Look back over the work you've done this semester — both exercises and drafts — and reflect on your development as a writer. Think about where you started, where you are now, and where you hope to go with your writing. Remember to consider both your struggles and achievements, processes and finished products. Then, drawing on your own writing as evidence, develop an original argument about what writing means to you. Describe what it can or should do, how it happens, and how it evolves. Illustrate your claims with evidence from your exercises and essays this semester.

Floating Among Words:

How (and Why) I Write

When I first sat down with this simple assignment, mind and paper blank, I looked for a gimmick. It doesn't suffice for me to remember that, in any work I do, the content will necessarily be mine; I instinctively first seek some form or approach that itself bears my personal stamp. My music composition exercises, for example, invariably return marked “good idea” or even “very musical,” though the particular grades vary widely depending on how well the particular idea follows rules we won't learn until next year. Sure, it's an introductory course, but damn it, I'm trying to write music here! Surely my impatience tries my instructor's patience. On one assignment, feeling conspiratorial, I ploddingly followed the rules. Aced it. That's all I needed to know. I'm back to composing my way. To do exactly as I'm told is agonizing, to inspect the result dehumanizing: there's no me in it. If music meant nothing to me, I wouldn't mind. But it means everything.

Writing floats above a similar pedestal. (The pedestals are not structural, as music and words are not bound by gravity.) I am in love with words. They are textures, sounds, timbres. They have thickness, heft, rhythm. Writing can be like drawing, painting, dancing, composing, sculpting. Writing is both art itself and an abstraction of art. Writing is both thought itself and an expression of thought. Writing spills across the planes of reality and imagination. It is a form of magic, a sleight of mind. Occasionally I manage to conjure some small illusions. A few words last June about my time in Paris, written in my online journal and referenced in my lens essay, moved friends and family at the time. Reading them now is, for me, still deeply affecting (Schlair, “A Map of the Future” 4):

”I've been feeling wonderfully lonely the last few days. The mechanics of it make complete sense: spend time with old friends, make new ones, then say goodbye to all. Always too soon. Never enough time. By instinct one grabs at what has gone, tries to set it back as it was. But it can't be done. I like the way this feels. Knowing what it means, I enjoy watching myself struggle with it” (2005-06-06).

I've been writing for many years in certain styles which, over time, have largely converged. My personal email messages and journal entries start to follow consciously chosen lightweight structures. My professional email messages, while remaining focused and businesslike, add personal touches. More than ever, my writing before my arrival at Columbia reflects that there is only one Amitai, one who approaches all undertaken endeavors with thought, care, and a personal stake. In all forms of writing I aim to speak on the page. It's gratifying when readers volunteer that reading me, in any genre, feels refreshingly like listening to me. That's usually my goal, and it suggests that any other goal I might want to set for my writing is likewise achievable through effort and repetition.

Since my arrival at Columbia, my writing has changed in 1.25 ways. The first three quarters are the realization that my old style of writing doesn't work here. Academic writing is a different beast, perhaps a different species. Naturally, my old habits die hard, and I've thus far been conflating the personal with the academic. My lens essay, while nominally involving Virginia Woolf, was little more than an excuse to write about my online journal, which is to say, write about writing about myself. (Schlair, “A Map of the Future” 1). A response to Woolf in the form of a letter to a smart friend could have instead been — verbatim, but for the opening line — a typical journal entry (Schlair, “Personal Reflection”). The thrust of my conversation essay, while touching on the topics of race and gender, could have been made without reference to either; certainly it was introspectively conceived independently of them (Schlair, “Living, Learning, and Lager” 7). The bulk of my initial research paper draft, on a subject long dear to me, was as poorly supported by specific citations (and even more lightly tossed off) than a journal entry; the final revision merely replaced some instances of my words with instances of someone else's. For example, an earlier draft said the following entirely in my own fairly similar words (Schlair, “Ostinato abbandonamente” 2):

When Medtner left the conservatory in 1900, having been awarded the Small Gold Medal as the top graduating pianist, “Safonov is said have declared that, with so prodigious a talent, Medtner should have been given a diamond medal, had such a thing existed” (Martyn, 9).

In short, I still don't know how to write academically. Despite the manifest, manifold demands on my writing to adapt, it hasn't much adapted. The reason I'm slow to change is also, fortunately the reason I'm free to change. It is because of my habitual personal writing that new habits are hard to form. At the same time, it is precisely because I already have a well-developed forum for my personal writing that I can bear the thought of investing myself less — or at least differently — in my academic writing.

There is, thus far, at least one observable change. I have a new technique at my disposal. As the research paper taught me, I can, rather than put my best considered words to paper, put down my fastest ones. There are those who would consider this a more artful technique, more raw and more honest. I agree about the raw, and for me that is the usefulness of the technique: to first accumulate enough material, like moist clay, to approximate the shape and size of an essay. At the time, attempting this technique felt ill-advised, frightening, even dangerous. Applying unceasing love and care had been my oldest writerly habit, yet with it my grasp on great writing was already tenuous; surely, in a full evening without it, I'd permanently lose my grasp. Although I'm not fully convinced, it does seem that my fear was misplaced. My “raw” writing is less raw than I expected — less raw in a sense than my “careful” writing, which early in the semester resulted in drafts left unfinished. Although I still harbor an antiquated notion of quality associated with effort, when I write quickly there is apparently little love lost. Perhaps I need not struggle to craft every sentence in order to prove my ardor.

While it's unclear to what extent my academic writing has directly improved, it's clear I've meta-improved as an academic writer: I'm far more aware of my weaknesses and of how to go about mitigating them. The areas in which I need most to improve to write Columbia-caliber material: doing research, using it to support my opinions, connecting ideas which are logically related by means of suitable transitions, tightening loose drafts, euthanizing pet sentences, and writing often so that it comes more easily when I need it. My writing reflects my character: I sure mean well, I think fairly logically, and I jump to frequently good conclusions, but I thus far lack the discipline to arrive at mechanical mastery of form and organization. Slapping my knee-jerk notions into acceptable shape is still a struggle every time.

The other 0.5 ways in which my writing has changed: a friend insists that, since starting school, my online journal has become denser. Not necessarily less comprehensible, not necessarily more abstract, just denser. I hadn't noticed it and still don't, but am happily willing to believe there is some truth to the charge. Conveying much with little has always been a goal of mine, too. Or perhaps the pull of academe has verily begun to exert its will over my words. History would suggest that, after an initial period of adjustment to this new style, a new interdisciplinary equilibrium will eventually be reached. My academic essays will be spiked with digressions and dry wit. Emails to my parents will support my strongly argued contentions with the odd MLA-format citation. And of course, since I write as I speak, in phone conversation I'll occasionally end paragraphs with “see also….”

I exaggerate when I claim there was none of me in that formulaic music assignment. There was a morsel. There always is. Ultimately writing is necessarily personal. As mastery of form increases, so does the authority of personal expression within it, and so do the audiences for whom one writes. A fiction workshop has, like University Writing, spurred me to grow as a writer. Also like University Writing, churning out a few pages of fiction is for me a supreme effort, a bracing admixture of slow pain and headlong excitement. I may have some residual aptitude for it, but I have no practiced skill. As such, it's awfully hard work. With practice it will become easier; more important, it will become more natural and more enjoyable.

Until I master these forms, then, how do I go about writing in them? Do I master them first, then add my voice? What does “mastering” mean, anyway? There's always room for improvement. I suppose, even if this adolescent stage is awkward, I couldn't withhold my voice until later. I don't know how to turn it off, and if I did, I wouldn't want to. As though in a foreign land, I shall make myself comfortable in these foreign media. I shall act like I belong here. I'm no luminary yet; first I must master the language and find regular work. But I am proud to be a naturalized citizen, and this is my new home.