Writing Is an Act of Faith
Writing is an act of faith. You don’t know where it is going when you start.
My students have just finished writing researched argument, which is a way of saying “a research paper”, but I was trying not to call it that, to spare them paralyzing fear and help them see the value of the assignment in connection to their AP Language and Composition exam where they will write rhetorical analysis, argument and synthesis essays.
I gave them the assignment, carefully explaining the steps to the research process and writing about it, and then they began by reading a non-fiction book that makes an argument, researching that topic to see what other writers discovered, analyzing and synthesizing that information, forming their own thesis, then writing about it.
Funny thing happened at step two. Many of them had chosen books about controversial subjects that interested them, thinking at the outset they agreed with the author. By the end of the reading, they were fully convinced. Then they started reading other research and frustration set in: I thought I agreed with Malcom Gladwell but now I don’t know.
I’m confused because I thought Deborah Tannen was right but this writer totally disagrees with her. I’ve completely changed my mind; can I change my thesis? These were the comments I was hearing one morning in class and I began to smile, even laugh. I cheered! That frustrated them even more.
What I knew and they didn’t (yet) know was that the process was doing its work. This is the point! I told them. You don’t really know what you think until you begin to write. As the students researched and learned, they began to change their minds, or sharpen an existing opinion, they experienced the thinking and writing process just as I want them to – as an open-ended act of faith. You begin without knowing the end. You start with a question and maybe you find an answer, or maybe you have to write new questions .
Writing is thinking and discovery. You have to stay open. One must follow the question, even if the answer means you change your mind.
Write your way out of a hole. I’ve said this over and over as my students struggle with a prompt or timed essay question. Just start. Write something. Turn the flow on. You may discard the first paragraph or first page, but just start the pen moving. Believe writing will come if you just start.
I’ve preached this for years and yet I don’t always practice it myself. At times I am faithless. I don’t write. I think I have nothing to say or believe that I don’t know what I think. Yet, like faith, the process has never failed me, when I trusted it. When I began – to write something- there is always something to say, even if it’s a list of questions. Even those tell me what I am thinking, wondering, and wanting to know.
One word, phrase, sentence or question at a time, I build a ladder of language to get myself out of the hole. I do know what I think- if only I practice faith and begin to write.