From the Center

Reflections from W&M's Writing Resources Center

Lessons about Writing – Inspired by Oliver Sacks

Sacks-Island-coverOliver Sacks claims that he wrote The Island of the Colorblind  “in a sort of swoop, a single breath, in July 1995, it then grew. . .” (xx). He makes writing sound easy, as if already-formed sentences tumbled out of his head onto the page in the correct order.  Yet, when he clarifies the process of reconstructing memories, we get a hint at the behind-the-scenes work required of communicating his Pacific island experiences:

“Writing, in these past months, has allowed me, forced me, to revisit these islands in memory.  And since memory .  .  .  is never a simple recording or reproduction, but an active process of recategorization—of reconstruction, of imagination, determined by our own values and perspectives—so remembering has caused me to reinvent these visits, in a sense, constructing a very personal, idiosyncratic, perhaps eccentric view of these islands . . . .” (xvii-xviii)

Like Sack’s exploration of the islands, his writing process follows a journey from discovery to synthesis or “reconstruction” and provides an example of important concepts about writing.

Concept 1:  Writing is more than a transcription from the mind directly to paper.  Writing is thinking on paper.

Concept 2:  Writing is messy. Making meaning requires work to tease out what we really want to communicate.

Concept 3:  Writing is re-writing.  Because writing is a process of discovery, new ideas might erupt at any time.  In the messiness, ideas collide and produce new ways of thinking about a subject.  Re-visioning our ideas can lead to a more sophisticated structure.  Look what happened to Sacks: his new ideas took the form of pages and pages of endnotes, creating a text of their own.

Concept 4:  How we shape our ideas is influenced by our “values and perspectives.” Each reader brings unique experiences to a text. That’s why “write about what you know” has become a truism – if we connect what we are reading or researching to things we know or have a passion about, our writing stands a better chance of capturing our readers.  Through our writing, we have an opportunity to share our perspective and challenge readers to think in new ways.

By writing Island of the Colorblind, Sacks has given us a glimpse of writing as thinking, as a process of meaning-making. Our challenge is to embrace the process.

Writing Centers Grow Up, Too

writingThe transition from high school into university is a large leap for many: students, parents, teachers, administrators, and, yes, even writing centers. Adjusting to the higher quality of writing and topics in numerous subjects that aren’t found in typical high school papers is a daunting task for both the consultant and the consultee, but it’s a necessary leap in higher education that fosters personal and intellectual growth.

High school is often the first time students encounter a a group of people dedicated solely to helping them improve their writing. But high school writing centers are often not valued to the same extent as writing centers at the university level. When I was a junior in high school, I helped found my county’s first in-school writing center, comprised of about thirty students and one very dedicated advisor.

To be honest, it was very slow-going. First, we had to get the word out that we now existed. Then we had to prove our value. The students had no prior experience with a writing center and were wary not just of our authority, but also of our ability to help. The center was only open during lunch hours, so sessions were crammed into 15- to 30-minute chunks and focused more on quick grammar and punctuation fixes than on content and analysis. More often than not, the only students who came to visit were those who were required to by their teachers.

For me, the biggest adjustment to working in a writing center at the university level has been the significant increase in working with students who come in on their own accord—students who truly want to improve their writing and value the consultant’s perspective. Not only that, but now we have an entire hour to sit down and work through the piece together, which is something that allows for a deeper conversation about the topic and arguments.

What I have found most rewarding, however, is the ability to work with more international students. These sessions pose different challenges for both the writer and the consultant. Working with students from a variety of countries has helped me see writing in an entirely different way—every culture, every language, every person has a unique voice and view of the world, and helping these students develop their ideas in their writing is a very rewarding experience that isn’t found often in a high school setting.

A higher education, especially at a liberal arts university like William & Mary, encourages students to gain a broad perspective on subjects in multiple disciplines. University writing centers have adapted to the different levels and expectations of writing, giving students a place to find support as they grow as writers.

Image: https://medium.com/an-idea-for-you/the-two-minutes-it-takes-to-read-this-will-improve-your-writing-forever-82a7d01441d1

Revision, Close Reading, and the Big Picture

For my English major, I enrolled in a  required course called Interpreting Literature. Rather than focusing on a single theme, the purpose of the class was to help students learn how to interpret a huge variation of writing, from Phillis Wheatley’s colonial poetry to Willa Cather’s post-WWI novels.

For the first half of the semester we turned in essays and short assignments, but instead of grades we received comments from our professor. We then turned in all of these assignments again, including at least one that we revised.  After spring break, we discussed these portfolios with our professor.

I’m really used to churning out essays as fast as possible, revising anything I can, and then sending it in right before it’s due. Ideally, I would start my essays much earlier, and then have enough time to look over them a day or two after I’ve written them. Most of the time, however, that isn’t the case for me, especially in the midst of an academically challenging semester. So, when I had the chance to turn in essays and then revise them weeks later, I was amazed at the improvements I could make. One sentence I had written originally had variations of the word “detail” in it three times, which is the kind of mistake that is much easier to catch when you read it with fresh eyes. You’re probably thinking, that’s obvious, everybody knows it’s better to look at a paper after a little time! I suppose I already knew that too, but how often do we actually have the opportunity to learn by revising papers after they’re turned in?

After revising my work, I met with my professor about my revisions. We spoke about my writing and what had been difficult for me so far throughout the semester. Through our discussion, I realized that in previous English classes, I had never encountered some of the difficulties that I had been experiencing this semester because my classes have usually been organized around an overarching theme or purpose. For context, here are some examples of the titles of classes I’ve taken in college so far: Narcissism in Literature, Feminism and the Environment, and The Literature of Age and Aging. Each of these classes had a clear theme and subject material, and I found it so much easier to create theses and write about the literature because I’m much better at connecting literature to specific, big picture issues.

Wow. With that understanding, I started to see why I struggled to find my writing groove in this class, a class simply titled “Interpreting Literature.” It’s not a misnomer: the entire purpose of this class is to discover how to use different methods of interpreting literature, and the first method we focused on happened to be close reading of the language. I had to work backwards from my comfort zone, finding bigger picture ideas through picking out small parts of passages rather than going into the passage with an idea to prove. It felt like I was rewiring my brain a little bit.

I hope I have more classes in which professors can take a little time to let the students do revisions. I also  hope I get my act together a little earlier in order to be able to revise work that I am less comfortable with. Being forced to challenge my normal methodology has helped me learn much more than I do when I churn out papers in my usual, last-minute style.

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