Bottlenecks in Learning to Write

At 43 Folders, there is a great video of then-14-year-old pianist Jennifer Lin playing, who also gives "her thoughts on flow and creativity" with respect to composing music. An excerpt of her process follows:

What I do first is, I make a lot of little musical ideas that you can just improvise here at the piano. I choose one of those to become the main theme, main melody. Once I choose my main theme, I have to decide out of all the styles of music, what style do I want. And this year I composed a romantic style. So for inspiration, I listened to Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and all the great romantic composers. Next I made the structure of the entire piece with my teachers. They helped me plan out the whole piece. The hard part is filling it in with musical ideas, because then you have to think. And then when the piece takes somewhat of a solidified form, you're supposed to actually polish the piece, polish the details, and then polish the overall performance of the composition.

And another thing I enjoy doing is drawing. Drawing because I like to draw Japanese anime art. And once I realized it, there's a parallel between creating music and creating art, because for your motive or your little initial idea for your drawing. It's your character. You want to decide, who do you want to draw, or if you want to draw an original character. And then you want to decide how you're going to draw that character. Like am I going to use one page, am I going to draw it on the computer, am I going to use a two-page spread like in a comic book for more grandiose effect. And then you have to do the initial sketch of the character, which is like your structure of a piece, and then you add pen and pencil and whatever details you need. That's polishing the drawing.

Lin noticed a similar process for composing music and drawing anime art. It makes sense to me that the process is similar for many activities, including writing.

The need for scaffolding
Lin is a prodigy. She started studying music with Yamaha at the age of four. So, by the time of this video, she had been studying music intensively for 10 years, achieving the status of an expert (see The Expert Mind). Yet, notice that even at her level of experience, knowledge, and skill, her teachers helped her "structure" and "plan out the whole piece." That approach is somewhat at odds with the expressionist school of writing which wants students to find their own voice from the beginning, and composition theory that prefers to be non-directive. (In practice, many, probably most, composition instructors scaffold students by teaching about strategies, invention, and other processes.) Note that Lin found her musical "voice" by listening to great composers. Similarly, chess enthusiasts study the games of the grandmasters.

The need for extensive reading
Lin's approach, a typical one in music and chess, suggests that students need to read great authors to find their voice, and to do so over a lengthy period of time. One obstacle in teaching writing, however, is that few students read extensively, much less read great authors extensively. Another is that for ESL writers, finding a voice means finding one acceptable to native English speakers, not a voice true to them and to their culture. There is no way to bypass this need. Lin's ability to "polish the piece, polish the details, and then polish the overall performance of the composition"--in writing, to revise the essay, edit the details, and then finetune the overall coherence of the composition--is directly related to her extensive background in music.

Bottleneck constraints on creativity and learning
Lin's approach also indicates that creativity stems from one's familiarity with one's discipline or content. One problem in teaching composition at the university level has been transfer. For a variety of reasons, what is learned in first-year composition doesn't seem to transfer well to later courses, especially in other disciplines. Part of that lack of transfer is due to a lack of discipline/content knowledge. In attempting to develop their writing, students face two hurdles, subject matter knowledge and writing knowledge, creating a bottleneck that constrains developing their writing. (On bottlenecks, see here and here and here.)

Suggestions in teaching writing
One consequence of a bottleneck perspective is that students learning to write should write on topics they know well. Of course, they should move beyond their personal knowledge and experience and research their topics. Even though Lin obviously knew the romantic composers, she immersed herself in their music again. Thus, students need to immerse themselves in the conversations, academic and popular, on their topic, so that the more they know the concepts and issues on a particular topic, the more they can focus on their writing.

Along these lines, students might write on (and continue to research) the same topic via a series of papers that will allow them to focus more on developing their writing. For instance, on any topic, papers might include:

  • a rhetorical analysis of posters, advertisements, or photos on the topic
  • a letter to the editor of a newspaper
  • a review of a book or film on the topic
  • a proposal to a concerned party to take action on the issue

Reading, analyzing, and writing in different genres can also help students to become more aware of rhetorical conventions as they see how the conventions vary across genre, audience, and context. And as with Lin's teachers, we need to "structure" how they fill in the details: introducing them to different strategies for developing their ideas and planning their composition, making academic conventions explicit (see They say / I say), and so on.

To sum up, developing one's writing, one's voice, one's creativity, is mostly a matter students of spending time on task, as Lin does. However, providing structure and reducing the bottleneck of subject matter knowledge can help students in this process.

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