Acknowledgments & Alignments: Writing from a Center Place

By Mary E. Fiorenza

Mary E. FiorenzaMary E. Fiorenza would like to acknowledge Wendy Bishop’s “You Can Take the Girl Out of the Writing Center, But You Can’t Take the Writing Center Out of the Girl” for providing her with a way to see her writing center origins and consider how they influence her thought and practice as a teacher and administrator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As associate director of English 100, a writing program for first-year students, her current writing center relationship is primarily through its proximity to her office. That said, a brief disclaimer: This blog post uses the word center as an image, but writing centers are not directly addressed.

 The night before I turned in my dissertation was a kind of waking dream, and not a good one. Perhaps you have experienced a similar dream or night. Looking back, I see now that I might have rescheduled the appointment. I still had two days of a grace period left. But I remember feeling now or never. The dissertation had been defended; it needed to be gone. I worked through the night with periodic naps. I had corrections to finalize, paragraphs to rework, sources to check, citations to format, proofreading. And I still needed to write my acknowledgments.

I had been thinking about those acknowledgments for a while. I drafted and revised them in my head more than once. Writing those acknowledgments would be a culminating ritual on a leisurely final dissertation-day. It would be sunny, and I would work at home with the windows open. There would be a warm breeze. The dog would not nag me to take her for a walk. My acknowledgments would be eloquent, exemplary, a small masterpiece of gratitude. I wanted them to resonate with the people who had helped me, but I also wanted resonance with an inner something, alignment with a writing place I’m going to call my center.

Dark sky with moonIn the end, too close to dawn and jittery with a caffeine hangover, I settled for writing less than I had planned. I actually included the phrase “you know who you are,” that great catch-all category for everyone I knew I was neglecting. Reading over those pages now, I am relieved to note the names of my committee members all appear. I am happy, too, to see the names of fellow travelers through my graduate years, though this list is shorter than I would have it be now. If I were writing it now, I would include many more names, my list of acknowledgments growing longer as the years pass, my recognition of connections and webs of relations etching deeper into both my academic and personal history.

 

Acknowledging the Social

Those connections point to the social nature of writing, the way we are always writing in relation to real or imagined people, the way power relations and ideology cannot be separated out, the way texts implicate other texts, and writing is all part of “the conversation of [hu]mankind.” I have been trained to look for the way my ideas rest on other people’s ideas, and to see how my ability to write in certain ways (and to write at all) developed from the sponsorship of teachers, mentors, institutions, family, and friends. I’m deeply grateful for that training — I want to acknowledge that again, here. At the same time, the residue of that training can trouble me.

“Writing is a social and rhetorical activity.” I can almost leave off the quotation marks. Except the quotation marks make a connection to a text and a writer; this is one thing I’m trying to show here. Quotation marks or not, the concept is general knowledge in the field of composition and rhetoric. It’s not surprising, then, to see it listed as the first “threshold concept” in the edited collection Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (17). It’s called a threshold concept because it’s “central to participation in the discipline of writing studies,” but it’s also a tool that’s seen as useful to writers and teachers outside the discipline, an opening into practical knowledge that can be applied to get things done (3).

This notion of writing as inherently social was revolutionary when I first encountered it. At the time, I was trying to figure out how to make the transition from working as an editor/writer to working as a writing teacher. Without going too far into the territory of memoir, let’s just An image of a path through a forest.say I did not expect my ideas about writing to change when Professor Deborah Brandt (now emeriti) welcomed me into her “Perspectives on Literacy” seminar. I didn’t know enough to see how it would shake my assumptions to treat, as it said in the syllabus, “writing and reading as pluralistic cultural practices whose forms, functions, and influences take shape as part of larger contexts — social, political, historical, material, and, always, ideological.” I saw myself then as a writer who wanted to teach writing. And I wanted to understand it, too — how writing works in life and in the world. Graduate school became the path.

 

Aligning with My Center

Working in a university as a member of an academic field reinforces the social view of writing, especially when the field is writing studies. And yet, I find it hard to understand my deepest relationship to writing in a way that aligns neatly with a social view. I see how my writing practices and purposes are embedded in larger contexts. I see the webs of relations etched deep into both my academic and personal history. I know what I do is rhetorical. If I did a better job keeping up with the literature, maybe I could deploy arguments to make a stronger case to myself. Certainly language and literacy would not exist on their own. I know all the basics.

An image of an apple, sliced to show a star at its center.What I’m trying to point toward is the experience where I am waiting for the next word and the next.*  Listening. Sometimes transcribing, more usually moving toward an ever receding puddle of light surrounded by darkness, reaching for the sounds and shapes of words that align with intention or hope, possibility or discouragement. Those first steps that can be thwarted by “blocks” or inner critics or helped by whoever or whatever might be an angel to you. Revision comes later and with a more necessary relationship to audience. This experience I’m trying to evoke is — yes, agreed — recursive, complex, a process, material, cultural, cognitive and most definitely influenced by cultural and social forces. But I wonder if it might also be configured uniquely in each person, as each person’s life might share characteristics and categories with other lives, but the breath in your lungs serves only the blood in your own veins.

Maybe center is not exactly the right word, but it appeals to me because it can be said that everything has a center — real or metaphorical or both. And having a center means having something around the center, too.

 

(*In this experience, there are connections to felt sense in writing, as described  by Sondra Perl, but also “rendering,” as Peter Elbow talks about it, and following Elbow, Anne J. Herrington. See works cited, below.)

 

(More) Acknowledgmentsillustration of a blue vortex (public domain image)

My sincere appreciation for everyone who has helped me as I wrote this attempt at a blog, especially Brad Hughes and Michael Edmonds. I am almost certain that most of the rest of you do not realize who you are or how your presence helps me. But once again, a large, blanket “thank you.” I would like to add that my enthusiasm for teaching writing and writing studies, not to mention my daily work, is fed by the people who (past and present) share my work life in Helen C. White Hall, among them the graduate students who teach and do WPA work in our writing programs; and the comp-rhet and Writing Center colleagues whose research, teaching, and mentoring of emerging scholars creates an ongoing culture of inquiry and professionalism. Meanwhile, also thanks to the creative writers down the hall who feed me stories and poems as well as companionship, particularly on Wednesdays at lunch.

 

Works Consulted and Cited

Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, eds., Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (Logan: Utah State Univ. Press, 2015).

Bishop, Wendy. “You Can Take the Girl Out of the Writing Center, But You Can’t Take the Writing Center Out of the Girl” in Teaching Lives: Essays and Stories (Logan: Utah State Univ. Press, 1997), 155-66.

Brandt, Deborah. English 702 Syllabus, “Perspectives on Literacy,” Fall 2001.

Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001).

Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind,’” College English 46.7 (November 1984) 635-52.

Elbow, Peter. Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981).

Herrington, Anne J. “Gone  Fishin’: Rendering and the Use of Personal Experience in Writing” in Writing with Elbow, Pat Belanoff, Marcia Dickson, et al., eds. (Logan: Utah State Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 223-38.

Perl, Sondra. Felt Sense: Writing with the Body (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2005).

 

11 thoughts on “Acknowledgments & Alignments: Writing from a Center Place

  1. Thanks, Mary, for such a lyrical post. And I love that you draw so much attention to the acknowledgements. Personally, I find acknowledgements quite fascinating. I like to read acknowledgement sections and imagine what kind of writing community the scholar works in. I scan the list for names I recognize, people I’ve heard at conferences or whose books live on my shelf. I’m always curious to know whether they exchange writing with these people (who often live in other cities) digitally or in person. (And, to be honest, I’m also fascinated by dedication pages. Especially when a book is dedicated to someone’s mother or father.)

    Perhaps it would be a good exercise to write one’s acknowledgements sooner? As a way of reflecting on the kind of social writing community one is cultivating. I’ve thought of starting a list of people to thank, and perhaps I will after reading your post.

    • Thanks for your comment, Zach. I definitely recommend writing acknowledgments sooner rather than later! Good for you.

  2. Your comment about our deepest relationship to writing is resonating with me, Mary, as I’m attempting to write my own dissertation. I’m finding it to be the most solitary turn I’ve made in a long time: that I need to recede, to think, and stew, and like you said: wait for the next word, and the next. I guess we’re writing for ourselves and our audiences all at the same time, and each one is more and less present throughout the process.

  3. Thanks, Mary, for your reflections on the social, relational, and networked nature of writing. I love the circular images you’ve used and how they invite me to think about connections between ecofeminism and writing practices. 🙂

  4. Mary! What a beautiful post! I have to echo everyone who commented before me, but especially Zach’s comments about the lyrical nature of your post. I want to highlight two sentences that I love the most from this post: “This experience I’m trying to evoke is — yes, agreed — recursive, complex, a process, material, cultural, cognitive and most definitely influenced by cultural and social forces. But I wonder if it might also be configured uniquely in each person, as each person’s life might share characteristics and categories with other lives, but the breath in your lungs serves only the blood in your own veins.” Wow.

    I like the way your post considers centers in many different ways—cultural, personal, material, etc, and like you, I often dwell in the acknowledgment portion of the beginning stages of a text to see the network out of which writing comes. We don’t write in isolation; rather, we write with others, both near and distant and sometimes others who we may have never met in person. We don’t write outside our cultural or material context; rather, our writing is entrenched in the forces that surround and compel us. With all of this said, your post makes me wonder if there’s a way to conceptualize the center and movement away from that center alongside the writing processes of different kinds of writing. That is, must the writing of a dissertation write away from or towards our centers? There’s a vulnerability that comes with writing away from our centers, and what happens when we may not write back to the center?

    Thanks so much for sharing your ideas Mary!

  5. “Listening. Sometimes transcribing, more usually moving toward an ever receding puddle of light surrounded by darkness, reaching for the sounds and shapes of words that align with intention or hope, possibility or discouragement”

    Beautiful and so RIGHT ON about how the mystery, the vulnerability, and the communion of writing with self and others. Thank you for this post.

  6. Thank you for a beautifully written and reflective post Mary! I really appreciate the way you ask us to reimagine writing as a social and connective act, one that requires openness, relationship and reflection. I have to admit I sometimes dream of what I might write in my dissertation acknowledgements, I think namely because it honors the influence of those significant people around me, but also because signifies a completion of a project as well : )

  7. Mary, I enjoyed your thoughtful and reflective post. As I read it I found myself experiencing the nature of writing as you were so carefully bodying it forth in your blog post. As I read your post, it was not as if something was calling forth a center and in return creating something centered in and of itself because in reading it I myself felt something of writing’s social, creating social nature. It is such a fine description of writing, in its effluence, its effusiveness (I’m thinking of the more archaic sense of pouring freely), but still centered. You capture what writers do in writing.

  8. What a wonderfully written piece. Writing can be such an isolating activity that the conception of it as a social activity is not, as you suggest, even acknowledged; and of course the best insight into this social conception of writing is the acknowledgement sections (I should take a moment here to acknowledge my appreciation for the multiple and interconnected senses in which you use “acknowledgement” and “center”). And while acknowledgement sections account for the network of people who are directly or peripherally involved in a project–advisors, committees, mentors, friends, colleagues with whom you’ve talked through ideas, writing centers, anyone who’s offered feedback, etc.–writing is social in many other ways. In graduate writer’s groups and dissertation camps, grad students always comment on how having other writers in the same room, or close by, is a motivating and even inspiring factor. And this can be especially helpful when dissertators are, as you eloquently put it,

    “Listening. Sometimes transcribing, more usually moving toward an ever receding puddle of light surrounded by darkness, reaching for the sounds and shapes of words that align with intention or hope, possibility or discouragement.”

    While you’ve nicely rendered the sort of isolating scene of writing we’ve all experienced, it’s true that the social elements of composition help us through these moments. Thanks, Mary.

  9. I love how you magically balance the social forces of writing with embodied, individual experiences. This is something I often think about, and you address it here in a way that makes it so clear, particularly in the “Aligning with My Center” section. This gives such a helpful framework of how to think of our writing not only as embedded, but also shaped by our own relationships, memories, and even our bodies. Thanks, Mary!

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