Talking Points: March 2013, Chika & Alison
THE POWER OF WRITING
Chika: The other day, I was talking with two of my colleagues about learning English and the skills we liked the best. One said she liked listening, while the other said reading was his favorite skill. Hearing that they both preferred receptive skills, I told them that I liked writing the best. We were surprised at the differences in our preferences and carried on talking about the reasons for them. Using this conversation with my colleagues as a pretext, I thought I would ask Alison if she would be interested in exploring writing, since it is a skill that, perhaps more than the other three language skills, is most associated with learner development. I was pleased to discover that she was, so this month we are writing about writing.
It was about 10 years ago that I first came to think deeply about the meaning of writing. In a course on English literature I took, I learned how difficult it was for women writers to write novels especially in the 19th century. As one example, the professor introduced George Eliot (1819-1880) and told us that she used George Eliot as a pen name instead of using her real name: Mary Anne. At first, I simply wondered why she decided to adopt a different name for her books. Then the professor told us that Mary Anne intentionally used George Eliot as her pen name because it sounded more like a male name. This was a shocking experience to me because, to my knowledge, no Japanese women writers ever chose to do such a thing. I came to think that writing is something special, and that it had an important meaning for women at that time in particular.
Moreover, during the same course, I had the chance to read some Scottish novels and I became interested in Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897). Reading her novels, I realized that the Scottish women writers like Oliphant were surrounded by triple pressures: as women, as women writers, and as Scots. Regardless of the difficulties she faced, however, Oliphant employed various metaphors and connotations to write about her anxiety and inner voices which had never been expressed in literature at that time. As one example, she used a library window to show her vision of scholarship including reading and writing. Although I was not an expert in the literature, I felt that I was able to slightly understand what she wanted to say through her writing and was fascinated by the techniques and strategies she employed in the novels. In this way, my encounter with Eliot and Oliphant made me think that writing is a special intellectual activity.
I like writing – more precisely, I like the process of writing. I like creating something new and feel I am exploring new ideas and even a new world every time I engage in writing. I think writing is a dialogue between the text I compose and my internal thinking; it enables me to reflect on what is in my mind as well as to realize what I am not aware of, as well as to minimize the gap between the two. Moreover, when I write I make various decisions, thinking about which words are more impressive and how effectively I can express my ideas and communicate with my readers. I enjoy this whole process of writing! How about you, Alison? What are your favorite skills? How would you describe the relationship between writing and you?
Alison: I’d say I have a “love-hate” relationship with writing. I love reading: I love being carried away by fictional worlds, and I love reading things about the real world that change or sharpen my perception of it. Sometimes I envy good writers for their clarity and confidence. Good writing looks effortless, but I know it isn’t; at least, it isn’t for me.
I have to confess that I’m quite lazy in my thinking. I accept received opinions and ignore contradictions. Writing pushes me to think clearly and honestly about things. And it also forces me to put myself in the reader’s shoes and to see what I’ve written from someone else’s perspective. For someone who is as self-centered and self-absorbed as I am, writing is a very healthy practice, but it can also be quite painful.
What you say about women writers is very interesting. I’ve also been impressed by those women writers and by their impact on the course of European literature. But I’m more intrigued by the history of writing and reading as a social practice. What were the conditions that made it possible for George Eliot or Margaret Oliphant to write and publish? And how did their writing change the literature that followed and influence the reading public? And how did that, in turn, affect society at large?
My thinking about writing as a social practice has been influenced by the works of Brian Street (1995) in the UK and Shirley Brice Heath (1983) in the US. Street’s work is based on anthropological work he did in Iran in the 1970s. In the village where he was living, he discovered that there were three distinct forms of literary practice: maktab, which was influenced by devotional practice and the Koran, schooled or standard forms of literacy, and commercial literacy, a form of writing employed by shopkeepers and traders. His study showed that the concept of literacy is socially situated and often highly contested. Not everyone is permitted or helped to become practitioners of certain forms of literacy.
A similar point is made by Heath (1983) in her classic study of the literacy practices of two rural communities in the American South East, “Roadville” comprising white working class families, who had for generations worked in the textile mills, and “Trackton”, a community of African-Americans whose families had primarily worked on the land. This study examined how the practices of both communities differed from each other as well as from the “schooled” practices dominant in the city.
This social view of writing reminds me that writing (like other forms of communication) is a medium of power. I believe that developing my own writing, and helping my students to develop theirs, is a way of becoming more powerful personally. But I also need to remember that when power is contested or misused, people can get excluded or hurt. This is particularly pertinent in education contexts, where the main form of gatekeeping is through written tests, and where writing tends to be regarded as a display of skill and achievement rather than exploratory forays toward deeper understanding of questions and issues. Writing for understanding can be a very risky business, as learners have to admit to things that they don’t yet know or understand, an admission that can expose them to embarrassment, shame or lower grades.
Chika: It’s true that learners might be vulnerable in this way, but it is only through taking risks and showing their true selves that they can become stronger. I agree with the idea that writing is a medium of power, but this power can be developed. A writer’s personality will inevitably be reflected in her writing, whether in the structure, choice of words or the development of the argument. Due to the development of technology, we seldom see handwritten documents or letters, but handwriting tells us lots of things about the writer, such as personality and even the mood the writer has on a specific day and time. In my class, I have students keep a record of their progress of the timed reading they do as part of my English class. Instead of a monologue style, I want to foster an interactive dialogue with my students and thus give a comment to each student after every class over one academic year. Among the many different and original record sheets I received in the last semester, one student always drew a small picture mostly related to the topic she had read in her timed reading. She might have just liked drawing and wanted to add a picture; even so, I enjoyed “analyzing” her comments, thinking about her intention and the size and position of the drawings she chose as a form of communication. Her writing/drawing strategy made me excited and also curious about the hidden but powerful message she wanted to convey to me, which I think was almost the same feeling I had in my encounter with George Eliot and Margaret Oliphant.
Alison: You’ve written about that practice of dialoguing in writing with your students elsewhere, haven’t you, Chika (Hayashi, 2012)? Your study of students who started to reveal their interests and their feelings in response to the extensive comments you wrote on each of their journal entries was a great illustration of the kind of support and role modeling that teachers and mentors can provide. Going back to a social perspective, I think that the kind of response our writing elicits can be very empowering or it can be just the opposite. I remember that when I was at school and at university, I felt that the main purpose of my writing was to try and impress my reader (i.e., the teacher, since no one else ever read what I wrote). The main reason was that the only response I ever got was a grade. In my school experience, it was all product, no process writing, and it led to two major problems for me: one was a tendency to adopt a show-off style, using words and sentence structure that I thought would make me sound more impressive, but that didn’t fully exercise my intellectual engagement or development; the other was an increasing inhibition about writing. Because these tendencies were laid down in my formative years, I’m still prone to them, even though I have tried and am still trying to overcome them. I’ve been helped by the supportive and thoughtful responses I’ve had from editors and from co-writers in the past few years, and this shows me that I, in turn, should always try to respond in this way to any writing I come across whether as a teacher or as an editor.
Hayashi, C. (2012). Transformative learning in action: Insights from the practice of journal writing. In K. Irie & A. Stewart (Eds.), Realizing autonomy: Practice and reflection in language education contexts. (pp. 94-106). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Street, B. (1995). Social literacies: Critical approaches to literacy in development, ethnography and education. Reading: Pearson-Addison Wesley.