Re-Mystifying Composition

by Louie Crew

Appeared in ATAC Newsletter 1.2 (Fall 1989)
© 1989 by ATAC Newsletter; © 2004 by Louie Crew

"Are you sure you lost your car keys under this tree?" the policeman asked the drunk whom he tried to help.

"I lost them over there, but the light is better over here."

Those who focus primarily on what we can quantify about writing often make the same mistake. I applaud when research de-mystifies, but I gasp when it knocks the breath out of texts. In recent writing about writing, the words inspiration and imagination appear infrequently or not at all. Without them, who will spend the time it takes to create good texts after a course ends? Who will choose uninspired, unimaginative texts?

Perhaps we should re-mystify the writing processes, at least some of them, as I try to do in "Suggested Protocols to Analyze," a one-page document which I distribute at the beginning of each course:

Cover each paper with a thoughtful protocol statement focused on the processes you used in writing. In no more than a page, no less than half, you should touch a minimum of five different pressure points, like but not limited to these.

  1. A big problem I had in writing.
  2. My major global shift.
  3. My favorite local change.
  4. A risk I took.
  5. How I tried to make the assignment my own, to carve my own authority.
  6. How the audience which I imagined, most influenced me.
  7. How my personality did or did not affect or effect one choice.
  8. A paragraph where I was especially aware of pace or syntax.
  9. Why a good high school senior could not/would not likely write this paper.
  10. The kind of comment I expect/want/dread from the tutor.
  11. How I coped with the artificiality of the assignment.
  12. One vocabulary matrix I tried.
  13. Where text/lecturer/tutor influenced me.
  14. How I tried to respond to your criticism of an earlier paper.
  15. How I integrated my literary experience with the topic.
  16. Where I tried my hand at allusion/alliteration/metaphor or any other formal device.
  17. Where I broke a rule on purpose.
  18. Where I surrendered to my intellect/feelings.
  19. How I improved my writing efficiency.
  20. The mechanics that most interfered.
  21. How I picked someone else's brain unawares.
  22. What most intimidated me and how I fought back.
  23. How I think I would improve on this if I had time for one more draft.
  24. What I hope most readers {won't/will} catch.
  25. Where I might publish this and what I would have to do to adapt it for that place.
  26. How I tried to integrate an insight from another course I'm taking.
  27. How I hope to make my paper distinct from others.
  28. How I tried to offend/confuse/intimidate/trounce the reader and still get away with it.
  29. Where my {gender/family/neighborhood/city/race/century/religion/ philosophy} {helped me/interfered}.
  30. If I had time to write a completely different paper, what I would write.
  31. Tactics that I rejected and why.
  32. How childishness/maturity/sophistication/innocence intruded.
  33. How I experimented with diction.
  34. My best claim to originality/creativity here.
  35. How I focused and focused and focused till I got it right.
  36. Where I {fudged upon/embellished/improved upon/gussied up} the truth.
  37. {Help/Hindrance} I experienced in gathering evidence.
  38. I wanted mainly to {inform/convert/wound/heal/entertain/prove...}
  39. I felt you wanted....but I wanted...; I tried to
  40. Please don't miss.... Wake up, tutor!
The list mingles the conventional with the unconventional. I prepared it to goad students to try some new attitudes about their work. I imply: take risks; move me; show your wit and your intellect; try new tricks.... I encourage imagination and inspiration. Only Miss Havisham commands, "Play!"

My replies to the protocol sheets threaten less than my comments on the papers, perhaps because I do not grade the protocol reports. Yet no student has ever treated these reports perfunctorily more than twice. I never treat them perfunctorily.

For example, if someone claims to have risked (no. 4) with a part of the paper which seems to me to risk little, I specify two or three bigger risks the student might have taken and ask the student to specify still others. I also invite the student to defend the original choice.

Students soon see that I expect them to think, to probe their intellect. I stress that I want them to move me. I remind them how they have moved me with earlier papers or with spoken comments. When they report problems, sometimes I share a text in which I have tried to solve a similar problem and ask them to advise whether I succeeded.

Collegial pressure pays off, not just in the papers which they write, not just in the processes they practice, but in the imagination and inspiration that they seek each time that they write.


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