Trajectories of Persons and Practices: Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development. The Case Study of Lindsey Rachels

Chapter 5 | Doing Two-Dimensional Design, Arranging American Literature, Crafting Creative Writing:
Resituating the Development of Discursive Practice

Crafting Creative Writing: “It was Almost Like Pastiche”

Two years later, Lindsey took a position teaching language arts at a small, rural middle school in the southeast, and, while teaching, she decided to pursue a master's degree in education at the university in the same state in which she had earned her bachelor’s degree. One of the first classes she enrolled in was Composition Approaches for Teachers, a 6000-level course taught by a talented and experienced professor in the College of Education. Identifying the key objectives of the course in the syllabus, the professor indicated that “the course will orient you to two approaches to the teaching of writing: an approach centered on writing exercises (the predominant approach in college creative writing programs and a widely-used approach in K-12) and the writing workshop approach that is the predominant approach to the teaching of writing as an art.” The course asked students to produce brief pieces in response to a series of writing exercises offered in a textbook titled Metro: Journeys for Writing Creatively, select their response to one of those exercises as the beginnings of their major project, and workshop it repeatedly throughout the semester to craft it into a polished piece they would submit to a creative writing journal. Lindsey referred to the course as a “creative writing class,” and credited her interactions with the professor with helping her to view herself as a creative writer. “The professor,” Lindsey stated, “affirmed me as a creative writer. A lot of my teachers before had acknowledged me as an academic kind of writer, but she was the first one that showed me I was a creative writer.”

As her major project for the course, Lindsey selected her response to the “lost childhood places” exercise she had done during the initial weeks of class, a brief assignment that invited students to write about a significant place during their childhood. In response to this prompt, Lindsey wrote a one-page, five-paragraph description of the cotton fields that bordered her grandparents’ home. Discussing the process she used to generate her response, Lindsey stated that “with creative writing, I just do it right on the computer. With the creative writing I could just do a brain dump, like, this is me and I’m an expert on me.” Contrasting her processes for creative writing with the one she used for literary analysis, Lindsey further noted that she did not use an outline “because I was the one who could decide how to organize it” and that she did not feel the need to use scholarship from secondary sources because she did not have to do outside research to write about herself. “This is me,” Lindsey stated, “and I’m an expert on me.”

In revising and expanding her initial response throughout the semester, Lindsey drew upon the familiar discursive practice she had used for inventing and arranging her literary analyses in a number of ways. The initial linking of that practice into the lyric essay came when Lindsey was asked to select from a series of revision strategies listed in the textbook. From the many listed in the book and the many that Lindsey read and considered, she chose one that the book referred to as “paper, tape, scissors,” which involved taking the existing paper draft, cutting it into smaller sections with scissors, and then re-arranging those sections by taping them back together in different combinations. The point of this cutting and re-arranging, as explained in the textbook, was “to explore strange connections among words and the unexpected outcomes of textual collage” (Ostrum, Bishop, & Haake, 2001, p. 185). Prior to employing the strategy they had selected, students were asked to provide to the professor in a short writer’s note a rationale for the one they had selected. In her note, Lindsey stated that the “‘paper, tape, scissors’ strategy appeals to me because I like to see the connections in various aspects of my writing come forth as disparate and isolated strings of words. I also like the physicality of this exercise.”

Using this strategy, Lindsey produced a four-page typed draft consisting of nine paragraphs that focused on a number of her childhood memories of playing in the cotton fields near her grandparents’ home. The image below (Figure 4) depicts a page of Lindsey’s September 7 draft of “Cotton.” Through this strategy, Lindsey had substantially revised the paragraphs she had composed for the lost childhood places exercise. Only the two initial sentences and the brief final paragraph retained their same positions in the September 7 draft. The rest of the original paragraphs had been pried apart and new material added, including a detailed description of the activities she and her brothers used to engage in at their grandparents' (i.e., climbing the big maple tree in the front yard, cutting roses, setting live traps in the garden), of her plans to make her own t-shirt from cotton bolls she’d picked from the field, and of the feel, look, and smell of the freshly-picked cotton bolls.

Figure 4
September 7 Draft of "Cotton"
(Click to Enlarge)

September 7 draft describing Lindsey's childhood memories; Click X in Upper Right to Further Enlarge the Image

The handwritten notes on the pages of her September 7th draft indicate the ambitious plans Lindsey had for further changes to the piece. As she thought toward revising that initial draft, Lindsey wanted to build upon it to address a number of other topics, including her pregnancy and the recent passing of her grandfather. She envisioned four separate narratives that all connected to the cotton fields where she had played as a child. She also wanted to include a series of images that related to each of the vignettes. According to Lindsey, the idea to include the different topics and the images was prompted by her memories of some of the novels she had encountered during the courses she took while pursuing her MA in literature. As she described it, “I started thinking about some of the books that I had read in graduate school, and I liked the way that it was all pieced together, how all the parts were disconnected, but there was still a theme that was woven through it.” Talking about two books in particular, Theresa Cha’s (2009) Dictee and Kathy Acker’s (1994) Blood and Guts in High School, Lindsey stated, “They were these fragmented texts and they had these drawings, and I was like, ‘I want to do that, that’s just cool.’ They have these really intricate drawings with the text, and they told a story without connecting the pieces for you.” These “memorial texts” (Witte, 1992, p. 265) helped Lindsey envision how she could create a fairly unified essay from disparate elements without having to explicitly state the connections for her readers.

Using these texts as a model, Lindsey began enacting these changes by drafting the additional vignettes and assembling some images to accompany each of them. As she described,

So I wrote these little vignettes. Each section is like a separate vignette. I did the separate vignettes because I did not know how to collect them. So I would do these little vignettes and then I would do drawings of whatever occurred to me about the vignettes. Like if a drawing occurred to me while I was writing I would do these little sketches. The pictures gave me a way to break up the sections in a way that was aesthetically pleasing to me, and fun, inventive and fun to think about.

Among the vignettes she added were two short descriptions of standing at the edge of a field after the machines had removed all the cotton and eating ice cream in the evenings with her grandfather, and a longer one about a third-grade art lesson about determining perspective. Some of the visuals she added, like the cotton trademark logo, an image of a boll weevil, and an old photograph of laborers picking cotton, came from the Internet. Others, like the diagram of parts of a cotton boll and the diagram showing how to determine perspective, were drawn by Lindsey herself.

Arranging all of this to form a coherent essay posed a considerable challenge for Lindsey. Recalling the difficulty of trying to organize the prose and images effectively, Lindsey said, “I was trying to make sense of something that didn’t make sense, and it was too overwhelming for me to do by writing. There’s no way I could do an outline of this or even begin to try to write this.” In order to arrange all of this into a coherent essay, Lindsey drew upon the discursive practice she had used for her literature papers. Describing how she ordered the prose vignettes, Lindsey stated, “It was almost like pastiche. So I would just write segments, and because I couldn’t figure out how they all went together, I cut out all the segments. That was how I organized that draft, was to cut out all the pieces and then sort of, I put them together on my dining room table.” Elaborating, she stated,

I had been doing this thing when I was taking lit[erature] classes where I’d tear up my notes and move them around until I could figure out how everything fit, so I decided to just do that for [the creative writing piece]. So I took the paper and cut it into strips. And then I would cut it up and rearrange which pictures I thought introduced [each vignette] the best. So then I took the strips of all these different narratives and I started like assembling them with tape, so I literally just taped them together onto full pieces of paper.

Describing how she determined the pairings of images with vignettes and determined how the pairings would be ordered, Lindsey stated that she employed a similar process. Throughout the rest of the semester, based on comments and suggestions she received from multiple workshop sessions, Lindsey used this practice to arrange and rearrange the vignettes and images, pausing frequently to stabilize the orderings as she expanded and enriched the details in the vignettes and experimented with different visuals to use.

The final version she submitted three weeks later consisted of 14 different sections of text interspersed with ten different visuals. The page of the final draft of “Cotton” displayed below (see Figure 5 below) depicts the arrangement of prose vignettes and images that Lindsey settled upon by the end of the semester.

Figure 5
First Page of the Final Draft of "Cotton"
(Click to Enlarge)

First Page of the Final draft of Cotton describing Lindsey's childhood memories; Click X in Upper Right to Further Enlarge the Image

The placement of the texts and visuals in this final version evidences Lindsey’s repeated organizing and re-organizing. Lindsey’s drawing of the rows of the cotton field, which in earlier drafts had been paired with a brief vignette about the grooves that the plows had cut into the ground on page two, had finally found a home on page one where it separated the first two vignettes. The vignette about the grooves had been moved in the final version to page three, where it was paired with Lindsey’s drawing of a car traveling past rows of cotton. Even the brief vignette about trying to plant the cotton seeds, which had appeared at the end of Lindsey’s initial response to the lost childhood places exercise and retained that position in all the successive drafts, had been moved to make place for a new vignette describing a brief interaction between family members at Lindsey’s grandfather’s funeral. What had begun as a few musings about the cotton field near her grandparents’ home had been transformed, through Lindsey’s continual arranging and re-arranging based on feedback and suggestions from workshopping sessions, into an eloquent pastiche of what Lindsey described in a response she wrote to the workshop feedback she received as “different life events that changed my perspective.” Even though Lindsey submitted this version to her professor at the close of the semester, her physical manipulation of these elements was far from over. Lindsey continued to use this practice to see and re-see the essay for a number of years as she reworked it for submission to a number of publishing venues, including several anthologies looking for pieces focused on pregnancy.

Lindsey’s ability to envision and enact a workable arrangement for her lyric essay was certainly a socially situated accomplishment. But, in crafting the essay Lindsey recruited the practice she’d used for seeing and organizing literary criticism, a practice that, in turn, she’d deployed for creating visual designs. This discursive practice that Lindsey drew from literature, and from graphic design prior to that, functioned as a means of allowing her to make visible and available the vignettes and images she was working with, sample different patterns of those elements, and discover how they could be orchestrated into a lyric essay that “worked” from the perspective of creative writers. Although the practice had been somewhat “prepared” for use with the lyric essay through its previous uses for graphic design and literary criticism, it was still nonetheless “partial” and thus still required some restructuring. That restructuring involved resemiotization for use with a multimodal argument comprised of both prose and image as well as being linked with other practices, including generating very early drafts on the computer rather than by hand as she had done for her literary analyses.

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