04 March 2013

Why Write?

Back on 9 April 2010, I published an article I called simply “Writing” on ROT.  I confessed in the article that I’d been a college writing teacher starting back in the mid-1980s (which happened to coincide with the dawn of the personal computer era).   Why did I teach writing, and “freshman composition” in particular?  It’s really a matter of practicality.  I’m firmly and unshakably convinced that the ability to write simply and clearly anything from an office memo to a Ph.D. dissertation to the latest journalistic exposé is still an absolute necessity in our world.  I’m also equally convinced that few people who are confronted with this task today, in school or business, can do it so that readers can understand the result easily, if they can read it at all.
For decades, advocates of the craft of writing have bemoaned the loss of the art of letter-writing.  Well, matters are far worse.  It’s not just letters that people don’t write well anymore, it’s anything.  And it isn’t even a matter of artful writing—it’s just plain writing.  Writing that can be read.  Writing that can be understood.  Writing that communicates.  It isn’t being done because it isn’t encouraged (God forbid it should be required!) in high school or, sadly, even in college.  Letter-writing died because the telephone made communication possible without writing, and memos and telegrams made brevity not just the soul of wit, but a financial necessity.  (E-mail, though it actually requires a form of writing, seems to lead people to dispense with the kind of verbal composition old-fashioned letter-writing encouraged.  I won’t even address texting or Twitter.)  Writing in general, however, is dying simply because few people care what gets put on paper, not to mention computer screens.  Most students seem convinced that writing is nothing they need be concerned about.  Unless you’re going to be a writer of some kind, you’ll never have to do it.  Besides, isn’t the computer going to make words obsolete anyway?  That’s essentially what one of my students, a computer-science major, told me.  I’m afraid all these naïve youngsters are in for a great shock when they hit the world—and have to write something.
Scientists and mathematicians have to write—and some even do it voluntarily, beyond the academic requirement of publishing in professional journals.  The late Carl Sagan was chastised by some of his colleagues because his books and articles, and especially his well-received TV series Cosmos, popularized science for the layman.  Far from opprobrium, I say that’s cause for praise and gratitude—speaking as a scientific layman myself.  (That computer student was in my class in the ’80s, before the advent of the Internet.  A quick glance at the World Wide Web today will reveal how relevant words are to the cyber world—the ’Net is positively overflowing with words.  They may not all be any good, but somebody writes all that content.)
Businessmen and corporate executives write, too.  Aside from all those interoffice memos and quarterly reports, some leaders of commerce have written books (Lee Iacocca, the CEO of Chrysler, published his autobiography in 1984 and real-estate tycoon Donald Trump wrote The Art of the Deal in 1987).  Nearly every presidential candidate has put out a biographical book on the eve of his campaign  (Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father, 2004; John McCain, Faith of My Fathers, 1999).  Some politicians have even been known to write their own speeches.  And lawyers have to write prodigious numbers of briefs—and a few have been reprimanded in court and even penalized by judges who didn’t appreciate their bad writing.  (A 2004 New York Times report entitled “Judge Finds a Typo-Prone Lawyer Guilty of Bad Writing” recounted that a federal judge in Philadelphia docked an attorney’s payment for submitting written filings with many errors, as well as “vague, ambiguous, unintelligible, verbose and repetitive” prose.  Hah!)

Not writing shrinks the mind, and someone has to put a stop to this trend.  That’s why I taught writing.  I believe in the need, and I myself have experienced the struggle to overcome the lack of real training in an essential skill.  (That’s fundamentally what “Writing” was about.)  After all, I wasn’t a writer when I started out on this track, either, but even I found I needed to write for all kinds of reasons and to all kinds of purposes.  If I could make that need clear to a few students, even if I didn’t manage to teach them anything about writing, I would have accomplished something worthwhile.  And, besides, I have to read all that unintelligible junk everyone’s turning out.  It’s a good way of fighting back.
Of course, there’s a deeper value to learning to write decently, beyond the practicality of expressing yourself to others in clear, straightforward prose—in the office, in the classroom, even occasionally at home.  Writing well is the same as thinking well.  Writing clearly is the same as thinking logically.  Writing—composing, selecting, arranging, and putting together words and ideas—could as well be called puzzle-and-problem-solving.  That’s relevant no matter what discipline you work in—even, I trust, computer science. 
Make no mistake:  Writing is an art.  Much of it can’t be taught in the conventional sense, though it can be learned.  There aren’t any formulas for good writing, and teachers aren’t there to provide The Answers.  There are no Answers—and, if there were, neither I nor any other teacher would know them any more than any student does, since my solutions wouldn’t be their solutions.  In the world of writing, no two writers accomplish a task the same way and no two readers respond to a written work the same way.  If they did, we’d never innovate, make anything new, or progress from where we stand now.  The Truth changes and Knowledge expands.  My function as a teacher was to ask questions.  If, by inadvertence, I happened to say something that sounded like a Truth or everlasting Knowledge, I should immediately have been called to account. 
Writing can also be a way to work out on paper or screen thoughts, ideas, questions, or impressions I have from any source.  Writing often serves two complimentary functions: a means of expression and a means of discovery.  In early versions, I can explore what I think, feel, or know about something.  I approach this kind of writing task as an inquiry and an exercise in problem-solving  This happens to me often when I sit down to write the performance reports I publish on ROT.  I won’t necessarily have fixed notions of what I think about the topic, say a play or performance, when I start out, and I probably won’t know exactly how I want to approach expressing myself about it.  That’s what drafting and revising is for—finding out what I think about something.  After I’ve begun to work out what I think and what I want to say, I’ll start to find the best way to express it.  This is where logic and clear thinking comes into play.  To put it succinctly, first I find out what I want to say, then I find out how to say it.  I find that the first part of the process does a great deal to determine the second part. 
(In my classes, I often used to paraphrased the comedian Gracie Allen here: How do I know what I think until I see what I write?  A more recent pop reference is also apt, from the 2000 movie Finding Forrester in which Sean Connery played William Forrester, a reclusive writer who tutors Jamal Wallace, a talented high school student played by Rob Brown.  In Mike Rich’s screenplay, Forrester advises Wallace: “No thinking.  That comes later.  You write your first draft with your heart; you rewrite with your head.  The first key to writing is to write—not to think.”  In both statements, the implication is that writers start out by figuring out what they feel about their subject, then they figure out the best way to say it.)
At bottom, all writing is basically the same: an attempt to communicate something to someone.  The only practical differences between one type of writing and another are the purposes (the “something” to be communicated) and the audience (the “someone” for whom it’s intended).  But provocative writing goes beyond this preliminary task.  I used to explain to my students that writing is a kind of conversation in print.  One writer says something and another picks up the idea, or a part of it, and says something else, and so on.  That’s how new knowledge is created, I told them.  I challenged my composition students to follow this paradigm.  Add something to the dialogue, I admonished them: argue with the writers they read, expand on their thoughts, show how their ideas relate to or differ from someone else’s or their own.  Examine in detail a small part of what the other writers said, or expand those ideas beyond the authors’ limits and show how the ideas function (or don’t) in a world outside the authors’ boundaries.  I expected them to go off on a tangent—imagine, dream, create.  In short—THINK.  Go out on a limb.  Stick their necks out.  Dare to make their readers think and wonder anew.  Take a chance on being wrong, I told the student writers—but also take a chance on discovering something new and exciting.  This is where the challenge of writing expands the mind. 
I used to be asked sometimes, usually by a department chair or some other academic administrator, to outline my “philosophy of teaching writing.”  Well, none of this amounts to much of a philosophy.  The fact is, I’m not sure I have a coherent philosophy of teaching writing in the sense this question seems to mean; if I do, then the Little Dutch Boy had a philosophy of flood control.  Maybe I should have developed one I could haul out whenever someone asked, but I thought I’d wait until I knew what I was doing a little better.  I’m still trying to develop a writing technique, let alone a philosophy—and practice always precedes theory, not vice versa.  Let’s remember what we got when we tried to put the theory cart before the practice horse: Prohibition and the Edsel.

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