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Many Roads to Writing

posted: 7.11.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

ferrAfter my last post “Crooked Seams,” Joanna Howard, Rochelle Spencer, and Brenda Tuberville posted thoughtful stories of their experiences as both students and teachers thinking outside the box of the standard curriculum.  Joanna and Rochelle asked me to describe the many roads that students take to writing.

I try to imagine writing as a love affair waiting to happen—and that unfolds through travel across time.  So rather than focus too extensively on roadblocks or potholes, I instead offer the signposts I discover again and again with students as we travel down the feeder roads and the superhighways, the unpaved streets and treacherous mountain paths that bring us all, through our various meanderings, close to writing.

  1. I reserve judgment, as I read the first paper, on infelicities of grammar and organization, or “deviation” from the standards, norms, or course outcomes. Instead I read mindfully and inquisitively, not as if I were the leader of an inquisition. That is, I read against the grain, as students are often required to do.  I read to find out what already is present in the texts – the strengths—and then address what’s missing. In my comments for revision, I encourage students to take note of their strengths, to reconsider audience, and to aim to create the missing pieces from their compositions.
  2. I imagine that grammar and style are inseparable. I look at whole sentences, rather than isolated commas or mismatched verbs and subjects. I conceive of the verb as the center of the action. Is there actually a verb in the sentence? Is the verb strong? Is the verb a form of be (is, are, was, were, etc)?  This is the kernel of the sentence, around which the writer will grow the rest of the sentence.  I encourage writers to experiment with verb choices, with as well as with the sounds of verbs, and their visual qualities—how the words appear on the page or screen.
  3. I present historic textual documents for language learning and provide students with excerpts or passages from these texts. In this way, students learn to analyze the concepts that I am trying to teach. How does Ralph Waldo Emerson use punctuation in “Self-Reliance”? How does Martin Luther King Jr. choose verbs in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”? How do readers break down the meanings of these often difficult—and at the same time, very rich sentences? How would readers revise these sentences into 21st century language?   Examining how and why language works can move us from reading for comprehension and information, to reading even more deeply to figure out the ways in which the structure of language creates meaning.

George Harrison’s posthumous album, Brainwashed, includes a song “Any Road” that takes on traveling with out directions.  The song helps me keep in mind the confusion we often feel at the beginning of a writing project, the uncertainty—and the desire for exact directions to reach our destination. But, metaphorically speaking, there are no directions for this road to writing. “Any road will take you there.”

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Categories: Basic Writing, Developmental
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