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Tom Kelly

Doctor McElroy
LAE 5947
Literacy Narrative

How Community Shifted My Focus to Writing as Process

Early Emphasis on Writing as Product Outside of a Community

Ironically, the elementary school where I learned to read and write had a reputation
for superior literacy programs: that is, students supposedly developed these skills at earlier
ages. Yet, as I understood it, writing meant filling up a blue book which my teacher
collected before the fifth period bell. Strict time limits and emphasis on weeding out
grammatical errors didnt compel me to think of writing in terms of anything more than
product. Given this type of compositions solitary naturewe didnt discuss our work as a
classI never wouldve likened it to how my friends and I walked around the soccer field
at recess drafting and revising our visions for rollercoasters that defied the laws of physics.
I didnt consider it writing when I drew maps for video games that I imagined on long car
rides. In high school, when I joined a punk band and we spent hours collaborating on songs:
that wasnt writing either.

I think the takeaways this: I was wrong. Throughout most of my life, my writing
process has remained consistent, but for years I didnt know what I was doing. Never mind
the genre: Ive always gravitated towards writing about subjects I enjoyed, collaboratively
and within a community. I often wonder if I wouldve taken an earlier interest in formal
education if someone had taught me that I could write text like I wrote music. I also wonder
if I wouldve more quickly discovered a community that fosters healthy approaches to
reading and writing.

Joining the Wrong Kind of Discourse

After high school, I supplemented my rebellion against the status quo with Howl by
Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowskis sloppy free verse. As my literary interests
cultivated, I joined a community of likeminded individuals who probably shouldve come
with a disclaimer. Informed by similar high school reading and writing experiences, we
valued the ability to recite passages from novels and writing to an end where grammar and
a lofty diction indicated mastery.

I mention this becauseas much as I credit community and collaboration to


changing how I view writingcollaboration takes some paradoxical and problematic
forms, especially outside the academy where writing as a process isnt taught. When a
group of collaborators who understand writing as a product sit down, debates abound over
the most appropriate adjective to describe a breakfast sandwich, when to use a semi-colon
instead of a comma, and whether Courier New is superior to Times New Roman. For
collaboration to maintain a productive nature, at least one person with some authority
must understand the writing process and the disciplines conventions. Otherwise, to draw
on a popular aphorism, the blind lead the blind. Somehow, I slogged through my
undergraduate English program and managed to take an Introduction to Writing Poetry
course, but this community beyond school was a greater fixture in my life. As a result, even
after I grew serious about composing verse, I was slow, labored, and overly self-conscious.

Whats a Creative Writing MFA Program, Anyway?

I credit a deadline driven regimen and well-informed voices within a poetry


community for changing the way I approached writing. During my first MFA craft class, my
instructor required us to submit two poems per week. Each poem responded to a prompt
passed out before we left for the evening. Id never written creative work under such
narrow time constraints. Furthermore, my assistantship and additional coursework
consumed large portions of my time. Under these new restrictions, I altered my approach
to writing poetry. Somewhat unconsciously, this led to a breakthrough and I became more
process-oriented: I handwrote initial drafts, narrowed the scope of my subject matter, and
allowed my voice to enter the poems rather than my idea of a literary voice which took
longer to evoke. I thought about poems in terms of disposable stepping stones that I might
significantly change or abandon if they didnt stick. While writings before that class were
motivated by pre-conceived intent, now I allowed intent to develop through an act of
discovery on the page or screen.

The poems that came from this exercise were sloppy, immature, and less inclined to
pith, but they helped me gain a better understanding of structure. Furthermore, as I
became less attached to the product, my imagination grew more ambitious. This new
approach to writing received positive encouragement from the cohort in my discourse
community who found something redeemable even in my worst drafts and suggested ways
to complicate more polished works. While my tenure as an MFA student progressed, I
joined a trio that spent hours after class discussing poems reviewed in workshop and
drafts in-progress. None of us realized we were continuing the class discussion and, in that
sense, work and play overlapped: I was at band practice again.

These collaborative talks became one of the most integral parts of my creative
writing process and resulted in global overhauls to existing pieces and the invention of new
poems. We didnt share aesthetics and our composing processes werent identical, but Id
argue a lot of worthwhile work came from putting our heads together. For example, over
lunch at a restaurant, we once joked about starting a collaborative series of flash fiction and
poems that addressed the artificial intelligence in video games we played as children.
Though the chapbook we planned never came into fruition, we assisted one another in
altering this idea to meet our individual visions as writers and weve each published at
least one piece that was an offshoot from this conversation.

As a teacher and tutor, I aspire to introduce my students to this playful nature of


writing. Id love to locate the quirk or character within my students and tutees essays,
poems, and literary prose, then give them license to own aspects of their voices they didnt
know they could use. My MFA mentor and cohort gave me this gift and it changed my life. I
feel obliged to locate and help those students who felt lost like me. Though many of my
students and tutees will likely write with the motivation of passing a course, Ill find
accomplishment in altering anyones perception of writing, so long as I do so in a manner
that reinforces its benefits.

When a Community Dissolves

Given all this talk about the positive effects of collaboration and community, I should
account for times following my MFA when external circumstances tarnished my ability to
compose. I dont want to detract from the processs solitary aspectsto positive results, I
still write poems that I dont discuss with anyonebut maintaining some connection to
that discourse community remains vital for me. Otherwise, I lose a more immediate sense
of my audience.

When my tenure as an MFA student commenced and my friends became less


available for these discussions, our writing suffered for an extended period. Feeling
rudderless, I became more product-minded again and wrote labored, technically sound
poems with little meaning or spark. For want of some validation or fellowship my life
lacked, I grew rabid with my submissions to literary journals, deluded by beliefs that more
publishing credits might improve my circumstances. I cant defend this behavior or way of
thinking, yet I think it merits mention for this reason: weve discussed how writing varies
from person-to-person particularly in terms of process, but I think the reasons for a focus
on product also vary.

When I first started writing, I was product-minded because of formative


experiences during my education. At times when I slipped back into a product-mindset
after my MFA, I knew better but emotional and circumstantial dilemmas compelled me to
regard my writing in terms of material value. For this reason, I sympathize with self-
conscious writers who struggle with maintaining a process mindset. We have our bad
weeks, months, and sometimes years. I plan on emphasizing this in my classroom by giving
additional flexibility to students who demonstrate effort even when their writing suffers.

Reclaiming the Process through a New Approach to Discourse Community

When my friends and I started workshopping poems via email, I re-shifted my focus
from product to process. As I saw their unpolished pieces, I grew more confident and
the sense of belonging to something larger than myself again motivated me to write while
working through some horrible drafts. Throughout this narrative, Ive talked about process
and community without providing examples of my collaborative process. Ill begin by
introducing this poem I wrote in February and March with some comments for more
serious aesthetic revisions made by one of my collaborators:
This poem began during a conversation at a coffeeshop and went through at least
five handwritten drafts on notebook paper before I made more serious changes during its
remediation to the screen. Likewise, I changed and re-sent this poem to my friend three or
four times before he provided feedback. However, if form is contentand I think in this
poem it isthis drafts still in the early stages. Notice the line of repeated words
underscored by the red: I didnt make that; my friend used this as an opportunity to
provide an example of the glitch language he wanted this poem to contain. Much like a
tutor at a writing center, he found an opportunity within the text to provide a teaching
moment and then invited me to try my hand at the act. After a week of revising with what I
learned from my friend, this is what I arrived at:
The main crux of the poem didnt change much but the form went through a global
overhaul. Once an aesthetically neutral narrative in a slender stanza block, this poem now
contains caesuras, caret signs, omitted words, repeated phrases, and broken sentences
intended to produce other meanings within the text. Where the previous draft might have
felt like a more unfiltered interface with the omniscient narrator, this draft reinforces the
constructed nature of the page or screen. I sent this draft back to the same friend and he
said it seemed complete, but I felt otherwise. So, I sent it to the other writer we collaborate
with and he had this to say:
Michael has experience as the managing editor for a few literary magazines, so hes
more comfortable taking a hands-on approach with other peoples work. He also has a
better mind for writing narrative because hes a fiction writer and usually I write lyric
poems. I think it could become problematic to draw a connection to teaching composition
here: if this was an academic paper, Id be obliged to give Michael credit as a co-author, but
the creative writing discipline abides by different conventions regarding authorship and
collaboration. Editors make radical revisions to stories and poems all the time. I think
whats important is Michaels deep reading as evidenced by his feedback. Even if a
collaborator cant take a direct approach to altering someones work, a teacher or tutor
who provides a reading response this thorough shows the author how much they care and
gives them the tools to alter their writing accordingly. Ive included his contributions
below:

Not long after receiving this revision, I called my friend to thank him and discuss
ways I could further improve this piece. We joked that this poems form made it like a
jigsaw to which I could spend the next three years returning, but one can always alter a
piece of writingthis form just calls attention to it. Noticing the investment my friends
took in this piece compelled me to return to it once more and make sentence-level
adjustments which Ive included as the final image:
After all this back-and-forth, I started submitting the poem to literary magazines. It
hasnt found a home yet, but, in the drafting process, I started to understand that people
read the same piece differently; the cooperation and discussion surrounding those
differences can lead one to write something that a lone individual wouldnt have imagined.
Eventually, maybe Ill return to this draft with fresh eyes and make further changes. Maybe
I wont.

In either case, I know Im a better writer when I have readers who respond to my
workregardless of the genrewith genuine interest and a level of engagement that
inspires me to act more attentively in my own reading and writing life. As a teacher and
tutor, I want to promote that same sense of community and fellowship through my
responses to student writing, collaborative exercises, and the discussions we have about
one anothers work in the classroom. I probably wont convince most students or tutees
that writing is a fun activity to discuss with friends for hours after class, but if I broaden the
scope of a few minds and convince some people to write about what they enjoy, Ill
continue to believe this heightened level of attention and care demands a persistent display
of effort and continual consideration.