Understanding Writing as a Process to Eliminate Fear
“At some point we must stop anticipating our journey and set sail. Willa Cather said that she wrote best when she stopped trying to write and began simply to remember.” —Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write
When I conference with college students about their writing I often hear “I’m not a very good writer.” When we work on our first peer review, where students read and comment on each other’s writing, I am met with overwhelming hesitation to make suggestions or to share with others. The thought of projecting a student’s paper onto the board and discussing its strengths and areas for improvement even makes me nervous, if only because I know the student will be incredibly fearful of their peers seeing their work. Fear abounds in writing.
This week we started our first creative writing class at TT Patton. I am blown away by the enthusiasm I see from students when giving ideas. Students are eager to contribute to group stories and share their own work. As I observed these students, I couldn’t help but ask myself: what happens in the eight or nine years between 4th grade and incoming college freshmen? What kind of machine do they enter which transforms them into tentative and unsure writers when they get to my college classroom?
Of course, there are clear differences between my class this week and a typical composition class I teach. Any time there is a small class of students there will be more opportunity for being open and more comfortable. And creative writing is much different from teaching persuasive and research writing. However, I have seen this self-consciousness about sharing writing in my undergraduate creative writing classes, and even some tension in commenting in one of my graduate-level creative writing courses.
So, the question remains, why do students become so fearful of sharing their writing? Why do they criticize themselves so harshly? Why do they label themselves as “bad” writers? I think it has something to do with a general fear of writing because of associations with rules. Whenever I tell people that I was an English major or that I teach writing, they immediately step back and say “Oh, I better watch my grammar.” Somehow, writing has become directly associated with rules about comma splices and run-on sentences. And although it is important that we generally follow certain rules in order for communication to be consistent and understood, my composition class focuses on idea development and analysis. Generally, unless grammar or spelling gets in the way of the meaning of an idea in a paper, I do not comment on it. I’m more concerned with whether or not a student can generate a solid thesis, analyze a piece of text or media, and provide evidence to support their ideas.
I am prone to fear too, with an ugly judge sitting on my shoulder, overlooking my writing. “This is stupid, meaningless, badly worded, or disorganized” the judge whispers while I write. But like I remind my students, young and older, writing is a process. The first draft of a piece rarely looks like the final draft. We don’t focus enough on the idea that writing is a cycle of producing, editing, reflecting, reviewing, and collaborating (sometimes even throwing things out altogether). By looking at writing as a process, which requires many revisions, we can feel less pressure to make things perfect the first time. I remind my students over and over that writing can be ugly the first time, but getting something on paper, imperfect and all, is the first step to a great piece. Whether you want to write a memoir, short story, poetry, or to journal regularly, remember to first rid your mind of judgments and simply begin.
P.S. For an interesting conversation on the writing process for published authors, check out this video of a panel of young adult authors describing how, where, and when they write. Share your writing process with us in the comments below.