Monday, February 23, 2015

The Writing Moment

"Suffering is one very long moment."
Oscar Wilde

I think I have a contribution to make to composition studies. The core of what I call Writing Process Reengineering is the composition of an individual prose paragraph, consisting of no less than six sentences and no more than two-hundred words, in exactly 27 minutes. The idea is to analyse the "very long moment" between the decision to write something (like an article or a dissertation or a book) and its submission (to a journal or a committee or a publisher), which a writer really does often experience as a species of suffering, into discrete, finite writing episodes. (The key "discovery" in my own dissertation work, I should note, was that our beliefs and our desires are articulated—joined together, jointed—in our suffering. But I had not yet discovered the paragraph as its literary situation.) The paragraph locates "the writing moment" within the writing "process". This moment may be painful or pleasurable but, owing to its finitude, is not intolerable, not insufferable. It constitutes the when and the where of our composure.

Since its emergence in the 1970s, writing process theory has had an enormous influence on writing instruction, witnessed in part by the predictable emergence, in the 1990s, of a "post-process" movement. My contribution to composition studies, if I have one, will have to be made within this ongoing conversation, and I still have some work to do in defining its contours. But as far as I can tell it is a familiar "post-structuralist" engagement, in which an established theory is challenged mainly on the grounds that it is a theory in the first place, normally by invoking a number of "postmodern" insights about the nature of language that, interestingly in this case, often originally emerged from an intense awareness of the importance of writing to so-called "modernity". This sort of "critique" is not mere criticism. It does not identify ways in which the theory gets its object wrong, but rather ways in which theorising the object is always already a mistake, even an act of violence.

To a certain extent I agree with the post-structualists about the writing process. While I'm not very impressed with the way they read, say, Derrida, Foucault, and Barthes, I do think we should be cautious about reducing the process by which a text is made into simple stages like "prewriting", "drafting", "revising", and "editing" that lead to the final, publishable result. I think the written product has suffered terribly under the belief that the means, if you will, justify the ends. Instead, I encourage writers simply to have 40 or 80 moments, over a period of 20 to 40 days, during which they are actively engaged in "knowing something" in writing. The aim is not just to "produce text", after all, but to write. And it is the articulation of the author's long moment of suffering, from decision to submission, not into stages to be passed through, but into brief moments to compose, that make writing, as such, possible.

This week I'm going to be writing more about this, trying to see if I really do have something substantial to contribute to the conversation. Maybe I've finally found my field.

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