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Throughout my life, I’ve read many books. Fiction, non-fiction, historicalfiction, science-fiction, and even at times, fanfiction. Every time I finish a book, I dream of becoming a famous author. In the beginning, it seems like the most wonderful and attainable idea, but as soon as I put pen to paper, all motivation flies out of the window. How do I start? What will it be about? And especially: Will it be good? But what exactly is “good” writing? How does one become “a good writer”?
If you attended any high school in America, you probably fancy yourself an expert on what good writing looks like.
Good writing is five or more paragraphs, contains a thesis, supporting arguments, includes citations and quotations, and is never in the first person. Somehow, it must also relay our personal opinions and experiences.
During high school, I never paid much attention to how strict these “good writing” rules were. I always assumed that writing was a professional pastime that required the fanciest of language and the most impeccable of structure.
I feel as though everything I’ve written has been devoid of emotion and personality. Thus, it felt extremely difficult to write my own stories. Stories are meant to be unique, imaginative, and enjoyable but I don’t remember enjoying any piece that I wrote or feeling like that piece was something personal.
In this essay, I begin by retracing some of my experiences with writing in the past. In the beginning, I express my frustration with a specific rule that made me feel detached from my writing.
In the second part, I summarize Donald Murray’s essay “All writing is autobiography”, and interpret it in my own words. Finally, I discuss my personal opinions on Murray’s essay and how reading it will affect my writing in the future.
During high school, I never had a class that was designated specifically to creative writing. I took English classes that mainly focused on literature, grammar usage, and speech. The times when we were required to write an essay, we were expected to follow strict guidelines. For instance, it had to be in MLA format, be a certain length, have supporting arguments, specific sources for each argument, etc. The rule that annoyed me the most was the sources rule. To me, having to always support everything I wrote with evidence from an outside source made the paper feel less personal. If I had an opinion on a certain issue, I couldn’t include it unless some big shot professor from Harvard had published it first. I understand that it was a good way to further prove your point, but not everything needed to be proven by an outside source. It was almost as if what I thought wasn’t sufficient and needed to be backed up by a source that was deemed more reliable.
I remember one time in my social issues class, the teacher assigned a paper on the recent travel ban that was passed and told us to write about our thoughts. The ban prevented entry from seven middle-eastern countries into the United States because they posed as potential threats to America. As a Muslim American who originated from one of the seven countries that were banned, I felt very strongly about this issue. Throughout the paper I expressed my frustration with the ban and how I believed the whole thing revolved around racism and had nothing to do with “national security”. Because of how closely I related to the topic, I wrote based on my experience, and this was the first piece of academic writing that I had a strong opinion on. I truly believed I deserved nothing less than an A.
When I got my paper back, I scored a 0 on the sources portion and my overall grade was a C. Of course, I was livid and I immediately sent my teacher a very indignant email. Mr V (social issues teacher) emailed me back and told me that the problem with my essay was that none of the points were backed up by evidence. I couldn’t just say it was racist, I had to prove it was by including an outside source.
It’s racist because it’s racist! is what I wanted to scream. Why should I prove something that is so blatantly obvious?
This was my opinion, as a Sudanese Muslim women who was probably more effected by the ban then some white guy named Frank from the Huffington Post. It didn’t make sense to me why my opinion wasn’t a valid enough source.
This rule was very constricting in that I couldn’t write any ideas or thoughts in my papers that were mine. I felt detached from my writing. I also felt like whenever a teacher assigned one of these essays, they didn’t care about my opinion but rather on my ability to do research.
Going through life believing that nothing I write can be personal leaves a lasting impression. However, my opinions have drastically changed after reading a powerful essay by Donald Murray.
Donald Murray’s “All Writing is Autobiography” is an insightful essay that strives to prove exactly what its title says, that all writing is autobiography. He argues that a writer incorporates himself in every piece of writing he does, whether it be a novel, a poem, a news article, or even, a dictionary. This is because each piece is written with the writer’s own style, voice, and worldview. Whether the vowel “I’ is used or not, we still relay on our personal thoughts and opinions in our writing. Every time you write and use your own language, the story becomes yours.
Murray encourages readers to realize that every piece of writing is autobiographical because they are the ones who wrote it and they shouldn’t be afraid to express themselves.
Reading Donald Murray’s essay was confusing to me at first. How could all writing be autobiographical? A dictionary, for instance, is a piece of writing but what about writing down words and their definitions is autobiographical? There’s nothing personal about the definition of the word mitosis.
But after reading the entire essay, I realized I needed to stop taking everything in a literal sense. What Murray means by writing being autobiographical is because it is you who writes it. Whoever wrote the Meriem-Websters dictionary was still somehow using their own voice and worldview, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first glance.
In his essay, Murray quotes the American novelist Don DeLillo who says: “I think after a while a writer can begin to know himself through his language. He sees someone or something reflected back at him from these constructions. Over the years it’s possible for a writer to shape himself as a human being through the language he uses. I think written language, fiction, goes that deep. He not only sees himself but begins to make himself or remake himself.” (Murray, 62)
My educational past has taught me to distance myself and my opinions from my writing. I realize now that I need to learn to communicate to my audience without completely erasing myself from my own writing.
Murray’s essay has given me a new point of view on my writing. He claims that “we are autobiographical in the way we write” and I now understand that no matter how serious a piece may be, it is always personal because I am the author. The words I use are mine and the ways I connect those words together to form a story are mine. With this knowledge, I believe that the writing I will do in the future will be better. I feel encouraged to put more of myself into what I write and instead of writing for a certain audience, I will begin to write for myself.
I also think Murray’s essay contains many implications for teachers. His viewpoint offers teachers a different mindset in teaching writing. They shouldn’t limit their students in their writing and should begin to allow expression to shine through. Writing is an individualistic art that shouldn’t be strictly monitored or tethered down by rules.
I think the number one problem that stands between students and writing is the assignment topics. Students won’t be able to relate as much to topics such as “The different cells in the human body”, in comparison to topics like “Discrimination in our education system.” With topics like that, many students will be able to connect with the issue and write more in depth pieces about it.
I have come to realize that I need to develop my voice and language and allow it to show in my writing. This will help me become a better writer and allow me to knock down the obstacles that are standing in between me and a future writing career.
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