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.

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?

1 comment:

  1. First of all, I love the dance analogy. Secondly, I completely agree with your defense of the necessity of teachers in creating successful writing. --Of course this will likely be a common opinion among a bunch of writing teachers.-- Teachers help guide students in using conventions to improve the clarity and social acceptability of writing. Sure, great writing can be produced without writing teachers' involvement. It can be produced in the "mother tongue," so to speak, but then it may only be understood and appreciated as great writing by a limited audience. Teaching writing conventions helps widen that audience by making it accessible to a larger population of varying cultures. I also agree with your observation that the artistry of some great writers like Sherman Alexie and Junot Diaz is in large part attributed to their use of a cultural dialect, yet their writing is understandable and considered "good" to a larger audience because of their mastery of "standard" writing conventions. There is a marriage between culture and convention that creates writing that is simultaneously unique and relatable.