One of my gigs this summer is working in our university’s Writing Center. It’s a place where anyone can bring a piece of writing they’re working on and talk through it with one of one of the Center’s coaches—a stranger! often someone the writer’s never met. They trust us, our clients, to help them to make their writing stronger.
It’s weirdly intimate, what we do, and it hinges on an act of faith.
As a coach, my job, as I see it, is to listen—first to the writer as they tell me what they want to focus on in the session, or what elements of their essay they’re most concerned about; then to the piece itself, as the writer reads it aloud; and finally, to the ways in which the writer responds to my questions, comments, or suggestions.
It’s a kind of concentrated listening that can give writers permission to turn that same level of attention inward, on themselves and on their writing–to listen to what their gut’s telling them.
Most of the writers I work with, even those less familiar with the inexplicable quirks of American English, they know what’s working and what’s not in their work. They do. But they don’t trust themselves, or they’ve been too busy trying to meet a word count or wrestling with the vagaries of the assignment to tune into Writer Radio.
The Writing Center, their 30 or 60 minutes with me—it gives them the space and time they need to get quiet and roll that dial.
Sometimes, I ask questions. Sometimes, I make suggestions. But inevitably, in sessions that go well, what I mostly do? Is listen. I’m an audience to a dialogue, a discussion, that’s already in progress in the writer’s head; my physical presence, my ability to really listen—to perform the act of listening, I’d say—pushes that discussion out into the open and lets the writer reap the benefits of their own intuition.
I’m telling you: they know.
But it struck me this week, as I struggle with my own neuroses around readers’ responses to my academic writing, what an act of faith my clients commit each time they enter the Center.
They believe in me, in us, in the work that we do there. They entrust us with their writing, with looking deeply at their writing, and have faith that we’ll be able to steer them right.
This is amazing, to me.
I’m very territorial about my academic writing; that’s the best way I know how to say it. I’m protective of it, of the parts of me that it tends to represent, and I get very twitchy when other people read it–much less when they tell me what they think.
I’m in a perpetual crouch over that kind of looking, still.
I’ve worked in writing centers before, at two different universities, and yet it had never occurred to me before, the kind of bravery it takes to walk into a consultation for the first time, blind; to hand over a part of yourself to a stranger and trust them to care for it, pay attention to it, and make it stronger, in the end.
I don’t think I could do that, even now. I’d be protective, defensive—I already am—and I’d have a hard time relaxing enough to hear what the coach had to say, much less to consider their advice.
This is a long way of saying: I admire our clients’ bravery. I’m envious of their faith.
And I’m grateful that they willingly entrust us–me–with both.