I’ve been working as a writing consultant with a lot of successful adults. These are folks who are in the very tip top tier of their professions and manage huge numbers of others. They are all the way grownup and so am I.
Interesting that I am finding things out about myself, though, as a teacher while working with these adults. Here’s what I mean:
I share ideas and strategies that I use as a professional writer because they want and need me to do so–it’s my job. I explain ways I have used to do extensive research, talk about brainstorming for developing an idea, name apps that I use for productivity, discuss format and documentation techniques, share proofreading strategies, suggest ways of dealing efficiently with on-demand writing, recall approaches for undertaking other tasks, and on and on. I refer to books, to web-sites, and more. And they take notes, or I send URLs to them. And we talk a lot.
Many of the things we talk about and the questions we ask each other in consultation sessions seem sophisticated to me; I think this is true because it really is sophisticated chat. I’m sharing professional writing knowledge with professionals who are writing. Some haven’t written extensive prose for years (many have said they are ten years out of grad school); some have never loved writing; some have forgotten how to get started; some have simply wanted to talk through ideas–and yet, these writers are grad students who are well beyond the regular grad student in professional experience and, typically, in actual age. However, many of their issues about wrestling with writing process or production are not dissimilar to any writer in any program at any age.
The major difference is that these professionals have authentic audiences and usually clear purposes for their writing. What a difference this makes. It might be the case that I, as a writing consultant, might need to tease out the exact specifics of this information as we talk through ideas, but the fact is that real writing is really a lot easier to conceptualize: what do you want the reader to know or do as a result of your text? Badda-bing-badda-boom.
Another side effect, or bonus, is that I realized fairly shortly after undertaking this endeavor that my teaching for freshman has been materially affected by this other experience. I am far more engaged with my professional writing in front of freshman than I have been before–much more willing to share who I am as a writer. I usually try not to intimidate freshman by writing well in front of them (I always write with them to some extent), but my writing always starts out as coal and grows into a bigger pile of coal until I wrestle into some form or other and rearrange the atoms with heat and pressure to turn it into diamonds. I like to write with students but it’s been the case that I’ve dashed things off to get writing handled, rather than really worked the craft of it all. And I haven’t always talked about what I’ve done in detail–as a writer.
That’s changing. I still write seemingly frivolous things to have fun with the freshman (or other undergrad students), but I’m much more serious now about explaining how I work, how writing BEGINS as opposed to how it ENDS. Explaining to professionals a process that is expressivism in the beginning and pragmatism at the end–well, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game. But the thing that I can’t get away from is that writing has to mean something to the writer. Or why bother? It’s just a meaningless exercise that one can master but never has heart. I got the five-paragraph essay down. I could write one in about twenty minutes. But who would care? What would the purpose be? (I could use it to pass an American history in-class on-demand exam, but I just get the grade and move on–I wouldn’t be a better writer because of it… necessarily.)
I want to work with writers who have heart, like in baseball musicals (because that’s so real); you gotta have heart. And what I’m finding is that the all-the-way-grown-up writers, and my consultations with them, have reminded me that my freshman need me to be just who I am–not a teacher only, but a model of someone who writes and has worked at it a long time and who has heart even when things look grim. Writing is gut-wrenching work and all my students need to know it.
My freshman students, especially, need to see that I can have no audience and only write for me, that I can write for one person alone, that I can write for a whole class of students, that I can write for a specific audience that I choose, or who chooses me: faculty, administrators, sailors, baseball fans, Victorianists, astronauts, and/or chefs.
How I really write is with heart. My writing matters to me–it has to, or I can’t get motivated to do it. In truth, I tend to put off the writing projects that don’t matter so much to me: technical reports, end-of-term/year reports, journal articles. No matter who the audience is and whether they are real or not, or whether the words I use are meant to be fiction or nonfiction–I gotta have heart. Whatever I might find is my purpose, no matter who I try to be as a writer… I see the heart thing matters. Heart really matters when I work with another writer. That’s intimate and colossal and harder still than working alone. I need to bring a big heart to that sort of endeavor–and so do my students. They need to see what that’s like. Perhaps I need to write WITH them, truly collaborate, not just assign group work, projects.
All the writers I work with need to know this one thing about how I really write. With heart.