A student in the college’s funeral service program brought into the Writing Center her paper on organ and tissue donation. Before I read it, I asked her about the assignment, and I also asked if there was anything in particular she’d like me to read for. The assignment, she told me, required her to cover all aspects of the subject — religious, legal, ethical, and technical — in about five pages. When I raised my eyebrows at this, she remarked, “Yeah, it’s a lot to cover in a short space.” And she asked me to read “to see if it’s all right.”
Her writing was all right: clear, grammatical, good paragraphing. As reader, though, I found myself most fascinated by the one or two page technical section, which described how enbalmers remove organs and tissues and then prepare bodies after that, and especially by a paragraph or two on the long bones: the ones in arms and legs (and later I found out, in fingers). Not only did I not have any previous knowledge that these could be donated and transplanted, I loved the sound of the phrase “the long bones.”
I thought of telling her how all the action in the paper was in my favorite section and presenting the possibility of revising around that section. I stopped myself. She didn’t ask me how to write an exciting paper; her feedback request was more practical. In the end, I gave her a compliment about how well she described the hands-on work of her intended profession, and I raised a few questions to get her to sharpen a couple of meandering paragraphs.
Later, on my own and with friend and colleague Jan Donley, I reflected on myself as a demanding reader. How does that affect the way I respond to student writing? To friends’ writing? I hope I have the self-restraint to allow their work to be about what it’s about for them. Do I only exhibit that, however, when the writer is a pretty good one? I fear that, with student writers I consider lesser, I step in and give stronger, more shaping (and possibly diverting) feedback.
As a hungry reader, I am foraging constantly for something good in everything I read, whether it be a bit or the whole thing. I can’t stop thinking of the long bones. The phrase has been ringing in my imaginative ears. I drive around from place to place, and look down at my legs, at the span of my arm from shoulder to wheel, at my fingers. The long bones, the long bones, the long bones.
Drawing by Nadav. Found on Flickr.