"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


A Few Issues with Personal Writing

September 29th, 2015 by

Experience represents a broad path to learning. In many ways, it teaches us what we rarely encounter in school, and it can still teach us when we begin to write about it. Reason is needed, but experience can often teach us better the names of things. At the same time, it can explode what we thought we knew and once reduced to fit into our heads. We need experiences, and we need to reflect on them.

Still, controversies surround the teaching and practice of personal writing. The controversies are worth considering, even though students often enjoy writing personal narratives and reflecting on themselves and their experiences. These assignments often become the most engaging part of a writing course to them. Certainly, there are good reasons to engage students in narrative and personal reflection. As Michael Carter notes, writing on experiences can deepen understanding and awareness of our experiences (21). At the same time, Kathleen Blake Yancy et al. noted that the students they observed who followed expressivist writing pedagogies had trouble transferring their understanding of writing to other humanities and science courses (82).

Reflection and Detail
Two points are worth some focus here if we want students to benefit from expressivist writing assignments. First, the best way to approach any kind of assignment is by giving students ample opportunity to compare what they are doing with other assignments and use specific Composition content terms for what they are doing. As they write a personal memoir or narrative, they should be open to understanding how audience and genre change as they move to other assignments. They might be given journal writing assignments that invite them to compare the similarities and differences between these assignments and the more typical kinds of literary analysis papers they were required to write in high school. These reflections should happen during and after the writing of them. The goal here is for students to develop some awareness of the ways that the assignments differ in terms of audience, genre, and rhetorical situation–all terms they should be learning to use as they write.

A second point is more specific to the technique of narrative writing itself, but it can also have some carry-over to other assignments. That concerns the ways that a strong narrative can and should carry its central idea implicitly. When I teach narrative techniques, I point out that while a thesis may not work to unify a narrative, writers still think about why they are writing and allow their meaning to emerge. This point is richly illustrated in many wonderful narrative essays, from David Sedaris’s “Us and Them” to George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.” When we teach narrative, it is important to stress the way that detail and arrangement are tools a writer can use to express a central focus in narrative, and this is something to consider with other genres of writing.

Works Cited
Carter, Michael. Where Writing Begins: Toward a Postmodern Reconstruction. Carbondale: SIUP, 2003.

Yancy, Kathleen Blake, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Boulder: Utah State Press, 2015.

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Comment by Barbara Hayes on October 3, 2015 at 6:52 am

You are correct, Tom. This year I had my students read essays in the 50s Essays book with that very idea in mind. Note the language and the methods the writer uses to make his or her point in these personal narratives. They saw them. They understood. Carrying it over to their own personal writing is certainly more challenging. Since Freshman Writing Seminar is not all about personal writing, I must move away from personal writing to research and argument writing; however, I hope their eyes are is are opened to the tools a writer has to move a person’s mind and heart. These tools certainly apply to argument writing, as well.

Comment by Tom on October 6, 2015 at 10:22 am

Yes, well said, Barbara. Thanks.

Comment by Courtney on October 5, 2015 at 9:08 pm

I think that good writing (as defined as intellectual, clear, curious, insightful, specific, engaging and informed) will always be good writing. It will be able to transfer through all genres, sciences and humanities included. Just because someone can conduct introspection and self-reflection in their narrative writing, does not necessarily make it good writing.

A writer has a craft toolkit and pulls from the toolkit was is needed for each task.

So I would argue both are right and wrong. And I’d ask Yancy, what else was taught in the expressivist student pedagogy? The statement seems to vague to infer any serious findings.

Learning how to become a good writer always comes down to practice. Self-expression is part of that practice, unquestionably. However, it is not the only component.

Comment by Tom on October 6, 2015 at 10:24 am

Courtney, this cuts to the heart of a real debate about what good writing is. Thanks. I do know that those of us in English Departments have a very different view of what good writing is than professors in other departments. I can’t stand vague language, but some departments–Business, for example–seem to see this as effective. If the terms are vague, no one can be blamed for anything.

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