I teach writing because I love writing, and I want to share that love with others. It may be hard to believe, but I haven't always loved writing. At least not academic writing. I've always been an avid fiction writer, but when it came to my first writing class in college, I couldn't help but think: "What the hell did they do to writing? This sucks!"
I wasn't any good at academic writing, either. In fact, you probably remember the story I share in class about how I almost dropped out of college because of that first writing class. I needed to write a 4-page paper, and after 2.5 pages, I had nothing left. I was completely stumped. I kept thinking that I was obviously too stupid for college.
How ironic that it was a writing assignment that almost ruined everything for me.
The Blame Game
When I think back to that first college paper assignment, I distinctly remember being angry at my professor for asking me to write about something so stupid. I was going to fail, and it wasn't because I couldn't write; it was because I couldn't write about that particular topic. And if my professor truly cared, she'd have taken my 2.5 pages and told me EXACTLY what to write to get that 4-page 'A' paper I wanted. After all, don't good professors want their students to succeed?
But it wasn't my professor's fault. It wasn't her writing prompt's fault. It wasn't even my own lack of knowledge that was to blame. I was blaming all the wrong things. I blamed whatever and whomever came to mind. The only thing I didn't blame was my need to blame something.
The Blame Game and Writing
I'm not an expert on the psychology of blame, so I don't know all the nuances of meaning. Thankfully, there are experts out there (like this one) who can help you understand your tendency to blame others (or yourself) if this is a regular occurrence for you.
When it comes to writing, though, I think some folks who generally don't play the Blame Game suddenly start to when confronted with the challenges of writing for a grade.
For me, the fundamental difference between cause and blame is that blame is associated with guilt, a negative emotion. I always find it interesting that as humans, when we don't know much about some catastrophic event, the media will say something like: "the cause of the fire is still under investigation." When stated this way, it leaves open the possibility that something innocent, perhaps totally beyond anyone's control, has caused the incident. Imagine if they said instead, "What's to blame for the fire has not yet been determined." Immediately, we shift into wanting to know who or what deserves that determination of guilt.
This subtle difference is important when trying to understand certain social issues, like school shootings. Whether a person is asking "What causes school shootings?" or "What's to blame for school shootings?" they will approach their inquiry in drastically different ways. To use the language of Moxley's knowledge-making communities, CAUSE is more of a positivist word, while BLAME is more of a scholar word. One word implies looking toward the collecting of "factual" evidence while the other implies looking toward an interpretation of that evidence.
What does all this have to do with writing? Well, I find that many students switch into blame-mode when they've fallen into a negative writing experience. They go straight to evaluating the evidence to determine blame, instead of first understanding the cause of their negative writing experience. Sometimes, blame placed on others for a negative experience is warranted (I'd argue it's not healthy, but at least it's justified). But most of the time, I hear so many students interpreting blame based on their flawed interpretations of the evidence. Here's three classic examples of what I'm talking about:
It's important to note that often times, a lack of trying isn't simply an indication of laziness, even though that's often how your professors may interpret it. Many times, not doing the assigned work is an attempt to avoid putting any energy into something we feel doesn't deserve that energy. I'm not going to spend time here arguing how I believe that the energy expended in a writing course has long-term benefits for students because that's not what this post is about. It's about regaining your personal power by accepting the root causes of your frustration instead of giving all that power to external conditions through the act of blaming. If you don't see the value of your writing courses, that's fine. But blaming others for any negative outcome that results from that devaluing of the course isn't going to make you value those classes any more or make the subject of your blame value those classes any less. It's truly wasted energy.
In order for Taylor to know how to overcome that, he needs to understand where his writer's block is coming from. Is he overly concerned with the rules of writing (algorithmic thinking)? Is he afraid of putting a lot of effort into the paper and then having it deemed no good (fear of failure)? Does he generally have writing anxiety or writing apprehension? Does he know what his pre-writing strategies are and if this particular paper requires him to tweak his usual process in some way? By getting to the cause of his struggle, he stands a chance of dealing with it not only for this paper, but also for future papers. Your professors can do a lot to help you with the causes of your struggles, but they can't do anything with the blame you place on them for those struggles. By blaming the professor and the course for his struggle, Taylor only adds a negative chapter in his writing history that he is doomed to repeat in the future.
Obviously, Zac's bad attitude from the start is what spiraled into sheer torment for everyone involved. Had he stopped the moment he felt that first pang of negativity to consider the REAL cause of his bad attitude, he'd probably have recognized that he has a strong fear of failure, and this fear has resulted in a general habit of blaming others when things don't work out. If he had worked effectively with the group and they all somehow failed together, he'd be forced to own some of that failure and that was far more troubling to him than failing the assignment outright and then being able to blame it on everyone but himself. Let's face it; failure that comes from not trying is much easier to digest than the failure that comes after a lot of hard work.
Zac's problem is similar to Isaac's problem in that their lack of solid effort resulted in their frustration, but Zac's blame is more troubling because it doesn't stem from devaluing the course, it stems from devaluing himself. By getting a better handle on how ALL learning involves successes and failures, Zac could save himself a lot of unneeded emotional turmoil.
How to Walk Away from the Blame Game
I think it's important to realize that the Blame Game sometimes sneaks into every writer's process. Writing has a tendency to leave us feeling a little vulnerable and insecure. And when we're already feeling down on ourselves, sometimes it's just feels better to place the blame on someone or something else for a while.
When you find yourself firmly in this mode, tread lightly. Go easy on yourself. But try to see if you can get to a more productive place. Here are a couple of things I think about when I find myself getting sucked into the Blame Vortex:
Writing can be frustrating at times, that's a fact. But so can video games or sports or painting or home improvement...all things in life have potentially frustrating moments. It's what you do in those moments of frustration that will define the relationship you're going to have with that thing moving forward. If you stop to realize that learning new things requires some patience and understanding, you're much more likely to move past your frustration unscathed. But if you insist on wrestling with it and looking for somewhere to place your anger, don't be surprised if the next time you need to do that thing, you're exhausted and unprepared simply because you spent all your energy focused on the most useless activity of them all: playing the Blame Game.