I’m not Catholic, but sometimes I feel like I should be with all the guilt I hold. Whenever I make a mistake, or back down on a promise, or even forget to say hello to someone, I’ll find myself compelled to apologize, and try to make it up in someway. (Of course, I also have a trouble-making persona that leads me down a path of asking for forgiveness to some form of authority. Good God, I really should be Catholic).
So, naturally, when I found myself working at the UCWbL for the first time, I felt guilty about every little detail: a less than productive session, a miscommunication about grammar, poorly explaining some rule that I had forgotten, or even not talking to anyone on Chat With A Tutor would cause me some grief. Eventually, I learned that I shouldn’t feel guilt, because there was only so much I could do during the appointments. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was meeting writers who would feel just as guilty, if not more guilty, about their own work.
Often during an appointment, I’ll hear a phrase like, “I’m so sorry for this.” Or, “God, I can’t believe I wrote that.” Or, “please don’t be mad.” Once, I literally was told, “You’re going to have to forgive me.” When this writer told me this, I raised an eyebrow at her and said, “No I don’t, because you didn’t do anything wrong.”
Perhaps this phenomena is only happening to me, but it’s interesting, because I find that the writing process has to involve a lot of mistakes. I’ve learned through creative writing workshops that, no matter how good of a writer you think you are, there are going to be screw ups. Every writer I know (especially the best ones) make tons of mistakes all the time. Nobody’s perfect, after all, and everybody will make a grammar mistake every once in a while. Nobody should feel guilty about their own work. Instead, they should feel ready to revise, and a willingness to self edit, and revise.
But, instead, I’ll be asked to “fix,” “rework,” “change,” and “excuse.” Maybe this sense of culpability comes from the fact that there are sticklers for professors who demand great essays, and will mark people down for grammar. This thought process could lead to the negative, self-shaming, attitude that comes from being so freaked about the potential bad grade. Or maybe it comes from the imposing feeling of being in a writing center.
I think a lot of tutors forget how imposing a writing center can be. We take it for granted, because we’re there every day. We all know each other. We all have similar interests, and discussions. And I think, for a new writer, coming into a writing center can be intimidating. Sure, we’re just trying to help writers with whatever written work they need to do, but no matter how we present ourselves, or how inviting we seem, there’s still a chance that people will think that we’re going to judge them on their work. And that can cause people to panic.
As tutors, we should not feel like a priest at confessional. I shouldn’t expunge the sins of poor grammar from anyone. I won’t shame people for their lack of punctuation. And I sure as hell don’t want to judge anybody on their work.
We, as tutors, need to remember to reinforce our position as helpers of the written word, not of the soul. We are not there to give communion, or absolve anybody. Instead, we should have a strong emphasis on reassuring the writers who come in that the writing center is a safe space for them. They don’t have to confess. They don’t have to apologize. They just need to be willing to learn and talk about their work. And we are there to listen and offer advice.
But, if you’re tutoring an overly guilty writer who is sad about all of his or her poor, wicked writing choices, then here’s a little prayer you can have them recite.
The Tutor’s Prayer:
Our Tutor, Who Sits Right Next To Me,
Hallowed Be Thy Red Pen.
Thy Will Be Done On Paper,
As It Is In Discussion.
Give Us This Day Our Daily Edits.
And Forgive Us Our Trespasses,
Like Grammar, Syntax, Structural, and Rhetorical.
And Lead Us Not Into Class Failure,
But Deliver Us From WRD 104. (Or whatever class the Writer is in).
For Thine Is The Tutor,
The Fixer, And The Helper.
For Ever And Ever.