During January, I challenged students each week with a different dimension of writing: close reading and its relationship to writing; crafting sentences and using punctuation; dialogue and description; and finally, the qualities of genre, beginning with memoir. When one of the students described the feeling of having too many things to focus on while trying to write a memoir, I knew things were working as I had hoped.
It may sound like I was gleeful about their confusion, but that is not the case. What the comment indicated to me was that they were discovering the real challenge of writing. Beyond having to formulate thoughts and shape ideas, writing is about employing a multitude of possibilities in the complex system of language, including drawing on numerous intertwined skills. By asking the students to focus on some of these skills to the exclusion of others, I raised their awareness of the complexity. But, like all creative and artistic forms, there are ways of practicing these skills so that over time, they do not need to be such a subject of focus and automaticity can take over.
Reflecting on that conversation in class took me back to my early graduate work when I was introduced to Ann Berthoff’s work and her description of the “allatonceness” of writing. (I won’t tell you how long it took me to figure out how to pronounce that word—but let me say that writing it as all-at-onceness would have helped greatly.) She says:
In composing, everything happens at once—or it doesn’t happen at all. We make new meanings by means of old ones; we discover what we want to say as we say it and tell ourselves what it is that we are saying; we continually identify relationships and how relationships relate to one another. And all the thinking and languaging is going on as we are trying to construct sentences and paragraphs. (1988, p. 61)
In the midst of this allatonceness, when we are asked to focus on a particular skill such as description, we may feel like we are learning to ride a bike again. “Focus on your balance, keep it going. Don’t forget to pedal. Watch out for that car!” What the concept of allatonceness does, however, is remind us of the need for ambiguity and tentativeness while we are writing. Berthoff, ever striving for evocative metaphors, calls this the “hinges of thought.”
Learning to writing is a matter of learning to tolerate ambiguity, of learning that the making of meaning is a dialectical process determined by perspective and context. Meanings change as we think about them; statements and events, significances and interpretations can mean different things to different people at different times. Meanings are not prebaked or set for all time; they are created, found, formed, and reformed. (1981, 71)
I was heartened to see this statement in my master’s thesis: “Not only do students need other ways of experiencing the allatonceness of writing, but they need to be pointed to particular things that might happen during the writing, so they can both recognize and use these opportunities” (Luce-Kapler, 1994). There I could see the roots of the pedagogy I use today in my teaching of writing. It was reassuring somehow that such a belief has sustained me all these years as I work with writers, the belief that we need to exist in a mindful ambiguity while we write, developing skills that can slide onto the page or the computer screen as we work the “hinges of thought.”
It was interesting going back to this old work; it offered an opportunity to measure the change in my scholarship. Twenty years ago it did not occur to me to follow up on the word allatonceness. I assumed that Berthoff had created it. This time, however, I was not content to leave it there. I did some further research and found that it is usually attributed to media scholar, Marshall McLuhan. He used the term to describe the process of mass communications being shared in unison across widespread communities, leading to his conception of the “global village.” It creates an interesting image when I shift from the global village to my writing process.
What a difference a developed scholarly practice makes—oh yes, and there was that little technological shift called “the internet” that helped too.