Giant Squids, Robotic Narcotics, Constipated Dragons? Here’s my card!
Like a timid squirrel, my initial experience with the writing center was a long and delicate matter. I would run up to the door, sniff around, look around, and then run off for a time to hide nuts in a tree. Eventually, my nuts dutifully stored, I brought a research paper into the writing center and was instantly in love with everything about the place. “Yes,” I said, “these are people I would gladly share a scavenged meal with.”
Sometime later, I decided that I would bring a piece of fiction into the writing center. Why not? After all, it is free and hey, just maybe, if my writing is any good the tutor will enjoy the chance to take a break from working on academic writing to read some fiction. Well I am still not sure if my writing is any good, but my suspicion that a writing center tutor would enjoy the chance to work on some fiction was correct. Since that fateful, and cliché-ly phrased day I have been occasionally taking creative writing to the center.
In most cases the tutors I worked with preformed with admirable grace in smoothly adjusting and adapting their tools and style to work with fiction writing. Since then I have become a profit of ill-repute, shambling through upbeat creative writing classes with a coffer in hand, declaring that the almighty WC is near and ready to be your friend. Yet most fiction writers see themselves as students whom the academic types look down upon. The general feeling among the fiction writers I have spoken to is that the writing center is not for us; it is for students writing academic papers who need the help. After all, we have workshops.
Writing workshops are fantastic if, and I put a heavy emphasis on IF, the right components come together to make for the right environment. Stuff like good professors, and dedicated peers willing to do more than simply scan your story to ensure that whatever minimum standards of credit that a professor has set are met. Yet even with all the help showering down on you like naked men or women or whatever you like to have shower down on you glistening in naked glory, workshops can still fail to help you improve as a fiction writer.
And alas, what a beautiful coincidence it is that comfortably fitted into a snug area of the library is a coven filled with delightful believers ready and willing to help fulfill your un-met needs. Workshops are essentially all endgame. Even worse, at least for those of us with a competitive streak, it is very hard to look at a workshop opportunity as exactly that, a workshop opportunity. I would never dream of brining a story into a workshop that I wasn’t already sure was excellent. (I must note here that this is only possible after horrendously beating my doubts to a bloody death.) But the thing is is that it can be incredibly hard to get to a place where you feel confident enough to trounce into a workshop beseeching the humble folk within to gaze upon all the glory that is your story. Depending on your style, (lets say like King who writes from the gut or like Tolkien who spent more time world building than writing) it can be sometimes be difficult to shape the never ending wet stream of vomit that is character ideas, and settings into a coherent and lovely piece of art.
Creative writing classes aren’t about sitting down and just talking out what you are trying to do. Typically people read your story and after the class talks about it, while you sit dutifully silent, you get about twenty rushed seconds to ask questions. There is never a, “lets sit down, let me pitch this thing to you,” exercise. Which is sad, because this can be enormously helpful. Truthfully, sometimes it’s easier to get someone to listen to that crazy dream you had the other night than actually sit down and listen to you pitch a book or story. Maybe this has to do with this weird divide that exists where you are either another filthy artist who should get a real job or “Good show Sir!” worthy. I am getting off topic. My point is that there is a huge middle ground before you get to work shopping in fiction where having a smart, kind and qualified person sit down and work with you, help you explore the ideas that you are trying to lay down into not just clear prose, but art, is something that is invaluable to us mortals.
In my experience I found that the WC, already so filled with skills and tools and friendly faces, can and will provide the same debilitatingly delightful help that it already offers to the eager pupils with academic papers, to fiction writers.
With a break from my long winded and clarity defiling blathering, simply put, my plan is to investigate how writing center tutors can adjust their style, technique, and tools to work more proficiently with writers who enter their domain with fiction.
The perceivable personal value of my many years of writing fiction and taking creative writing classes can assuredly be contested, yet in my experience I have found that using the trusty tools we writing tutors keep in our belts, I have been able to improve my writing process dramatically. Well my experience with tutors who adapt to work on the fiction I have brought in has been remarkable; I think that with a few slight adjustments the writing center can become a fiction writer’s best friend. The kind who always welcomes you with hot tea, warm cake and a smile, no matter how long you have stayed away.
“A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.” ~Charles Peguy
The meaning of a sentence is dependent on the writer. As readers, we can try to extrapolate meaning; however the true meaning will always be understood by the writer. I use a few different strategies to understand and improve papers on the sentence level. The strategies I use allow participation and input from both student and tutor. Going over the assignment together helps understanding on both sides and, if the student catches their own sentence level issues, it can help the student use what they learned during this session and apply it to other writing assignments.
I am focusing on strategies to clarify meaning at the sentence level. As writers, and readers for that matter, we want sentences to have meaning and to be grammatically correct and complete. We often strive for a certain air of refinement in our writing, but at the least we want our writing understood. The strategies go as follows:
1. Have the student quickly read/skim through the paper aloud. This gives you a global understanding of the paper. Even though the session may be just about focusing on line level concerns, having a global understanding of both the text and assignment can be very helpful.
2. If, while reading, the student comes across a sentence that fouls them up or just reads awkwardly, have the student notate that sentence and move on. As the tutor, if you hear a sentence that stands out to you, feel free to make a reminder for yourself to refer back to that sentence.
3. When the writer has finished skimming, return to those sentences that sounded off to either you or the student and have the writer explain what they are trying to say in that sentence. When you know what the writer is trying to say, you might be able to pinpoint a bit easier what sort of things the writer should work on or needs help with.
4. Do your best to not try to word the sentence how you would write it. Remember, this is the writer’s paper. They have their own voice and that is the voice that should be represented. Obviously, if they have questions on syntax or vocabulary feel free to guide them to the words they want, not the words you choose. Asking questions like “do you know of another word that could be used here?” or “do you know the meaning of this word?” could be helpful in building the writers vocabulary.
This short list is most certainly not all inclusive. There are many more steps to this approach, but this represents the framework for this strategy. Aside from that, there is a multitude of ways to help writers work out sentence level issues with clarifying meaning.
After establishing some rapport and discussing what the student is looking to get out of the writing center appointment, potential dialogue with using this strategy goes as follows:
Tutor: So from what you’ve told me you are looking for some help with clarifying what you’re trying to say in certain sentences. Maybe there are some questions with flow or word choice?
Student: Exactly! I’ve read through my paper and there are just some sentences that don’t sound right. I’m not too sure what exactly needs to be fixed.
Tutor: Alright. No problem. Well because we are both already familiar with the assignment, how about you do me a favor and sort of skim through the paper aloud and you and I will both be listening to sentences that sort of stick out?
(Student reads paper)
Student: So I came across this sentence in the introduction that seemed strange. The sentence is “Based on the fact that he is pessimistic and feels life is not worth it, he is forgetting about his loved ones whom he said he did not want to hurt.”
Tutor: Okay, what didn’t you like about this sentence? Is there something that caught you off guard? Is it too wordy, too awkward?
Student: It seemed too long. I feel like it could be shortened.
Tutor: I agree with you. I think this sentence could be shortened as well. I think some clarification could help too. How would you go about doing this?
Student: Well I think I should explain who “he” is. Also, I could be a bit thriftier with my word choice. I feel like the sentence is cluttered.
Tutor: I agree. Maybe try to showcase in the sentence what was the result of “his” pessimism. What are you trying to say in this sentence?
Student: Well I’m trying to say that because of his pessimism, he ultimately ended up creating a situation he didn’t want to happen.
Tutor: Okay, good. You know what you want to say and you know why this sentence isn’t coming out the way you want. How would you revise this sentence to have it have your intended sound and meaning while keeping your writing style?
Student: Well I was thinking something along the lines of… “The author’s basic pessimism causes him to forget the very loved ones he said he didn’t want to hurt.”
Tutor: I think that sentence conveys meaning more clearly and flows a lot better than the original sentence. Great job! Let’s look at a few other sentences, shall we?
(And the session continues on.)
When tutoring ESL students, you should always keep in mind not to take anything for granted. Most importantly though, just because someone speaks with an accent, does not necessarily mean they don’t have a firm grasp on the English language and assuming so could be quite insulting. What you might consider common practice or common knowledge could be completely new or unnatural to non native speakers. When working with native English speakers, you can assume that the writer knows what a thesis statement is, that they know what a paragraph basically looks like, and the connotation of cultural idioms. However, with non native speakers none of this can be assumed. To no fault of their own, the non native speakers might not have this information. Writing structures are not universal and can be quite puzzling for some students. Different cultures think in different ways and therefore they express themselves in different ways.
In order for these students to write successfully in America, they need to be tutored on higher level concerns rather and lower level concerns. These students need to understand not only the vocabulary and grammar style in America, but the conventions and nuances of American rhetoric. Asking the student where they would want to start or what aspect of their writing they feel most uncomfortable with can help you prioritize your session. You only have a certain time limit and only focusing on grammar or only focusing on theme might not necessarily be the most productive.
I would recommend not trying to correct every mistake they make. They may feel self-conscious about writing, and even speaking, in another language and dominating the session or “fixing” their every mistake may discourage them from continuing their writing. One helpful tip might be to point out certain sections of the paper and focus on those. Having the student take notes to resort back to while revising this paper and/or working on future assignments could be quite helpful as well. As with any tutoring session, building rapport is important. However, upholding self confidence, bridging cultural differences, and potentially decreasing shame are challenges that can be unique to ESL tutoring sessions.
I see writing centers and tutors as an invaluable “middle man” between the professor and the student. Writing centers provide a certain freedom for students to ask questions and show their work in an environment that in the classroom they might feel were dumb questions and don’t want to be singled out for potentially “being behind” the rest of the class. The environment of a writing center is less threatening because tutors are not the ones administering or dictating their final grades. Even though they aren’t administering the grades does not mean that the students should not be as dedicated to the time they spend in the writing centers as time they would spend in the classroom. Discussion between tutor and student promotes new idea generation and allows you to see how your writing is understood from a different perspective. Tutors don’t necessarily just point out the mistakes of the students or shoot down the concept of their works. They ask the students questions about thought process, the approach they took for their writing, and why they chose certain themes, ideas, or even word choice. Turning the situation into a discussion rather than a deposit allows the students to become more engaged in the assignment and take lessons from their tutoring sessions that they can apply to other assignments and classes. Some see tutoring centers as “the blind leading the blind.” However, I see it as I take what I know and offer it to you and in exchange, I take something from what you bring to the table. Everyone has insight on something and has something to provide. When we turn a section of the learning process into an educational exchange, we pool our resources together to all become more well rounded students, tutors, and writers.