Monday, July 14, 2014

Peter Elbow Gives Me Writer's Guilt, Which (as it turns out) is Awesome

My brain is still living in the Scantron(r) Era. There is a Correct Answer for every evaluation opportunity and it is important to me to puzzle out what that is.

This has been interfering with my participation in my writing groups lately because I find that when I listen to others' writing or prepare to give comments, I'm searching for those elusive right answers. Am I finding all the points? Marking all the right sections? Missing some grammar/plot/POV challenges that I shouldn't?

Just a bit of personal weirdness, right? Lately it's extended into my skipping working on my own drafts to read--obsessively--books on writing. There are correct answers in those books. I know this, because they mention techniques, have exercises, emphasize outlines. I dislike outlines. I have always disliked outlines. One of the books that I acquired was Peter Elbow's Writing with Power and I have been reading it in between others for several days. Chapters don't fly by and I've starting reading with a pencil tucked close by so that I can bracket passages. He mentions outlines. He suggests techniques for drafting and planning and revising.

I read it out loud to the dogs while they are napping on the couch.

Suddenly, I find myself thinking about blue books and college essays. I encountered a stack of them last year when we were finally cleaning out boxes we'd packed just after we were married, years ago when we moved out of that first apartment. I remembered being a good student, but the marks on the essays and exams didn't bear that out. The grades were okay, but the comments were telling. Points I didn't think through, wording that shocks me with its sloppiness. Grades were important to me; the subjects, not so much.

The realization that this was still the case, that I still relied on the idea of objective, "right" responses rather than paying direct attention to the stories and ideas in front of me, struck me several chapters in, as Mr. Elbow discussed outlining from what you know and what you want to say. The idea that there should have been something that I wanted to say, that I should have been interested in my subjects rather than my grades, is kind of one of those how-did-I-get-this-far-this-clueless moments. I had been feeling guilty that I didn't apply this technique to those college essays when it occurred to me that I should focus on the writing I have before me now.

There may be good ways, better ways, and poor ways to express yourself (see above, blog draft on the fly); however, it's not about correct answers, it's about reader response. It's not about being correct and sitting up straight for your "A;" it's about telling a story that brings your reader alive in the same way that a match brings a lantern to light--suddenly an internal change casts a finer awareness into the world. Or brings a little relief from the darkness. Either way.