Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Writing can feel a bit scatterbrained, like you’re traveling without a map.

(Title taken from a Joyce Carol Oates short story of the same name)

I recently described my educational background to someone who had a hard time reconciling my BA in Psychology with the fact that I am getting a Master’s in Professional Writing. How does someone go from a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology with minors in Chemistry and Criminal Justice to spending her time writing, especially writing poetry? To me, the connection is clear: writing is all about cognition.

Well, cognition and metacognition, which are not the same thing (Tinberg 75). When I work with student essays, I often ask them to identify what they know and how they know it. What they know is the cognitive aspect of writing, a process that begins before the writing itself, from the very moment the student begins reading (Tinberg 76; Dryer 72). How they know it is the metacognitive process (Tinberg 76)—the student must consider how the information is presented and how it structures its message.

Writing, as we know, reflects aspects of an individual’s life and personality. What might not have been evident from that post is that writing—and, by extension, cognition and metacognition—is also a shaping process.

A common method for mental health treatment is called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.

A brief explanation of CBT.

I’ve been in CBT a couple of times, and two exercises I completed as part of the treatment were self-esteem affirmations and cognitive journaling.

Journaling: not just for writers anymore.

The long and the short of it is that you engage with the ideas that you write. The physical writing, the words and grammar and syntax, are all part of cognition. The ideas, the notion that you are worthy of love and mistakes do not decrease your value or right to existence, are part of metacognition. When you are asked to journal about your good features or the day’s positive events, you are forced to place more emphasis on these positive characteristics. Thereby, you get used to considering them, and you wind up seeking out those ideas even when you aren’t writing. Have you ever spent a long time reading and started thinking in terms of narration and dialogue? It’s like that. The more you become accustomed to certain thought patterns, the more likely you are to repeat those patterns, and so on.

This process is neutral; recurring cognitive patterns have both positive and negative repercussions. When your thoughts are healthy and self-affirming, they lead to a healthy and self-affirming outlook. When they are unhealthy and self-destructive, they lead to an unhealthy and self-destructive outlook. Similarly, when you write, becoming accustomed to patterns can be useful to learning citation styles and genre conventions, but they can also ensnare you in them. In English: if you don’t want to write a single genre for the rest of your life, it is important to experiment early and often.

Reflection is part of that experimentation. Where I ask students what they know and how they know it to engage in cognitive-metacognitive processes, reflection asks students to consider where they are going and where they have been. This reflection is also a metacognitive process, but it is more focused on the individual than a rhetorical analysis is. Reflection asks you the cognitive question of “what did you write?” as well as metacognitive questions about who you are and what you seek to accomplish. I write in part due to my mental illnesses, because they shape how I view and interact with the world. Both psychology and writing help me to understand who I am and what I want.

So, I leave you with this: where are you going? Where have you been?

references

Dryer, Dylan B. “Writing Is (Also Always) A Cognitive Activity.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 71-74.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Epoch Magazine, 1966, https://www.cusd200.org/cms/lib/IL01001538/Centricity/Domain/361/oates_going.pdf.

Ragnarson, Richard. “Cognitive Journaling: A Systematic Method to Overcome Negative Beliefs.” BetterHumans, 25 Jan. 2019, https://medium.com/better-humans/cognitive-journaling-a-systematic-method-to-overcome-negative-beliefs-119be459842c.

Taczak, Kara. “Reflection Is Critical for Writers’ Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 78-79.

Tinberg, Howard. “Metacognition Is Not Cognition.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 75-76.

“What is CBT? | Making Sense of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.” YouTube, uploaded by Mind, the mental health charity, 28 September 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c_Bv_FBE-c.

New Content Announcement!

I’m starting a podcast! It has the same title as this portfolio (Violet Prose) and can be found on Buzzsprout or under the “Podcast” page nestled under “Additional Content.” Please feel free to leave comments, reviews, etc. and spread by word of mouth! The first full episode will be about imagery.

“But I’m A Good Writer”

We all face difficulty and stress during the writing process.

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

-Thomas Mann

During my first writing-based class in undergrad, I made a B on the first essay I turned in, even though I was not predominantly a B student. My reaction then, as I have seen many students react to assignments since, was “but I’m a good writer.”

The icky, uncomfortable truth is that there is not necessarily such a thing as a “good writer,” because it is difficult to impossible to define “good writing” (Rose 60). Some traits carry over, like clarity and concision, but application varies from genre to genre and from audience to audience. How do you decide what is clear and concise in a legal journal or case brief as opposed to a newspaper article about a trial? Same source material, completely different expectations. What is clear and concise to a lawyer is not necessarily going to be clear and concise to a kindergarten art teacher.

Jenna Moreci created a video about writing tips, incorporating some tactics which translate to different types of texts (reading aloud for clarity and to check for errors, outlining and visual outlining, and writing sprints), but she writes for an audience of fiction writers, most of whom write novels. Thus, most of her tips are geared towards novel completion and publication rather than a generalized writing audience, which is everyone.

After a student finds appropriate mentors (Rose 59-60), there is a benefit to experience. In psychology, there is a term called practice effects, which refers to the phenomenon that the more participants become accustomed to being asked certain questions, the better equipped they become to answer those questions.

I wrote in an earlier post that I want students to learn that it is okay to fail, and I stand by that. “We often forget […] that successful writers aren’t those who are simply able to write brilliant first drafts; often, the writing we encounter has been heavily revised and edited and is sometimes the result of a great deal of failure” (Brooke and Carr, 62). Speaking of writing techniques, Randy Ingermanson developed the snowflake technique for writing a novel, which is based on the mathematical concept of fractals. The basic idea is to start with the simple basis of your project and to expand on it systematically, but even then, Ingermanson says that your project (again, probably a novel) will require multiple drafts.

The next time you or one of your students think “but I’m a good writer,” say, “Yes, maybe you are—but that doesn’t mean you stop learning, and it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad writer if you make a single mistake.”

“[L]earning to write effectively, especially in different contexts or communities of practice, takes different kinds of practice, and such practice takes time and effort” (Yancy 65). Writing requires instruction and practice and cannot be perfected overnight.  The sooner we and our students can understand that, the better. If Jackson Pollock can get away with his paintings, you can survive a misplaced comma, dangling modifier, or split infinitive. Get messy, get creative, get loud. Just remember to return to the page and be ready to work.

References

Akshay, Dollar. “Processing : Koch Curve – Fractal Animation.” YouTube, uploaded by Dollar Akshay, 12 Aug. 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTYW4Re_RsY.

Beglinger, Leigh J., et al. “Practice Effects and the Use of Alternate Forms in Serial Neuropsychological Testing.” Archives Of Clinical Neuropsychology: The Official Journal Of The National Academy Of Neuropsychologists, vol. 20, no. 4, June 2005, pp. 517–529. doi: 10.1016/j.acn.2004.12.003

Brooke, Collin and Allison Carr. “Failure Can Be an Important Part of Writing Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 62-64.

Ingermanson, Randy. “The Snowflake Method for Designing a Novel.” Advanced Fiction Writing, https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/. Accessed 20 Sep. 2019.

Mann, Thomas, and H. T. Lowe-Porter. Essays of Three Decades. A.A. Knopf, 1947.

Moreci, Jenna. “Top 10 Writer Hacks: Tips and Tricks for Making the Writing Process Easier.” YouTube, uploaded by Jenna Moreci, 6 June 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2O0ivx5Gr-w.

Rose, Shirley. “Writers Have More to Learn.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 59-61.

Yancy, Kathleen Blake. “Learning to Write Effectively Requires Different Kinds of Practice, Time, and Effort.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 64-65.

What am I reading?

Current reads

“Stop Doing That S#!%” by Gary John Bishop

“Pillow Thoughts III: Mending the Mind” by Courtney Peppernell

Read recently and loved

“between you & these bones” by F.D. Soul

“Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered” by Karen Kilgraff and Georgia Hardstark

“Life of the Party” by Olivia Gatwood

works that inspire me

“The Disappearing Act” by Sara Pirkle Hughes

“The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s notebooks

Literary Anthropology, Dendrochronology, and You

Image of a tree stump wherein the tree rings are overlaid with the silhouette of the tree as it was, fully grown.

Wow! Impressive title, right? Kind of intimidating to look at? To understand what it means, a little context. In high school, I was a super nerd. I went to a magnet school for the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) and was co-captain of Envirothon, an environmental science academic team. One of the fields of environmental science I studied for competition was forestry, and amongst other things, I learned how scientists use tree rings to study the history of trees, which is referred to as dendrochronology. The short version is that weather, presence of parasites, age, and other factors affect how a tree grows. You can dissect a tree’s entire life if you know what to look for.

Literary anthropology, on the other hand, is the study of humanity through the lens of literary texts. According to Kathleen Blake Yancy, “[w]riters’ identities are, in part, a function of the time when they live: their histories, identities, and processes are situated in a given historical context” (52). So, people—individual people and people as representatives of their respective cultures—can be studied and analyzed based on what they write, which is essentially antithetical to the Death of the Author theory and supportive of auteur theory.

At its core, literary anthropology maintains that literature is a mirror with which we can see our identities and cultures reflected.

Nevertheless, identity is rarely that simple; “[w]riting provides a means whereby identities are discovered and constituted. Yet those are never clear cut” (Villanueva 57). I had the fortune of attending a reading for fellow Mercer University alum and published poet Sara Pirkle Hughes. When asked if she considered herself a Southern poet, she replied that that was for the historians to decide.

Warning for racist language—a Chinese American poet tweeted the following:

“the 1st time i heard the word ‘chink’ was from a white boy i liked in 8th grade. he said he liked me too, liked that i didn’t have ‘really chinky eyes.’ i took it as a compliment. it took years for me recognize the racism, including the racism i’d internalized. words matter.”

-Chen Chen

Chen Chen felt alienated enough from his identity as an Asian man that he was willing to accept the backhanded, racist compliment from a boy if it fed him a scrap of validation. “Our identities are the ongoing, continually under-construction product of our participation in a number of engagements, including those from our near and distant pasts and our potential futures” (Roozen 51); at one point, his participation in racist culture caused him to internalize anti-Asian racism, and later on, his experiences allowed him to overcome that prejudice and gain pride in his identity.

Meanwhile, Sara Pirkle Hughes considers herself ill-equipped to define herself or her place in the contemporary literary scene. This uncertainty comes from a different source, owing less to insecurity and self-hatred than to the fact that “identities are, in part, a function of the time when they live: their histories, identities, and processes are situated in a given historical context” (Yancy 52). She cannot determine whether she is a Southern poet or not because that historical legacy has yet to be set.

What we can learn from all these facts—dendrochronology, literary anthropology, and the commentaries of Sara Pirkle Hughes and Chen Chen—is that while writing is useful as a way of determining and expressing identity, this tool is only useful in retrospection. Because we change and our writing changes alongside ourselves, our writing can only be analyzed for clues after we die and/or after we stop creating. Until then, we can only do our best to stay vigilant, self-reflect, and consider what our words say about us.

Students, writers, and people in general should know not just the value of their words and understand that while their writing reveals a lot about them, they are not married to whatever identity they espouse. There is always room, and time, for change.

References

@chenchenwrites. “the 1st time i heard the word “chink” was from a white boy i liked in 8th grade. he said he liked me too, liked that i didn’t have “really chinky eyes.” i took it as a compliment. it took years for me recognize the racism, including the racism i’d internalized. words matter.” Twitter, 13 Sep. 2019, 2:45 p.m., https://twitter.com/chenchenwrites/status/1172627325252505607.

Georgia Envirothon. “Georgia Envirothon Forestry Study Materials.” Georgia Envirothon, 2016. PDF.

Gisriel, Jim. “What is Auteur Theory? | Deep Focus.” YouTube, uploaded by Jim Gisriel, 11 September 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzTRjsefTXc.

Nicholas, Tom. “The Death of the Author: WTF? Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author Explained.” YouTube, uploaded by Tom Nicholas, 3 April 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9iMgtfp484.

Poyatos, Fernando. Literary Anthropology: A New Interdisciplinary Approach to People, Signs and Literature. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1988.

Roozen, Kevin. “Writing Expresses and Shares Meaning to be Reconstructed by the Reader.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, p. 51.

Villanueva, Victor. “Writing Expresses and Shares Meaning to be Reconstructed by the Reader.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, p. 57.

Yancy, Kathleen Blake. “Writing Expresses and Shares Meaning to be Reconstructed by the Reader.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, p. 52.

The Evolution of Genre

Statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare, dressed with helmet and spear.

Many students like to think of writing as something that springs into existence fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head. If you read my previous post about writing as a social activity—the etymology of and history contained within language—you know this is not the case. Just as words themselves didn’t simply emerge into existence, writing systems and genres were created by people. “Writing […] addresses social situations and audiences organized in social groups and does so through recognizable forms associated with those situations and social groups” (Bazerman 35). Basically, audience informs genre.

I frequently compare writing to dancing, but here I’m going to mess things up a little by discussing music and ethnomusicology. Essentially, cultures arrange music in accordance with their language, values, and modes of thinking, in much the same way that, say, citations reveal the priorities of a certain discipline (Lerner 41). For more on how the relationship between language, culture, and music develops as displayed by Disney movies, click here.

In clearer terms, “disciplines shape—and in turn are shaped by—the writing that members of those disciplines do” (Lerner 40). Consider Gregor Mendel. Today, we consider genetics as a strict and complex form of biology, and biology as a strict, firm form of science with an equally strict methodology; however, genetics was not always a biological discipline, and biology was not a “hard” science the way it is now. Mendel developed genetics in many ways, but most chiefly in his statistical analysis of observed inheritance traits, as opposed to the qualitative analysis used by, say, Charles Darwin. Mendel knew how to use Chi-squares where Charles Darwin drew pictures and wrote descriptions, and—once Mendel’s research reemerged—the ramifications were severe enough that every pre-medical student I knew in undergrad had a serious hatred of Chi-squares, Punnett squares, and general statistics.

Approximate reaction of any Biology student when faced with genetics research.

That works neatly for genres where there are defined expectations, but what about genres wherein part of the expectation is flexibility? Ball and Charlton argue that all writing is multimodal, and that those modes are “linguistic, aural, visual, gestural, and spatial” (42), and no genre portrays this multimodality as clearly as poetry. Poetry, whether written or spoken, operates in multiple modes. View this clip of the video below to hear a student talk about the relationship between poetic meaning and line arrangement.

Watch from 4:08 to 4:42 for comments about the relationship between space and meaning in poetry.

Now you understand that we have looped back around to my post on introductory writing—good writing, regardless of genre, is any piece of writing that clearly communicates its meaning to the reader. Disciplines gain specific formatting and citation techniques not spontaneously, but through the deliberate collaboration and contemplation of a series of authors. Mendel introduced statistics to biology, and e.e. cummings possibly ruined the use of capitalization and punctuation in poetry forever. Writing has evolved as we have gathered new knowledge and new methods of organizing said knowledge, and it will continue to evolve. Good writing is not necessarily afraid of experimentation with the five modes of writing but is an act of conscious and deliberate experimentation that seeks to add meaning rather than detract from it. I, for one, look forward to seeing what genres of writing develop in my lifetime as knowledge expands and barriers break down.

Sources

Ball, Cheryl E., and Colin Charlton. “All Writing Is Multimodal.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 42-43.

Bazerman, Charles. “Writing Speaks to Situations through Recognizable Forms.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 35-37.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by the Process of Natural Selection, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1859, pp. 1-442.

Gurung, Divya. “basic wannabe instagram girl reviews basic instagram poetry.” YouTube, uploaded by itsdivya, 23 September 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TYPfuaqpAQ.

Lerner, Neal. “Writing Is a Way of Enacting Disciplinarity.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 40-41.

Mendel, Gregor. “Versuche über Plflanzenhybriden.” Verhandlungen des naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn, Bd. IV für das Jahr 1865, Abhandlungen, 1866, pp. 3–47.

Sideways. “How Disney uses Language.” YouTube, uploaded by Sideways, 23 April 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btxZGzWlsMw.

Writing as a Social Activity

How do we conceptualize language?

In my last post, I claimed that writing is an art of understanding how ideas travel through words and that dancing is an art of understanding how one’s body occupies a space. What, then, is art itself?

As it seems to me, art is a process of building constructed meanings. Bazerman says that “a writer’s meanings arise out of the expression of internal thought, [but] the meanings attributed by the reader arise from the objects, experiences, and words available to the reader” (22). I once had a conversation with a friend of mine in which we discovered that she associates the word “prolific” with “author” due to her experiences with literature, whereas I associate “prolific” with “serial killer” due to my experiences with forensics and true crime.

In my undergraduate psychology program, we discussed how our brains process and interpret information. For example, how do we know if the way one person perceives a color (let’s say red) is the same way another person perceives it, barring colorblindness? In the face of individual differences, how can we ensure that the same meaning is conveyed across audiences?

My Greek professor mentioned the way a lowercase alpha (α) resembles an ox’s head or capital gamma (Γ) resembles a shepherd’s crook. These were common sights in Ancient Greece, so they made sense as universal symbols of language. The more common a symbol or word is, the less likely it is to be misinterpreted—which is perhaps why so many people find academia and academic writing inaccessible and obtuse.

Dryer makes it a point that as part of the idea that writing is a social and rhetorical activity, writing is inorganic, constructed, and structural where speech is natural (27-29). The written word possesses a form of intentionality and knowledge that verbal speech does not. For example, I have heard people complain about the “b” in “doubt” (something someone illiterate would be ignorant of). I took a course in etymology where it was explained that the “b” was included to reflect an etymological relationship to the word “double,” as they are both derived from the Latin word “dubitare.” This relationship, though seemingly obscure, is reflected in such phrases as “double check” or “second guess.” Though completely overlooked in verbal communication, this type of shared history and meaning is implicit in our understanding of written language.

Furthermore, there is a universality to spoken language that written language lacks. Particularly, most people (barring a physical or psychological disability) are capable of verbal speech, making it a relatively neutral form of communication. Written speech lacks this neutrality. Faigley notes that written speech is political, from the intentionality and purpose of the writing to the distribution and consumption of it (537-539). Just as spelling carries historical relationships, writing platforms and genres carry their own historical connotations. The more exclusive a form of publication, the more likely it is to be revered while also reflecting the current systems of power. The less exclusive, the more likely it is to be dismissible and countercultural (picture the book or newspaper versus a pamphlet or blog).

No one creates meaning by themselves, and therefore no piece of writing is individually created. One must consider audience, genre, and—in some ways—the history of one’s language to produce a single piece of writing.

Sources

Bazerman, Charles. “Writing Expresses and Shares Meaning to be Reconstructed by the Reader.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, p. 22.

Dryer, Dylan B. “Writing Is Not Natural.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 27-29.

Faigley, Lester. “Competing Theories of Process: A Critique and a Proposal.” College English, vol. 48, no. 6, 1986, pp. 527–542. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/376707.

Minchin, Tim. “Quiet- Matilda the Musical.” YouTube, uploaded by Secret Agent Tigress, 20 June 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWuzG0dYsWY.

Snodgrass, Melinda S. “Xenolinguistics – Star Trek TNG – The Ensigns of Command.” YouTube, uploaded by LCMS Borges, 16 August 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6c-kzuhv2o.