Composition Theory and Pedagogy
Essay and Emotive Response
by Timothy J. Coffey
In tenth grade, everyone in Mrs. Degrandis’ English class had to write an essay on an American author. No one was actually given a choice in the matter, nor was anyone allowed the option of choosing their author. That kind of option wouldn’t have meant much to me anyway, seeing as I, like many sophomores in high school, had no interest in anything even remotely intellectual. Fate’s ubiquitous hand dealt me Sherwood Anderson, a man I had never heard of (nor did I frankly care to know about). Despite the cliché one might expect at this point, research did nothing to change my apathy towards this essay. I wrote down the standard encyclopedic style biography that defined the efforts of most of my fellow classmates. After all of us were through embarrassing ourselves by reading said biographies in front of the class in the usual self-conscious manner that defines high school presentations, I felt no different. It was clear that Anderson cared deeply about the work that he did in his lifetime, but I certainly didn’t. The self-imposed mediocrity continued uninterrupted by tenth grade English, as I expected.
Shortly after this assignment, Mrs. Degrandis continued her Tenth grade English syllabus with a Unit on “Appreciating Poetry” which was equally if not less exciting than the essay I had completed on Sherwood Anderson. The wizened and possibly wigged (or so the rumors went) Mrs. Degrandis saw to it that our first assignment in appreciating the art of poetry was that we were all to write poems of our own and once again embarrass ourselves in front of the class through recitation. Enter the predictable protagonal change. My poem was quite short and completely free verse, of course. But as I wrote it, I started to care how it sounded in my head and when I read it out loud. My poem was all of about five lines, but I pounded away at them until I thought that they were perfect. Looking back on this incident, which was probably about seven years ago, I am hard pressed to even remember what this opus was about. Most likely, it concerned a girl that I happened to like at the time, or some music that I liked, basically what you would expect out of a fifteen year old writing a poem with no restrictions for length, style, or meter. As the class proceeded to read their poems aloud, I began to see why someone might find a kind of empowerment in writing. It became clear that what I wrote about in my own poem was personal, but capable of being understood by others. This was an amazing feeling. Other assignments from Mrs. Degrandis followed, of course, but none were as profound as this for me, at least in the context of that small classroom, in a Catholic high school in upstate New York.
Passionate feelings are fleeting in adolescence, so my thoughts and feelings about writing, however powerful, were put on the back burner for awhile. High school ended and college began. Like every new student at Monroe Community college, and many colleges and universities across the country, I was required to take college composition. I was not required to take Creative writing however, especially as a Communications and Media Arts major, but I did anyways. College composition was a struggle for me, as I did not put much time and/or energy into any of my classes, which seemed typical of many students at community college. My creative writing class offered much more to me in terms of passionate writing and pure enjoyment. I did not think much about it at the time, but it really all had to do with picking the right topics. Creative writing allowed me an infinite number of choices. It allowed me the option of passion, where as college composition seemed to lack this crucial element for me. It showed. My grade in creative writing brought my entire GPA up, while my progress in college composition was limited by my intense laziness and apathy towards the subject matter and the progression of the course. It was a simple matter of poetry being meaningful to me, while writing persuasive essays and such was not. The turning point in this kind of writing for me came in a revelation allowed through combining assignments in these two classes. Creative writing was a kind of make your own assignment as you went along class. I wrote poetry most of the time, as it allowed me to express myself more than prose at the time. In college composition we were assigned an essay (or so I heard, I was not in class much) of a personal nature about something traumatic that had happened to us in our lives. I ended up writing about a fairly serious car accident that I had been in about six months previous. It was a breakthrough for me in terms of doing a college composition assignment, as I was able to get some emotion out as I wrote. All the fear and anxiety and pain seemed to pour right out of this essay. My writing group within the class seemed to think so, and the grade I received from our professor reflected that as well.
At the same time, my creative writing teacher at MCC decided to get creative and actually assign us something with some criteria that we had to adhere to. It was a poem, much to my relief, but one about a traumatic experience that had occurred in our lives. It being so fresh on my mind from my college composition class, I again chose to write about the accident. Here, another crucial connection was made for me. Two forms of writing had been presented for me; one that I associated with emotional and spiritual catharsis, and the other that I associated with boring school assignments about people and things that I really could have cared less about. The realization became my understanding that one particular kind of writing was good and fun and the other boring and a waste of time, but rather that it was my personal commitment to any particular piece of writing that mattered most. The college composition essay was my first opportunity to express myself emotionally with non-fiction prose. I had never thought it possible before. This was, as I look back upon it, the next logical step after my writing experiences in tenth grade with Mrs. Degrandis. It just took a few years of writing on my own for the connection to be made. After realizing the power of words, I had to realize that this power did not exist in the words themselves, as some kind of innate magic of the language, but rather that the power of language was in my own ability to manipulate those words.
I remember being satisfied with the assignment when I was finished with it, rather than having the usual bad taste in my mouth from struggling through a persuasive essay or any other given assignment in the class. knew that my passion resided with words, and yet I hated my composition class. It took the emotional response of that assignment in congruence with the poem that I wrote on the same subject to bring the realization that any kind of writing could capture my emotion and personal commitment to the finished product. I do not consider this anything that could have been taught to me in an actual classroom. Even if there were a method to do so; to show students their own emotional capabilities with regards to any given piece of writing, I probably would not have listened. This was most certainly something that I had to come to on my own. The only method to reach this plateau was writing on my own, and as much as I could. The key realization being that language was not some powerful structure that I could just tap into every now and again, but instead it was a set of signs that were in my complete control and jurisdiction to manipulate in a way that would reach readers, and more importantly myself, in an emotional way. The power lay not within the words, but in my ability to use them. In essence, these experiences with writing teachers did not affect me in and of themselves. The combined lessons on writing from all of my teachers, coupled with my own fascination with the power and effectiveness of words and language, brought me to the point I am at now: with writing as an integral part of my life.
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