Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Writing vs. composition

The first week in April I began a two-year journey. I'm enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts - Creative Writing program. Of course I'm too old and it costs too much money - but I'm having my midlife crisis and it was either go back to college or buy a Porsche and I figured I'd be less likely to kill myself in a virtual classroom. As it happens no courses directly related to my degree were being offered this term, so I was given a choice of 600-level English courses that would count as electives. Made a blind choice and landed in a class I should have taken next year at the earliest: Composition Pedagogy. I figured I'd at least recognize where I was because I'd studied the Sophists (in 1972) and understood the importance of logos, ethos, and pathos - logic, culture/ethics and emotion - in well-crafted writing. (Not to mention eros for those writing pornography.) As it turns out, half-remembered generalizations from a survey course in Greek philosophy does not constitute a solid grounding in rhetoric. Who knew?

One of the things I discovered the first week of class: college-level composition is pretty much the opposite of writing - or writing the way I do it. An introductory essay rhapsodized on the hard-won pleasures of rewriting repeatedly, adding more and more layers in the construction of arguments that address all aspects of any question. At one point the instructor spoke of the benefits both she and her students gained by reviewing the first ten drafts of one of her articles. First. Ten. Anyone who knows how I feel about rewriting - as expressed here and here and in many elsewheres - will understand that I could not have been more alarmed if I'd suddenly found myself surrounded by Republicans. (Actually, no; that would be a bit more unsettling.) I've become known for "sparking lively debates."

However, in that introductory essay mentioned earlier I found this seminal sentence: At base, academic writing entails making an argument - text crafted to persuade an audience - often in the service of changing people's minds and behaviors. Switch out "making and argument" and plug in "telling a story" and you have what I do for a living. It's the same process; conducted under different conventions in a different setting, but the same process nonetheless. A landmark from which to get my bearings.

As I type this it's well after 4AM and I've been up all night reading and thinking about a collection of essays we've been assigned. Among other things, there's a debate among compositional pedagogs as to whether there can be thought without language, what is language, and what part language plays in composition. I'm oversimplifying.

But another parallel is apparent, a fundamental common to all writing: the use of language. Language is the most widely used tool for carrying ideas and information from one mind to another. Language is an extremely flexible tool, made up of words that can be adapted to countless purposes, but it is still a tool and separate from the thoughts its words convey. Like water in a cup.

Water takes on the shape of any container, and the shape of the container may influence how we perceive the water (Would you rather drink from an old sneaker or a Baccarat crystal goblet?), but the water remains water - separate from the container that gives it shape. We as writers choose the containers of our ideas - of the thoughts, images, and feelings we want to convey to our readers - and we are effective to the extent we choose wisely. Let's say the we're taking water from a fountain. We could use a graceful ewer, we could use a shallow pan, we could use a wooden bucket, we could use a hollowed gourd; what we use is up to us. The choice of container will dictate how we carry the water as well; we will need to move slowly with the shallow pan to avoid spilling, or make several trips with the gourd to transport the same amount of water.

Beyond the shape of what we carry the water in, there's the reason we're carrying the water. Context contains both the water and the manner in which it is handled. Are we carrying the water to dry plants around the courtyard? To the kitchen for soup? To put out a fire? To provide drink for a holy woman? To slake the thirst of a beggar? A person carrying a shallow pan of water to douse burning curtains will not move or act the way she would bringing an ewer of water to a guest.

The words we choose to convey our thoughts, whether we're telling a story or arguing a point, determine how our words appear en route and what effect they have when they arrive. Each must be selected carefully and delivered thoughtfully. Beautiful words can be beautiful things - and they can be used to build beautiful sentences. But our criteria for choosing words are not their appearance or sound. It's the context in which we are writing, the audience we wish to reach, and the objective we're trying to achieve that shapes our decisions.

Update on The Hunger Games, mentioned in my April third column:
My daughter did take me to the film and I must say it is the most exciting movie about a girl named for a water weed I have ever seen. (Though I cold not fathom the dozens of parents who brought small children.) Until seeing the movie I had not considered how filmmakers would bring some aspects of the novel to the screen. Most of the story takes part in Kantiss' head: her memories, her observations of the the district and the capitol, her interpersonal miscues, her thoughts and feelings and schemes. Filmed as written there would have been long scenes of her sitting motionless in trees thinking things through. Instead we're treated to scenes not in the book showing the behind-the-scenes machinations Kantiss Katniss only imagines (and a few events she doesn't learn about until later books, my daughter tells me). However, like the book the movie focuses almost exclusively on Katniss, making her the only fully realized and three-dimensional character on the screen. On the whole it was exciting, engaging, and enjoyable - every step in keeping with the young adult spirit of the novel. However, I cannot leave you without this link to the Harvard Lampoon parody: "Hunger Pains."


Anonymous said...

Who's Kantiss? Any relation to Katniss? ;oP

KeVin K. said...

The Harvard Lampoon calls her Kantkiss Neverklean. Kantiss is what happens when I conflate the Katniss with Kantkiss. Considering the volumes of duck potato I cleared from lakefronts during my misspent youth in Florida, I should remember Katniss.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm reading a book called "Amusing ourselves to death," which is covering the issue of how the medium makes such a huge difference in how people think and understand. he's a big proponent of print media over TV media, and I'm agreeing right along with him.