Tanya Tran ’15 thoroughly considers the process of writing itself.
One thing that has become painfully apparent to me throughout my time at Oberlin College is that writing—the process of writing—is not simple. To be honest, I never thought about my own process—never really considered what it means to have a process—until I listened to classmates detailing the various paths they take in order to turn thoughts into words, to put pen to paper. What struck me the most was the extreme range of tactics: some have faithfully stuck to the outlines that were commonly taught in elementary school, some rely on conversing with friends in order to get ideas straight, and some fervently write scattered thoughts on scattered pieces of paper, eventually pulling these fragments together in order to form a cohesive argument. Not only was I amazed by how much the writing process changes from person to person but also I was extremely horrified: Where do I fit in? What is my process? Do I even have one‽ These are questions that have been plaguing me for years, even if it was not until recently that these questions morphed from a feeling of anxiety surrounding my writing to actual inquiries. Now that the questions have taken a form that I can consciously and actively consider, I have been able to engage with my own methods for approaching writing in order to develop a more structurally-sound process and be more intentional in the ways that I guide my internal thinking.
I have to admit that the conclusion I came to when these questions were first posed was that I do not have my own process. This, of course, is not true. Everybody has a process; if there are people out there who are able to conceive of an argument and then compose a text that eloquently develops said argument without so much of a pause, I would surely like to meet them, pick at their brains, and probably award them prizes. Alas, this is not the way writing works; since writing is a tool used to extend and explain thinking, putting words to a page is a deliberate, thoughtful action. When people talk about their writing processes, they are really testifying to the ways that they exercise their minds in order to develop ideas and arguments, steps which must take place before actual writing can occur.
In forgetting the intrinsic relationship between thinking and writing in that moment of self-questioning, I understand why I concluded that I have no process. It is not that I do not have a process—it is that I do not have a visible process. While many students prepare for writing assignments by creating physical brainstorms such as outlines or webs, it is not often that I create such tangible traces of my thinking patterns.
How, then, do I go about beginning the process of writing? When given a writing assignment, what is the first thing that I do? While I have never been completely sure about my “learning style,” (visual? auditory? tactile?) I can say this: I think in comparisons. Concepts make more sense to me when I can compare, contrast, and connect them to other concepts. What this means for me as a student writer is that it is often difficult for me to choose a thesis, and then start building an argument. I often frontload my time rereading articles until something clicks—until some sort of connection jumps out at me. Instead of compiling quotations I like and using them to make sense of what interests me in order to form a thesis, I think of a connection first, and then search for relevant quotations. Usually the task of finding quotations is not hard to do because I spend so much time before that step thinking about the fundamental ways that different ideas relate.
This method of building an argument, however, can be extremely slow. On one hand, I believe that this method of rereading articles serves to deepen my understanding of the topics I am dealing with, and that this deeper understanding can only develop after all articles/concepts have been processed on their own as individual pieces. Something new is to be gleaned each time an article is reread—with or without the intention of drawing comparisons. However, the danger in the belief that texts (or other objects to analyze) are endless gold mines of knowledge lies in the accompanying constant search for connections: It is difficult for me to settle on an argument to build upon when I am always searching for something more profound. Moreover, I also recognize that I am not an attentive note-taker. I do not often move my thinking space from out of my mind and onto the page: This quality inhibits me from clearly tracing the origins and trajectories of my ideas. Perhaps, then, if I kept better track of my thoughts, that click would happen much faster—and without that click, I cannot move forward in my writing process.
What I have observed thus far is lack of visible process in two areas. First, I do not tend to be a thorough note-taker. Second, I do not tend to brainstorm in a physical way. Those two steps normally feed into each other—students use their notes in order to create an outline for an argument. For me, the steps have in some ways become conflated. Since I do not do either, before the writing process even begins, I set myself up for difficulties by leaving my thoughts confined to my mind. Let it suffice that those first questions are answered: Yes, I do have a process. It just isn’t very visible.
To combat these traceless thinking patterns, something new that I have tried this semester is freewriting. I freewrite when I feel that I have a topic I am excited to write about but am not necessarily sure that my argument can be developed—it is a good way for me to both continue the thinking process and leave that process documented. Freewriting has also enabled me to identify areas in my actual writing process (that is, the step after brainstorming) that could use improvement. In my time as a writer, the aspect of writing that has always frustrated me the most was just how long it always seemed to take. Once I started doing freewrites, I realized that it isn’t necessarily that writing takes a long time, but that I have certain mental blocks that inhibit me from allowing my fingers to flow across the keyboard.
In order to illustrate this point more clearly, I will describe what it was like for me to start this paper. I opened up a fresh document in my word processor and thought, okay, just put some words down. Just write some words and trust that nothing needs to be set in stone. I ended up staring at the blank screen for a long time, feeling intimidated by the freedom it garnered. However, once I opened up the Google Doc in which I have been brainstorming for papers and depositing my freewrites (aptly titled “freewritevomitblob”), I was able to start writing down ideas. This is mental block number one: Forgetting that writing on a computer inherently means that nothing needs to be permanent. For whatever reason, I could not begin my freewrite on my word processor, but once I opened up my Google Doc, I was able to do so. Even though both applications serve the same function, I associate the word processor with finality, whereas my Google Docs is seen in a more informal light. The fact that whatever I turn in will ultimately be saved from the word processor, that the Google Docs defaults to a font that I would never use in a paper, that my Doc is titled “freewritevomitblob”…all these are factors that lead to a huge mental block that paralyzes me from freely writing in a document that is not separate from the one I actually plan to write my paper in.
Much is revealed about the underlying nature of these mental blocks when I consider what happens when I write papers in Spanish. My level of Spanish is average, so when I write in Spanish I am mostly thinking of English phrases and then translating them into Spanish in my head—which is obviously not the way Spanish would be written by native or higher-level speakers. For whatever reason, writing in Spanish is not as much of a time-consuming task, even though I recognize that the way I form my sentences is not entirely different from the way I would form my sentences in English. Because I do not identify as a Spanish writer, it seems as though I am much more content with just getting ideas onto the page. Because I do see myself as an English writer, I get bogged down with wanting my words to sound nice. Perhaps one thing I need to trust is that my voice will come through in a paper no matter what, and I should not depend on every sentence to do such a job.
These ruminations upon my inherent desire “to make words sound nice” leads me to consider who exactly I am writing for. When the question of audience was first brought up in class, I was slightly puzzled. I do not feel as if I actively write for an audience. I recognize that a professor will be reading my work, but I still feel like I am writing for me, and not my professor or any other audience. Upon further thought, I think it would be fairer to say that I write for myself as someone who is trying to impress a professor. Thus, I am still writing for me, but I am writing as/for a different version of me. If I wanted to use writing strictly as a tool to further my thought process, I could write endless freewrites. However, the version of me that recognizes that others may read my work is held to a higher standard; thus, I get stuck, once again, on mental blocks that inhibit the actual writing process.
Thus, I am easily affected by the psychological aspects of writing. Mental blocks still exist even after I have managed to spit out a freewrite wherein I can clearly see the direction I want to take my paper and my arguments. It is difficult for me not to progress in a linear fashion; I must, for example, always complete my introduction before moving on to the rest of my paper, even though I know my argument is apt to change in the process of writing. Similarly, I carefully craft sentences and fall in love with each one, making it difficult for me to both write quickly and revise effectively.
So where am I at now, and where should I go? What I lack in my writing process is, well, more writing. By not writing at all stages of the process—from writing notes to brainstorming—I put all the burden of writing onto the “final” stage, where I am then immobilized by several mental blocks. I must treat the act of reading and researching as part of my writing process. Instead of letting my mind wander through multiple readings, I can make an effort to write down my thoughts, and use those thoughts to give myself a better idea of where I should direct my attention in further rereads. I must also continue to brainstorm and view it as a necessary step in furthering my thought process. The more I brainstorm, the more I will feel comfortable writing about a topic—I can break down my mental blocks by being able to point to a visual map of my thinking and feel confident in having ideas to share. In general, I would like to write more in order to feel more comfortable with the act of writing itself—writing in a journal or writing creatively will help me both improve and have trust in my writing sensibilities.