In English 317- Composition Theory & Practice the students recently wrote what Dr. Larson calls “Literacy Narratives,” which focus on how one becomes a writer. One such exemplary exploration of writing composed by Philip Ellefson is included below.
An introductory note from Dr. Larson:
“One of the first things I try to do in English courses is to get students to take ownership of the identity of “writer.” Most of us imagine that noun as referring to a published professional, when in actuality it evokes an activity we do daily. Writing has become a massive part of all of our lives. Several decades of experience apprenticed us into the complicated vocation of writing, and stories and wisdom can arise from that training, if we’d only shine a light on it. Here is one student’s response to that call.” -Dr. Larson
By Philip Ellefson
In one of several family Subarus, on a hot summer evening in eastern Washington, I sat with my brothers as we drove somewhere – I don’t remember now where we were going. The windows magnified the heat of the sun, and the air conditioning blowing on the highest setting made little difference. My brother slid a new CD into the CD player. An acoustic guitar was plucked and the voice sang: “Please slow it down. / There’s a secret magic past world / that you only notice when you’re lookin’ back at it / And all I wanna do is turn around.”
That was the summer before I started high school, and I thought of myself as a musician. After hearing that song and the 11 others on Rocky Votolato’s album Makers, I stopped wanting to be a musician and wanted to be a songwriter. The way the lyrics in Votolato’s songs were perfect alone, but intensified by chords and melody, and the way the album seemed to blend in with the setting and the weather made me want to be able to do the same thing – to really explain experiences in a clear, beautiful way.
So I tried my hand at songwriting. I keep all of my notebooks, and when I look back, I laugh at my first attempts at writing lyrics. The first line of one of my very early songs was “Your heart is a styrofoam battlefield.” At the time, I probably thought it was a deep and thought-provoking metaphor, but when I reflect, I find it contrived to a point of ridiculousness. I still write songs, and I like to think that I’ve gotten much better at it. But the idea of writing songs got me interested in words in general, beyond their place in music.
When I was in 10th grade or so, I started keeping a journal. I started keeping two journals, actually. Since I had started writing more, I wanted to be the kind of person who carries around a journal. I thought it would make me seem artsy and introspective if I kept my all of my intimate thoughts in a Moleskine notebook. I expected that it would attract the kind of girls I was interested in dating when I was 15 or 16. That didn’t work. And my journaling didn’t really work, either. I wanted to keep a sort of nature writing journal in which I would write a date and time and place and describe in detail the sights, sounds, and smells of the environment around me. I probably wrote three entries within a week, and then I decided I didn’t find that sort of writing very exciting. Then I started writing thoughts and musings in another one of the notebooks I had bought (because for some reason, I thought it would be weird to do two forms of writing in one notebook). I found that I enjoyed that, but I got busy and decided it wasn’t worth it to take the time to write in a personal notebook.
But of course, late middle school was not the beginning of my life as a writer. I actually started quite early. My first memory of writing is the word fun. I don’t remember what the context was. Maybe I was writing, “Swimming is fun,” or “Playing outside is fun” – playing and swimming were the two main objects of my thought when I was young. Maybe I just tried to write that little word on a piece of paper – I don’t know. But I do remember I was sitting at the counter of the kitchen in my childhood home on a cushioned stool. It was a summer day, and I was with my mom and my best friend, Megan. And ready to impress both of them, I wrote the word fun on a piece of paper. But I didn’t really. I wrote fan. Vowels are hard when you’re a small child, and it’s easy to mix up a U and an A. Megan corrected me, saying that fun is spelled F-U-N. I said something like “Nuh-uh!” thinking I was right and smart. But my mom agreed – it is a U and not an A that makes the “uh” sound in fun. And of course, my mom was always right, so I corrected my mistake and probably felt self-conscious about it.
I think it’s fitting that my first memory of writing should be a mistake – an obvious mistake on a simple word that I had to fix. It’s fitting because my whole progression as a writer has been a story about writing, failing, and then fixing it. On a small scale, obviously, I often correct little things like misspellings and ambiguities in grammar, as well as organizational issues. But on a larger scale, my literacy and enjoyment of writing has taken many attempts. I can now write song lyrics that I am proud of and that I find pleasing and interesting, but it took a lot of songs filled with silly metaphors to get to that point. I tried to start journaling a few times, but for a long time I couldn’t quite get a grasp of why or how to do it. But now I am almost through the third volume of what I call “NOTES ABOUT ALL SORTS OF THINGS (AND OTHER STUFF),” which is really just my collection of notebooks full of poems, little stories, thoughts, musings, drawings, and other things. I write in a notebook nearly everyday, even if it is only a few lines of prose about something mundane. It seems that my involvement in writing has been one huge revision on a macro scale.
Which is funny, because I hate revision. Or I hate revising. The word revision makes me think of taking a paper I am proud of and spending hours and hours tearing it up and fixing every minute detail. I don’t enjoy focusing on the mistakes I’ve made, whether it’s the misspelling of fun or a misled analysis of a poem. That’s one reason I find writing in a private notebook to be refreshing – because I don’t feel obligated to go back to every word I write and revise it and make sure it’s perfect. I enjoy the freedom to make mistakes without worrying. But at the same time, I realize that revision is necessary if I want my writing to improve.
Revision is necessary, but I am only beginning to understand why. It is not because any given piece of work needs to be perfect. Perfection is not the end of revision because perfection is not the goal of writing. When I write a paper, a poem, or a song, I do not wish for anything perfect, only for clarity. The reason I enjoy writing in a notebook is that the act of writing clears my thoughts and organizes them, even if it is an informal way of writing. In the same way, an analysis of literature will never be the be-all-and-end-all of the text I am looking at. It will only organize and clarify thoughts and insights and observations about the work. Any time I write a song, I do not wish to aspire to the perfection of Rocky Votolato or some other ideal song, but to create a work of art that is unified and cohesive and beautiful.
I’m currently taking a class on contemporary American poetry. Recently, we read an essay by someone who defined poetry as “an act of attention.” She was saying that poetry (and I think this goes for all writing, not just poetry) is about being so attentive, so in tune with a thought or experience or object that you can express it precisely in lines of words. If these are the goals of writing (and I believe they are), then revision is not something I ought to hate, but something I ought to embrace because it allows me to solve the problems I confront when I write. It allows me to clearly think and express ideas that I think are worth expressing. Only through revision can my writing, whether it is academic, journalistic, or artistic, be the most clear and most expressive. I can solve problems with my writing.
My becoming a writer is not some grand thing. Maybe my description of being inspired by some lyrics in an alt-country song was even a bit exaggerated. It’s a process of slow growth, of trying to summit mountains and falling down after a couple of steps, then getting back up. But it’s vital. It is necessary for me, now that I’ve become a writer, to try to clarify my thoughts and ideas with the written word. Plus, I think writing is just a lot of fan.