The Writing Interview wrs 101: B3, Exploring Writing, Winter 2010 The Situation



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The Writing Interview WRS 101: B3, Exploring Writing, Winter 2010

The Situation:

You are considering a certain field or career and want to know what kind of writing will be expected.



The Task (Audience and Purpose/Social Action):

You are going to interview an individual in that field or line of work about the writing they do every day and how they go about doing it. Interviews with individuals who have more work and writing experience than you do—or experience of a different kind—can generate rich material to help you, your colleagues, and your instructor get a better sense of the wide variety of writing that gets done in the world.



Process Stages for the Assignment and Important Dates:
Jan. 7 —Information on interview essay given out in class (Paper #1).
Jan. 12Deadline for deciding who your interviewee will be, as well as for confirming an appointment time with them. Bring to class an index card with the following information on it (this card will be collected at the start of class):

  1. Your name

  2. Date and time set for a one-hour interview (the interview can be longer, but not shorter)

  3. Name and occupation of interviewee (give interviewee’s approximate age and explain briefly how you know them)


Between Jan. 7 and Jan. 18Complete the first interview (see guidelines on pp. 2-4 below)
Jan. 19Bring your interview notes and your interview inkshed to class for a workshop (see p. 4 below for additional details on both of these). Make sure you have gone through your notes and reconstructed them before class.
Between Jan. 19 and Jan. 26—Complete the follow-up interview (must be completed before class on Jan. 26). The follow-up interview can be very short or as long as the first interview—whatever length it needs to be for your purposes as a writer.
Jan 21--Rough draft of Paper #1 due

Bring 2 identical computer print-outs, one for me, one for your group—workshop on drafts.
Jan. 26Second draft of Interview paper due. Bring this draft on disk/ memory stick to work with.

Editor workshop.
Jan. 28Final draft of Interview paper due.

Bring two identical copies to class, along with output from 2nd run of Editor (that is, after making revisions based on the first run). Use FIX, SPELL 1, and SPELL 2 only (revisions based on Editor output MUST be done before class—no exceptions).



Proofreading session in class. Proofreading pairs sign up for conferences Jan 28-Feb 6.
Jan 28-Feb 8—Required conferences (proofreading partners will attend a one-hour conference together). Within 24 hours of your conference, you are required to email the instructor a detailed response to the conference, using the template provided.
Criteria for the Interview Paper (see pp. 5-6 below for a more detailed explanation):

Expertise: convince your reader, gently (show, don’t tell), that you know more than your reader does about your interviewees’ writing—about the range of genres that are expected and respected in their particular discourse communities and the writing processes that help them produce these expected genres. Also, don’t hesitate to share your growing expertise about research in the field of Writing Studies with your interviewee in case something you’ve learned might help make writing less stressful for them.

Detail: gather more data than you can use, including samples of your interviewees’ writing (you are required to integrate a selection from your interviewees’ writing into your paper, making the boundaries clear between their writing and your own).

Voice: include enough exact quotations from your interviewee to give us a sense of his or her speech rhythms, characteristic expressions or turns of phrase, ways of thinking and talking.

Process: help your interviewees explore how they manage to complete the writing tasks (self-assigned or assigned by work or life) that they’re responsible for, since they may not be aware of these processes themselves; they may also not be aware of having different processes for different genres (say, for blogs as opposed to daily emails as opposed to monthly reports).

So what? Wrestle some meaning out of your data, but don’t force some grand conclusion—a quiet revelation about something small, something most people might not notice, will be more convincing and more memorable, especially if it emerges with a sense of inevitability from your material.


Guidelines for conducting the interview
In as much detail as possible, ask about your interviewees’ writing histories and writing processes (see the attached list of questions). In order to find out what kinds of writing need to be done regularly in their occupation, ask about every time their fingers touch a keyboard or hold a pen during the day, from the time they rise in the morning until the time they go to sleep at night (in other words, even writing a cheque, an email, or a to-do list counts). Ask them to tell you stories about times writing went well for them or times writing went badly. Gather information about their attitudes toward writing, their experience of it in school, and any private or personal writing they are doing now or have done over the years. Gather more detail than you can use so you can look for emerging themes in your material. Make sure that you allow the data you’ve collected to suggest a possible shape or structure for your finished piece—you don’t want a reader to experience your interview as a random list, one unrelated detail after another.

If you’re tempted to interview two or three people for this assignment, keep in mind that even interviewing one can generate more data than you can use in a short essay (1000-1250 words). Use the interview to make some discoveries that matter to you—perhaps about the person you’ve interviewed, a future career, or your own writing processes/experiences compared to those of your interviewee.



Format/Structure/Models

There are many possible formats interviews can follow. Read some interviews with published writers to get an idea what some of the possibilities are. The Paris Review interviews are particularly interesting; 300+ of these “Writers at Work” interviews (from 1953 to the present) are now available free online at http://www.theparisreview.com/literature.php. Also take a look at some of the following interviews in Conversations about Writing (and note the cross-references to the textbook in the bibliography below, a pattern you’ll need to be familiar with for your own Works Cited list in Paper #3):



Mammen, Lori. “When Teachers Are Writers: An Interview with Peter Elbow.” In Sargent and Paraskevas, 361-370. (Originally printed in Writing Teacher, January 1992. 3-8.)
Sargent, M. Elizabeth, and Cornelia C. Paraskevas. Conversations about Writing. Toronto: Thomson Nelson, 2005.
Stafford, William. “Facing Up to the Job” (A Conversation with Nancy Bunge). In Sargent and Paraskevas, 96-97. (Originally printed in You Must Revise Your Life. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1986. 73-86.)
Stafford, William. “Finding What the World is Trying to Be” (An Interview with Sanford Pinsker). In Sargent and Paraskevas, 94-95. (Originally printed in Writing the Australian Crawl. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1978. 114-125.)
Reich, Lynn. “Interview with a Science Writer.” In Sargent and Paraskevas, 318-322.

Possible Interview Questions (you’ll need to create more of your own):
Take this list of questions with you to the interview, along with 10-15 additional questions you've written down based on what you know about this person and his or her life and/or job. Don't plan to get through all of these questions! Just check off the ones you have asked and save some of the rest for the follow-up interview. It's always better to have too many questions than too few; you’ll have a good instinct for which of the questions below won’t work well in your particular interview situation.

NOTE: Since we all have the list of questions below, you’ll want to avoid inserting them into your interview as is. You’ll want to save the limited space of your paper for your interviewee’s responses, not these questions.
--who are you? how would you describe your various roles at work and/or at home? what is your job description or title? how would you describe the work you do and the people you do it for (family, clients, bosses, whoever)?

--what kinds of writing do you do? count as writing anytime you use a pen or pencil or sit down at a computer or typewriter keyboard.

--when do you write? walk me through a typical day--what kinds of writing do you during each half hour period of the day?

--where do you do this writing? do you do different kinds of writing at different places?

--how do you write? that is,

under what conditions--noise, silence, alone, in groups, munching peanuts or not eating or drinking

for hours?

in what state of mind--anxious or relaxed, happy or sad, businesslike because it has to get done, under pressure of a deadline, or in a passionate rush to express a strong feeling?

with what tools?

with what response to pressure--do you get paralyzed with fear if a piece of writing is important or do you rise to the occasion?

with or without an outline? (or do you use an outline for some things and not others? if so, why?

which kinds of pieces do you not outline first? do you enjoy writing more with an outline? Or not?)


--who has been important to your writing, either for good or for ill? Can you tell me a story about a person who made you uncomfortable about your writing? a story about someone who made you feel better about writing?

--what do you remember being taught about writing in school? Are there any rules that stick in your mind, things you were told never to do or always to do in your writing? What do you think of them now? Do you still try to follow them? If something changed your mind about any of them, what was it?

--do you put off getting started when you have a writing task to do? do you work close to deadlines? or do you have to start on a project as soon as you know about it?

--do you usually do too much research for a writing project or too little? do you have too many details, too much data, when you start to write or too few? or are most of your writing tasks for work fairly straightforward--that is, you simply write up all the information there is and then stop?

--are there some kinds of writing you love to do? what are they?

--tell me the story of a time writing went really well for you.

--can you tell me more? was there another time writing worked well for you?

--tell me the story of a time writing went really badly for you.

--can you tell me more? was there another time writing went wrong for you?

--could you show me a few pieces of your writing, something you'd be willing to share with me? would you be willing for me to use a few lines or a paragraph from this piece of writing in my essay? can you tell me in some detail the story of how it got written? why you wrote it? for whom? when? how? where? whether it worked or not--that is, whether it did what you wanted it to do? Is this a typical piece of writing for you or unusual in some way?

--can you tell me the story of a time when your writing really puzzled you? when something happened that you weren't expecting?

--what do you find hardest in writing?

--what do you find most pleasurable about writing?
After the interview, two steps are crucial. Allow enough time for them; if at all possible, don't schedule the interview on a day when you know you'll need to rush off to a class or a meeting immediately afterward. Each hour that goes by will mean more details lost; they'll simply fall out of your short-term memory if you don't catch them on paper right after the interview.

1. First, immediately (don't let 5 minutes pass if you can help it), find a quiet place where you can focus uninterrupted for at least fifteen minutes (longer if you're on a roll) and write down every physical detail you can remember about the interview. Catalogue your five senses. Glance at the following list of suggestions both before the interview and directly after it, just before you begin your inkshed.

What was the interviewee wearing? Describe.

Where did the interview take place?

What was the weather/temperature like?

Were you outside, inside, cold, hot, sweaty, dry, damp, calm, nervous?

What did you sit on? Where did the interviewee sit?

Did he or she do anything while you spoke?

Were there interruptions? What were they?

Were there distracting noises? What sort?

Did the interviewee have any characteristic expressions or movements? Any accent?

Did either of you eat or drink anything? Did you smell anything interesting?

What sights or textures were in the room? Plants? Paintings? Animals?

Was this a space designed or furnished by the interviewee or an impersonal, public space? If the

former, what might it reveal about him or her?

Do you think the space affected your conversation in any way?

Did the interview take more or less time than you expected?

Were there agonizing silences? When? Do you have any idea what caused them?

Did you have a hard time getting the interviewee to talk? to shut up? to stay on the topic?

Were there stories you wish you could have pursued further?

What questions that you didn't get to ask do you most wish you had asked now?
2. Second, you need to go over your notes and reconstruct them. You probably were writing quickly and not in complete sentences. Some of your notations will look pretty cryptic and may be indecipherable within twenty-four hours. As you go over your notes, write additional comments, fill in necessary connecting words, try to reconstruct what the interviewee said and how he or she said it. If even now, after only a half hour or so, you've already forgotten what a certain jotting meant, mark it with a colored pen of some sort (or highlight it, if you took your notes on a computer). Put a big question mark next to it, and make sure to show it to your interviewee at the follow-up interview to see if he or she has an idea what it meant. As you reconstruct your notes, write down additional questions that occur to you. Write "tell me more" (TMM) next to places that seem to lead to interesting stories or that seem weak in detail. Use these reconstructed notes during your follow-up interview(s), either in person or by phone or both.
You'll be asked to bring both your fifteen-minute write-up (#1 above) and all of your interview notes (#2), no matter how messy, to class so that your editing group can look at them. Thus, it's especially important that you try to make your interview notes sensible, both to your own eyes and to those of others.
_____________________

Should you use a tape recorder? With the permission of your interviewee, you could--but there are some real disadvantages to doing this:

--Recorders can make people nervous and result in your getting less information than you'd hoped for (and more restrained answers).

--Recorders can make you a lazy note-taker during the interview and thus add to your workload later. That is, sooner or later, you have to listen to the tape and condense everything on it to some notes you can work with and use; you'll need to choose what's most interesting or colorful or revealing. Why not just start doing this as you interview? It saves you time.

--Recorders don't encourage people to talk as much as note-takers do. I'm not quite sure why this is, but most people when they are asked a question will talk longer and give you more detail if you're eagerly jotting down everything they say. It pays them a compliment; it makes them feel that what they’re saying is important and that you're an eager listener. Occasionally you might have to ask them to pause so you can get something down before they go on. This gives them time to collect their thoughts, time for other related details and stories to surface. Then when you look up, ready to continue, they're full of new material, having had some quiet time to think. If you're just staring at them all the time instead of busily scribbling on a pad of paper, they might feel nervous or embarrassed, especially if they had to pause and couldn't think what to say next.


So, if you absolutely must use a recorder, do it only as a safety net for yourself, to catch something wonderful you might not manage to get written down as you listen. Take intense and careful notes even if you’re taping, and explain to your interviewee that you might not even listen to the tape unless you have a nagging suspicion that you missed jotting down something important. And remember, you are required by FOIPP and by the University of Alberta Research Ethics Board to get your interviewees’ permission first, letting them know the purpose of the recording and assuring them it will be used for that purpose only (i.e., not shared with anyone else).

Criteria for the Interview Paper
In the workaday world, each piece of writing is for a particular purpose and a particular audience, and if it ignores either, it's not likely to work. So let me list here the criteria for Paper #1, what I'm looking for and what I think this piece should help you learn as a writer.
1. First, EXPERTISE -- you'll learn how to become an expert, how to write from the authority that comes from knowing more about your subject than anyone else does, including the teacher. Too often in schools, writing is a set-up job. That is, you're asked to write about something you know little about to someone who knows a lot. This means you keep trying to figure out what they want to hear rather than what you want to tell. You write from a sense of inadequacy, insufficiency.

But when you choose someone the teacher doesn't know and interview that person in detail, you become the expert. The teacher cannot know as much as you do about that person's writing habits. Hardly anyone else can, not even the person being interviewed! Chances are they've not paid any more attention to their writing processes than you had paid to your own before you started this course. In fact, one of the fun things about this essay is that the interviewees will probably be surprised by a few memories and insights about their writing along the way. That makes the project useful and enjoyable for them as well.


2. Second, DETAIL -- when you interview someone, you usually end up with far more detail than you can use. Good writing grows from a wealth of detail. Gather enough so you can throw a lot away and only keep the best stuff. Notice especially physical details; catalogue your five senses. What were you smelling, seeing, hearing, touching and tasting during the interview? Try to write down the exact words and expressions your interviewee uses. Notice the setting, the time of day, the weather, any interruptions or distractions, daily life going on around you, distant sounds. Don't make any decisions during the interview about which details you'll use later and which you'll toss. Just collect them.

Also, remember to ask for and persist until you get a sample of your interviewee's writing. It might only be an office memo or announcement that they feel free to share, something that isn't confidential to a patient or to the business--or to them. Even so, read through it and include at least a brief excerpt from it in your final essay. Perhaps the writing sample simply reveals the kind of tedious writing that particular job requires day-in and day-out. Or, perhaps it will be something more complex than that and longer. If so, pick some lines that got through to you, that attracted energy or strength as you read--then try to explain why lines stood out, what they reveal to you about the person who wrote them, about that person’s job, and/or about that person's relationship to writing.



Collecting details and a writing sample are part of becoming an expert. I doubt that anyone ever really enjoys writing or feels the real craft of it until the day they feel swamped by too many rich details, drowning in them, and then suddenly begin to sense how by writing they can discover a way to stay afloat, even be buoyed up by those details. When you gather live details around you, immerse yourself in them, and pay close attention to them, somehow they begin to demand their own shape. You may end up with a collage or a dialogue or a question-and-answer magazine interview form or a story or a drama or some form that hasn't even been discovered yet--perhaps a mixture of all these with some poetry and music mixed in. No one is requiring you to write a five-paragraph theme. Instead, gather so much material that you have to consult the material itself about what shape it should take.

Once you've experienced writing out of a superfluity of material, you'll never again be content with the stereotypical college writing situation: trying to write a ten-page paper when you only have a five-page paper's worth of stuff. We all know what such papers get stretched out with.


3. Third, VOICE -- catch the speech rhythms and some of the exact words and phrases of your interviewee. So much academic writing is unreadable because it sounds as if nobody's home, nobody wrote it or cares about it or will take responsibility for it. The trouble is, lots of students think teachers want writing like that because lots of assignments tend to encourage it. But an interview immerses you in the rhythms of human speech and helps you avoid dull, wooden academic writing. Make sure you record enough exact phrases and responses from your interviewee to convey how they talk, characteristic expressions they use. Notice pitch, intonation, repetitions, and body language. Quote your interviewee exactly as much as possible in your essay (except, of course, for “um”s and “ah”s and random unintentional, meaningless mistakes or wordy passages, which you should quietly omit, fix, or tighten—no interviewee will thank you for making him or her look stupid on paper). Use quotation marks when you quote directly, and note that each time the speaker changes, you need a new paragraph. Avoid fancy verbs and adverbs like "she queried frantically"--a simple "said" works much better in most cases, even if it’s repeated often, because it doesn't draw attention to itself (cf. Ray Carver!). After all, it's the interviewee's words that you want the reader to notice, not your wide variety of words for "said!"
4. Fourth, PROCESS -- investigate your interviewee's writing processes. Push for particulars. Frequently ask them to "tell you a story about. . . " or "tell you more about. . . " specific times when writing went well or badly for them. Where were they when they wrote it? How much time did they have? What tools did they use? Did the subject interest them? Did they get to pick the subject themselves? Why were they writing about it? Consider yourself an anthropologist taking field notes on a peculiar process and notice everything about it. There's no one right way to write. There's no wrong way. Let them know you're interested in any moment when their pen or pencil met paper (or fingers met keyboard). Lots of people will say, "Oh, I don't write" when you ask them about their writing. But if you define any time they use the computer or any time they make a mark on paper as writing, you'll get quite a different answer. Grocery lists count. Emails count. Post-it notes count. Writing checks counts.

Don't decide ahead of time which details are important. Collect them all. Perhaps simply a time-chart of their day would help them reveal the writing they do. Ask them at what time of day do they usually first pick up a pen or sit down at the keyboard? What do they do at ten? ten-thirty? eleven? Account for each half-hour until the half hour when they fall asleep at night. How many minutes out of their waking hours do they spend with pen in hand or in front of a computer screen?


5. Fifth, SO WHAT? -- make a point. Discover the shape that all your detail, all your material, wants to take. What are those specific details showing you about writing? About your relationship to writing? About your interviewee's relationship to writing? You may not want to state this conclusion in one or two sentences at the end; you might simply want it to become obvious to the reader by the way you've shaped the whole piece or by the way you've juxtaposed sections of your collage or by the way you've organized your dialogue. (Remember, what comes last always carries special weight and sticks in the reader's mind.) But don't rest content with simply piling up one detail after another; wrestle some revelation, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, out of your material. If you're stuck, write a rough draft and share it with the person you interviewed; then ask them if they now see anything about themselves as a writer that they hadn't noticed before. Ask them what else they might add, now that they've had a chance to think back over the interview.

Finally, experiment with asking questions of yourself and of your writing. It's true that strong writing grows from a wealth of detail, but your writing will go even deeper when you learn to push further, to probe, to ask questions of the details you've put together. Try working with your paragraphs as if they were parts of a collage. Print out a draft, cut out each paragraph, and then shuffle them. Put different paragraphs next to each other and see what they might reveal--what conflicts or similarities you might suddenly see. After all, one of the reasons writing has extended human thinking is that writing helps us lay our thoughts down "out there," helps us make them separate from ourselves so we can rearrange them and see different relationships and connections between them. Computers make it easy for us to take advantage of written language this way, to explore its potential for extending thought.

Don't force some big, vague conclusion onto your material, like "Writing is important to everybody." Something quite small and specific would be more convincing. For instance (I just made this up),

I began noticing that all Sarah Smith's most intense and productive spurts of writing--whether she was at work or at home--came in the hour or two before meals, or late at night, long after the dinner dishes had been washed and put away. When I asked her if she'd ever considered that perhaps she wrote best when she was slightly hungry and empty, she smiled.

"No, but I'll consider it," she said.

We were both left wondering what effect hunger--physical, mental, or emotional--might have on our writing.


So, you'll be working to include five things, to learn the importance of these five things to yourself as a writer, in this piece of writing: expertise, detail, voice, process, so what? That's enough for one paper.

__________________________________________________________
Interview assignment--M. Elizabeth Sargent, Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta, December 2009

(This assignment is indebted to Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff's text A Community of Writers, Toronto: McGraw Hill, 2000)




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