Several years ago, in a first year writing course, a student nervously approached me after class, asking if we could talk about her latest draft of a formal paper. She was worried about the content of the draft, about the fact that in writing about her writing process (the assignment for the paper), she found her tone to be at best frustrated, at worst grumbling and whiney. “I don’t really like writing. Is that okay?” she asked.
This is the first time that I remember a student confessing aloud (to me) that she did not like writing, and I remember struggling for an appropriate response—not because I couldn’t fathom how she had the gall to admit this to me, a writing teacher, but because I couldn’t understand why admitting to not liking writing worried her. In the next class, I asked my students if they liked writing. I heard a mixed response. I asked them if they assumed that someone like me, a writing teacher/scholar, always liked writing. The answer was a resounding “yes.” I rephrased, “So you believe that every day I skip gleefully to my computer?” Again, though giggling a bit, my students answered “yes.” And, at last, one student piped up to say, “Well, you’re good at it, right? I mean, that’s what makes you good at it.”
My student, quoted above, seems to suggest that I am good at writing because I like doing it. But I’d have to disagree on at least two points: First, I wouldn’t describe my feelings toward writing as being a “like” kind of thing. It’s more of an agonistic kind of thing. Second, I am not “good” at writing, if being good at it means that the words, the paragraphs, the pages come easily.
On the contrary, I believe that I write because I am driven to do so—driven by a will to write. By “will,” I mean a kind of purposefulness, propensity, diligence, and determination (which, I should mention, does not lead to perfection or ease . . . unfortunately). But, I should qualify this: the will to write is not innate for me, nor is it always readily available. In fact, the common assumption that a will to write must be both innate and stem from an ever-replenishing source never ceases to surprise (and annoy) me. I’ve worked with a lot of enviably brilliant and wonderful writers—teachers, students, scholars, and freelancers. I’ve yet to meet one who believes that she/he is innately and/or always a brilliant writer, nor have I met one who says she/he always wants to write.
And yet, I confess that I find myself to be genuinely surprised when some well-respected scholar in my field admits to struggling with his writing. For example, David Bartholomae (a very successful scholar in the field of Rhetoric and Composition) confesses that he didn’t learn to write until after he completed his undergraduate studies, and that he learned it through what must have been at least one particularly traumatic experience: his dissertation was rejected for being “poorly written” (22–23).
If at first glance the rejection of a dissertation means little to you, let me explain: imagine spending years (literally, years) on a piece of writing (a very long piece of writing), for which you’ve sacrificed more than you ever thought you’d sacrifice for anything (your time, your freedom, sleep, relationships, and even, at times, your sanity), only to have it rejected. And worse, it’s rejected for being “poorly written,” which is like being booted off of a pro-league baseball team for not being able to tie your shoes properly. We’re talking basics here, or so we (writers) like to think. And yet, if writing were nothing more than “practicing the basics,” why’s it so hard—hard even for one of the best of the best in my field?
It’s alarming how many great scholars have admitted to struggling with writing. Bartholomae is not the only one. In a rather famous admission, one of the “fathers” of the field of Rhetoric and Composition, Peter Elbow—the guy who put freewriting on the map, wrote one of the first book-length studies of the writing process, and has been the virtual MLK, Jr. for voice-in-writing (yeah, that guy)—dropped out of graduate school because he suffered so badly from writer’s block.
My own story of my frustrated struggle with writing is not nearly so heroic as Elbow’s or Bartholomae’s. I did not fight the dragon beasts of poor writing skills or writer’s block, return to the (writing) field as the victorious knight, and then settle in for a long, successful reign as one of the rulers of the land of Rhetoric and Composition. Rather, mine was (and, sometimes, still is) more Hamlet-like, more like a battle with a ghost—the ghost being the “Inspired Writer.”
The Inspired Writer, as I understand her/him, is a figure for whom writing comes easily—the sort of Romantic hero who writes purely out of an awe-full state, generating perfect prose without the frustrated process of revision (or failure). This Inspired Writer is everywhere, in all the great stories of great writers who were so full of “writerliness” that they were tormented by their need to write; they were relentlessly pursued by their muses . . . as was evidenced by their inked hands, tangled hair, ringed eyes, and profoundly watchful stares. They did not have to go crawling about in the muck of what-everybody’s-already-written, across the desert of what-could-I-possibly-say, and over the mountain of an-audience-who-probably-knows-a-lot-more-than-I-do.
Of course, the great irony of this figure’s story is that the Inspired Writer is really the transcendent distortion of real-life writers. It’s much more likely that most of those great, real-life writers got their inked hands from gripping too hard their quills or pens in frustration, as they hovered over pages with more slashes, margin-notes, and edits than clean, untouched sentences set in perfect lines. They probably got their tangled hair from wrenching it; their ringed eyes from spending too many hours staring at black squiggles over white pages; and their profoundly watchful stares from their consequent, bad eyesight.
The fact is that they, too, had to answer to the great works that had been written before them; they, too, had to struggle with their own fears about sounding stupid; and they, too, had to answer to an often discerning and demanding audience. Yet, despite reality, the awesome figure of the Inspired Writer still holds sway, hovering over us like bad lighting, blinding us to our own work.
The pervasiveness of this myth of the Inspired Writer and the continued celebration of her/him works against us, as writers, for we often assume that if writing does not come easily, then our writing is not good—and in turn, that we cannot be good writers. Consequently, we believe that the writing that comes easily is the only good writing, so we will turn in papers that have been drafted quickly and without revision, hoping for the best (grade).
Now, in the days when I was clawing my way through classes as an English major, literature teachers didn’t spend much time on revision. I don’t ever remember being told anything about strategies for revision. I remember doing peer reviews, where we read each other’s drafts and marked punctuation problems, having no idea how to examine—much less comment on—structure and analysis. Other than the five-paragraph formula I’d learned in high school, I had no idea what a paper should or could look like. In other words, when I was learning to write college papers some fifteen years ago, I was totally on my own. The most useful strategy in my bag of tricks? Trial and error. And believe me, good grades or no, having had the opportunity recently (thanks to my mother moving and insisting, “take your STUFF!”) to look at the papers I wrote back then, I see an awful lot of the latter.
You see, the awful, honest truth is that I’m no rabbit, no natural digger, no lover of thick, tangled messes, and I had no idea how to find my way through the knotted ideas at work in any first drafts, much less how to dig my way into more root (e.g. to go further with my claims, to push the analysis, to discover the “so what” of my work). I didn’t find this place (the page) to be a comfy, hide-out-worthy home. In fact, I confess that I still don’t. I have always loved to read, but writing has been much more work than I ever anticipated. And even after so many years of graduate school, and even more years of teaching writing and of writing scholarship, when one might think I should have fully embraced and embodied the status of “veteran” digger, I still, very often feel like I’m trudging through some thick of hard branches and harder roots to find my way down a page.
After years of reflecting on this trudging and of talking with students about how they, too, often feel as though they are trudging down a page—through ideas, among the cacophony of words (our own and others’)—I’ve come to this (admittedly, unimpressive) realization: this is, for many of us, an alien discourse. I’m not like my two closest friends from graduate school, whose parents were academics. We didn’t talk at breakfast about “the problematic representations of race in the media.” Instead, my father told racist jokes that my sisters and I didn’t recognize—until later—were racist. We didn’t talk at dinner about “the mass oppression of ‘other(ed)’ cultures by corporate/ national tyrants.” My sisters and I talked about how the cheerleaders were way cooler than we were because they had better clothes, cars, hair, bodies, and boyfriends, and that we would, consequently, be losers for the rest of our lives.
Again, this is an alien discourse, even now. Well, not this. This is more like a personal essay, but the papers I was supposed to write for my literature classes, those were strange. I didn’t normally think in the order that a paper would suggest—first broadly, then moving to specifics, which are treated as isolated entities, brought together in transitions and at the end of the paper. I didn’t understand, much less use, words like “Marxism,” “feminism,” or even “close reading.” I didn’t know that Shakespeare may not have been Shakespeare. I didn’t know that Hemingway was a drunk. I didn’t know that really smart people spent their entire careers duking it out about who Shakespeare really was and whether Hemingway’s alcoholism influenced his work.
I didn’t know the vocabulary; I didn’t know the issues; I didn’t think in the right order; I didn’t quote properly; and I was far too interested in the sinking, spinning feeling that writing—and reading— sometimes gave me, instead of being interested in the rigorousness of scholarly work, in modeling that work, and in becoming a member of this strange discourse community. Consequently, when a teacher finally sat me down to explain that this was, in fact, a community—one that occurred on pages, at conferences, in coffee shops, and over list-servs—and that if I wanted to stay on the court, I’d have to learn the rules of the game, I was both intrigued and terrified. And no surprise, writing then became not just a way to induce the sinking, spinning thing of which I spoke earlier, but a way to think, a way to act—e.g. a way to figure out little things, like who “Mr. W.H.” is in Shakespeare’s dedication to his Sonnets, as well as big things, like how we can better fight the “isms” of this world.
No doubt, the sinking, spinning feeling that I experience when I write or read comes and goes now, but it always did. I feel it alternately, as it shares time with the “trudging” feeling I described earlier. But, please don’t think that this trudging comes from having to learn and practice the writing conventions of an alien community. Rather, the feeling of “trudging” is a consequence, again, of that haunting specter, the Inspired Writer. The feeling comes from the expectation that writing should come from “the gods” or natural talent, and it is a consequence, too, of the expectation that this inspiration or talent should be always available to us—always there, though sometimes hidden, in some reservoir of our beings.
Thus, even now, when I hit a blank spot and the sentence stumbles off into white space, I feel . . . inadequate . . . or worse, like a fraud, like I’m playing a game that I’ve got no business playing. The reader is gonna red-card me. And what makes it worse: I have to write. Writing teacher and scholar or not, I have to write memos and emails and resumes and reports and thank you notes and on and on.
But the upshot of all of this is that you’d be amazed what talking about this frustration (and all of the attendant fears) will do for a writer, once she/he opens up and shares this frustration with other writers, other students, teachers . . . with anyone who has to write. For example, once my students see that everyone sitting in this classroom has a gnawing fear about their work failing, about how they don’t have “it,” about how they don’t feel justified calling themselves “writers,” because most of them are “regular folks” required to take a writing class, well . . . then we can have ourselves a getting-down-to-it, honest and productive writing classroom. Then, we can talk about writer’s block—what it is, what causes it, and what overcomes it. We can talk about how to develop “thick skins”—about how to listen to readers’ commentaries and critiques without simultaneously wanting to rip our writings into tiny pieces, stomp them into a trashcan, and then set fire to them. And most importantly, then, we can talk about writing as a practice, not a reflection of some innate quality of the writer.
My work, for example, is more a reflection of the scholarship I spend the most time with than it is a reflection of me, per se. One strategy I learned in graduate school (and I swear, I picked it up by watching my first year composition students) is to imitate other, successful pieces of writing. By “imitate,” of course I don’t mean plagiarize. I mean that I imitate the form of those texts, e.g. the organization, and the ways that they engage with, explore, and extend ideas.
For example, a Rhetoric and Composition scholar named Patricia Bizzell has written scholarship that I use a lot in my own work. In fact, even when I don’t use her work directly, I can see her influence on my thinking. A couple of years ago, after reading one of her books for about the hundredth time (seriously), I noticed that her articles and chapters are organized in predictable kinds of ways (not predictable as in boring, but predictable as in she’s-a-pro). She seems to have a formula down, and it works. Her work is consistently solid—i.e. con vincing, important—and using that formula, she’s able to tackle really dense material and make it accessible to readers.
To be more specific, she tends to start with an introduction that demonstrates, right away, why the coming work is so important. For example, in “Foundationalism and Anti-Foundationalism in Composition Studies,” she starts off the article by reminding us, basically (I’m paraphrasing here), that everybody’s down with “the social,” that we are all invested in examining how language—and writing—occurs in a context and how that context dictates meaning. So, for example, the word “we” in the previous sentence is a reference to Rhetoric and Composition teachers and scholars; however, in this sentence, it’s not a reference to a group of people, but to the word “we,” as it occurs in the previous sentence. See? Meaning changes according to context.
So, Bizzell starts with this premise: that everybody’s down with the social, that we’re invested in examining contexts, that we know that meaning happens in those contexts. Then, she introduces the problem: that we still want something pre-contextual (e.g. I know what “we” means because I can step outside of any contexts—including this one—and examine it objectively). Then, she gives two in-depth examples of where she sees the problem at work in the field. She then examines how we’ve tried to address that problem, then how we’ve failed at addressing it, and then she poses another/new perspective on the problem and, consequently, another/new way of addressing it.
This is her formula, and I imitate it, frequently, in my own work. It’s rigorous, thorough, and like I said earlier, accessible. It works. But, sometimes I’m working on something totally different, something new (to me), and that formula starts to box me in too much; the formula becomes a tomb instead of a foundation. That’s when I turn to outside readers.
Now, this one, actually, is a tougher strategy to use . . . because it requires that you share a piece of work that looks like a train wreck to you with another human being—ideally, another smart, patient, open-minded human being. I have four people I send my work out to consistently. One is my boss; one my mentor; one a (very successful) peer; and the other, a senior colleague I come dangerously close to worshipping. In other words, I don’t send my stuff to my mom. I don’t give it to my best friend, my boyfriend, my dance teacher, or my sisters. I only send my stuff to people who seem to be a lot better at writing scholarship than I feel like I am.
Again, it’s hard to do, but I can’t tell you how many students I’ll see in my office over the course of a semester who will say, “But my mom read my paper, and she says it looks great”—while gripping a paper marked with a D or F. Mom may have been the final authority when you were negotiating curfews and driving and dating, but unless Mom’s a (college-level) writing teacher, she’ll be no more of an expert in college-level writing than your dentist will. Send it to her if you want an outside reader, but don’t expect her final word to be similar to your teacher’s final word. And while I’m on my soapbox . . . don’t let anyone edit your papers . . . including your mom. It’s called “collusion”—a kind of plagiarism—and it’s really easy to spot, especially if you were the Comma Splice King in the first paper and use commas flawlessly in the second.
More importantly, keep in mind that if you only use your mom, or your coach, or some other person who’s not in the same class, then you may be making the revision process (and the reading for that person) more difficult than necessary, since that reader will have no idea what you’ve read in class, what you’ve talked about in class, or what the assignment guidelines and grading criteria are. Writing occurs—and is assessed—in a context, remember?
The best strategy for finding and using readers is to start with the teacher (no, it’s not cheating). Ask him/her to read a draft before you submit the final. Then, share the paper with a classmate, as well as someone who’s not in the class. That way, you’ll get an “insider’s” perspective as well as an “outsider’s.” I’ve heard students say that using anyone but the teacher for feedback seems to be a waste of time. However, I find that when a student brings me a draft, I (and most writing professors) read it in terms of how it should be revised, not how I’d grade it. So, after you revise based on the teacher’s feedback, get other readers to take a look, again, at the newly revised version and have them read it as a finished product. This will help you get a better sense of how it’s working as a text that will be graded.
The best piece of advice I can give you, though, is to tell the Inspired Writer to shut up and let you write. If you have to, find out about a few of your favorite writers. I guarantee that they struggle, too. If not them, try talking to your classmates and/or your teacher. Again, if they have written anything in their lives worth writing, then it took some effort to do so. And, once the insecurities are out there, so to speak, and not trapped in Pandora’s little box to drive us mad with their “what if” whispers, you may discover that there’s more to the writing process than just getting lost in branches and stumbling over roots.
There’s nothing quite like finding that the black squiggles you typed onto that white page actually invoke a feeling in or change the mind of your reader(s). Of course, too, there’s the emotion, revelation, clench of teeth, slackening of shoulders, or any other response, that a text elicits from even its own writer. The latter is, for my part, the biggest reason why I write—even now, and even and especially as I write scholarship. For me, the text is like a fire in the room. And I am often awed by the way it moves, sleeps, devours, and sustains, while I am simultaneously trying to master it (knowing full well that if I let it go, it will run riot, but knowing, too, that I can’t push too hard or it will disappear altogether).
For what I’ve found in my own relationship to writing, and in talking to my students about theirs, is that it’s about the connection, really—even if the connection is an antagonistic one. We like to think that thinking isn’t for nothing; that communicating with another (even and especially with ourselves) is never entirely in vain; that what we have to say is perhaps/probably not brilliant but is, still, worth the attempt of saying, of writing, and of considering/being considered. No doubt, a whole lot of practice can give us the means to write in such a way that not only we, the writers, but others will want to listen, will want to read. And in that listening-talking, reading-writing relation, a collision, the inevitable momentary connection, happens.
Maybe we smack the dirt and roots; maybe we smack white space. Maybe a reader’s jaw drops at the “gets it” insight of some obscure line in your paper that you don’t even remember writing because you spent forty-five minutes working on the line right after it. Maybe you make someone stop and think for just a moment about something they’ve never considered before. Maybe you make friends with a bunch of classmates because of that story you wrote about the roadtrip you took last summer to a music festival. Maybe you inspired a heated class debate because of that paper you wrote about your personal project for saving the world.
But for all the misunderstandings, all the fears and so-called failings that happen among writer and paper and reader, there’s always another white page, and there’s always more to say. This is why we must write, why we must continue to practice: to keep talking, keep
thinking, keep revising. Nobody’s ever got the final word, not even on the page. We’ve all got the will to write: it’s called “communication.” Maybe you do so in music or in paint or in graphics or, even, in gossip. But here, in these black squiggles on this white page, you’ve listened to something I’ve had to say. Maybe you’ve not listened closely; maybe you’re yawning or rolling your eyes. But if this is a decent piece of writing, you’re giving some response right now—a smile? An exasperated sigh? A tensed shoulder? A clenched fist? Whatever the case, here, response is happening. And that’s at least a (good) start.
What are you most anxious about, when writing? For example, do you worry most about grammar and mechanics? About organization? About the deadline? About page length? Why?
No doubt most students are at least peripherally, if not entirely, concerned with what grade they get on a paper. Given that pressure and/or in addition to that pressure, what are you most anxious about, when sharing your writing with others—e.g. classmates and/or the teacher? For example, do you worry most about your audience thinking your ideas are stupid? About readers misunderstanding your argument? About your peers/ teacher judging you according to how well you write?
How are your answers to numbers 1 and 2 related? For example, does your anxiety about the deadline have anything to do with your anxiety about readers misunderstanding your argument? If so, how and/or why?
What, if any, strategies do you use to address these anxieties? Do they work?
Bartholomae, David. “Against the Grain.” Writers on Writing. Ed. by Tom Waldrep. New York, NY: Random House, 1985. 19–29.
Bizzell, Patricia. “Foundationalism and Anti-Foundationalism in Composition Studies.” Academic Discourse and Critical Consciousness. Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh P, 1992. 202–221.
Elbow, Peter. Writing without Teachers. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1973.