Contingency: How We Situate Writing to Create Meaning
Let me tell you a tell a little secret. It is something the teachers, professors, and writers who write assignments, textbooks, and advice for college students know but rarely articulate. We know it in our bones but struggle to put it to words.
All writing is storytelling.
That’s it. That is the big thing writers learn in college. You are going to spend the next few years learning to tell stories in a whole bunch of different ways, using new techniques, and following the rules of different audiences. All the big new terms, ideas, and definitions like genre and literacy you will learn in college just describe how different groups of folks tell their stories. So, here is what you really need to know, right now:
- All writing tells a story.
- In academia every specialized group of people (disciplines) have different rules about who may tell stories, how they tell stories, why they tell stories, and what makes their specific type stories good.
- College writing is mostly learning storytelling for all the different classes you take and, in time, specializing as storyteller in a specific type of story—the story of your major.
Consider these examples:
- A biology lab is just the story of how a scientist solved a problem. The parts of the story are hypothesis, experiment, findings—it’s the scientist’s story of what they think will solve the problem, what they observe when they try the solution, and what they think it all means. Scientists speak “lab report” so college students and beginning scientists must learn to speak and write “lab report.”
- Math writing tells the story of making the equation work, not just once, but every time, and why it matters. Math folks just tell it in a language that is so special and secret that it takes a writer years to master it.
- A history research paper is telling the story of how things came to be this way and what it means now. Historians expect a writer to always be able write about two things without muddling them together: first, history writers need to be able to write about what people know, with proof, about the history; second, history writers need to articulate what they think it means to other historians, to the general reader, to everyone.
- Technical writers are telling the story of how a thing works, what might break it, and how to figure out what we need to do to fix it.
- Literature writers are telling the story they found between the lines of the novel, poem, or drama they read.
Truthfully, college writing is about 75% learning what kind of story a professor wants when they use words like analyze, interpret, explore, or argue. Take the “argument” paper. Writing an argument is like telling that one family story, the one that no one is sure of when and where it happened, or if it even happened at all, but everyone has different memory about it or a different opinion. An argument is just writing out our side of it as persuasively as possible. Writing that story means telling our side, as we know it.
In argument writing you must make sure your version is supported by facts—don’t say a hurricane happened on July 4th when the newspapers show there wasn’t one on that date. Use the newspaper to show that the hurricane happened July 3rd and other people just think it happened on July 4th. Back up your claim about what happened that day with other people’s knowledge, especially people who were there. Be honest with other people’s words.
All writing is storytelling.
Over time, you’ll will learn all the terms, the rules, the languages, and you’ll forget that what you are really doing is telling a story. But right now, as you are just beginning to think like a writer, you should always ask yourself, “What story am I trying to tell? Who is listening and what do they expect the story to look like, sound like, and include?”
Take the literacy narrative, which asks you to write about how your literacy developed or to tell a story about your own literacy. And that may seem confusing or intimidating, but the literacy narrative is just a telling a story of an experience with reading or writing that has made you feel stronger and more empowered or an experience with reading or writing that added to your fears and insecurities about writing.
How to write the literacy narrative:
Step 1. Use a literacy profile to write a narrative
A literacy profile is just a series of super short stories about experiences you have had with reading or writing. Try writing about three times literacy experiences empowered you, made you feel stronger and more positive about yourself and three times they made you feel bad about yourself.
Example: Professor Olivas’s Literacy Profile
Step 2. Find a main point in your profile
Look for things each story has in common. Is your mom in every story? Maybe your literacy narrative really needs to be about how your mom empowered you to be a better reader and writer. Or is there a sense of frustration or stress in every story? Maybe this is about how you developed anxiety about reading and writing over time.
For example, some main points from my profile:
- My family’s class (working poor/working class) has had incredible impact on my literacy.
- My family motivated me to go to college and get my PhD in both healthy and unhealthy ways.
- My motivation is tied to my relationships with people who encourage me to read and write.
Step 3. Choose a main idea
Once you have figured out the main points in your literacy profile, choose one to be the main idea of the narrative. For example, I chose my family’s class (working poor/working class), which has had incredible impact on my literacy.
Step 4. Begin writing
On a clean sheet of paper, start with the story of your main idea. This is the beginning of your literacy narrative. All you need to do is tell that story.
Following these steps will help you figure out what story you really want to tell in your literacy narrative.
And as you learn more about college writing you will learn how to tell lots of different stories, in lots of different ways, for lot of different people. Just remember that no matter what rules you are following, you are always telling stories.