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Monday, February 25, 2008

The Resistant Writer: Futile or Exhausting?

I may be biased, but I think the Writing Center is a pretty inviting place. It’s well-lit, there’s free sugar in a bowl (actual candy--not the Nina Simone song), and (most of the time) somebody is there to greet the writer as she or he walks in. If you added in a massage table and a nacho bar, that’d be my idea of heaven, my friend. Despite all the organized niceties, there are still writers who come in that don’t want to be there. You see it in their faces—the impatience in their eyes, the corners of their mouths threatening to curl downward. Their voices, through a veneer of controlled and forced politeness, betray everything from indifference to outright hostility. These are the writers who have come to the Writing Center against their will to fulfill a class requirement.

Please note that I am not saying that every student who comes in because it’s required by the professor is not open to the experience. Far from it. These students, I’ve found, are positive about making the most of it, despite the fact that it wasn’t their idea to come in. There are a select few who gnash their teeth at the prospect of coming in. (Well, not literally. I don’t think. Maybe, they do, I don’t know. I’m going for an image here.) Let me try again. Some writers want to go to the Writing Center about as much as Amy Winehouse wants to go to rehab. Hmmm, no, that’s not quite what I’m trying to say. Hmmm. Let’s move on.

I can only speculate, but my general feeling on this matter is that students who don’t like writing in general are the ones who don’t want to go to the Writing Center. (Ironically, I feel like those writers are the ones that could most benefit from a helping voice.) Or it may be the coercive methods involved to get them to make that appointment. (Being FORCED can cause resistance instead of acquiescence.)

I’ve had a couple of sessions with writers who didn’t care to spend a bit of their afternoon with me. I’ve found that if you don’t like to write, then talking about writing is a big bowl of not-fun as well. There is also that element of resistance. I’ve seen writers just dig in to their preconceived notions that the consultation is, much like a visit to the dentist, meant to be endured.

My first week back this semester I had two such writers; they came in back-to-back, like a tag-team, and let me know that they were only there because of a professor’s requirement. Neither one of them was overtly belligerent or mean—nothing like that—but it was clear that they were there to collect the slip of paper that proved they endured 30 minutes of writing-talk with me.

Strangely enough, both consultations ended up being quite positive. Here’s why: I figured out that people who don’t like writing don’t like writing because they have a mistaken notion of what writing is. Writing doesn’t serve them; it’s something educated people do to write these incomprehensible, esoteric texts that you can only understand if you are already educated. Writing is meant to confuse. Writing is a barrier between people—between gender, class, race, education levels, etc. Certainly, these ideas about writing have some validity. But they don’t represent the vast spectrum of light that emanates from the field of writing. My goal as a consultant is to let people know that writing belongs to them. Make no mistake: I’m not giving that to them. They already have it. I’m just issuing a friendly, little reminder.

One of the consultees had to write an essay on his own writing experiences. (Yeah, I’ve been there, done that—thanks a lot Mike!) He showed me a few paragraphs that he had written, and it seemed to talk about everything and anything but writing. (What he had for breakfast, etc.) So we talked. He told me how much he hated writing, how he only used it for writing e-mails, how his girlfriend was a great writer and it made him feel inferior, and how he hated, hated HATED to write at a desk or at home. He went on for a few more minutes. After he had his say, I said to him: “That sounds like a *great* paper. Those are your writing experiences…everything you told me was related to writing.” He was silent for a few seconds. He beamed at me: “I never thought about it that way.” He had never considered that communicating his hatred of writing was a perfectly acceptable (and interesting) way of examining his own style. “It’s fair game. This is all fair game,” I told him.

Now, not all of my consultations with resistant writers are success stories like this one. There are ones that leave happily because I know they are just happy to get out of there. But for the most part I’m beginning to warm up to the challenge that this poses.

4 comments:

  1. Your initial description of the "required attendee" is quite apt. I too have seen that sneer. Like you, I've been able to turn that sneer around. Sometimes, however, it quite the struggle to do that. It is satisfying when it does happen. When it doesn't happen, of course, it is disheartening.

    Do we ever grow a thicker hide to fend off that sort of treatment?

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  2. Anonymous3:05 PM

    I also agree that "required attendee" is quite the suitable name. I faced one such individual yesterday, and he left me absolutely drained. It did not go well. He was entirely shut down. The individual was a walk-in, and I only had about twenty minutes to work with him, so there wasn't a lot of time to coherse him into leaving the "dark side," but I tried. He essentially glared at me politely (if you can do that) the entire consultation, seeming quite annoyed by all the discussion of his writing. I was pleased he came in, even if it was required, because he did have a basic misunderstanding of writing, but I don't believe the consultation was successful. There was not enough time, and I could not get him to warm up to me. Certainly most consultations don't end up this way, but it makes the successful consultations all the more beautiful.

    Thanks for reminding us of the good,
    Sara Welch

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  3. I really liked reading your post. I have, luckily, not had any reluctant consultees this semester - although I am sure they are to come. I do, however, completely agree with you, that the students who are most reluctant to come in are the ones who need help the most. Also, those same people who often come in stating that they are good writers and don't need any help, are also the ones who really do need help! Seems kind of ironic that those who resist are the ones that can potentially benefit the most. I almost prefer these students though to the ones who come in with the near "perfect" paper as I feel I am more able to "help" them. Thanks for the insight!

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  4. Clint,
    I don't know if I've had to develop a thicker hide, so to speak, but I have had to work harder to figure a person out. Once I can identify the behavior, I hopefully can find a way to open the writer up to the experience of getting beyond that behavior. Yeahh, easier said than done, but it is an interesting challenge.

    Sara,
    Yeah, I've been there. ;) You also bring up a good point: it's hard to change an attitude in 30 minutes, nearly impossible in 15 or 20! (I can just see the written review of the session. "Worked on glaring. Glaring politely. It was a success.")
    Thanks for the kind words, btw! :)
    Jenny,
    Thanks to you to for the kind words. I agree that "perfect" papers are almost harder to read, because I feel like if I don't have any helpful tips or advice to give, then I am a schmuck. lol That sounds like a topic for another post. "Schmuck: The David Scott Story."

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