Writing for the ages, part 1
   Students should be taught their words may last forever

Forever is composed of nows.
Emily Dickinson

Blogging and the same old same old

I’ve been visiting blogs lately, to see what’s happening and to think about implications for teachers. Much of what’s going on truly is exciting. Now that publishing is as simple as clicking a “submit? link, lots of people are re-thinking what writing and publishing are for.

And yet, much of what is happening seems caught up in the same old same old.

Some blogs give me the same feeling I got at a university MFA program--too much desperation. The MFA program sometimes reminded me of those infomercials that run on late-night television--feeding on people’s desires to lose weight or make lots of money or quit smoking. Most people enrolled in the MFA program because they wanted to be famous poets. Could the professors teach anyone to be a famous poet? Of course not. They liked to claim that the value of the program was that it created a community where aspiring writers could find and support each other.

Maybe that was true. Pretty costly support group though, even if credentials were included.

Now that a few blogs have struck it big, plenty of bloggers are typing into the wee hours viewing the expanding blogosphere as their main chance. Quite a few are trying to create an audience by giving advice on how to increase traffic and garner links. Others are surfing the web for memes they can catch and ride like the big wave. So much of what’s being said does not need to be said. I doubt words can be made to matter simply by being sent around the world.

People can write for whatever reasons they want, of course. But I hope that as teachers begin using this technology with students, they think through the purposes of writing and online publishing and find better things to stress than writing for professional rewards, just as most PE teachers find better things to stress about fitness than the possibilities of NFL or NBA careers.

One of the beauties of blogs seems to me to be the same as the beauty of poetry. Since it’s unlikely to lead to money or fame no matter how well you do it, you might as well tell the truth. You might as well work on finding ways to say the things that you feel are worth saying. You might as well, as Bill Kittredge put it, “write the real stuff.”

Of course, people have done that in private diaries for years, but with online forms such as blogs there are significant differences. First, since even without promotion online posts are accessible through search engines, there’s the chance of finding maybe not a vast audience but maybe a more important small audience of kindred spirits. And second, online publication makes possible, perhaps even makes likely, a kind of permanence that ought to affect the way we think about what we are doing when we commit words to a server.

Words that last

I think it’s important that teachers talk with students about digital writing, including email. Though we toss this off as the most ephemeral of writing, in fact it may be more durable than anything we have written before. Much of what we write will surface years or decades or perhaps centuries from now.

So it’s imortant to think about decorum. There are always people out there who will use what we say against us, and words lifted from their context can seem quite different than we meant them. It’s a good discipline never to be unkind, never to be unjust even in a flippant way, and never to spin deceptions. We should think about these things anyway, but our new technologies give us fresh reasons to think about the wisdom of old platitudes.

And beyond not making ourselves seem churlish or a cad, we can think about what we are creating. Over a lifetime, many of us will create through our texts a very definite persona. Students who have read letters and journals written by great-grandparents have an inkling of what this means. What we have chosen to write will become, for someone in the future, quite likely family relatives, all that we ever were.

Good writers have always known that through writing they are creating a persona. A blog is likely to survive long beyond the blog writer, and thinking about what it is, exactly, that survives can bring us into the enchanted inner chamber of the writer’s life.

Here are the first two paragraphs of George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant.” Pay attention to the persona, the voice:

In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically – and secretly, of course – I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

Here’s what Vivian Gornick says about this:

“The man who speaks these sentences is the story being told: a civilized man made murderous by the situation he finds himself in. We believe this about him because the writing makes us believe it. Paragraph upon paragraph--composed in almost equal part of narration, commentary, and analysis--attests to a reflective nature now regarding its own angry passions with a visceral but contained distaste. The narrator records his rage, yet the writing is not enraged; the narrator hates Empire, yet his hate is not out of control; the narrator shrinks from the natives, yet his repulsion is tinged with compassion. . .”

Gornick goes on to make the point that the persona Orwell created in this and other writings varied from reports of what Orwell the actual man was like--the persona was better. The persona was, as she said, “an essence of democratic decency.” She notes that creating the persona was the only way to tell the story, figuring out the voice was figuring out how to tell the story.

We become our masks

Creating a better persona is a stage in creating a better person. As ee cummings put it: “whatever mask you wear it will become you.”

I hope teachers are assisting students to see that among the important things they will do in this life is to create a voice. Such a teaching cuts across the grain of contemporary culture. I watched a group of high schoolers discussing a PBS biography of George Washington. As Washington received new responsibilities in his life--plantation manager, general, president, former president--he studied the situation, what was required of him, and how others had handled similar responsibilities. Then he disciplined himself to perform the role with honor.

Most of the students didn’t like that. They had been taught that they should “be who they are.” They have heard maybe too much about authenticity and maybe not enough about responsibility. They believed they could find the right action by listening to their inner voice, as though who they “really” were already existed. Thinking this way misleads us by underestimating our core freedom and the extent to which we create outselves.

I find that my own inner voices constitute a small city, and that quite a few of the voices are not particularly admirable. I have within me the voices of a lazy man, a selfish man, a lustful man, and an impatient man. As those who know me can testify, I sometimes let these voices be heard. But I know without doubt there are better ways to live. I find it far more useful, in important situations, to ask how I ought to feel, drawing on my religious tradition and the best of the literature I’ve read, than I do to ask how I do feel. I admire George Washington. I’ve tried to learn from him a bit about how to perform the roles and duties that come my way.

Teaching writing can be a powerful way of helping young people think about what sort of people they want to be. We don’t need to criticize them as people, but we can help them see the way the persona they are creating comes across, how audiences will understand that persona, and what techniques can be used to strengthen the message that would be most effective in whatever particular situation the persona evokes. The best rhetoric teachers have known for centuries that this needn’t lead to the sort of manipulative sophistry common among politicians. Generally, the most credible and trustworthy persona will be the most effective. The sound of goodness is persuasive.

Whether or not students become good persons in real life will be their choice. A teacher’s main job is to set people free by helping them understand their choices

Posted by Michael L Umphrey






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