From the Center

Reflections from W&M's Writing Resources Center

Category: writing process (page 1 of 2)

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.

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.

A Case for the Bookstore

bookstore_1I never write papers in Swem.

Unpopular as that opinion may be, I can explain. As an English major, I have spent much of my college career writing papers. In the pursuit of enjoying this experience as much as possible, I have experimented with many locations around campus; however, I have had varying degrees of success. I have tried various academic buildings, my dorm room or lounge, and of course Swem and Swemromas. Academic buildings and dorms rooms are never quite right, although the new ISC is growing on me (in large part due to the Starbucks). Even though many students consider Swem a studying haven, I never produce my best work on any of Swem’s four floors. Instead, when it comes time for me to sit down and write, I often opt for the William & Mary bookstore in Merchants Square.

The bookstore is an ideal place for me and my writing process. I love being surrounded by tables of interesting books and the quiet, cozy atmosphere of the bookstore. The Café is usually quiet and relaxed, with the occasional dimmed conversation or the sound of the espresso machine from Starbucks; the patio, just separated enough from the bustling DOG Street, is typically serene (you may even get to pet a dog!). As a self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur, I love the ready availability of Starbucks’ Pike Place roast. I am also a fair-weather writer in the most literal sense. I do some of my best writing sitting outside in the sunshine with an iced coffee in hand. In fact, I have written entire final papers at one of the tables on the bookstore patio or sitting at a table in front of a window in the cafe on chillier days.

The one downfall of the bookstore is its somewhat unreliable wi-fi, especially when sitting outside. However, as part of my writing process, I do any research in advance, creating an outline that I can then work from. When I actually sit down to write my paper, I already have all of the information I need. In my case, the lack of reliable wifi at the bookstore actually motivates me to stay focused on my assignment, rather than hindering my progress.

I understand that everyone’s writing process is unique, so the bookstore may not be the best spot for all writers. However, I encourage you to always be willing to try a new writing spot, even if you think your current spot is working. I have found that, sometimes, the best way to overcome writer’s block or a lack of motivation is to switch things up! So if you venture over to the bookstore to write your next paper, I might just meet you there.

 

Image from “Living In Williamsburg” http://livinginwilliamsburgvirginia.blogspot.com/

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