We set writing goals for the semester and year in my classroom. Many students set a goal of “organization” or “focus.” These are natural goals for any writer, but what I often find is that they are masks for “I want to write more efficiently. I want to write right the first time.” Below is one such goal, and my response to it.
(Of course, I am not the only English teacher in the world, in all of time, who has sought to counsel such students, but this is my student, and this is my response…with strong thanks to my mentors: Mark R., my 11th grade American Lit. teacher who introduced me to Freewriting and gave me his copy of Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power; Bard College’s “Institute for Writing and Thinking” where I have grown more as a writer and teacher of writing than any place else; and to Mr. Peter Elbow himself, in whom I’ve found a mentor and kindred spirit.)
“My goal for the marking period is to organize my writing better. I need to focus on putting my thoughts out in a clear format that makes sense and is in order. This means leaving out pointless information and recognizing the sequence that the paragraphs should be in. I’m really interested in working on creative writing or writing poetry, and it would help if I was able to write in a succinct manner in my writing without having to redo entire sections. I can recognize a lot of mistakes in writing, but the sequence of ideas is not one. My thoughts are sporadic, so are my ideas in writing. So my goal is to try and organize my thoughts in my writing so that a can write something that makes sense.” –E….
I admire this goal as it seeks to discover a means for writing that is “easier.” I’ll reply with a quotation attributed to, among others, Ernest Hemingway, one of our great writers of the 20th century: “It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”
If you want to get things done and just be done with them and not worry about the quality of your thoughts or the craft of your words, then writing is easier than bleeding. Organizationally the trick is to come up with some key ideas (Claims you want to make) organize them around a central thesis, and organize their order from least important to greatest, or from closest to most distant, (or vice versa, depending upon the topic), or order them from self, to community, to world. Or from oldest to newest. There are even more ways…but those are the key ones. See, it’s easy, just like I said. 😉 But remember, that doesn’t take the measure of the quality of your ideas or the quality of your writing.
The hard truth, however, is that nothing great was ever written with ease. It is always a struggle, or perhaps a learning to dance with our selves and who takes the lead. Perhaps that’s cold comfort to you and your goal, but the upshot is this: to get better at writing, you must write, and not for a grade, but you must write for yourself, to please yourself. If your writing is boring to you it will be so to the reader. To do this well, you must find your voice. To find your voice, you must write. And so you’ve circled back. But none of this is unfamiliar to any artist. And writing is an art–you must find your own way through it. Here is one way to conceive of the act….
Peter Elbow breaks the writing process into two parts, “Growing” and “Cooking.” One does not grow ideas and concepts in direct and linear ways, in ways that are totally organized as they leave the pen. It is an organic process, like the growth of a vine of peas. It wanders, meanders, finds new pathways…but it is always rooted in one place to begin…though it may find new roots elsewhere. Only when that growth has been given time and distance can it bear fruit which we then take and “cook” under the heat of editing, organization, and pruning back all our wandering meandering ideas. This will allow us to strengthen our original idea (the vine) and promote more growth.
That’s a lot to get, but it’s important to understand writing, at least in my class, as a craft, not a science. I’m teaching you to write for learning, not write to demonstrate learning. In AP Human or AP Gov/Euro you’ll write a lot…but most of that is artless writing to demonstrate learning or simply to rehearse ideas and cement learning (as writing is a good way to do that). That’s not what I’m about in this class, though I will teach you simple ways to go about it.
Right now you simply need to spend the time upfront to develop and grow your ideas, find your center(s) of gravity(ies) and then work toward pruning and editing and reorganizing.
If beauty is not skin deep, then beautiful writing is also not superficial.
In the end, I will urge you to follow this goal you’ve set, but only with the understanding that growing ideas is painstaking, heartbreaking, joyous, amazing, time-consuming work that requires a full-bodied attention to the world and the works around you. It is hard, but good, honest, rewarding work. All humans deserve to devote the time and effort to these rewards.
Such I will grant you in this class.