Talia Rodwin ’17 looks back (so far) on a life among words.
I learned to write like many children in American schools. I was thrust into public school, subjected to curricula, and somehow, came out a writer on the other side. Who knows if each of my teachers knew what they were instilling – it all ends up a jumble of instruction, mostly focused on “correctness” of some kind and at times allowing creativity. I detail my experience with writing here as a way to show how one path of writing instruction can contain within it a thousand contradictory lessons, all of which have some root in writing pedagogy and which have shaped the way I write now. It is strange to think that without one of the experiences below, the words I type onto this page would not be the same words at all. But these are the words I do have so I will share them and bring some insight about how teaching shaped my writing.
- In the Beginning
We started on the letter level. We painstakingly learned to create each curve and line in print then in cursive. Only after this careful mastery could we move to words. Endless hours of spelling and shaping, making sure the hs and ls were the tallest things in each word. Endless sounding it out, English diction on unsure lips.
Finally we moved to sentences, which I strung together with relative ease. I had been read to from a young age and had internalized easy structures of English syntax. Sometimes my sentences would go on and on because I was filled with excitement.
The best part about this stage was the freedom. Rigid in terms of spelling and shapeliness of words, yet our content was our own. We could write what we wanted! Not yet were we exposed to structure and paragraphs and the rigid flow that arrived with later teaching. Now it was long treatises on fairies and convoluted, anecdotal letters to my mom, always being sure to sign off at the very end, “I love you!!!”
- 100 Questions
10th grade. The dreaded grammar test. I was a student in Ms. Cullen’s journalism class and I had been struggling with journalism all semester. I was getting Ds – an unaccustomed grade – because I couldn’t adjust myself to the requirements of the format. I wrote a features piece about school safety and added in some really juicy quotes about racial profiling. Sure, the security guards hadn’t actually said those things, but they made the story better, didn’t they? I received a giant, red D on the paper and a reprimand about journalistic integrity. How I longed to be in a fiction class.
Part of Ms. Cullen’s curriculum was a mini-unit on grammar. It involved endless packets exploring the subjunctive, clauses, and hundreds of other terms that sounded vaguely familiar from the soundtrack of Schoolhouse Rock. All of this culminated in a 100-question grammar test. If a student failed, they would fail the journalism class, Ms. Cullen warned.
I studied hard and focused all of my energy on “correctness.” There was a right way, wasn’t there? I asked my mom and my grandma, who seemed to know all of the “rules” of grammar and I learned all of the right answers. Gerund and dangling and run-on, the strange words filled my mouth as I worked to master them. It felt that I was learning these rules without purpose. I could communicate just fine, couldn’t I? What would I have said at the time if someone had let me know that what I was told were “right” answers were in no way inherently better – they were just the answers that systems of power had promoted to be right. What if I could have known that “error” was my “active negotiation and exploration of choices and possibilities.”
But I didn’t know these things and so I studied for the grammar test. I passed. I moved on in my writing education.
- An Awakening
At last my fiction class came. In my final two years of high school, I was able to take a creative writing class that opened my eyes to the artful use of language and allowed me to explore writing in an open and creative atmosphere. We had different units, covering everything from playwriting to horror stories to song lyrics. Class time included plenty of free writing, writing games, and peer review. We would have occasional meetings with our teacher, Ms. Plotinsky, lovingly referred to as Plo, a woman I both loved and feared. She was intense, witty, sarcastic but when she wanted to, she let you steal a glimpse of herself as a teen from the 80s in a hot pink jumpsuit who just wanted to get away from her Orthodox Jewish parents. Or, that was her story. Who knew if all of it was true. In a fiction class, it didn’t seem so important to figure it out.
One of Plo’s strategies was to bring in short readings of writing advice from authors and professors. She believed our learning should bring in other voices and extend beyond the members of our class or her own knowledge. The reading that has most affected me is an article by Betty S. Flowers entitled, “Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process.” I still think about this article when I write today, four years later. The piece describes different methods of a writing process personified; the madman is the initial free-write, the architect shapes the piece logically on the paragraph level, the carpenter deals with sentences and usage, and finally, the judge decides what in the piece is of value and if anything needs to be thrown away. Flowers cautions against letting the characters mingle too much. Having a judge involved at the beginning is inhibiting and keeps an author from getting any words on the page. On the other hand, allowing the madman to come in at the end keeps the author from being able to make honest evaluations of the piece and be discerning with her ideas. Of course, these characters aren’t entirely separate, and that’s where the whole process echoes theories of recursive writing practices that we have read about this semester. As Fitzgerald and Ianetta describe in The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors, planning, editing, revising, and drafting can commingle, building a process that circles back on itself to make meaning.
In high school, I was glad to learn that things didn’t have to be linear and that I could view the different parts of my writing and revision process as different personas, each coming in when the time was right to build my piece and make it stronger.
- Writing 101
After twelve years of county and state curriculum, I graduated, came to Oberlin, and then there was college writing. It didn’t surprise me as much as I thought it would. I had conceptualized it as this whole different beast. Would anything I knew from high school still hold true? Could I still apply skills painstakingly acquired in AP Lang? Should I just scrap the five-paragraph essay I had come to master through painstaking repetition and endless practice?
It turns out that a lot of what I had learned could transfer from high school and college. I still needed thesis statements, evidence to substantiate my claims, clearly-organized paragraphs, and a conclusion that asked “So What?” It was a relief to discover that what I had learned about writing was foundational. I could use clarity, organization, and well-wrought arguments in every single college class.
Now, I am tasked with figuring out how to apply these foundational skills in every class I take. I am learning the difference between writing for English or history or statistics and trying out different writing voices and styles. My goal is to maintain a level of clear and substantiated writing wherever I go, but also to learn from each discipline and develop new strengths. With these, I can transfer knowledge, and be a stronger, more complete writer.
- What Lies Beyond
My twenty-year journey in writing has lined up, in some ways, with some of the theory and pedagogy we have learned in class. My early experiences were very focused on “correctness” and Standard Written English. When I was taught spelling and grammar, it was always through a lens that this was the “right” way to write and any deviation was not acceptable. These norms were starting to erode when I entered the creative writing class, for then deviations from SWE could be considered “stylistic” or character-based prose. I was finally allowed to return to the ecstatic “I love you” notes from the early days – writing could mean passion again! There was no discussion, however, of the power dynamics embedded in the usage of different Englishes.
Most importantly, my writing experience really set me up to engage in knowledge transfer. While the theory and practice we’ve talked about in class has all been interesting and useful, I think, fittingly, the most useful skill I’ve learned has been transfer. Learning about writing and rhetoric isn’t terribly useful in a vacuum; these skills become important when they mingle with other disciplines and exit the classroom. Writing to communicate goes farther than my cursive lessons, grammar fears, and fiction conferences. Writing to communicate will stick with me beyond any course and will help me be a better community member, scholar, and advocate beyond the classroom.
 A. Suresh Canagarajah, “The Place of World Englishes in Composition: Pluralization Continued,” College Composition and Communication 57, no. 4 (2006): 586-619.