College Writers on the Craft of Writing (podcast link at bottom)

Each semester the past couple of years the First Year Writing Program at St. John’s University holds a conference called “Coming to Writing.”  My colleague Tara Roeder was one of the faculty members who came up with the name and it comes from Hélène Cixous, a writer Tara describes as her favorite, fabulous, French feminist.  Here’s a quote that has previously been used on the conference program.

“I sensed that there was a beyond, to which I did not have access, an unlimited place […] A desire was seeking its home. I was that desire. I was the question. The question with this strange destiny: to seek, to pursue the answers that will appease it…
—Hélène Cixous in “Coming to Writing”

I moderated a panel discussion of students I worked with during the semester, recorded the session, and published the session as a podcast with their permission.  I can certainly spot ways in which many of them were, as Cixous describes, in pursuit of answers.  What follows here is the title of our panel and a description of the work the students discussed.

Writers on the Craft of Writing

Like it or not, these students had to be writers this semester.  They wrote two blog posts a week and created a documentary film as a culminating writing project.  Here’s a list of the students who presented and what it was that most struck me about their work:

  • Brianne revolutionized the way many of us thought about how a dean might work with students in his or her respective college.  She talked with deans from many of our colleges at St. John’s and then surprised most of us when her exhaustive interviews of students revealed that many students communicate with their deans regularly.
  • Tahyanna is a funny and smart writer who I think ought to write a memoir something along the lines of Confessions of a Germaphobe.  (I don’t think she’s going to do it)  During the “Coming to Writing Conference,” Tahyanna talked about her writing process for the final paper, an assignment I call “A Writer on Writing.”  I make my students (no sense in saying I ask them to do it)  something we call an “annotation.”  For annotations, students  print out articles and take notes on them.  Tahynna explained how she put all her annotations out in front of her and looked at her written comments on the articles as a way of organizing how she was going to write the paper.
  • Miriam was the only student I had who referenced the only poem we looked at all semester as a way of thinking about images.  Although Miriam wrote about several topics, I remember her for writing about the environment.  In one of her pieces she wrote about a sort of paradoxical beauty, that oil in a puddle of water can be beautiful:  “Some puddles are murky, quiet as to how deep they really are.  Others are crystal clear, reflecting the fiery fall foliage.  Others seem to have life.  An intermingling of swirling colors…these puddles have harnessed their own rainbows.”
  • Michael came up with a theme for his blog:  conflict.  What impressed me most about his work (aside from his sometimes encyclopedic knowledge of the Middle East) was the savvy and empathy he showed entering into controversial topics.  Rather than lighting up our classroom with angry argument, Michael fostered ideas of tolerance and conversation meant to help us all understand many points of view.
  • Diana says she comes from family that immigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel where she was born, and that she considers herself an American.  These identities informed her writing in which she used the various generations of her family to underpin the structure of her final portfolio.  She also alludes to a terrible nickname given to her by a former teacher:  ESL, she was called, because her teacher felt she spoke using poor grammar.  Way to go dude.
  • Kevin started off not sure if he wanted to write about working on cars or the fact that he switched his concentration of study to nursing.  He took a practical approach to the work of the class and interviewed coworkers at the hospital, gathered information about graduate schools in nursing, and read numerous scholarly articles in his field.  If I was ever in need of someone to look after my health, I’d trust Kevin completely.
research, college, writing, high school, college prep, process

Tahyna and Miriam Intellectually Browse in the Library

Thanks to my colleague April Julier for organizing this semester’s conference.  The audio podcast of our panel discussion is available below.  If you take the time to listen, I wonder how you envision the college composition course?  Perhaps you are someone who says you are getting students ready to take it?  Maybe you’re headed for school yourself or had a very different experience when you were a student?  And of course there are other teachers of writing who have very different takes on what this class can be.  Love to hear from you regarding your thoughts on the sort of writing you’ve experienced connected to the first year writing course.

You can connect to the podcast here or search for “digital book club” on iTunes.  Thanks for checking this out.

Smyth or Smith? Patti Smith’s JUST KIDS

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen St. John's University

Patti Smith and her friend Robert Mapplethorpe

When I began reading Just Kids by Patti Smith, I sort of thought I was reading the work of Patty Smyth, former lead singer of Scandal, performer of “The Warrior,” and now wife to tennis star John McEnroe.  My excuses for such ignorance include that I’m straight out of the decade of the eighties, from the Midwest, and was likely under a Hoosier basketball spell during the time Smith came to prominence as an artist.  Saying that, you might wonder how it is that I ended up reading Just Kids. I do a Music and Movies book club and pressed by the community relations director for a selection for the month of March, I browsed the store looking for a text that might fit our theme.  The clincher for me were the jacket blurbs written by Joan Didion and Johnny Depp.  Not that Didtion’s “true rapture” or Depp’s “treasure” do much to tell you what the book is about, but in the work of those two there are several books and movies that I love.  I trusted Depp and Didion and so off I went to reading.

I became re-inspired as a writer in the pages of Just Kids. Smith begins her story with the meeting of her lifelong friend Robert Mapplethorpe and by sharing how they both wanted to be artists.  Between the first pages and the last, you see Smith transform from someone who hangs around art—she draws a little, writes poetry, begins to move toward singing—and who eventually strolls down 5th Avenue  and hears her song (that she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen) on the radio.  Her buddy Robert tells her that she got famous first.

What I mean by inspiration is that as a writer I feel sparked to work even harder to tap into what I care about, to tap into what matters most.  Smith writes, “I wanted to be an artist but I wanted my work to matter” (153).  I feel determined to give myself over to whatever it is that I’m working on.  What else might I do?  What sometimes gets in the way?  I can think too much about what readers might want to read, about the craft of the lines, and about trying to do something especially smart or funny.  These are goals—sideline concerns—but not at the top of the list of what I’m after.  Faced with less than enthusiastic audiences (perhaps with less than soaring book sales) Smith’s friend tells her, “When you hit a wall, just kick it in”  (170).  Not bad to remember facing an audience full of people checking their cell phones.

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen St. John's University Patti Smith

The National Book Award Winner: Just Kids

Life at my house often feels more Midwestern or Southern than it does Northeastern, but in reading Just Kids, I felt for the first time a bit more like a New Yorker, or at least more interested in what it might be to live in New York City.  Perhaps this is what Depp meant when he says Smith gives us an “invitation to unlatch a treasure chest never before breached.”  In Depps treasure chest (hey, does he mean Pirates of the Caribbean?) I found an interest in The Hotel Chelsea, Max’s Kansas City, The Factory, Fillmore East, Reno Sweeny’s, and Electric Lady Studios.   It used to be that I didn’t care to know about the Velvet Underground.  Now I do.