As a sophomore, I learned how to write a research paper in the social sciences (think Introduction, Data, Findings, Discussion); I took a creative writing class and wrote poems and short stories with various points of view and character arcs; I started writing about writing in Writing 220. “Writing” and “text” became terms as nuanced as “argument.” Real, meaningful writing that challenged the Five-Paragraph-Essay form became harder to achieve, but I continued to expand my conception of forms of arguments.
In a strange twist, I ended up writing a piece in my junior year that had a form given to me.
It was an imitation essay, riffing off of Jamaica Kincaid’s "Girl." My writing-as-discovery wasn’t as obvious in this as it had been with, say, my reality paper; but I learned a lot more about Kincaid’s intentions by writing my own version of her work. I also learned how to craft an argument using subtlety. And how to use humor to say something potentially serious. Below is a section of my imitation:
“When I tell a joke, you laugh…hard; laugh like you just watched your grandmother trip up the stairs; laugh like you mean it, because you should mean it; don’t look at that woman in the low-cut dress walking past us in the grocery store; don’t ever try to argue that your alma matter is better than my alma matter, because it is not; on Sundays please remember that, while I know you think football is important, so is that re-run of Top Chef that I need to watch; always wear that cologne I bought you; don’t ever wear that pink shirt that says “I’m with stupid”—yes the one your mother got you—it is both emasculating and sexist; did you think I wouldn’t notice when you put that dirty fork in the drawer without washing it?; don’t ignore me…”
I discovered then that Good Writing does not require a pure blank and BAM – the writing process makes some intelligent discovery simply happen. A lot of my favorite pieces have come from prompts that provide a strict form and structure, giving scaffolding to hang my own ideas off of.
Sometimes, as was the case for my Kincaid riff, Good Writing comes after the lighting bolt of a good idea strikes me…several hours will pass, fingers flying across my keyboard, and afterwards I will have written something with a lot of raw potential. You may think Hey! That doesn’t seem very hard…and that was your first point about Good Writing, wasn’t it!? Well yes, you are right. But what’s a good argument without a little room for contradiction?
This had been the case for my essay titled “Mama”; it was a creative nonfiction piece written in my senior year about my maternal grandmother with dementia. It was a labor of real love. I had plenty of material to work with, and the words spilled out of me. That first draft was Okay, but what made that essay Good was when I took the time to revisit what I had written and reflect at the essay’s end:
“Pulling away from our embrace, I turn to leave her. Will she think about us later, sitting at her table in the dining hall? Will she dream about Mom and I tonight? Or will her mind slip into a reverie of her and Maury in their apartment in Manhattan? Does she even dream at all?
Today, I’d like to imagine that Mama’s story is one that has already been written. Her mind now, so strange and full of mystery, can only be classified as something else entirely. She is beyond that Sydelle, beyond my Mama. And it’s our visits with her that remind me of this shockingly painful reality, and of my own duties as her only granddaughter. It will always be hard, but now I have my own apartments to live in, jobs to have, life to live. And I have the amazing voice of my grandmother’s stories ringing in my ears.
Soon we are driving away, Mom and I, to continue living our every day, while my Mama lives somewhere inside the glorious memories of a life well lived.”
This is a conclusion I had never thought of; one that was as painful to realize in my mind as it had been to write. But I could not have gotten there without the writing, and re-writing, process. And that “good thinking” came into play while crafting my final “argument.” Yes, the one I had no idea I would come to at the onset of the essay.
One final recap: Good Writing should be hard and is really just good thinking. But sometimes, the writing process seems easy (when that magical lightning bolt of inspiration strikes). This, I think, can only come from having done a lot of thinking about the topic at hand previously, and even then, writing still leaves room for more discoveries and improvements via the process itself.