Things That Are Not About You

When I teach college students, I ban one word from their essays. I order them not to use any form of the word “feel.”

It doesn’t work, of course. They use the word anyway, no matter how often I flag it in their papers and explain why it does not belong there. But I keep reminding them about it because I’m trying very hard to convince them of one crucial truth, a truth that will rescue them from enormous grief: Writing is not about expressing yourself.*

Courtesy of J. Paxon Reyes (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Of course, particular uses of writing may be self-expressive. Diaries and poetry may be self-expressive. Memoirs embody a certain sort of self-expression. Religious devotional literature, in a sense, involves self-expression. Sure. And even the driest of nonfiction prose can convey important things about the author. But those things are merely applications of writing. They are not writing.

To say that writing is about expressing yourself is sort of like saying that playing an instrument is about expressing yourself.  It’s a lovely thought, but it doesn’t tell you anything about how to make the sounds you want to make. If I tried to express myself on a flute, for example, the impression of anybody listening, including me, would be that I was probably a three-year-old child who somehow got his hands on a flute and needed to have it taken away immediately.

Writing is a method of communication. Like all methods of communication, it has rules, which are arbitrary in some deep philosophical sense but quite necessary in a practical sense. To learn to write, we must learn these rules. A writing teacher who doesn’t teach these rules is a failure, just as much as a music teacher who never gets around to teaching notation or an art teacher who doesn’t mention perspective. The rules expand, not constrict, what the author can do. They magnify eloquence. They connect us to what we are trying to say and whom we are trying to say it to.

So here’s the bitter truth: Writing is not about you. It’s about your relationship with an audience and a topic. You are part of a trinity, and you must respect the other two elements. Author. Audience. Topic. There are no exceptions to this or to the obligations it creates, even if the author, audience, and topic are very occasionally the same person.

Understanding this truth is not only part of learning to write effectively; it is part of becoming an educated person. Education, to be worthy of the term, must situate the individual in her context. It must teach her to respect the fact that she lives among other people and other things, which, and this is the crucial part, are not her. That fact, not any nonsense about the necessity of literacy in the “business world,” is the reason reading and writing are the key to a good education. Writing is the activity that brings together author, audience, and topic in a fruitful way. Reading and writing — which are really just two parts of the same activity — build an educated person. Everything else is details.

I’ve been thinking about this because the October issue of the Atlantic features an article by Peg Tyre. “The Writing Revolution” profiles a dismal New York City high school that rescued itself by teaching its students to write. To some extent, the article hints, that required teachers to figure out why they knew how to write. It required them, for instance, to recognize the importance of the lowly coordinating conjunction, without which their students couldn’t figure out how to express — or decode — ideas. The school’s students, it turned out, could barely read because they didn’t understand how sentences work. They were failing to graduate because they didn’t understand how to use the word “although.” And neither No Child Left Behind nor Pedagogy of the Oppressed was going to teach them that.

It’s a good article. The Atlantic website is also hosting a debate page that features various responses to it. So far, my favorite response comes from a former South Bronx fifth-grade teacher, Robert Pondiscio, who explains “how self-expression damaged my students.”

Learning to write is hard. Writing is not an inborn trait of the sensitive middle class (or the pure-hearted working class). It’s not even an inborn trait of a media-saturated nation in which eighty-nine percent of the people consider themselves middle-class. It’s not something that anybody with an iPad in her hand and a song in her heart can do. It’s a set of specific, spectacularly complicated capabilities that take work and discipline to learn. For some people, especially for the poor, the work has to be done more consciously, but everybody has to do the work to learn the skills.

And people will never learn to write effectively if they think writing is something that spills out of them while the world waits breathlessly to bask in their themness.

Author. Audience. Topic.


* In fact, there are several other good reasons to avoid the word “feel” in a history or government paper. But let’s stick to the one at hand.