Finding Our Personality of Writing

You know what I realized? The phrase “theory of writing” is utterly confusing and then to add on your own personal “theory of writing”… now that’s just cruel. And I think that’s the point. We’re so uncomfortable with the idea that writing and literacies is fluid and forever changing and expanding that we’ve created that inaccessible aspect of it. I’ve mentioned this plenty of times before, but we’ve socialized this world of writing and literacies to be something only scholars and students of literature can interact in. We’ve created this idea that there’s a finish line, a level you get to where you don’t need to learn anymore or that your engagement in literacies has met its endpoint. Moreover, we’ve created this “theory of writing” to be something one studies and perfects, instead of realizing that, in a sense, there is no universal theory of writing. Right? I mean, the common understanding of a theory is that it is a set system of ideas that dictate a certain understanding and or procedures of a certain subject. When I think of theories in science, international relations, or classical sociological theories, I don’t think of something that is fluid or susceptible to changes; instead, I think of something that’s kind of set in stone and unchanging. So, when I thought about it more, it irked me because, in my mind, our own personal theories of writing can’t exist. You can’t have varying personal theories in something as basic as writing, especially when we teach it and learn it as if it is a set in stone concept able to be mastered. And then, I thought about how writing isn’t basic and how that goes hand in hand with us limiting what we consider literacies and who can engage in such literacies. Furthermore, I thought about how that simple phrase–“theory of writing”–continues that idea that there is a final level, an endpoint, to writing and in turn, doesn’t allow for growth or expansion out of our medieval definitions of writing and literacies. Long story short: I came out of this thought process more confused and lost than ever before (seriously, I felt like  I was a part of The Matrix and had thought too deeply about something as simple as a phrase–which also ties into the different connotations and uses associated with words–and was now left running around in circles). So, maybe I’ll refer to this “theory of writing” as my “personality of writing” or philosophy? I don’t know.

Anyways, I hope that rant didn’t confuse any of you and if it did… I’m not mad about it because it’d be nice to have someone else in my corner analyzing every little thing and who is willing to be lost in thought over something “so simple.” So, as for my own personality of writing, I noticed that when we were all writing down key terms and triggers for “good writing” a lot of the words I wrote down were more abstract and less concrete than the rest of my group. I have things written down like: transparency, purpose, fulfillment, relative, and fluid. The only other I guess concrete terms I used would be revision, audience, and comprehension. But even then,  I added those to my list after I heard my group members talk about it. It was crazy to me that in coming up with that list of terms, I had forgotten all of the key aspects of writing that I had been taught to recognize as good writing. Things like grammar, punctuation, spelling, formatting, and citation. We rarely talked about transparency and purpose in my AP English classes in high school. In all of my college courses, I usually have professors who put a section in the syllabus about “good writing” and what does it usually include? How to do APA or MLA correctly. The basics of grammar. How to format your paper. The more abstract concepts of writing are never talked about. How do we expect to transform the way we assess literacies if we define “good writing” as perfect spelling and grammar usage? How do we expect to expand our interactions with literacies if we don’t talk about the qualities of literacies that go beyond dictionaries, thesauruses, and citation sites? I mean, those basics are important, but they can’t be the end of the discussion when it comes to “good writing” and finding our individual “personality of writing.” And I think we continue to do this for a few reasons. One, I think there’s an inherent fear in writing. I think we as a society are scared to talk about things that aren’t concrete or aren’t easily assessed via strict rules. And as I type this I’m realizing, all of this influences our narrow definition of literacies and who believes they can and do engage in literacies. Two, if we expand “good writing” to include these more abstract aspects, we will destroy the idea that writing can be perfected and mastered. We won’t have that endpoint or finish line to look forward too, and once again, that can be scary. There’s a really fascinating quote on page 1 of Metaconcept and it says, “…people tend to experience writing as a finished product that represents ideas in seemingly rigid forms but also because writing is often seen as a ‘basic skill’ that a person can learn once and for all and not think about again.” And what they’re saying here is completely true and yet (maybe it’s because I haven’t read a ton of literature on this subject) writers rarely talk about writing and literacies in that way. We’re continuing the system and way of thinking about writing to a point that it’s completely limiting. As for the idea that writing is something someone can master without practice, it got me thinking about whether practice makes perfect or practice makes better. We so badly want writing to be something that can be practiced over and over until we perfect it, but that’s just not realistic. That doesn’t allow the world of writing to be fluid. It doesn’t allow writers to integrate their experiences and emotions into their pieces. It doesn’t allow for non-English majors or scholars to engage in writing outside of their academic requirements. So, to me, when my key terms were more abstract, it made complete and total sense. I’m coming into this class dominated by English majors and the expectations of writing in my field are in some ways completely different (other than the basics). We can have a few universal expectations for writing for specific contexts, but ignoring the abstract parts of writing closes its doors. And, in terms of varying literacies, specific expectations and requirements such as APA/MLA won’t be relevant depending on the type of literacy one is engaging in. And, I say all of this to argue that there shouldn’t be one, universal theory of writing. Our personalities of writing should be influenced by our own experiences, emotions, and purpose to what we’re writing. It should also be influenced by the type of writing we’re engaging in. I wouldn’t write the same in a text versus an e-mail. An academic paper versus my spoken word pieces. So, I guess, in order to expand our definitions of literacies and to determine “good writing”, we need to bring in these abstract ideals and to include non-traditional genres of writing into this world.

There were so many good quotes in this reading, I feel like I need to share all of them. I’ll try to keep it concise.

  • “Understanding and identifying how writing is in itself an act of thinking can help people more intentionally recognize and engage with writing as a creative activity, inextricably linked to thought.”
  • “No matter how isolated a writer may seem as she sits at her computer, types on the touchpad of her smartphone, or makes notes on a legal pad, she is always drawing upon the ideas and experiences of countless others.”
    • This one specifically stood out to me because even though we may view such activities as isolation from an outsider perspective, that isolation may mean a connection with someone or some thing not in plain sight such as via social media or even the writer herself, which draws upon the idea of being intentional with writing and using it as a creative outlet.
  • “Instructors should remember that common assignment verbs like analyze, interpret, explain, and respond have discipline-specific contexts.”
    • I think this is especially pertinent for me to think about as I transition into the TESOL world.
  • “…while readers are absent, removed… the need for writers to fictionalize their audiences and for audiences to fictionalize themselves, to adopt the role set out for them by the writer.”

I can go on and on about how incredibly thought-provoking this reading was. But I guess, overall, I learned that writing is freaking complicated. Before our discussions, I used to imagine writing and the literary world as a race to the finish line or wall. That, once you completed your studies, you would hit the wall and be done learning. But that’s clearly not the case. There is no such thing as perfect writing or an expert in this field. It’s always changing. It will always be a fluid area of study. And what gives anyone the right to dictate what is or isn’t literacy? What is or isn’t good writing? What is or isn’t included in the universal theory of writing? When I facilitate Diversity Summit (which, I think should be a requirement for everyone to go through) with the CCLC, we talk about the power of your story. The power of community and the power in empowering others and yourself through sharing your story. And, like anyone would assume, this is a very difficult thing to do, especially with people you just met. And, I usually frame it in a way that sharing your story is like trying to break down a wall. The first few times are painfully rough and difficult. But the more you keep hitting that wall and sharing your story, your ups and your downs, that wall will fall down. It won’t go away. But it’ll become more like a speed bump. Always there, still difficult to do, but a little easier. I think the same idea can be applied to our “personalities of writing.” There is no finish line. There is no wall to break through and be done. But, as long as we commit to writing with purpose, being transparent in our writing, keeping our writing fluid, and working to relate to our audience (whomever that may be), identifying our personality of writing and publishing “good writing” will get easier and be a smoother process than it was at the beginning.

P.S. – As I reread this for the final time, I could sense my AP English Composition teacher rolling her eyes as I glossed over the importance of grammar, spelling, etc. And I don’t mean to say those things aren’t important, but I think there’s plenty of research and publications on those aspects of writing and not enough on the connection writing allows its writers and audience members.

  2 comments for “Finding Our Personality of Writing

  1. David Puerner
    David Puerner
    February 5, 2017 at 9:40 am

    I was in an English course the other day, and I happened to run into a young social science major who has done more in her academic career than I might do in a lifetime if I’m not careful. She has travelled and studied abroad, and has reached out to other cultures in such a way that I would describe her as an ambassador of the more positive aspects of American culture to the places she has visited. What I mean is that the spirit she seems to have brought with her to the other countries and cultures she’s visited is a far more positive representation of American culture than what I fear one might glean from watching American pop culture and politics alone, and if she has served as a counterpoint to our worst aspects (I don’t even think I have to name them at this point. We all have things we’re frustrated about in our culture, and traveling and empathizing with people in other countries isn’t one of them. That’s something we’d champion) in the eyes of the world then she has already done incredible work, and I’m positive she is only just beginning.
 All that to say I admire her a bit.
 I am in a lot of ways an idiot (I’d like to think idiot savant, but I don’t bring that idea up in polite company for the fear and knowledge that my best friends would find such a claim debatable… and then would proceed to debate the finer points of my affliction with gusto, glee, and vehement rapture). Once at Butte college, where it took me 6-7 years to complete a two year transfer degree I was fortunate enough to take “Queer film and Literature” with Cristina Dahl (She is amazing by the way), and I was introduced in a big way (not for the first time, but perhaps the first time it really registered with me in a significant way) to the idea of “Fluidity.” We talked about “Gender and Sexuality” existing on a spectrum, and we talked about the “Performance of Identity” and how Performance is something we all do. We define ourselves with a series of labels that we think we understand, and then begin the difficult process of crafting a public face (or set of behaviors) that we hope will represent those aspects of our identity in the public sphere to the best of our ability.
    I’m talking about the performance of roles, meeting and defying expectations, and how everyday we navigate the expression of our identity and the roles we are going to play on a day to day basis (sometimes even an hourly basis if for example I’m playing the academic at school, and the burger flipper at work… those are often two slightly different versions of David you know?). Anyway, I took this class and somehow got caught up in the notion of what an “Ally” is and supposed to be.
    An Ally is someone who the LGBT community can trust, someone who fights for the LGBT community and who stands up for those made vulnerable from society whenever the call is felt… an ally is also someone who respects the boundaries of other people, and is therefore someone who should strive to be sensitive to other peoples needs and not push them in ways that are too invasive.
    In my lifetime I’ve been someone who joins crusades and gets swept up in rhetoric that has burnt bridges and damaged relationships permanently. I have definitely been guilty of policing others behavior on Facebook by trying to “beat them into submission” with my “superior grasp of ‘the facts’ and and ‘knowledge.’” All this to say, I am in a lot of ways an idiot, and have been prone to ego and vanity in my life, and sometimes to an unforgivable fault in hindsight.
    In the midst of taking Queer Film and Literature, I clung onto the notion of Ally and must have been compelled to prove to myself that I too could, not only rise to the mantle of Ally, but was in fact already there. So I fired up the old laptop, logged into Facebook and started scrolling. I found my boy Rob Jay (I changed his name to protect the innocent) posted something on his wall about “my own privilege and the ways in which he was being oppressed, and how it was so sad, and how I had his back and would look out for him and people like him moving forward.” I posted this shit on his wall, as an affirmation of my own ego and anxiety about being someone who identified as straight and performed as male and who fit the description of the group of people who has been most detrimental in the lives of any people or minority we’ve regarded as other, and I think this posting of mine was, at heart, a manifestation of deep-seated and uncomfortable guilt at becoming aware of the ways in which my identity played into the Patriarchy… something I could no longer deny or hide from. Something transformative, insanely empowering to become aware of, and in a lot of ways devastating.
    My friend’s response was one of weary apprehension.
    I had “outed” Rob on Facebook (on his own wall no less), and I had revealed that I placed his identity as a gay male above all other aspects of his identity in that instant (I reduced him to a label and a class of people, and felt no fear in doing so because I was privileged enough not to have to worry about the consequences of outing someone in front of ther peers and family, which is the hallmark of privilege at its worst and most unaware, and I was adopting the term Ally without having done any work to eran it, and without taking the time to learn about it… all i knew was that it was something I wanted associated with myself, and that I thought I knew a way to achieve it instantly). Rob replied by educating me about some of the assumptions I’d brought with me into my actions towards him, pointed out some of the errors of my thought process and the ways in which my actions were actually counterproductive in terms of my intent, and then I got very upset with him, and had a tantrum in the comments section, and it was ugly, and that moment in my life still haunts me to this day.
    I am in a lot of ways an idiot, still.
    I know this is long, and I’m sorry, but I’m saying this because there are a lot of things, as an English major that I am cognizant of and anxious about moving forward in any direction, and I’ve had a lot of time to examine and reflect upon the aspects of myself and the individuals I’ve encountered in my field that make me nervous. One of those things is ego, the other is our ability to articulate ideas in such a way that we can make them seem sexy as hell and “true” and the last of those ways is that sometimes I fear that our ability to articulate and justify certain ideas and trains of thought can blind us to our assumptions about the world, our place in the world, the work we do in it, and the damage we can do in the world when we have blinders up we’re not even aware of. I think my story about Rob is just one example of a time I felt so justified and “right” in my thought process that I completely ignored the reality of people outside of myself and potentially did real damage to someone’s perception of their own personal security in the world all because I had a desire that was more important to me that even beginning the process of empathizing with my fellow human being, you know?
    It was a dramatic failure, and one I’m always terrified to repeat.
    Now to tie it all together, when I glimpsed the Social Science major in my English class this semester I was impressed because she was stepping out of her field and trying something that clearly made her nervous, and I will always respect that in all people I meet, and taking risks like that is something I aspire to now if you know what I mean? Anyways, I was hanging out after class to shake my teacher’s hand (something I always do after the first day of class because it helps me feel comfortable in the space moving forward, and makes the class begin to feel like home and not such a formal affair) and particular this Social Science Major is ahead of me, and I happen to overhear her voice some concerns about being in a classroom with a bunch of English majors, she voiced feelings of maybe being inadequate in certain ways (which frankly, I don’t buy at all), and what I sensed at the bottom of her words was a desire to be not only competent here (as she has no doubt experienced elsewhere in her academic career) but to be competent and shine in the realm she cares most about; her work with ESL and all that implies in her future. Her insecurities, which I think are perfectly natural and even healthy, betrayed a desire to be the best at what she does and to help other people reach their goals to the best of their ability.
    …and when she voiced her concern about being in a room with people she felt, “were so much more ‘eloquent’ and ‘articulate’ than her I had to stop myself. Because I wanted to say that English majors are terrible people.
    I had to stop myself, because my prof. Kim was an English person, and because I’ve met fantastic individuals in the English department, and I didn’t want start the semester off shitting on the people who occupy positions of power in my department of choice, English.
    To anyone reading, and I will reiterate this, a lot of what I’m about to say next are things about myself which I have exhibited myself, which I have found problematic, and are the reasons behind any statement I would make that sounds something like, “English majors are terrible people. And I hope that after reading my story about Queer Film and Lit… and what I did to Rob you will understand that it is very possible these sentiments I am about to express are manifestations of my own Fears and Self Loathing and hopefully in no way reflect you.
    I’m going out on a limb here, and I hope you don’t hate me afterwards.
    I am a vain creature after all.
    The main reason why I think English majors are terrible people is because often I sense that even in the throes of voicing the most relevant stance on the most topical and seemingly crucial issue part of their purpose is vanity. I have seen people in my classes talk about amazing shit and realize part way through half the subtext is, “look at how amazing I am and witness my mastery of said subject” (I must reiterate, I have done this, and it is quite possible I’m projecting this onto a lot of my peers because it is something I can’t stand in myself and am desperately trying to be cognizant of the fact so that my vanity doesn’t hurt or alienate others). What I fear about English Majors is that sometimes we are so desperate to prove our “cleverness” to ourselves and our peers that we forget the reasons for which our passions where inspired in the first place, and then rather than setting out to see progress done in the world (even if just baby steps) self affirmation and self gratification become ends in themselves… and this is dangerous.
    It is dangerous because in my mind it undermines our “nobler” goals, and if caught by those hearing or reading our message I fear it has the effect of undermining the strength of the message (no matter how noble and just the message) by the failure of our own character. If proving our cleverness and sophistication to the world is half our rhetorical aim, regardless of whether we are cognizant of it or not, we risk doing damage to causes and movements we hold most dear, especially if we strive to occupy a place on the vanguard of social progress (whatever that might mean for you). I think the realization in the public eye, that part of the reason for our work is the gratification of ego and vanity, and the flouting of academic prowess for the purpose of flattering the self, can be the equivalent of an athlete who is discovered taking steroids. Especially if that athlete is a star, the discovery of “dishonesty” throws every victory and the cultural meaning said individual occupied into stark question, and whatever cultural idea said individual had come to symbolize is undermined and its validity is thrown into question… and in my opinion when someone, and English type person, on the vanguard of social progress proves themselves to be dishonest in some way (perhaps the discovery that a portion of their aim in writing is the celebration of ego. And to be sure there are other, more provocative manifestations of this type of dishonesty) it is impossible for the message, cause or movement to walk away completely unscathed in the eyes of public opinion. And setback on the front of Social progress is something I have a hard time abiding because people need change now, and setback is selfish with regards to the people who need change most.
    I know this sounds crazy.
    I tried to articulate these feelings and anxieties to the best of my ability.
    Personally I’ve seen examples of people articulating ideas in my classes so beautifully that for a second I am so in awe of their eloquence and prowess my faculties of critical thought might be temporarily disarmed. I find myself nodding my head as a member of the choir without evaluating my position in relation to the choir. Do I truly belong to this choir, or have I been dazzled into it without thinking? Words, communication, and the rhetoric behind it are powerful tools, and when they disarm people and move them without them being entirely cognizant of the process words and rhetoric become inherently dangerous in my mind. And for me, and this is my biggest fear, if any part of the communication process is designed merely to gratify the ego, then we cannot be fully in control of the damage our rhetoric has the potential to do in the “real world,” to real people who navigate institutions in this society that are in a lot of ways expression of applied rhetoric (what is higher education and the way we implement it but a compromise between so many competing values expressed in the halls of a physical place?).
    I am in a lot of ways an idiot.
    And voicing my concerns about English majors and the ways we use writing and our powers of articulation is not a smart move by any measure, but these are some of the things that keep me up at night, and this is the kind of person I am desperate not to be.
    So when that Social Science major was talking to Kim about her concerns and anxieties about stepping outside her field, and wanted to tell her, “Don’t worry. Some of the best most influential writers in the ‘English Cannon’ wouldn’t have defined themselves as English Majors. Off the top of my head I can tell you that the man who wrote, The Time Machine (H. G. Wells) was a professor of Biology, and there is a long history of contributions to the field of Literature and communication that come from outside disciplines. Cross pollination, for lack of a better phrase, is often paramount to growth, and you are in good company… historically speaking.” And also, “Don’t worry. English Majors are terrible, and we (or more likely I) need examples of folks in my life who put caring for the world and altruism far ahead of proving their cleverness. And that might be you.”
    Sometimes I say thing and word them in such a way that people tend to think for a minute, this guy knows what he’s talking about. I have learned to wear confidence in the classroom even when I am uncertain. Even the act of voicing uncertainty and fear in the classroom becomes a statement of confidence in a way, because it conveys the notion that your awareness of my fear or anxiety will not effect me negatively, you know? And what scares me about the times when my ideas and the way I articulate things in the classroom have traction is that sometimes folks think, “damn that was a good idea.” And they have no concept of the many, many times I was so disastrously wrong (Like that time with Rob).
    I’m almost done I promise.
    In chess people talk about “seeing the whole board,” and seeing moves ahead in time. If I move this particular piece in this way, what will be my opponents reaction four moves from now? how do I achieve my end? I like playing people who destroy me, and one such person is my coworker. It’s infuriating because I like to win and flatter myself by thinking I’m pretty decent at chess, and it’s humbling and liberating because playing and losing to him over and over again is a reminder to that “I never see the whole board,” I can’t see as far ahead I a think I can, and there is always going to be someone who can do it far better than me.
    When I’m in class and my ideas gain traction because of the way I can articulate certain things I get nervous specifically because “I know I never see the whole board,” and I worry that sometimes people think I do. And I think that what I’m trying to tell you is that I for one am just as nervous about making a statement about Literacy as you yourself seem to be in this blog post. But I know that I don’t see the whole board, and I know that the articulation of an idea is not an endpoint but instead and blip on some mental graph that will change overtime and my understanding and capacity to interact with the subject grows and contracts over time… where I am now doesn’t reflect where I’ll be at the end of the course, and it is the kind of dialogue and conversation with a subject where we as people who study literacy (or social theories) come to the table to test our understanding against the consensus of our peers, weigh the feedback, and then decide (temporarily) whether or not our we must begin the work of adjusting the ideas, tenets, and values that shape our ever-changing and constantly evolving sense of truth.
    Our ideas about Literacy will be challenged and altered over time, the consensus will be wrong in some aspect every step of the way, and it is the dialog that is important. I think the dialog, as long as it’s happening, is a reflection of our awareness and understanding as a people that that some particular aspect (and this case Literacy) has an effect on peoples lives and that we have a responsibility to understand it and challenge its more traditional aspects so that it does the least amount of damage possible to those groups of people in our society who are most vulnerable to its rhetoric. In this case our understanding of Literacy has (at the very least) denied and granted access to different parts of society, and it’s interesting and (probably disheartening) to understand the implications across lines of class, gender, income, etc.. By exploring this one of our goals should be to empower those who have been left behind by a tradition of misunderstanding and devaluing, and mitigating those damages seems to be one of the goals of this field of inquiry, and I for one could not be happier to have stumbled upon this vein of thought with such an excellent group of people (yourself included).
    If you ever find yourself questioning your ability to contribute in class remember; 1. There is nothing anyone has said in class that I haven’t learned something from, and in that regard your input and participation is invaluable and hotly sought. 2. I myself never see the whole board. I am guilty of oversight. I am often an idiot in a lot of ways. And when I listen you (and the rest of my peers speak) I expect to find elements brilliance that will add to and shape my understanding of all things, not just Literacy, and I am rarely disappointed when I come to class with this mindset.

    You are in the right place. You are asking the right questions! And I’m sure there are some of us (myself for one) who are as impressed with who you seem to be as a person, as you seemed to be with what you described as our “eloquence” (which is again a vein of debate I would not open up to the best of my friends, because they’d put me in check in a big way lol).


    PS- I think this was supposed to be a pep talk. And I’m sorry If what I perceived was wrong in any way. You have permission to punch me in the face whenever you feel the need, but I allow me to take off my glasses first!

    PPS- Why is everything I say so damn convoluted!?

    PPPS- I’m so sorry everyone!

    PPPPS- I sincerely hoped this did half of what I set out to do! Fingers crossed*

  2. kjaxon
    February 5, 2017 at 3:26 pm

    Wow. I’m having so much fun following your conversations.

    First of all, Kassandra, thinking about key terms as broader concepts (as opposed to particular features of writing such as grammar or length, etc) is so so productive: “I have things written down like: transparency, purpose, fulfillment, relative, and fluid.” Your move is useful because those concepts take literacies out of school models of “good” literacies and places them in the world. If you looked at my list I’d start with identities, then context, audience, purpose, intention, etc.

    I rely a lot on James Gee’s work here. His general argument: to appreciate language in its social context, we need to focus not on language alone, but rather on what he calls Discourses. Discourses include much more than language: ways of behaving, interacting, valuing, thinking, speaking–ways of being in the world. Ideologies underlie discourses. The way we think, feel, and do is always indebted to the social groups to which we have been apprenticed. Discourse as identity kit–appropriate costume, how to act, talk, write, so as to take on a particular social role that others will recognize. As Gee argues, the practices are never just literacy practices, but are also ways of talking, thinking, valuing and believing.

    In terms of theory, I think what we miss (even in science) is that theories are always hard won conversations that become (relatively) stable. My science colleague, Leslie, who is a physicist, gives a fabulous talk about the challenges of science writing: we only show students the end of our labor. They rarely see the behind the scenes mess that is science thinking. I think theories are heuristics, not algorithms. We use a theory of learning to inform practice and we return to revise the theory when practices make the theory unstable again. We can have a theory of writing for now…and then return again and again.

    And I’m not an English person. ;-) Quickly shifted in my undergrad from literature to language/literacy/composition and then PhD in Education. This does make a difference in the way I think about texts: what counts as a text and whose texts count. I see student writing as worthy of study as Moby Dick (which I’ve never read….and probably never will). If I had it to do all over again, I’d probably be a cultural anthropologist.

    Finally, I love this:
    “There is no finish line. There is no wall to break through and be done. But, as long as we commit to writing with purpose, being transparent in our writing, keeping our writing fluid, and working to relate to our audience (whomever that may be), identifying our personality of writing and publishing “good writing” will get easier and be a smoother process than it was at the beginning.”

    Well said.

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