Reader, Writer, Teacher… a collage about me

Posted on January 25, 2007. Filed under: musing, quotation, reading, sample, writing |

Writers are notorious for
using any reason to keep from
working: over-researching,
retyping,going to meetings,
waxing the floor–anything.

–Gloria Steinem

My favorite way to keep from working is the dishes. Or, occasionally, organizing my desk.

* * *

“…reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The marked book is usually the thought-through book.”
–Mortimer Adler

* * *

I am a reader and a writer. And I am also a reading and writing teacher.

Much of what I know and have learned about how to teach reading and writing comes from participating in these acts. But most of what I know about them comes from another angle, another viewpoint: it comes from paying attention to how I do my reading and writing…

Yeesh. That’s not it.

…blah blah blah blah blah blah blah…

This is it:

“We learn to do neither by thinking nor by doing; we learn to do by thinking about what we are doing.”
–George Stoddard

* * *

I was a very slow reader. That is, I was slow to learn how to read—-for a long time my teachers said I just didn’t seem to be very smart because, well, I wasn’t catching on, I wasn’t reading. I was always put in the “slow” group.

Later, when I got a little bit better at reading, the big frustration was how slowly my reading went. It took f o r e v e r for me to read anything. Sometimes it still does.

* * *

I am both frustrated and intrigued by writing and reading as reflections of how we do and don’t learn.

* * *

Mortimer Adler argues that “There is no such thing as the right speed for intelligent reading. Some things should be read quickly an effortlessly and some should be read slowly and even laboriously. The sign of intelligence in reading is the ability to read different things differently according to their worth. In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through you–how many you can make your own.”

He doesn’t account for differences in readers, only in texts being read.

* * *

In graduate school, I was overwhelmed by the number of pages I was expected to read each week. Big, dense books. Books that took me what seemed like f o r e v e r to get through one page, and at the end I wouldn’t even be sure what I’d just read. I would time myself and then calculate how many hours I would need to spend to finish reading a chapter before the next class.

* * *

Paragraphs shape thinking: I am fascinated by how they affect what readers take from a text. Paragraphs function visually, marking a chunk or a unit of information: readers sense, as with the end of a sentence, that there is a shift in thinking with a paragraph break. So changing where a paragraph begins or ends can completely reconfigure what readers assume is important.

Readers instinctively know that they should pay attention to the statements at the beginnings and ends of paragraphs: they “naturally attend to end-points” (Eden and Mitchell 115).

* * *

Becoming a stronger writer involves noticing how readers read.

* * *

To get started, I have to allow myself to have a lot of bad ideas.

* * *

Advice I’ve given to others that I can’t seem to take: “Try not to get too ‘hung up’ on formatting: work on content, and worry about format later.” But I get stuck on this: I format, and over format, and move little bits around to make things fit on a page, or align perfectly, or some other kind of silliness. It’s some weird kind of sickness…

Sometimes, knowing what is best for ourselves doesn’t help. Not one bit.

* * *

It’s helpful to work only on ideas, content, and organization first, rather than focusing in on grammar (or formatting) too soon in the writing process. As George Hillocks said, “In real world writing, careful editing of insipid ideas will be of little use” (196).

I often see writers who skip straight to the grammar and then lose sight of the bigger picture; sometimes they find themselves spending a long time on a few sentences or a paragraph, and then later they discover that the paragraph is off-topic and they didn’t need to include it. If they’re smart, they cut the perfectly worded sentence so that the essay makes better sense overall.

If they’re thrifty, they keep that perfectly worded sentence and use if for something completely different.

* * *

Advice I’ve given to students that I think I’m usually pretty good at following: “If you need to, allow yourself to feel discouraged or frustrated–but don’t let this stop you.”

* * *

Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich has described revision as “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction” (35). I like this definition: it gets to the idea that revision is not just a matter of “fixing things” like grammar or mechanical errors.

Revision is about re-thinking and re-seeing a piece of writing, about considering how you can make it more effective. This usually means a good amount of reorganization; often it can mean re-thinking and even completely changing your ideas. It is–at least some of the time–about transformation.

* * *

Philosopher Walter Benjamin describes the writing process abstractly, but effectively in this section of his collage-like essay “One Way Street”:


Caution: Steps

Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage

when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is

built, and a textile one when it is woven. (455)

In other words, writing doesn’t just happen all at once. It requires stages and revision–“steps.”

* * *

I’m way too wordy.

This collage is a case in point.

* * *

“I keep coming back to it” is the first line of a poem by Charles Olson that I used to know by heart. (“The land falling off to the left”…) I was going to write about something else, and then realized I must have written the first line of this poem, which I hadn’t thought about in quite some time. (And now, of course, I can’t remember where I was headed, originally, before I got off track thinking of ChOl.)

Words do that. Take you to places, times, that are elsewhere.

* * *

I like these two quotations together:

“The first draft of anything is s@#t.” –Ernest Hemmingway
“The work is the death mask of its conception.” –Walter Benjamin

Benjamin seems to value the earlier stages of the process–the inchoate image of what could be in art, writing, creation, and also perhaps the process of bringing it into being, of giving it life.

Hemmingway, on the other hand, recognizes that the early stages of creation are just that–early stages.

They are both right.

* * *

Works Cited, or at least part of one:


  • Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913 – 1926. Bullock, Marcus Paul et al, Eds. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1996.
  • Eden, Rick, and Ruth Mitchell. “Paragraphing for the Reader.” College Composition and Communication 37 (1986): 416-30. Rpt. in Background Readings for Instructors Using the Bedford Handbook. Ed. Glenn Blalock. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. 113-118.
  • Hillocks, Jr., George. The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning. New York: Teachers College P., 2002.
  • Rich, Adrienne. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966 – 1978. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980.
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