By Sarah Dimick
Sarah is a Ph.D. candidate in literary studies at UW-Madison, and has taught at the Writing Center since 2013. Before coming to Madison, she received an MFA in poetry from New York University.
Last winter, during a late afternoon appointment, a graduate student in the history department asked me how he might make the final chapter of his dissertation more compelling.1 We’d already discussed what I think of as skeletal concerns: the order of his paragraphs, the clarity of his topic sentences. We’d already examined his thesis and his conclusion for coherence. I asked if he was concerned that the intellectual contribution of this chapter wasn’t sufficiently groundbreaking, that other scholars in his discipline might not feel he was making a substantial intervention. “My argument’s brilliant,” he told me, “but this chapter is totally dry inside. I want to write the kind of history that makes people turn pages, to write a story where the characters come alive. How do you do that?”
A few weeks later, I met with an undergraduate student in an advanced physics course who was trying to condense the caption beneath one of the figures in her lab report. “The challenge,” she explained, “is that I’m trying to say so much in so few words. It’s like writing a haiku about a gravitational field. Each word has to be so precise.”
And this past fall, a senior applying to medical school pulled three crumpled pages of paper out of her backpack. She spread them on the table in front of us, each one containing a different opening paragraph to her personal statement. “My academic advisor said the first paragraph needs to give the admissions committee a sense of my voice,” she said. “But after writing all of these, I’m not sure any of them are me yet. And I’m worried my voice isn’t the kind of voice med schools like anyway. I guess what I’m saying is that I need to find a voice. Really soon. Before this is due on Tuesday.”
The Creativity of Research
As Cydney Alexis notes, universities often treat creative writing “as if it’s interchangeable with fiction and poetry,” a pursuit wholly separate from the critical analyses and applications that often grace the tables of a writing center. But as I tutor students writing course papers and academic articles, I can’t help noting that many of their endeavors are, at their core, creative efforts. I’m as likely to refer a student working on a history of the dairy industry in early twentieth-century Wisconsin—or a student trying to articulate the setting and conditions that produced a particular cancer cluster—to Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft as I am to refer them to The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams. So many of the questions I field as a writing center tutor—Is this a good hook? Is this the right word? How do you write a conclusion that feels satisfying but not overly tidy?—serve as reminders of the porous boundary between the creative and the scholarly, the easy slippage between the kinds of writing I focused on during my MFA and the kinds of writing that I attend to here at the UW-Madison Writing Center.
Moreover, writing centers and creative writing workshops both cultivate a sustained attention to writing as a craft—writing as a practice, a labor, an art. They are places where a writer’s development is undertaken as a communal effort, where people believe that gathering to discuss a draft will allow its author to revise it into a more powerful piece.
Three Ways of Looking at Other People’s Drafts
Given these shared commitments, I want to offer an initial list of the ways in which writing centers and creative writing workshops inform each other, through both their parallels and their divergences:
- The Rigors of Praise and Description. On the first day of a poetry workshop I took as an MFA student, the professor explained that we would not be “critiquing” each other’s work. Instead, we would spend the semester trying to express what we found valuable about each other’s poems and how we might describe each other as writers. I remember thinking this was going to be an utter waste of time: I wasn’t working a few part-time jobs in New York City to hear other people rave about my first drafts. As I quickly learned, however, offering substantial, precise praise is a strenuous business: it’s often more difficult to pinpoint why a piece of writing is moving or compelling than it is to diagnose its flaws. And, as my classmates described the tones and language patterns that characterized my poems, I identified elements of my writing and thinking that had previously escaped me. Each time I step into the UW-Madison Writing Center, I hear tutors engaged in similar work: in addition to thinking about possible revisions, we describe and compliment drafts because it’s a useful pedagogical practice.
Silence and Conversation. As a Writing Center tutor, I am trained to ask writers questions. Part of my work is to engage the writer sitting beside me in a productive conversation, to elicit her own instincts about which revisions might strengthen her draft. This conversational approach is the precise opposite of how I was trained as an MFA student: in the majority of MFA workshops, writers are instructed to remain silent, listening and taking notes as the class discusses their story or poem. After the discussion period in a workshop concludes, a writer may be allowed to briefly ask the group clarifying questions. As a silently present writer in MFA workshops, I learned to sit with feedback on my writing before immediately disputing my classmates’ critiques, and I found that being a fly on the wall as other people discuss your poem grants a rare intimacy to the abstract idea of a text’s “audience.” But now, as a Writing Center tutor, I value the sense of collaboration that emerges through an active conversation between a writer and a reader. I’m grateful I can easily gauge whether the discussion is addressing the writer’s own questions about their work. I think about this distinction often: are there moments in writing center conferences when the practice of silence might be beneficial, and—reciprocally—are there moments in MFA workshops when conversation including the writer could prove rewarding?
- Attuning Yourself to a Writer’s Voice. My parents read poetry before breakfast each day, working their way through a collection one poem at a time. Without fail, they appreciate the poems near the end of the collection in a different way than they appreciate the poems on the first few pages, a process I think of as attunement to a writer. We learn to appreciate voices we linger with over months or years. During my MFA, I took pleasure in the poetry of classmates I’d learned to read over the course of previous semesters, only gradually developing my capacity to fully appreciate new classmates’ work. Now, when my classmates publish books, even classmates who I regularly call or visit, reading these collections feels like hearing their voices again after an absence. I notice a similar phenomenon at work with ongoing students who come to the UW-Madison Writing Center to see me on a recurring basis. I enjoy seeing their writing strengthen and expand, but I also find that I grow as a reader of their texts, becoming better able to distinguish consistencies and twists.
In both writing centers and MFA workshops, early drafts are circulated and discussed: there’s an assumption that texts must be tended not only by their authors but also by a larger community of readers and colleagues and teachers. These exchanges demand a willing vulnerability on the part of the writers, but they also allow writing center tutors and workshop participants the opportunity to impact the development of someone else’s words. There’s something beautiful, I think, about the act of willingly attending to someone else’s writing, of conversing about someone else’s craft, of engaging in writing as a communal endeavor.
- All students described in this piece are aggregates of multiple writers I’ve worked with over the years.