I have always loved this Calvin and Hobbes cartooon. It reminds me of Dr. Aaron Carton, one of my favorite undergraduate linguistics professors. One day, I was sitting in his office and he was telling me about a conference paper he was just about done with. All he needed, he said, was the right title. I do not remember what the paper was about, but it wasn't the whole title he needed help with, just what a colleague of mine always refers to as the colonic, the part of the title in academic papers that follows the colon, that is ostensibly supposed to make what precedes it more specific, more clear, and also more profound. We batted a few ideas around, and mine were always pretty straightforward. Finally, with a look of affectionate exasperation on his face, Dr. Carton said, Don't you get it, Richard? The whole point of the title of a conference paper is to sound so sophisticated and obscure that no one will really understand it, and because they won't want to admit that they don't really understand it, they will assume that it must be brilliant and won't dare ask you any questions when you're done presenting it. This was, he went on to explain, an especially useful strategy when you yourself suspected/feared (or knew) your paper was a load of bullshit.
While Dr. Carton was being tongue-in-cheek about his own work–he was one of the most lucid teachers I've ever had and rarely, that I remember, engaged in that kind of bullshitting–anyone who has had any experience sitting through panel presentations at academic conferences knows there is more than a grain of truth in what he said. All too often these papers–and I don't think it much matters what academic discipline we're talking about–are mired in jargon that even the long-initiated have a hard time following. More to the point, it doesn't matter whether the people who present such papers have made a conscious decision to (at least attempt to) dazzle their audience with bullshit; the stylistic choices they have made bespeak a relationship between themselves and their audience that is precisely the opposite of what most people are trying to achieve when they write.1 This fact, that writing style is not just a matter of expressing ideas, but that it also establishes a relationship between yourself and your reader, is something many of my students have a hard time understanding and that many more of them find almost impossible to integrate into their writing practice.
I'm not talking here about the fact that my students make mistakes. Of course they do; mistakes are a prerequisite of learning. I'm talking about those students who resist seeing that their mistakes are indeed mistakes, things that can be corrected and improved on with practice. As I suggested in part one of this series, some of this resistance comes from the fact that the workings of the sentence, which is the cornerstone of any effective writing style, are a mystery to most of my students, but it also comes, I think, from the fact that they've never really examined writing-as-a-practice through the lens of style, which is why I appreciate the fact that the first chapter of Nora Bacon's The Well-Crafted Sentence is called Approaches to Style. She writes:
Style can be understood as the quality of writing that makes it uniquely and recognizably the creation of one writer; as the ornamentation that transforms pedestrian prose into something beautiful or memorable; and as the effort to make language clear and concise.
There is a lot to like about this chapter, and I am going to spend some time later today working through how I want to teach it, but what interests me right now is how reading this chapter has crystallized for me an idea I have been kicking around for quite a while: that there is a connection between and among the fact that style defines identity, that my students (or at least the students I am talking about in these posts) are native speakers of English, and their seemingly intractable resistance to revision.
In an essay called The Three Faces of Love, the Australian poet A. D. Hope asks why no one has thought much about the education of poets in our society.2 No one would need to ask that question today, at least not in the United States, given the proliferation of MFA programs in creative writing, though it may still be a relevant question in countries that do not have, or do not have many, such programs. I am less interested in the question itself, though, than in the way his answer distinguishes between what it takes to learn to master the the materials of other artforms and what it takes to master the medium of poetry, which is language.
[A]ny painter or musician or dancer has to spend years of concentrated effort under a teacher before he can give a rudimentary performance of his art. To become an accepted artist, of course, requires further years of independent and intelligent practice. Now little of this preliminary training is needed to become a writer. The physical skill required is negligible and one that all literate people possess. Only in countries like China is calligraphy actually a part of the literary skill…. (110-111)
Hope, of course, is pointing out that the skill it takes to hold a pen in one's hand and write legibly is not only considerably easier to master than the skill it takes to hold a brush in one's hand and paint competently, but also that it is most likely a skill that anyone who has gone to school mastered a long time before the idea of wanting to be a poet ever came to her or his head. This prior mastery of the poet's medium, however–or the novelist's, the playwright's, the essayist's, and so on–goes even deeper, since anyone who knows enough to know that he or she wants to be a writer is already a native speaker of her or his first language.
We tend to discount the mastery that native fluency is because our relationship to our first language is in some ways like the relationship between a fish and the water it lives in. We take it for granted. At the level of day-to-day business, all else being equal, our first language moves through us just as we move through it, pretty much effortlessly. More to the point, the shape of that effortlessness–the way we speak: our accent, our syntactic and semantic idiolect, our intonation and body language–is hard to separate from who we are, as both an interior experience and an exterior presentation. We know who we are, in other words, and we are known as who we are, in large measure, through our use of language. Part of the process of learning to write is learning to extend that sense of self–again, as both interior experience and external presentation–onto the written page. We want there to be, I would even say that we need there to be, some continuity between who-we-are-face-to-face and who-we-are-on-the-page. Indeed, if I had to characterize the most common form of helplessness I see in my students when they confront the challenge of writing and revising anything, it would be as a kind of paralysis before the certainty that what they write just won't sound like them, by which I mean that it will not bespeak the native-speaking competence that they know they possess (even if they don't know it explicitly), along with the equal certainty that they don't know how to make it otherwise.
The confidence that you can make it otherwise is one characteristic of a competent writer, even if that confidence is, as Robert says of himself as a student in this comment on my first post, rooted more in intuition than formal grammatical knowledge (though Robert's writing is far from merely competent). The question I am confronted with on a daily basis when I am teaching is how to help students who don't have that kind of intuition acquire some measure of that confidence. Bacon's first chapter has started me thinking again about how threatening it must be, at the level of selfhood, for students who don't have that kind of intuition about language–for whom language has never really been a manipulatable medium for making meaning, but has always been, simply, the unselfconscious way they say what they mean–to be told that their grammar is wrong, that they need to learn the rules. More and more I am becoming convinced that the way to help these students to develop the kind of confidence I am talking about it is to demystify the sentence, not simply as a static structure with parts that can be labeled, but as a structure with movable parts that can be used to build, to change, to hone, to communicate in a voice and with a style that is no less true to the person who writes it than her or his spoken communication.
Next post: clause structure.
- I don't want to give the impression that I am hostile to jargon. It definitely has its place, and it can, when used appropriately within a discipline, or appropriately explained to an audience outside its discipline, be remarkably clarifying. I am talking here about people whose use of jargon results in–and even appears to have been designed to result in–obfuscation. [↩]
- In The Poet's Work, edited by Reginald Gibbons, 110 [↩]