In the last couple of writing courses I've taught, I've found occasion to use a giant online, countdown stopwatch. In an Informal/Personal Essay course I taught in the spring, I spent some time reconsidering the invention activities I've used in the past. I wanted a way to put the emphasis on generating, rather than evaluating or deciding. Deciding, I had decided, was a poison to college writers. Deciding always seemed to set in too quickly.
The students were trying to come up with topics for their take on a "This I Believe" essay. After listening to, reading, and discussing how these essays seemed to work, the students had to decide among their many beliefs or creeds which to feature and animate in this essay. A tough task! So I began by having them write the beginnings of five sentences on a blank sheet of paper: "I believe that..."; "My life's philosophy is..."; "My grandmother always told me..."
Enter the stopwatch.
I gave them 60 seconds to complete each sentence with the goal of just getting things down, just reading the sentence beginning and articulating their first impulse. Just finish all the sentences. Then we immediately wrote the start of five more sentences and this time they only had 45 seconds to complete them. No breaks in between, no time to go back and reread. No evaluation yet. No deciding.
This, I think, this use of time pressure is a bit naughty in the context of writing instruction. Process, amidst all its insights, taught us right away that stretches of time are needed for good writing to emerge. Why are we asking students for a theme a week?, Emig asks repeatedly through Composing Processes. In Berkenkotter's study of Murray, we see a productive, prolific writer fully crippled and dismantled by a timed-writing session. And with all we've come to know about writing anxiety, mood, and blocks, using time to exert intentional pressure on the writer seems at first, well, cruel.
But. Here's why I'm a fan of timed invention activities. Time pushes evaluation out of the way. Time really strangles the evaluation impulse. The mind can think interesting and surprising things if you don't get in its way. I know this because I tried my activity myself before I sold it to my writing students. I filled in those belief sentences and I was surprised to see what I wrote. I thought most of it garbage. But moreso, I found it fascinating to see what came out of me. Ask a ponderous, weighty question to yourself like, "WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE" and you will bring your process to a full stop. So instead: ask it sideways, trick your mind into responding quickly and see what comes out, then see if you really DO believe what you wrote.
I've also been thinking about the virtues of time in my own writing process. I currently have a lot of pressing writing tasks running at the same time--dissertation intro revisions (this is maybe the 4th or so round); a revise and resubmit that's been buried in my inbox for far too long; the drafting of a chapter for an edited collection. I now have the time to do this writing. But I know that I'll wiggle away from this work, no matter how many exclamation points I use in my daily planner, or how emphatically I underline the task. So instead of setting task goals (e.g. read/note final sources, make an outline, DRAFT!!!!!!!!), I started writing time goals. 2 hours in the chair doing ANYTHING toward the projects. So far it's working. No pressure, just sit there and do it, do anything. Famous, gifted writers talk about just putting the time in, everyday. Even 10 minutes. I'm starting to see myself the virtues of thinking in terms of time.
Now to decide if my clock should be running as I'm writing this post...
Today, as it seems I always do, I was brought to think about writing as I was trying to DO writing. While this detour tends to produce writing, as in the writing I'm currently doing right here in this reflection space, it tends to not produce the writing I'm am actually trying to do.
In short, my writing anxiety is high right now. I'm trying to write--like really, for real, write--the first chapter of my dissertation. I have been engaging in extreme avoidance behaviors: you know, just like staring at Facebook while wrapped uncomfortably in the corner section of the couch, scrolling through the "recent activity" bar, reading posts and comments of people I don't know, simply dying for someone to post something for me to read. This signals desperation. I know I must do this writing task, I must sit down and simply open the document and just type some stuff. I must. It's not like I don't know what I'm trying to do...there sits in this document a perfectly cogent outline, a do-able plan, one replete even with manageable sections and familiar material. It won't be done. It's not going to happen, no matter how little else I have to do or things I have to make up to avoid it.
(25 minutes in the deodorant aisle at Walgreens. Yep! [you know I have been needing to seriously reconsider my deodorant usage--so: time well spent!]. 48 minutes on the Old Navy website ordering clothes I don't need with money I don't have? Check! One simply can't turn down the offer of 30% off. Did someone write something on Facebook? Well, I just checked and it turns out that most people have real jobs.)
So what. What's the point of turning here to this writing space? Avoidance and irrationality are part of the process. No one, except those reviled by God (to borrow a sentiment from Anne Lamott), writes effortlessly and willingly all the time. So no, nothing surprising here. Normally I can "trick myself" into doing some writing, by opening a new document, or emailing myself, or, as I tried over the weekend, writing on the notepad of my cellphone (the sentences sucked, but hey! I wrote!). I've already given in to this feeling, this feeling that writing is LITERALLY IMPOSSIBLE right now. I really feel that way.
I find that feeling peculiar and interesting as a writing researcher. I know this way of feeling is not unique. Writers get this way and find ways of getting out of it. Moreover, it can't be emphasized enough that I am, of course, at this moment, writing. Words are flowing, and I'm not retching or crying or yelping with terror. I'm rather just doing it, just doing writing. This though, this very thing, this very doing, has yet to persuade me that writing is possible. That thinky-kind of writing, which matters and represents the culmination of a couple of years of study...that writing, that writing that will be judged, evaluated, reviewed, that writing that is supposed to represent me...well, nope. That simply can't be done.
Which brings me to what brought me here to write this, this writing here. When the writing gets tough, I typically go back to that which I've already written. I started my "writing day" today by rereading documents that are already "done." This ritual is fully necessary for me to remind myself that I can in fact write. "See!," I say on the inside, "this writing isn't terrible! And look! It's DONE." So in today's desperation, I turned to the most writing I ever done-did. My comprehensive exams.
I did my exams in September and secretly found them exhilarating (finding any kind of pleasure in this arduous process is not really accepted in my grad culture). I wrote a ton. Aside from prep for oral exams, I had not read these answers at all. But more that just reading them, today I was looking to MINE THEM--I worked hard a few months ago on this writing, this writing is MINE to use as I wish! I was looking for sentences or ideas, angles, insights, which might propel my diss chapter forward. Bits to make writing possible again.
And those gems I did find, I guess. But what's more important to me was to realize how absolutely mind-bending it was to think HOW MUCH WRITING I did in those 9 hours. Day one was around 30 pages, then 22, then 27...and the writing, well...it was kinda GOOD. Sentences soared without self-consciousness, lacking my characteristic twist in construction. I was clear, engaging, and interesting in writing, descriptors I don't often use. This brought on a huge "what-the-hell" moment: the stakes of writing were simply HUGE in those several hours. A year's worth of reading and study and thinking to be represented in a total of 27 hours in one week. GO!
I'm thinking now of the extremely unusual circumstances of writing a comprehensive exam and how extremely productive those circumstances were for me. Can I ever simulate those terms again? Can I will or create a situation that was like that? Maybe not. This is in itself interesting to me. In fact in my dissertation, I'm thinking about all those external forces, materials, spaces that delimit or provoke writing acts. And I'm thinking, you know, even if I set myself the goal of a unconscious, maniac, unthinking session like the one I experienced in exams, I couldn't probably do it. I may never find myself in a position where I had to write, like A LOT, or I would just die. Like seriously. Die. So just writewritewritewrite, and don't really think about it. Just DO IT.
And now I'm thinking of the JUST DO IT-ive-ness of THIS reflection space. No pauses here. Just writing. Moving, from one thing to the next. Put in a title, and write. OK, review your language a LITTLE bit, in case any one else ever reads this. And now this too becomes a shaper, a force, that presses my words out of me and on to this "page." If not this space, then where, would the words come like this...
A couple of weeks ago, I had a familiar experience. A student of mine missed several days of my intermediate composition course in a row. He emailed me to explain. Seeing the email in my inbox--its subject: "missed classes"--I released a sigh before I even opened it. I braced myself for the familiar litany: repeated car trouble, death in the family, sick (so sick that there's even a doctor's note!), family emergency, sick--OH SO SICK. I thought back briefly to another term's student who had offered to send me pictures that "proved" she was sick with the stomach flu. As I hesitantly clicked the message, I prepared myself to analyze this student's story, to try and read between the lines and discern if he was to be believed.
What was contained in the email seemed simply nonsensical. A family emergency contradicted with a university-approved absence that I had known about in advance plus the anticipation of missing more classes for which he'd have a doctor's note (but he did not mention that he was ill). This combination of classic and familiar excuses here collected in one confusing email tried to explain what he'd already missed and attempted to make me aware that he'd continue to miss. I was indignant. I was confused. I was irritated that I'd have to write back, asking for clarification and reminding this student of my clear attendance and late work policies. I began my reply, "Perhaps I'm missing something here..." I felt I was being overly generous because what I wanted to type in that moment was, "Yeah, right! Just come to my class already!"
In the meantime, I turned to Facebook. I typed out a summary of my student's email and ended by saying, "looking forward to the email explaining that at least three grandmothers have passed away, causing excused absences due to religious holiday." All my teacher friends liked it. We exchanged comments about "kids these days" and the "average morality rate of grandmothers" going up this term. We constructed ourselves as teachers--knowing, wise, heard-it-all teachers. Teachers dealing with the same ole student behavior. My student may as well have written that his dog ate his homework, his alarm clock, and ability to attend my course.
We see this kind of in-group, humor catharsis all over the internet for teachers. Videos of teachers yelling at students for cell-phones, lists of terrible opening sentences from student essays, horribly written emails from students to teachers, reproduced and circulated for an audience of teachers who nod and laugh. We see shadows of our own students. Our individual students blur into one big Student. We sit around in our offices and talk about "my students..." or "when I was in college, I never..." or "why do freshman students always..." The Student-with-a-capital-S is always lazy or doesn't try, tries to pull one over on you, uses poor grammar or writes you too familiarly, can't read the syllabus, doesn't have a clue.
The Student-with-a-capital-S is useful. It lets teachers release tension and frustrations about those students whom we worry over or feel compelled to spend more time with, students who need more help or seem helpless. It lets teachers laugh and share the difficult emotions that come with teaching. It can let teachers feel like teachers.
But it can also be shorthand.
Often when a student speaks, we hear the Student-with-a-capital-S. We hear all the other times students have sounded like this student in front of us, or in email. We've heard their story before. And only sometimes does that story prove to legit.
To my "Perhaps I'm missing something..." email, my student responded with more details from his story, details that made the original email make sense. Details that made me glad that I left open the possibility that he was missing the class for a legitimate reason. He was missing for a legitimate reason. A sad reason, a private reason, that I'd accidentally made him share because I wrote back in defense of my policies.
This experience reminds me of an old friend of mine that teaches at another university. His teaching philosophy is founded on the idea that students are humans. Human beings, just like teachers. Human-being-ness indeed collides with the idea of student as Student.
Dr. Hannah J. Rule