By Amy Gaeta –
As a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in English, writing center tutor and student, I love to write. Even if it was not part of my job, like many people reading this blog, the writing process is where I continue to find myself. During my past two years of working in the writing center as an instructor and student, I confronted the central differences that make writing and pain incompatible. While writing is formal and connective, pain knows no rules, it only disrupts and severs connection. At times, “I feel your pain,” offers very little solace. In higher education, there is never a convenient time to be in pain due to the various demands, projects, and goals we undertake in research, teaching, and coursework. When pain disrupts our writing process, it is most evident that pain, bodily or psychological, is not compatible with writing in the context of higher education. The writing process is structured by time, requirements, goals, conventions, desires, and the pressure of success. Pain does not care about any of these things, and it is this tension I want to press; the tension between the disruptive power of pain and maintaining a sense of control over one’s writing process. How does one write while in pain, be it psychological or bodily? Or rather, can one write with their pain? For this challenge, what is the role of one’s writing community in managing their pain, when pain is a highly individual embodied experience? In exploring these questions, I use the following space to speculate on how my writing center pedagogy, experiences, and community can foster an ethics of care when writing and pain collide.
Measuring Productivity, Measuring Writing
In Winter 2016, I lost my writing time. After being diagnosed with a chronic pain condition that year, my writing time switched from being mine to being at the will of my joints, heating pads, and the effectiveness of menthol creams. Days go by when I feel nothing but my heart beating, but other days I cannot even read a book without a burning sensation in my shoulders, let alone pick up a pen. My viable writing time consisted of composing emails to my professors and students, emails that promised them I would meet every deadline this semester. Although my good intention behind sending these emails, I could not admit the truth. I now lived in crip time. Feminist disability studies scholar Alison Kafer confronts the tension of time and bodymind through her theorization of crip time. Crip time “requires reimagining our notions of what can and should happen in time,” or recognizing how expectations of “how long things take are based on very particular minds and bodies (27). For example, my friend told me a blog post should take about 2 to 3 hours to write. I reached hour 3. But, then pain’s indeterminacy stretched 3 hours to 5, and then 7, and sure enough I went to bed and woke up to crank out hour 8 before the daily headache set in. Did it take me too long? Well, maybe that is just the wrong question. For Kafer, we often incorrectly measure productivity in terms of time, thus producing the false notion that “taking too long” is just “unproductive.”
Pain takes time from us, and there is no denying this because our bodyminds need care. But, we can re-think the time we do have by applying a crip ethos to measuring writing productivity not by time, but by one’s self-confidence as a writer. Once I began work as a writing center student, pain’s time-clock now had to compete with my new-found writing time-clock, which started ticking whenever I reflected on my writing process. As I learned as a student and as a tutor, the conversational dynamic of a writing center session forces students to question, for themselves, what counts as writing, and how productivity is often wrongly measured by time and page count. For example, when an assignment prompt requires “6 double-spaced pages,” it is easy to fall into the trap that you have not achieved success until hitting page 6. The tutor dismisses this mindset by providing positive and constructive feedback through the writing process. Each week, myself a student, had the structure and encouragement to actually think about my writing process, rather than focus on the obstacles to writing, the content, or the end-goal. Writing is more than just putting words on the page; it is also actively imagining what you want your writing to be and do in the world.
When leaving a 30-minute appointment filled with ideas, paragraph outlines, and even mentally-formed topic sentences, I was forced to address the multitude of ways that our writing occurs or could occur. When pain stepped aside, and physical writing time emerged, in even a mere hour I was writing faster and more clearly than ever before. Better yet, even on days when I could not physically write, the guilt of “unproductivity” vanished due to a new-found confidence. No longer was time a resource divided between mine and not mine, but as bursts of energy fading in and out all day. Bursts that opened me to the multitude of steps of writing: brainstorming, conversation, sketching, and even a good old tape recorder to track my thoughts.
It’s Good Enough, for Now
When pain, physical or psychological, strikes we may feel defeated as if our ability to achieve success is compromised by this alien infection crawling all through our bodyminds. Sometimes, pain wins, and we must confront how pain might challenge the quality we aspire for in our writing. The writing center emphasis on the never-ending revision process provides a necessary comfort when pain kicks in as a reminder to prioritize bodymind well-being over the quality of my writing. Pain can disturb the present, but it cannot ultimately control the future we desire for ourselves and our writing.
Like myself, many students come into the writing center with the aim to produce writing that is excellent, A-grade quality, and even enough to get them into the graduate school of their dreams. However, striving for perfection is not healthy at times. When pain hits, as one student taught me, we can adapt being “good enough, for now” as a mindset. Last semester, a student came in with a term project in Biochemical Engineering. They had big goals for the project, which would eventually become their Ph.D. dissertation. When I asked them what they’d like to work on for the session, they simply said, “I want the first three pages to be good enough so I can take a break and then start writing the next three.” The student’s small-goal mindset is endearing, for they prioritized the conditions of the present, instead of the future-to-come of their writing. Later, it was clear to me, pain makes your thoughts rush to the finish line before you even consider all the ways you could get there, on time or not.
This student trusted themselves to achieve their future success, in a way that I personally did not. In this case, it was the student, rather than the tutor, that counter my silly little habit of measuring success by product, rather than all the little successes we earn throughout the writing process. Good enough, for now, might be my favorite antidote to pain’s capacity to compromise self-trust. Being a writer is a process, as well as an identity. As a process, it is okay to stop for a bit, take a break, and know that “good enough” is a pause, not an end-point to growing as a writer. In the writing center, a million things can compromise a student’s or tutor’s self-trust; the end of the semester stress alone is enough to cause self-doubt. A writing center ethos and my amazing students continue to help me realize that part of the writing process is working through feelings of self-doubt by appreciating the small steps we all take, in pain or not, before achieving our goals.
Pain’s Compositional Connectivity
There are many practices and studies of writing as a tool to manage, even heal, psychological and physical pain. In a standard high school English class, you probably heard about the 18th c. British Romantic poets. These poets promoted writing as an outlet to channel the flurry of painful emotions that came with living through a time of political turmoil. As some of the most beloved writers in history, the creative arts can certainly have a cathartic quality. But, how do you physically and mentally feel when you work on that application essay for the fellowship of your dreams? Unlike the decision to write poetry, telling a student, or even yourself, that that seminar paper, lab report, or college application is “healing” romanticizes writing and overlooks the goal of a writing center; incorporating a student’s goals and attitudes toward writing into a personalized approach to their identity as a writer. As one student told me, “I am here [the writing center] for me, not my professor. I just want to write without being so nervous.” Rather than look at commas or organization, we developed low-stakes pre-writing strategies to build up the student’s confidence before writing. Did the student’s nerves just disappear? No, their nerves were built into their writing process, their bodymind accounted for as part of their writer identity. To claim that all writing is healing bypasses all the ways we can learn to work with bodymind differences and discomforts, rather than claim they simply evaporate.
So, I cannot claim that my writing center work, or writing, has any supernatural healing powers. However, I can confidently state that part of healing is building community, and writing centers build a community wider and stronger each day. Most famously, Elaine Scarry argues that pain is the great determinant of individuation; it is an experience so subjective and bodily that it produces an irreducible boundary between yourself and other people. While it may be true that no one else can know what is going on inside your bodymind, the vulnerability that pain serves as a reminder that care is a multi-person process, we all need help. Admitting we need help is the hard part. To this, perhaps the most remarkable part of being a writing tutor is the trust and intimacy of the tutor-student relationship. Students share their weaknesses and vulnerabilities with us tutors, at first total strangers, and trust us to respond. Whether it be anxiety over comma usage, or revealing their most daunting memories in a personal statement, students trust tutors in a way unlike no other. My students never fail to teach me about myself, in the process of me learning about them. If only they knew how much they help me too.
Pain may individuate us, make us feel alone, but connectivity begins again when we trust others to help us. For a long time, I thought asking for help makes you weak, but in reality, it only makes you stronger. All the emails I wrote to my professors ensuring them I did not need help, were a sheer veil hiding the truth: I was letting my pain define me, control me, and thus overlooking all the ways pain permeates everyday life for us all. Wars rage on, producing physical and psychological injury. Future sickness haunts the air in the form of viruses and bacteria, just waiting to ruin our day. The ones we love betray us or leave us. We trip on the sidewalk and twist our ankles. All that coffee gives you a headache so bad you have to lay down. Yet, we keep going, and as the writing center has taught me, we keep creating in whatever way we can. The job of a writing center is to figure how to this persistence even more possible, and I for one will never stop trying.
Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Indiana University Press, 2013.
Price, Margaret. “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” Hypatia 30.1 (2015): 268-284.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford University Press, USA, 1987.
- Following feminist disability scholar Margaret Price, I use “bodymind” in this essay to accounts for how the physical and mental experiences of pain inform one another. In sum, these scholars continue the work of dismantling the Cartesian dualism of mind over body. The concept of the bodymind is built on the notion that “mental and physical processes not only affect each other but also give rise to each other—that is, because they tend to act as one, even though they are conventionally understood as two—it makes more sense to refer to them together, in a single term (Price 269). “Bodymind” is used throughout this essay because the essay partly argues for an expanded definition of the human through feminist disability studies; an expanded definition that foregoes the Cartesian model of the subject.
- The use of “crip” in this essay functions in a particular way used in Feminist Disability Studies and disability pride activism. Crip is a term of identification that disabled persons use to reclaim and transform the negative connotations of being “a crip” To claim crip or to crip something is to represent disability in an empowering way—to imply able-bodiedness and able-mindedness is not the only desired way of living.
- All images used in this post are courtesy of public domain and the Creative Commons license. The image of the x-ray hand is from Taokinesis on Pixabay.com. The image of the hourglass is from nile on Pixabay.com. The image of the ruler is from qimono on Pixabay.com. The image of the finish line is from RemazteredStudio on pixabay.com. My author photo was taken by Mari Lewis. Thank you to all the contributors for allowing permission to reprint their images.