When I write, I am alone with my failures. Every day I make mistakes, but writing’s solitude protects me from the shame of at least a few of these daily gaffes. I type, halt, erase, begin again. I either halt or I spill my thoughts so that I don’t have to feel them rattling in my head anymore. I don’t outline, I spew. Then I delete or rearrange. No one will see my first draft and I find freedom in that.

My students often come into the Barnard Writing Center flummoxed by the task of writing The Perfect Essay. They have a prompt, sometimes a thesis statement. But they can’t get started because they don’t know how to ensure success. They don’t have time to fail because they have exams and problem sets and parties. More importantly, they can’t afford to fail because this assignment “determines their entire future.”

Students can feel vulnerable in the Barnard Writing Center. No one need feel ashamed that she used an m-dash just to impress or that her thesis statement is too broad. We have all been there. But if failure is an inevitable part of the writing process, what should students do to cope?

Learn from these failures and move on. As I approach the last few months of my undergraduate career, I find myself cherishing my past failures. My favorite classes are the ones that almost drove me (or rather, my GPA) to the ground. My professors asked me to analyze cities and societal pressures and immoral motivations and racism and adjectives and the nature of beauty in ways I didn’t understand before I started writing. One of my professors would question my repetition of “and” in that last sentence; another might circle that semi-colon and call it pretentious.

The trick isn’t to be perfect. The trick is to stop being afraid of your errors. At the Writing Center we will help you: we will talk about focusing your thesis and integrating your quotes more smoothly into a paragraph. I might ask you why you thought to write five “and”s instead of using commas or if you found the semi-colon in the last paragraph necessary. We will talk about writing and you might credit me with the A you get on your paper.

But I cannot teach how to write right. Through the years I’ve acquired the patience for outlines, finding all my quotes before I solidify my thesis, and making lists in threes. You may have figured out different strategies (feel free to share them in the comments section). Bring your uncertainties to the Writing Center and we can design new tactics.

You will always blunder, though. May you blunder gracefully.


Spreading the Fellow Word in Vietnam

With promises of Apple products for the best essay, over two hundred Vietnamese students shuffled into the U.S. Embassy’s event room despite the apocalyptic monsoons outside.  The message “Just Do It: Write!,” written against a bright red background with yellow pencils, blared from a projector onto the back wall.  The American Center in Hanoi had organized a writing contest about American Presidents. The Public Affairs Section believed that I, the token English major among the five interns, could promote the contest by providing methods for effective writing.  The students believed that I could help them win.  I believed that the students could help each other win.  I had an hour to link everyone’s expectations.

In my presentation I bounced the authority back to my audience just like I do in the Barnard Writing Center.  I began by asking how many members of the audience write, followed by how many of them are writers.  As I expected, many more students wrote than identified themselves as writers.  “If you write, then you are a writer,” I encouraged them.  Some people chuckled.  When I asked my audience how many of them struggled with writing, all hands shot up.  “Good,” I assured them.  “All great writers struggle with writing.”

The presentation continued in this candid, informal way.  I discussed my favorite topics: writing as a process, writing as dialogue and as communication, writing to critique and reflect, the power of persuasive language through the use of word choice, and the mantra of “less is more.”  The large event space felt like it had collapsed into a Writing Center room by the time fifteen minutes had passed.  The group of sixty seemed much smaller and as I fellowed one student, my audience members were fellowing each other.  The murmurs buzzing in the room excited me.  Some members of my audience resisted freewriting and initially resisted sharing, but soon participated enthusiastically.  I took forty-five minutes of questions, which ranged from successful introductions to organization of paragraphs to transitions (a popular question at the Barnard Writing Center).  One student asked me, “Is it good or bad that I write while sitting on a table and crying?”  I responded that it was good, referred to my slide on writing as reflection, and jokingly asked him to sit on a chair instead of a table the next time he writes.

Ultimately, I do not know whether my audience understood some of the abstract writing concepts.  I do not know if the presentation will help them win the American Center’s writing contest.  But I hope that I eased some of their anxiety about the process, provided them with the confidence to write, encouraged them to fellow each other and themselves while drafting essays, and spurred them to enter the American Center’s writing contest.

Next week I fly down south to Ho Chi Minh City to work in the Consular Office.  Their American Center invited me to give a similar presentation!  The powerpoint is available online through the American Center in Hanoi’s website.

Update: Ho Chi Minh City’s American Center also drew over two hundred students.  They treated my freewriting session differently, discussing ideas (or “fellowing”) with each other immediately.  Since Ho Chi Minh’s American Center did not have a Writing Contest during that time, the students asked me questions about schoolwork and exams.

On Silence

Writing fellow applications are due soon, and a few students have asked me questions about my experience as a fellow.  I have responded that being a fellow is the most rewarding job I have ever had.  I get paid to learn.

I will elaborate through an example (sufficiently vague for reasons of anonymity):

A student recently came into the writing center armed with some factual notes that answered a very vague prompt.  She did not know how to turn her facts into an argument and how to sustain that argument for ten pages.  Since I was unfamiliar with the material, I asked her questions about the bullet points she had made and wrote down her words verbatim.  She seemed hesitant about some choices she had made, so I asked her to explain the other options she was considering.  By verbalizing an answer to that question, she understood her own thought process and became more confident with the facts she had finally chosen.

Clearly, having a dialogue was benefiting my student because she was articulating her rationale and becoming increasingly impassioned by her own logic.  Passion fuels creativity.  She brainstormed a few angles with which to proceed, talked herself out of all but one, and then formulated a working thesis.  From her thesis, she looked over the bullet points she had made, commenting to me that reading over her notes had made her feel lost before but now that she had a direction it was all making sense.

Yet she was still struggling to shape her seedling argument into a structured outline.  Silence percolated through the room.  After setting up the conference with a series of questions, I decided to unleash silence.  When I can see a student’s writing process unfold before me, I take a backseat to the personal and solitary process and let her guide herself.  Silence makes people uncomfortable, and the fact that I had never met my student did not ease the tension.  As a result, she became increasingly more loquacious and left the conference with an outline and the two pages of notes I had scribbled.  She was excited to begin writing her draft.

It was an invigorating hour, and one in which I hardly spoke but learned a great deal about a subject I would otherwise be ignorant about.

A Revision Resolution

After reading excerpts from Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose, I realize that I succumb to The Official Style: I use grandiose language when a smaller, simpler word would suffice because I like the cadence.  The Official Style makes me seem smart even when I am unsure of my argument and/or evidence.  Lanham’s image of “The Official Style seizing its prey like a boa constrictor and gradually squeezing the life out of it” resonated with me.  It also concerned me.

A meeting with my Critical Writing professor this semester caused me to reflect on my writing habits.  I resolved to change them.  I had an art history essay due and while writing, I decided to avoid the Official Style.  It was difficult and I was not pleased with the outcome, but I handed it in anyway.  Perhaps it was a bit reckless to experiment on an assignment, but I am excited to see how it is received and how it compares with the other essays I have written.

In the past I have viewed the revision process as linear.  I revise as I write, unable to move on to the next paragraph until I am satisfied with the current one.  After I finish my conclusion paragraph, I take a break from the essay and return to it refreshed.  I rewrite my thesis, delete unnecessary sentences, change words, and rearrange paragraphs.  This process is done from the beginning of the first paragraph until I reach the last sentence of the last one.  Then I print it.

With my experimental art history essay, I wrote a draft of my essay, not stopping to analyze my word choice or syntax.  I just filled the pages with my ideas, even those I wasn’t sure about, until I had a draft.  As Donald Murray states in his article “The Maker’s Eye: Revising Your Own Manuscript,” “when a draft is completed, the job of writing can begin.”  I hated my draft and considered starting completely anew.  Instead I decided to revise it in cycles, which Nancy Sommers views as the best method for the revision process in her article “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers.”  By focusing on different aspects of writing with each cycle, the language, argument, and flow of my essay received my undivided attention.

The problem with a cyclic revision process is that it is never ending.  I revised my essay for two weeks and with each revision I had no idea whether my essay was improving or getting worse.  The essay I handed in looked much different from the first draft (and the second, third and fourth ones too).  Perhaps I was too critical of myself and my writing, but perhaps I was not critical enough.  The final draft was not final, it was abandoned.

Just Do It: Write!

Image from Naked Lunch, directed by David Cronenberg

            Today my roommate, a biology major on the pre-med track, asked me why I write, since it makes me so neurotic and frenzied.  I was able to quickly come to the discipline’s defense.

Sharon Crowley’s article “writing and Writing” articulates very logically the struggles that occur during the writing process, and why we do it anyway.  She separates writing into two tasks: to find meaning and to find form.  One never achieves perfection in writing, yet one continually strives for the “Ideal Text” only to inevitably fail.  Crowley associates invention and power with writing, and I think this is a wonderful idea to teach all undergraduates because it gives a dreaded task a positive appeal.

Kenneth Bruffee’s definition of writing as a “social artifact,” from his article “Collaboration and Conversation of Mankind” also represents the task positively.  All humans are social creatures by nature, so this implies that writing is also an innate desire within all of us—some just plunge into the mystery of the process more readily than others.  I agree that writing needs to become more of a social interaction and a collaborative learning experience.  David Bleich’s article “Collaboration and Pedagogy of Disclosure” also advocates for a collaborative learning experience, with a focus on disclosure so that the students feel more like people and less like numbers.  I think Bruffee and Bleich would support the Barnard Writing Center, which involves conversation and an open environment devoid of judgment.