Dr. Christy Desmet
February 29, 2016
Filling in the Missing Space In “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing” With Breathing Through
Kenneth A. Brufee identifies the way that writers pull from an external social conversation, synthesize that information internally, and then make it public again as part of a process for writing. In short he says that “writing is internalized conversation re-externalized” (402). This seems like an excellent way of thinking about the exchange that happens between the mental strategies of the writer and his attempts at communicating those ideas.
In Linda Flower and John Hayes article, “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing,” they say that “a more accurate model of the composition process would need to recognize those basic thinking processes that unite planning and revision.” However, these thinking processes always seem to be so complicated that identifying the writer’s strategies and methods requires endless explanations. Speaking of “stage models,” those process models that show the writer moving linearly from planning to completion of an essay, Flower and Hayes say “such models are typically silent on the inner process of decision and choice” (255).
Flower and Hayes address factors that influence the writing process rather than simply attempting to inscribe a path of stages that can be mimicked. These three factors include “the task environment,” the writer’s long term memory,” and “the writing process” (257). While these strategies improve on stage models, they do not satisfactorily address the anxieties and perplexities of the writer’s mental state. These perplexities can include anything from peer pressure, ‘I don’t want to appear uncool to my classmates,’ to reoccurring failures at writing in similar situations.
In this project I recorded my own process as a way of considering the Flower and Hayes paper mentioned above. I wanted to see if there are ticks, habits, and executions that differ from the clinical experiments of Flower and Hayes. I wanted to consider how my writing converses with the exterior and translates, or rewrites, the exterior through consideration into visible text. I also wanted to consider the interpolations of angst that exist as I attempted to execute this assignment.
This approach concerns me because it encourages a focus on big motions in the writing process; like planning, writing, and editing, and ignores the many variables of individuality; like angst, repetitive experience, and personal goals. So that when Flower and Hayes say that “the most important thing about writing goals is that they are created by the writer,” they do not address the space between the teacher’s desire to have a student write and the student’s general disinterest in writing. (263). The student must first be motivated to write — to want to write. Translating can be a difficult business and unmotivated students may find this difficulty insurmountable. Since I am motivated and want to improve my writing skills, I am not a good subject to look at in this way. However, I am a good subject to consider in that I need to improve my writing habits, especially translating synthesis into readerly text.
Initially I began this project with an assignment. Dr. Christy Desmet’s assignment for the writing process can be viewed here.
For the sake of economizing time, I tend to commit early to a project and stick with it. This may be a fault in my writing process itself, since an audience anticipates the writer’s topic to be vital to their own conversation, but I hoped that in observing my own process, I would be able to discover details that might be added to the conversation of Flower, and Hayes.
In the initial stages of this experiment, I made a plan. Flowers and Hayes say that in the planning process “writers form an internal representation of knowledge that will be used in writing” (260). The first thing that I did was to address Desmet’s assignment; Flower and Hayes refer to this as the “Rhetorical Problem” and place it into the “Task Environment” (258). After some deliberation, I decided to interweave this process with some ideas from Geoffrey Sirc’s article “Box Logic” and Jason Gurley’s short web article, “Flash What? A Quick Look at Flash Fiction” (Web. Feb, 2016) I also had to decide not to address any of the other solutions to this rhetorical problem, “Pick apart a famous speech,” for example. You can see a diary of this process by clicking here.
The self-assigned writing project that I used to analyze my own process is as follows:
- Take pictures of random events.
- Use the pictures to create a narrative that would fit into a Flash Fiction paradigm (I limited myself to eight-hundred and fifty words).
- Record the writing process with Screen-cast.
- Keep a written diary of the process.
- Develop a model representing movement; internal, external; forward backward etc.
- Compare the process to Flower and Hayes.
- Analyze the similarities and differences.
- I have placed all these elements in a box here.
As a means of indexing this process and emulating Marcel Duchamp’s “green box,” I created a web space and entitled it theboxwriter.com. The web space acts as a container for all the different elements that went into this project. It also suggests the continuation of box-writing as a project among a community of writers who make collections and write Flash Fiction about their boxes. If this is successful, we could review many writing processes from the kinds of boxes people build and the contents that they choose.
With these goals in mind, I set about writing a story from the pictures in the box. In contrast to Flower and Hayes description of “long term memory,” these pictures were from a new unfamiliar place, Tuscaloosa Alabama (261). In a way, they acted as the “fragmentary, unconnected” elements of long term memory that Flower and Hayes address, but they were new events. In order to write a narrative about these pictures, I had to determine a connection between them, or at least find a way to organize them. I noticed that some text stood out in some of the pictures. These texts became the basis for the narrative especially “- Warning -Thick Smoke, Dim Lights, Loud Music, Welcome to Egan’s” (theboxwriter.com).
Flower and Hayes identify “the process of putting ideas into visible language” as a process that “embodies key words,” organizes them into “a complex network of relationships,” and then into “a linear piece of written English” (262). They go on to talk about the way that writers tend to move between the planning stage and the translating stage in a back and forth motion which they call “embedding” (265). Along with embedding, something else is occurring apart from the physical text on the page and the internal conversation of my mind. That something I am going to name breathing-through. I will define breathing-through as the bridge that must be built in my psyche in order to transport information from my imagination onto the written page.
In my observations, there were several physical indicators of writing habits. One is my habit of looking up and down and sometimes away from the computer screen, as I mentioned before, and the other is moving my body from a position in front of the computer screen to a position upstairs where I walk, get coffee, nap, or play the piano. Embedding seems to address two positions; sitting in front of the computer and writing, and relaxing in thought upstairs. These two positions relate to the act of moving between the subroutines of Planning, Translating, and Reviewing. But the physicality of moving up and down stairs (the space between floors) creates a third physical position that emulates the act of breathing-through. In this space there are risers and steps that must be navigated in order to reach the upstairs, or conversely, the downstairs. In the mind the stairs between create a passageway between the imagination and text.
Breathing Through requires the brain to navigate both grammatical and psychological obstacles that act much like steps. The narrative of the imagination may be very clear internally, but there is resistance to the act of expressing the imagination in visible text. The need to move between spaces forces the writer to confront these obstacles as a means of expression, and the energy exerted in confrontation influences the content and style of expression — much like height and length of risers and steps determine the position of the body in a house.
Here is an excerpt from my Screencast diary, “Kevin Gates,”
After each sentence my eyes scan backwards and I read the last of the previous sentence, then I write more. It takes about five minutes to complete the first two sentences because I go back and edit words that don’t seem to express what I am feeling in my head. Partly, this hesitation seems to come from an attempt to pin-point words that allude to behavior that works as metaphor for a more general social condition. (Screen-cast Diary)
My attempts at “pin pointing words” has to do with the surreal notion that I can make the reader feel what I feel about the narrative, a narrative that I haven’t even written yet. In that in-between space of stairs, I am trying to make words perform the task of communicating an intangible thought into tangible text. This requires me to move thoughts from downstairs (internal position) to the upstairs (external expression) by means of a stairwell (breathing-through). Some of the obstacles in that stairwell are self-evident – like grammar. Others, the fear of not being understood, how misunderstanding influences the reader’s opinion of me as a writer, and the desire to be good at what I do, all interfere and influence the work in progress. My choice of words has to be filtered both by my sense of their meaning and the way that I think the reader will understand them. Navigating these and other concerns requires constant self monitoring which in turn requires constant mental energy.
According to Flower and Hayes, “the writer’s abstract plan…of his goals, his knowledge of the topic, and his current text are all actively competing for the writer’s attention,” and “the process of generate and evaluate appear to have the power to interrupt the writer’s process at any point” (275). While this is true, still one other space interrupts this writer’s process: the position of between, where the practically of grammar and the fluidity of psychological concerns coalesce. These objects of the psyche could be seen as interrupters of the text, but they also contribute to the formation of the text, as an analysis of this quote from my Screen-Cast dairy confirms:
I think as a student that it would be better to think that this project will be critiqued and allowed time to evolve – which is probably what we will do, but I think the average student feels judged (– maybe that’s my own neurosis.)
Is “judgment” a disruptor or a creator of text? When the purpose of text is to create an exterior representation to an interior dialogue to an external audience, then only the reader(s) can determine whether that text succeeds at its purpose or not. This judgment distracts by calling the writer’s attention to an event that will transpire after the narrative has been completed. By forcing me to imagine the reader’s position, it also creates. Every time that position is considered, it also questions: Will they experience the sensations that I am trying to evoke? That causes me to write in away that I believe will influence the reader’s experience of the text. The outcome, in this scenario, is produced by this navigating tactic of moving words through a filter of judgment. I wonder if the negative feeling of judgment, that sense that someone is constantly looking over my shoulder to approve / disapprove of my work, could be mollified or modified so that it retains its useful attributes and diminishes the sense of angst, or is this the price that one must pay to develop good writing skills?
Another sense of breathing through comes in the regeneration process of writing. As I go back through the nine-hundred and seventy-five words of my second draft of “Kevin Gates,” I begin editing by taking what were obstacles to my writing process, judgment, grammar, readerly concerns, and using them to query the text. In a sense I am building a stairway to bridge the space between my upstairs and the reader downstairs. Flowers and Hayes describes this stage as “regeneration” where the writer returns to her goals and both adjust goals and the text. (I will go back to my thesis statement and attempt to restate the goals of this project in a narrower focus, for example.) “Kevin Gates” benefits from this process because I can now focus clearly on kind of experience I want the reader to have, and I can transfer that knowledge by modifying the text. I benefit by acknowledging the obstacles and learning to transport information through them.
In conclusion, I think that developing this kind of approach in a student to teacher / mentor situation would require a one on one analysis of the steps that exist in the student’s in-between space. This may be done by the student, or a mentor could help in identifying obstacles and redefining them in a positive way. What I didn’t discover is how to mollify the angst that occurs in the beginning stages of writing. I did find that writing the short story, which I find a great deal of pleasure in, an easier task than writing this analysis. It could be that an analysis of this kind suggests a greater expertise than I am able to claim. I have experienced a “choke” in essay writing when attempting to breath(ing) through in classes where I am not well versed in the conversational vocabulary. It may be that familiar, or well versed, information leads to familiar vocabulary and a comfortableness in expression. Digesting new information may require a resting period for incubation that the classroom simply cannot supply.
Flower, Linda. Hayes, John R. “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva, Kristin Arola. 3rd Edition. Urbana, Ill. National Council of Teachers of English, 2011, 2011. Print.
Gurley, Jason. Flask What? A Quick Look at Flash Fiction. Writing World.com. Web. February, 2016.
Inglett, John. “Kevin Gates.” theboxwriter.com. Web. February, 2016.
Sirc, Geoffrey. “Box Logic.” pantherfile.uwm.edu. Web. February, 2016.