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Where things go

posted: 5.2.13 by archived

As I’ve been putting my kitchen back together after a major remodel, I’ve been thinking about the process of organizing things. It’s one of my favorite things to do, this sort of thinking about thinking as I draw out the lovely filaments of analogy.

Selecting. As I pulled box after box of utensils, dishes, condiments from the living room back into the middle of the new kitchen floor, my first step was to decide what to throw away: the damaged, the unused, the redundant (crumpled sieve, melamine bowl, sixth pie plate).

Classifying. I couldn’t put things away box by box, but rather I had to spread things out across the kitchen to see what I had. It was a more complex process than I could ever have imagined. I kept reciting to myself what “categories” I had (baking pans, pots, dishes, cups and glasses, spices, oils and vinegars, silverware, cans and boxes of food). I needed to see how much space each category would take and match that to cupboard space, taking into consideration proximity to sink and table and stove. My brain ached with the effort of keeping it all straight; as I tried to fall asleep, I could feel my subconscious trying to map it all out while I dreamed.

Ordering. Once I got each category assigned its own space, the process grew easier as I could focus on one section at a time. For my oft-used utensils, it was a quick thing to grab them up and dump in a canister.

More challenging was my beautiful new spice rack tucked on the inside of a cupboard door. Though I confess that when I was a child I did organize my books alphabetically by author, my organizing aesthetic is no longer alphabetical, so I knew I wouldn’t be following the grocery-store scheme.  The rack has five shelves, so after some consideration I came up with five spice-groups: your herbs (thyme, rosemary, oregano, and so forth); hots (cayenne, chili, curry powder); baking (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger); seeds (caraway, poppy, sesame); and the little-used miscellaneous remainders—placed in that order from most accessible bottom shelf to need-a-stepladder top shelf. I admit I may have gotten a little carried away…

So I’ve been thinking about how much this is like my writing process: moving from chaos to order by gathering up bits and pieces into groups, throwing some things away, moving each group into position, ordering the bits within each group. However, my students often have a hard time with this “chunking” process (aka paragraphs and topic sentences) and with thinking about how best to order the bits within each chunk. Many seem to see writing as a sentence-by-sentence affair, like the bouncing ball in a karaoke machine; it’s this inability to see the big picture, I think, that contributes to the patch-writing phenomenon we see in source-based writing.

I’m thinking perhaps some real-world examples could help my students better understand this, so here’s an idea for a short writing prompt:

Think about how you organize something—clothing, photographs music, school notes, whatever—or if you’re the unorganized type, how you might better organize one of your “collections.” How do the notions of selection, classification, and ordering apply, and what criteria determine how you select, classify, and order? What is the purpose or value of this organizing, both for you and for others?

In comments below, please share your own favorite analogies to help your students (or yourself!) understand some aspect of the writing process.

Categories: Holly Pappas
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