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.
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.
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].
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.
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!
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.