From Learning to Expression: The Two Phases of Writing I. A Pair of Triangles
Rachel Victoria Mills
Department of English
I see the act of writing well as two separate processes, though there could be many steps along the way between them. Because I like to represent my ideas graphically, I use these two triangles to show students that the steps between writer and writing aren’t really linear but a three-part, continuing transaction with the subject itself.
Here is triangle one, illustrating Writing as Learning.
It represents writing as wisdom, self-expression (another kind of learning), and exploration. When we view the world, interact with it, and push ourselves along to other experiences through expression, we are testing ourselves in a new context, re-adjusting our perspectives, moving to a new standpoint. We have a three-fold communication with the subject and our experience, like a conference call, which doesn’t yet have to include an audience.
In phase I, the writer begins to imagine an idea, or subject. She/he tests it by writing it down, using personal experience and learning to uncover more about his subject.A student considers a topic by asking:
In asking these questions, and beginning to put the answers down on paper in words, the writer tests the subject for its parameters, just as the subject tests the writer’s experience, and in turn the experience returns with other ideas that expand this exploration.It’s a creative roundabout that allows each meeting of writer-subject-experience to gain more ground as the idea expands and is clarified on the page. It can’t happen, though, when writers are too early fixed on linearly extending information from themselves to an audience in an externally organized way.
- what do I already know about this subject?
- What do I know about other subjects similar to it?
- What can I imagine about its potential?
- What use is this subject to me? (or, what immediate demand prompts me to explore this subject now?)
The theory behind it is that when we are learning something new, we first approach it by looking inward to ourselves and opening a communication with a subject through our experiences. In response to a cue, writers call up images (that’s my definition of imagination) previously stored. This is something few students have learned to do. Instead, their writing begins by looking outward to what others know, because they haven’t learned to trust themselves and their experiences to provide a context for new knowledge. But unless writers provide that context, they don’t engage themselves in learning.
Our first approach to writing, called “expressive writing” in James Britton’s English study of the seventies, or “freewriting” in Peter Elbow’s work of the same era, or many other terms by other composition experts, is also an exploration of self, of what the conscious and subconscious mind can bring up and put together. We imagine a subject by calling up all our resources, beginning with the self: in what context do this subject and I already exist?
In Phase I, we are seeing what the subject has to say to us, and what we have to say to it.As we write, we feed words about the subject onto the page, and those words respond to us by offering new or modified or qualified ideas, by association.We think, “This character seems so selfish.”The word selfish, however, doesn’t seem right to us.It talks back and makes us recant:“All right, maybe not selfish but self-absorbed.” We have, therefore, pushed past an initial impression into a more accurate, thoughtful one.In the same way, writers test new thoughts with previous experience:“What was that Prof. X mentioned in class?That rural students have more trouble assimilating into a large campus life?But I’m rural; I felt right at home.”In either case, by word or by image, good writers will trust the subconscious to bring up what we need, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense at the time.Novelists and poets and essayists—by instinct—learn that their subconscious is a good source getting to a subject, and in this first phase of writing have the freedom to express whatever comes to mind because they know, however tangential some information seems, that they get to really interesting and creatively juxtaposed frames for their ideas.Wow! they say.I never thought I knew/remembered all this!I never thought about connecting these two ideas!
So, the first phase of writing gives us confidence, writing experience, and perspective, enough to approach the second phase of writing, writing to an audience.
Here, then, is the second triangle, Phase II, Expression.
Now we turn to writing as an expression of subject meant for others.(Others can also sometimes include the self, as in personal essays, poems, self-searching and analysis which have gone beyond the intimacy of the first phase of writing.However, this demonstration refers to writing ultimately intended for those who are not oneself.)Eventually, the idea initiated by the writer, explored and understood by her/him, can be propelled toward a reader, an audience outside the writer who needs to know this subject, or might want to know it.So the writer turns his newly explored subject toward an entity that will influence what he says about it, and she asks the following questions, using her own experience with this audience to find out:
- What does this audience already know about this subject?
- What do they care about it?
- What more can I teach/tell them about it?
- How might this new knowledge I offer be helpful or interesting to them?
Just like the questions the writer asks him/herself to expand his frame of knowledge, these audience-centered questions push the writer back to the subject time and again, so that s/he can frame it in a useful way to this audience. Each audience is different, so, though an author’s subject might be the same, each approach to different audiences needs a new triangle of writing and understanding.Let’s say that our student wants to refute Professor X’s idea that rural students find large colleges troubling or confusing.The student knows one member of his audience’s stance on this already, but might not know what the rest of the audience’s experiences have been.As a writer, she/he will have to find among the images in the first draft (Phase I) one which can turn the audience to her/his own frame of reference, perhaps beginning with a story of a first day on a large campus, or perhaps beginning with statistics that challenge the initial assumption.Good writers know that their initial images are good evidence and knowing that gives writers confidence, a tone and assumption that creates a more forthright and credible essay.
All the way through this second phase of writing, the writer is guided by the audience to organize his writing according to the logic that will reach his audience, to give examples that make sense to that person or group, and to explain what won’t be clear to someone not thinking the same way.Most important, the writer doesn’t have to address an audience and flounder around for ideas—the ideas are established without interference in Phase I; they are redirected confidently and clearly in Phase II.
II. Exploring the Two Phases of Writing in the Classroom
An example of this two-step writing-as-learning exercise is found in one of my literature courses, Classical Literature:Homer to Dante. It’s particularly useful here, where students are exposed to strange styles of language, cultures and values that they must bring into their own literary experience, usually represented by much more modern works.
The three pieces of literature we study in this one-semester course are The Odyssey, The Arabian Nights Tales, and The Divine Comedy.Each set of stories, whether in poetic or prose form, illustrates a theme of manhood, and the issues surrounding the growth into manhood.Telemachus opens the great Greek epic by being faced direly with this question; many of the tales over the Thousand Nights and a Night demand of their heroes that they first traverse the invisible but essential line between boyhood and manhood; and even Dante, who steps down into the dark wood in what he calls the middle of his life, is really making a spiritual transition from adolescence to maturity by going on his eternal journey.
So I pose the question to the class, male and female alike:what does it mean to become a man? Though the three famous pieces of literature they are facing offer plenty of evidence of the process, albeit from a framework of differing ages, cultures, and values, I ask them to look to themselves first:in your experience, what does it mean to become a man?In their reading notebook, which represents their experience with literature over the semester, they write about this from their own vantage point.The discussion that ensues is based then on that first question a writer asks of herself: what do I already know about this?
As you can imagine, there are nearly as many opinions as there are students in the class.We think about physical, mental, spiritual, and cultural aspects of the growth to manhood.We consider direct experience (undergoing change in ourselves) and indirect experience (observing change in others); this represents the question, “What do we already know about this subject?”
Then we take a look at the text we are studying.Where are our own experiences mirrored in the hero’s adventures, both literally and metaphorically?Now we are asking the questions, “What can others tell us about this subject?” and “How do I react to what they tell?”
We are gathering, by now, many resources toward expressing ourselves on this, but we’re not finished yet.First we have to ask the question, “Why do we want to know?”(In other words, “what is the cue, or immediate motivation, for pursuing this subject?”)The obvious answer is that it is helping us understand the story better, moving us out of the literal elements and into the more important arena of meaning.But it’s also making strong connections between the literature of a people who lived, communicated, invented tales and told them thousands of years before and thousands of miles from where students are.Despite the many accidents of time and place which divide us, there are also many basic ideas and processes which bring us together.So maybe humans are still the same humans they always were?
With the subject now under control, we turn to Phase II: expressing our thoughts about this to an audience.The students turn back to their notebooks, and ultimately to their essays, to explore with an audience (each other and myself as teacher) the subject of growing into manhood as it is reflected by these three diverse works. Students can take any aspect of that subject which appeals to them, or which seems worthy of further exploration. They now ask:
- What is my idea about the way heroes reach manhood?
- What does the class already know about this?
- What connections can I make between my ideas and theirs?
- How much evidence do I have to give to make my point? And how do I have to frame that evidence?
Persuading one another (and me) of the validity of their ideas is easy now that they have first considered the experience personally and second considered the audience to be addressed.
Any discipline from literature to social work to medical technology can use this exercise to engage students in learning by expression, and prove the further use that learning is not linear but continuing, that each new experience with a subject, and with audience, advances what we know about it, brings us back to it to express ourselves further.Phase I writing ensures that students create a personal context for learning; Phase II writing ensures that they can express clearly and pointedly what’s on their minds.
View the Word document version of this paper.