Compositional Epiphany

I read a lot.

I sat frozen until it became far too late to say much of consequence. Too many thoughts today: Paradise Lost— How do angels think? Adam’s farts don’t stink, and it is questionable if there were any latrines in the garden of Eden. etc . . . Ted Hughes perverted revision of the fall: Adam ate the fruit, Eve ate Adam, the serpent ate them both, turning them into a brown mass in his intestines. The opening of book 3 of Paterson will show up here soon as well.

For now, I want to save an odd moment in Composition Theory class.

Forced to review what I remembered of my writing education, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t any. I learned to write in the fifth and sixth grades, and there was no noticeable change for years afterward. When computers happened, I was forced to learn to spell and construct complete sentences on my own. But I was in my twenties and long out of school. I learned only to keep from looking like an idiot when I communicated to people online. So most discussion of “writing pedagogy” is foreign to me; I taught myself, and all efforts to teach me failed. When they talk about “process theory” and “cognitive theory” my eyes roll back in my head. They might as well be talking about the Easter Bunny; he never visited me either.

As the teacher reviewed the major theories, I took advantage of my ability to read quickly to finish a rather lengthy article by Walter Ong called “The Writers Audience is Always a Fiction.” It wasn’t assigned, I just felt like reading it. Ong’s argument is that learning to write is tied to the construction of a hypothetical audience in your head. We all write to someone, otherwise, we don’t write. After the review of “cognitive theory” was done, we were asked to read a group of student essays in order to “rate” them on a continuum of cognitive stages. It seemed so elitist to me, because it implied that people who can’t write well are somehow lower on the evolutionary ladder than those who can write. It dawned on me that the poorest of the essays was judged as a case of “arrested development” because the writer was clearly writing to someone who could read his mind, a close friend perhaps. The middle essay was written poorly, because it got lost in trying to explain every reference, as if it was written to an idiot. The third essay, though mechanically flawed, was conceptually sound because it was written as if a person of normal to above average intelligence would read it. To me, it had nothing to do with the “development’ of these people as people, but instead the differences were controlled by what these writers pictured as an audience.

When I expressed this theory to the teacher, she responded, “yes, that could be true, but how would you grade them?” Grade them? Is that what it’s all about? I thought the job was to locate the problems in order to try to make them better writers. Why consider them to be lower on the cognitive development scale based on the evidence of writing alone? Writing is an activity that is largely based on acting ability. If you can wear the right mask for the situation at hand then you succeed as a writer. It all comes down to playing to the crowd, writing in a way that is neither too smart nor too dumb to convince people that you are worth reading. A task that I fail at miserably, quite often.

Ong’s summary of writing as a masking activity is succinctly and frighteningly clear:

Masks are inevitable in all human communication, even oral. Role playing is both different in actuality and an entry into actuality: play and actuality (the world of “work”) are dialectically related to one another. From the very beginning, an infant becomes an actual speaker by playing at being a speaker, much as a person who cannot swim, after developing some ancillary skills, one day plays at swimming and finds that he is swimming in truth. But oral communication, which is built into existential actuality more directly than written, has within it a momentum that works for the removal of masks. Lovers try to strip off all masks. And in all communication, insofar as it is related to actual experience, there must be a movement of love. Those who have loved for many years may reach a point where almost all masks are gone. But never all. The lover’s plight is tied to the fact that every one of us puts on a mask to address himself, too. Such masks to relate ourselves to ourselves we also try to put aside, and with wisdom and grace we to some extend succeed in casting them off. When the last mask comes off, sainthood is achieved, and the visions of God. But this can only be with death.

I nearly fell off my chair when I read this. Then I had to try to relate to the boring world of socio-cognitive theory. Fuck rating humans on a scale of development. We’re all just people, wearing our masks. That Ong perceived love as the force that gets behind the mask and, well, that about says it all.

I don’t think that it’s a writing teacher’s job to “bring on the love” that lowers the mask; I think it is the teachers job to make people understand that they are in fact wearing a mask. Even when they write for themselves. That’s the hardest thing for me— to write for myself. I’m a tough crowd; most other people are easier to satisfy.