It’s remarkable how things can be so clear in your head—you can see and smell and feel the mangy old dog that used to sneak into your backyard, you’re there on the court as your three-pointer arches in slow motion into the basket…—and yet so flat on paper. Sometimes as writers we assume that the words we put down on paper are reflecting perfectly the images we have in our mind. The readers have to be there on the over-polished courts, how couldn’t they?
But that’s usually not the case. Somehow, somewhere in the process of translating what we see so clearly in our minds to actual words, the message we’re trying to convey gets skewed. We aren’t giving the reader enough information, we’re not describing the piquant poignancy of that chili pepper quite vividly enough. I imagine this is what Tolstoy would feel if he ever read the English translations of his beautiful Russian prose. But this error of transference seems impossible to detect—even if you go back and reread the text you’ve composed, your mind still subconsciously fills the blank spaces between the words with the senses you experience so clearly in your head.
This, I think, is where an outside reader becomes invaluable. Someone who can read your writing and tell you when a sentence doesn’t quite make sense, or gently suggest that that brilliant metaphor (of which you are incredibly proud) on page five just really doesn’t quite fit with the flow of your piece. And what better source of a supportive set of ears, then the Writing Studio?
At Duke, the tutors at a the Writing Center challenge you to reflect not only on your piece, but on yourself as a writer. They quickly quash the notion that you can trapeze in with a paper and expect a polished product in return. The battle-scarred paper with squiggles and slashes and half-legible scrawls which accompanies you as you leave the Writing Center serves as tangible proof of that challenge. What is your thesis, in words aloud? What are your concerns about the piece? What would you like to focus on today? But, in an oddly unexpected way, the Writing Center’s prodding is not frustrating. It doesn’t reduce you to tears or make you seethe in your chair. Instead, (at least in my experience), a dawning sense of realization comes to you. Through talking to the tutor, and hearing your piece read aloud, you are suddenly transported to the reader’s shoes and indeed, you finally see what your mind does not see. Something clicks in your mind and finally, finally, you finally understand what you were trying to say.
Going to the Writing Center isn’t simply about generating a finished product. Sometimes, simply having someone to muse to, to listen actively as you embark on a verbal stream of consciousness about a prompt I received and have no idea where to start, and to help you pick out the themes in that cacophony of ideas and thread together a single, coherent thought—sometimes that can be a writer’s gold.