Writing with the Vikings: The Importance of Process and Vulnerability

Uncategorized / Monday, April 6th, 2015

By Jenna Mertz

Jenna Mertz served as a peer writing tutor in UW-Madison’s Writing Fellows Program for eight semesters before she, regrettably, had to graduate in May of 2014. She is currently a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Ås, Norway.


The author, blissful and pre-black eye
The author, blissful and pre-black eye

According to Jack Kerouac and pithy coffee mugs everywhere, writing and traveling are romantic endeavors. “The road is life,” have no regrets, get out of your comfort zone, write till you bleed and then keep going. These trite sayings, meant to move the lethargic and uninspired to cliff dive, pen novels, and finish dissertations, make the process of travel and writing look so productive, so self-contained, and so clean. Even if said cliff diver or dissertator breaks an arm whilst diving or dissertating, coffee mug quotations have a way of smoothing the accident into a coherent experience with a worthwhile outcome.

But what about the process? The unromantic mess of acclimating to a new culture or writing a compare and contrast essay? Sorry, Pinterest pins—you don’t cut it here.

In the author’s estimation, inspirational Post-It notes are on par with inspirational coffee mugs
In the author’s estimation, inspirational Post-It notes are on par with inspirational coffee mugs

As a former peer writing tutor who has spent the past eight months teaching writing in Norway, I’ve been thinking a lot about process in regards to both writing and traveling. In my transition from UW-Madison Writing Fellow to Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, I’ve been privy to writers’ struggles in a way that I hadn’t before, and in traveling out of the States for the first time, I’ve made myself vulnerable in ways I hadn’t before. In this blog post, I hope to highlight a few of the activities I’ve been involved with during my Fulbright grant, but I also want to champion the unglamorous and gritty underbellies of drafting and traveling. I want to advocate for showcasing vulnerability, as coffee mugs can hardly be entrusted with the task.

What Do I Do? And How Does it Compare to “Fellowing”?

As a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), my job is two-fold: I lead writing lessons at the local upper secondary school, Ås Videregående Skole, and I work as a teaching assistant and Writing Advisor with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU). Because my writing center work is centered at NMBU, I will focus this discussion on my assignment at the university.

A quiet moment at the new Writing Centre
A quiet moment at the new Writing Centre

In my work at NMBU, I provide weekly written and audio feedback to Bachelors, Masters, and PhD students enrolled in Professor William Warner’s Academic Writing course. We use Jing, a type of screencasting software that allows teaching assistants to create five-minute videos offering writers suggestions for revision. (For more information, Mike Shapiro provides a concise and helpful introduction to the software, as well as an example, in a previous blog post.)

The course is divided into three main assignments: an expository paper, a compare and contrast paper, and an argumentative essay. As a teaching assistant, I provide the same ten students with feedback each week, and each week I focus my feedback on the principles Professor Warner offers in his lecture du jour (thesis, clarity, nominalization, etc.). Because of this structure, I see the writers’ journey from compare-and-contrast outline to compare-and-contrast final draft and all the steps in between.

In addition to these duties, I serve as a Writing Advisor at the university Writing Centre. While many of the students who make appointments with me are those I am grading in the Academic Writing course, I also work with other Bachelors and Masters students writing their theses or other term papers. For the first time since entering world of tutoring and teaching, I have continuing, weekly appointments with writers where I see their progress or lack thereof.

So, how does this compare with my experience at UW-Madison? As a peer writing tutor with the Writing Fellows program, I responded to one relatively polished first draft—I did not see the revisions, the final draft, or the prewriting process that may have preceded it all. But as a teaching assistant and Writing Advisor at NMBU, I have the opportunity to see and respond to the successes and struggles of my students each week. As a Fellow, I saw a point in time; as an ETA, I see a process.

The Writers and Revealing Vulnerability

Tårnbygningen, the location of the new Writing Centre
Tårnbygningen, the location of the new Writing Centre

NMBU is comprised of 5000 students, all of whom are working within the natural or social sciences. Some of the degree tracks, such as the Bachelors in International Environment and Development Studies and the Masters in International Relations, are taught in English, which attracts many international students to the university.

As a result, many of the writers who see me are multilingual. Many struggle with English. Some have small children. Some work other jobs. This means that writers come to me with a variety of backgrounds, identities and experiences that shape how they write. They trek up three flights of stairs to a lofty attic every Thursday and show me where they struggle and explain their struggle in a language they struggle with. They make me privy to their writing process, their language, and often, the special and quiet stories of their homes and lives.

I’m floored by their courage. I’m floored by how willing these writers are to show me their struggles, to be vulnerable, and to embrace writing as a series of not-so-glamorous and messy steps. Week after week, they are in the trenches treating writing as work rather than writing as the delicate fruit of an artful but fickle imagination. I wish I could say the same for myself.

Struggling with Process, Sporting a Shiner

Unlike those writers I work with, I struggle with embracing writing as a process. My image of writing is, I’ll admit, romantic. I believe in and wait for the muses, obstinately remaining silent as long as they are. I don’t write daily, as I don’t want to reveal the holes to myself or to others. The same holds true for traveling and living abroad. Since living in Norway, I have overly concerned myself with fitting into the culture and “passing” as Norwegian. My inability to master the national pastime, however, showcased my struggles in a manner I couldn’t hide.

Sunrise and snowdrifts in Lillehammer, the location of the author’s fateful fall
Sunrise and snowdrifts in Lillehammer, the location of the author’s fateful fall

During a cross-country ski trip in February, I took a particularly nasty flying slide into hard snow that left me with a puffy shiner and snow burn under my left eye.

For the greater part of two weeks, I looked like I lost a brawl with an angry Viking and an akvavit bottle. While the eye did wonders in building my street cred with the videregående students, I felt self-conscious and exposed simply walking around town. In a country where six-year-olds skate-ski with the grace and strength of Apolo Anton Ohno, my face was evidence of my mistakes, my failures, and my inability to fit in. My vulnerability was on display; my outsider-ness, written in purple under my left eye.

Of course, my black eye was about more than just my inability to stop on skis. It came to represent all the times I struggled with my less-than-romantic travel experiences and how I constantly feared “outing” myself as an American. Revealing myself as an outsider, and worse, as someone who studied but still butchered their language, is an act of vulnerability. It’s an act I struggle with on a daily basis. Some days going to grocery store is a feat, and that’s something a Jack Kerouac quote simply does not speak to.

The Value of Vulnerability

Coffee mug quotes and Pinterest pins sanitize the experiences of traveling and writing. With the smooth stroke of one pithy phrase, they gloss over the experiences when we fell or cried that weren’t romantic or productive, just painful and shameful. Final drafts do this, too. In their black and white Times New Roman font they can seem as snug, well-cut and spiffy as three piece suits with cuff links. They look like they fell out of the sky, perfect.

The students I work with are eroding that illusion. They plug away every day and in that dogged, unselfconscious effort, they force me to reevaluate myself as a writer and tutor and push me to make my process more visible and myself, more vulnerable.

I know mine is not a novel insight, but it is one that serves to remind writing tutors and instructors—those who often seem outside the process— that it’s productive to share theirs. That’s why dissertaton bootcamps and daily writing are so important. With writing retreats, you make your process visible to others; with daily writing, you confront it yourself.

In an age when we can use social media to cultivate the images of ourselves that we want the world to see, it’s radical and subversive to let a little mess show, but that’s just what writing reveals. I say shatter the illusion and the coffee mugs. Show the whole chaotic kit and caboodle, even if at first, it’s just to yourself.

So although I still cannot fully bend my left thumb and the skin under my eye bears a small red scar, I have plans to give skiing another go. Two weekends from now it’ll just be me, the skis, the snow, and those prodigious cruising six-year-olds.

Let them laugh. Let them watch. I say skål to the messy process, to vulnerability, to draft number two and many, many more.

Norwegian Farmland: The Winter Edition
Norwegian Farmland: The Winter Edition

13 Replies to “Writing with the Vikings: The Importance of Process and Vulnerability”

  1. Beautiful rendering of the lessons of life abroad, Ms. Mertz. When I struggle as a teacher, I, too, often look to my students for inspiration. Or, as I like to say, the classic student/teacher switcheroo.

    (Sidenote: What is with Norway and shiners? When I was traveling there in my youth, mine eye was blackened thrice!)

  2. “Let them laugh. Let them watch. I say skål to the messy process, to vulnerability, to draft number two and many, many more.”

    This is the attitude and outlook teachers crave in their students — but it is difficult to instill in students who are already reluctant/hesitant/fearful writers. As Jenna does so eloquently in this post, I think encouraging, praising, and modeling the process rather than the final product could go a long way in changing mindsets.

    But how do we go about doing this?

    Just one idea: A common practice of instructors/professors/teachers/TAs (one I have used myself) is to handout an example paper for written assignments as a reference for their students. Though aimed to be helpful, I think this can often intimidate and discourage some students who have yet to embrace the “messy process.” Perhaps, instead, we should be presenting students with drafting and brainstorming examples — especially of our own work. Bad first drafts, diagrams, etc. Show the students the foibles of our own thinking and how we used them as a vital step in the process, rather than just a wasteful mistake.

    Thanks, Jenna, for a great story.

  3. Your plight reminds me of when Jon Snow donned the black to serve on the Night’s Watch on the Wall. How similar/dissimilar is As from Castle Black?

    A wonderfully well-written piece, Jenna. It was a joy to read, other than the parts about the black eye, which sounded painful (those were well-written too). I’m not sure if I agree with your interpretation of Kerouac, but when you return, we shall smash coffee mugs with trite statements upon the Terrace.

  4. Great piece Jenna! It’s wonderful to hear more about your ETA experience down in Ås. Because we don’t have a writing center in Trondheim I don’t often get to see my students struggle as much with their drafts, but like you I can definitely identify with how living abroad has helped me be more comfortable with being vulnerable.

  5. Fun to read, and I got a lot out of it. Process over product is something I’ve struggled with time and again in virtually every sphere: certainly writing and traveling, but also with music making and teaching. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  6. Hi Jenna! What a wonderful post. Your work with students at NMBU sounds fascinating, being able to closely observe the sometimes less visible but crucial steps in the writing process, or what happens between those “points of time” known as drafts.
    And I particularly enjoyed your comment about final drafts – “they look like they fell from the sky, perfect.” I wonder why it is our final drafts seem to be designed to defy or at least hide that vulnerability that allows us to write? At any rate, I’m inspired to share some of my mishaps with my students, as Eric suggested in his comment.
    Thanks so much for sharing this!

  7. In the midst of completing near-final revisions to my dissertation, I took a break to read this fun and smart post and just enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing. (Miss you!)

  8. Jenna, it was a delight reading your blog post!

    You captured the struggles shared by both novices and seasoned writers alike. Daily writing is so immensely rewarding, and yet difficult to maintain. Personally, I find it helps to have a group of fellow writers to share with. And yes, that involves vulnerability, and immense trust as well. In my case, I’d known about my local group of writers, the Oslo Writers’ League, for over a year before I actually snowplowed my way awkwardly into a room full of strangers and shared my writing.

    I very much appreciate Eric Lynne’s comment about showing students how messy the process actually is. Too often teachers hold up a final product for students to emulate. Worse still is when students in a writing class, most of them fledgling writers at their most vulnerable stage, are made to feel that they should have “gotten it by now”. For some this is simply too daunting, and they come away with the feeling “I am not a good writer”.

    Your experiences, Jenna, at both UW-Madison and NMBU have shown you that there is no “one size fits all”, and I am sure you will take that knowledge with you forward. As a former employee of NMBU’s Writing Centre, I wish you all the best! And I sincerely hope I get to see more of your writing. 🙂

  9. Jenna, your perceptions are as sharp as your writing. We often focus too much on the final product rather than the continuous process. But that’s true for developing any skill, whether it’s in the creative and performing arts or athletics. And in all these skills, the difference on focus (product or process) appears most noticeable when the effort is voluntary. Students who must take a writing course tend to focus on the final product (i.e., graded papers), whereas those taking the course as an elective seem more concerned about becoming strong writers. That’s one reason I think a letter grade for a writing course is misleading. A “B” in writing indicates a “good” paper, but it says little about the student’s development as a writer.

  10. Jenna! I miss you! I loved reading this piece and learning the specifics about how you work with your students in Norway. What a thoughtful comparison–as much as we hope that Writing Fellows are genuinely involved in their students’ writing processes, they do only see writing at a point in time. How fortunate that you are able to watch your students progress and to share their process each week. Something to consider!

  11. I’m surprised I haven’t commented on this post yet, given how frequently I turn to it in moments of darkness at work. As always, Jenna, your insights about tutoring and writing make me reflect on my own life, professional and otherwise. In particular, this entry reminded me (and reminds me, on many days) of how important the pairing of empathy and exploration are. When you’re a traveler yourself–a person invested in process and improvement and boundary-pushing–you open yourself up to the plight of other travelers. I hope you either come back to Madison soon or write a million more blog posts–miss you!

  12. How wonderful it is to check in on Another Word and see your name in the byline of this post. And how wonderful it is to read your writing again, Jenna! It sounds like you are doing exceptional work in Norway, being encouraged by others and encouraging others to see writing in complex ways. I’m going to pass this post on to my tutors to inspire them to try and follow in your footsteps!

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