Itches and Scratches

By Beth Taylor / May / June 2005
May 3rd, 2007

Years ago, as a young teacher of expository writing, if I thought of my job from an outsider’s point of view, I sometimes got confused. Privately I felt that to teach writing was a calling, but publicly I began to see my job was judged by some as — well, just a job.

What were they not seeing, I wondered. And why were my fellow teachers of writing and I so hooked on our mission?

The lure began in the classroom, of course. I saw enough moments of students’ excellence and originality, enough moments of unexpected “getting it,” that I got hooked on the pleasure of fishing. I would throw out possibilities, pull in drafts, let time, fresh elements, changes in the stream of thought work their ways. Each time it felt new.

And what happened in class—that process of fishing—felt more and more like writing. Both class and essay needed a clear sense of motive, useful evidence, provocative complications, a cohering flow, guided by deepening questions, so that implications became revealed. What surprises me is that these terms, these concepts, never get old or stale or lifeless; they never fail to make a class, or a piece of writing get better.

And they infuse my view of other art forms. I see art, hear music, and an analogy gets entangled in my teacher/ writer’s net.

My quilt-making sister points to a new piece hanging on her wall and explains how she began with an image she passes every day—a Manhattan iron gate. She turned it into a sketch; the sketch led to thinking about line, darkness and light, space and shape, which led to a quilt-size draft. As she reworked it, she wondered, “What’s alluring here? How to use the image? As key? Or comment? Or pattern?” Decisions became clear—on design, cloth, kinds of stitching, colors, and arrangements, and it began to make its own kind of sense.

Your process is like writing, I say. And like music, of course. In a forum at Brown, the writing guru Peter Elbow described “the music of form.” He showed how the coherence of a piece of writing, or art, comes like music—a “well-planned sequence of yearning and reliefs, itches and scratches.” One of my students reminded me of this when he analyzed Miles Davis’s 1959 classic Kind of Blue and described the first song on the album:

“ ‘So What’ is constructed around just two scales—C major and D flat major. Its central motif is a repeated call-and-response figure. The bass line leads in a conversational manner and the horns reply with two notes, of impish ‘so what!’ … The soloists take their turns … and ‘so what’ comes full circle, segueing back into the call-and-response motif.” I read this to the class the next day. Once again, a process of writing.

I begin to see the writing process everywhere. I say to my children, “So, give me an example of that generalization. What was that kid’s motive? Have you considered other points of view on this?” Sometimes my husband gets edited. He is the kind of guy who reads the encyclopedia for fun before bed. Well into a report of his own deep research, I’ll ask, half in jest, “So, why are we here? Who needs most to know all this? If it’s true for many in that era/class/race/gender, what are the exceptions? What do they imply?”

Luckily, I don’t do this often. But it seems inevitable—the blurring and the blending of one’s primary art form with ways of relating, understanding, expressing. What can happen in a good workshop, as in an intriguing essay process, can influence what one does for one’s children, what one must do to keep a relationship evolving—respond to new information, accept changes in understanding, revise unpredicted but inevitable confusions, adjust to structure-changing challenges.

And this is the payoff, I think, the reason I got hooked long ago on the writing classroom—as central metaphor, the place where all the stories of life fuse with research into an artful, invigorating quest to understand.

Beth Taylor directs Brown’s expository writing program.

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May / June 2005