On Still Learning to Write
[Laurie McMillan, author of Focus on Writing shares her thoughts on the process of learning to write.]
One of my healthiest coping mechanisms is my ability to laugh at myself. I had plenty of occasion to do so as I worked on Focus on Writing: What College Students Want to Know for Broadview Press. This composition textbook is a rhetoric and reader that takes a Writing about Writing approach. That is, the textbook shares research from the field of writing studies and invites students to both apply and extend what scholars have discovered about writing and how it works.
You might be wondering why such subject matter would make me laugh. Well, in addition to my belief that there is plenty of room for humor in the midst of thinking and learning, I found it ironic that I struggled to write while working on a project designed to help students negotiate new writing situations. Yes, the cliché that teaching and learning go hand in hand has been frustratingly accurate for me.
When I first proposed the textbook, it seemed easy. To create a Table of Contents, I relied on best practices for teaching writing that I had learned from others and that I had applied in my own classroom, not with perfect results (because that’s not how education works) but with resonance. By the end of a semester, students in my writing classrooms tend to speak confidently about understanding rhetorical situations, appealing to ethos, moving between global and local revisions, and navigating disciplinary genre conventions. Over the years, I have become adept at connecting academic writing to other kinds of writing students do, and I have developed a host of readings and assignments and analogies that seem to serve students well on their writing journeys. I thus wrote the proposal quickly; I was, for the most part, mirroring my teaching practices.
A good bit of time later, after the initial proposal went through peer review and a deadline was set for a completed manuscript, my sense of ease disappeared.
In hindsight, the reasons for my resistance to writing seem obvious. At the time, however, what occurred was a ridiculous battle between my internal Taskmaster and the ultimate Distractor. Repeatedly, Taskmaster Laurie would force me to open my laptop and type. Repeatedly, Distractor Laurie would find emails that could be answered, tasks that could be completed, and social media sites that somehow simply opened and occupied her attention. Taskmaster Laurie would eventually return from whatever kind of break she was on in order to chastise Distractor Laurie, and good ol’ DL would hang her head in shame while continuing to flagrantly ignore the increasingly urgent messages TL was sending about getting some writing done.
The secret to resolving the ongoing battle that DL seemed to be winning was, not surprisingly, to journal my way out of the conundrum. I had to take a break from trying to write chapter content to think my way through constraints and fears and possibilities.
What I discovered were twin fears, the combination of which materialized because I was writing in a genre that was new to me. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to reach students, and I was afraid that writing scholars (especially the ones I work most closely with) would find my expertise lacking. Upon first discovery, each fear was huge—seemingly insurmountable, really.
Luckily, however, I have a whole host of internal voices, and the metacognitive discovery of Fear One and Fear Two was a good reason to call Rational Laurie to the rescue. Rational Laurie suggested first writing the parts of each chapter that could most clearly be translated from fruitful classroom conversations. Rational Laurie also reminded me that my expertise in writing is not mine alone but rather has developed because I’ve been part of a disciplinary community—a community that continues to conduct research and learn.
Rational Laurie continued to chip back at Fears One and Two by offering reminders that first drafts are exactly that; by focusing on my motivation for writing (to help students enjoy writing class while learning ideas they can take with them and apply in new rhetorical situations); and by relying on feedback from outside reviewers to help me validate or revise my initial approaches.
While I was irritated with myself on a regular basis throughout this process, my strongest instinct was to laugh. Here I was, offering writing guidance to students via my own prose and through helpful scholarly articles. And the best proof that the writing guidance works, in the end, may be that the textbook manuscript is complete—not because it was easy, but because I eventually applied the writing strategies I recommend to students.
The textbook ends with a concluding chapter, which is unusual for the genre, but semester endings have always been important to me. The last lines, written to students, are also, clearly, written to my many selves:
As you end the semester, you might want to ask your teacher how they still struggle with writing and what they’ve learned about writing that continues to help them succeed.
Feel good about how far you’ve come. Know that you can expect to learn much more.