There once was a writer in Spring Green on a retreat to determine what it all means. Does one write to inspire, share my gift with admirers, or obediently revise 'til it's felicitously clean?
teacher must not be a judge, but a physician.
It is much easier to judge--to name and weigh and make orders. To heal takes patience, time, gentleness, and both the ability to see another's life and persuade another to follow it more nearly. Sometimes a student even seems to prefer a judge: Sentence me quickly and be done with it.
Murray's metaphor is compelling, yet strangely worrisome. It puts so many burdens on the writing teacher--to fix what's wrong in the paper, or at least to prescribe a healthy lifestyle that would work for that individual. It also makes too much of the power disparity between professor and student. The professor is the professional and has the power to "cure" the student's paper or even "cure" the student. And is the student or paper "sick"? Perhaps it is writing itself that is the healer -- not a physician but something that makes us whole, but only through some change, through being touched by another person who inspires us to revise.
I'd like to be more like my dissertation advisor. I'd be halfway home to my computer in Cedar Rapids before I'd realize she'd just prescribed a thorough revision of a 30-page chapter ("Why don't you start again, just use these 3 sentences as your touchstones…"). And I knew she was right.
Maybe someone told you this but I had to find it out on my own. At the top of the hill is a path. When you start down the path you don't know where it's going. It's always a little bit scary to walk deep into some place you've never been before but you walk on anyway. You notice things. The path has been mowed in the grass. It smells good. The sun is going down. The path goes through a clearing then veers towards the edge of the woods. There is thunder in the distance. You walk on. Suddenly you know which direction the path will take. It will follow the circumference of the field until it leads you back to a clearing, then home. You know this because your mind has connected, through the logic of the path, to someone else's mind = the maker of the path. This is how writing is.
This is a kind of knowing.
The Devil's in the Disciples
The patrons of the pit linger in groves above the gravel, feasting on brie and brats, washed down with boxed chablis.
At trumpets first call they take the hill, huffing and puffing, not even half way. Tickets torn, they linger once again over steaming brandied coffees scented with bad cigars. Inside at last they marvel, at the seats, at the sound, at the stars above and below.
Stunted laughs greet lines penned for reflection. As Shaw's house of tears gives way to a house of mirrors, civil incivility reigns in players condemned to become those they will never be. "That preachers wife, she looks like Monica,” the fat woman says. "And he,” says he at her good side, "could be Robin William's brother.”
At intermission, the patrons change their costumes too. Land's End cotton pulled over Badger tees wards off the cold, which never comes. Trumpets call again, and with each in their places, the players draw the faithful deeper into the unlikely triumph of war's indignities denied.
The quilted curtain falls at last amid standing O's that justify time, legitimize expense. From the pit the patrons file like beasts through killing chutes, comparing notes, lighting smokes as they make their way into the dark. Like the players now backstage, they can again become themselves.
Let's do as Shaw suggest: Forgive them. For then it won't matter.
The Importance of Being GBS
In Coole Park, George B. Shaw incised
His personality in bark
On the beech tree which towers above
Lady Gregory's walled garden.
His G.B.S. dominates Yeats,
Synge, & other names we labor
To recall, as if each writing
Moment was a social challenge.
In The Devil's Disciple, Shaw
Skewers the moral somnambulists
Of proper society -- God
Craven, the Devil heroic.
He reserves his vintage venom
For the British -- Swindon, stupid
In the best British way, Burgoyne
Well bred at a hanging, or lunch
Writing well, for Shaw, was revenge
For the wrong accent, the wrong school,
The wrong clothes, wrong friends, being born
In Ireland, but not in Coole Park.
Beyond the Headlights
We should have been worried when Karen and Deb couldn't find the car in the parking lot. Karen courteously offered our newest rider, Lynda, the front seat and the gift of leg room. Unfortunately, the driver then lost the gift of Karen's navigation. We moved in obedience to the traffic flow turning right out of the parking lot and, unbeknownst to us, left onto highway 14. As we crossed the large metal bridge for the first time, we realized that we were not on highway 23 and needed to revise our direction. After this revision failed to take us to highway 23, we were inspired to consult a map. Felicitously, we had picked up a travel guide to Spring Green and were able to study a detailed area map. On our third pass over the metal bridge, we glimpsed a gift of fire works over the river. This inspired a stop at the liquor and sports store. Unfortunately, the store owner, obedient to Wisconsin law, refused to sell us a bottle of wine because it was 9:02 on a Saturday night. We returned to the dark journey home through the wooded hills. Susan remarked that we seemed to be traveling through a tunnel of shadows. This image inspired Jane to share with us one of Bob's favorite metaphors for writing. " Writing is like driving in the dark, you can only see as far as your headlights, but that's all you need.”
After a few more wrong turns, two young deer appeared (like another gift) in our headlights. By this point we could see the lights of the Silver Star guiding us home at last. It was then that our group realized in unison that, with only our headlights to guide us, our obedient revisions had inspired the felicitous gift of this story.
Writing About Writings Again!
I'm Not a Writer
I'm not a writer. I'm married to a writer. I'm the mother of two writers, but I'm not a writer. My friend and colleague Joanne is a writer, and I've filled many folders with her memos, assignments, family stories, and letters because I love to read them. We both teach writing, but I'm not a writer.
As I sit at the green wrought iron table with my legal pad, papers, and pen, Jane stops by and says, "You look like a writer in a French Café.” I answer, "No, I'm not a writer.” She says, "A person who is writing is a writer.” I disagreed. Jane is a writer. I've often enjoyed the stories of her life with her children in the newspapers.
I do a lot of writing-assignments for my students, lectures on American culture, the stock market, AIDS, and the ivory trade; recommendations and proposals and evaluations; letters to students on email and journals. For twelve years of my adult life I wrote weekly letters to my mother from college and then from Thailand, Switzerland, Japan, Kenya, and Nepal. She kept them all, but sometimes she said, "These don't always feel like letters. They feel like a memoir.” But I don't feel like a writer.
For me, a writer, a real writer, would be a person whose words a reader chooses to read. With the exception of my mother, most of my words are written for people who have to read them. So, I'm not a writer. I'm not complaining though. I have other talents. I have a great appreciation of writers. I love reading about the lives, thoughts, and work schedules of writers. I'm a good reader for writers. I think I can tell when the tone becomes dissonant or when a sentence stumbles. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling jump out at me from texts. I'm not a writer, but one of my greatest pleasures is when my daughter hands me a poem and says, "Read this, Mom, and tell me what you think.”
Where is Bartlett when you need him? Where is Bartlett's Dictionary of Familiar Quotations, when you need it? The quote goes something like this: "Success is one part inspiration, nine parts perspiration.” Success in writing is not always an "ah hah” experience, but it is more like I imagine the process of sculpting to be. One does not look at a square of marble and visualize immediately the final product, but instead the product is partially defined by the process. What the result will be becomes incrementally more clear as the artist progresses. One might think that the sculpting metaphor would break down about the time we begin to discuss revision, but in actuality, as each piece of marble falls away, what remains is a closer approximation of the devised result. Each stroke must reveal new possibilities and new revisions that are needed to coax the raw material into a shape that meets the artist's goals. Though new combinations of shapes, like new combinations of words, may occasionally appear felicitously, only the artist who struggles to revise, will be assured of continued success.
In a small, expensive flat on Bay Street in Toronto, Mel and I are greeted in the traditional Syrian manner, a kiss on both cheeks. This is a greeting full of love and concern. It is a real touching--and I have missed it greatly since I returned to North America.
The kitchen, dining area, and living room, dominated by an entire wall of black plastic TV and stereo equipment, is all part of the living area in this 750 sq. ft. flat. The furnishings and appliances are very upscale, but there is nothing Syrian here except the blue and gold jacquard table cloth.
Alaya and Mai insist that Mel and I sit down in the living room. The French doors that lead to a miniature balcony provide a fine view of downtown, dominated by the skyscraper bank buildings, the white Scotia Bank, and the golden glass of the Royal Bank of Canada. Although we cannot see it, behind them is the lakefront with its cruise boats and yacht harbor. With a little imagination, this could be Chicago.
Mai and Alaya return to the condensed kitchen. It is two o'clock in the afternoon, but I know they're preparing lunch. Two is the traditional Syrian lunch hour. I smell lemon juice, olive oil, aleppo pepper, cumin, and other familiar scents from Middle East cookery. They serve rice with pine nuts covered with vegetables, fried chicken rolled in freshly ground black pepper and some other spice which I don't know. (The girls tell me they brought a suitcase of spices from Aleppo.) We have a traditional lettuce, tomato and cucumber salad with lemon juice and feta cheese.
We talk about Syria and their brother, Mohammed, who had to be left behind because he wasn't yet 18 and thus could not get his father's permission to immigrate. (The mother, Nour, is divorced and remarried and the girls were 18 and 19 and thus could escape without it.)
Alaya says that Mohammed has really grown up, that he has become a man. I nod my head, but I remember a pudgy, lazy, indulged kid. I would be surprised if he had changed very much. Last summer his mother asked us if we would help get him to the U.S. on a student visa. We agreed--would do anything to help Nour who had helped us as much when we were neophytes in Aleppo. The American embassy, however, refused him a visa. His English was very poor, he had flunked out of two schools and the U.S. examiner wasn't convinced he was a serious student, which he wasn't.
Mai said, "We miss him so much." I knew it was true. Syrian families are very close ,and all these women had thought Mohammed was wonderful. When Nour returned from work she said she couldn't even talk about the boy, she was so upset, he was having such difficulties living with his grandmother, etc. She had left $3,000 for him, a fortune in Syria--and I suspected he was going through it rapidly!
Mai and Alaya both said that they liked Toronto. They and their stepfather had taken the free English lessons at the YMCA, they were enrolled in George Brown College, which I think is a technical school. We walked to the college through a rain so light that one could scarcely call it rain and then to Casa Loma, an old mansion which is now a tourist attraction. I knew that they had to be unusually adventurous for Syrian girls--and I also knew that if they had remained in Syria their chances for a good marriage were almost nil. Nour came from a moneyed, prominent family ( her grandfather had been in the government under the French) and now she was married to a man who came from a village (that term is a kind of expletive in Syria) who has no money. The fact that he's a very nice man, has a fine sense of humor, works hard, and is good looking do not count in Syrian society--in a country where marriage for young girls are arranged, he is a major debit, even an insurmountable obstacle.
It was difficult for Nour to decide to immigrate--to leave her mother and her extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was difficult to persuade Mohammed, her 2nd husband, who had almost no English, no university studies, and I suspect no compelling reason to leave everything he had ever known. But somehow, they had all been persuaded, I suspect by Nour's strength of character.
She had her fears, too. Could she get a job? Would they have enough money? Could her husband get a job? Would the girls adjust?
Finally she told me, "you remember the book you gave me, Diary of a Woman Homesteader? When I read about all the hardships she faced, that gave me courage. Then I knew we could come.”
The Power of the Press
Iowa City, Iowa, May 12, 1972 (AP)—Iowa Army National Guard troops and Iowa State Patrol officers in riot gear used tear gas overnight to clear hundreds of anti-war protesters from both the eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 80, near Iowa City.
The demonstration blocked the Interstate for nearly an hour, backing up traffic in both directions for nearly five miles, according to the Iowa State Patrol.
Forty-seven protesters were arrested on charges ranging from rioting to assaulting a peace officer after an estimated 400 hundred demonstrators marched, en masse, from downtown Iowa City to the Interstate. Only minor injuries were reported, including injuries to three state troopers treated and released at University of Iowa Hospitals.
The demonstration was the latest in a series of protest on the UI campus against U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia. Last spring similar demonstrations closed the university prior to final examinations.
According to the Iowa State Patrol, demonstrators blocked Interstate 80, near Exit 224, just after a rally at the foot of Old Capitol on the UI campus that attracted a crowd estimated at 600. At that rally an anti-war advocate read aloud an editorial from the May 11 edition of The Daily Iowan, the UI's campus newspaper. The editorial advocated a coordinated, nation wide Interstate 80 sit-in as an effective tactic in drawing public attention to student opposition to the war.
Chanting "I-80, I-80," protestors then marched more than a mile to the Interstate, interrupting traffic on North Dubuque Street en route.
Myth #19: Writing is a Solitary Activity
My inner cry as I fumble through teaching my students how to think is, "Learn from my mistakes!" Don't write in a cocoon--writing is not a solitary experience. This is a myth. Writing is as communal as life itself.
As a first-year student at Luther College, I lived in a Penthouse in West Brandt Hall with three roommates. We were required to take "Paidea" (Paidea: Greek for 'education'). We wrote papers. We rarely started our work or our process, except to complain about having to write them. I lived in a highly competitive environment where we asked each other what grades we got (secretly hoping to outdo the others) but we never read each other's work. That was my introduction to college writing.
Other semesters were no different. Writing was a solitary experience for me. The only one to read my work was my professor--a solitary judge for my solitary work.
In graduate school, I continued to be private with my pen, writing journal entries and dream diaries. The audience was me. I was on an intrapersonal path of self discovery. (I was a rock, I was an island). I was a four-major student.
After I married I began to understand, finally, the joy of communal experience. I wrote stories and shared them with my husband and sent them to my friends--my supportive, accepting, non-grading, less-then-minimal-marking readers.
How my college writing would have changed and grown had I learned to write communally instead of competitively. To fail publicly with the support of my peers tastes sweeter than succeeding in secret.
Next: Writing as a Process
Next: Writing as a Process
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