I work at a writing lab at a community college here in the Crescent City.
There are lots of fun moments in the writing lab. There are also a lot of awkward ones, because unlike a classroom, the teachers and students in the lab aren’t a part of a coherent community, and oftentimes you have to discover someone’s major skill gaps in about 15 minutes, without offending or further stressing them out.
Today I overheard a fellow writing tutor tell a student to take pride in her own personal splash. “you’ve got a lot of it–take pride in it,” she said. “But remember that it will take practice to translate your personal splash in a way that others can understand it.”
As tutor in the drop-in writing lab, I practice communicating with students of various skill levels about the writing process. I remember that there are just as many ways to encourage, explain, cajole, remind and even scold students as there are types of learning styles and personalities. Yes, I included “scold” because by my second hour at the writing lab, I learned it was important to begin a session with “When is this due?” before launching into an involved conversation about revision or drafting, as many students will respond “today” and sometimes “in an hour” to that question.
A s a post-doc at LSU, I’d lead discussions about time management and assignment pacing and drafting in my classes–the same skills I focused on as a 7th grade English/history teacher for Santa Monica-Malibu schools five years before. Yet so many students come to college without an understanding of how they work, and therefore they come to college without the tools to advocate for their own learning. I find that the community college students I work with this fall have more of an ability to communicate what their strengths and weaknesses are in writing. Of course, this is a self-selected population of students who take the initiative to come to a drop-in writing center on their own time, so maybe if I had worked at LSU’s writing center, I would have found the same thing.
So much of my academic work has been shaped by my work habits, and I had to talk myself through the steps of long term projects once I no longer had the energy of a 20 year old to pull an all nighter and crank out a 10 page essay in five hours, fueled only by coffee (and sometimes beer later in my college career–always a mistake, but always tempting to try again). I find so much of a student’s approach to writing projects are shaped by how they operationalize their process, and whether or not they have mastered the patience to participate in writing as a process. A person’s school experience can help or hinder that–usually both.
Just today I had a frustrating session with a student who hadn’t done any research for a literary analysis paper, yet insisted on continually returning to the problem of how she was going to word her thesis statement. She was so overwhelmed by the literature she was analyzing (Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat”) and the language of scholarly research (enough said) that in her panic, she jumped to trying to map out what her final piece of writing was supposed to look like. And no wonder, really. It takes a stress monster who is obsessed with structure like me to empathize with this student. She’s obsessed with the form that her final project will take, and she’s skipping the most important part–the part where she brainstorms what she actually might want to say.
“Okay, okay,” she kept interrupting me. “So after I read these articles, I’ll say ‘Hurston addresses adultery in this story by X, Y, Z.'”
“Um, sure, that sounds like a good way to start a thesis statement, ” I said. (More than once.) “But you don’t know what you want to prove yet, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, but when I do, I’ll say it this way, right? Now what did I say?” She pushed her rhinestone encrusted glasses onto her nose and blinked, waiting for me to prompt her with her thesis fill-in-the-blank script.
I can’t help but think about how this student’s fixation on what her final draft will look like resonates with my own novel writing process. It took me close to two years to wrestle with that obsession. But what is this? Is it a romance? A coming of age realistic fiction? Fantasy? Magical realism? Is it a straight narrative? Is it a hybrid fiction? <–Whatever that is.
Just today, in my revision session, I found myself confronting the Finished Product Gremlin (I call it different things—but it’s always a gremlin). That monster voice inside me that pipes up just as I feel into the intention of a section, and just as I can quiet every other voice inside of me in order to hear what my gut says about a certain passage. My gut will answer yes and all of a sudden, there’s the Finished Product Gremlin, highly caffeinated and stuttering, juggling an overflowing binder of disorganized notes and printouts, saying, hurry up! Get to the finish line!
I have learned that when Finished Product Gremlin appears, it’s time to back off and take a break for the day. I’ve learned that Finished Product Gremlin is not a truth teller, or my intuition. It’s one of the many signals that go off inside of me when I’m overtired, or hungry, or just too stressed out from balancing unpacking boxes from a storage unit in Baton Rouge, scraping yellow paint off the trim in the new bedroom, hauling the seventh trash bag of paper memories to the curb. Sometimes the Finished Product Gremlin is just my brain’s way of saying, “I’ve had enough, and I’m no longer thinking clearly.”
The student with the rhinestone glasses thanked me for my help and left with the intention to go home and “sit down and think clearly” about what she’d really like to say, now that she has an idea of what the finished product will look like. I think what we were dealing with here is fear. I am reminded of a fellow educator and writer here in New Orleans who often breaks down social issues in her classroom discussions to the seeds of fear. She’s quite graceful at discussing fear, too–I’ll refer to her as Mme De La Chase, since she is also a badass bartender at a certain uptown bar similarly named, with twinkling fairy lights and an outstanding wine menu. Mme De La Chase moves with ease in a crowd, whether mixing a sazerac or ushering her toddler along a park sidewalk. Mme De La Chase teaches college students at a nearby college here, and fear comes up a lot in the classroom discussions, I suspect, because it is one of the entryways to connection for her, and maybe a familiar way to conceptualize ideas to her students. In my experience, good educators usually have one or two go-to concepts that always pop up in discussion. It is these fixations that helps us relate deeply and interpret with intention and heart.
Not to read too much into this writing center exchange, but I suspect my rhinestone spectacled student is working up the courage to face Hurston’s story, and the courage to ask herself what she really thinks about it, and the courage to avoid her own gremlins of fear in the meantime, the ones that at the end of the day are really asking “Am I doing this right?”
I think tutors at the writing lab are doing a lot of work in the area of fear. That, and celebrating personal splash.