This is your EMWP Summer Institute Book Group blog. You are asked to post at least once a week before and during the Institute. Your group leader will post additional assignments and post topics. Check back often. If you have any questions or concerns contact your leader, Cindy.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Writing, Like Speech, Should Be Practical

While I have my own qualms with some of Elbow’s statements, I appreciate his overall approach towards writing: it is a tool for communication that should be used in a way that aligns with how we speak.  Writing should fit logically alongside speech, rather than the two being at odds with one another. Elbow’s logical and user-friendly approach to language is reflected in how he structures the book itself, too. I like how he sets up the shaded boxes to help illustrate his argument and prefaces the main text with the instructions that the boxes can be skipped without disrupting the narrative.  I agree that the evolution of “standard” writing should keep up with the ever-changing conventions of speech. What happens in reality, however, is that the guidelines of “standard English” seem to change more slowly. Rather than adapting to changes in speech, “standard English” fights against the natural evolution of language. This perpetuates the attitude that new shifts in spoken language are incorrect.

Writing in the English language is held as the “authority” of language. I thought it was interesting to learn about Native Americans’ mistrust of the written word and preference for the spoken word, because the importance of writing as the method of setting contracts and important statements, previously, seemed inherent to me. It seemed only natural that writing is set above spoken language in the importance hierarchy. In reality, though, our culture has so long-trusted the written word that we are only accustomed to thinking of writing as setting the standards for “correct" language.

Another assumption I think many take for granted is that “correct" writing should be different from how we speak most naturally.  Elbow states on page 28, “Our culture, like many others, has somehow come to insist on a dialect for correct writing that is different from anyone’s mother tongue.” I have to ask, why is that? Also, how does this standard work to the detriment of its speakers? Will this misalignment between spoken language (also the “mother tongue”) and “correct” written English continue? Will the adaptation of written standards to accommodate shifts in spoken language always move at sloth-like speed?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Culling: Introduction

Well, here's what caught my attention in Elbow's book right off the bat. I was a little taken aback in the first paragraph, and by the third page I had my sticky notes in full force putting questions all over the text. Below are two of his assertions that really fired me up in the Introduction to Part I.

I'm sure these things are not "the point" of his writing. I'm sure that what's to come is very useful commentary on how speech relates to writing and whatnot. I'm also sure that the introduction is an important part of any book and warrants serious attention.

Point #1

In the first paragraph he says, "I've long been angry at how our present culture of "proper literacy" tells us that we are not supposed to do our serious writing in the mother tongue we know best and possess in our bones - but rather only in the prestige, correct, edited version of standardized English." He goes on to say, "Many people have learned to manage or handle adequately "correct English," but in doing so, they muffle or clog their thoughts into language that's far less clear and interesting than they could have used in the language of their talking."

My disagreement: The "mother tongue" he's describing is romanticized. A mother tongue in a general sense is unique to very small groups of people who all understand the unique intricacies of their language or dialect. There are words and figures of speech, idioms, etc. that are only significant and/or understood by the people of that subculture. I think Elbow is asserting that everyone's mother tongue is universally understood. Sherman Alexie, Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz write in a style close to their "mother tongue." They are uncommonly good, and what makes their writing such is the marriage they form between standard English and their own mother tongue. It's the way they make their language accessible to every reader - the blend between dialect and standard English opens the range of their audience up from their own cultural subgroups to the general public. Thus, standard English is not some sort of handicap that hinders people from writing, but a tool (an entire manual) on how to effectively communicate in a way most people understand. And, based on the Pulitzer prizes among these three, our culture is all about the "mother tongue," we just need to be able to understand it.

Point #2

Elbow states on page seven that "teachers are not necessary for learning to write well."

My disagreement: I understand this when I consider writing exclusively as an art. Things that we can physically do without instruction and without any knowledge platform (dance, sing, paint, draw) are what I consider to be art. BUT I also consider each of these to have a close relationship to science. There are rules, there are restrictions, there are things that a general audience will accept and those that one won't. If choreographer's idea of dance is to have various performers walk out on a stage and fart, that person is going to have a short and supremely unsuccessful career. Indeed a teacher wasn't necessary for that production to be thought up and produced, but a teacher would have been helpful. A teacher could have explained that that is offensive not only to the audience but to the performers, and that while dance is a broad term that is about movement, there are certain types of movement and behavior that should be expressed and those that should be reserved.

In this way, writing as an art should absolutely be unrestricted. Writing, when it is exclusively done for the individual (journals, etc), can effectively be done without a teacher. The thing is, we train writing as it is used to present information to an audience. Be the audience a teacher, a scholarship committee, a selection committee, an employer, or the general public, we are teaching writing as both the art of personal expression and the science of relating it to other people. In this way, teachers are required to learn the ins and outs of this system and to ensure students can navigate it.

The lingering question after all of this, though, is What does it mean to "write well"? If people can do it without standard conventions - if they can do it inherently and without instruction, doesn't that just make it about the thought behind the writing? Is good writing that which we understand, or that which is thoughtfully crafted? Thoughts?