Unfortunate Truths: An Autobiographical Account of an English Tutor’s Writing Development

“‘…found in United States,’ I read from the student’s paper. “You need an article here: ‘…found in [the] United States,’” I nervously smiled, pointed to the appropriate sentence and prayed that he didn’t ask, but merely accepted that I’d given him the answer. All the while, I was fearing his possible inquiry, internally screaming my inadequacies, I don’t know; because it sounds right!

Recalling the first days of my experience as a writing peer tutor in 2010, I remember feeling like I jumped into the early morning misty chill of Lake Michigan. No toe-dipping to test the temperature of the water in order to acclimate, just both feet first. (Actually, I think I was pushed.) I’m still mastering the difference between a phrase and a clause… and don’t even get me started on articles! Indefinite… definite… I get, but beyond that I have no idea what to tell students except that it sounds right. My understanding of writing, I’m happy to report, has vastly improved in other areas, though. I’ve finally learned to season my tutoring sessions with spicy terms like “gerund” and “prepositional phrase.” Okay, okay, don’t press me to explain a gerund, but it’s fun to say, right? Regardless, I have been fortunate for an opportunity to read the writing of others and learn from their successes and mistakes. Not only can I help others improve their writing, but my own writing has benefited from my tutoring experiences, my independent study, and also from the influences of my English professors. Now, the single voice in my head, fraught with fears of inadequacy, has been substituted by the many voices of others. Scary for some, I know, but I find it comforting. So, before you slowly back away, let me explain.

Like many, I’m sure I started my writing education as a wee lass. It’s likely I picked up a crayon and doodled on paper, on the wall, on the furniture, maybe even on the car. Fortunately, I progressed to using pencils, shaping letters, and eventually, formulating sentences. But I don’t need to travel back that far to tell the story of how my writing sharpened. Suffice it to say, missing from my primary education were all the new fangled grammar labels, like gerund, subordinate clause, independent clause, etc… Well, it was a while ago… Today, students and instructors toss those words around like some sort of all purpose Mrs. Dash extra spicy seasoning blend. I guess in similar terms, it brings out the “flavor” of a sentence. I simply don’t recall salting my writing with fancy terms, but only knowing my sentences sounded right. Much later, I discovered that I knew how to make my writing sound right because I read… a lot.

Fast forward a teeny weensy little bit to my first college composition class in 1996. Something had worked in high school (even without the fancy lingo) because I tested out of the first level comp course and advanced to the second. I don’t remember many specifics from the class except that I wrote a whiney and elementary sounding piece that had something to do with considering a stint in the Peace Corps. I wasn’t really impressed with it, but it demonstrated proper form and the instructor liked it. I was still writing without formal structure and only from instinct—still getting by with the philosophy of “it sounds right.” I lacked the focus and depth that derive from a clear understanding of the tools at my disposal.

In the fall of 2009—new town, new state, new decade—I signed up for English Comp 1101. Yeah, yeah, I know, but when someone in authority at last-minute registration tells you that testing out of the course in another state doesn’t count, sometimes you just don’t know any better to argue. BUT, in Dr. Kelly’s class, I did begin to develop the ability to effectively argue and support that argument in my writing. Though I technically didn’t need the class, I actually needed the class. Know what I mean? I hadn’t yet learned the identifying language that enabled me to discuss what I was doing correctly or incorrectly, but I was adding to my repertoire of “it sounds right.” My arguments became informed and properly supported, not whiney-sounding attempted appeals. In Kelly’s class, I was also introduced to the concept of reading between the lines. I had been a surface reader of popular, mainstream fiction, generally immersed in the imagery created by the author, but not yet exposed to the underworld that can also exist in more classical works. Though I still was not able to entirely articulate using proper terms, a window opened, allowing me a different view to experience the poignancy of literature.

Following Kelly’s instruction, GGC’s Modern Fiction class with Dr. Mosser advanced me deeper into the underworld of literature. My favorite was venturing into central Africa to find Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. That’s when the voices started to fill the darkest regions of my thoughts. Mosser’s teaching style included making himself available to consult during multiple drafts of the assigned writings, and I took advantage of his offer. Though we exchanged multiple debates about what was expected…

“You haven’t proven this,” he said, pointing to my literary analysis assignment.

“Yes, I did; it’s right here,” I said, pointing back.

“Flannery O’Connor didn’t mean it like that.”

“That’s the way I read it.”

“But it’s not supported”

“But…”

I never entirely felt I fully understood his meaning, even at the conclusion of class. I did, however, significantly advance my writing. I attribute that advancement to Mosser’s teaching and still hear his voice in my head, questioning, “Who’s doing what?” and stating, “Go back to the text for support.” And I’m sure he’d be ecstatic to know that I followed him into the underworld of literature.

UPDATE: Mosser’s instruction on the first day of English Studies class this semester finally resonated an understanding of what he was trying to tell me in the previous Modern Fiction class! I thought I was going back to the text for support in my arguments, but I was only identifying more occurrences of my interpretation, still without entirely supporting it. In other words, my interpretation was taking precedence, and while it may have been an insightful observation, it wasn’t properly supported with any indications left by the author. I was conveying only what I thought, but didn’t demonstrate whether the author agreed, using his or her text. It seems simple enough, but I only recently bridged the connection. Writing is a process that requires practice. Writing is a process that requires practice (Yes, it bears repeating).

The mastery of my writing encountered a 24-hour spice emporium super store in Dr. Kelly’s Language and Linguistics class. Master Chef Kelly developed my ability to see language—phrases and clauses, as well as root forms, prefixes, and suffixes—as interchangeable pieces. I’m more informed about the fundamental aspects of how language functions at the word and sentence levels. Articulation in writing has become a more manageable task, as a result. Contemplating the missteps of developing writers has also become easier to decipher. And, my goodness, it had been there the whole time!

Between linguistics with Kelly and my continued experiences as a writing peer tutor, my editing abilities have greatly improved. “Say more about that,” says the voice of Dr. Ritola in my head. Observing the writing of others helps me apply a more observant method to my own work. As developing writers, we tend toward the same set of common mistakes, most especially, wrongfully thinking we’ve completely committed the entirety of our thoughts to paper. “Writers need readers,” according to Ritola. But writers also need to be readers for their peers.

There are other voices. Dr. Vollaro is reminding me to use strong verbs as a means to create impactful and engaging writing for my readers. Dr. Heilman reminds me to address the content, a higher order concern, before tackling lower order concerns during the sentence-level editing phases of writing. When I sit down to write… well, let’s face it, it’s not the first phase of my writing process. Basically, I’m a slow-cooker, where much of the process of writing occurs away from the paper (in my head), but is available at the end of a timed period when needed during the “final” draft phase, aka the night before the project is due. So, now, I even hear my own voice, reminding others not to forget the foundational elements of the writing process: brainstorming, thesis development, informal outlines, and multiple drafts that need to age a bit after production, like a fine wine, before finalization and submission. I have to admit, staring at the screen is much less arduous with a few notes and a written plan.

So… writers need to be read and be readers. They need practice. Snacks! Writers need snacks, and lots of distractions. Strike that! They need to be free of distractions. I got distracted for a minute to make dinner, but then I had to load the dishwasher, and now I’m sitting down to write again with a burnt faux chicken patty over herb-infused buttery flavored vegetables and rice… meat-free… some frozen concoction. I didn’t make it. I don’t have time to make fancy dinners spiced with gerunds. Writers need to find a space to write that is free from distractions, but most importantly, writers need their voices.

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~ by lookATLANTA on March 19, 2013.

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