What Do You Want from Writing?

We were talking writing today, what its purpose is, how it should work.  I’m still mulling it over.

I feel like how I was taught how to teach writing was inherently supremacist–that there’s some objective standard for what makes “good” writing and that everything else that falls short of that objective standard sucks.

That’s just not true.  I was taught to teach writing like it’s a fortress for ideas and that each part of the fortress must be precise and disciplined and correct in order to keep the good stuff in and the bad stuff out.

But “correct” English is a fiction.  No one speaks it.  It’s a useful fiction, because it lets a bunch of folks who all speak all kids of English have access to an agreed-upon formal, but fake way of communicating and being understood.  But it’s not “right.”  And I think it’s bullshit the way that “correct” English is used as a measure of the value of someone’s ideas.

I think good writing is when the writer imagines herself sitting across from her reader.  And she writes in such a way that something about her seems spread open (arms, legs, mouth, eyes, hands, etc.) and the reader feels like responding to that openness.  Sometimes, it’s meant to feel like a seduction–“Come in here, sweetie.”–and sometime it’s meant to feel like a reassuring hug and sometimes I want you to laugh with me or shout with me or lace your fingers through mine.

I want you to feel invited to connect with me in some intimate way.

And in a way that’s very hard for me to feel comfortable with in real life.

So, I don’t know.  I have to say, I think that’s what pisses me off about Bob Krumm.  I used to feel that, even though we disagreed on everything, that I was welcome over there to read and to think about his ideas.  And now I feel like something’s changed and I’m not welcome.  And I don’t know if it’s something I did or if he’s changing his blogging strategy or what.

But it’s weird.  And I don’t know how to explain it, but as a reader, I feel cheated.

16 thoughts on “What Do You Want from Writing?

  1. Pingback: Nashville is Talking » A Few Hits Can Really Go To The Head

  2. hmmmm.. i never thought of it that way before,,,, but,,,,, i guess alot of writings,, specially poetry,,, is more open.. … i know when i write my poems,,, certain ones,, i imagine certain people that would feel the same thing or same way … and occasionally it is intimate…. some writings are more personal and influentual.. while others are ehm,,,, more,,,, more….. ehhhhhhh…….. political and stereotypical?……. i don’t know,, nevermind……..

    it is true about the “English” communication system… the rules are abit off,,, and most people don’t even use the language correctly,,,, but if u think about it,,, most of the English/American language is just mainly made up from all over the world,,, it’s like someone decided to make a recipe … alittle of Latin there… abit of French here… and alot of teaspoons of English-English right in there,, and wah-lah!…. there’s are new form of language,,,, now abide by thy rules……….but aren’t rules meant to be broken?………..

    oh,, by the way… although i try to go by the grammar and spelling rules,,, as u can see,,,, my thoughts are written out just wrong,,,,, but is there truely a right and wrong?… who knows,,,, they’re just words.

    Pang ^____^~

  3. But “correct” English is a fiction. No one speaks it. It’s a useful fiction, because it lets a bunch of folks who all speak all kids of English have access to an agreed-upon formal, but fake way of communicating and being understood. But it’s not “right.” And I think it’s bullshit the way that “correct” English is used as a measure of the value of someone’s ideas.

    See, that’s not “correct” English, that’s “standard” English. It isn’t a fiction, it’s not a fake, it’s a version of English that all English speakers/writers can (or should) be able to share to talk with each other. And it isn’t a cheat; it’s extremely important if your intented (or hoped-for) audience for something is potentially everyone who speaks/writes English.* But standard English (or non-standard versions that are so close to standard that most people can figure them out without working too hard) can be used formally or informally, with warmth or rigidity, to invite or to ward off the reader. We’re so lucky in English: we’ve got Anglo-Saxon and Latinate roots, plus all the fancy French stuff that came in in the 18th century or so. We can do all sorts of attitudes.

    I don’t know if that’s got anything to do with Bob Krumm, since I don’t generally look at his blog. I imagine not, but what the hey.

    *If your intended audience is smaller or more local, there’s no mandate to speak or write standard English, of course. And many writers don’t. Then there are the writers who create a new/different version of standard English to force the reader to confront the fact that the world being portrayed isn’t the one right here. Riddley Walker does that, for instance.

  4. Totally out of the blue, a friend emailed me and offered suggestions to me about my blog-writing. She was right, but even had she been wrong, I was honored that she took the time to write me about it. I don’t have a solid foundation of education, and my writing clearly reflects that, so her act of kindness went a long way toward making my writing more readable, for the average person. Maybe you are confusing writing styles with writing that is technically correct? Maybe I am.

    I will say that there are writers out there who do make it feel like an intimate conversation when they write, and there are those who come off as mocking, or condescending, I myself sometimes do this on purpose, sometimes completely by accident. I avoid writers (bloggers too) that seem to always do this.

  5. Mack, as I told you in an e-mail a couple of days ago, you are a very talented writer, even though you sometimes express your insecurities about not having a “solid foundation of education.” In your posts, you capture your experiences to where I feel like I am there with you. Again, as I said in my e-mail to you, I wouldn’t change one thing in your content. The only thing I would like to help you with is grammatical in nature…and geez, I could help you with that–I am a proofreader, after all, and B.’s an editor and amazing writer to gleen how to write from. I can’t think of a better example.

  6. The one thing that purposefully has changed at my site is that I discuss more national issues than I did last year when I was focused almost solely on politics at the state level.

    That does make things different because, contrary to your statement that we “disagreed on everything,” we did not. Especially when the issues were corruption and open government–which is still the most important state issue.

    But on national levels, you’re right, we do disagree on (almost) everything. But you already knew that, as did I. The differences now are more frequent, so you don’t like it. Sorry. But I still like you, and am saddened that you don’t feel welcome to comment. Don’t know why that is. I obviously feel welcome enough to comment here.

  7. Wrting is a tough one all around, honestly. I agree with nm that Standard English does have a purpose, and that it’s real. I do think, however, that there’s a useful distinction to be noted between what is generally being pointed to with “correct” English, and how that differs from Standard English in practice. When someone starts arguing about the ‘correct’ way to write/speak/present things, especially when people start talking about it in the blogosphere, they almost invariably encapsulate tone and scope in a way that talking about Standard English does not.

    The way we get taught to present opinions has quite a bit to do with Standard English (where does the subject go? What words properly indicate the amount of force you want this point to have?), but also encompasses those ideals Aunt B. points out as hegemonic. If you want to say X, and you want to say X correctly, you’ll argue this way, and not that way. You’ll use numbers in a certain way, you’ll erase your authorial voice to a certain degree, you’ll be passive a certain way. While this varies intensely by discipline, subject matter, and medium, those spoken and unspoken rules tend to bound the areas of acceptable discourse as much as or moreso than the quality of the content.

    Thus, the dismissal of more personal writing styles as ‘unprofessional’ during political discussions online, despite the context being a non-professional one to begin with. Likewise, the focus on the way women/minorities present challenging ideas, rather than the actual content of their words. Was it nice enough? Did it spend enough time walking opponents through its premises before getting to its conclusion? Does this or that bit of diction, or throwaway line, or oddity of tone invalidate what was said? I think all of that gets embodied in that taught understanding of ‘correct’ ways of speaking or writing.

    A useful example for me was writing for my Hum 110 class, Freshman year. My professor was a philosophy professor, and his commentary on my writing was that it wasn’t assertive enough. I hemmed everything with “seems” and “may” and “could be construed as,” rather than just arguing what I had to say by itself. That (and an introduction to Herodotus) was really helpful for me, and it improved my writing in that context by quite a bit. It was also an insight not just into the minutae of disciplinary differences (watch science majors try to out-passive each other some day. It’s… amusing and kind of scary), but also to gendered writing styles; I wrote as I speak, which always allows plenty of room for an opponent to argue, because if I speak categorically, I’m likely to simply be dismissed. By having me write in a more masculine manner,* he made my words more likely to be heard and accepted. It was the correct way to do things for the context, even though it didn’t make what I said any more true.

    That’s what I interpreted this as pointing to, anyway. That understanding that the worth of an idea gets somehow tied up in the way that idea is presented, and that some ways of presenting it are more inherently good than others. I think that is a flawed argument. Some ways of presenting information are more useful, and some ways are clearer, stronger, more palatable… but the presentation and the content aren’t linked in absolute value.

    * I use that here in the context of the studies dealing with the differences between male and female classroom behavior and presentation of information, rather than as gender performance; it didn’t make me sound more male, it made my style more like a man’s. Men are more likely to think they’re right, while women are more likely to think they’re wrong, when there is doubt. Likewise, men are more likely to assert their opinions as absolutes than women, and more likely to correct (or attempt to correct, if they’re mistaken) their peers. This information presentation style (“Here’s what I’m arguing and here is why it’s right”) is the one I’m talking about.

  8. Magni, I see … I think. I interpreted the idea of “correctness” that B was getting at differently, but your interpretation makes more sense. Except that I think of the get-your-point-accross-this-way stylistic matters you’re talking about as “effective” rather than “correct.” And when I hear people speaking/writing about whether a piece of speaking/writing is “correct,” I go to the concept of standard English, and my battles with students who told me they were “no good at grammar.” It’s funny how their grammar skills improved by leaps and bounds once I pointed out that they were whizzes at the grammar of the version(s) of English they used in their daily lives, and got them to see the purpose of using standard English for writing a college history paper. Different terminology, that’s all. Now, if B would only use the correct terms, the way I do….

  9. Oh, “effective” is a much better term for it. And I wish more people were comfortable with the connection between spoken and written language! Seeing the stilted things people pour onto paper (when they’re perfectly good speakers, and good at organizing their thoughts) makes me so frustrated – they just told me what they wanted to get across… why is it different when they write it down?

    I do think, though, that people conflate effective language and good ideas, and proper speech with acceptable content. People who spend their time studying language/argumentation/writing (or thinking about it, at any rate) get nicely trained out of it (not entirely, but at least learning words to differentiate the concepts), but I’d wager most people just lump it all into “correct” and wash their hands of it.

  10. I was going to say, NM, that we must just be having a disagreement in terms of vocabulary, because I read your comment and was nodding along to it.

    The other thing I was thinking about but left out of this discussion is the way in which I have a hard time correcting men on their grammar, even when they specifically ask me to, because I interpret those “mistakes” as ways for me to enter into the conversation.

    I mean, there’s a way in which writing that is too good leaves no place for me to grab a hold and enter into the discussion.

  11. Wow, your post has really got me thinking.
    I tend to write articles which are mostly “how-to”s and tips and advice bits. I’m really not much more of an expert than any other hard-working, furiously-reading, experimental person out there, but I’d like to help people a bit by letting them know what works for me and seems to be effective for other people too. As such, I hope I don’t put my readers off by my tone…
    I have been taught a lot of “standard” English in my Australian (till 3rd grade) and then British-system schools. Still, I believe that trying to connect is very important… it’s just a bit difficult to let go of my “standard” roots!

  12. Well there is an inherrent disconnect between written and spoken English; thery’re distinctly seperate mediums. The formal conventions regarding written Enlish are intednded to provide the widest possible range of accessibility to written ideas. If everyone wrote without conventions it would limit the potential readership of our ideas tremendously.

    This is not to say that experimentation and having a writing style distinctly your own isn’t cool, it most certainly is. However, your style should be a way to express your ideas. Too often people want to substitute quirky writing for interesting ideas.

    The formal conventions are really intended for students of writing that need a standard frame of reference. Once you’re no longer a student you have the feeedom to write as creatively and unconventionally as you’d like, but good luck getting published or even read. Respek.

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