Friday, January 10, 2014

A Comment Regarding Profile Writing

I do some freelance writing work (Shaw's adage about those who cannot does not always apply), and as part of that, I was asked to compose what amounts to a profile of a person who does not exist, one not unlike earlier versions of a standard assignment for my ENGL 1113 classes at Oklahoma State University.  While I cannot discuss the details of the profile I wrote, I can note briefly my experience of writing it.

I was provided with a set of instructions to follow in composing the piece, instructions which were helpful in offering a framework in which to compose.  Not needing to do all of the work of narrowing the topic of the piece made the writing task easier for me, although I will admit that the limitations imposed by the instructions did prevent me from pursuing one or two ideas that might have been entertaining reads.  Still, knowing what dominant impression I needed to convey about the character (if there is a better word for a fictional person, I should like to know it) I was profiling afforded me a convenient focus, and that helped my writing.

Even so, I encountered some difficulty in developing the idea.  I wanted to impart a certain element of tongue-in-cheek humor about the piece, a subtle nod to the fictional nature of the character profiled in the piece I was asked to write.  Owing to my family background, I am aware of some pre-existing fictional constructs that would have indicated the inherent fiction of the character to those aware of those constructs but would have required others to do a bit of basic internet research to get the joke.  When I tried to include them, however, I found that they did not flow organically and authentically for me; they seemed forced, instead.  That I am aware of them does not mean that I have the right to them, and lacking that right made writing about them work less well than I would hope.  Thus, I abandoned those references, scrapping the draft I had made of the piece that included them and starting again.

When I resumed writing, I did so with thoughts of my own sense of place in mind.  My family background makes me aware of things, but my experiential background gives me the right to other things entirely, and it was those things I was able to use in the profile to make what I hope is an effective profile of the character.  Where I have lived, where I have studied, where I have visited, informed the piece, offering it both the authenticity it needed to be an actual profile and the sense of humor, the nod to the fictional nature of the character and a few other erudite jokes, which I hoped to embed in the profile.

I hope that my students can take from this a confirmation of the idea that all writing--not just the profile assignment towards which this comment is most specifically directed, although certainly including it--benefits from the experiential knowledge of the author, something Lisa Shaver calls "situated ethos" in her September 2012 College English piece "'No cross, no crown': An Ethos of Presence in Margaret Prior's Walks of Usefulness."  (I often refer to the article in lecture; my students will do well to read it.)  It is absolutely necessary to do outside research to inform writing, particularly the kind of writing that is done at the collegiate level and for college coursework (even in creative writing classes), but it is also needful to work from lived experience; the latter lends an immediacy and authentic authority to writing that compels, and that compulsion is far from a bad thing.

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