Composition Theory and Pedagogy
by Scott Wagar
3:30 A.M. finds me in front of a glowing computer screen yet again. I’m waiting for inspiration. My friends, kind enough to let me use their dorm room and their Macintosh, are asleep in their beds just feet away in the half-darkness, reaping the rewards of their wisdom: they haven’t waited until the night before like I have. I take swigs of Mountain Dew from a plastic mug; it’s the sweet nectar of the Gods of Last-Minute Paper Writing. No, make that bittersweet nectar -- the taste of sugary green goodness reminds me, with every swallow, that I’ve sentenced myself to another unnecessary all-nighter. I have few ideas and even less time…
The blinking computer cursor on an otherwise empty screen was the college version of the blank white page of my earlier years, before technology had taken us so far. But for me it was, in many ways, the same old problem. With early drafts of a paper rarely required, I came time and time again to a point where a significant portion of my grade rested on what was essentially a single night’s work. I usually left myself no option but to write in one long session on a computer - there weren’t enough hours remaining to compose a version on paper to be typed up afterward. And time and again, my method, such as it was, worked for me. I not only survived but prospered. But I sometimes wondered, and still wonder: this works, but am I progressing? Has my writing grown? Should it be possible to turn out an “A” paper in a night? What standards are being used to judge these papers? Do my desperate all-night writing sessions somehow, in ways I don’t understand, help me improve? How did I learn to write at a level that has helped me succeed up to this point?
My early writing education is mostly lost to my conscious memory, but I do think that regular reading, from a young age, of books of all sorts loomed large in that education. I remember a prose piece from sixth-grade “honors” English And Reading class called “Mutants”. It was my response to an assignment to write “a book”; about thirty handwritten pages, it was made up of two separate stories about young people with super-powers. I was at the time a huge fan of a comic book (recently popularized on film) called “The X-Men”, about a group of people born with strange powers who fought for good even though they were feared and hated by the public. I’ve come across my sixth-grade book in years since, and it’s derivative in a way that makes me cringe, but it does have vocabulary and a message about tolerance that I don’t think I’d have learned if not for those comic books. I’m pretty sure that no first draft of that assignment was required, or, if it was, I’m pretty sure I managed to somehow get out of it. But still the story received a grade of “A”. And I think I wrote it all in one day (all-night writing was still a few years away). So my process, whatever it was, was set fairly early on.
In those years of comic-book obsession, I was sure I wanted to write comics “when I grew up”. And I tried a little at the time, but a regular habit of writing never took hold. I think, though, that a notion of myself as a writer did. Surely this was fueled by the fact that my written work for school was well received. And that being the case, I think I also decided that being a writer must not take much time - just one session per project! As I continued through high school, this was certainly the norm for me. An exception was a senior-year creative-writing class that had daily journal entries as a requirement. This didn’t lead to me continuing a journal once the semester ended, nor did it lead to more regular writing of any sort for me. But thinking about it now does make me wonder about what might have happened if the habit of regular informal writing had been ingrained earlier.
My own habits changed little as I proceeded through college; early drafts were still rarely a requirement, although I did encounter a class or two requiring frequent short response papers. But a creative-writing class I took in my junior year typifies much of the college writing experience for me. We were really only required to attend the class, not to write. Our professor was an American woman who had published one or two critically well-regarded novels while living in Paris in the late 1960s. She was fascinating and amusing and her rambling diatribes to us on every conceivable topic surely taught us things about life that are integral to writing, but actual mandatory written product from students was in short supply. Brief exercises during the semester were, it turned out, basically optional, and we merely had to turn in a final short story of some (any?) sort to complete the class. I submitted about five pages written, as usual, during the twelve-hour period prior to the final class session. When my grades for the semester arrived, I discovered that I had gotten a “E” in the course. What? “Excellent”? No, it turned out that this meant the instructor hadn’t submitted their final grades for the class on time. I stopped into the English department office at the beginning of the next term to find out what grade I’d actually received and found the secretary scurrying back and forth, checking on grades for other “E” students like me. She asked which course I was wondering about. When I told her, she didn’t even look at the grade book. “Oh, everyone got an ‘A’ in that class,” she said. So that was how it worked. I immediately signed up for the second half of the two-semester course. The second term turned out to be no more strenuous than the first. It helped my grade-point average but not, I think, my writing skills.
I’ve mined my stories of college-paper procrastination for a lot of laughs and amused head-shaking, and even for a well-received short essay in a recent graduate writing workshop. But behind the humor of my all-nighter tales there are some serious questions. Would my writing have improved if I’d been in the habit of writing drafts, not just one hurried version, of my papers? If so, how much would it have improved (and how would I quantify this?)? How does the fact that I wrote on a computer, where what I edited was erased completely rather than just crossed out, tie in? And what difference does it make at all, if my technique seemed to work? It does make a difference to me, not only because those nights with no sleep often seemed like a living hell, but also because I would like to be a better writer, and I’d like to see others become better writers. Those moments of “desperation inspiration” which gave birth to many of my last-minute papers are a source of fascination for me, and are a topic I’d also like to explore. But the road of “much more writing, much more editing” is one I haven’t traveled much, and so it interests me perhaps most of all (even if I have yet to really start down that path…). Maybe a born writer will automatically write obsessively, every day, from an early age. If so, I wasn’t born into this. But maybe I could have grown, and still could grow, into it more than I’ve done so far. As someone who may end up teaching writing, I wonder if it might be a good idea to have students write and revise much more frequently, and to construct an idea of writing as something that ought not be left until the last minute - even, and perhaps especially, for students who find they can get by on last-minute writing.
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