Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Writer’s Baggage

          In her essay Teaching Writing Teachers Writing, Shelley Reid argues students of writing pedagogy should be confronted with inherently difficult writing—that by struggling with hard writing, future teachers will be able to better connect theory with practice and empathize with their students. This all seems like a no-brainer. But then, writing for me has always been a difficult process. This particular assignment alone had three scrapped introductions. The assignment is connected to an argument with my wife, my four-year-old with the flu, a pile of neglected dishes, and my twelve-year-old slurping loudly on a grape Popsicle. It was hard writing and a hard decision on what to write. I went through the entire process—the prewriting, the rough draft, the revision, more revision, and then the final product. I work this process every single time I sit down to write anything. And I am a highly proficient writer, yet Reid says, “Highly proficient writers in graduate pedagogy courses may see process steps and composing strategies as crutches needed by less skilled writers.” Reid seems to suggest the entire writing process is one many students haven't encountered, have avoided, or at the least resisted. But why?
            Yesterday, I picked up my daughter from her first ballet class of the academic year. One of the other fathers, Rodney, stood outside waiting. He wore a shirt that read, “Ask me about my book.” The book he had written was academic in nature, about implementing community service projects—all of it above my head—but the one salient comment he made struck me. Rodney said the review process was horrible. “It [the peer review] really affected me. It was like a personal attack. I didn't know I was that close to my writing.”  The writing process is fraught with emotion, and I believe Reid hints at the emotional baggage associated with writing, but doesn't ever really address the issue. We see this most clearly in the personal reflective accounts of Reid's students:

  •          It really messes me up –Kelley
  •          I felt a little silly –Faith
  •          Not used to failure –Alicia
  •          I struggled so much –Gabrielle
  •          Is that writer really me? –Elaine
These writerly confessional snippets are all loaded with distress and anxiety, and my argument is that any writing is a personal matter and comes with emotional baggage; that difficult writing assignments confront head on the emotional side of writing.
            Per example, this past June I published my novel Wasteland, loosely based off T.S. Elliot's poem of the same name. The book took five years to write. Wasteland contains a lot of controversial issues and topics one doesn't discuss around my parents—BDSM, heroin, acid trips, drinking cat blood, depression, eating the head off a live bird, suicide, war, religion, homosexuality, serial killers. I was afraid—really afraid—my family would get a hold of Wasteland and decide that the book is worth reading, and then what kind of repercussions would I face? When I was a teenager, my father worried I was gay. In my twenties, my mother thought I was strung out on drugs. Everyone in my family was concerned that I'd marry into an interracial relationship. I've had, to no avail, lengthy discussions with my mother attempting to explain the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Open-minded is still not a term used successfully to describe my family. If Mom or Dad or one of my siblings read Wasteland, they'd think the book was true, that what I wrote really happened. This fear of what others thought impeded my writing. The emotionality I attached to Wasteland was more difficult to deal with than what Reid describes as difficult writing: length requirements, taking a narrow stand, publication, presentation, or peer review. I had to get over myself before I could be successful at writing Wasteland. I had to realize the problems and prejudices others had with what I write are their problems and not mine.
            Even academic writing carries emotional baggage I must deal with. Every time I begin an academic paper, I am confronted by my high school English teacher. My most recent academic work, “Howl” as Keen in Form, Function, and Reaction, is currently in the review process at Essays in Criticism. Sitting down to write this behemoth of a topic—comparing an American Beat poem to a defunct Irish cultural practice—had my high school English teacher sitting on my left shoulder with a pitchfork yelling at me about dangling modifiers and vague pronoun references. This internal editor construct of my subconscious sat on my shoulder before I had even finalized the topic. The topic—let alone the thesis—hadn't even begun with Ginsberg, but Mark Twain and then maybe Poe, and I waffled between Hemingway and Faulkner, all the while Mrs. O. telling me I wasn't good enough. As a junior in high school, I had signed onto the yearbook, and to this day I remember, very clearly, an article I had written about the volleyball team. Mrs. O. told me the article was too long for the space available in the yearbook. Five hundred words too long. So I cut, and I cut and the process was painful, and after I had finished the edit, the piece was still fifty words too long. I turned in the assignment in tears. Mrs. O. then informed me I had completely misunderstood her. She had told me, supposedly, that she'd do the edits, that I didn't have to bother with the struggle, that cutting that much from an article would have been too hard for me in the first place. At forty years old, a father, a husband, a student who took twenty-two years to finish his undergrad, every time I hand in an academic paper I fear the writing is too long or somehow I misunderstood the directive for the paper.   
            Rodney, the other ballet-dad, said he hadn't realized how close emotionally he was to his writing, even though he only wrote the book to garner the prestige associated with having written an academic text in his field. Rodney explained how one of his blind peer reviewers took it upon themselves to list all of the books better written and better informed. “That hurt,” Rodney said. Rodney's experience echoes Reid's student Susan's experience:  

"Writing [the first response] didn't feel hard to me…. What was difficult and challenging   was the peer workshop and revision process…. I thought I had written a relatively well- organized and clear argument for my position, and [my peers'] comments suggested I wasn't quite as organized or systematic as I needed to be. The horror! I'm a writing tutor!"

Susan's response is one of shock. She quotes Heart of Darkness and ends with surprise at how much revision was needed for her assignment, because, after all, Susan is a writing tutor. She helps others with their writing. She does not receive, or at least, she does not seek out assistance with her own writing. The peer review and revision, for Susan, was an affront to her identity as a writer, and our identity—who we see ourselves as—is tied together with emotion and past life experiences such as how my family views the world and how Mrs. O. was a bulldog of a teacher. Reid agrees with Lil Brannon professor of English and Education at UNC and Gordon Pradl professor of English education at NYU Steinhardt. Pedagogy classes should “extend beyond the notion that writing teachers should demonstrate high competency in their filed,” but also help teachers build an identity of “who they are as writers.”

            In my English Methods I class, a large portion of the class was dedicated to developing future English teachers' identity as writers—to see themselves as actual writers. I was appalled at the fact that some of the students could not identify verbs from nouns and thought revision and peer review were unnecessary for their writing. One fellow classmate, a senior and an A plus student, admitted that she had never revised an academic paper and never reflected upon her own writing. I am blown away by Reid's encounters of resistance to difficult writing, though I shouldn't be considering my personal experience in English Methods I. These fellow students in English Methods were confronted with their emotional baggage connected to their writing. They were made to realize their own prejudices and get over themselves. They were made to struggle, and although I actively search out these opportunities to push my own writing in directions I am not always comfortable with, many people do not seek these moments of self-teaching, forgoing the idea of revision, keeping the identity of, as Reid puts it, nonrevisionists. A class devoted to difficult writing, for future teachers of writing, needs to not only address the basics such as nouns versus verbs (although I'd hope graduate students would know the difference); needs to not only complicate the assignments with publication, word length, or structural constraints; but needs to deal with the personal and emotional reasons for the resistance against difficult writing in the first place, even if to only make the students aware of that emotional baggage, and why the writing process, no matter the topic, is hard to begin with. The actual process of writing is not difficult—it's butt in the chair, one word after the another. However, the personal attachments and the closeness which is placed on one's own writing make the process difficult. If we, as writing instructors, are tasked with asking our students to write, then we must, as Reid says, empathize with our students. We must become aware of what our students face as new writers, and although I am not suggesting a pedagogy course become a vehicle for psychoanalysis, I do suggest that we as students “know thyself” in the Socratic tradition of long-established wisdom.        

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