Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Spilling Contents. by Patresa Hartman

I tell my students this, but I'm not sure if they believe my sincerity: I love what they write. I believe writing peels off a sticky lid and allows the author to spill her contents. Spelling and grammar, punctuation and sentence structure -- these are cosmetics. The value of writing, as I experience it, is a thinking process, a method of discovery, spelunking into the gooey center of consciousness. I don't always like what my students say, but I like that I am privy to it.

So many of my students come to me terrified of (or angry about) having to write. They have been told year after year of their weak mechanics, each paper bleeding red for all their ideas incorrectly composed. It is true that their papers are not lovely in form; but it is a shame what we do to thwart expression. There is a concept we discuss in my Communication Skills class: the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that our language influences our thoughts and attitudes. And so what happens when we clamp off our language like faulty spickets? Do we also clamp off our thoughts? And to clamp off the very action of thought, do we thwart our own evolution? So big, this case for writing is. Enormous.

At the Tuesday night writing lab I helm and in the regular classes I teach, I read papers with shoddy grammar and confusing structure. I squint through lumpy paragraphs and run-on sentences and decode cryptic vocabulary. But when I look past these cosmetics, I see a consistent pattern in student writing: Somewhere in the third quarters of their essays, they discover they have something to say.

The realization of something worth saying is incomparable motivation to keep talking.

I think the trouble is that many students are trained not to notice. If they recognize the emergence of voice and intent at all, it is too late; they have waited too long to complete the task and do not have time to revise or expand. Just as they finally warm up to start, they stop. They turn in their work with aborted ideas, only an inkling of the beautiful things they know and understand, sitting dormant under a flimsy layer of crud.

I am grateful for the opportunities I get to talk with students about their writing. It is my favorite part of my job, the one that makes me feel like I matter. I like to see the change in posture that occurs when I hold up a mirror to show them their own wisdom. "See here? What you said here is brilliant." The voice in their second paper is always more self-assured than the voice in their first paper, and I always wish we had more time. Just as we finally warm up, the semester ends and we stop.


Angie Ledbetter said...

BRAVO to an awesome teacher! More like you and there'd be better equipped and self-assured adults...not to mention great future writers, because you see past the crud to the diamond.

Kathryn Magendie said...

This happens to adults, too - that squelching of desire and want and gifts...which is why sometimes I caution writers when they join writer's groups...! That thick skin hasn't had time to layer on, and even then, even with the thick skin, it still feels like someone poking with a hot stick.

Barbara Quinn said...

Fascinating, Patresa! Your students are lucky to have you.
Thanks for telling us about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Another reason to keep expressing our gratitude!

Angie Ledbetter said...

P, check a comment I made on your personal blog...and think about it. :)

Lisa G. said...

Yea for diamonds! Yea for you!

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