m an old soul. I was excited to get this opportunity to tell people part of my story. This was my chance to really explore an emotional event in my life. Then, once we got the assignment, it was as if someone had burst my balloon: “a pivotal/transformative moment in your writing life.” My writing life, I thought to myself: what on earth am I supposed to talk about? The fact that I’ve had some fairly crappy English teachers in my life, that I am still struggling with confidence issues surrounding my ability or inability to write well, that this particular writing process class has both excited and frustrated me?

I really, really struggled with this paper. It’s Tuesday night, and I tried all last week to come up with something amazing. But nothing seems to stick out. Then, I had a conversation with my parents one day over Spring Break as I was sitting downstairs staring, once again, at that haunting blank white Microsoft screen. My mom read over the assignment quickly, then said excitedly, “Kels! You should be happy, this is great! You can do so much with this! You could talk about being diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder when you were only ten, or later on in high school when we realized you also had attention deficit disorder; you can talk about your sports injuries or struggling with depression; you can talk about how your middle school experience was…this is a great assignment for you!”

“Mom. Read it again. Slowly.”

“I did! A pivotal moment in your…oh, your writing life. Well, that changes it.” Then, after a pause, “What about Mr. Maskowitz? He was a great English teacher, he had a huge effect on you.”

“Waskowitz, Mom. Mr. Waskowitz.”

I had a teacher in the seventh and eighth grade, Mr. Waskowitz. We did a lot of really interesting things in his class; he was the one who first introduced me to Shakespeare. We read Romeo and Juliet. Mr. Waskowitz was somewhat pale, with balding black hair, and he had a tattoo on his ankle. I remember it being blue and blurry; it might have been an anchor. He always wore worn khaki pants that were rolled at his right ankle because he rode his bike to school. Mr. Waskowitz was important because he opened up the entire subject of English for me. Before him, English had been small writing samples, grammar, and vocabulary. All of a sudden, there was more to the subject. There was philosophy involved, there was thought and intelligence. English began to mean more than grammar exercises. It was in his class that I realized what the humanities were, and what the subject of English could encompass. During his class, I began to ask why. I wanted to know more. I wanted to challenge authority and convention. When discussing this with my Mom again over Easter weekend at home, she recalls, “It was the first time in a very, very long time, that I had seen you excited about something, about anything, and it was about your schoolwork and his class.” This was what the subject of English meant, and I discovered my love for it in Mr. Waskowitz’s class.

The pieces of writing we read in class were unexpected as compared to my former English classes. I was used to reading articles about how to properly structure sentences and how to configure our bibliographies into MLA format. The writings in Mr. Waskowitz’s class made me question the world I thought I knew. There were articles that changed how I understood the world. I remember one very well, a specific piece of writing we read, about how we constructed time. It was the first time I had been exposed to the theory of “nature versus nurture,” and it was a piece of writing that changed me.

The piece of writing discussed how when you’re a child, you live in a “once below a time” state, where time means sleeping or waking, playtime or snack time. There is then a crossing over from “below” and time to “upon” a time, where you cross from that child conception of time to the time we know as an adult. As an adult, time rules our everyday activities; we live and breathe by it. Time controls our adulthood. What would happen, can you imagine, if we let time get away from us? Meetings would take place at sunup, or sundown. We would sleep when we were tired, eat when we were hungry, and our lives would be decidedly different than we know them now. I think we would enjoy life more if we understood time always as we experienced it when we were children. Our existence would no longer be bogged down in the daily problems life presented us. Sadly, at only twelve, daily problems were almost all I knew. Every day at the time in my life could have focused on forcing myself to have something to eat and keep it down in my stomach instead of running to the bathroom afterwards, or trying to smile throughout the day when all I felt like doing was breaking down and crying, or even just trying to get out of bed in the morning. Struggle and sadness was what I knew, it was all I understood, and it was all that filled my world at every turn. But if our lives were always lived as “below a time,” it would be like living your whole life in the rare moments throughout the day where we finally felt at peace.

This one concept of time, this one piece of writing, this one English class completely changed me. It opened up my English experience; it made me love the subject. Simply put, Mr. Waskowitz’s seventh and eighth grade classes are why I became an English major. While I was at home, I ventured into the depths of the crawl space in my basement, clinging onto some hope that I had saved the piece of writing from this class. While I did not manage to save the article, I did find a report card from Mr. Waskowitz’s class. It was the only A that I received in seventh grade.

“Whether it was understanding the clashing perspectives of Romeo and Juliet’s sense of place, or the role of truth and justice in To Kill A Mockingbird, Kelsey has done quite well in comprehending the many voices that have spoken to this year’s over theme of A Sense of Place…She has consistently engaged herself in class discussions and has effectively questioned/challenged the complex concepts/ideas in an attempt to move beyond a mere literal interpretation of the text…Her lively presence and sense of humor always served to make each class exciting…I encourage Kelsey to read as much as possible over this summer, as she will discover she has much to offer next year in eighth grade…Again, a fine job, Kelsey.”

His praise of my work in class made me feel that I had some worth, that I was worth living. It made me feel I had something to offer the world, even if the world at that time meant my middle school classroom. This praise made me feel like a virtuous human being at a time when I was struggling with almost more problems than I could bear.

For me, in the hell that was middle school, I found solace in his class. It made me excited, and in a world where moments of excitement were few and far between for me, his class always had me wanting to do more. Middle school consisted of my parents and I dealing with a variety of issues: living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, starting medication for Depression, having Attention Deficit Disorder, coping with an undiagnosed form of an eating disorder, and effectively ending my AAU basketball career after having two surgeries to correct Compartment Syndrome in my right leg. At a time when I was struggling with many different issues, as middle school was undoubtedly the hardest time in my life so far, this one thing changed everything for me.

The most important influence this piece of writing had on me was that it got me to ask “why.” Mr. Waskowitz’s class, reading Romeo and Juliet and To Kill a Mockingbird, understanding that there was more to English than memorizing vocabulary and grammar; all of this was what I think was the most transformative moment in my English life, and therefore my writing life as well.

English 307 » Final Papers » Essay 3

Kristen Eno
April 9, 2008
Paper 3

Necessary Trust

To write, to read, two integrally dependent concepts. Without writers there would be nothing to read, thus no readers. But without readers, there would be no purpose to writing, no audience to write for, and thus no writers. And yet, especially in the English department, these two parties often come head-to-head, in direct opposition over whose interest is the most important, whose role should be favored above the other. Rather than looking at these two dependent groups as partners, parties that must work together in order for either to survive and flourish, academics tend to separate them into two different boxes, claiming that their interests are independent and diametrically opposed, and, in the end that this is well and natural and should remain so. However, if the reader cannot exist without the writer, and the writer’s work would be made irrelevant without the presence of a reader, then the natural conclusion would be that both are in some way invested in the other and have some sort of a responsibility to the other in order that each may survive in their own rite.

I am a writer; I give you my bias at the outset. But, being a writer, I have spent my fair share of enthrallingly invested time reading. They say that writers are born of readers, that a writer produces through the influence of what she has read. Robert Brooke goes as far as to say that a writer is built through the influence of who she has read. “Writers learn to write by imitating other writers, by trying to act like writers they respect” (23). The only way we writers are able to observe other writers, however, is through their texts. Thus, any writer, if she is going to “learn to write,” must be an invested reader. Through investment in and studying of the work of other writers, we can understand what is, who is, behind the text; and from there, how we can grow to develop those skills in our own writing. Thus writers make readers who make writers.

There is a certain kind of investment, though, in these kinds of readers. They are readers who are reading to write. They love the words, the phrases, the weight or the force or the lightness of what they read. These are the readers that Elbow celebrates, those who are “actually interested in what was on their [the writer's] mind, what they intended to say, reading for intention” (57). They read for meaning; they read to be swayed, moved, affected by the writer. They know the searching, the blank staring, the editing, the tweaking and reshaping that the writer has gone through, all in an effort to communicate this one image to her reader. They know this, and they read for it.

I pick up a book to read because I want to hear what the author wants to tell me. I know the style of Jane Austen; I know the voice of C.S. Lewis; I know the investment of J.R.R. Tolkien; and I want to read what they have put down on paper. They each have a story to tell; I want to hear it. When I like what I hear I come back again and again, drawn by the lure, the magic that they are somehow able to breathe into their words. I most often come away with the inspired bug to get writing. I want to write like that! And so, Brooke’s position is affirmed, that we admire a writer and strive to attain in our own writing that which he or she has attained in the works that we hold in such high esteem.

There are other kinds of readers, though. And this is where I come to the schism between readers and writers. You have just met the “writer-as-reader.” The other reader is not so sympathetic to the writer’s effort. I will call him “reader critic.” The reader critic reads with an agenda. Far from picking up a book with the invested, ready-to-be-pleased attitude that the writer-as-reader sympathetically adopts when approaching a text, the reader critic brings his own agenda, an aim to the work. It is more than the writer-as-reader’s investment, more than her desire to know what the author thought so important to share that she took the pains to translate it from its perfect meaning in her head into words transcribed on the page. It is other. The reader critic does not care for what these words once were, where they came from or to what they refer. For the reader critic, the text is there for the purpose of his aim. There is no meaning to be found, no direction or guidance from the author that the writer-as-reader allows herself to be carried by. There is simply text, words, words without meaning, words for which the reader critic takes it upon himself to construct a meaning. Writer’s intention? Written for a purpose? No, of course not! The only reason this text is here is so that I can exercise my authority, my assumptions, my experiences.

He then reads the text to suit, twisting, contorting, and “reading against the grain,” if that is what it takes. “It’s in the interest of the readers to say that the writer’s intention doesn’t matter or is undefinable, to say that meaning is never determinate, always fluid and sliding, to say that there is no presence or voice behind a text; and finally to kill off the author! This leaves the reader in complete control of the text” (Elbow, 75). In “complete control of the text,” he is constantly searching for an ulterior motive, underlying meaning, more than what it seems within the text itself, other than what the writer wrote to be read. Far from approaching a written work with a sense of responsibility to the writer, to be open to discover what the writer has written to be discovered, the reader critic often deliberately disregards the writer and posits his own interpretation as the “truth” (or at least a truth) of the text.

Now, do not misunderstand me: I do not hold that the true meaning, that image that the writer struggles to transcribe, can ever be fully experienced by the reader…any reader. The writer tries, she puts her all into the words that she is sculpting; she does her best and gets as close as she possibly can. The rest she entrusts into the hands of the reader, that if he would only give her his trust she would guide him to the closest knowledge possible of her meaning. Even then there will be a difference between the original image, the meaning that the writer seeks to make known, and words that the writer writes, and then also between those words and the meaning that the reader finds. The writer knows this; but, with the trust and sympathy of her reader, she feels that she can come close enough to the heart of her meaning to make it worth writing.

It takes this kind of investment on the writer’s part in her work to get her meaning to the page. It takes a measure of investment on the reader’s part for any of that meaning to reach anyone outside of the writer herself. Each party has a job, a responsibility to the other. A writer cannot write without the reader in mind. But a reader, being entrusted with the work of a writer, has the responsibility to the writer to make the concerted effort to read her words and not whatever he feels like inserting. The writer is there! And, as Elbow put it, “we have a better chance of being found if the searchers [readers] think we exist” (75).

Authorial intent has been a popularly discussed topic in literature classes. Most agree, as I have already posited, that it is impossible to ever perfectly understand the author’s intent. There is too much “outside” of the text and too much between the author and the reader for this to be possible. Where the reader critic and writer-as-reader knock heads is on the question, “Should we even try?” “Absolutely!” exclaims the writer-as-reader. What other reason do we have for reading a text if not to enjoy and glean from what the author has written? But the reader critic argues that, since we cannot truly understand what the author meant, then the best way to approach a text is to assume that there is no meaning except what he chooses to impose.

Bartholomae argues in favor of this critical reading, that students “can learn to feel and see their position inside a text they did not invent and can never, at least completely, control” (65). It is this critical, searching for a meaning, their meaning in a text, rather than finding a meaning, the meaning of a text. Bartholomae extends this idea to an even greater stretch by asserting that this is how one should write as well as read, that the meaning must be sought and constructed through outside sources, through the meanings gleaned from others, rather than creating a meaning in the text that you produce. It cannot be yours; it must be other. Writing cannot belong to you; it must belong to other. I say “other” because, the way it is taught, the writing does not belong to the reader either. When reading is comprised of this “searching” for meaning, and “reading into” and “reading against the grain,” it is always in pursuit of some larger political statement. There is an intent; there is a design behind such an undertaking. Consider, if a reader does not pick up a book and read to understand the message, the meaning, that the author of said book intends for him to receive, then what does he read for? There must have been some aim that caused him to select the work in the first place. A reader has nothing to gain for himself from forcing a meaning onto a text unless it is to support or reinforce some other agenda. That agenda generally belongs to the larger political statement. He can and will read the feminist’s agenda of Rip Van Winkle, and the Marxist criticism in The Great Gatsby.

But why does he pursue these agendas? Where does he get them from, and what is he reading them for? It is academia that empowered and encouraged the reader to read for such a purpose. Rather than encouraging a reader to read and glean, academic teaching is encouraging him to read and twist, however necessary to come up with an interpretation that will support the aims that they are striving to indoctrinate into their students; thus academia, the academics are the ones who have created the reader critic. They teach him and direct him to construct a meaning that is not there. This reading, this meaning, does not belong to the reader, then; it belongs to the institution. Thus, no longer does the writer own her text, but neither does the reader own the text. No, the institution that drives the twisting owns the interpretation.

This is a very dangerous direction to pursue. By teaching that “the writer’s intention does not matter or is unfindable,” that “meaning is never determinate, always fluid and sliding,” academia strips the writer of any ownership of work. However, rather than giving this ownership to the reader, academics hold it for themselves first through creating the reader critic, and then through puppetering the reader critic’s interpretations by retaining the right to pronounce good and bad, right and wrong interpretations. This has far-reaching and powerful effects on the writing and reading world.

First, by stripping the writer of ownership of her text, you are making her of no consequence, basically telling her that she is not important. “Thank you for producing this work. Stunning job! Now you can go away and we will take it from here. No, we don’t need to know what you see as the important aspects of what you have written; it is ours now, and we will take it, cut it up, rearrange it, and make out of it what we see fit. You are no longer needed. Thank you very much.” If such an attitude continues, then writers will eventually take it to heart and disappear. No one can keep face in light of such use; if writers are to continue to be so miserably treated, they will eventually remove themselves from the reach of such treatment and stop writing altogether, at least, stop allowing their work to be used so.

The other result of this push to read the academic’s interpretation, to be the reader critic, is the disablement of the reader. Having been trained to scrutinize, to manipulate, the reader will be made unable to find the writer’s meaning in the text, for, he can only discover such a meaning through a measure of openness and trust. Training that trust out of him, in effect, trains out of him the ability to read and replaces it with the skill to distort. This leads, if you follow it through, ultimately to enforced ignorance of any intended interpretation.

Academics may see no problem with that when it comes to reading and interpreting novels and creative writing and personal writing, all that which Elbow posits as integral to the developing of a strong and sure writer (I have already made known the problem that we writers see in this type of reading), but what about when it comes to “academic” writing? What about “scholarly” writing? What about research papers? When a reader is taught that there is no original meaning and no intended interpretation of a text (that is, of a creative text, of course), then what is to stop him from applying this to those instructional and authoritative texts that he is assigned with the intention of imparting a certain knowledge to him? There can no longer be a correct reading, a correct understanding of any written work if once the meaning of the author is disregarded.

This issue, hotly debated among academics, college professors, and readers and writers in general, is, when it comes down to it, the heart of the issue, one that determines the survival or death of written work. A writer writes because she holds something in her mind that is important enough to force its way onto the page. I, a writer, am invested in what I write, I esteem it enough to take and submit it to the scrutiny of others. I know that it is an imperfect representation of what I was trying to communicate, but I feel that it is close enough that someone who picks it up and reads it will find something of what I am trying to impart. I counts on a certain amount of trust from you, my reader. I need that trust, that little bit of faith that the reader gives me, to allow my story to find a hold. Without this trust my work ceases to be my work. Without this trust the relationship between me, the writer, and you, the reader, connected by these words ceases to be. Without this trust, a writer simply cannot continue writing. If the reader ceases to read my words, then I am not writing for anyone at all.

Paper #3

Is This Writing?

There are all kinds of writers: fiction, non-fiction, memoir, technical, creative - the list goes on. But what about the people who keep journals, or write comic sections in the newspapers? Aren’t they considered writers, too? I would say that they are, but I also know that there are those who would argue against that opinion because those are not “formal” types of writing. In an academic setting, formal writing is associated with good writing. But the question becomes, what is good and bad writing, and who decides? Is it only based on formality, or are there other aspects involved? I think these are questions that many people, particularly students, try to find an answer to. I think professors have a lot of power in this area, since they are the ones who assign and then grade our papers. I feel like they have conventions that they are looking for, which usually differs from teacher to teacher. I have learned that one of the ways to be the most successful in writing is by adapting to a teacher’s individual preferences. For instance, I have had professors who do not like the use of adverbs, contractions, first person, etc. And there are others who prefer some of these mechanics, because they individualize and define a person’s writing. Altering my writing techniques somewhat to conform to a teacher’s specific style has become imperative in order to receive a high grade. Professors have their own ideas about what they believe is right and wrong in writing. In high school, for example, we were taught about academic writing - how to write research papers, how to think critically about writing, how to respond to another piece of writing, etc. In English 101, it was the same thing. It wasn’t until I got to Writing Process that I was taught about something other than “academic writing.” There is such a thing as a voice other than the teacher’s, and it’s okay to experiment with different writing styles. Freewriting has also been encouraged in this class, as a way to get initial ideas down on paper. In his book Writing Without Teachers, Peter Elbow discusses the process of freewriting. It was a term that I had heard of, but never actually had experience with it until this semester. The rules are simple: write for a certain amount of time, without stopping, to get your ideas down on paper. I feel like that process is more common sense than others, because it allows for the flow of ideas as they come, not starting with the “finished product.” And yet, I had never experimented with it before this class. So many times in high school, for instance, we were given a paper topic and then told to write out some sort of sentence outline in a certain amount of time, and then it was graded to make sure we were on the right track. Most of the time, I got a zero on those assignments, because I never had anything written down. I have some sort of processing learning disability, and it takes me a long time to articulate my thoughts - spoken or written. It was for this reason that I was so relieved when I learned that freewriting was acceptable. I am able to get out ideas that I didn’t even know existed, and if they don’t make a lot of sense at first, that’s okay. You have to start somewhere, right? Freewriting has also been helpful to keep my true voice in my writing. Unfortunately, I think that it is ingrained into us from a young age what “good” writing is, and freewriting is a newer method that is not widely accepted. I don’t really blame my teachers, because they were taught the same thing. But conforming to their writing styles is expected, which also contributes to the lack of voice in most of my writing. Since my papers were always edited by my professors, it was their voices that wound up coming out of the paper, not mine. Freewriting has shown me that letting my own voice come through in my writing is acceptable and a way to make a piece my own. This is easier in a more personal piece, of course, because you are able to use your own examples, but it is still possible in academic papers, too. In his article “A Problem with Writing (about) ‘Alternative’ Discourse,” Sidney Dobrin discusses the idea of a hybrid discourse, which is an academic discourse combined with a new or alternative discourse. However, while he argues that all discourse is hybrid, he also argues that it is academic at the same time. I don’t completely agree with this statement, but understand where he is coming from. From the time we are young, we’re taught about writing, but are constrained by the “academic” aspect of it. For instance, one could argue that writing a paper for an English course in Black Vernacular English instead of “standard” English is an example of a hybrid discourse, because it is combining a speech style that is characteristic to a group of people with the academic aspect of it being a college paper. But unfortunately, that is probably an unacceptable way to write in many academic setting, because it is not considered “formal.” For reasons like that, I have always struggled with the idea of alternative writing styles. I’m not very creative in the first place to come up with one, but I think that I would be too scared to try anything extreme in the first place. Because what happens when a teacher doesn’t see it as trying something new, and instead thinks of it as not completing the assignment correctly? I don’t think it is something that is very widely accepted. I have never really been able to experiment with different writing styles other than the standard “academic” for fear of receiving a bad grade. This “bad grade fear” extends past the traditional classroom. For example, in Prince William County, where I attended high school, we were required to write a research paper in eleventh grade. It is a really big deal, because if you don’t pass, then you are not eligible to graduate; and you have to keep revising the paper until you pass. The papers are sent out somewhere to be scored by “professionals” of some sort who evaluate the paper based on your thesis and supporting research, style, mechanics, and the classic format of an intro, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. We never even saw our papers after they were sent out; we just received our scores. But who are these people? I know that they have been trained in what to look for, but are they writers themselves? Teachers? Graduate students? If these scorers are fellow writers, I think they should understand the fact that everyone who turns writes this paper is conforming to an unnatural writing style, and is restricted in so many ways. And this of course affects the final product because the writer is not present in the paper as a person with a voice, just a generic writer. This might sound like a stretch, but I think of writing with my voice as a sort of alternative writing style. Throughout high school and college, I have never had experience with the concept of voice; I have always been required to integrate so many quotes that my papers sound like someone else wrote them or have had to edit my papers specifically to a professor’s suggestions. Either way, my voice has always been lost along the way to the final paper. Elbow’s concept of freewriting has shown me that I have my own ideas and a voice to go with them, and it is acceptable for both to come through in my writing. And this doesn’t mean that “good” writing is not presented; rather, it makes the final product personal, and the writer is heard in his writing.

into the air » Final Papers » Writing is Communicating: Using the Conversational Voice

Writing is Communicating: Using the Conversational Voice

What is writing? Is it this – right now? The characters I’m typing on the page to form words that you, the reader, can… well, read. Or is writing something different? I think every person perceives writing differently (hence, we develop writing styles). I used to think that writing – the “good kind,” at least – entailed having a spiritual connection with one’s words when writing them. My idea of writing had a sort of mystical appeal in this way, in that I believed some kind of inexplicable internal force was responsible for producing good writing. This force would overcome me during my writing process, like having a tiny articulate author in my head who emerged from his artistic café every so often to write papers. Have you ever experienced this? Well now, thinking about it, the idea of having a spiritual relationship with words on a page seems pretty silly to me. Seriously, consider it… it’s a relationship between a living, breathing being and thousands of inanimate characters on a page of paper. Stuck in place. Unchangeable… unless you have liquid White Out or a red pen. Or a lighter. How can we experience something spiritual with tiny black squiggles on a piece of paper? The idea seems ludicrous. They can’t talk back. They can’t criticize. They don’t even breathe. So, if this deep spiritual connection between the author and his words doesn’t exist, then how can we define writing?

Now, we have a problem. As writers, if we can’t have these living, breathing relationships with our words, then we potentially have been writing aimless, inane, and empty words for years. In which case, is everything we are writing entirely void of emotion or clarity? Is there a point to writing at all? The answer to this second question is yes, of course we write for a reason. And to the former question, no, to be completely devoid of emotion or clarity in all aspects of our writing would define one extreme end of a writing spectrum. The other end of the spectrum is the complete spiritual connection and congruency between us and our words on the page. Both situations present extremes in writing. Both are pretty unrealistic, and so, I find that all writers fall somewhere in the middle of the writing spectrum.

The type of writing that falls in the middle can encompass anything from academic writing to creative writing to writing using your “voice.” There are so many writing styles that exist in the middle range of the spectrum; but, the one I’m talking about emphasizes a vital concept that writers often miss: communication. Communication is the act of giving or exchanging information, by means of words, body language, or the lack of either of these in some situations. Communicating is what we should be doing when we’re writing.

Well that makes sense, right? Aren’t we already communicating when we write? The answer again is yes, but the focus is now on how we communicate. We should not be just forming words on the page for the sake of forming them; it should be an intentional process. We should consider what we are saying to the person on the other side of the paper. Ideally, our words will resonate with the reader because they will seem conversational to him; in a sense, the reader will be able to hear our voice in the paper. What do I mean by voice? I’m not necessarily discussing same voice that Peter Elbow describes in his argument for writing with voice. Not exactly that voice, but a conversational voice. Allow me to elucidate…

If we are actively communicating our thoughts – actively considering the way we communicate – our natural, conversational voice will emerge. This voice is the one you would use in conversation on a daily basis. It is uninhibited, unlimited, and bare. The one that you probably wouldn’t give much of a second thought to, because it’s yours… and you use it all the time. When your conversational voice emerges in writing, it’s engaging and captivating because it actually speaks to the reader. Your words will flow smoothly to the reader’s ears, like he is drinking a tall, refreshing glass of water. The reader feels like they are being spoken to with ease, not condescended on… and that can be pretty refreshing after reading more difficult pieces of work.

Now that we understand voice, we should be able to communicate with it easily in our writing, right? Not exactly… Conversational writing isn’t the easiest form of writing to conquer at first; especially if we, as students, are used to writing academic-sounding papers. You know… the elitist kind with big words and abstract theories? Sometimes not the easiest material to decipher – for you as the writer or the reader. In order to write conversationally, we have to be uninhibited in our writing. Essentially, we should be able to think thoughts and produce them articulately on the page (and by articulately, I don’t mean perfectly, but in the way we intend to). To be able to communicate with the person who is living, breathing, reading on the other side of the page. We might think of the paper and the words as the soundproof glass between a prisoner and his or her family member during visiting hours. Not that the writer is a prisoner, but consider the scenario at hand. The phone we use to talk to the person on the other side of the glass is our writing device, our hands and pen. But we are sitting there, in orange jump suits, staring directly into the eye of our reader. Communicating, breathing, seeing the person on the other side of the conversation.

Okay, so we’re aware that there’s someone else out there. Someone is reading this. Right now. What’s next? Well, how do we write conversationally? The main characteristics of conversational writing are that it is uninhibited, free-flowing, and to-the-point. The hardest of these characteristics to obtain or understand is the idea that our writing is uninhibited. By uninhibited, I don’t necessarily mean stream-of-consciousness, but our ability to directly put our thoughts on paper without trying to mute the sound of our conversational voice before our fingers touch the keyboard or pen. Essentially, it would sound just like talking on paper. Seems easy, right? Yes, but this type of writing takes practice to get the feel of it. To practice, you can try a technique like Elbow’s free-writing, where you write your thoughts out aimlessly onto the paper or the computer screen. In this method, you are simply writing everything that comes to mind down on paper; so, your thoughts are actually on paper. By regularly communicating your thoughts directly onto paper, you will become less inhibited in your manner of conversational writing.

There are a couple of characteristics of language to keep in mind while writing conversationally. When communicating in this way, simplicity is key. I agree with Elbow in this manner – we don’t need to use huge words or academic language to get our point across. In fact, that kind of distracts from the overall point because as readers, we’re trying too hard to bite the big words. Think about it this way… we’ll use steak orders as an example. Most people use common everyday language when conversing with the people around them, which we can dub as medium-cooked steak. It’s much rarer that you would hear someone dropping something like “antidisestablishmentarianism” into their every day conversation. We can dub this kind of talk as “well-done” steak. Which one is easier to chew? The one that’s been well overdone or the one that everyone can pretty much sink their teeth into? I don’t want to “hate” on the wordy types, i.e. academics, show-offs, etc. Cause hey, “here here” to them if they have friends with whom they can use boisterous words, but using flashy words can burn the ears of any reader. The more simple language and syntax you use as a writer (like you would in a conversation) the easier it will be for the reader to understand what you are saying. You will communicate more effectively and more comfortably because it will seem like the reader is just hearing everyday conversation.

Ultimately, the choice is up to you, the learning writer. This is what we do as writers – we try different methods and see if the shoe fits, to be cliché. We don’t have to conform to a certain category all of the time in our writing; and writing doesn’t have to be a spiritual experience in order for it to be good writing. I often find though that if our writing is speaking to the reader from the page, we have accomplished something.

With conversational writing, the goal is to effectively communicate to the reader, to exchange information. Now, the conversation may not seem whole, because the reader may not have the opportunity to give information back to the writer. However, he has the opportunity to interpret the form of communication in whatever way he would like to. That can be intimidating for us as writers; but, the important thing to focus on is whether or not we are actively, effectively communicating to the person on the other side of the glass. If we are aware of what we are saying in our writing, then I think our goal has been reached. We don’t have to edit every single word that goes onto the page; but, I think we should be aware of the conversation we are having with the reader. If we always acknowledge the fact that we are communicating a specific message to a reader as we write, the words we are writing will feel more natural. As conversational writers, we will be more comfortable and confident with our thoughts sitting on the page, waiting anxiously for a reader to see them.

Paper 3: One Last Animal Metaphor

Writing is a fickle thing. Sometimes the idea for it can be so true, so real in the writer’s mind, that to think that he could not commit those thoughts to paper seems preposterous. But that isn’t how it works, not always; sometimes nothing happens, and sometimes something else happens; sometimes it’s something wonderful, and sometimes it…isn’t. At times like those I wish for something to help guide me, like the Muses guided ancient craftsmen. But these days we cram into little rooms while a faux-Muse dispenses questionable wisdom, and then in the evening wonders how we could possibly do it any better. I wonder if the Muses laugh at our struggle. One final paper - one more foray into the world of composition theory - did not seem like too much to ask. I had a topic all picked out; several, in fact, in case my first choice - the relationship between the writer, the reader, and the text, and who decides what that text means - didn’t pan out. I had - still have - plenty to say on the topic. However, as I sat down to write the paper, I found myself staring at the page before me, unsure of where to begin. Except I was sure! I knew what I wanted to say! So…why wouldn’t the words appear? Why could I not will them into being like in the past? I worked myself up into quite a funk over this, but the paper had to be done, so I couldn’t look away, as if I were witness to someone kicking a puppy; it was something so horrible that I hated to look upon it, but that same horror demanded my attention. Looking back, as this class has gone on, I have found each successive writing assignment - by no fault of its own - a greater labor, a more extreme effort than the last. The first paper flowed onto the page as if by magic, easier than most of the papers I have written in my years at Mary Washington. The second paper and my article presentation were tremendous efforts to produce. This paper, true to that pattern, very nearly did me in. I didn’t, as I’ve said, lack ideas or ability or time; I lacked something else. It’s as if there existed a barrier between me and the page, something that kept me from being able to put words on it. My thoughts allowed themselves to emerge verbally, fully-formed (which is my euphemistic way of saying I was talking to myself), yet staunchly refused to congeal into anything coherent in writing. In essence, I couldn’t find the words. By that point I could practically hear Peter Elbow screaming, “Freewrite! Freewrite!” That is, in fact, precisely what I did on the first paper, to fairly good effect, if I do say so myself (and I do say so). And in an almost Pavlovian fashion, I tried freewriting, but couldn’t go for more than a few minutes. Freewriting, it seems, is not the answer to all of the writer’s problems. This, then, is where I must diverge from Elbow. Much as I appreciate the idea of voice, I simply cannot agree with the freewriting philosophy. For me, writing doesn’t work that way. I cannot make myself write with great efficiency (I can, however, make myself complain on paper with at least moderate efficiency). Writing - especially “voiced” writing - seems to be one of those things that must be seized when it raises its head above the grass. We’ve got no other recourse besides lying in wait for it, setting clever little traps or just outright stalking it, until we see our moment to strike. That perfect, sublime moment, when the writer knows he’s got something. The words, however, are an elusive quarry; they either fall directly into the trap, or deftly escape unscathed. There is little middle ground. This process is reminiscent of Richard Graves’s extensive efforts to get the writing just right. To extend the hunting metaphor (I’m using a lot of predatory metaphors of late; I wonder what that says about me), Elbow, with his freewriting, his active pursuit of The Words, enjoys the thrill of the chase; Graves is more meticulous, with his fine-grained editing and re-editing, a stalker who examines his prey, learns its strengths and weaknesses, and finally strikes with terrible efficiency when he knows, for sure, that nothing can go wrong with his plan; and I, for example, am much more seat-of-the-pants, darting after what I can get, what I stumble upon, but sometimes deciding that Elbowian pursuit or Gravesian planning simply aren’t worth it. Peter Elbow explains writing as something that must be worked on and developed as a skill; he’s a writer who resembles, in this, an Olympic athlete, training day in and day out with little exercises that may not resemble the end result much at all, but ultimately serve to improve that result. This is a great idea in principle, but how many people have time to actually make the effort so often? I wish I did, but I don’t, and if I did I sadly admit that it probably wouldn’t be used writing. Elbow’s detractors point to his idea that “anyone” can be a “writer,” even if that writing is as simple as a grocery list or notes in a daily planner. But his own methodology requires some real commitment; it’s not get-rich-quick scheme, nor does Elbow really push it as such. Elbow couples his relative optimism about the identity of the writer - yes, even you can be one! - with the dismal prospect of churning out complete junk for it’s own sake. This is self-help for writers, but the very nature of self-help implies that the patient - the writer - exists in a vacuum, alone. This notion I cannot accept. Meanwhile, Graves strikes a better chord with me. He likens writing to dancing, and I know a few steps myself (certainly more in the writing realm than on an actual dance floor!). His process is more focused on a single objective, or at least that’s what I gather. However, he more deeply explores that objective, that topic, with his multiple rewritings, than I feel like I could ever stomach. I am easily distracted by the Next Idea; if The Words to the old one are hiding from me well enough, I’ll move on and lament the missed opportunity later. The problem here, of course, is that Graves, like Elbow, requires the writer to work the dance floor constantly, like a pro (or like someone trying to be a pro), while waiting for the next partner. Does this not create a result similar to Elbow’s ideas? Where Elbow assumes that the writer must be a loner, Graves must assume that the writer simply can’t get a date. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have to sit around and wait for the next dance; he could just suggest it at will. I know of no two writers who do their hunting in the same fashion, and maybe that, in the end, is why Elbow and Graves and, I would guess, others assume a solitary process. This works fine, certainly, if you’re at the top of the proverbial food chain, or if you employ the right strategies; Edward Corbett, for example, through his emphasis on imitative writing, inhabits our writing savanna as a scavenger, nipping at the heels of the masters of the land and picking at the scraps. Of course, Corbett believes that this is how things should be done, and wouldn’t have a writer try to take down the next prey; he insists upon following the lions without really caring to become one. This does, to me, beg the question: what point is a writing class? Certainly, a class like ours can be interesting and useful, but this is because of its more survey-like nature; we’ve covered enough different scholars that we’ve hit several angles on writing, and everyone is bound to take something from this class - be it freewriting, voice, or a general detestation for everything composition. Beyond that, however - and this is a reason I’ve regularly dodged creative writing classes - what can a writing class do? What are the odds that a single class could serve multiple writers in any profound fashion? After all, if you stick some lions, a few tigers, maybe a wolf, a pack of hyenas, three vultures, seventeen alligators, and a rattlesnake in a room, there will be more than a few carcasses left over at the end. Assuming that “conventional” classrooms aren’t especially fit for writing instruction (much less storage of live animals), we can move to our scholars again for some direction. Peter Elbow offers the most tantalizing option: the teacherless writing class, in the aptly-named Writing Without Teachers. Elbow spends a significant portion of the book explaining such a class and how it would work. The idea is based upon the theory that a group of writers can teach each other better than a teacher can teach a group of students to write. More precisely, by creating a collaborative environment where everyone participates in regular workshopping, the teacherless writing class helps writers see how their work is received and then teach themselves how to change it, through trial and error. This is, perhaps, closer to the right direction - working with other writers always feels most correct to me, and I know from experience that I cannot do anything as long term as Graves (for example) without someone(s) else to fuel me with their comments along the way. Without that input, I lose steam. Problematically, however, Elbow’s teacherless writing class violates Graves general plan of striking while the iron is hot; the class requires writing for every session, and though it can be anything, this still creates a deadline. Deadlines, I think, are deadly to a writer. They are a fact of life for many professional writers, a necessary evil, but in my mind they are restrictive and damaging to the process. I believe that writing is a singular event, an experience, which cannot be rushed or forced; traditional classes certainly cross the line, and the teacherless writing class would at least skirt it. Instead, I posit that writing is best entertained not through a class, but through (and I’ll bring back the predator metaphor now; I was starting to miss it) a sort of “pack mentality.” Rather than writing in isolation, writing alongside other writers produces the best results. This gives each writer an audience as well as a colleague, a companion, a brother-in-arms. This camaraderie, forged from the shared experience of pursuing and battling for The Words, allows a learning community to arise, even if it is only a community of two. A community of more is probably better, of course. This model works, I believe, because writing is never in true isolation. The writer must always be aware of a reader at the very least, even if that reader is himself. Ignoring this fact is like ignoring that treacherous, pen-wielding leopard-writer over there who happens to be eying the same idea/gazelle-thing as you. Blink and you might miss it. This “pack” should be a diverse bunch - too many writers of the same breed will only crowd each other and encourage repetition and homogeny. Yes, this means what you think: a writing class is almost certainly an excellent example of such a community. With the pack thus formed, it needs a leader, the proverbial “alpha” (though such a position certainly doesn’t have to be held by a male in the “writing pack”). Luckily, writing classes tend to have professors in them (yes, those things I so scathingly labeled “faux-Muses” way back in the first paragraph). This is starting to look like a regular writing class again, isn’t it? Obviously, then, I don’t propose to do away with writing classes. However, I think that talking about how to teach writing, beyond the technical level, is an exercise in futility; the writer must run off of a mix of instinct and self-discovery. As with most anything, this process is eased by having companions for the journey, packmates who can help set up skillful ambushes for The Words which can be so difficult to catch. Writing education should not, therefore, be a hierarchy, with a teacher and students; it should instead be a community of equals, for even the most experienced of us can stand to learn something. We should not be wondering about the techniques of the professor, but the role of the professor: a director, a guide, but also, and most importantly, a comrade, who has just as powerful a need to eat as the rest. End this classical masquerade and join the hunt!

Paper 3

The Voice Line

This year I was introduced to the concept of having voice in my papers. This didn’t include voice in just creative writing papers, but in my academic ones as well. Finally it was justified to put myself in a paper in a way that the reader could really know it was me and connect not only with my topic, but with me as well. A writer’s voice is in essence them on a page. However the idea of voice in a paper still leads me to the question of how much voice is too much? In his book Writing Without Teachers Peter Elbow discusses the obstacles that a person faces when writing, especially when they begin to write. He states that “Trying to begin is like being a little child who cannot write on unlined paper” (28). I realize that this quote is pointing to the issues of starting a piece of writing, but this is how I feel now when I want to put voice into a paper. Somehow I have to have my reader know it is me in my paper. As hard as I try sometimes I feel as though my lines run all over the place, like a child’s lines would on a piece of computer paper. Will anyone know it is me? All I can visualize is me standing in the middle of a blank page, about an inch tall, yelling to the reader “Hey you, it’s me Caitlin here, can you hear me?” This is an issue many writers feel, particularly in any form of academic writing. Personally I enjoy writing critiques on books and studying other scholars works to see what they thought on a topic then bringing their ideas into my argument to support it. I always wondered how these scholars kept “I” in their essays and felt comfortable with it. I have been taught to not use “I” in my academic papers; supposedly it makes them weaker. Why though? Shouldn’t this make my paper stronger, more emotional and thus more powerful? To some people it might, to others it makes the paper weak. I feel as though I just want to have people who think having an “I” here and there in a ten page paper makes it weak to realize that a person’s voice is more powerful than anything and keeping it alive in a paper is crucial. This leads to my issue though, how much voice is too much in a paper? Peter Elbow tells his audience to free write everyday and just how important that practice can be. This made me wonder though, if I want to have my real, true voice in my paper, I wonder what my readers would think if they knew the other thoughts going on in my mind while I was writing, almost as though they could hear my inner free writing voice. I think about a lot of things while writing and it is just another part of my voice. Would it be so terrible to have people truly know what is going on in my mind? For example, at this very moment I could really go for a Fuji apple right now. I really want one, I should go to the store later and get some, mmmmmm. That’s my real voice. I am, at this very moment, craving an apple. Whether my readers want to know this or not, it is my voice, it is truly me at this very moment. Things like this make me realize that voice can be taken in so many different ways. I write in certain ways, but I speak in completely different ways. Should I really write the way that I speak so my inner voice comes through? If I really wrote that way, my paper would have an overabundance of voice that would make not only myself, but probably everyone who read the paper want to swear then throw my paper to the ground and stomp on it. So what should be the limit? Some believe almost any bit of personal voice in a paper is wrong and doesn’t need to be taught. David Bartholomae, in a response to Peter Elbow’s book, says that he “would rather teach or preside over a critical writing, one where the critique is worked out in practice, and for lack of better terms I would call that writing, “academic writing” ” (71). Voice has no place in academic writing to Bartholomae; it is a long practiced and solid form of writing that does not need to be changed. Why is academic writing so precious to so many people? The world, particularly the academic world, would be quite the boring place if everyone was always taught the same way with the same techniques. The issue still stands though, clearly having no voice at all is not a logical solution, but where is the line to be drawn on voice. Depending on the person though and the audience they are writing for, the line may change drastically. Your own voice will set your own voice line in many situations. What happens when someone tells you not to include voice? If a teacher demands purely academic writing and a lack of voice for a good grade, is it really a good idea to push boundaries and possibly sacrifice a better grade? To put it simply, yes, it really is. If everyone wrote without some form of their own voice imbedded in their pieces, all writing would be dry and tedious to read. Even though a certain piece of writing may only exist within that class, it is worthwhile to go beyond the rules and put yourself in your writing. So just how far should a person push that voice line? This is clearly a line that has to be drawn on a case to case basis. Who am I to say where a person should have that line? Who is anyone to really say where a person’s “voice line” should be drawn? The line falls into the hands of the writer. Some people may graze the line, but not quite put a toe over it and others may take a running leap over it and hope to land on their feet instead of thudding to the ground on their butts. Everything from word choice to the placement of particular arguments reveals a person’s voice. For instance, I like to lead off a paper with some weaker, less supported ideas and end with a bang. I was taught in middle school to keep my strongest ideas in the middle of the paper, but that just wasn’t me. Why should I let my arguments taper off? I said screw it and wrote how I wanted to in high school in terms of the placement of my arguments and I did just fine. My voice was a bit of a mouse squeak back then, and it has slowly become more of a slamming door ever since. Through reading Peter Elbow it is clear that voice is a crucial element in any piece of writing. Too much voice however can lead to a paper that is filled with more emotion and empty sentences then support and facts. The paper itself will draw the line. Depending on the topic and the mood a person is feeling while they are writing will help form their line for that particular paper. Free writing to your readers when they want to know why your ideas are pertinent to the conversation would clearly be pushing the line too far, but adding a few “I know” and “I believe” here and there couldn’t ruin an entire paper. So just how far should you push your voice line? It really depends on who you are and where your own voice takes you.

Going Old School

The boundaries of “academic discourse” are extremely blurry. Not all “school” work counts. In fact, as a student, I have never really considered my work as a part of the conversations taking place in academia. My term papers were written for grades. Often they simply supported some other argument I found in an article on the topic I had chosen. Until now, with the assignment of joining in on the scholarly fun, it did not even seem like my works were a part of academia, but rather a part of my academic career, aside from all the real scholars and their journal articles.

As I reconsider what is considered as academic discourse (since I doubt my work is) I wonder what does count. Who gets to join the conversation and what are they saying? I think I need to break this down. Let’s start with “what is a discourse community?” (since academia is one). Luckily, Patricia Bizzell has written an article answering that very question. In her article “What Is a Discourse Community,” Bizzell points out that there have been no clear definitions of what constitutes a discourse community. Her “tentative definition” calls discourse community “a group of people who share certain language-using practices (Bizzell, 222).” That phrasing brings me back to last semester’s Introduction to Sociolinguistics where I looked at and studied speech communities (even before Bizzell mentions the connection). That is a good start, but I sense that academic discourse has more to it. It is true that the members of a discourse community must share common language practices, of course, but what do they talk about? Bizzell refers to John Swales and seems to answer this question as well. Swales’ definition of discourse community, as paraphrased by Bizzell, is “a social group using language to accomplish work in the world (Bizzell, 225)” (my emphasis). Whether this is true of all discourse communities, I am unsure, but what becomes clear is that it rings true of academic discourse. Academic discourse is not only a style of writing shared among scholars, but is a conversation among scholars who are all striving to find the best, truest, or most effective theories in their fields. In the case of Bizzell, Swales, and Peter Elbow (who I will get to soon), the theories apply to composition. The scholars in the field of composition studies converse about discourse. They strive to find the best, truest, and most effective ways to write both outside of and within academic discourse. This is obviously problematic. Remember in high school and certain college courses when papers were down-graded for using non-Standard English, not “developing” your argument or using enough supporting details? The composition scholars argue whether or not those constraints are vital to “good” writing in the ways English teachers claim they are. The views of what constitutes “good” writing are being challenged and new ideas about how and what to write are being placed on the table. People are eating it up, too. While these scholars argue about the ways in which writing should be taught, I am being introduced to both ends of the spectrum. My entire academic career through my junior year in college consisted of being presented with the various ways to build an effective persuasive paper. In the past two semesters, however, I have been exposed to these composition scholars who have turned my thoughts in all directions. Now I have received my first formal invitation into the conversation; in fact, I am being forced to by an assignment. The question is, how can someone like me, not even a part of the academic discourse community, now confused about what counts as “good” writing, even begin to join in? After some reviewing of the material I have to work with, I made a decision that even surprised myself. I am going to work against my recent instincts, against much of what I have read from the conversation, and argue for making clear and concise arguments the “it” factor for writing well.

It has always been my understanding that academic discourse is one in which authors write with purpose; the goal is to make a point or opinion to sway the audience (other scholars and the general society). While I must admit I was fascinated by the composition scholars and their deviant theories, I still hold that a well designed argument is what will persuade the masses. In reading the various opinions on what should be taught in writing classes I found that the more “alternative” a discourse or style was, the more I wondered how credible the author was. It was the fanciful language, outrageous ideas and vigor with which they wrote that drew me in, but those same qualities left me with the sense that I had not learned anything from their pieces. I was unable to take meaning and understanding from the essays. There are negative consequences that come with experimentation, pushing the boundaries, and being innovative, the most glaring of which is not being able to connect with your audience and make the point you are striving for. As this realizations surfaced, I immediately thought of Peter Elbow’s “Writing With Power,” especially the chapter titled Power in Writing. His theory of voice seems to eliminate all the rules and opens the floor to all possible variation, which I am cautioning against. Voice is “words that capture the sounds of the individual on the page (Elbow, 287).” Essentially, it is the written form of what would otherwise be spoken. Voice theory invites you to integrate all other discourse communities to which you belong, even including speech communities, into your writing, be it academic or otherwise. There is a peculiarity to the voice Elbow describes in that it sparks something in the reader, but is a product of the relationship between the words and their author. I struggle with this concept not because I do not understand it - as an English major I have read many excellent works chock full of voice - but I do not believe that voice holds the value Elbow places on it in all contexts. As with many of the composition scholars I have been studying, I quickly fell in love with Elbow’s voice theory. I wanted my writing to be powerful; I wanted people to recognize my writing as mine. So I free-wrote and I tried to be myself as much as possible. Not sure of how well I had done, I looked over my returned and graded paper and was mortified to find the phrase “run-on” scribbled on the page. Only a few semesters ago I taught a lesson to a group of sixth graders on how to avoid run-on sentences. Now I am writing them in college papers. Something went wrong here. While I think there is more to voice theory than “writing the way you talk,” this common conception of Elbow’s work causes problems. My “voice” when speaking is quick-paced, jumps from topic to topic easily and is often not well thought out. This is not what I like to portray in my writing, though. I am fully capable of thinking before producing language and filling in the gaps of my half-baked thoughts with outside support and I show this through academic writing. In trying to find my voice (which I hoped would increase the quality with which I wrote) I ended up losing several of the writing skills that I have prided myself on for years. Having a run-on sentence in a formal paper is not my voice. Despite my personal experiences with voice, I find that there are other ways in which the theory hinders a writer’s ability to give a clear argument. There is a fine line between putting your voice on the page in order to make a valid point and putting your voice on the page and calling it a valid point. Entitlement is something that all published authors no doubt feel from time to time, however, voice theory tells us that every person who writes is entitled to get their thoughts into the discussion. Not all opinions are useful in a conversation, no matter how real they are to the speaker. Likewise, not all voices are convincing, no matter how true or logical the points they make may be. In academic discourse, one that strives to build arguments for betterment, personal voices are not necessary and can prove to be detrimental to building a solid argument. The power that Elbow feels when reading a work composed with voice is one of fascination, similar to my fascination when reading Elbow and his colleagues. He is drawn in by the linguistic elements (which he cannot even describe). While reading language that is used masterfully, the reader is left with a sense of awe that is engaging, interesting, even fun; it is also distracting. Fanciful language can draw attention away from the meaning, the point. Think of the classic novels you have read and consider whether you found the underlying meanings on the first time through. If you are anything like me, it takes a couple readings (or a skilled literature professor) to pull the non-literal points from the text. Voice can be distracting in the same way. You read and appreciate the language without even realizing that you have missed the bigger picture, the statement the author was making. Voice does have a place in writing, even within academic discourse. However, it should not be on the top of the “what to do to be a ‘good’ writer” totem pole. A well laid-out argument can absolutely be enhanced with a splash of voice, and, as I noted above, great literature cannot be found without it. But it is important to realize that enjoyment is not the point of reading academic discourse and it is not persuasive. When writing within an academic conversation you want people to side with you, meaning they must believe in what you write. Believing does not step from enjoyment. I personally enjoy murder/mystery novels. The stories draw me in and I can read for hours without even realizing it. Nevertheless, I am never disappointed when the story does not make the front-page news. No matter how entrenched in a book I get, I do not believe in what the author has written. When reading the scholarly works on composition theory, despite the fact that I was often sucked in, it was hard to apply what I had read because I either simply could not remember what the point was or I was unconvinced of the practicality when I actually attempted to follow the theories. The power necessary to engage in the scholarly conversations of academia lies in the construction of text, not the fanciful use of language. By layering and converging bits of an argument, opinions, textual references, and new ideas, a clear and concise point can be displayed. Persuasive writing works in making the reader understand first, then believe. A good argument does both, but not every argument is good. There is a level of skill required to convince a challenging audience. The scholars of composition theory could argue about how to build the best argument until the end of time and never converge on one single answer. Still, when discussing academic discourse, I stick by traditional argument building as the best form of communication. Everyone will hear you clearly, whether they agree with you or not.
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