Dialogue on Writing: Rethinking ESL, Basic Writing, and First-Year Composition

By Geraldine Deluca; Len Fox et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
The Process of Writing—Growing
Peter Elbow

Peter Elbow is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he directed the Writing Program. He has written Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process and A Community of Writers. (This last is a textbook coauthored with Pat Belanoff.) He is author of a book of essays about learning and teaching, Embracing Contraries, and of What Is English? as well as numerous essays about writing and teaching. His most recent book is Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing (Oxford University Press, 2000). He has taught at M. I. T., Franconia College, Evergreen State College, and SUNY at Stony Brook—where for five years he also directed the Writing Program. At Stony Brook he and Pat Belanoff set off the movement for portfolio evaluation as a programmatic activity. The following excerpt is from Writing Without Teachers (Oxford University Press, 1973).

Most people's relationship to the process of writing is one of helplessness. First, they can't write satisfactorily or even at all. Worse yet, their efforts to improve don't seem to help. It always seems that the amount of effort and energy put into a piece of writing has no relation to the results. People without education say, “If only I had education I could write. ” People with education say, “If only I had talent I could write. ” People with education and talent say, “If only I had self-discipline I could write. ” People with education, talent, and self-discipline—and there are plenty of them who can't write—say, “If only …” and don't know what to say next. Yet some people who aren't educated, self-disciplined, smart, imaginative, witty (or even verbal, some of them) nevertheless have this peculiar quality most of us lack: when they want to say something or figure something out they can get their thoughts onto paper in a readable form.

My starting point, then, is that the ability to write is unusually mysterious to most people. After all, life is full of difficult tasks: getting up in the morning, playing the piano, learning to play baseball, learning history. But few of them seem so acutely unrelated to effort or talent.

We could solve this mystery like the old “faculty” psychologists and say there is a special “writing faculty” and some people have it and some don't.

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