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What It’s Really Like to Be a Writer

posted: 1.16.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs


One of the epic struggles fought in first-year composition over the years has been whether the people who take the course will be treated as students or as writers. With notable exceptions, such as the height of the expressivist movement, the weight of the pendulum has swung toward “students.” And there are things we just don’t tell students (but maybe we should).

We should be telling more about how projects lead to projects. Like many other opportunities, the first project is among the hardest to get; good work on it leads to further invitations. People who write well are never short of things to do, because one project leads to the next. This is not really an effect students will see in a classroom.

We should be telling more about how writing turns into other writing by recirculating and recycling. Writing, like the ideas it represents, is organic and grows in strange directions, but it rarely starts over or starts from a blank page, any more than our minds and cultures and the ideas they generate ever work without a sense of “what just happened.” Students might not recognize this in their everyday work.

We’re used to talking with students about writing as making choices, but we don’t talk enough about how writers choose which available projects to work on and which not to take up. When given a project by a teacher, students rarely if ever have the choice to say, “I’m not interested in this one, I’ll look for another one.” Even when they can choose to decline a project, as relatively new writers, being given a publishing opportunity isn’t something one says no to. Eventually, though, writers start to choose. Though students may not have occasion to see that firsthand, we should tell them about it.

We should be saying much, much more about collaboration, co-writing, and editing, where so much writing really happens without a name. We should interrogate the copyright pages of books and the preface with its acknowledgments, and put real images and stories to what the names there represent. We should read blogs to track the network of other people’s ideas they engage. Students are so caught up in a world that insists that their work is their own and that they own their work. Things are so much less clear to publishing writers who really owns what.

We should talk more about the mystery of time—how invention and drafting telescopes, contracts, what happens at the last minute, what takes months. How writing happens when it happens, and not before, but also how writing must be made to happen despite its “not wanting to.”  Though students are certainly busy writers managing multiple writing projects simultaneously, there’s something that’s harder to tell them about how it works with more projects, more riding on them, or bigger-idea projects than they’re used to.

I say all this because I’m thinking about writing-about-writing and its twin ethics of radical transparency and respect for students. There’s a principle here, something like, don’t fail to tell a student a thing that’s true for you (as the instructor and as a writer) or for other writers, just because it might not currently be true for the student. Students are in a weird space, one that frankly is unrepresentative of much of the writing that goes on in the world, and much that they’ll be doing very soon possibly already). One of the things I love about writing-about-writing is the way that it lets us be frank and thoughtful with our students not only about what they need to know tomorrow, but where they’ll be four years from now.


Categories: Douglas Downs
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