freewriting in my 102 class

Two servings of English 102 (Composition and Literature) are on my plate this semester. I’ll probably write more about this class as the semester goes on, but I thought I’d blog a bit about today, the second meeting of my Tuesday-Thursday section. I’m having students turn in an essay next week, and this seems pretty soon to both them and me. But I want them to get used to writing before they think they’re ready to write. We are all too susceptible to thinking that writing is only supposed to take place when we’re inspired, when we’re comfortable, when we’re ready. I assigned some readings to that effect for today, readings designed to get them to think about writing as a sloppy process with many steps and many loops back to earlier points in the process. And there’s nothing magical about it. Someone tells you to write and you start writing. Big deal.

Yes, yes, their sleepy eyes and half-hearted nods seemed to say. We know this already. Of course.

Okay, then, here’s your assignment:

Paper 1: Personal Essay (taken from page 27 of Writing and Community Action)
“…question yourself and articulate what you believe…” (Deans 27)
Due Date: Tuesday, January 23
Length: 500 words, minimum
Value: 10% of your final grade
Description: For this essay, select one of the following:

  • A turning point in your ethical development.
  • A meaningful event that you experienced while involved in community service.

Although you should keep the focus on your personal experience, the essay should speak to what readers can discover from your rendering of personal experience. The essay should be based on autographical narrative, develop a central tension and turn, and make use of literary devices such as description, setting, character, and figurative language.

Okay, okay.

Do you have any questions? Do you understand what it’s asking you to do?

Yeah, sureOkay, take out a piece of paper. I want you to freewrite for ten minutes.

What?! About what?

About what the assignment is asking you to write about.

But…but I’m not ready!

What did we just spend all that time talking about?

But I don’t understand the assignment!

I just asked you if you had any questions and you said no. Now stop delaying and just start writing.

It was an instructive experience. We think we’re being smart by talk talk talking about all of this stuff about writing. And the students know to look interested and to nod at the appropriate places. But when the rubber hits the road, it’s extremely hard to shake off the associations we have with writing.

Anyway, I did some freewriting along with them. Then I emailed it to them, like so:

Well, here’s what I wrote today. I think we all know what kind of first draft Annie Lamott would call this. Feel free to give me some feedback that would help me revise this into something better I’ll bring in a revision on Tuesday:

I began to think differently about people with disabilities when my knee began to hurt last week. What surprised me was how angry I felt—at my leg (I guess), at the other people I thought were staring at me, and at people who tried to hurry me to walk more quickly than I felt comfortable doing. It wasn’t anything dramatic. One day I was walking into the grocery store and my left knee suddenly felt like someone had jabbed a steak knife in from the side. It hurt so much that I had to sit down right in the middle of the parking lot. I’m not an athlete, and I hadn’t been doing anything to injure myself. I guess I’m just getting old. It wasn’t my fault.

It had never occurred to me that people with disabilities might feel extremely self-conscious. But as I write that it seems like a stupid thing to say. It had never occurred to me that someone could be angry at their body for breaking down, for malfunctioning. But thinking about my own reaction—and imagining that others might have the same reaction—has sort of pushed me to try to remember to be more patient with others. Well, I’m not that impatient to begin with, so that’s not quite right.

Any time I experience something painful or awkward or difficult, I try to reflect on what the experience might teach me about others who also experience those things. Otherwise, it’s just an unhappy time in life. Empathy is what I’m after. If all we do is stay within our own comfort zones, then we’re not likely to become anything greater than we are now.


Feel free, fearless blog reader, to give me your own feedback on this “shitty first draft.”

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3 thoughts on “freewriting in my 102 class

  1. This is a difficult concept to really articulate. But one of the things that bothers me about my physical disability is that every now and then I’m struck by realization that something I’d like to do is physically impossible. Lots of people say “Oh, I could never do that,” which is really a way of saying “That looks so hard that I’d never bother trying to do that,” but there’s a difference between someone saying “I could never play the saxophone” and someone with one arm saying “I could never play the saxophone.” I did shoot a bow and arrow once, but it required a bunch of duct tape! ;)

  2. Wasn’t it Hemingway who said “the first draft of anything is shit” ??

    I’m glad that you are walking them through the process. As I went through undergrad, I found myself cutting out the steps in the middle–going straight from outline to finished product.

    Professors never seemed to notice, or if they did, they didn’t say anything. While I was consistently turning in B+ or A work, it was like I was just writing by rote– I knew what it was supposed to look and sound like, and so that’s what I wrote.

    I feel like I missed a lot of insight doing it that way. :-(

  3. No comment on the draft, but on the idea, right on — Also consider the feelings of people who are old and somewhat frail; their level of pain and exhaustion & (often) their heroic endurance.

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