Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Writing Is a Mild Happiness

Not enough attention is paid in and out of the classroom to the emotional experiences (let alone physicalthat's for another day, another post) of people as they write. Emotional states are the single most powerful incentive for people to consistently continue to write, especially when they're no longer students. Writing-related emotions are more powerful than deadlines or even ambition.

Teachers often talk about writing as a matter of struggle, of working hard and of encountering the difficult. Of course, writing has all of these qualities, but how gentle is one's slope up that difficulty? What's the angle on your mental treadmill?

No more potent an incentive to return consistently to the writing desk exists than when writing is a mild happiness. This emotion is key to building discipline as a writer.

Avoiding extremes, binges, ups and downs, and manic relations to the ability to write. Don't celebrate anything about writing ability, and don't mourn anything either. In his marvelous but unfortunately under-discussed book, How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency: A Psychological Adventure, Robert Boice describes the importance of making motivation to write "more internal"; in fact, growing this internal motivation should be one of the goals of a writer
as much a project as completing a book or even "writing everyday." Boice turns our attention to the emotional states we experience when writing and specifically asks us to seek a calm approach, a "mild happiness."

Crazy deadlines, all-nighters, adrenalin-pumping procrastination, and writing binges may bring a temporary burst of writing high, but the writer will shortly suffer a let-down: emotional, cognitive, and physical. It's like relying on too much Red Bull: feels good in the short-term but will only cause problems, tiredness, and dependency in the long-term. Some people struggle to avoid states of hypergraphia (being unable to stop writing)as the neurologist Alice Flaherty so well documents in The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain.Other people induce this state in themselves--when it never had to be an option.

That common technique of waiting until last minute to start a project only seems beneficial. As Peter Elbow has pointed out, this method helps to kick a tricky audience out of your head because you simply can't afford to ponder them: it's "do or die" time. In a paradoxical way, waiting until last minute increases mindfulness because it allows the writer to focus on themselves while composing
and not some distant audience. However, this method is unreliable (it won't always work and then you're stuck with an incomplete task or failure). Waiting until last minute also does damage by forever linking the act of writing with anxiety, sleep deprivation, and immobility: it makes writing become an unnatural and energy-expensive act, too separate from the normal give and take of everyday moments.

On the other hand, mild happiness resembles the state of equanimity which Sharon Salzberg has described as the ability to allow things to be as they are by putting large space around events and observations. Equanimity is about our stance on external events--how we relate and respond to them
whereas maitri refers more to how we relate to internal developments arising inside ourselves.

As applied to writing, equanimity means watching each moment during the writing experience and allowing it to be what it is. It means not overly valuing the ability to write. It means accepting a productive session as much as accepting a session in which you typed nothing. It means that when time's up on your writing sessionyou need to get to work or your kids are starting to leap out of their bunk bedsyou just move on with ease. You know you've got other interesting things to do with your day. If you don't work with external constraints, set the limits on your writing session simply for the purpose of practicing that mild stance.


Happiness in writing comes then as a result of that equanimitybecause it means we are practicing acceptance, being gracious and generous toward ourselves (and we all know how harsh writers can be on themselves). It means that every writing moment can be a low-stakes moment: exploratory, safe, private, secluded. We are happy that we can be so kind to ourselves. With this perspective, there is absolutely no reason to feel uneasy about writing and no reason to dread it.

Basically, a writer needs motivation to continue and that involves accumulating positive associations with writing. This is far from a trivial matter: so much about writing seems linked with unpleasantness.

Early on in graduate school at the University of Iowa, I forced myself to spend hours each summer day meditating on the single image of a still-life. It was so painful that part of my brain literally started to twitch. The consequence? Did I get any writing done that summer? When September rolled around, I "discovered" several typed poems I had no memory of actually writing. Apparently, the experience was so painful that I'd blocked the actual writing entirely out of my consciousness. A few years later, I worshipped Martha Graham and pushed myself through strenuous acts of deprivation in order to finish poems. None of this was as sustaining to my writing life as the gentle and accepting approach of mindful writing.

So the question a writer needs to ask if he or she is struggling with writing is this: What would it take to bring pleasure into writing for me? No matter the answer... now matter how seemingly trivial and possibly even child-like, it's your answer. For instance: I could use crayons. I could write for only minutes right now and then go for a walk. I could copy the same passage over and over. I could freewrite about something that's troubling me rather than working on my article.

Pleasurable experience needs to be built into the curriculum whether in the classroom or in the self-teaching of your study (if you are no longer a student). Mild happiness is a learning outcome as valuable as "improve critical thinking skills" or "understand the social dimensions of written communication" or any of the bulleted statements found on syllabi. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Knowing How to Give Water to Thirsty Writers: Guest Post by Al DeCiccio

A Provost’s Confessional Vignette:
Once a Writing Center Worker Always a Writing Center Worker
I am pleased to offer you this guest post about the power of collaboration between writers by Dr. Al DeCiccio, Provost at Southern Vermont College, a scholar in Writing Center pedagogy, past president of the Writing Centers Association and former co-editor of The Writing Center Journal.

For more than 30 years, I have held the belief that writing centers are places where risk-taking occurs, where mistakes can be made safely, where learning from errors is encouraged (indeed fostered), where getting it right the first time is less important than learning while doing over time
Most recently, at Southern Vermont College where I am Provost, we have implemented a new curriculum, using Neal Lerner’s Idea of a Writing Laboratory. Essentially, our curricular orientation is exactly as I have stated above about writing centers. I offer this fact as a way to orient readers to the following vignette. I hope everyone will find it affirming and illustrative of the fact that one can take the person out of the writing center, but one can never take the writing center out of the person.

In 1987, he was an important university man, the kind of man who could determine your future. Chair of the English Department and, more importantly for me, Director of the Graduate Program, Bill asked some questions, making proclamations as well.

“You don’t really believe that this‘positive intervention’ and ‘collaborative learning’ works for all of the students we see today, do you? Half the freshmen can never be taught to write. And then you want the students helping other students, as tutors. That’s the blind leading the blind, don’t you agree? And if you do, what is the point of collaborative learning and of writing centers?”

There had been long pauses in my life before. When Dr. Barry, the doctor who would save my eye, asked me to count backwards from 100 while he gave me ether. Or when I realized I was going to be attacked by the German Shepard after I reached out my hand to pet him. (I still have scars above my left eye, the one Dr. Barry saved, the one with no sight, the one close friends call goofy.) Or when I saw I was about to ride up the rear end of an Oldsmobile on the brand new bike my father bought me. (The look on my dad’s face when I walked the broken bike home was more disappointment than I could ever conceive of causing.)

This was another such pause.

I thought about how far away Tempe was from Lawrence and about how little this important university man knew of teaching writing and what it meant for those who learned to teach others how to do it well. Ten years later, Stephen King, of all people, gave the best advice about teaching writing: “Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up” (On Writing 270).

I thought of Frost, who was from Lawrence; I thought of John D’Agata, who is from Lawrence. Bill was far removed in space and in time from the kind of great writing these men produced.

I thought of Michael Struffolino. I thought of Tania Guimond. They were student-tutors, one a self-proclaimed Libertarian and the other had the warmest heart I’ve ever known even if she couldn’t spell a lick. They were terrific tutors; they knew how to give water to thirsty writers.

They worked and studied at Merrimack College, in the greatest writing center still (and I’ve signed the wall of Purdue’s Writing Lab and seen the Stanford Writing Center, close by Andrea Lunsford’s office filled with writing on collaborative learning and tiny red shoes). Michael and Tania knew Lawrence, too.

It was a hard, working-class place, but it was a city of families and neighborhoods; it wasn’t one fashioned after other cities. It didn’t sneer.

Finally, I answered Bill, realizing that I would make my line in the sand.“Well, unless someone is born with an intellectual disability,” I started out, “I think everybody can learn to write.”

“I think this dissertation looks really good. Did you write it on a computer?” The committee member speaking now tried to loosen the moment’s tightness by this left-handed compliment.

“Yes, I did, a Mac 520. But to answer Bill’s question, when writers work together, they gain a momentum that is truly inspiring. A power coming all over them with words. There is evidence, as I have suggested, which explains this power and how collaborative learning brings about knowledge and social growth for both the tutor and the tutee.”
“Well, it does look very nice--a sign of the times,” said the young professor on the committee, trying again to make things less tense.

“Thank you,” I said to the young professor. “Bill,” I continued to address him,“I would never (nor would you, if you knew them) call Tania or Michael or any of my tutors blind. That’s the whole point of collaborative learning and peer tutoring: when like-minded people work on a task that’s too hard for one of them to complete alone, together, they complete it efficiently and effectively. Heck, my whole dissertation was revised in Atlanta by people who know writing, who worked in a writing center--people who knew that, by helping me, I would get the dissertation done and to get back to my writing center tutors.”

“Now, thank you, Al,” my advisor said.“We’re going to deliberate a little and we’ll talk to you after that. Please wait in the conference room.”

When the committee members called me in again, they did approve my dissertation, grudgingly. They wanted major revisions. I suspect they would have preferred a rhetorical analysis of “Billy Budd,” because Bill was a Melville scholar and writing centers, peer tutors, the social construction of knowledge, and collaborative learning were still far out alternatives.

I completed the revisions. While I have never been thrilled with the dissertation, I was always pleased with my writing center work, particularly while at Merrimack and with the peer tutors I knew there. I’ve learned from many good people through the years (Kenneth Bruffee, Bonnie Sunstein, Harvey Kail, Judith Stanford, Mickey Harris, Peter Elbow, Lisa Ede, Michael Rossi, Kathy Cain, Lil Brannon, Don Murray, and more). Still, none of them taught me as much as the tutors did about collaboration and compassion and the power of those actions.

I return to those lessons all the time in my position now. I am proud to think about and use what I learned about writing centers, peer tutoring, collaborative learning, and the justification of belief. As I have done for the past 20 years, I use the experience of the Merrimack College Writing Center in every budget decision I make, in every hiring decision I make, in every curricular decision I make, and in every interaction I have with my colleagues.

Photo of Al DeCiccio
Though I am no longer at Merrimack, I can still see Frost’s bust on that campus and hear the last couplet of “The Tuft of Flowers”: “‘Men [and women] work together,’ I told him from the heart,/‘Whether they work together or apart.’”