English 521:
Composition Theory and Pedagogy

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by Shirlee Dufort

Failing to mention either the most rewarding or the most distressing aspects of learning to write would be to tell an incomplete story. I have an intimate yet erratic relationship with writing. I am a most ambivalent lover. Stopping to glance at my watch, my fingers still poised above the keyboard, I have smiled, amazed to find that I have been in a state of bliss in which hours have passed without my noticing. I have also flushed and sweated as I stared at my computer screen, reading my own text over and over again, vainly trying to anticipate the criticism I correctly supposed would come.

I love, adore, am devoted to, am crazy about writing. The limitations of words are nowhere more apparent that when I try to describe my pleasure, joy, delight, satisfaction at using, playing with, relishing, wielding them.

I know about writing; well, the truth is that I sometimes know how to write. How it is that I know how to write is something I don’t know a lot about. I am a creative writer and a formal essayist. I am humorous and deadly serious, courageous and terrified. I write fiction and essay, poetry and prose. That makes me the teller of lies and truths and, perhaps occasionally, a bit of Truth. But I am fragile, so fragile.

I can write when approval is heaped on me, layered like blankets; give me flannel, cotton, polyester blends, wool and down. Regardless of their weight or numbers, they never smother me or weigh me down. In truth, they barely keep out the drafts. I am grateful to be able to report that I have been wrapped tightly in such comforters as:

“Good point . . . very impressive work . . . excellent . . . outstanding job.”

“Very good essay, with clarity and insight.”

“A strong paper, certainly no surprise.”

“Your responses are extremely convincing.”

“You are the real thing.”

“You make great use of critical texts.”

“You are one of the best prose writers in this class.”

“An outstanding essay. I enjoyed reading it immensely.”

“This paper was as superb as I knew it would be.”

“It is a great joy to read your essays and diaries, Shirlee; you write insightfully and gracefully.”

“This if one of the best papers I’ve gotten in years. I shared it with a colleague of mine.”

“You are one of the smartest students I’ve ever taught.”

Actually, the last quote doesn’t quite fit here, but it remains one of my favorites and I slip it in at every opportunity.

All of this warm and toasty stuff would be a lovely place to leave my story, however, there is more. Layered in warmth though I have been, should the wind blow, should the softest breeze stir, my teeth begin to chatter, my lips turn blue and my hands shake so hard I can’t seem to hold a pen. This is the part I hate, despise, anticipate with anxiety, dread.

In a recent creative writing class, two short stories and a few poems are made bloody, stabbed again and again with an unrelenting red pen, and I am wounded. Fully two-thirds of a sixteen-page short story is slashed. Page after page after page bears diagonal red scars, entire pieces of paper without a single word to redeem them. These are deep wounds; I find myself wondering whether it is possible that they are mortal. While I do not actually keel over, my hands go numb with the cold, seemingly unable to hold a pencil firmly enough to mark a yellow legal pad or to flip the switch on the outlet strip that holds my computer plugs. I am falling out of love. And simultaneously, I am caught in the cycle of the lover who has failed to perform, who then develops anxiety that increases until failure and performance are the only thoughts, the act itself no longer associated with warmth or pleasure. I can’t think of any reason that sex therapists wouldn’t also be qualified to counsel writers.

A few searing comments have incapacitated me, not only blistering my fingertips, but withering the memory portion of my hippocampus so that any distant remnants of praise and admiration turn into ash that falls away with no resistance whatsoever:

“Who ever taught you how to write?”

“What? What?”

“Trim a lot of the narrative.”

“Too much generalized telling.”

“Cut, cut, cut. Too much explanation.”

“Cut this! Get on with the plot.”

“Show a bit-don’t tell like this.”

“Too much summary and distance.”

“Move on-more scenes!!!”

“Not more backfill!”

“Very unfocussed . . . doesn’t all pull together . . . “

“Forget the literary allusions.”

“So wordy.”

“Abstract . . . vague . . . cut.”

“This is pretty good . . . Well, it’s better than anything else you’ve written this semester.”

I cannot seem to get over these comments, or to put them into context, perspective, or the back of my mind. Numbers don’t matter; the sparse can easily cancel out the abundant, one individual all of the others. I am sure that those who have affirmed my writing are all mistaken or too subjective. They like me and so are unable to discern whether there is quality in my work or to bring themselves to tell me that there isn’t. I take up their slack:

“What the hell am I doing?”

“This stinks. It’s unoriginal . . . formulaic . . . corny . . . unsophisticated . . . too stiff . . . stupid . . . nothing special . . .”

“I can’t do it. I can’t say what I’m trying to say.”

“I don’t know what I’m trying to say.”

“Why was it I thought I could write?”

“What business do I have picking up a pen?”

“Of course you want to be a writer, Shirl; everybody wants to be a writer.”

“How can I call myself a writer? What I mostly do is rewrite.”

“What makes me think . . . ”

I cling to three things that keep me from giving up the affair in the chilly times. First, a couple of years ago, SUNY brought Annie Prouxl to Albany to read her work. During the question and answer period that followed, an audience member, no doubt an aspiring writer either looking for the big secret or for permission to carry on, asked Ms. Prouxl how long she took to write a short story. “About six weeks of sixteen hour days,” she answered, “maybe fifty or sixty drafts.” I’m not sure whether I felt more daunted or excited by what she had said. I had always apologized for my attachment to editing, the revisions of revisions, but I had never gone that far. “Perhaps I’m not such a weirdo after all,” I thought. “Or maybe Annie Prouxl is a weirdo too, but she is published.” Was there any possibility that she was pulling the guy’s leg, annoyed at his assumption that there could be a formula for such things? I’ve never been sure whether she was exaggerating to make a point or whether she meant those numbers literally, but I made it a point not to inquire and I am grateful to her for saying them.

Second, I attended the International Women’s Writing Guild’s Summer Conference last month at Skidmore College. Eunice Scarfe, a Canadian short story writer who teaches at the University of Alberta taught a workshop that I was drawn to attend each day. She called free writing “the act of writing,” and then described the editing and crafting that follow as “the art of writing.” That phrase brought a dignity to what had sometimes seemed to be embarrassingly numerous rewrites. It allows me a little shelter from the cold drafts that always threaten.

Last, despite the uncertainty I feel about this relationship, despite my anxiety and my love’s many warts, complexities and annoying habits, I tuck the blanket around the two of us. I am conflicted, but still in love and something that I can’t quite name keeps me coming back for more.

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