The Writing Muscle

For the past two days, I’ve been at the University of New Hampshire 11th Biennial Composition Conference, where I was part of a panel presenting on “Shame, Shame, Shame: Literacy and the Public Regulation of Affect” that explored the implications of Elspeth Probyn’s book Blush: Faces of Shame for the teaching of writing. It was a good conference in many ways, and as is my habit, I’ll blog my notes on a few of the sessions here in the next few days. One of the enjoyable aspects of the conference was getting to re-connect with Peter Elbow, and he and my friends Lauren Rosenberg and Collie Fulford and I shared a pleasant lunch on the lawn today, talking about matters scholarly and personal.

And for me, the funniest thing was seeing, yet again, how canny a negotiator of the rhetorical situation Peter can be. I recounted some of the challenges and difficulties and complexities of being a professor at a military academy, and Peter — who helped conscientious objectors draft personal essays during the Vietnam war — expressed interest in the way we sell the project of writing at West Point. I told Peter and Lauren and Collie about the ways in which West Point sometimes frames or praises academic achievement in the terminology of athletic achievement, almost as if a highly competitive baccalaureate degree-granting institution doesn’t quite know how to talk about or reward being intelligent in ways that recognize the deeply necessary virtues of smartness for our soldiers and officers-to-be.

I really liked Peter’s response. Put it in physical terms, he suggested. Encourage cadets to do interval training with freewriting: start them at five minutes, and get them to go longer. Ten, fifteen, twenty: who can freewrite like push-ups? If the physicality of freewriting is important, if that act of keeping the hands moving is what brings out ideas, why not treat it like PT, like physical training? If you can freewrite at five minutes and freewrite at thirty minutes, and if you do that three or four days a week for a year, you’re sufficiently trained and honed as an intellectual that you can squeeze out a smart and eloquent paragraph in ten minutes. It’s the habit that does it.

Writing is a muscle, Peter said. Welcome to my gym.

(Addendum: Collie recently clarified to me that the writing/muscle/gym metaphor is indirectly from Keene State tutor emeritus Josh Bond.)

The Writing Muscle

6 thoughts on “The Writing Muscle

  • October 15, 2007 at 7:59 am

    I’ve used a sports metaphor (jock that I am) to compare pre- and freewriting as a warm up activity, but I’ve never thought of it as interval training.

    I’m glad to read a post from you, Mike. It has been too long. How are the Edwards girls?

  • October 16, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    This is great. Partly because it allows me to eavesdrop on a conversation between Mike and Peter Elbow, just as if I was there. But also because it allows me to look at what I’m doing in a new way. Yesterday I decided we’d start with this interval training, in a class called “Ethics and Sports.” The targeted students are student athletes, but we have a lot of non-sports playing athletes, such as a girl who races motocross. I told them if this is good enough for West Point, it’s good enough for them too. This week, it’s five minutes. Next week, 10. The week after 15. I’m not sure if we’ll go further than that because of all we have to do, but it’s now a regular part of class. Thanks for posting this Mike. This is what makes the internet great.

  • October 17, 2007 at 11:50 pm

    Thanks, y’all. Bradley, I’d like to do the same thing, but in smaller increments: 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23 minutes — what might feel right? What not? I think I’m going to have to work these minute-increments into my overall syllabus lesson-planning and see how able I am to put it into a 15-week, 40-lesson context. Joanna, Tink and Zeugma are wonderful, aside from the occasional collectively barfy weekday mornings: Tink likes to make sure she’s in between me and keyboard when I come home in the evenings, and Zeugma likes to hop on my chest and chew on my St. Christopher chain 15 minutes before the alarm rings in the mornings.

  • October 18, 2007 at 12:18 am

    It looks like prime number free writing. This week my students did just fine with five minutes, except when I had them look at a Dove viral video and write about what they thought about a glamor industry member warning then off the glamor industry’s marketing. We had a nice chat afterwards about it.

  • October 21, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    “writing muscle” – like it!

    i’m frequently reminding my students that literacy (especially the writing/production part of the literacy equation) is a habit…and become inhabited (i.e. embodied) only when practiced regularly…during such discussions i usually pull out my standard sports analogies (similar to those mentioned above).

    interesting convo!

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