January 12, 2016
For our first day activity, we engage in a review of the writing process by coloring a nature mandala in class. My purpose in creating this first-day activity is to demonstrate that writing (and thinking) do not follow a lockstep, linear process.
The nature mandala is a circle of flora and fauna arranged in a complicated symmetrical pattern. Here is an example:
Dr. Bernstein’s mandala: December 2015
The circular formation suggests no specific order for coloring each part. Instead, find an order that works for you. Since we begin with a printed coloring page, none of us will start from scratch. Yet as we work together in this coloring practice, each of us will discover different processes to complete their mandala. Eventually, the whole picture takes shape—and that whole offers a fuller view than any individual part or section.
As you may have guessed, our coloring activity serves as an analogy to the processes of academic writing. Stated plainly: It is NOT NECESSARY to begin writing by creating a perfect thesis and introduction.
Yes, the finished product—the writing projects that are turned in and graded— start with an ideal (not necessarily perfect) thesis and introduction. Ideal essays also feature clearly connected body paragraphs, and end with a conclusion that syncs with the introduction. HOWEVER: the order of the finished product will look and feel quite different from the actual practice of the writing processes.
Dr. Bernstein at #whywewrite pop-up quilting bee: October 2015.
Over the years, I have watched too many writers (myself included) feel blocked, if not downright desperate) because we could not think of a perfect thesis at the very beginning of our writing processes. We struggled with the thesis for days (or weeks or months)—and waited for that thesis before drafting the rest of the essay. We missed deadlines, completed work by staying up all night, or took a lower or failed grade for our writing, all for the lack of that perfect thesis.
The mandala coloring activity illustrates another strategy for practicing writing, one that that can be added to our academic toolkits. Here are some additional tips:
- Expect to encounter contradictions and cognitive dissonance in our writing class.
- Ask as many questions as needed to understand the task at hand, and to make the assignment—and the writing— your own.
- Do not expect to write five-paragraph essays on conventional subjects. Instead, expect that your writing will develop in bits and pieces—sometimes fast and easy, other times slow and challenging.
- The projects are designed for complex thinking and writing, so that your subject unfolds over several weeks. If you attempt to begin with a perfect thesis and introduction, you may find yourself struggling much more than necessary.
What is the point of all this? If you have seen The Force Awakens, think about what appeals to you about the film. Characters? Plot? Setting? Special effects? How much effort was involved creating this appeal? Think about the length of time and the number of difficulties that the originators of the Star Wars series have faced since the mid-1970s, when the first film began production. Despite those setbacks, in 2015 “The Force Awakens” was released, and record-breaking audience attendance followed.
Also consider the work of Marin Luther King, Jr. and the historic figures and everyday people who created the US Civil Rights Movement. King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Fanny Lou Hamer, and many others endured deep resistance from a majority of Americans, and faced deadly violence from a strong opposition. The Movement’s defeats outnumbered the victories. Yet history celebrates those victories, and the victories offer inspiration for working toward achieving human rights in our current time.
These very different examples demonstrate the significance of sticking with a project for the long haul. There may be false starts and sleepless nights. But along the way, look forward to small breakthroughs and brief moments that make the struggle seem worthwhile, if only for a minute. Hang on to that minute. Savor it as best you can and remember it when the struggle feels especially uncomfortable. That discomfort hints at growing pains that, with time, patience, persistence, and resilience, can lead to great joy.
Welcome to the jungle, and much gratitude for joining me on the journey to the other side.
Dr. Susan Bernstein
Susan Naomi Bernstein, PhD
Lecturer in English
Co-Coordinator, Stretch Writing Program