Monday, May 31, 2021

Why read? Why Write?

Two boys in Laos laugh over the book "What Can You Do with an Extra Dinosaur?", which one of them received as his first book.
photo credit: Blue Plover/Big Brother Mouse, Wikimedia Commons CCA-SA 3.0 Unported

Answers to "why write?" are probably as many as why we read. Whether from the spontaneous response "...because I have to" or answers more thoughtfully explored with authors, such as in the Paris Review Interviews, maybe not everyone will agree reading and writing are acts of thinking. 

For example as LitHub noted just yesterday, Ray Bradbury had a sign over his typewriter which read "Don't think!" on the principle, he said, that "...you must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway." Perhaps the sign helped Mr Bradbury follow his own imperative; yet he seemed to feel his writing did also involve thinking and he was just urging against doing this consciously, avoiding a writer's sin of over-thinking.

And, of course, writing from the heart to the heart, even to move the mind, most would acknowledge as good advice. Whether we believe language is driven by thought or thought is driven by language, and whatever the debunkers of "book-learning" might claim, it's a no-brainer that the love of words is clearly important.

Yet, whether as reader or writer, consciously and/or unconsciously, I believe that we think. Yes, even when we're lost in the escapist fun of worlds that words create. Had Darwin attended to readers and writers as groups to classify, maybe he'd have seen this as a common basis for bundling "readers-writers" together as one group, or at least close to each other. Certainly, any writer is also a reader. 

As children growing up, we might not get the significance of parents who encourage reading: the parent who reads a story or more every day or every night to a young child; the related behavior of giving books to one another in the family; and a parent's habit of just reading the news every morning, while not burning the breakfast toast. All are activities that influence how growing children come to think about a life that includes reading and writing. 

I've yet to hear any decent case to deny on the weekend a child's habit of weekday reading at home after school; even if it means in the late weekend-afternoon disappearing from playmates or a family gathering for a while. The worlds of words explored, for many children, we know will shape occupational success. Importantly too, we see this habit enjoyed and it can help kids in lots of ways, setting a foundation that's passed forward.

When teaching writing with my former colleague Roslyn Petelin years ago, we were always surprised and more than a little dismayed that so many of our very bright first-year university students were starting a communication degree program, but could not write very well. Soon enough we redesigned the first-week's writing class to provide just a few introductory remarks, followed by a grammar test that also specifically sought thoughts about writing.

Year after year, what the students' test responses told us, both by their poor knowledge of grammar and by their shared thoughts about writing, was that while most wanted to write well their school experience had not adequately prepared them. Students had serious gaps in basic knowledge of conventional language use. Even knowledge of spelling, punctuation, or grammar was lacking.

In their earlier schooling, high-flowered "creativity" or plagiarism seemed then to be most often rewarded. Of course, as Roslyn and I acknowledged when sharing these issues at a National Reading Association conference, some students forget or didn't pay attention when language lessons appeared in their schooling, but the scale of students' ignorance and antagonism about writing was massive. This was especially so from the 1960s through the 1990s, in many countries. Importantly, the responses to the diagnostic test we administered also detailed the individual needs to address.

Using principles for teaching reader-based prose, we set clear steps for students to be able to communicate genuinely with people, as steps to write interactively. We focused ways to identify the key issues that concerned readers and applied a problem-solving approach to teach writing, which Linda Flower and others had developed.

In that other time in another country, what was not so evident was one of the greatest values of reading and writing. Today, the free inquiry that fuels reading and writing becomes even more pertinent as a re-run of McCarthyist-like outrage seeks to dominate the media and our lives in the United States. And, in any other countries where look-alike populist propagandists also twist words and thinking, seeking to undermine democracy.

While acknowledging the critical need for civics education and action, at least equally important is the very developed ability to think clearly, which comes from reading and writing. As Isocrates noted, "We regard speaking well to be the clearest sign of a good mind, which it requires; and truthful, lawful, and just speech we consider the image of a good and faithful soul."

Unless deeply into incantations or some propagandist's stimuli, we can feel secure that reading, writing, and simple dialogue will nurture free thought, which is how propaganda dies.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Style

Penguin in Antarctica jumping out of the water
photo credit: Christopher Michel, Wikimedia Commons CCA 2.0 Generic

The popular singer Sting has it. Along with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and so many more musical talents in the ten-year retrospective recently celebrating International Jazz Day - they all had it. Then, in very different ways in their glory days, so did Bob Dylan and Shirley Bassey and Mozart and Beethoven, and Jack Benny and David Letterman, oh, and what about Charlie Chaplin and so many more?

In the movie business, so concerned to promote style, even Charlton Heston and John Wayne had it, yet so did Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Charlie Brown. Of a completely different character, so did Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly. Long ago, in the full-blown age of Hollywood invention was the "It-girl," Clara Bow, who became a role model, says the Smithsonian, for women who were free of the domestic sphere.

Also for earlier generations, Ingrid Bergman, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire had style, yet so did Groucho Marx, together with other famous and everyday folks. All with some distinction from each other, and sometimes with commonalities, to make the composite we call style.

Some people so want style, perhaps thinking their world will be so much better... that maybe fame or treasure will follow, if they attain IT. Yet Greta Thunberg and Amanda Gorman clearly have a different depth and purpose in their styles, as does Glenda Jackson. Then, there are various worlds of style in the arts, literature, and public life.

For many, style is bound within a job or role, like speechwriters who daily seek style in words, and even in her days of grief, Queen Elizabeth has it. Is style actually the person? 

Related hard-to-answer questions persist - Is style distinct from content? Or, are these convenient descriptors one? Are there good and bad styles? Does the tabloid press have style, or a style? Do the cringeworthy who creep into public life have style? Their followers think so.

What's clear is that style means many different things to different people.

One approach to looking at style says, whether in language or life, it's about choices. In this view, what we choose in facts, opinions, ideas, or actions, along with the words, sentence shape, and passage development we use is what delivers style. 

Fact is we do say a lot to others in the words we choose and what we do, beyond the "message" supposedly denoted in words or actions. Always best to remember that communication happens in the mind of the listener, reader, or observer when interpreting what we express.  

To look at how our language projects style, a whole area of study called "stylistics" has spawned over many decades an eclectic range of approaches to find or assess style, in literature, speeches, the media, professional interactions, daily conversation, comedy, and so on.

In some quite intriguing looks at language, these describers of language style tell much about what words do to suggest conversational or formal tone, personality, family origins, occupation or profession, disposition toward an audience, and a host of other "tells."

Some discourse analysts even say they can distill systems of belief, a.k.a. ideology, in language style. Can't help wondering how much their own ideological lens determines what they find?

Among the many explanations and explorations of this field of stylistics, one that nicely overviews approaches to literary style is on Aunty Muriel's blog, "What is stylistics?"[Here]. Another overview, pertinent to how we use language to persuade is the detailed text, Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion by Jeanne Fahnestock; also, of course, always worth another look is to catch up on the latest from the eminent British linguist, David Crystal, via his ever-growing website.

Perhaps style is the person... certainly seems so for the many resilient explorers and explainers of language.