Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Rhetoric and Reality: Formative Writing Experiences


This is largely a free write, a meditation or sorts, which I engage in often these days, but which never counts as legitimate scholarly writing. “Where is the rigor?” one professor once asked me, as if the criterion of rigor were a self-evident one that I should have reflexively understood. So I am welcoming the invitation to write something messy and avant garde without concern for the academic value of “rigor” which I am still not entirely sure I understand.

One of the most important things I ever learned from an assignment was how to write to discover things. My teacher never intended it. It was a paper I did for an American history class and I had to write about the effect of something (I chose the effect of the economy on cinema) before WWII and in the years after. I didn’t know until 4:00 the morning that it was due if I would be able to prove my thesis or if I would have to say that there was no effect. At 4:00 in the morning, low and behold, I found that the worse the economy was, the more lighthearted the films were, by and large. Of course there were many other contributing factors, but at that moment, in my junior year of college, I learned that you could write without an end point in site, trust the process, and still have something to say. I had learned, ostensibly, to think through writing.

As a graduate student and like many others before me, I am a little bored and burned out on academic writing, yet I still trust that process. For right now, drawing on my experience more than 25 years ago, I still write to discover what I really think about a subject as well as engaging with a text. Does that mean that I favor an expressivist pedagogy as James Berlin describes it, “the anarchists, arguing for complete and uninhibited writing, including the intentional flouting of all convention . . . call[ing] forth imaginative, intuitive empathetic responses” (145)? I do not. And I do not not. In the same way that Richard Schechner, theorist of performance, says that the actor who plays Hamlet is not Hamlet and he is not not Hamlet.

A Second Prologue Masquerading As an Introduction

Writing is not mechanics, any more than learning to count is math. It may be pre-writing or a writing-related activity. But writing it is not. 1 + 1 = 2. That is math. But 1 is . . . well, 1. It’s what math is built on, but in itself, it is just elemental. Writing may include all of those things, just as math includes numbers, is built upon them, but is not those things.

Therefore, I am not including learning cursive handwriting (which I almost never use anymore), diagramming sentences (although I keep thinking that some day I’ll use that skill to write avant garde poetry), where I put my commas (which my friends tell me is somewhat arbitrary, but I do not tend to write comma splice sentences, so I figure it’s my prerogative), use punctuation (which Robert Coover did quite well without in his story The Brother and which is an addition to writing from oh, 500 years ago or so) or spelling (which I excelled in). It may include the length of my sentences (too long), the lengths of my paragraphs (often too short), my style of writing (at times too bombastic, which comes from spending too much time reading and writing manifestos).

The truth is that my struggles as a writer still parallel my students’ struggle as writers, but for different reasons and at a different level than my students. Being aware of that has made me a better instructor of writing and reflecting on it has made me more aware of my own struggles with graduate writing.

Some of this is tangential, I realize. But it is to a point (and is also a variation on the style of writing that I have developed – the glorious tangent, through which I hope to return to my main point and which has developed over years of creative writing, blog writing, reviewing, and performance studies which seeks an embodied writing and through which I consequently embody and perform the manic energy of the pseudo-academic genius and which also results from writing to my own specifications rather than writing for a grade for nearly 20 years before returning to school).

First, as teachers we need to remember what it is like to be beginning writers (possibly an act of imagination as much as memory) and consequently to be flexible with what we teach and how we teach it. Second, some types of writing will stay with us as we go through school and some will fall away, and those things will be different for different students. Third is the fact that one can write expressively and still get a point across to an external audience.

Engagement with the Text I

So where does James Berlin come into play? Everywhere. (Sentence fragment.) In fact, before I address specific parts of the text, I must say that I found his book to be rather confusing in its desire to set up categories of the teaching of writing. It is like when I took advanced algebra in my freshman year of college. I thought I had understood everything perfectly when it was explained in class. Every problem worked out perfectly and I followed everything my professor said. Then I took the take home exam. I scored a 45 out of 105. That’s how I feel about Berlin. It makes perfect sense when you read it, and then you walk away from it and say, what, wait a minute. I thought this approach was from that school. Or was it that one? What was that called again? Objectivist. Current-traditional. The subjectivist-expressivist school. The current-traditional-objective-behaviorialist-epistemic approach, the transactional which could include classical rhetoric, not to be confused with the current-traditional approach. (Multiple sentence fragments. My grammar check is going crazy.)

But wait, you can teach from an expressivist paradigm by also talking about “the dialectic between writer . . . the manifestation of the identity in language through the consideration of the reactions of others” yet still not be “genuinely epistemic in their approach (153).” So much for integration of approaches.

Engagement with the Text II

Is it any wonder that our students are confused about what we’re teaching them? Or alternatively, why aren’t they? Our students don’t really seem to question very much the reason why they’re taking composition. They just accept that they have to. It seems more important to the field of composition itself to set out the parameters of the field and to differentiate itself. And for that reason, this history of the major themes of composition is useful. It is helpful to see where we’ve come and what we might borrow from. I am interested as a writer and theatre artist in incomplete revolutions, in movements that didn’t come to full fruition the first time. It seems to me that is the point of history. What worked and what didn’t and why? At least from the point of view of those who sought to make change. I have also learned to question histories, teleologies and most importantly historical categories as things that do not exist in themselves, but are manufactured so that they can be made intelligible. What Berlin wants to make intelligible, it seems, two self-contained polar opposites, which are full of extremes: the traditional academic approach, with its dry denial of the self and the expressivist ethos which found its zenith in the 1960s and 1970s, allowing students to search within, to establish his or her relation the world and which denies any kind of objective truth. He sets up these two straw men so that you will readily accept the third path. Thus, interwoven among the objective and subjective approaches throughout this history of composition, the transactional approach, which he appears to support, rears its head time and time again, like a groundhog popping out, checking to see if its time is fully here or if should go back in and sleep for another historical pedagogical equivalent of six weeks.

But what is helpful is not the categories that Berlin attempts, with varying degrees of success, to make intelligible to his readers. It’s the history itself. Had he told that history with somewhat less effort to force it into the categories he made for himself, it would have been easier to read and to write about.

Engagement with the Assignment at Last

So I do not consider pre-writing, para-writing activities like grammar and spelling and mechanics and all that to be writing. Then what are my memories of being taught writing? What has informed my writing, up to this moment, as a 46 year-old graduate student, teacher, aspiring teacher, and life long writer?

I’ve already mentioned a few of them. The history paper in which I learned to trust the process. I was not writing to learn to write, but writing for a discipline. Yet without explicitly saying so, but setting up that assignment, describe the effect of X on X during the period 1930 – 1941 and 1945 – 1950, my professor was trying to teach us something about how to set up an argument. A current-traditional approach as Berlin might describe it yet you could say it had an expressivist outcome on my writing.

My composition class at community college stands out in my mind for two reasons. One is the professor, who was very amiable and my fondness for him must surely have increased my fondness for the subject matter, although I was a good writer and had an inherent proclivity toward composition anyway. But one incident in particular stands out to me. I was always the student who was furiously writing my drafts the day we had in-class consultations with him. As such, I usually went close the end and let other students go ahead of me. One day, I brought my draft in, fully done and very proud of myself. We looked it over, it went through peer review and rewrites, like all of my other drafts. I got a C on that paper, whereas all my other papers were As. We both laughed and he told me to go back to my original process, as it obviously worked for me.

As an adult, learning about Surrealist techniques of automatic writing as well as reading and writing manifestos taught me so much about writing. Through manifestos I mastered the authoritative voice, full of conviction and bombast, supporting my argument without footnotes of any of the traps of academia necessarily (although Breton uses a fair number of citations in his Manifestoes of Surrealism), but through assertion of “the obvious.” This is expressivistic in many ways—the expression of my inner vision. But it was my vision as it interacted with the world. And wasn’t that what Guy Debord had done in Society of the Spectacle and even to some extent, Howard Zinn in writing alternative histories of ordinary people? Aren’t those in some way expressions of inner values, inner visions?

Here I would like to once again go on a tangent and say that I vehemently disagreed with Berlin’s assertion that the surrealist influence on expressive writing was “the original expression of a unique vision” (147). I much prefer Helene Lewis’s version, that “their belief that talent is irrelevant and that everyone has creative potential in his unconscious” (Dada Turns Red 173). It’s a small footnote in this book, but it’s an important point to me, having been influenced by Surrealism. It is not, at its best, an expression of the internal, but an attempt to prove that everyone could be an artist through tools that the Surrealists had uncovered (and would continue to uncover). Thus it could not only be revolutionary, but could be taught to anyone. It sounds a little like the goals of composition through the years of progressive education, through feminism, cultural studies, etc., doesn’t it?

There are many others. There are many many moments that influence us as writers, throughout school, throughout our whole lives, whether we see them or not. I could write a book on what has influenced me as a writer. I could write another book providing a count by count engagement with Berlin’s text – all the things I agree with and the things that I don’t.

Engagement with the Text III

So given the diversity of my experiences with writing in school and out, it is no surprise that I was drawn to the kind of integrated approaches that Berlin describes in the later pages of the book. He describes Harold Martin who in 1958 asserted that “[s]ince thought is language . . . students will learn to write in order to improve their thinking” (168). (Again, I think of Andre Breton who said in his First Manifesto of Surrealism, “whoever speaks of expression speaks of language first and foremost.”) “Writing thereby becomes a way of thinking and not simply a way of recording thought” (Berlin 168). For the college student who proved her thesis 4 hours before her paper was due, I believe in that principle. It was the moment of discovery that came out of several long nights of writing, which whether I knew it or not, was also a process of thinking. It was the moment the lightbulb went off. And that would not have happened for me if I had not been struggling to write the paper.

Berlin describes a dialectical approach taken by Young, Becker and Pike in their book Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. In this approach, as Berlin describes it, “[k]nowledge is not outside in the material world or inside in the spiritual world or located in a perfect correspondence of the two. It is the product of a complicated dialectic” (172). The ground of the dialectic is language, which is in turn “a dialectic between the writer and the discourse community in which the writer is taking part” (172). In The Bald Soprano, Eugene Ionesco sets up a ridiculous set of opposites only so one of his characters can absurdly suggest “The truth lies between the two.” Very often people express that very thing, as if the truth is exactly the middle point between the objective and the subjective, between the internal and the external. The dialectic, which resolves the contradiction, which discovers where the truth might be located, within the context of a community that is likewise seeking the truth, is the ultimate goal that many writers eventually come to if not actively seek out. Perhaps marketing and advertising people, business people, politicians and lawyers use language to make reality, or to at least give the image of making reality. For our students and for the rest of us, the task is to find out what the nature of reality is in history, in literature, in physics, etc., and to write about it, to share our findings and beliefs. It seems to me that the story, the history of composition at its best intentions, whether through the ideals of progressive education or through a transactional approach as Berlin calls it includes that struggle. Perhaps the real problem in defining composition as a field is that we cannot locate the basis of truth. In the end, it’s all epistemic.


Hmmm . . . Despite my avant garde leanings, I just couldn’t resist the temptation to put it all into a neat and tidy conclusion. I guess there are some parts of composition training you just can’t shake, even after all those years.

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