Writing Process

Every semester of graduate school so far has been marked by some event.  For better or for worse, several of those events have been, for me, injuries.  I fractured my tailbone at the end of July (a swimming accident), and then broke my toe about a month ago (a less glamorous fall in the middle of the night).  So for much of the semester, my body has been broken. Literally.  It’s not been my favorite, but it has forced me to sit in one place a lot.  In the last month or so, as I have given more thought to how my dissertation will be shaped (and how I’ll actually get it done), I keep coming back to writing process.

I realize it isn’t an odd statement for any educator or aspiring academic to say they are thinking about writing process, but it’s not something that has always been so acutely on my radar.  The first time I can remember really paying attention to how I write (i.e., the process by which I actually sit down and start forming sentences into paragraphs) was when I was faced with the task of teaching a class of 32 fifth graders how to write a literary essay.  It was only through the exploration of my own writing process (in my mid-20s) that I was able to be a successful teacher of writing, and also, begin to understand what it means to have a writing process.

As a young student, I was taught that writing starts with a draft and ends with publishing, but I didn’t really understand what it meant to “edit” or “revise” something — that the process isn’t linear, but recursive, and good writers tend to go back and rework what they’ve written as they go. I tended to skip over these steps; I would start with a blank page, and write until I filled it.  I almost never wrote a paper before the night before it was due until my dissertation prospectus. It just wasn’t in my bones to spend time on writing craft, until I had to teach it (or the paper just got too long to write in one sitting!).

So something happened to me as a writer when I became a teacher of writing.  I found it was no longer acceptable to meander so much with words (though I’m admittedly still working on this), or be unable to create and utilize an outline or writing plan (especially if I had to teach how to do these things). I started going back to the beginning, dialoguing with myself about what makes sense and doesn’t as I crafted a piece, and using a set of answers to touchstone questions like “so what?,” “for whom?,” and “why?”

In recent years, I’ve begun to flex my fiber artist muscles again for the first time since high school.  As a child and teenager, I spent hours creating intricate designs of macrame and crochet, completely engaged in the processes of construction and problem-solving.  My mom would proudly announce to the proprietor at a shop that her daughter could figure out how to make any friendship bracelet, no matter how complicated, just by looking at it.  It would embarrass me, but there was something she was hitting on that I wouldn’t recognize for at least another twenty years: in order to be able to fully articulate something, I had to start from the end. (This isn’t unlike backward design, which Grant Wiggins and James McTighe suggest as a pedagogical approach to planning assessments. I relied heavily on this method of preparation as both a classroom teacher and teacher educator.)

I wouldn’t make this connection between my writing and crafting processes until a few months ago, when Shannon Mattern and I met to chat and she suggested I think about how (in my research) to connect the worlds I spend the most time in: academia and knitting.  Our conversation reminded me of a paper that Nabin Chae (a dear friend and colleague) delivered at the 2009 American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in San Diego called “Finishing Techniques.”  Nabin is a skilled knitter and writer, and drew a parallel between finishing techniques in knitting and the use of theoretical frameworks in academic writing. The impact of her analogy stuck with me, but it wasn’t until my recent conversation with Shannon that I realized I had to start writing about this.

I started thinking about how I approach a project involving yarn, and noted that it depends on the technique.  If I’m knitting, I have to sit down and plan — knitting is all about numbers and measurements, increments and multiples; if I’m crocheting, I kind of just sit down and fly — even though I design my own patterns, I find it far more forgiving than knitting, and don’t often go into a project with an airtight plan but rather find myself writing the pattern down once the piece is complete.  In thinking about this further, I realized that my process for writing has often been like my traditional approach to crochet — spontaneous, hopeful, and without a plan; however, when my process for writing follows how I might approach a knitting project, I give myself time to consider, think, and rethink a plan of action. For my dissertation, the latter approach is going to be necessary.

So what do I make of this discovery? Is there a way to work it into my dissertation? Is it relevant to my teaching? I don’t know and I’m not sure yet.  But I know I like thinking about it.  There’s something very exciting about considering a way to theorize knitting and simultaneously concretize theory by looking for a channel that connects two worlds that mean, well, the world to me.

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