Show us your Stuff: Materializing Composing Processes

Proposal Title: 
Show us your Stuff: Materializing Composing Processes

This interactive workshop session focuses on diverse materialities that animate composing. We conceive materialities as writing technologies (pencil, notebook, computer, keyboard), objects that surround writing (televisions, mugs) as well as more transient and environmental factors like sound, space, others, memory, and feeling. Our workshop explores composing as an enigmatic yet paradoxically grounded experience as well as one rich with “stuff”—the stuff of making, to be sure, but also the stuff of identity formation and community membership. We will begin with brief introductory framing statements by each participant and then curate a set of guided writing and discussion activities aimed at provoking stories, memories, and sensory associations with composing stuff. Our larger goal is to encourage narratives about composing and materiality that might lay bare the material stuff of composing often operating behind screens and pages or within tools and heads. Ultimately we see this work as prodding new research questions and raising questions about teaching composing in stuff-centric ways. We are guided by the assumption that showing our stuff is one way to access and challenge the assumptions, hopes, and underacknowledged forces that guide our work in the profession and in our lives as composers.


This interactive workshop session begins by observing the ongoing proliferation of material writing technologies. From infrared keyboards to distraction-free writing environments, the stuff and feel of writing demands attention. Because we often do not consider the restrictions and affordances of these silent partners to our composing processes, paying attention, we suggest, becomes an innovative means of studying composing as lived, material practice. In opening statements that frame the session, panelists focus on material culture studies, composing and tactility, and composing with partners.

Culled from her life story interviews with ~40 writers on the material culture of writing, Speaker One will discuss some of the “stuff” that emerged as significant to these writers’ composing processes and writing lives. From the Moleskine notebook to the Trapper Keeper to Radiohead’s “There There,” material and immaterial things populate writers’ writing habitats and play important roles in writers’ perceptions of themselves as beings who write, sometimes in helpful ways, and sometimes in less productive ones. Material goods such as the Moleskine are often threshold objects used to imagine and enact desired identities, such as the identity of writer. Speaker One will also provide orientation to the session through an introduction to core material culture texts that ground her research and also provide theoretical foundations for those who are interested in incorporating material culture inquiry into their research and teaching.

Speaker Two will consider how focusing on materiality entails focusing on embodiment. Viewed from the entanglement of things and bodies, composing becomes replete with points of contact: pencil tips skating across ruled paper, fingertips dancing upon the keyboard, hands gripping a warm mug of coffee. Zooming in on one of these contact points, Speaker Two examines the evolving shape and feel of the keyboard, especially as it has migrated onto smart phones and tablets. The vigor with which any one of these keyboard morphs--like swipe typing, tactile overlays, USB typewriters, or infrared keyboards--is embraced or refused uncovers the significance of composing as a tactile art. Speaker Two examines writing's material embodiment through the narrowed frame of hands to keyboard, suggesting that this vantage point emphasizes writing as a physical, mediated activity that is at once cadenced, sporadic, and hand-crafted.

Speaker Three addresses composing as made possible by multiple partners, including humans, non-humans, matter, technology, animals, time, and feelings. Through this lens, composing is an overt practice of dwelling with others in the world—which is to say, an activity that is always communal, never without partners in one form or another. Being attentive to this mundane reality allows for an expansive view of composing. This mix of the mundane and the expansive was recently well articulated by an undergraduate student in this speaker’s course. Responding to the question “What would you acknowledge as crucial to your writing?”, the student explained that his writing hinges on “the music I’m listening to, the pillows propping me up, the dog by my feet, and the low hum of the TV from the other room.” This speaker addresses the sorts of partnerships articulated in this comment as well as other, less physical seeming partnerships in order to suggest that “stuff” signifies both things and not-things.

Our approach to the stuff of composing processes is informed by theories of relationality and distributed agency as well as scholarship in activity theory and material culture studies. Historical archaeologist James Deetz’s work highlights how simple artifacts are often left out of dominant discourses, despite their potential in revealing cultural attitudes, practices, partners, and patterns that might otherwise go undiscovered or unremarked. Our methodology in this session--which foregrounds the material stuff of composing--is informed not only by Deetz but also by art historian Jules Prown’s focus on artifacts as vehicles for understanding culture, especially the parts of culture not immediately accessible via language or historical record.

We treat writing as both a technology and a practice in which are embedded material practices that frame the work we do in writing studies (Baron; Brandt and Clinton; Brooke and Rickert; Latour; Prior; Reckwitz, Shipka). This frame not only provides a stable foundation for our intellectual and pedagogical practices (such as the writing habitat that we create in our home that remains constant even when we are gone), but also unconsciously directs our behavior. In other words, stuff often possesses its own distributed agency, agency not located exclusively in one person but spread across tools, environments, and others. This point is highlighted by Alan Warde who notes that any practice includes not only the “bodily activities” that the members engage in but also “mental activities, ‘things’ and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge” (133). Accordingly, it is with an interest in uncovering the material and sensory practices of composing processes that we put stuff at the center of this session, with the goal of encouraging each participant to produce a narrative or set of questions that they can apply to their own research and teaching agendas in idiosyncratic, unpredictable ways.

Some questions that will animate our discussion include:

  • How are we writing with, around, and near material objects in the 21st century?

  • As we become increasingly aware of difference and the rich potential materiality has on shaping our understanding of writing, how are the material spaces in which we teach and write changing?

  • What happens when we approach writing pedagogies in stuff-centric ways? 

With these questions and our introductory statements as background, we will engage the audience in a range of meditations on materialities. For example, we will ask participants to share writing stuff they have with them in order to consider how disciplinary conventions and contexts frame our consideration of writing technologies, as well as produce the conditions for composing. We will also project images related to composing on a large screen and ask participants to freewrite associations, stories, impressions, or whatever strikes them in relation to the images. Participants will share some of this writing in small groups and with the large group, then reflect together on how insights from the session might shape our own research and teaching practices. As facilitators, we will extract from this conversation what emerges as central, repeating, and thought-provoking about writing’s materiality.


Diverse materialities animate composing; this insight has implications for inventing composing process knowledge. New technologies constantly interact with less visible composing partners that lack the sheen of the new. Innovation, we suggest, is not exclusively located in new platforms or tools; it is also a way of looking that can enliven composing as a lived practice and a site of meaning making.
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