They say that those that can’t do, teach. I’m proof of that rule. But it is in the reflections on why I can’t do that I learn the most about what I teach.
When I got my first writing center gig, the director asked me to write a short biography for the website. Scanning the other tutors’ entries for the inspiration, I noticed many of my new colleagues were “haunted by the power of language” or “loved the experience of putting words on the page.” Knowing the passion of my colleagues, I don’t doubt their sincerity, but I know that if I was going to wax nostalgic about learning to write, I’d be lying. So I started my biography off with three words: “I hate writing.”
At the time, I was coming to the end of my graduate school career, out of classes completely and spending my time on trying to revise a seminar paper into an article for my comps portfolio. And I hated every minute of it.
My process was unorthodox. Each day, I’d settle into my library carrel and start my day by doing the NY Times crossword puzzle. (Except, of course on Thursday and Friday when I’d settle in, do half the crossword puzzle, and then get frustrated and give up.) Then I’d take notes, which I’d add to a pile of other notes that had a greater chance of evolving into the Key to All Mythologies than it did a comps article. Sprinkled throughout the day were walks through the stacks, trips to refill my tea cup, bathroom breaks, and a lot of Internet browsing. At the end of the day (or three or four hours later, whichever came first), I packed my bag and locked my supplies in the cabinet of my carrel, where I hoped that some alchemical reaction would turn turd to gold.
The seminar paper I started with was rubbish. There was no grounding in the scholarly literature of the field because by the time I started the paper, I had no time to find the scholarly literature of the field. If I hadn’t had a deadline that I was terrified of missing, I’d not have gotten anything written at all. Only the threat of being revealed for the slacker I was motivated me to actually complete even a crappy draft.
I repeated the same cycle at the end of every semester from the start of college through graduate school. Writing felt like prison. Just like a habitual offender vowing to change his ways, I promised to start earlier each time I was released from the grips of the end of semester crunch, only to find myself in the same place a few months later. Each broken vow added to the stress and guilt involved in the process. Eventually, writing became a process marked by misery. During the closing week of each semester, I became so overwhelmed by the prospects of writing papers that I couldn’t eat. I subsisted entirely on a diet of Mountain Dew, Ensure, and Pepto Bismol.
I finally left graduate school because I hated writing so much that I convinced myself I could never finish a dissertation.
I sometimes wonder then why I ever went to grad school in the first place. But it’s not hard to figure out. I went for two reasons. One, I thought I was smart, and I wanted others to see me that way. Two, I wanted to have smart friends who were like me.
When I began grad school, I found both. I met some of the best friends I’ve ever known, and I got enough positive feedback in class discussions to feel like I belonged. And even though I made myself so miserable twice a year that I couldn’t stomach solid foods, I stayed because not staying put me in a place where I would have to admit I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. I stayed because contemplating leaving without a PhD would feel like a failure. And I stayed because I was afraid what my new friends would think if I left.
I think of my own struggles with writing every time I try to help a student who hates writing. I know that no matter how miserable I was in grad school, I rarely asked for help from either professors or other graduate students. I know that even though I knew and taught the value of starting a paper early and spending more time in revising, I never did. And although I wasn’t forced to be there and could leave at any time, I couldn’t leave. I never did any of these things because I was afraid of looking like a failure. And because of that I failed to get my PhD.
Learning to write is a process of learning to become comfortable with failure. It is about admitting that you don’t know everything and that you might not have everything figured out and then starting to write a paper anyways.
For these reasons, to teach writing to someone who hates the task or to help any writer, you must first teach how to have faith. Faith that the paper can get done. Faith that the obstacles that crop up early in thinking about a topic can be sorted out. Faith that others will eventually see the value of your work, even if that takes several drafts or several bad papers. Faith that the effort expended has value in itself. And faith that no failure is final.