Part 2 in our series on Writing Advice. To read part 1, click here.
By: Thomas Michael Swensen, Colorado State University
When I was 26 I started at a community college with aspirations to learn how to become an architect. Not just any architect, but one who designed and built sets for rock bands like Mark Fisher. Along with a drafting course, and one in creative writing, I enrolled in the course “Race, Class, and Gender in Film.” As an introduction to academic prose, I read the articles “Erotic Autonomy as a Politics of Decolonization: An Anatomy of Feminist and State Practice” by M. Jacqui Alexander and, “More Human Than I Am Alone: Womb Envy in David Cronenberg’s the Fly and Dead Ringers,” by Helen W. Robbins. Though I’d written punk songs, short plays, and fictional stories previous to this course yet the deft work of academic writing drew me in a way that these other forms hadn’t. I immediately grew fascinated with Alexander’s commitment language and Robbins’s incredible read of David Cronenberg’s misogynistic Dead Ringers and The Fly. These writers compelled me to transfer from a 2-year community college architectural drafting program to a small liberal arts college where I enrolled as a literature and fine arts major, putting off my aspirations for architectural training until graduate school.
At the four-year school, the first upper-division English course I enrolled in was British Literature II. Turning in the first 750-word essay on something either about a piece of George Elliot’s or perhaps a poem by one of the Brownings. The comments marked on the returned essay were of great surprise. For on the margin the professor wrote, “save this for your autobiography,” near one of my passages, with an added and concerned “come see me” noted at the bottom of the last page. During the meeting with the professor she told me that I earned an F on the essay but that I could choose to rewrite it over and over again throughout the term. The detailed option she offered was that I would focus solely on revising that essay with the qualification that I’d walk away from the course with a C+ grade. That, or I could choose an F for the term. I took the professor up on the deal, revising that piece about 5 times before the semester was over. I have never looked back with regret on that choice.
I learned a few things about writing academic prose from this initial experience of revision. For instance, the phrase the professor wrote, “save this for your autobiography,” has proved a source of inspiration throughout the years. Thinking about the comment always forces me deliberate the ways one constitutes ideas through the act of writing and what it means to get beyond the self to produce scholarly work. That is, something about this labor of writing academic prose forces me to get outside the intentions I have for the sake of a successful piece. A draft’s intervention most always needs the help of a few readers and editors in teasing out the directions it wants to travel. For me, an argument’s evolving destination (its derivative?) is where I let go of my aims to allow editing and re-drafting processes to shape the essay in productive ways.
This last month an essay that has gone through multiple revisions in the last 2 years is finally in press. The readers and editors worked hard to turn it into something I’m proud of. Trusting the suggestions these people had provided the most important and needed aspect in this essay’s production. Close to a couple of decades ago when that Brit Lit professor sat me down with the grave ultimatum they indoctrinated me into the peer-review process of letting go to let the work flourish with its own path. The other lesson that I’ve taken away from that experience was that a C+ allows one to pass a course. It's a sign of success. Only later after dropping out of architecture school to pursue a masters in literature would the techniques put forth in John Gage’s The Shape of Reason further test my resolve as a writer. Give that a read.
Thomas Michael Swensen is an assistant professor of ethnic studies at Colorado State University. Born and raised in Kodiak, he is a shareholder in Koniag, and Leisnoi, inc., based on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, and a member of Tangirnaq Native Village, aka the Woody Island Tribe. He writes the Alaska Native Studies Blog at alaskanativestudies.blogspot.com.