Friday, September 6, 2013

Notes Toward a Theory of Writing

Learning to understand and monitor one's own writerly needs is the main project of a writer's education. Beginning writers almost always feel that they have to learn the secrets that all successful writers have mastered. They think they need to take possession of something outside themselves. Writing teachers are often frustrated because they can't make students see how they're looking away from the place where the real secrets are located. The elements of a writer's making are within the individual, and they are different with each individual. Each writer makes his own habit. (David Huddle)

Implications, Corollaries, Questions, Elaborations:

1) If what Huddle says is true, what conditions could a teacher create that would enable students to understand and learn their own writerly needs? (It's pretty clear that writing "instruction"will have the opposite effect, starting as it does with the notion that there are certain things that everyone must be taught.)

2) Should it be the goal of high school and college English teachers to encourage/enable their students to become writers? Or is their mandate more properly understood to be the delivery of a basic skill set? Or some combination of both?

3) Writing is, at its best and most powerful, essentially a kind of reflective practice, the vehicle by which our thinking can be clarified and developed and made visible, and by which ideas we did not know we had can be generated (see yesterday's post for variations on this theme.)

4) What sorts of writerly needs might we be talking about?

  • The discipline of regular (daily?) practice. (A writer is someone who writes. Someone who writes is a writer. If you claim to like writing but do not write, you are not a writer.) 
  • The willingness to begin without knowing where you're going, to confront the blank page whether you have a plan or not.
  • Time. Place. Materials. (Much easier, this last, than in most other disciplines. All you really need is a writing utensil and a surface.)
  • The capacity for sustained attention, for monotasking. (Writing is predominantly a linear process. One word follows another. Even when revising, going back and moving things around, the end product is a sequence of words that will be experienced linearly by the reader.)
  • Some (l)earned sense of how language works, of what readers are likely to find either clear unclear, convincing or unconvincing, satisfying or unsatisfying, and why. Which implies, I think, some accumulated experience of attentive reading and interpersonal dialogue.

5) The notion that you need to look inside yourself to answer your own questions, rather than look elsewhere (out there, up there, somewhere) strikes me as being a very Buddhist notion, which, being a Buddhist, I see as only common sense; but which, being an American, I see as being profoundly countercultural—not an idea generally endorsed or reinforced by our schools, our government, or our churches. Students, parents, even colleagues will be unlikely to thank you if you challenge their assumptions about where the responsibility for becoming a better writer lies. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it:

There is no better way to make people think than by annoying them in a way that makes them defend their point of view, especially when their point of view may not have been well thought out... No one is a better teacher than a teacher who makes students wonder whether they might have been wrong about something. (Roger Shank, Teaching Minds (24))

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