Writing To Explore

A third kind of writing is that which you do for yourself, which is not directed at any distant audience, and which may not be meant to make any particular impression at all, neither sharply clear nor cleverly aesthetic. This kind of writing might be called personal, expressive, or exploratory. It helps you think and express yourself on paper. You've written this way if you have kept a diary or journal, jotted notes to yourself or letters to a close friend, or begun a paper with rough drafts that you want to show nobody else. Here is an example of such personal/exploratory writing from one of my composition classes, in which Missy reflects on her experience writing high school papers:

I was never convinced that it wasn't somehow possibly a fluke—like I got lucky & produced a few good papers—that it wasn't consistent and that it wasn't a true reflection of my writing skills. I felt like this because I didn't know how I wrote those damn papers. I had no preset method or formula like you are required to have in science. That is why I wasn't convinced. I just sat down and wrote those papers and w/ a little rework they worked! Presto—now that really baffled me & that is why I thought it was pure chance I turned them out.

This piece of writing is remarkable only in its apparent honesty, but that, of course, is the key feature of writing to yourself—there is no point in pretending. Missy writes in a voice with which she is completely comfortable. In fact, the rhythms of her writing sound as if she is talking to herself on paper: she uses frequent contractions, first-person pronouns (I), shortcuts for words (& and w/), and colloquial language (damn and Presto) as if talking to a good friend.

The key feature of this kind of language, spoken or written, is the focus on subject matter as opposed to style or form. When you write to yourself, you concentrate on thoughts, feelings, problems, whatever—and not on an audience. When you write to yourself to figure things out, you use your most available, most comfortable language, which is talky, casual, fragmented, and honest.

This doesn't mean that journals like Missy's need be entirely private, like personal diaries. Actually, Missy wrote this entry in a journal that I asked my students to keep, so she wrote it knowing I might look at it, but knowing also that the journal would not be graded. (Class journals will be discussed more specifically in Chapter Four.)

As an example of a piece of writing written strictly for the writer, I'll share with you a passage from my personal journal in which I wrote about my daughter, when she was twelve:

11/6 Annie is running for student council in her 7th grade class—she's written a speech, a good one, with a platform and all (more options for lunch, etc.). She's rehearsed it over and over—has planned to talk slow and look at just one or two people in her audience to avoid laughing. I'm proud of her—I don't know where she got the idea or guts to do this—but I'm proud of her! She takes it quite seriously—and seems to trust my observations on what she has planned.

I wrote this entry some time ago. As I reread it now, I remember that Annie did not get elected and my heart went out to her. It had been brave of her to run for student council in the first place, and to lose didn't help her fragile twelve-year-old self-confidence. I also remember thinking at the time that it was a harder loss for me, her father, because I realized so clearly the limits of my help and protection: she was really on her own.

So what is the value of having this personal recollection from my journal? At the time I wrote it, while I wrote it, I gave my undivided attention to thinking about my daughter's growing up. Now, later, that single recorded thought triggers still more Annie memories. Quite simply, personal writing such as this increases your awareness of whatever it is you write about.

Another form of personal writing occurs in letters to close friends or people you trust. Such letters reveal your candid, sometimes uncertain, reactions to things; your errant thoughts; and your casual speculations, dreams, and plans. In other words, there are people emotionally close enough to you that writing to them is very much like writing to yourself. In fact, teachers might even turn up in this trusted category. A sixth-grade teacher (Mr. K.) shared with me the following letter written by one of his students after he had talked with his class about alcoholism. He had also given her a magazine article to read.

Thank you for the discussion [of drinking] in class. I needed it. I have had a lot of it [alcohol abuse] in my lifetime. The article you gave me "When your child Drinks" I think should be read in front of the class. But it is up to you.

Your friend, Marianne

P.S. Your a lifesaver.

You will notice that neither you nor I was ever intended to read this letter: I had to explain the context of this letter to you (as it was explained to me) so that you would understand the references in it. This is another characteristic of exploratory writing: it isn't intended to go very far away from the writer and thus includes few introductory remarks. The writer (Marianne, an eleven-year-old student) doesn't bother to explain context or elaborate on details to her audience, Mr. K.: They were in class together the previous day and both knew exactly what "the discussion" was about and what "it" refers to.

We have just looked at some samples of exploratory writing in different forms—a class journal, a personal journal, a private letter—and noticed that such writing has common characteristics: it is centered on ideas important to the writer, honest in judgment, tentative in nature, informal in tone, loose in structure, and not entirely clear to an audience outside the context in which the writing took place. We might note that this writing is bound by few rules. Perhaps it should be legible to the writer, but even that is not important in all cases. It simply does not matter what exploratory writing looks like, because its primary audience is the writer (or someone very close to the writer who shares his or her context).

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