Writing as “Serving the Work”

Writing

I am a first-generation writer. My mother and grandmothers kept diaries, but none of them wrote anything with the express purpose of having it read by someone outside the family. I had a few good teachers who encouraged my writing, and I had a few teachers and professors over the years who told me that I needed to become a better writer. In the end, I learned how to write, and continue to learn how to write, by writing.

I have been grading the papers of college students for more than two decades, but this was the first semester in which I actually taught a first-year college writing course. (See my posts on this semester’s Created and Called for Community course). I have done a lot of writing over the years, but going into this semester I was nervous about teaching students how to write. Thankfully, Messiah College offered some training and resources to help me in this endeavor.

This semester I spent time working with my students on their thesis statements, footnotes, bibliographies, and rough drafts. We devoted entire class periods to writing.  I encouraged peer review. I wrote endless marginal comments. I think I did everything I was supposed to do.

But in the end, some students still struggle with writing clear and concise prose. They still get basic punctuation wrong. They write in passive voice. Run-on sentences abound. Some of these students have improved over the semester. Others have not.

I just finished reading the rough drafts of their final paper. Many of them are in great shape. These are a joy to read. But other papers have left me frustrated. Somewhere along the way, my students have come to think that in order to get a good grade on a paper they need to merely respond to every marginal comment I write or awkward sentence I identify. But I can’t line-edit every paper. I can’t offer sentence-by-sentence revisions. So when they do not get the grade they wanted, they send me an e-mail complaining: “I don’t understand why I got such a low grade (usually a “B” or “B+”). I did everything you told me to do in the rough draft.” In other words, “I jumped through the hoops you set out for me. Now why didn’t I get an A?”

But writing is not that simple. Granted, it comes easy for some people. But for others, like me, it takes work. It requires rewriting, editing, rewriting, editing, and rewriting and editing again and again until a sentence or a paragraph shines. It is like polishing a stone or sanding a piece of wood–elbow grease is necessary. We can give students all kinds of writing wheels, manuals, lectures, videos, exercises, and extra help, but how do we teach students to embrace the grind?

Earlier this semester, we read a wonderful essay by Dorothy Sayers titled “Why Work? Here is Sayers:

…the worker’s first duty is to serve the work. The popular catchphrase of today is that it is everybody’s duty to serve the community. It is a well-sounding phrase, but there is a catch in it.  It is the old catch about the two great commandments. “Love God and your neighbor; on those who commandments hand all the Law and the Prophets…

There is, in fact, a paradox about working to serve the community, and it is this: that to aim directly at serving the community is to falsify the work; the only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work. There are three good reasons for this:

The first is that you cannot do good work if you take your mind off the work to see how the community is taking it–any more than you can make a good drive from the tee if you take your eye off the ball…If your heart is not wholly in the work, the work will not be good–and work that is not good, serves neither God nor the community; it only serves mammon. 

The second reasons is that the moment you think of serving other people, you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains; you begin to think that you have a claim on the community…But if your mind is set upon serving the work, then you know you have nothing to look for; the only reward the work can give you is the satisfaction of beholding its perfection. The work takes all and give nothing but itself; and to serve the work is a labor of pure love.

And thirdly, if you set out to serve the community, you will probably end by merely fulfilling a public demand–and you may not even do that. A public demand is a changeable thing. Nine-tenths of the bad plays put on in theaters owe their badness to the fact that the playwright has aimed at pleasing the audience, instead of at producing a good and satisfactory play. Instead of doing the work as its own integrity demands that is should be done, he has falsified the play by putting in this or that which he thinks will appeal to the groundlings…and the play fails by its insincerity. The work has been falsified to please the public, and in the end even the public is not pleased. As it is with works of art, so it is with all work.

What might it mean for young writers to “serve the work?” I tell my students that their work at becoming better writers will one day benefit the communities they hope to serve. Do they believe me?  Some do. But others grow impatient. They just want to be told how to get a good grade and move on to the more “important” classes in their majors.

But there has been a lesson here for me as well. Over the course of the semester I have tried to have more patience with my students. I have taken more time than usual with their papers. I am learning to serve the work.