When I was in the second or third grade, children’s book writer Walter Dean Myers visited my Harlem elementary school for an informal career day. My wide eyes scanned his salt and pepper afro and infectious smile as we sat Indian style on the itchy wool carpet that had somehow survived decades of story time in Ms. Gatling‘s cluttered classroom.
Words leaped gracefully from the page and off his tongue as the neighborhood legend read aloud from one of his picture books. The title escapes me, as does much of what we discussed that day, but I remember the authority of his voice so vividly. His delivery was effortless, and he had full command of the power of his words. They were so clearly his own and, yet, there they were on the page for us to share. He took something deeply personal and transformed it into art.
Through writing, he found the language to make his story so universal and so timeless that, even with decades between us, his words still felt as if they were stuck in the back of my throat. That day, I decided that I, too, wanted to be a writer. I had my own stories to tell.
More than 20 years later, I am still engaged in the ceaseless process of becoming a better writer. Years of trial an error as both a student of writing and teacher of it have inspired a personal theory of writing that that has been painful, tedious, but no less rewarding, in practice. Here are some fundamental truths I learned about writing, the hard way.
My theory of writing is most informed by my belief that good writing requires a prolonged process of writing and re-writing and re-writing again until one comes to a satisfactory product. I don’t believe a piece is ever done. In my opinion, there is always room for improvement or another round of revision, but I’ve learned to forgo perfection in the interest of being punctual, whether that means meeting an assignment deadline or responding to an email in a timely fashion. No matter the genre, my writing process usually includes 3 steps. I begin with a list outline to ensure that whatever I am writing remains clear and focused and my ideas are organized in a logical way. Then, I move on to drafting, using my outline as a guide to keep my points focused. I’m a huge fan of free writing, so I try to do very minimal editing at this stage. My main goal is to simply get through to the end. Finally, I end with two rounds of revision focused on content and grammar, respectively.
While revision has become a key part of my writing process, this was not always the case. As an undergraduate student, I relied, perhaps too heavily, on my talent for writing and would often skip proofreading my assignments for grammar and mechanical errors. This process worked fine for me until I happened upon a professor who severely penalized students for careless grammar mistakes. My A papers were marked down to A- disappointments littered with spelling errors and comma misuses. In the interest of salvaging my ego and GPA, I permanently adopted proofreading as part of my writing process.
Later on, while writing sponsored content for brands, I learned the importance of editing for content in addition to grammar. The timeline for producing a single 800-word listicle for a brand included multiple rounds of revision that could last as long as 6 weeks. With each round of revision, the piece could change drastically depending on the feedback (or lack thereof) I received from a client. Through this process, I began to appreciate the utility of second drafts as a means to organize and develop my ideas more effectively and adopted an intermediate round of revision between the first draft and the proofreading stage into my own creative writing practice.
Another critical aspect of my theory of writing is understanding why I feel the need to write something. Before I ever put pen to paper, I ask myself: So what? Who cares? What problem or issue in the world am I responding to? What change do I hope to see? In this way, I think that I have always had some intuitive knowledge of rhetorical situation and exigence that I have kept in mind while working on my own creative projects. When I decided to commit to begin a creative writer, I was principally motivated by a desire to change something about the reality that I lived in. I wanted to contribute something to the dialogue around inequality in the United States that reflected the intersectionality of my identity while also connecting that story to the collective experience of a demographic of people who are often overlooked in the American consciousness. I was frustrated with the ways women, black women, and especially poor black women were discussed in contemporary rhetoric and I’d hoped to channel this frustration into writing as a response.
While I had a keen sense of the rhetorical situation of my own writing projects, I struggled with transferring my understanding of the term to the classroom. For example, in my original draft of a writing assignment for my teaching seminar, I outlined a literacy narrative assignment that asked students to describe a literary event in their lives that caused them to question or change their perspective on a social issue. During our in-class peer review, I realized that while my assignment met many of the assignment requirements, it did not call for students to write within a specific rhetorical situation. They knew what they needed to write, but there was no hint as to why they were writing it. The “So what? Who cares” aspect of this writing task was missing, as was an intended target audience.
Our class discussion of Instagram as an example of a medium that informs a particular rhetorical situation that requires users to create within a specific genre in order to engage an intended audience helped me to better understand how I could make this assignment better. I had to introduce a context within which students should be writing in order for them to understand and implement the genre conventions effectively.
In my revised draft, I focused on a researched critical analysis assignment in which students were asked to create a petition on Change.org describing a social issue that affects them or their community and propose a solution to a person, group, or organization that could help implement this change. Like the original draft, this assignment included a specific genre and purpose, but it also called on students to clearly identify the rhetorical exigence as well as the target audience for their piece. The latter elements are crucial to a writer’s ability to put power to his words, to make rhetorical choices with language, structure, or tone to best fulfill the tasks of the assignment.
As a creative writer, audience has been something that I have struggled with significantly. When I think of my work, I think of authors like Gloria Naylor and Zora Neale Hurston who appealed to mass audiences, but whose writing principally concerned itself with the black female experience. Accordingly, I have been most concerned with translating my story into a language that I think will resonate with a wider audience of readers outside of my experience, and as a result, I spend a lot of time and effort trying to explain myself. Though my MFA workshops, I have learned from my peers that these efforts are in vain. Over explanations interfere with the authenticity of my voice as a narrator, and I am learning to savor the advice of a former workshop instructor and use it in practice.
“Harness who it is that you want to speak to,” she advised. “Ask yourself: Who are you trying to save with your writing? Who are you trying to bury?”
While I have yet to conclusively identify my audience, these words remind me to put my faith and trust in them anyway, to show them vs. tell them what it is that I mean and that it is okay to experiment with language and form to tell my story in a way that feels honest and authentic to my identify.