Humanistic Writing

The best end result of writing

I asked my freshman writing students today what the best possible outcome would be for their research papers. Most of their responses had to do with the practical benefits they might gain:

“We’ll be better writers.”

“We’ll figure out how to apply our writing skills to other situations.”

“We’ll know how to do research.”

All true, but the response I was hoping for was, “I learned something about myself.” The practical ends of writing instruction are important.  We need to communicate clearly and effectively if we expect to relate to others. And yet, when I am reading student papers, I always search for moments of insight that can only come from deep contemplation.

My students are writing about Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of the Power of Context, which proposes that our behavior is dictated by our environment. Gladwell suggests that positive surroundings create positive human behaviors; conversely, negative environments engender unsavory behaviors, including crime.

It’s a liberating idea, Gladwell argues, because it means that changing things for the better is within our control.  We do not have to shrug our shoulders and passively attribute crime to sociopathic personality or genetic predisposition.  We are not at the mercy of someone else’s inherent destructive tendencies.

As my students do their research and apply these ideas to different kinds of environments—schools, nursing homes, urban areas, workplaces—they are energized by how right Gladwell is.

At the same time, I ask them to consider what Gladwell is also saying about human nature: “Character isn’t what we think it is or, rather, what we want it to be.  It isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits . . . Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstances and context.” (The Tipping Point).

I posed this question to the class: “What if I tell you that your thoughts are irrelevant, that the feelings in your heart don’t matter, that everything about you is only shaped by your surroundings? How do you feel?”

After a silence, one student replied, “Helpless.”

This is not a piece of wisdom that we find through research. It only comes from the effort of meditating on the research and articulating how our minds respond to it. If my students are digging deeply enough into the topic as they write, and struggling to make sense of it in clear language, I think they will feel a natural resistance to the idea that our character is just a bundle of habits that can be dismantled in chaotic circumstances.  They may discover that there is something intangible, and perhaps ineffable, about being a person. And maybe—just maybe—they will take note of such insights in their papers.

That is what I want them to learn through their writing. Not how to write a topic sentence or to integrate a quotation, but to struggle through the structure of the paper to reach the best possible outcome: to discover in themselves their own original view of human nature.

Therapeutic Writing

Healing Words

Writing through an illness can help bring one back to the familiar.  Illness tends to separate us from others, creating a rift between the healthy and the unhealthy.

Pain, especially, can be deeply jarring as it removes us from the present.  Elaine Scarry, in her meditation on the body in pain, observes that pain brings about “an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.”*

How then do we stay connected to the world through pain and illness?

Physicians and therapists have long acknowledged the power of language to keep us grounded in our realities, even as we suffer physically and emotionally. But writing through pain is clearly not always possible. Even putting it into spoken words may be beyond our capabilities. As Scarry notes,

“physical pain does not only resist language but actively destroys it.”

But if, somewhere on the edge of pain, it is possible to write about it, the process can help to reduce the anxiety and anger that often comes with it.

Dr. David A. Hanscom, and orthopaedic surgeon in Seattle, Washington, writes about managing chronic pain through journaling. He explains that the pathways of pain and emotion are so closely linked that they often aggravate one another.  By writing about chronic pain, Dr. Hanscom says, we become aware of how we react to it, and then we can detach ourselves from it long enough to figure out more positive responses to it.

Writing about our pain and illness also builds connections between the known self and the new self that is emerging through the medical experience.  Rather than feel a loss of identity, we can decide how this new reality will be absorbed into the familiar.

Sometimes called narrative medicine, this storytelling process often includes the health care providers and the caregivers who work with the patient.  When they all narrate their experiences, the web of the patient’s story becomes tighter, more secure.

Writing builds communities, and when there is sickness, those communities are critical to healing.

Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 4.

Grammar

Grammatica

This year, for the first time in almost two decades as an English professor, I taught grammar. The experience energized me in ways I did not anticipate. The questions alone shifted my perception of language as I began to see the philosophy behind the rules.

For instance, why do we say, “the rich chocolate layer cake” instead of “the layer chocolate rich cake”? And why don’t we need commas to separate that series of adjectives?

The answer lies in the logic of the description: the adjectives are cumulative, building upon one another until the final word in the phrase (“cake”) appears. And because the adjectives are different in nature, they are not separated by commas.

When we place a word in a specific slot in a sentence, we order reality.  We discern how English speakers construct their worlds.  We don’t say “the cat black” because English speakers over a thousand years ago agreed that words that named things (nouns) would appear after words that described them (adjectives). Hence, “the black cat.”

liberal arts
The seven liberal arts, Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century)

It is no surprise that grammatica was one of the original three liberal arts subjects of the medieval trivium. Consider how essential grammar is to everything we do with one another as human beings. If we cannot communicate, we cannot build things together.  Understanding the infinite shades of meaning in a language builds social cohesion.

The entire spectrum of arts and sciences—or, as the medievals classed them, the language arts and the numerical arts—completes human intelligence, producing what Thomas Aquinas called the “lively mind.” Such a mind has a panoramic view of existence and recognizes its own responsibility to find a meaningful place within it.

Perhaps grammar still lies at the core of the liberal arts.  Lately, the term has been bandied about to describe the implicit rules of diverse systems (the grammar of science, the grammar of society, the grammar of happiness, and even—the grammar of God). Studying the order and function of words in a sentence is one way to begin knowing the self in relation to others, to understanding the structure of how things work.

writing habits

Walking, Thinking, Writing

Writers’ habits have always intrigued me—not superstitious ones that are unique to the individual, but ones that have an actual impact on the creative process.  One of the greatest writer’s habits of all time is walking.

When Agatha Christie had gotten halfway through her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), she seemed stuck, so her mother encouraged her to go away for a couple of weeks to finish it off.  It was the middle of World War I, and she went to Dartmoor, a ragged, wild stretch of moorland in the south of England. She stayed in a dreary, old hotel that was sparsely occupied. She spoke to no one and spent her time three ways: writing, sleeping, and walking.

Here is how she describes her routine:

“I used to write laboriously all morning till my hand ached. Then I would have lunch, reading a book. Afterwards I would go out for a good walk on the moor, perhaps for a couple of hours.”

A couple of hours?  This is some serious walking, and I cannot think of one person I know who does such a thing today.  But in another era, it was commonplace.  James Joyce used to walk 8 miles at a clip, sometimes as a way to spend time in conversation with friends.

On her walks, Christie had conversations with herself, in the guise of her characters:

“As I walked I muttered to myself, enacting the chapter that I was next going to write; speaking as John to Mary, and as Mary to John; as Evelyn to her employer, and so on.  I would become quite excited by this. I would come home, have dinner, fall into bed and sleep for about twelve hours. Then I would get up and write passionately again all morning.”*

Walking improves cognitive function, working memory, and reasoning ability. It’s no wonder that writers find it a great release and a boon to creativity.

As for me, I’m a runner. The benefits of walking accrue to me as well (I hope), even if I am moving at a swifter pace. Many times, I must choose between writing or running, simply because the day is short and my plans are long.  But on a good day, I accomplish both.  On a great day, the two complement one another.  I will write for a while, and then put on my running shoes and hit the pavement while I work out a snag in the process.

Whether I am in the middle of a writing project or not, running calms my mind. When I leave for a run, I am thinking about a million things, all battling against each other. When I return, perhaps three of them are left, floating around in peaceful co-existence.  And everything else seems manageable.pen small

*Agatha Christie, An Autobiography (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1977): 245.

professional writing

The Integrity of Professional Writing

Professional writing can sometimes lack the passion that we associate with creative or even academic writing.  If we produce reports or meeting minutes, our goal is to be clear and efficient.  That’s good for business. We are simply conveying information from one party to another, so that the next person in the line of communication can proceed with the task at hand.

We do not necessarily infuse professional writing with our own sensibilities or shape it with our own ethical principles. And yet we should.

It is true that in professional writing we must always keep the goals of the organization in mind.  Many of us, however, learned that writing was about self-expression.

When we teach college students to write academic papers, we encourage them push back against established ideas, to think critically. We hope they will forge their own paths and their own way of thinking. This is how we bring new ideas into the world.

But when we write in a professional setting, we are doing the opposite.  Mark Mabrito, who teaches business writing at Purdue University Northwest, notes that,

“Many writers in the workplace are attuned to hidden agendas for their documents. They create documents that meet the informational demands expected of them and that follow company format, but ones that also promote the goals of the organization as a whole or particular individuals within the organization.”*

When we write in a professional setting, we are always writing for someone else. As Mabrito says, we are promoting someone else’s goals. The experience can become empty and unfulfilling in some ways.  Occasionally, I find myself going through dry spells when it becomes an effort to piece together the mundane facts of a report or to describe the vision of another person.

And yet, that is precisely what I have been hired to do. I have been asked to act as an intermediary who can connect different sets of minds.  I help people communicate. When I take a step back and consider my role, it is creative and invigorating.

As professional writers, we must invest ourselves in the goals of the organization if we want to help them tell their stories.  But we can also keep our own purposes in mind. Why are we writing for this organization? What do we find valuable about it?

We can infuse our own sensibilities into the process by listening well, paying attention to the details, and writing as accurately and as compassionately as possible.

Professional writing has its own integrity.pen small

*Mark Mabrito, “From Workplace to Classroom: Teaching Professional Writing,” Business Communication Quarterly 62.3 (1999): 101-04.

Humanistic Writing

Writing and Human Capabilities

DSC_0196As 2018 kicks off, the internet buzzes with ideas about how to do everything better than last year: work, relationships, fitness, you name it. As a college professor, I am always thinking about how to teach better. So much of teaching is about preparing students for life after graduation. How do we know what, exactly, this rising generation will need to know to sustain themselves in their careers? A recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests that we shouldn’t worry so much about mastering the next hot skill set because it will change as swiftly as technology evolves:

“As the half-life of specific skills diminishes, and machines become proficient at tasks including even decision-making, then fundamentally human capabilities become more important: empathy, curiosity, creativity, imagination, emotional and social intelligence, leadership, and the development of other people.”

Writing helps to develop all of these human capabilities. It requires us to pull something out of our minds—thoughts, feelings, concepts—and connect it to the world around us.

We learn empathy when we struggle to make an idea comprehensible to someone else.

We demonstrate curiosity in our willingness to acquire knowledge and convey it to others.

We use imagination as we shape our language to describe or explain something.

We exhibit emotional intelligence by managing our feelings in an effort to communicate clearly.

We practice social intelligence when we see ourselves as communicators in a complex environment.

We exercise leadership in our willingness to guide others with the content of our writing.

We foster the development of other people by sharing the thoughts that we think will help them.

It is not an overstatement to say that writing helps us to nurture the most essential aspects of our humanity. The writing process slows down our minds, and because our efforts are outwardly directed, it connects us to others.  Or at least, that is what we strive to do when we write—to situate ourselves in the world and to find ourselves in sync with other minds.

Happy New Year.  May 2018 be a great year for you and your writing. pen small