Writing Center Talk
Adam Robinson, Associate Director
I’ve been connected to the U of L Writing Center since 2002 when I made my first visit as a student looking for help on my writing. I was sold after one consultation and continued to come to the Writing Center until I graduated in 2006. Later that year, I became a consultant myself when I was accepted into the M.A. in English program and was granted a GTA, which required me to spend my first year working in the Writing Center before moving into the classroom to teach first-year composition. I did a year in the Writing Center, taught composition the next two years, returned as an adjunct tutor for a semester, left again to work full-time as an academic advisor, and returned a year later in 2010 to replace Ruth Miller as the Associate Director. Needless to say…I’ve had the opportunity to see our Writing Center from a range of perspectives—client, consultant, teacher, advisor, administrator.
Even though it’s been almost 10 years since I first walked through our doors, I can still remember quite a bit about what happened. I try to remind myself of that every once in a while. And this time of year—end of the semester—usually causes me to reflect on that experience as the final rush often brings in first-time visitors. I wonder what those writers think and feel when they come through our doors—what they expect will happen in the session—how nervous they may be about sharing their thoughts and words with another person they don’t know.
In 2002, I was a sophomore, and I chose to enroll in a Creative Writing class. I still can’t remember what compelled me to sign up for that class as I had never written anything creative in my life. In fact, I hadn’t read much fiction or poetry. Prior to college, I had done what was necessary to avoid having to read for classes, and I generally succeeded at that goal. But in my freshman year at U of L, I took an Intro to World Literature course and me passing that class was contingent on me thoroughly reading the assigned texts. We read The Death of Ivan Illyich, All Quiet on the Western Front, The School of Wives—all of a sudden I wanted to study literature.
Taking this creative writing course was me stepping way out of my comfort zone to say the least. I was just starting to pay attention to fiction writing. What made me think that I could write some of my own? I was not only going to be sharing my writing with a bunch of people I didn’t know, but I was also going to be sharing writing that I was pretty sure stunk. My first workshop date was fast approaching and the words weren’t coming—I had to write a 10 page-fictional piece. So I went to the Writing Center—I can’t remember how I found about the Writing Center, how I knew where it was located, or anything. But I got there.
The place looked pretty much like it looks now (take a look at previous blog entries for pictures)…same tables, same arrangement of tables. My consultant (Jeremy) greeted me at the entrance, led me to the consulting area, and initiated a conversation about my project. Like I said, I hadn’t written a line—I had no angle—no concrete idea. But I did envision a story centered on a guy sitting at a bar watching other people. What was going to happen in this bar?—I wasn’t sure. Had I even been in a bar? Not exactly, given that I was 19. Why a bar? Beats me. Maybe I was trying to form some picture of a future self. Sophisticated. Drinking. Observing. Waiting for the action to happen.
Jeremy, in a non-challenging but certainly curious manner, asked me what kinds of bars I had been to. (I didn’t even look old enough to be in college.) “None.” I remember feeling embarrassed. But I also remember that he wasn’t dismissive of my idea at all—he never made a suggestion that I pick a different locale, never shot me a puzzled or condescending look—instead, we talked about what my idea of a bar was, how I might find out more about bars, how I might paint that picture, where I envisioned the story taking off and concluding. It turned out that I had more of story in mind than I realized. I just needed someone to ask the right questions that could bring out the ideas that were floating around in my head—to ask the questions that I wouldn’t have thought to ask myself. And thinking back now, I needed someone to actually care about my answers to those questions—someone I could confide in and share my ideas with. His enthusiasm in the session was contagious—as I answered each question, he became more excited about the possibilities. In a subtle way, his enthusiasm must have implied to me that the writing ahead of me didn’t have to be a chore.
By end of our Q & A, I had a story. The guy in the bar—a crime reporter!—strikes up a conversation with a woman next to him. They immediately connect, have a good chat, and eventually decide to play a game of pool. The woman is an excellent pool player; the man…well, he’s just okay. Two other men (a bit older), playing at another table, notice the couple and ask them to play doubles. The man and woman make a good run; then, the two men convince them to play for money. Turns out the woman and the two older men are a team, and the young man loses all of his money, including a watch that the “one who got away” had given him. I told a familiar story for sure, but it felt good to tell a story.
I remember feeling strangely empowered. I promise you that this was the first time that I had ever talked through a paper before actually writing it. I had never really brainstormed—I never thought that kind of work was worth my time. Why plan, strategize, map out, and so on if the end result was still going to be a piece of writing that I wasn’t proud of?
My teachers had given me a host of great invention strategies—some had even required me to employ those strategies. But nothing they told me really stuck. Ultimately, my “failure” could probably be attributed to my commitment level to making those strategies work for me, but part of me also thinks that I needed that interested person sitting across from me to talk to me about how to brainstorm and to model for me what brainstorming involved.
This is definitely what I like about Writing Center work. I like the talk. Two people talking about ideas, sharing stories, developing those ideas, shaping those stories. Ultimately, Jeremy slowed me down. Through his questioning and listening, he got me to think a little bit harder about what I was writing than I would have otherwise. And he gave me some approaches to how I could use those thoughts in my head in a way that would help me craft a story.
Why is our talk so effective? Perhaps, first and foremost, our consultants are trained, interested, and experienced. They know what questions to ask, when to ask them, when to not ask anything, when to give direct advice, etc. And they believe in what they’re doing. But one other thing I like to talk about when I’m trying to explain the effectiveness of our methods to others is that our talk slows people down. When writers come in for a session, they are choosing to spend at least one more hour than they might have otherwise on their writing. And it’s a productive, focused hour. They have someone to listen to them, to talk to them, to appreciate the effort they are putting in, to show interest in the approach they are taking. Writers have the chance to think more directly and deliberately about the choices they are making in their writing, which ultimately helps them exercise more control over their writing projects.
I’m not saying that after that first session with Jeremy that I was completely transformed as a writer. But my attitude toward the projects that came later in my undergraduate career definitely changed after that session. I honestly came to what were at the time shocking realizations to me—that I had control over the words that I put on the page and that I had control over how I arranged those words.
As I said, the semester is nearly over. I want to thank all of the consultants in the Writing Center; they are a great bunch of people—a great bunch of friends. And I want to congratulate Erin, Becky, Sean, Jennifer, Lauren, and Nia for finishing their MAs. You six have made these last two years a lot of fun. Thanks.