Writing Done To Order
Liberal Professors Wielding Dictionaries
Math and statistics majors don't write papers, they prove theorems. Occasionally, when foraging for general requirements, we were confronted by liberal professors wielding dictionaries and thesauruses. Those were harrowing experiences. The following is my recollection of such an experience.
It was the first semester of my freshman year. I enrolled in an honors seminar taught by the Psychology Department. The professor seemed nice enough until he informed us of the six required papers. As the semester progressed it became apparent that our professor held strong beliefs on a variety of controversial issues. These same issues were to be discussed in our papers. On the second paper I disagreed with the professor's opinion and wrote a counter-argument. When the paper was returned to me the main criticism, with no detailed explanation, was that my argument was wrong. The grade attached was a D. We were able to rewrite papers. So my best course of action seemed to be to just argue in favor of the professor's opinion using his own arguments. This paper received an A-. Which positions do you think I argued in favor of in the remaining papers?
On Writing Assignments
Does our current writing task--a response to a selected reading--meet the requirements of a good writing assignment? According to various passages in the selected writing, I contend that it does not. Specifically:
"Most writing assignments don't provide enough information to help students define rich rhetorical problems. Instead they present students with a paper writing problem, a meaningless exercise in jumping hurdles for a grade."
In addition, several variables are suggested as essential to writing assignments. Two variables, in particular, intrigue me as we consider the current assignment. We must account for students' interest and understanding of the subject, and the purpose or aim of the composition.
The retreat participants clearly have diverse interests and understanding of the subject, and the purpose of the assignment is not clear to many (including me). Therefore the assignment becomes a meaningless exercise in jumping for food and money.
I simply chose a selected reading that I assume to be the subject of the retreat, and obediently complete the given task.
Writing About Dead Maple Leaves
The college I went to required all first year students to take a writing course where we wrote a three to five page essay for each class meeting. In the fall, my class English I met three times a week.
I came to college fancying myself a writer, but the first month of English made me wonder where I had got that idea. I was able to write and turn in a three-page paper three times a week but that was all. The teacher clearly didn't see me as any better than any of the other students in the class, and nothing I wrote seemed to make him pause in what must have been his mad dash through fifty pages of adolescent prose three times a week.
I reread and ponder the work sheet--our writing stretched on the table for our teacher's scalpel--which we get three times a week. I could never figure out what the teacher wanted, and those times when I thought I had, the pencil scarred corpse of my freshly returned paper proved me wrong.
One Tuesday night sitting at my Olivetti in my single in Marrow Hall trying to psych out the assignment for Wednesday's essay, I thought: " I know I have the tools to be a good writer. Why can't I figure out how to turn those tools to good use? What the hell does Pritchard want?"
Outside my window I could see the black silhouette of the last maple leaves outlined by the lamp that was placed, in the words of one of the college songs, to guide the drunken students home through the snow.
Then I thought, "Fuck it." I'm going to write why the black silhouettes of the maple leaves make me think of bats. I'm going to write about how I'm going to flunk out at the end of the first semester and go to Juarez, get drunk, and go with one of the cab drivers that wanted to take me to see his sister.
So I trashed the assignment and wrote about dead maple leaves and bats and feeling like shit.
Of course the teacher noticed.
He printed the essay on the work sheet and praised the four-line stanza I had written about bats and leaves. He also made a small aside about how the promise of the stanza was not realized in the rest of the paper. This was after all English I, learning through humiliation, the college version of Marine Boot Camp.
All of this aside, that essay was a turning point of sorts in my first year. I now knew--although not with great confidence--that I could write. I know Pritchard was a prick whose main pedagogical trick was to put us down. I knew, although I couldn't articulate until much later, that writing was not about what you couldn't do but about what you could. I know that if I taught writing, this was where to begin.
Rosemaling, Kaptain Kangaroo, and Rocky
When I think about writing in college, I remember my audience as much as the paper. Since my audience was a professor, I learned quickly how to write for one specific person.
Peter Scholl (more gnome than troll), my Paidea professor, was an English and history buff; culture and class were his favorite buzzwords. He told me he'd never read a 'good' research paper on rosemaling. The rosemaling exhibit on our field trip to the Scandinavian Museum was the saving grace of my entire Paidea year. If I was going to write a paper for Peter on a folk art, I had to tie the various 'dialects' of the visual language of rosemaling to the class issues and sub-cultures of the early Norwegians. I did, complete with illustrated text and title page. My paper won a prize.
Now, I also remember having to fulfill a major requirement by taking Rhetorical Theory. I put off taking this class for a while--the name made me shudder, it sounded so boring, but I thought it would be better than Argumentation. My professor was new, his first semester in the classroom. My understanding–zero. I wrote papers in my best "classy" academic prose and got dismal comments on them. I couldn't "read" my reader. Finally I mustered up the courage to make an appointment and ask him, "How do you want me to write for you? Show me an example." He gave me a classmate's "A" paper to read and the light bulb clicked on. By changing the examples in my paper on Richards' Semantic Triangle theory to Kaptain Kangaroo's Mr. Moose and falling ping pong balls, I gained Mr. Rhetoric's good graces.
Dr. Richard Simon Hansor, Harvard scholar, frustrated, challenged, and enlightened me most of all. Simon, my hero, wanted imagination--creativity with a capital "C." He wanted me to reach into the zany depths of my soul to bring out the most bizarre pop culture metaphors, to explain the Judeo-Christian tradition. He wanted modern parables. Remember Rocky climbing the cement steps in Philadelphia, sweating in slow motion, jumping, yelling, arms raised high in the air? Well, faith really isn't this kind of mountaintop experience. . . .
Write. Even if it's bad, write. To return to the sculpting analogy from an earlier essay, imagine that a writer must first create the raw material, before he or she can sculpt. Again, the more I have on paper, the better I can visualize where I am going, the easier it will be to reach my goal. Imagine if Borglum had waited until he had a perfect image in his mind of Mt. Rushmore before he began to make his models, before he began to dynamite. It is likely that we would have till this day a mountainside left to our imaginations. Write, now--right now.
Writing Revolutions: A Sestina
I will be good & obedient.
I will seek solid & felicitous
words, then take my pages & revise,
feeling the kiss of filtered inspiration,
producing my pages of packaged gifts,
all for a lousy couple hundred bucks.
Because, you know, I'll do anything for bucks:
sing loud chants with voice obedient;
sell my hair, my body for gifts;
speak to administrators with words felicitous;
bow to students. It's enough to inspire
the rising gorge. I must change, revise.
So, now, how do you begin to revise?
How do you turn your back on the buck,
when the mortgage payments inspire
you to toe-the-line, act obedient,
kiss the ring, vomit words felicitous,
scrambling for shreds of administrative gift?
I have to ask, what is a gift?
Are words better when revised?
Is it right to find words felicitous
& trade them for a few hundred bucks?
To turn the faculty into obedient
dogs? No. I AM INSPIRED!
How can they pay for inspiration?
How can we consider selling the gift?
Can a paycheck make us obedient?
Make us labor, write, revise?
Is there no end to what the buck
will bring? No place for felicitous
beliefs? No. I will not sell felicitous
words! I will use my language to inspire
revolutions; to turn towards the goal; buck
economic systems. This is my gift.
I will burn the rule book, re-envision!
Finally, I will never be obedient!
So here I sit, inspired to obedience,
revising this weak gift of felicitous
words, for a lousy pile of bucks.
Song of the Blank Page
The Downside of Writing on Demand
There are times in the lives of virtually all writers—even the most enthusiastic and verbose--when the process becomes problematic and the creative muse takes her holiday. This particular condition is particularly prominent in situations where specific output is required with short notice, when the writer is asked to write "on demand".
To further illustrate, I have crafted the following haiku poem (which does not begin to approach 25 words, thus necessitating this introduction.)
This website created and maintained by the Coe Writing Center. Copyright 2001.
Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.