Thursday, January 25, 2007

Finding a Voice in Writing

I finalized my schedule, but I’m a little shocked at the result: every weekday is a “work-all-day” day. 8-hour Wednesdays and Fridays are now my lounging days? I thought I was a senior, for Chrissake.

Nevertheless, blogging shall continue.

At our first blogging decal session, we were given Dennis A. Mahoney’s essay primer on “How to Write a Better Weblog,” and knowing me, I accidentally tattooed it with BBQ sauce during dinner.

But I read most of it. Skimmed. I skimmed most of it. And from the paper I gleaned a couple tips that I should elaborate on:

“Self-consciousness, self-doubt, awkwardness, and overcompensation are perennial hallmarks of the beginning writer. The reason today’s amateurs seem more profoundly un-profound could be a simple matter of exposure.”

I definitely agree, but let’s take a closer look. Writing is a superb form of communication, both directly (the ability to express thoughts at a writer’s own pace) and indirectly (analyzing a writer’s tone and style can give insight into his thoughts and disposition), yet writing is a vastly underemployed and undermined skill in our society. I’d wager a lot of this sentiment is brought on by lingering experiences of writing essays in high school.

This might be the public school experience talking, but who honestly liked their English classes in high school? I’m all for reading and thinking critically about the classics, but in class we would then get to the part about writing an essay in response, and on came the structured writing assignments, where students would learn how to format their writing into several stiff, uncreative paragraphs.

Remember Assertion, Evidence, and Commentary? The Big Three? Thou shall not forget the Big Three and the order in which they must arrive.

Or how about those 8-Sentence Sluggers students would have to pitch, as if we really had something interesting to say about one detail for 6 long sentences (forget not your Assertion and Commentary, slacker)?

Students are inundated with all these rules to writing but are never asked to find their voice, which is a critical missing step. You can neither enjoy writing nor deftly execute it without first finding your voice and your style, and structured writing assignments fail to accomplish this. Expecting magnificent writing through obeying a given format is the same as expecting brilliant artwork given the size and shape of the canvas you’re painting on. It’s not art unless it’s a reflection of who you are. The same goes for writing.

This leads into another point the article expounds:

“Rules are not restrictions. Grammar, spelling, punctuation, rhythm, focus, syntax, and structure aren’t especially romantic terms, until you get to know them. …Clarity is key. Learn the rules. Break ‘em later.”

Absolutely. English would be a forte for many more individuals if this could be generally accepted in education. Rules, structure, fuck yeah! But not until we inspire our students to write, and to write for themselves. There’s no point in writing if it’s not a skill you can own and avidly declare that you value the ability to express emotions and dictate thoughts in a form that others can understand.

Rules are made to be broken: just ask the residents down the hall that keep violating the Quiet Hours Policy. I break the rules all the time when I write, but I know what the rules are and I know when to use them. That’s my style. I have a distinct voice when I write. Writing freely is fun and exciting. Students should be given the chance to find their own voices with more creative writing prompts about topics that they find interesting. Let’s deal out the syntax lessons later.

This would at least decrease the discomfort people tend to have toward writing. Awkwardness and self-doubt are indeed hallmarks of a novice, and remnants of a backwards English curriculum. Exposure to other forms of writing compounds this problem: as the arms of different mediums—like “CNN roundtables, the web and MTV”— strangle the attention of pedestrian writers, and given that owning a voice in writing is uncommon, we see a permeation of certain *bad* voices into people’s writing styles, since most of us suffer from self-doubt due to a *dearth* of style.

The whole thing acts as a feedback loop: writer has no voice or passion to start out with; writer watches MTV; writer acquires bad habits; writer posts rap lyrics on YouTube for world to see and breaks every grammar rule in the process (and not for the sake of his style but because he saw it before).

Let’s break this cycle. I encourage you to find your own voice in writing and to minimize your uneasiness with the language. Blogging is one way you can do so, but also with any other type of creative writing. Practice and find a style that works for you. Own the language. Writing is too powerful a tool to ignore.

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