Wednesday, October 10, 2012

When Emotional Writing is Important--Just Not for a Class

My most interesting experience recently was when I had to help a tutee who had written a paper about how her mother died a year ago this month.  When I finished the first paragraph, I stopped.  I didn't really know how to deal with a paper like this, especially in a public setting like the writing center.  In a one-on-one setting with no prying ears, I would have felt more capable and willing to show the writer the sympathy that I felt.  After considering a few platitudes that would sound. . .well, like platitudes, I went on reading the paper.
When I finished, I glanced at the tutee.  Her bottom lip was quivering.  Looking at the paper, I felt that nothing I could say or do would do anything but cheapen what she had written.  Why should she care about comma splices when she was mourning her mother's death?
The main problem was that she had written a piece that needed to be written.  The things she said were things that needed to be said.  I didn't want her to change anything, or especially to cut anything out.  At the same time, she had not met the requirements of the assignment.  The teacher had asked for a narrative, but, aside from pointing out how her mother died, the tutee had only written about her feelings and fears following the event.  I couldn't think of a way to tell her, "Please give more details about how your mother died.  Fill out your account of what happened."  I felt my options were either to not help her or to be cruel.
I spent the rest of the session helping her with grammar issues.  That seemed to calm her down a bit, but it did little to address the main problem in her paper.  At the end of the session, though, I couldn't stay silent.  As she stood up to leave, I mentioned that she might want to look at adding more details to her account.
For me the whole event was kind of a daze.  I felt a strong desire to talk to her as a friend rather than a tutor, and to give her sympathy--to validate the pain she described in her paper.  But I felt shackled by the constraints of my position and my capability.  I don't think I could have said anything that would have really helped her.  I wasn't the person she needed at that moment.
After talking with Claire about the experience, I feel more free to express some sympathy in future events like this, but also to encourage the tutee to keep what they wrote for themselves, but to write something else that would meet the demands of the assignment.


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