Beginning Where You Are

 

We’re no longer in the cruelest month. (For those of us whose circadian rhythms move according to the academic calendar, April could also be described as a month-long inhalation before the semester furiously exhales.) Instead, we’re knee-deep in the weeds of writing those final essays.

Whether because of sleep-deprivation, too much caffeine, staring at computer screens, etc., those weeds begin to look like California redwoods around this time. (Raises hand.) It usually manifests sometime just before, during, or after the final week of classes. You’ve probably perceived someone else in this state of bewilderment in a class you’re taking or a class you’re teaching. Perhaps you’re experiencing it, too.

Playtime—by which I mean much more than procrastination—is over. In these final days that the Writing Center remains open at UT, the students walking through the door don’t necessarily have time to talk shop about, for example, revising one’s prose. Needs are more immediate. They might include generation of ideas, strengthening arguable claims, or brainstorming an essay’s architecture. And, of course, meeting the page requirement.

When you’re in the weeds, however—or, during a consultation, when you’re working with a student who feels that she’s in the weeds—that state of overwhelm can shut the compositional process down at the very moment that student needs it to be up and running. World enough and time, however, are what students don’t have at the end of the semester. Similarly, the forty-five minutes of a consultation seems long enough in theory but in practice feels all too short. How, then, do we make the time allotted to a consultation count?

Those of us who consult know intimately that unspoken needs, fears, and desires underlie the ones students do speak of when asked why they have come to the Writing Center. The necessary task then becomes helping a student decide what her priorities are for that particular consultation. (My description of consultation work as essay triage in a previous post remains relevant here, I think.) This is why, more than the intake form filled out, I begin a consultation by asking questions. I do so mainly to discern what those unspoken desires, fears, and needs just in case any of them might be inhibiting the writing process.

The fear I hear spoken most frequently in response to the question “What are you wrestling with?” is “I don’t know how to begin.” Not knowing how to begin usually means that one has an idea but has to figure out how to realize that idea in essay form. (Not having an idea occasions a different kind of consultation, but this isn’t the scenario I have in mind here.) When a student tells me that she doesn’t know how to begin her essay—or if she has begun writing and now finds herself stuck—I often share a writing trick that’s been of great help to me that might more appropriately be called a “writinghack.”

Because I happen to be one of the kind of writer who finds writing introductions an especially hellish enterprise, I can (and have) spent shameful amounts of time trying to get the opening sentence just right. This predicament derives from the poet in me who doesn’t go on to the next line until the previous one resonates (see under: perfectionism). Even if I have somewhere between a rough to a highly developed idea of what my essay will be about—what my argument is, how I will support it—I have more of a sense of where I hope the essay will end than I do about where it should begin.

During one of my many late-night writing stints as an undergraduate, I decided to do something that seemed ridiculously counterintuitive in a fit of desperation. (The bad radio station Anne Lamott writes about was, shall we say, loud.) Why not begin exactly where I was? Why not begin writing what I knew would form the body of my argument and worry about the introduction later? Because I was desperate—the seminar paper was due in a few days—I had no more time to squander. To my surprise, it worked. And even though I hadn’t given myself enough time to revise the essay how I would if I’d had world enough and time, because its introduction was the last part that I wrote, the essay’s frame was more focused than it would’ve been had I written it in a linear fashion.

Students have sometimes looked at me skeptically when I mention that essays can be written in whatever order they choose: first to last, in medias res, last to first. I suspect that the formulaic way of teaching the five-paragraph essay for standardized state tests is to blame for this. When a student looks at me that way, I tell her about the time I tried it.

~John Fry