why (adv): In a direct question: For what reason? from what cause or motive? for what purpose? wherefore?

Over at This Recording a recent article, “In Which We Get Down to the Actual Writing” they provide an aggregate of excerpts from a bunch of famous writers talking about writing (that was a messy sentence, but you get my point). It’s always been my obsession to read manifestos and learn about writers’ processes through their own language, but lately it seems these texts are easier to find. There’s a new composition text Writing About Writing (2010) with essays with everyone from Mike Rose to Stephen King, the Paris Review has archived all of their interviews with writers back to the beginning of this series, and this recent web thing are great examples.

I am particularly grateful for these resources not only as a writer, but as an educator. I tried, at one point, to teach a composition course without any readings about writing (correction: I tried to teach a composition course where the only readings about writing were from a text book, which although helpful for analytical moves of the mind and pen, did not give an image of what it is like to undertake the writing process) and everything felt disconnected. I was wondering about the links between the readings we were doing and the writing as much as my students were. How can we expect our students (of any form of writing, not only creative writing) to find self-awareness in their own process and intentions if we don’t show them models of other writers describing how they work through ideas and what they feel the motivating factors for writing are?

As I say to my students in my current Composition and Literature syllabus, “The subject of this course is writing” (phrasing stolen from David Bartholomae). In part this approach is the product of my own creative “upbringing” — I can’t help but looks at any form of writing from a craft perspective. Part of it has to do with my Writing Center work. It has become increasingly obvious to me that my students should have access to the reading and thinking we do about writers in pedagogical training and/or as creative writers. As the Hejinian excerpt reads:

Language is one of the principal forms our curiosity takes. It makes us restless. As Francis Ponge puts it, “Man is a curious body whose center of gravity is not in himself.” Instead it seems to be located in language, by virtue of which we negotiate our mentalities and the world; off-balance, heavy at the mouth, we are pulled forward.

I am asking, in part, that my students be curious and work through their curiosities in writing. That advice feels prescriptive though. Be curious? How do I do that? I can just hear them thinking. In order to understand why curiosity can inspire us to “negotiate our mentalities” in written language it helps, I think, to show students other minds engaging in their own curiosity.

And so, we look at scholars looking at writing students (Bartholomae, Rose, Sommers, etc.). We read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. We look at writing projects that teach how to read them, books that have a purpose beyond entertainment (like Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder). We look at authors trying to negotiate their way into a form suitable for their purpose (whatever that might be).

I don’t think I am saying anything profound here, but I see so often in composition courses the process and the products of writing are assigned, prescribed, or limited by a professor’s singular perspective, or a text book’s catchy names for writing strategies. No wonder our students find writing to be difficult, boring, and unrewarding. Writing has become such a business we’ve lost all the romance of it, the excitement, the mystery.

By the end of the semester (and when they write their own “how and why I write” manifestos), I hope they’ve found at least one writer they can identify with, and feel a kinship with, either because there is something about that writer’s how and why they’d like to steal emulate, or because the writer has a similar process to their own, giving them permission to embrace the process they already employ (when, perhaps, they were embarrassed by it or felt their methods inadequate). We might not have solved the mystery, but at least we’ve made our way, at least a little, and with companions.

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2 thoughts on “why (adv): In a direct question: For what reason? from what cause or motive? for what purpose? wherefore?

  1. Pingback: Inform (v): To shape the mind, character, etc.; to instruct, teach, train; to provide with knowledge. | here now, myriads

  2. Pingback: Academia (n): the world of university scholarship | WHY I THINK THE PhD IS WORTH IT, Part 2 | here now, myriads

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