Rather than ask students to do a writing sample on the first day of class, I asked them to write a literacy narrative by Wednesday. I did this for two reasons: 1) many students don’t write best with pencil and paper anymore and 2) the first day is usually packed with introductions, reading of the syllabus, and a quick walking tour to my office and the Writing Lab. I asked them to write literacy narratives so that we could begin talking about their locations as writers. Our course theme is “U R @” (or “You are here”), which challenges students to see their locations in culture, time, place, and space. Beginning with a literacy narrative seemed natural.
I decided to write one with them. I don’t complete the same activities I assign my students nearly as much as I should! This was a fun experience because I decided to write a literacy narrative for my husband, Stephen about his process of writing a dissertation. I began with a sketch/outline using SmartArt on Word 2007:
Next, I interviewed Stephen and wrote my first draft:
If you happen to wander into my new apartment in West Lafayette, Indiana, you may be surprised to hear Christmas music ringing from the upstairs office in mid-August. Pursuing the strange sound, you might slowly open the office door to find my husband, Stephen, leaning slightly back in his computer chair, his left forefinger and thumb pressed to his lips, eyebrows squished, eyes focused. I wanna buy these shoes for my Mama, please. It’s Christmas Eve and these shoes are just her size.
Stephen is writing the most challenging composition he’s ever written: his dissertation. A dissertation is a book-length composition that wraps up and presents all the research he’s done during his five years of doctoral work at the University of Cincinnati. When he’s finished writing, he’ll be able to begin a research position in Inorganic Chemistry at Purdue University where he’ll study the sticky substances produced by mussels and oysters. The completion of his dissertation, however, means much more than just a new job. It represents the past five years of his life, and for that reason, there’s a lot of pressure to get all his facts and feelings right.
In this short space, I want to share with you some of Stephen’s reflections on writing:
So Stephen, why does Christmas music play such an essential role in your writing process?
S: I guess mostly I enjoy Christmas music—that would be the first thing. But mostly because it’s relaxing and it doesn’t invoke the same brainless, regurgitated singing that most modern music does. So if I listen to country or any other type of contemporary music, I wanna sing along, and then I get distracted. When I listen to Christmas music, a lot of it is less lyrical. There’s a lot more music than there is lyrics, so I’m a lot less likely to sing along.
Aside from the strange music choice, what’s your writing process like?
S: As I write, I’m constantly critiquing my sentence as I go. I don’t write a full draft and then edit it. That works for some people, but not for me. Instead, I constantly revise my sentences and paragraphs as I go. I’ll basically write one sentence, revise that sentence, write the second sentence, revise those two sentences together, write a third sentence, revise those three sentences together, the fourth… until I start to create a flow. Once a flow is created, I have to do less editing at the beginning. As I write, each paragraph, section, or chapter have certain key points that I have to highlight. So there’s always a general outline for what the paragraph or chapter’s going to look like. However, my papers are not merely idea-driven. There’s also a very complicated substructure that’s based on the connective flow of individual sentences. Therefore, I spend a lot of effort editing/connecting sentences in a cohesive manner as I write my papers.
What’s the hardest part of writing a dissertation?
S: The hardest part of writing a dissertation in science is constructing sentences in a way that’s precise, yet concise. It takes a lot of time to accurately describe things in a way that other people can actually understand and can reproduce. It’s also very difficult to keep all the information straight or organized, I guess. [What do you do?] I use a whiteboard. It kinda lets me jot down things as I go—important pieces of information I need to recall. [Why use a whiteboard specifically?] I like looking at things that are big. A lot of times when I’m jotting down on a piece of paper, things are so small that I lose them in my mind. The whiteboard is so big that I get a visual imprint in my mind and I can recall it at later points in time.
If you could talk to your past self a college student, what advice would you give yourself?
S: I would spend more time developing out my thoughts in writing. It’s always very tempting to construct papers or essays like a speech—typically very surface-level. I’ve always had really good ideas when it comes to writing and topics to write about for college essays, but I wouldn’t allow myself to take the time to really develop out those ideas… to develop a full understanding of what it is I’m discussing. I was too quick to think up my “main points.” I would use what I knew and do very little beyond that. I would just stay surface level. What I wish I would’ve done was more thoroughly develop my ideas in writing—it’d be much easier than learning how to do that now. Lol.
As his interviewer (and wife), I am encouraged by Stephen’s energy and commitment to his writing. I’ll be writing my dissertation in a couple of years, and I only hope I can be that motivated. Inspired, I want to end my narrative with a question for us, me and you, reader: Where can we draw motivation as writers?