– Learning to write: a meme

Over at digital digs, Alex Reid (someone I don’t know but whose thoughts I enjoy reading), writes about how he learned to write. While his post raises illuminating questions about a well-accepted pedagogy — that teachers’ experiences of learning to write and developing a writing practice are central to their teaching of first year composition — his post also gives me an idea for a meme.

He captures his development of a writer by describing three contradictory practices. I’m going to do the same, and then I’m going to tag four friends.

My practices?

1. The first grade I got in college was an F. The class was English 150: Critical Interpretation. The professor was Robert Polito. The assignment was to do a close reading of a Shakespeare sonnet. I was so happy to be in college! So happy to be showing the professor what I could do! So happy to be writing about love! I threw myself into the task and wrote a 5-page paper brimming with assertions and feelings, too. I typed it very neatly on onionskin and turned it in. A week later: F. Stunned, I walked back to my dorm; the sunny September afternoon was lost on me. The next day I went to Mr. Polito’s office hours (we called all our profs Mr., Mrs., and Ms. then, even though of course they were Doctors), and I asked him what I did wrong, and what should I do. And he explained to me how what I had written was not an analysis of the text but an expression of what I felt. What one feels is not a paper. He showed me what it meant to do a close reading and use textual evidence, and I went back to his office a couple of times more that semester because it took a while to get it. Eventually, from him and many other professors, I learned so well how to do a close reading that, even today, I cannot read something or write about it without scrutinizing it — at the level of the word, the sentence, the patterns the text makes. I seem to always start small and work outward from there.

2. As a freshman, I worked for Campus Police as my work study assignment. As a sophomore, junior, and senior, I worked in the Media Relations Office. I helped keep the media contacts database (on a Wang computer) up-to-date, and I wrote faculty bios and press releases. The faculty bio genre was open to customization, and, as long as I wove in the required information, I could write them in any story-like way I wanted. A press release, though: that has a defined structure. The director, Anne O’Sullivan, first explained to me the primacy of the hook sentence and the order of paragraphs and then showed me some samples. After I drafted one, she would take it to her desk and take out a green Flair pen and mark it up, prettily, in her looping script.  I loved getting Anne’s comments on the many press releases I wrote for her — she always offered at least one compliment, and even her many corrections seemed to be written with exuberance, as if she enjoyed reading my writing and helping it along. To me, there’s a pleasure in formulaic structures because big decisions have already been resolved, and the writer is free to tinker within the structure. Sometimes it feels like writing recess to put aside an amorphous essay (oh, the creep of ideas!) and write a grant proposal.

3. My first real job after college was at the Albert Einstein Institute in Cambridge, a think tank doing work in the area of nonviolent sanctions. (My mother thought I worked for the CIA, which was a huge compliment to a non-danger-seeker like me. That she could think I had taken on the work of national security? Wow — I felt as though an aura of intrigue, which I didn’t even know I had, possibly surrounded me.) The subject was more exciting than my actual work: I was hired to be a correspondence writer for the director, Gene Sharp. Gene and I would sit for hours, in his underground office on Brattle Street as feet went by the window that gave us a view of the sidewalk, and go through letters (on actual paper) that people from all over the world had sent him, and he would say out loud the words of his response, and I would take dictation on a steno pad in my own made-up shorthand. After we had sketched out 10 or 15 this way, I would go to my electric typewriter with a memory card and 75-character LCD and compose my notes into crisp, formal letters. I’d get Gene’s signature on all of them, fold them properly, and insert them into envelopes and bundle them up for the postman.  Although I had not actually created the messages, I had a feeling of having accomplished something worth doing, something important that would nurture a relationship, or continue a dialogue, or complete a transaction, and do the work of the world. While e-mail has largely replaced letters, I still value correspondence and feel that a thoughtful note — short or long — is writing worth doing. A blog, I think, has a relationship to correspondence.

Many more anecdotes seem worth telling — some from childhood and high school, and some more recent — but these came immediately to mind. I examine them and find myself disagreeing a bit with Alex Reid: how can these be contradictory, if they’re all somehow part of me? They’re in my repertoire. I use them.

James, Jimmy, Rosemary, and Lee, what do you say? What can you tell me about your twisted paths to becoming a writer?

6 thoughts on “– Learning to write: a meme

  1. Pingback: Jane’s Meme: Learning to Write « Quota

  2. Pingback: Lessons on the way to becoming a writer « Jimmy Guterman's Jewels and Binoculars

  3. I found this really difficult, actually. (Though I love that you asked us to do something that I found so challenging.) I’ve never been asked to think about these sorts of things. It made me realize that I don’t generally think about trajectories in terms of starts and finishes. And that I’m sometimes so instinctual, so touchy-feely in terms of my writing process, that the real hows of it go unnoticed. Or unexplained.
    That said: http://grammarpiano.blogspot.com/search/label/Learning%20to%20Write

    Also, I hate disclaimers.

  4. Pingback: Learning to Write, Part 3 « Grammar Piano

  5. Pingback: Learning to Write: Part 1 « Grammar Piano

  6. Pingback: Learning to Write, Part 2 « Grammar Piano

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