I first got to know Scott several years ago, when he was a student in two consecutive high school creative writing courses I taught. During Scott’s Advanced Creative Writing class, he composed the reflection that opened this chapter. Even at that point, it was evident that Scott was a gifted writer. He won a number of poetry contests, and his work was consistently admired among peers in my classes. Scott and I stayed in touch after he graduated, and he continued to share his poetry with me via email when I moved out of state. When Scott was 23 years old, I invited him to participate in this study for several primary reasons: I knew him to be someone who thought purposefully about his writing, and I knew that he actively sought out multiple opportunities and contexts to develop his craft (e.g., classes, writing groups, workshops). I also was fascinated by the many ways Scott used writing in his life.
Because Scott communicated so significantly through written language, studying his writing and how he described himself as a writer involved recognizing the varied types and purposes of Scott’s written texts. When involved in an in-person interaction, for example, Scott used a handheld computer to type his responses (so, when he participated in an in-person writing group, other people typically commented orally while Scott typed his feedback on his handheld computer). Scott’s written comments during an in-person conversation were necessarily brief and more similar to text messages than lengthy composed replies. By contrast, Scott typically emailed me more formally composed messages, which were still conversational in tone but usually conformed to standard writing conventions. Finally, Scott’s poetry represented formal, composed writing, in which he deliberately crafted his language, organization, form, sound, effect, and meaning. Thus, Scott’s writing encompassed a wide variety of genres, contexts, and purposes that exceed limitations he may have experienced with spoken speech.
For the purposes of this chapter, however, I focus on the ways Scott described himself as a creative writer, highlighting his formally composed writing, usually his poetry. At the beginning of the study, I visited with Scott and his mother in their home, explaining my interest in learning more about Scott’s writing practices. During that meeting, they shared with me a file of Scott’s poetry. After that initial meeting, Scott and I corresponded via email, which worked particularly well because it placed us both in a situation where we were typing our responses. Through those email exchanges, I asked Scott many questions about his writing life and how he thought about himself as a writer. Finally, for the six months of this study, Scott shared the poetry he composed as part of an online poetry workshop he was taking, as well as his commentary on his composing processes.
As I read through Scott’s poetry and our various email interactions, I considered each piece of Scott’s writing as a “turn” in an ongoing dialogue, recognizing that there were always many overlapping conversations occurring (Bakhtin, 1981). Each written utterance, whether a poem or an email message, both responded to prior and predicted future utterances, like turns in a conversation. For example, when Scott wrote a poem in response to an online assignment, I considered the assignment itself as a conversational turn, to which Scott responded through his poetry. His online instructor then responded to Scott’s draft, and Scott then took another conversational turn via his revisions and email comments. All of those turns occurred within the context of an ongoing, broader dialogue between Scott and his instructor. In this way, the varied written texts I collected served as connected, overlapping turns in a conversation that unfolded over time.
In my reading of Scott’s texts, I considered “what texts do” in the social and interactional context in which they were produced (Bazerman and Prior 2004, p. 3), examining the ways in which Scott, through his use of written language, directed my attention, how he developed ideas within a text, and how he referenced other texts.
Because this chapter focuses on ways Scott described himself and his writing practices, I concentrated first on the conversations that Scott and I had in person and via email about his poetry and his writing life. In these conversations, which primarily occurred at the beginning (in-person) and toward the end (via email) of the six focal months, I asked Scott to describe himself as a writer and to explain some of his writing choices and commitments. Analyzing the in-person conversation required me to first braid together our varied communicative modes from that meeting (transcription from audiorecording the oral conversation, a print-out of Scott’s written comments, and fieldnotes on our physical interactions). By contrast, our email communications involved clearly demarcated turn-taking. I used open coding to note Scott’s explicit identifying statements (e.g., I statements in which Scott wrote “I am” or identified himself as a certain type of writer) and to identify descriptive statements (e.g., those comments in which Scott described what he does as a writer—often using action verbs to name his decisions or preferences). I then used refined coding to trace the appearance of these identifying and descriptive statements across both conversations (Miles and Huberman 1994). I considered each identifying statement that Scott made as a claim, and I coded his in-person and email responses for additional references to that claim, as well as for evidence he used to support these claims (e.g., clarifying or explanatory statements, examples from his own poetry).
I connected these conversational data to the poems Scott composed, where I looked for ways that Scott’s poetry and writing decisions aligned with or reflected his self-descriptions. Over the six focal months of the data collection, Scott emailed me the poems he wrote for his online poetry workshop (11 total, many with multiple drafts), as well as a brief explanation of the context, purpose(s), feedback, and revision decisions for each piece. I often asked follow-up questions via email, to which Scott replied. Scott also shared a number of additional poems with me (13 total), which he referenced in our in-person and online conversations. In analyzing these poems, particularly the 11 that he composed during the study, I compiled a master file with all references to a given poem (including, if possible, a description of the assignment, Scott’s draft poems, his reflection on his writing decisions, his final version, any feedback he wanted to share from his instructor, my clarifying questions, and his replies). I used these comprehensive poem files first to trace Scott’s references from our conversations (e.g., where he referenced a poem as evidence to support an identifying/descriptive statement he made about himself or his writing). I also coded these poem files for alignment with Scott’s self-descriptions as a writer, allowing me to trace ways that Scott’s poems reflected his claims about his writing.
Because I was in contact with Scott throughout the initial data analysis, I was able to use email communications to clarify and check the interpretations I was making. Relevant to this chapter, for example, were a series of emails Scott and I exchanged shortly after he completed the poetry workshop, when I asked him about how he thought about his writing in relation to his autism, as well as how he wished me to represent his autism in my own writing.