Assignment Overview: A Writer on Writing

For an upcoming meeting at St. John’s University where I teach First Year Writing Courses, I was asked to speak about some aspect of my teaching. I decided to share an assignment I’ve been giving the past few years I call “A Writer on Writing.”

Some ways we learn about writing in our course:

  1. We write regularly for an audience we interact with.
  2. We read what other writers have to say about writing.
  3. We write to learn by situating our thoughts and reflections about writing within what other writers have written about writing.
  4. We learn to read like a writer by paying attention to choices writers make in their creation of texts.

Here are some examples of the kinds of texts students take a look at: 

  • Zadie Smith’s “That Crafty Feeling”
  • Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts”
  • Keith Richards’ excerpt from Life about songwriting
  • Stephen King excerpt from On Writing
  • Alice Walker interview “Writing to Save My Life”
  • Mark Doty’s “Souls on Ice”
  • Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue”
  • Do you have favorite texts about writing to recommend?

My introduction to this assignment from the course I taught this summer:

At least in this class, you have been a writer writing with other writers. I want you to claim this identity of being a writer for at least the purpose of this paper. You are the writer saying something about writing in this paper. My impulse to give you this assignment was that you would tell us about your experiences writing in this class while integrating the thoughts of writers you have been reading.

I do want to give you the space to do something different with this assignment if you’d like. Some students in the past have decided to focus on their learning of English, their dislike of writing, their wish to write screenplays, that they do slam poetry, that they speak five languages, or to think about the writing they publish on Twitter or other social media platforms. It’s a wide-open assignment as long as you focus in some way on writing and/or the use of language. Write at least 1,500 words and quote from at least three of the Writer on Writing texts (Peter Elbow counts as one if you want). You’ll use signal phrases, direct quotes, parenthetical citations, and do an MLA works cited page.

Some titles and “Golden Lines” from papers written by students the past few semesters:

  • I Dare You: I hate what they’ve done to me. They’ve made me into a robot. They’ve made my writing into a Mad Lib. Insert noun here, adjective there, quote here, citation there.” -Tatiana Castellanos
  • Writing for Me: In high school, we were assigned a paper and whenever it was due we would just hand it in to the teacher hoping to get a high grade. Having classmates listen along as you read your paper was something I’d never done before. Something I realized while writing papers in this class was that I was afraid. In “The Teacherless Writing Class” by Peter Elbow, he claims, “You have to keep from making apologies or giving explanations. For example, ‘I just wrote this last night, I didn’t have much time and didn’t revise it at all’” (101). Even though I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable reading my paper to people who were then strangers to me, I stopped myself from making excuses about my writing and waited for their criticism. What surprised me was the amount of positive feedback they had to say about my paper. -Sharin Chowdury
  • Learning to Write an Essay: Have you ever been afraid of doing something? For example, have you ever been afraid of talking to people? Or have you ever been scared of opening your mouth and saying something in your head? I have. I am a student from China still trying to learn English. -Xinxin He
  • Writing Does Not Have to Be a Burden: I remember that my classmate Farzana Haniff wrote in her process essay about how she kept erasing and rewriting her essay about her trip to Guyana because she thought it wasn’t good enough. Then she wrote about how she was able to get over her writer’s block which I think serves as great piece of advice. She wrote, “I decided to just go with my gut and to just continue writing whatever came to my mind. So I completely ignored the ‘delete’ button on my laptop and I just kept typing without even fixing spelling errors.” I thought about what Farzana wrote whenever I encounter the same problem of erasing and rewriting and it has helped me over think less about my writing choices. -Sammie Li
  • The Little Big Things: The writing process was tricky for me. I wanted to avoid being cliché and dull but when trying to write about something of this content, it can be difficult. During this process the reading from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott reminded me that no matter how successful a writer is they often feel like they are “pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid” (22). This told me that it was okay that I was having a difficult writing process; I simply had to feel it out and roll with the punches. -Sarah Khan

Rules for Writing

To start off classes this semester, I had the students sit in groups of five. This meant 5 tables of 5 students each. I asked the students to list each member of their group on the board as well as a detail that might help us to get to know them. After they finished doing that, they listed five “Rules For Writing” that they believed in or had been taught to them in previous classes.

***

college writing, composition, rules for writing, teaching, pedagogy, writing studies, St. John's University, Bill Torgerson, English, NCTE, CCCC, ENGCHAT, FYCChat

***

Next, each group read a different text written by a writer about writing. On the first day, I used these texts/excerpts:

  • Black Boy by Richard Wright.
  • “Shitty First Drafts” by Anne Lamott
  • Life by Keith Richards
  • Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
  • “Unlearn to Write” by Donald Murray

The students read the excerpt out loud and answered the following four questions:

  1. What is the writer’s message about writing?
  2. What are some “golden lines” that you think are worth talking about?
  3. How can you apply the ideas here to your own writing?
  4. Does any of what this writer says about writing cause you to rethink any of your own Rules For Writing?

When each group was finished, I counted off by fives at each table. Students moved to a new table and presented the text they had just read to students who had read something different. I want to thank St. John’s University doctoral student Katelynn DeLuca for reminding me about this “jigsaw” method of getting students to move around the room.

In the coming weeks, students will be reading and commenting on texts written by writers about writing. This exercise was a way for all of us to begin to get to know each other and for the students to get acquainted with some of the choices they have for their reading this semester.

 

Introductory Letter to Online Writing Students

//www.facebook.com/plugins/follow?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fwilliam.torgerson&layout=standard&show_faces=true&colorscheme=light&width=450&height=80
Dear Writers Enrolled in Online Composition With Professor Torgerson,

Welcome to the class! I use a metaphor gifted to me by a former professor named Sam to think about my writing and teaching life. It goes, “Writing Floats on a Sea of Conversation.” I didn’t know what the heck Sam was talking about back when he first spoke those words to me, but the phrase has held my interest for the past fifteen years.

Sam and Anne

Sam on the left, who said, “Writing Floats on a Sea of Conversation.”

This idea of conversation works in all sorts of ways. To start off, we are all going to write each other letters in the spirit of what you are reading here. (or in a spirit you prefer) We will do a lot of letter writing in this class because I hope the form will allow you to be yourself. Somehow, many students end up writing in college in some boring voice they consider academic.

Please view the syllabus as a part of the opening to our conversation. I hope you will read  this letter and the syllabus carefully, think over what I’ve said, and say something back to all of us based on what you’ve heard and who you are. Soon, there will be twenty-six voices all in conversation with one another. We’ll do much of this through the use of Google documents. There is something in education called an Electronic Portfolio. Lots of people call these ePorts for short. These ePorts are personal websites on which you will post your writing. Everyone in this class will sign up for Google GMAIL, write in something called Google Documents, and post work on their ePortfolios. I will help you do this. There are lots of tutorials posted online. You can come see me in my office for extra help if you need it. If you have any trouble, I want to help you. Don’t be afraid to email me and ask me questions: torgersw@stjohns.edu

Conversation in the class will continue through your reading of texts written by writers about writing. I’ll ask you to write letters of response. These letters will be the raw materials for the papers you will write. Your assigned papers will be a way to take your letters of response, gather your thoughts, and share them with us in an essay about writing.

When I ask you to read something, keep in mind someone like you and me wrote the text and that writer has a message for us.  Say something back to the writer and to your fellow writers in the class. Try and remember that everything you read and everything you write is a part of a conversation we are all having together about reading, writing, and thinking. The word literacy can cover are work in the areas of reading, writing, and thinking. I hope to empower you to develop your 21st Century Literacy skills.  When we read and write online in conjunction with the screens of our devices, there is a lot at stake: votes are won and lost, money changes bank accounts, and voices are heard and suppressed. Social media and writing on the web allow more ordinary people like us to have voices that must be listened to by big business or government. Writing is a tool that can be used for social change.

Students often tell me this composition course is easy and that it’s hard. (A paradox! How can that be true?) It’s easy because if you read the instructions carefully, do the work, post it on time, and use some of the feedback you receive to plan a revision, you’ll most surely get an “A” or “B.” On the other hand, the class can be hard because you have to be responsible enough to take care of your business. Two times a week you have to read, write, and leave comments on the writing of your classmates. This isn’t the kind of class you can blow off for twelve weeks and then buckle down for a couple of exams and get by with a decent grade. You’ll either be responsible, problem solve, and keep up with the work, or you won’t pass. One of the keys to doing well is staying in touch with me. Be sure to read your emails, work a few days ahead of when assignments are due, and write to me when you have problems. torgersw@stjohns.edu

The technology aspect of this class can be challenging. Mostly we are using Google’s “Drive” and “docs” along with Digication’s ePortfolio platform to do our work and communicate with each other. I will be on the Queens campus at least on Mondays and Thursdays and it might be good to get off to a good start and come in for help setting up Google Documents and the ePortfolio. I’d love to reserve the conference room in the writing center so that we could get together and do this if you need help. There are lots of tutorials online you could also Google. Try something such as “writing in Google docs” on YouTube and be sure to watch more recent videos in case something has changed.

A little about me: I first became an English major as in incoming freshman in 1990 because I was afraid of flunking out. I went to college because I wanted to play basketball, and I wanted to become a basketball coach. Both of my parents were English teachers, and so I figured if I needed help, I could make the two-hour drive home and get some tutoring. (we didn’t have a tutoring center and writing center like St. John’s!) I was so scared of flunking out as a freshman, that I went to the library every night after dinner. Much to my surprise, I made the Dean’s List the first semester. I learned that when I studied every day that I could do well.

SONY DSC

my dad Martin, me, and my mom Sue

I did coach basketball and teach high school English for ten years in Indiana and North Carolina. The more I worked at being a teacher reading and writing, the more I began to enjoy quiet time in the mornings more than my time in the gym after school. I decided to quit coaching, go to graduate school, and try and become a writer and a professor. Over the years, I’ve published three novels with one more coming out next year, and I’ve directed two documentary films. It seems like the students I work with are writing more than ever, especially in conjunction with the screens of devices. My wife Megan and I have two daughters ages five and eight. We rent an old farmhouse in Connecticut out in the country and even have a barn and (non-working) outhouse on the property. How an outhouse doesn’t work is a story for another time. After almost ten years of not coaching basketball, I’m back in the gym two days a week helping to coach my daughter’s 2nd grade girls team. It’s wonderful fun!

SONY DSC

with the girls in Maine

I make time almost everyday for reading and writing. I enjoy working out, and at forty-three years of age, I still play in a basketball league at our local YMCA. I love to teach because I enjoy learning from the writers I work with, and I thrive on the energy that is created as we all work enthusiastically on projects of our choosing. I believe everyone can learn to write more effectively, and it’s important to do this because I believe writing can be a form of thinking. If this is a thinking class, then it can benefit everyone. If we don’t work to become more powerfully literate thinkers, there are lots of people (especially in digital spaces) who will try to manipulate our thoughts and bank accounts. I look forward to all of the conversations we will have this semester!

Best,

Bill Torgerson ncte composition college writing online teaching
//www.facebook.com/plugins/follow?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fwilliam.torgerson&layout=standard&show_faces=true&colorscheme=light&width=450&height=80

So Much Will Be Forgotten

I’ve been struck by how much of what my daughters do and say will be forgotten. I saw this documentary two nights ago called Stories We Tell. Director Sarah Polley interviews as many people as she can about her mother, and eventually Sarah finds out who her father is for sure and the story is partially about her interactions with that story. It’s also about how the stories we tell differ, about how we all have our own take on something that happened.  I write this morning, as the sun rises on an early fall Connecticut Sunday morning, in part because Sarah had a lot of pictures and video footage of herself growing up. I hope to do better creating a small trail of words and pictures that tell the story of my kids.

stories we tell, documentary, Woody Allen, Jim Gaffigan

As a father, I think, I will never forget that. And then I do. The film Stories We Tell reinforced something I already know. When a story is told about an event in the past, it gets remembered differently depending on who you ask to remember. I can’t even reliably remember what has happened to me. Part of what has put me in the chair to write this morning is that I want to do more writing about my daughters. I want to get myself into a rhythm of setting down some of what they do and say. I also want us (yes, I hope they will some day be interested,) to have a record of some of their life.

I haven’t even got to the second documentary I saw that set me in the writing chair this morning, but I’ve thought of a book that also contributed to the topic I want to undertake (my girls!) and the book is Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat. The title comes from something one of Gaffigan’s five! kids wrote about him. Gaffigan is one of my favorite comics, especially the bit he does on bacon. His book is episodic, and it goes hard for the silly laugh. And he does get me to laugh, but what I want to do that he’s done, is to do more writing about being a father, a son, and a husband.

The final shove into the writing chair (and I do sit here a lot writing what I don’t want to write) was the film Woody Allen: A Documentary. I saw it on Amazon Prime, and I think you can watch it on Netflix. From the movie, it seems like Allen has been writing almost everyday since he was sixteen. I wrote almost everyday for ten years. Then there started to be publications. Schedules changed. There was more editing and promotion and travel and requests from work. And the regular morning writing has become less regular. Which is fine for some people, but I think I need be an almost everyday writer. Even if it’s just my old standby number of 800 words. I get that number from author of Write to Learn, Donald Murray. The number doesn’t matter. It’s the starting off writing that does.

 

The Mushroom Hunter

has been accepted to the

Indianapolis International Film Festival

Screens at the Indianapolis Museum of Art

Saturday, July 20th at 8:30

&

Wednesday, July 24th at 4:30 p.m.

Indianapolis Film Festival, documentary, morel mushrooms, France Park, Logansport, Winamac

 

A Son’s Story of His Father’s Passion

The Mushroom Hunter is a Doc Film of Thirty Minutes

Torg and his buddies have hunted morel mushrooms for over fifty years. In this documentary shot in North Central Indiana, hear their stories, learn some of their secrets, and join them for a local hunt. This is a story of friendship and the trials that come with getting older.  

***

mushroom hunters, morel mushrooms, Winamac, Indiana

from left to right: Casey Jones, Martin Torgerson, Kenny Hattery

***

morel mushrooms, France Park, Indiana, mushroom hunting, documentary, film

Vic Heater on the left and Martin Torgerson on the right head into the woods for a hunt

***

Onesheet more Information about The Mushroom Hunter (pdf)

Bill Torgerson pdf filmmaker bio

Media Kit for Bill Torgerson provided by Cherokee McGhee Press

***

Picture Gallery

 William.Torgerson@gmail.com