The Bicameral Writing Mind: Writing Tutors as Writers

Graduate Students, Peer Tutoring, Student Voices, Tutorial Talk and Methods, Writing Center Theory / Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

By Leigh Elion –

I’m angry with Paul Silvia.

Don’t get me wrong. He seems like a very nice person. When he came to UW-Madison in 2013 to speak with our Writing Center tutors, he was funny, generous, and insightful. Silvia is a psychology professor at UNC-Greensboro. His book, How to Write a Lot, offers a number of practical strategies for becoming a more prolific, efficient writer. He encourages writers to make writing a regular habit, to plan and schedule our writing time, to make writing as much of a commitment and priority as other professional obligations, to give up our false writing idols of favorite pens/chairs/weather/moon phases and instead worship at the altar of just getting it done.

Leigh Elion
Leigh Elion has been a Writing Center tutor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since the fall of 2010, where she has also served as TA Coordinator, Coordinator of Writing Center Multicultural Initiatives, Outreach Coordinator, and Summer Writing Center Director. She is also a PhD candidate in Composition and Rhetoric, writing a dissertation that explores the role of the visual within contexts of gentrification.

I’ll admit that some of my annoyance with Silvia comes from jealousy; his publication record is admirably long. But, even as I write that, I know that Silvia himself would probably tell me that I don’t need to be jealous, that consistent productivity is within my grasp, too. Really, though, this has nothing to do with the man himself, or his work. I’m frustrated that try as I might, Silvia’s very sensible advice just doesn’t seem to work for me. This past summer, I participated in a Mellon-Wisconsin dissertation writing camp. These week-long camps, run in partnership between the Writing Center and the Graduate School, offer graduate students a chance to leave the confines of the lab or the library, come together in solidarity, and spend several days making progress on their projects through structured, supported, yet independent writing time. These camps have been incredibly helpful for many people (for those at UW, I highly recommend applying to one in the future). For those granted admission, attendance is required, so you can’t put off writing, and each camp day starts with goal-setting exercises meant to break large projects into manageable pieces. Someone in my camp cohort reported that, over the course of the week, she wrote a hundred (100!!!) pages. I wrote… less than that. Each day, I arrived at camp, proud of myself for “showing up to” my dissertation by 9AM. I made good progress, lots more than I would have made on my own, testament to the camp’s thoughtful structure and its talented staff. And yet, I found it difficult to shake what Silvia calls “specious barriers” to writing, barriers that aren’t really barriers. I knew, for instance, that I should be able to write no matter where I was sitting in the room, but still, I lost multiple mornings to passive-aggressively glaring at someone who had “stolen” “my” seat.

Participants from one of the UW Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps, one of whom coveted the author’s table by the door. You know who you are.
Participants from one of the UW Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps, one of whom coveted the author’s favorite table by the door. You know who you are.

I recommend Silvia’s work to students constantly, if not by name then by practice. “When do you plan to write this week?” I ask the graduate students I see regularly. “Try not to wait for inspiration to strike in order to begin writing,” I somberly caution undergraduates hesitant to begin big term papers. I know that Silvia’s approach works for many, many people. And yet, when I’m in writer mode rather than teacher mode, I rarely follow it. I mean, sometimes I do; if I waited for inspiration to strike before writing, I probably wouldn’t be here, in front of my screen, on a day when the first snow of the season suggests I should be curled up on the couch with my puppy and the Packers game. But while I block off time to write, for instance, I rarely schedule that time more than a day in advance. And Silvia’s isn’t the only sound writing advice I ignore while simultaneously dispensing. At some point, I realized that, daily in my one-on-one work with writers of all levels and disciplines, I dispense a lot of advice I don’t follow myself. I started keeping a mental list: students visiting the Writing Center for the first time often get my excited sales pitch about how appointments are a great way to test drafts with audiences. I vehemently believe this, but I tend to squirrel my own drafts away until the deadline. Students having trouble limiting the scope of their arguments to meet assignment guidelines often benefit from sticking to a writing plan – they tell me so. I, however, obsessively outline and re-outline. We often think of Writing Centers as safe places for students to “take risks” with their writing; I genuinely hope I help create these spaces. And yet, in my academic projects at least, I find comfort in rules and constraint. “Just get the draft done!” I frequently chirp, hand-waving over my own perfectionism.

A Pedagogy of Little Hypocrisies

I confess these things not merely in attempt to respond to a call issued a few months back by my colleague Leah Pope, who, in a blog post that’s stuck with me more than I realized, wondered what it might look like to normalize talk about writing struggles. I suspect that many writing instructors who are also writers feel this disjunct, this cognitive dissonance between what they preach and what they practice (and I say “writing instructors” here deliberately, because I’m betting this group includes not only writing center tutors but also course-embedded peer tutors, classroom writing instructors, and those whose teaching or mentorship work falls primarily outside the scope of composition). A few years back, while I was serving as Writing Center TA Coordinator, a mentorship role, I led an ongoing education workshop (what we call an OGE) for experienced tutors that created a space for just such teachers to confront their multiple writer/tutor identities. I don’t remember what this OGE was called officially, but in my personal documents, I labeled it “Lies We Tell Our Students.” This workshop began with anonymous confessionals: tutors had a chance to write down on index cards examples of the pedagogical approaches they adhere to or recommend, yet rarely subscribe to themselves. The list was lengthy and not dissimilar from what I’ve just confessed above; most had to do with writing processes (a photo of our brainstorming can be seen at the top of this post). We all agreed that there are some moments where we engage in what counselors might call intentional self-disclosure (where we are up front and honest with students about our own behaviors), but we recognized a pattern of not always doing what we knew right well to be helpful. We also recognized the ways that these patterns can be their own kinds of blocks. I know, for instance, that I should be able to get beyond the specious barrier of That Guy at My Table and still put words on the page. So, when I can’t move beyond things like this, I feel like something’s wrong with me. Having a well-stocked, flexible pedagogical tool-kit can, every once in a while, paradoxically turn quotidian writing challenges into something actively disempowering.

There’s lots of great research on how writing tutor work influences tutors’ own attitudes toward writing from the likes of the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project, but the group also spent a little time reflecting on where this phenomenon might come from and how we might work against it. What produces this split identity in a writing-tutor-as-writer? Some wondered if giving advice we don’t take means we’re trying to perform authority in the moment of the writing conference, especially when we work with peers or when gender or race dynamics come into play. Others thought this might be projection, a desire for order where we felt none, or even the mark of conscientious teaching – a recognition that what we practice ourselves might not work for others, or that we want our students to have happy and confident writing lives. For me, it might have something to do with my own confidence in both my teaching and my writing; as I’ve been working on this post, I’ve come to realize that I’m much more comfortable than I was even two years ago offering writing strategies to students in terms of “Here are some things I know help some people find success, and let’s talk about what might work for you in this moment” rather than “Here are the things I do because I am quite obviously a perfect writer myself no really I swear please believe me.” Still: what is it about our teacher training and/or our experiences working with writers that can lead to a pedagogy of do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do?

Theory of the Bicameral Writing Mind

Over the past few weeks, I’ve started to think about this question differently. I promise I’ll come back to writing in just a second, but permit me a brief pop culture detour. Those of you who have been following HBO’s hit series Westworld are already familiar with the theory of the bicameral mind; in fact, if I’ve done my search engine optimization job correctly, I bet some of you landed on this page while looking for spoilers from the first season finale (only mild spoilers here, and I promise I’ll give you a heads-up). The show has been my Sunday night indulgence for much of this semester. “Westworld” refers to an ambiguously futuristic theme park where human “newcomers” vacation to play out their depraved fantasies among Gold Rush-era android “hosts.” The hosts are stuck in recursive loops that have them repeating the same actions day after day – think Jurassic Park meets Deadwood meets Groundhog Day. From the get-go, the show raises questions of who or what “counts” as human, and we quickly learn that the park’s creators wrestled with what it would mean to create consciousness in the androids. One of these creators believed in the “theory of the bicameral mind” – as one character explains it, the idea that early humans believed their own inner monologues to be the voices of the gods; they obey rather than introspect. The androids go about their days “hearing” their own code. [Alert: mild spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen the final episode] Some seem never to be bothered by this, some come to become “aware” that their own programming determines their every thought and action, and a select few seem to be capable of overwriting the voices of the “gods” in their head with their own voices, making their own choices, and developing something like awareness. Those who don’t reach this phase, though, often go haywire, uncertain where these voices come from or what the nature of their reality is [end of spoiler].

Westworld’s Dolores hears whispers urging her to “remember,” but whose voice is it?
Westworld’s Dolores hears whispers urging her to “remember,” but whose voice is it? (source:

I’ll try not to make too many comparisons between Westworld and grad school (a bleak dystopian landscape from which there’s little hope of escape? Come on, it’s too easy). But, as I’ve been thinking about disjuncts between prescription and action, something about this depiction of consciousness resonated with me. Westworld’s hosts go in circles (fairly literally) trying to determine which of their thoughts are their own, which are programmed and pre-determined by their creator “gods,” and if there’s any way to break out free from the scripts that put them constantly in harm’s way. Each time I sit down to write, whose voices am I hearing? Have I, in fact, been hearing my own programming, my own gods or creators, and believing it to be my own thoughts? What happens if I start to think about not just favorite pens and chairs as false gods but the writing advice itself? If I think about the way others have influenced my inner monologue and beliefs about “good” writing process – come to view these voices as not my own –  could this be freeing rather than maddening?

In Bird by Bird, the work that famously talks about “Sh*tty First Drafts” the writer Anne Lamott describes the way that self-doubt contributes to her writer’s block: “I’d start writing… and the critics would sitting on my shoulders, commenting like cartoon characters. They’d be pretending to snore, or rolling their eyes at my overzealous descriptions, no matter how hard I tried to tone those descriptions down” (23). Lamott describes the common phenomenon of the fear of future criticism impeding achievment in the present. I remember in one of my very earliest Composition and Rhetoric classes taken during my Master’s degree, the professor asked a room full of new composition instructors to reflect on which critics sit on our own shoulders. I don’t remember what I told him, but while the critics are still there for me sometimes, I’m starting to think they’ve got new company. The new voices don’t say “You’re doing it wrong!” They say “Writing like me is a good way to write.” The new voices aren’t nay-sayers; they’re teachers, and good ones, but sometimes the help becomes the inhibition.

I don’t mean to elide important distinctions between schools of thought, but these voices – the Paul Silvias, the Peter Elbows, sometimes the Muriel Harrises – have become in a way a kind of grand narrative about how writing should happen. I further don’t wish to exaggerate a sense of danger about canonical, best-practice approaches to writing processes. They’re canonical for a reason, and I’ll admit that even as I make a strawman of Professor Silvia, his recommendation to my writing as non-optional has been crucial to building healthy, sustainable writing habits for myself. Perhaps most importantly, I don’t mean to suggest that I, nor any of my colleagues, approach pedagogy uncritically or uncreatively, or that we blithely guide students in ways insensitive to their particular learning needs. I think what I’m suggesting, though, is that writing tutors’ knowledge of robust writing practice can instead lead us to be insensitive to our own learning needs. If we hear our own pedagogical code, we think it’s the gods, and that they’re untouchable.

Paul Silvia, speaking to a group of UW-Madison Writing Center tutors in 2013, being truly very helpful and not at all mean
Paul Silvia, speaking to a group of UW-Madison Writing Center tutors in 2013, being truly very helpful and not at all mean

From Others’ Voices to Our Own

What would it look like, though, to replace the voices of others with our own? To recognize these voices as something outside ourselves and not originary, inevitable, and monolithic? My brilliant colleague Leah Pope suggests that honoring neurodiversity (the wide range of human mental processes and engines) is a good place to start, and I’m inclined to heartily agree (really, I’ll forgive you if you pause here to go back to read her post). She hits at the heart of a lot of what I think I’m getting at here – “I don’t believe we are saying often enough that there are endless possible ways to write by which a person can be an effective writer.” I’m beginning to think that all writers can benefit not just from trying on lots of different writing strategies but from active, careful, sustained reflection on how and when these work – by amassing lots of self-reflexive data about one’s own productivity in order to develop an individualized picture of the processes that truly work for them.

I’m wondering, then:

  • How are your favorite go-to writing strategies as teachers different from your favorite go-to moves as writers?
  • What lies do you tell your students?
  • How do you, as teachers and writers, think about balancing a dedication to what we know to be good, sound, researched ideas about writing and writing processes with adapting them to your own needs, and to students’ needs?

As I think about where to go with these theories I’m testing out, I’d particularly your reactions to this “bicameral” theory of writing minds, as well suggestions about how to research the sources or impacts of this disjunct, or strategies for bootstrapping oneself out of it. Leave a comment to let me know what you think!

Works Cited:

Silvia, Paul. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2007.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.



12 Replies to “The Bicameral Writing Mind: Writing Tutors as Writers”

  1. Thanks for your post, Leigh! A post, I’m sure, resonates with many of us, whether we want to admit it or not. Your post recalls for me an ongoing writing center appointment I had over the summer with a student who came into the center, sat down with his notebook in hand, and shared, “I don’t know how to write. I’m about to finish my prelims, and I have no idea what I’m doing when I’m writing.” My knee-jerk response was, “of course you know how to write, you’ve gotten this far!” But in talking, he told me that he had never had a conversation with someone—not even his advisor—about how to write—how to get words on paper. No one had every exposed the many methods, practices, and tools writers use to try and move the pen or keyboard and then return to that same writing at a later time to revise. Our time together was much different than a traditional writing center appointment, but one of the most fun I’ve had in that we were able to admit, in our own vulnerabilities, both the terrible and rewarding aspects of the writing process.

    I ran through the same writing center mantras you outline here, some of which he liked while others seemed unrealistic, but I decided to share a practice I’ve held since grad school but been less open to admit to others. Here it is: When I’m working on a piece of writing, I re-write every draft. Not in the—I come up with new ideas or new structure each time I sit and revise—approach but in the—I sit down and rewrite each and every word while reading them aloud—approach. This practice makes me slow down, allows me to see the draft in new ways from each angle, and while some may see it as cumbersome, it’s the only approach that’s truly helped me feel confident about the idea forming across the drafts.

    I rarely share this practice with others because when I have, people often look at me like I’m crazy or confused that I would spend (read: waste) as much time with such a mundane motion, but your post inspires me to return to our own practices and experiment a little, find what works for us.

  2. Thanks, Leigh, for what I think will be a really helpful post for some people who’ve also struggled with the “write every day” idea, and I know they’re out there because most grad students I talk to who don’t know I teach at the writing center say things like that to me: they know the idea exists, and they’ll even get enthusiastic about it during a workshop on how to write a dissertation, but when they leave, they feel like they can’t do it.

    Oddly, for me, I have my own different hang ups with the advice to “write every day.” (Unrelated aside – I also feel kind of a like a ghost in your post since I’ve participated in a diss camp, I remember being in your OGE and writing on the note cards, and the back of my head is in the bottom right of the picture from Sylvia’s talk at UW.) My trouble is that it’s easy for me to write every day; I’m not usually a procrastinator, and I’ve learned to dial down my perfectionist tendencies while composing writing. My skepticism from the start has been that even when I write every day and revise a few times, I don’t always produce the kind of quality work I’m supposed to produce. It took me a couple of years to figure out *what else* was required than simply writing every day.

    Finally, a note on teaching hypocrisies. I sometimes feel the way you describe: I encourage others to come to the writing center because talk is an important aspect of writing, but that’s one thing I often have trouble prioritizing on my own to-do list. Or I know I should ask peers to trade chapters, but I often think, Oh, they’re probably too busy/not interested/wouldn’t find my feedback useful/etc. In the light of day, I know such barriers are specious, but they’re still there.

  3. Thank you, Leigh, for sharing this fascinating and insightful post! I appreciate (and feel honored by) your enthusiasm for taking up the challenge of recognizing the wide array of writing styles and habits that can be healthy and successful, not just for our students, but also for ourselves.

    I’ve been realizing this semester that the things we need to be successful writers not only change from person, but for the same person at different stages in her writing life or for different kinds of projects. When I wrote that post about neurodiversity last winter, I has recently finished my dissertation proposal. At the time, I was planning to replicate habits I had developed for writing seminar papers, and just start doing them… more. I thought — and told students and colleagues! — that my best writing habit was to get up around 6 am and just write for a couple hours. I attempted (and frequently failed) to write for 2 or 3 hours early in the morning every weekday for about six months before I realized: the habit I developed as a functional strategy for a month or so of seminar paper-writing was just not sustainable in the long term. This took me completely by surprise, even though I’ve been hearing and repeating for years that the dissertation is a marathon not a sprint — I didn’t expect that to be advice I wasn’t taking. So I’ve now spent a couple months experimenting to find what does work for me when I’m just continuously plugging away at a larger project. Recently, I’ve had a lot of success with reading in the afternoons during the week and making notes, then assembling that material into prose in a weekend writing session with a friend. Even though it has been working well, I keep telling myself it will be okay to have to change it up (no promises on whether I’ll remember that, so feel free to remind me).

    This is another reason why I think it is important for us (as writing instructors and as writers) to be aware of a variety of writing methods, not just those that work for us now: we might find that we need to change our habits to adapt to different circumstances, or even for no apparent reason at all, and we shouldn’t have to feel like writer-fails for changing things up to seek a better writing process!

  4. Thanks so much for sharing this. We talked about this a little in person already, but I am similarly concerned about our narratives of “the right way to write” and how that affects the folks I’m working with in my research (disabled students). I am not a write-every-day-er, and I resonate with the idea that I plot day by day when I can write. My interviewees chafed at the idea that their particular processes were wrong because they didn’t stick to a story they’ve long been told about writing…

    Lots to think about here.

  5. Leigh, I related to this post so strongly. In order to finish my dissertation, I had to try on and try out all of the pieces of writing advice I’d dispensed over the years to figure out what worked for me, without feeling guilty about what didn’t, and I think you’ve captured that brilliantly here with your Westworld analogy.

    I’m not sure that I have a good answer to your third question, but I’ve been trying to embrace that conundrum in my teaching. I made my students a packet a few weeks ago that listed a lot of the advice I know to be generally sound writing advice for longer projects. I was hesitant to do so, but I included a note at the end telling them to take all of this into consideration but to listen to themselves as writers and to go with what they knew worked for them rather than trying to change who they are and how they write. I’m not sure that all of them know that yet, since this was their first sustained paper, but I had one of my students tell me that he gave into his need to write in coffeeshops in long hauls, sequestered himself in one for the entire weekend, and produced a paper he’s really proud of in the process. The way he got there may not have been “good” practice– but it felt good to hear him exult about his writing!

    I know this post will help me to keep thinking through how to strike a balance between the ideal and the real in my teaching and my own writing. Thank you for this.

  6. I haven’t taught writing in more than ten years, and I’m working on a novel–not a dissertation. But I also related strongly to this post. In the past few years I’ve become a lot more productive than I was before my kids were born. Lots of things changed, so it’s hard to say exactly what the secret was, but I think a lot of it was getting older and recognizing what works best for me. I wrote the first draft of my novel in just over a year. But now I’m on the third draft, which involves a significant restructuring so time isn’t linear. And I’ve fallen back into my distracted old ways. The past few months have been pretty blech, writing-wise. I have good chunks of time while my kids are at school, but lately it takes me hours to settle into work, to accept that writing this scene is really what I’m doing. And I’m wondering how much of it is that I was in drafting mode and then I was in heavy revision/rewrite mode and now I’ve entered some other plane of writing–one I’ve really only experienced in shorter doses before, when I’ve revised short stories. Part of my difficulty is that some of what I’m doing is revising/restructuring and some of what I’m doing is writing new scenes. There’s lots of switching.

    I like this idea of thinking about neurodiversity for writing styles and I’m seeing now that I may need different strategies for each type of writing I’m doing. I don’t want to use this as an excuse, but I think it will be helpful to have this awareness when I sit down. What kind of writing am I doing today? How do I work best when I’m doing this kind of writing?

    On the teaching/learning front, I often talk about writing practices with writer friends. One of my friends asked if I’d ever tried printing out my pages and retyping them for my revision. This turned out to be a huge breakthrough for me. I find it’s much more positive to choose what I’m using than it is to cut what I don’t want. It makes me more brutal in my cutting but I feel happy about it. I’ve tried other suggestions that just weren’t for me.

    I always click eagerly on things like this lit hub piece on various fiction writers’ first draft habits:

    I suppose part of me thinks I’ll find either a magic bullet or affirmation that I’m doing it exactly right, but what I usually take away is something about the diversity of habits that seem to work just fine. I do like to try out the occasional concrete habit that people mention. From this piece, I know I don’t want to try ear plugs. I hate the way they feel. But there was so much talk of the music people listen to when they write that I remembered I used to plug into music when I wrote at cafes as a practical matter. But maybe it’s worth trying at home again, just to shake things up. (I’m in the no camp, too.)

    Thanks for this thought-provoking piece, Leigh. I’ve been needing to work some of this out.

  7. Thank you for writing this wonderful post, Leigh! I think it’s so important to think more about neurodiversity in higher ed as well as how we’re understanding the “advice” we give to students.

    For myself, I tend to picture writing strategies as tools that we can turn to in times of need. We might select different tools depending on who we are as writers, what we’re writing, and what kinds of challenges we’re facing. These tools might not always work, so we might have to experiment with trying different ones. Finally, these tools should only be used insofar as they help us with a given task; we should put them down when they make our work harder.

    The above is rather a silly analogy, but the point I want to make is that I don’t think finding your own voice and borrowing from outside voices should be mutually exclusive. I see my own voice and my own writing process as fundamentally shaped by various experiences and influences—people I’ve talked to, people I’ve read—and I see this as a good thing. From a dialogic perspective, my writing is “shot through with intentions and accents” from without.

    One thing I really like about teaching at the Writing Center is that one-on-one instruction provides prime opportunities for the types of dialogues that honor individual differences. Your post was a great reminder of this for me.

  8. Leigh, thanks so much for this post! I am working at the Mellon Dissertation Camp this week, and this blog post came up in our discussions. The consensus among graduate students here was that we need to regularly acknowledge our own writing victories, just as we recognize our students’ victories.

    1. That’s great, Sarah! Thanks so much for sharing this with students – I’m so glad it fostered some good discussion. That camp experience really helped me to shape my awareness of my own writing processes, which I’m very grateful for.

  9. Just reading this as I put off finishing writing my own post for this blog…

    I loved reading this post. These days, I have one afternoon a week scheduled to write. I complain all the time that I don’t have enough time to work on my research. And then, when my scheduled time arrives, I’m too scared or too overwhelmed to make it happen. I’ve worked on an article for exactly four hours this term, and at least one of those hours was spent on APA formatting instead of the deep revisions I really need to do. Thanks for reminding me that this is normal.

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