By: Kristianna Pirrie
As a writing tutor, one of the statements I hear most is something along the lines of, “I just want to get this done,” or “I’m just not a writer.” Statements such as these break my heart because, as someone that has benefited greatly from this escape, I want others to feel the same peace that I do when they write. Because school is such a demanding environment to write in, students can have a skewed view about what writing truly is.
At the beginning of the semester, I had planned on researching the individual, artistic voice and how one can incorporate it into his or her writing. However, the more I tutored and the more I researched, I realized that I did not stand behind my research; I do not believe academic writing and artistic voice should be separated in the first place because writing is an experience. Experience cannot be defined as either academic nor artistic because it is a balance of both.
This thought was solidified when I came across an article about John Dewey’s Art as Experience. The work was written to express Dewey’s theory of aesthetics–a popular subject among theorists. In it, he defines art as an experience–a complete process as opposed to the object of artistic expression itself (i.e. a painting, song, sculpture, building, etc.). This intrigued me because it was the first time I found a definition of art that did not limit itself to the object of expression. As a musician, I believe I am an artist, but the ending product is not why I consider music an art form. Music is aesthetically pleasing to an audience because they feel certain things when they listen to it, but to the musician, the art does not begin and end with the performance. Musicians create music because the process of getting to the end product is a continuous shaping and reshaping, reflection and planning, and trial and error. The musicians’ journey makes the product infinitely more satisfying because they know what it took and what they learned in getting there. Dewey asserts that art as experience is a more complete definition of art because it explains why art is capable of stimulating emotion, exploration, and growth.
Before I move on to discuss the meat of the writing process as an experience, I would like to draw attention to where the process begins. In Dewey’s words, this step is called impulsion–“as distinguished from ‘impulse,’ …a developmental movement of the whole organism in response to a need arising from interaction with the environment,” (Stanford 2.4). Impulsion can be exemplified physically when we are hungry. If we get home from school after a long day, usually the problem is that we are hungry. To overcome that obstacle, we think of what we want to eat. We go through all of the usual options,
Taco Bell? Subway? No, I can’t spend money. Caf? No, too far away.
Here, the impulsion has been met with obstacles. “For an impulsion to lead to expression there must be conflict, a place where inner impulse meets the environment. The tribal war dance for example requires the uncertainty of an impending raid for its excitement,” (2.4) The body continues to be hungry, so the mind continues to come up with options until the choice is solidified:
Ramen? Yes, I can make that in five minutes. Now, if only I could call my roommate to ask her if I can use her microwave…
In reaction, the mind has found a way to ‘convert’ these obstacles into something useful. Now, it has justified its option in full and created an option suitable to meet its needs.
This example shows 1) an impulsion, 2) an obstacle to overcome, and 3) the result that comes from overcoming that obstacle. As compared to writing and any kind of art, we are stimulated by the world around us to explore a concept in thought, and then ultimately we are drawn to action–creating a work which expresses our experience. In the second step–overcoming an obstacle–we are essentially exploring our options and trying different things to solve the problem. “Impulsion becomes aware of itself only through overcoming obstacles. When resistance generates curiosity and is overcome, the result is elation. Emotion is then converted into both interest and reflective action…” (2.4). This exploration allows trial and error, shaping and reshaping, and other reasoning that help us decide the best option which will ultimately express our experience.
Impulsion explains so much about the steps between why one writes and the actual act of writing. Students constantly ask me, “So…what should I say?” They are not sure what to write because–perhaps–they have not had an ‘impulsion,’ quite yet. This notion is understandable because teachers must assign papers, where students might not write about the topic on their own. Therefore, the students that come to the writing center might be lacking “impulsion,” so to speak. They have not connected with cause enough to write about the idea, or maybe they haven’t even come up with an idea yet. After having read Dewey’s theories, I feel as though I have a more definable aid in helping students to solve this problem. If I can help students to understand impulsion, I can help them understand how to know what to write from a place that feels natural–even if the topic is not familiar or interesting to them at first glance.
There is an aspect of self in everything that humans do. Writing–as it should be an aesthetic experience–should not be an exception to this. I believe that because students are viewing writing as academic, scientific, and disconnected from the self, it is often not natural and, therefore, rather difficult. Furthermore, it holds no place for discovery or exploration of self. If students can be provided guidance to impulsion, however, they may have a better chance at connecting with their writing–making thoughts flow easier and ideas come naturally. The trick is to take an assignment and connect it, either directly or symbolically, to something that the student is interested in. For instance, I wrote a paper recently on the Reconciliation of French and Italian Music of the Baroque Period. Clearly, this was not the easiest topic for me to relate to or be interested in. I conquered it, though, because I was able to loosely connect it to the idea of reconciliation in the body of Christ, and how music history exemplifies that and the benefits that come from it. Once I got to brain storming, I was able to use a Venn Diagram to compare and contrast the two, and learn how to focus my paper. Through this process, I was able to begin a paper that was not only interesting, but came much more naturally.
Writing from a place of connection allows the writer to explore as he or she writes. The act of writing has the opportunity to access our inner speech, allowing writing to come from a place of honesty using a flow of logical thoughts. Writing that sounds choppy and unfocused can often result if the writer doesn’t know how his or her thoughts on the topic connect. They know where they want to be at the end of the paper but they don’t know how to get there smoothly. But if the writers are putting down thoughts that come straight from their inner dialogue, chances are they will be connected and flowing. This is where the writer can get “lost” in writing. When they come from a place that’s familiar to them, they can write and write and write and lose track of time because the thoughts keep coming. Many times, when a writer experiences this, they can go back and read what they have written and actually see their mind laid out as a map on the page. From here they can react, realize, and become aware of themselves in a deeper way. This is the exploration. We realize thoughts and ideas we hold inside ourselves that we might not have thought about during our day to day thoughts. And when we put them on paper we bring them into the world, expanding their potential. Essentially, we are putting ourselves down on the page, and although this may seem scary to some, to others it means liberation.
The next step in the experience is to shape, reshape, and refine the writing. Once we have put ideas down on paper, we can analyze and determine what should stay and what is important but maybe not necessary for the purpose of the assignment or goal. This can be difficult for many people because it means eliminating or reshaping a part of the writer’s mind. Many people have difficulty being critiqued on their writing because they feel vulnerable–the writing is directly connected to them. But what we must remember is that exploration is about growth, and growth is not possible without some difficult decisions. That being said, we should take critiques as learning opportunities and new perspectives that might, in fact, help our art to be even better than what it is. We must also remember that the nature of writing is that it comes from a single individual’s mind, making it clear that that mind only has one perspective. Reading from the writer’s perspective might make sense, but from an outsider’s point of view, the ideas may be difficult to understand. Getting help from a second party might allow the writer to clarify ideas and improve upon what is already there. This concept helps us to hold one another accountable as well as grow and learn. These processes teach us things about ourselves while also creating something that is unique and beautiful.
Writing is not some far off skill that only specifically gifted people have. Writing is a process that yields beautiful ideas and solutions–not beautiful because they are pleasing to every eye and ear, but beautiful because they are the culmination of minutes, hours, and days of thinking, wrestling, shaping, and reshaping. That being said, taking time to write is just as much a part of the art as the finished paper is. If we can write with the goal of having an experience, our art has a potential even greater than itself: It has the potential to grow an individual, to influence a group, open the eyes of a society, and so much more. Art as experience holds qualities that make us better people rather than simply giving us something inspiring or entertaining for a moment.
Finally, I would hope that through these thoughts you, as writers, are encouraged. I hope through these thoughts you might see that writing is not either academic or artistic, but that it can please both sides. Writing does not have to be a painful, tedious, disconnected, checking of a box on a degree sheet. It is not just six hours pushing buttons on a computer, waiting until we have enough sentences to fill four pages. Writing can be liberating, exhilarating, and exciting if we learn to look at it as a process–a whole organism that creates and is created: Writing as art, an experience.
Leddy, Tom, “Dewey’s Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/dewey-aesthetics/>.