Writing does not come easily to me. Getting my writing to a Graduate level was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I don’t think I have devoted the Galdwellian 10 000 hours to this skill but I am surely close to 5000. I have learned to let go of the ‘perfect’ draft, having a thesis before I write, the benefit of free-writing, the agony and pay-off of setting a timer for 25 minutes and never taking my fingers off the keyboard even if all I am writing is “this is an essay this is an essay this is an essay”, I have learned that I start writing all my essays, papers, chapters, lecturesfrom the middle. It is the because it took so long for me to learn this things that I like talking to people about their writing and writing processes.
Yesterday afternoon, for four hours, I sat with a rotating bunch of 25 students from a first year drama class while they talked about, struggled with, and drafted their final term essay. I watched one of them realise that the next step was to give me HER analysis of a play she saw and that it was her ideas, her thoughts, that I was interested in reading. I had several conversations with smart, thoughtful students who wanted to write too much, had to many ideas - how wonderful is that! To find first year student with too much to say for a 1800 word essay! I assured them all the thinking, and writing about the too-big idea was not a waste and would only add to the shorter, more well contained essay they would no doubt write. I was happy to suggest to a student that he should just start writing the bit he was most interested in and trust that a thesis would find him (...the more he just wrote about what he saw in the production he was analyzing and what he thought it meant the clearer, more interesting and more complex his ideas became - which was so useful for him to realize and satisfying for me to watch). I also had to contend with the anxiety and panic that so many students in first and second year have about the formula for writing that gets beaten into them in high school. The hamburger structure and three body paragraphs are gospel and they are not able to let them go. They don’t trust me that now that they have learned the rules they can loosen their grip a bit. They look at me in terror when I say things like - “write as many paragraphs as you need”, “use as many words as you need to write the essay”, “I don’t know, how many quotations will your argument need to prove it?”. And I get it. I know that it would be so much easier if there was a quadratic equation equivalent for these students. It takes bravery to write, to edit, to write again, to revise, and to finally let someone read it.
Talking about essays with my students is my favourite part of the TA gig. It benefits them, but it also benefits me. I reminds me what the beginning of the process looks like and that I have made progress. I makes me feel useful to be able to show others what I have learned. And in this case, it might have lead to a writing group next term. More than one of these students said they would be happy to sit with me, once a week, and write. I might just take them up on it. And since I won’t be their TA next term…they will have to make time to listen to me talk about my writing too.