Saturday, December 02, 2006

Bleeding on the Page

As an undergrad, I had the opportunity to take several classes under an especially dynamic professor. This woman taught writing classes, and classes about teaching writing, and I've been thinking about her as I've looked forward to the composition courses I'll be leading starting in January.

I'm remembering one class in particular, early in the semester - maybe even the first class - where the professor walked in to the classroom reading aloud from an essay she had in her hands. I can't recall the author of the piece, but it ended with this quote:

Writing is not like opening a vein

She was trying to impress upon us, her new writing class, that the art of writing is one that does not come easily. It is hard-won; the result of hours, days, sometimes lifetimes of sweat, stress, struggle and effort. Drafts and revisions and the more-than-occasional failure is de rigeur for a writer, and we should expect nothing less than that archetypal, epic struggle for ourselves.

It was not a pretty picture, and I remember wondering if I'd made a mistake in signing up for the class.

Her intention, I think, was to give us a jump on being gentle with ourselves; to teach us to not expect greatness every time we sit in front of a blank piece of paper; to express that she didn't expect greatness from us in the work that we handed in for the class. She wanted us to understand, right off the bat, that this writing stuff is hard work.

I remember thinking, though, that I disagreed with the sentiment of the essay. Now, I'm not saying that I can just bleed on the page, or that everything I write qualifies as "greatness." I don't, and it doesn't. What I am saying, though, is that I don't see writing as an epic struggle between the writer and the word. I don't feel that it's necessary to suffer to be a writer - or an artist of any kind, really. I understand that a good many artists do suffer, mind you; I'm just saying I don't think it's required.

As I prepare to teach writing classes, I'm thinking about how to present (represent?) the act of writing - the process of creating art with the written word - to my students. I'm not certain I want to give them the expectation that it's going to be hard and that they're going to fail - if not the class, then certainly the attempt to create anything of value - despite their best efforts. Neither do I want to give them the impression that they should experience no difficulty at all, that they can just channel some great muse and not do any real work.

I don't approach writing the way a lot of my professors or peers do. I'm not the kind of writer who writes draft after draft, editing and revising and rearranging. I do most of my preliminary work in my head: I think - really think - about a piece for a long time before I ever sit to write it out. I test out the language before I write it down, talking to my friends and loved ones, talking to myself in the car or the shower, trying to put the ideas in order in my head before I let them out into the world. By the time I get a piece to paper, then, it is mostly complete; I never wrote a "first draft" unless it was required by my teachers - all my first draft work took place in my brain.

That's just how *I* write, though, and I recognize that there are as many approaches to the work of writing as there are people who write. I think that a major focus of my classes is going to be to encourage students to figure out what works best for them; to allow them to try on different ways of being a writer to see which fits and feels best. Sometimes, understanding the process is just as important as the end result.


Blogger organic mama said...

In terms of opening a vein, I think I disagree. For me, writing is best when I am pouring out a story (without pain, most of the time) without interrupting the flow to analyze or edit. I watched Alan Alda last summer as he read from his memoir and commented on his writing process. He laughingly related a story of his initial frustration at attemting to write his story because he had tried to simultaneously be editor and writer. I call it the big blurt - the throwing up on the page or screen and then going back to pick over it. I feel that this is a particulary important approach to take with students who don't necessarily have the best relationship with their own writing. Drafting helps students experience that writing can be a process and that evolution, with feedback, can be swift. Your own enthusism for your seemingly effortless writing will be a important key.

You're quite right that not every writer sits down to churn out agonizing draft after draft of a piece before he or she finds it acceptable. This is particularly true of those people who write often, who love to manipulate language - the joy is key - and to share that with others. If a student has little experience writing and becomes frustrated as she or he sits down to write, I think that student will benefit from small writing groups that have clear guidelines. Why not try writing groups for a few pieces, peer editing for some others (or combine them), while at the same time give them plenty of examples of writers writing about their craft. Steven King's book, like Anne Lamott, has some great advice. Finally, when you assign something, do it too.

December 02, 2006 3:19 PM  
Blogger Mrs.Chili said...

Mama, you've hit it EXACTLY right: "the joy is key."

I also love the idea of doing the assignments with them. I'd thought I'd do that with some of the smaller pieces I assign them - I'm not sure I'll be up for writing AND grading longer pieces - but I agree that serving as an example for the process will be a valuable part of my teaching practice.

December 02, 2006 3:43 PM  
Blogger vanx said...

I wish I were better at just throwing colors at the canvas, so to speak.

When it comes to writing, painting, anything creative and expressive, I remember advice that Dennis Hopper says he got from an art teacher once: Son, you have to loosen up to get tight.

I can’t think of any advice, to the extent that I understand it. I’m getting to understand it.

December 02, 2006 10:04 PM  
Blogger vanx said...

any "better" advice that is (above).

It is also important to put all the words in

December 02, 2006 10:05 PM  
Blogger feather said...

I'm with organic mama in disagreement over the vein quote. I think that my best work is definitely the pieces I wrote in great flaming bursts of inspiration. The ones that I tinker on are overworked, clunky, ugly. I can always tell, reading back through my notebooks and wordfiles, how I wrote a piece, even if I don't exactly remember the circumstances.

Actually, I agree with everything organic mama says. Smart stuff.

December 03, 2006 3:36 AM  
Blogger Mrs.Chili said...

I wonder how many of us, who consider ourselves 'writers,' would disagree with the quote. I disagreed with it so immediately and with such intensity that I still remember it lo these dozen or so years later....

And yeah, Feather. I've got me some smart friends, both in my online and my "real" lives.

December 03, 2006 7:24 AM  

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