Capstone Challenge Journal: Writing for Others as a *Problematic* Survival Technique

One of the biggest writing problems I have is one most of you can probably relate to. It is inextricably tied to the institutionalization of education and the experiences of those of us caught between Generation Y and Z.

The problem is that I have been taught to write for others.

It was innocuous at first. An encouraging comment by an elementary school teacher that “I was a good writer.” The mindless adoption of this belief by peers and (more problematically) by myself.  The overeager desire by adults and educators to discover student potential—which always came poorly disguised as yearly “All About Me” posters and crude academic tracking. All of this was reinforced by institutional structures that rewarded instantaneous aptitude. The implicit understanding that identities were amalgams of these aptitudes, each of which could be discretely categorized as “good” or “bad.”

I think this experience is distinct to the generational space we live in. We learned to cling to what we were told we were good at, and to drop anything we were immediately not proficient at, or better yet, never to try in the first place. I was good at writing and bad at math. I did not question this fundamental truth and high proficiency became a survival technique. You can imagine how much fun my therapist has with me!!!

This is extremely problematic for me as a writer. Because I grew up believing that I was good at writing, I thought it should always come easily. I believed that I would always be good at writing, since early categorizations were fixed through academic tracking. I learned to expect to get the highest grade on anything involving writing; getting anything less than best was devastating because it called into question my entire identity.

Accordingly, my writing is very dependent on the reader. I tend to subvert the validity of my writing to the whims of a single reader (for example, a bad grade on a paper automatically transforms a previously decent essay into worthless trash).  My most memorable experience with this in college was in a political science class where I was earning poor grades on essays despite going into office hours and doing more research than was required. Even though other people were also struggling in the class, I felt like I had to be exceptional in some way (which is extremely toxic thinking).

I think my preoccupation is a variant of Tharp’s first concern that “people will laugh at me.” Tharp rationalizes that people she respects will not laugh and that her critics have previously been proven wrong. Both her and my concerns draw strength from external criticism and some level of personal shame. However, I don’t believe Tharp’s rationalization solves mine exactly because I am trying to reach people who I might not even respect.

With these things in mind, I hope to have a ritual that is both compatible with my identity as a chronically ill student and someone who feels like I always have something to prove. I think I need to try writing with less thinking about its permanent implications. I am wondering if the stream of consciousness writing that we discussed in class might help. I also wonder if I start writing with the intention of never sharing it, I might find a more relaxing ritual.

Please let me know if you have a similar experience or preoccupation, and/or what you have done that has helped or not helped. Thanks for reading!

4 thoughts to “Capstone Challenge Journal: Writing for Others as a *Problematic* Survival Technique”

  1. Hi Nicole, I really appreciate the honesty in your writing! And I, too, have had a similar experience with writing in that I seem to always write for others (professors, teachers, classmates) and not for me. When I write, I always have the audience in mind. This was taught to us continuously in academic writing, and is very prevalent in business/research writing. “Who are you writing to? What are they thinking? How can you convince them of your point?” And while these are great things to keep in mind and skills to obtain, it can also tamper with one’s view of writing. It is more of a chore rather than an art form. It is a requirement rather than a choice.

    And this can be problematic for people like me (and potentially people like you?), who always aim to please others. Whether it is my parents, classmates, or teachers, I always wanted to give them what they wanted. It took a while until I started writing because I actually wanted to.

    And unfortunately I don’t remember what it was or what I did that enabled me to switch my mindset. Maybe it was because I needed a way to express myself artistically, and I can’t draw/paint/dance/do anything else creative. Maybe try taking the pressure off of yourself. It’s just writing, you know? It doesn’t have to be perfect or make a point or change someone’s mind. It’s just your writing and it can be whatever you want it to be.

    Thank you for reading the comment, I hope I was able to help at least a little 🙂

    Happy writing!

  2. Hey Nicole, I really like your journal here! As someone who had a similar experience at school starting from an early age, I completely understand about having your identity tied to a single trait–writing. Going off that, I think your idea of finding a ritual that allows you to write with less of a worry about the final product is a great one. For me, I’ve had success writing from stream of consciousness, as you mentioned, and from giving myself time limits/deadlines for writing. I’ve found this second idea, which seems a bit counterintuitive, actually helps me write better at times since I only focus on the first thoughts that I have.

  3. Hi Nicole! Your blog post finally put into words something I have been feeling for a long time as a writer, myself. Speaking to the concept of always being the “writer” in a group, the institutionalization of education that you mentioned has pushed us further and further into our fears… one, to what I am understanding is this idea of confidence, that we seemingly share. I mentioned this in class the other day, but I spend a lot of my free time writing under a password protected blog. The beauty of it? I’m writing for myself. Maybe one day I’ll share this blog with the world, but for the moment, I’m doing this for me, and I have found that this ease in “self- writing,” as I’ll call it, transfers over to “audience-writing,” as well. When I can’t come up with an idea for an essay or a paper for class, but I know that I have to start working on a project, I transfer over to my blog. It’s relaxing, it’s therapeutic, and to your point, it’s for me. I think the stream of consciousness writing might be a great step towards overcoming these fears… or just taking a moment to write for yourself and only yourself! I hope this helps 🙂

  4. PREACH. Your comment about the weird space that we occupy as between two generations is so interesting, as that certainly has influenced our education. I experienced the same kind of thing you are talking about: being funneled into “good” or “bad” early on in my academic life and then religiously abiding by whatever that one third grade teacher thought of me. It is so hard to get rid of those outside opinions, especially from teachers! As a senior in high school, I was getting the highest grade in English classes and “excelling” at writing. College was a harsh wake-up call for me, as well. It’s something I think we all have to grow out of, but we’re not exactly supported. We transition from A grades and compliments from high school teachers to college GSIs marking “average” on the rubric. All this rambling to say that I understand you and your experience is not strange! Personally, it has been difficult for me to separate the value I assign to others’ thoughts on my writing to my own value in my writing. One way to work on this might be to start journaling solely for yourself. I started to write fiction pieces that I would never, ever consider putting out there – even letting someone else read – and it’s so freeing and fun. What would have helped you make the transition from high school to college in terms of writing support?

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