Ego where I go
Yesterday, I started thinking about the second writing class I took when I returned to college. I needed to take the second core course in writing, the same class I’ve been teaching for the past year or so. I signed up and found that because of a misprint I was in a class for English as a second language students. While I usually feel pretty foreign no matter where I am, they wouldn’t let me stay in that section. All the other sections were full. Several people in the department suggested that I take Persuasive Writing instead— it was a junior level class, but they assured me that it would be okay even though I was still a freshman. I signed up, but I was nervous as hell. The first day, the professor proclaimed:
All writers are self-absorbed, egotistical, and childish— and those are their good qualities.
The class was a trial by fire. The teacher constantly berated the writing of most of the students (which in retrospect, was pretty horrible). He was positively mean spirited about the whole thing. I felt largely ignored, though I was one of the few in the class who consistently got A’s on all my essays. It was good to be ignored in this situation. I’ll never forget the look of shock on his face when I told him it was my second writing class ever. I wrote the most scathing evaluation of his class that I’ve ever written, and cursed about it for years afterward. But the strange thing was, I learned more in this class than any other writing class of my undergraduate career. The professor didn’t avoid theory, as most writing teachers do— he taught straight out of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. It occurred to me yesterday that I’m doing much the same thing, though I tend to lean harder into Cicero and Quintilian. But I don’t berate my students.
I was reminded of this class for a couple of reasons. One of my students was trying to praise me for improving her writing. I complained that I really didn’t think I deserved that much credit— she was responsible for the improvement, not me. I was thinking of the classes I’ve taken where there is a palpable wall between the front half of the classroom and the back, and those that are more like discussion groups. I always got more out of the latter. The key to learning is doing, not spectating. I don’t say this to undercut the role of having good mentors, but rather to assign the credit where it is due. Some people forget all too easily. It’s part of that self-absorbed writer thing. When a “writer” stands at the front of a classroom, they can’t help but give themselves credit. That’s why I try to switch into a reader role when I’m there. The second reason was Luke’s prompt regarding the bashing of NaNoWriMo writers. Luke centers on this bit:
I am a writer. I just get terribly, terribly frustrated when something I have devoted my life to is treated in as cavalier a manner as Baty seems to be doing. To be a writer is not a right, it's a privilege. And you cannot buy that privilege by writing "50,000 words of crap" in a month. The price is much, much higher than that.
Let’s take this apart carefully. “I am a writer”— just what is this supposed to signify? To write is to send a message through a grapholect; a high percentage of the world can manage this communication skill. The arrogance of stating it as if it were somehow “special” reinforces my professor’s comment about the personality traits of writers. The easiest reply is to say “So what?” She might as well have said “I wash dishes.” A certain group, including AKMA and Jonathon might say that they don’t appreciate that some people treat the proper washing of dishes in such a “cavalier” manner. Writing, or washing dishes, is neither a right nor a privilege and to state it in these terms denigrates both rights and privileges. There is only one factual statement in this paragraph. To write is to communicate, and to communicate does extract a price: the price of being judged both for the quality of your coding (language) and your message (concept). How high the price is depends on the size of your audience.
Wood s Lot recently pointed to an article about the lack of readers. Pungent commentary by folks like Joe Epstein regarding “writers” and ranting like this about online novelists is on the rise. I like to believe that we are not moving to a time when everyone wants to talk and no one wants to listen. Sometimes, it’s hard to say. But I am heartened by my experiences with online writers. Everyone has links on their sidebar. They seem to both read, and write.
There is a difference between operating in reader mode and writer mode. Russ’s reaction hits the nail on the head: “Most offensive is the self-righteous, entitled sense of possession.” It’s a “writer” talking, not a reader. Those qualities are essential to writing, but positively destructive to reading. Let go. Live a little. Listen to someone else for a change. As Luke observed, a writer has to write a lot of crap to get better— that’s just how it works. The only one required to read the crap is the writer, that is, unless you’re in a class where a teacher can cut you to shreds over it. What makes a good writer is writing, not bitching. To read effectively, you have to quit thinking of how you would have written it and dig deeper into what the writer is trying to tell you. Hopefully, they’re not just putting their ego up on display— though a great deal of the time— that’s precisely what it is.
*Part of the divisiveness revealed in the two attitudes reflects the split between literature departments and rhetoric departments. Unlike what you might think, literature departments tend to underwrite this egocentric view of authorship. Though they are largely in the reading business, they treat authors as somehow above the crowd. This drives most literature students to desire this lofty, egocentric position. Rhetoric departments are focused on more practical aspects of writing. As one instructor of mine recently put it, “My students will change the world by writing grant proposals and influential documents. Will the poets you train ever do that?”
I sit in the middle between the extremes. I believe that the best poets can and do change the world. Not because they are privileged and special— but because they are sensitive, reading focused humans who force us to confront deeper truths. The best poets get past the necessary self-involved stages and look to the world, instead of just themselves, to convey a message.