One of the great things about engaging as a student in the very academic endeavor I teach is that one enriches the other. As I lead my students through the process of writing, I am engaged in the very same process under my own teacher’s guidance. And if I pay careful attention, I can see my frustrations and anxieties matching my students, and I can harness my experience with each perspective to inform and enrich the other.

This renewed realization (which is kind of a truism, isn’t it) was prompted most recently by a burst of inspiration I had as I was forced to write and produce pages for my dissertation workshop to read.

After my orals had been passed and my prospectus approved, it took me a long time to start writing the dissertation in any real way. Part of this was due to life events that I could not have predicted or prevented, but part of it was paralyzing fear of getting started.

I wanted a roadmap. I wanted to draw up a schedule, I wanted to know which chapter I would tackle first, I wanted to set myself deadlines.

My method of teaching the writing process to my students includes moments when I refuse to give them guidance.

I’ve previously written on this blog about my struggle to balance broad prompts (which invite imagination and passion) with specific prompts (which provide direction and clear expectations). But even when the prompts are very specific, students want to know where exactly to start, what exactly to write, how exactly to structure the essay. Up to a certain point, I of course provide that guidance. But eventually, if students continue to display anxiety and a desire for hand-holding, I stop answering their questions, and I say, “just start writing – the answers will come to you as you write.”

By this point in the writing/teaching process, I would have already discussed the concepts of writing-to-learn, of drafting, of finding out what you think by writing about it, etc. But the time always comes for them to dive in and explore, discover the joy (and/or nail-biting anxiety) of this all on their own.

Often students will say, “But I have so little to say about this! I can say everything I have to say in three sentences! I can’t write a full 3-page draft!” Start writing anyway, I tell them, feigning a lack of mercy.

I know that they will definitely get more than three sentences, and that when they give their draft to their classmates for peer review (and to me for comments), their readers will have questions and will point out where their “very obvious” statements need expansion and explanation.

When it comes to my own writing, I don’t have the audacity to ask my advisor to lay out the roadmap for me. But I wanted to ask for that.

So instead, I drew up plans and went to his office, and presented them to him in hopes that he would revise the plan for me and tell me what I should read and which specific parts I should start with… He didn’t. (My advisor, by the way, has legendary amounts of patience.)

So I spent time wondering: Should I start with the introduction, because that will set up the framework for the whole project? Maybe I should start with the chapter on fables, because that genre is the most didactic (of the genres I’m working with) and that would allow me to dive into the historical documents about education as well? Or maybe I should start with the chapter on romance, because that’s the genre I’m most familiar with and can knock out a first draft fairly quickly? Or, maybe the opposite – I should start with dream visions, because I know least about them, so the bulk of work I need to do would be at the beginning of my writing, and I could get to romance at the end, when I just want to finish already?

(As it happens, it’s a good thing I didn’t start with dream visions, because they are gone from the dissertation, cut after the chapters on fable and romance expanded into two separate chapters for each, kind of like an amoeba growing so big and then splitting into two amoebas through asexual reproduction / binary fission – hello, ninth grade biology! – and you can’t tell which is the parent and which is the child. Ooh, I like that!)

Eventually, I had to write something to hand in to the workshop. So I wrote some pages for the chapter on romance. I presented them to the group, got feedback, and had some new ideas about the overall project.

For my next submission, I did some writing that would be part of the introduction. It was full of half-formed ideas, I didn’t include the citations and references I needed (I wrote down things like “add Orme’s thing here,” but I didn’t take the time at this point to actually go check what Orme says about it).

Again, the feedback from the dissertation workshop caused my mind to go wild with explosions of ideas and possibilities, and I revised half of those pages for my third submission, expanding on some ideas that I hadn’t fully explored in the previous draft. And yet again, the feedback from the group helped me rethink the structure of the introduction, which helped me rethink the overall structure of the entire dissertation, and now I’m roaring to go again…

And it hit me: I had been acting exactly like my students, dragging my feet because I couldn’t see how the end product would come from the material and ideas I had in the moment. And the methods that worked were exactly the same as the advice I give my students: just start writing the damn thing.

An amazing aspect of the dissertation workshop is also getting to see others’ works-in-progress, to watch their drafts becoming light-years clearer with each revision. We often don’t see that on a graduate or professional level – we’ll look over friends’ and colleagues’ drafts when they’re confident enough to share it, but not before that. In this workshop format, though, we by necessity share drafts that are, as Anne Lamott says, shitty. We all expect our undergraduate students to produce shitty first drafts, and we encourage that as part of the writing process. But it is so good to see graduate-level versions of shitty first drafts! (Sorry, friends, but you get to see my shitty first drafts too, so…)

I’m not teaching any college courses this semester, but I plan to take this renewed realization with me when I plan my next composition syllabus.

Image: the first and last page of my latest draft, with comments from the workshop scribbled all over them (deliberately blurred!)


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