“The Hatter opened his eyes very wide…but all he said was, ‘How is a raven like a writing desk?’ ”
I have found over ten responses for the Hatter, yet I am still unsatisfied. I remember my first encounter with Lewis Carroll’s absurd riddle and my attempts to craft my own answers to it.
“Because it will fly out a window if the writer is pecked,” was the best I could come up with (Are you satisfied?).
Shortly after the debut of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, several readers wrote to Carroll, begging him to explain this troublesome question. Many were convinced that he had intentionally withheld the answer from them. The problem was that Carroll had never intended to answer the riddle. With the help of renowned chess player Sam Loyd, he managed to come up with a few answers for his weary readers:
“Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!”
I bring up this piece of Carroll’s history because throughout the writing process for any project, one is inevitably faced with questions that do not have clear-cut answers.
Let’s say a writer is given what appears to be a simple essay prompt for a class assignment. The prompt consists of a question with two possible answers and the writer is expected to respond with an argument supporting his or her stance.
For simplicity’s sake (or perhaps not) I will use one of UCWbL Program Director Liz Coughlin’s infamous WRD prompts. I encountered this prompt during a session of Writing Center Theory and Pedagogy, the class for new UCWbL staff that explores tutoring history and philosophy. By leading a role-playing exercise with the following question as a mock peer assignment, Liz showed our class what sorts of strategies can be taken to write a focused essay on an open-ended topic.
WARNING: Read the following question with caution. Serious side affects include insomnia, dysphoria, writer’s block, and death.
“If you had the choice between an unlimited amount of time on earth and an unlimited amount of money, which would you choose and why?”
Like the Hatter’s riddle, this question has many potential answers. Therefore the goal for any writer working on such a project should not be to distinguish right answers from wrong ones, but to determine a focus for the essay that will allow him or her to take a definitive stance on the issue.
To explain how complicated such a question can become, I will extend Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a parallel to the writing process (To all UCWbLing readers who lost their interest in Carroll’s story after the Disney remake, or who never fancied the novel in the first place, I apologize).
To begin, if the writer is little Alice, then Wonderland is all of the possible approaches that she could take in the execution of her essay. So about a week before the essay is due, or maybe the morning before class, Alice is brainstorming potential ideas to support both answers to the question when she suddenly tumbles down a dark rabbit hole.
Alice does some thinking on the way down. At the bottom of the hole, she finds herself in a narrow hallway of doors, each one a potential path she could follow toward a completed essay.
“If I choose unlimited time, will I age?”
“If I choose unlimited money, will I be able to purchase unlimited time?”
Alice realizes that if she attempts to explore every inch of this strange place, she will surely get lost. There is no right or wrong path to take through Wonderland. As a Writing Center Tutor, I hope to help Alice find the path that works for her. I see myself as a cross between the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat, albeit a little less furry, a little less mad, and hopefully never late.
So when Alice walks into the office during any stage of the writing process and asks, “Would you tell me please, where I ought to go from here?,” I will grin from my perch in the tree and say, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”