Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Maintaining the Muse Across the Curriculum

By Steffanie Triller Fry

At the School for New Learning, Academic Writing for Adults and Writing Workshop students are encouraged to think about their writing process: Where and how do they write best? What setting or mood works for them? Do they write better with or without music? Can they compose on a computer or do they prefer to begin with pen?
            I had one student who only wrote in purple pen; another wrote on the bus; still another wrote all of her papers between one and three A.M. In each case, the student found what worked for them, and it proved successful: it resulted in the written word.
            Anne Lamott calls it “sitting,” and Laurie Foos calls it “keeping your [rear] in the chair” (expletive avoided). As part of my current Master of Fine Arts in writing study, I attended a seminar with novelist Laurie Foos at Lesley University this past January. Her focus was on techniques and inspiration to keep our “rears” in our chairs, and I was struck by how many of these ideas and techniques would work for SNL students, not just in their writing courses, but in all of their courses. Because students write for nearly all courses in this writing-intensive program, their process is something that the student will carry with them from their initial Foundations course through the Advanced Project. The student’s process should enable them to craft papers for all of their college courses.
            Instructors in all subject areas can use writing to access both students prior and current knowledge on a topic, but as Ray Bradbury writes in his chapter “How to Keep and Feed a Muse” in Zen and the Art of Writing, “It isn’t easy” (31). In this chapter, Bradbury writes about finding a muse, or finding the energy to write. At one point, he compares the search to “those little specks of light, those airy bubbles which float across everyone’s vision, minute flaws in the lens or the outer, transparent skin of the eye. Unnoticed for years, when you first focus your attention on them, they can become unbearable nuisances, ruptures in one’s attention at all hours of the day. They spoil what you are looking at, by getting in the way” (32). Bradbury’s description of these specks of light sounds remarkably like the process of an adult student attempting to surface prior knowledge.
            Utilizing the student’s writing process can help. Just as Bradbury believes that finding the muse allows us to find our “Most Original Self,” becoming better readers, observers, and writers is the journey of the adult student at the School for New Learning. We encourage surfacing of prior knowledge and dialogue with new knowledge – and much of this dialogue happens through writing.
             In order to encourage our students to surface their “Most Original Selves” across the curriculum, perhaps we can all encourage them to strive for Kent Haruf’s “holy trinity in the art of writing”: freshness, simplicity, and clarity. If we ask them to strive for these simple goals in all of their writing, perhaps students will return the focus to the learning, and worry less about the prose. Perhaps the process will carry from the writing class to the humanities, natural science, and media arts class. Perhaps we will all read the fresh, simple, clear writing that we so desire from our students’ work.

To that end, here are a few tools from Foos’ January seminar on “Courting the Muse” that I have already added to my students’ toolboxes. They seem to be using them regularly, and with much success. Note that I have offered a version of Foos’ exercises for writing courses as well as for WAC courses (in other words, any SNL course that is not specifically designated as a writing course):

·      For writing courses: Choose particularly sensational headlines from journalistic newspapers, magazines, or even tabloids. Give students five to choose from and have them create the story.
·      For WAC courses: Choose headlines from scholarly journals or popular magazines in the field. Give students five to choose from, and have them write on what they already know about the topic. This is a good way to surface prior learning.

The Word Game
·      For writing courses: Have students write down five things: a) a job, b) a common item (noun), c) another common item (noun), d) a verb ending in –ing, e) an adjective. Then have them pass this piece of paper to a neighbor. Each student should take the words they are given and connect them in a story.
·      For WAC courses: Complete the same exercise above, but make the categories more specific to the focus of the course. This exercise can help students make connections or discover topics for final papers.

First lines
·      For writing courses: Give students three first lines from novels, short stories, or nonfiction articles. Have them choose one and write.
·      For WAC courses: Give students three first lines from scholarly or popular or trade journals in your field. Have them continue the “story” using what they know of the topic.

Works Cited

Bradbury, Ray. “How to Keep and Feed a Muse.” Zen in the Art of Writing. New York:
Bantam, 1992. 31-46. Print.

Foos, Laurie. “Courting the Muse.” Lesley University. 6 Jan 2013. Lecture.

Haruf, Kent. “To See Your Story Clearly, Start by Puling the Wool over Your Own
Eyes.” Writers on Writing. New York: Times Books, 2002. 84-89. Print.

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