Thursday, January 22, 2009

What we have been taught to believe about writing

Do you believe a writer is born, not made? If so, you're not alone, because it's what we've been taught to think about writing. There is a long history of inherited beliefs we received through the Romantics, even the Modernists, that can be traced back to the Golden Age of Greece (specifically Plato's era, although we are not blaming Plato for this belief, although he was certainly one of the main proponents of the idea that skill with words was a god-given gift).

This idea doesn't square too well with postmodern beliefs, which have challenged these kinds of notions, specifically by asking where does transpersonal agency fit into this model... in other words, how is the writer, a participant in the world, situated in all of this? Is s/he possessed by a fiery muse, as Shakespeare would have us believe, or is the solitary writer fully responsible for all his/her words, as the Modernists wanted us to believe? My personal opinion, after years of research and study, is that we have innate talents that are encouraged by the world outside of us, or they are not. Writing is necessarily collaborative, neither determined by a muse nor by a solitary man, laboring alone in his garret--a notion the Modernists rather fervently clung to as they idealised individual agency. 

When you think about the world outside of you, there will be a few people you will have to impress with your writing skills before you can be taken seriously. What is important to determine is (and this is where postmodern theory comes into it) who determines what is considered "good" writing? You'll discover, if you think about it, that how "good" writing is judged changes. Some years, "good" writing is succinct, some years it's more flowery or romantic... the point is, that there is a group of people who decides what good writing looks like, and that group becomes the latest power base to determine who gets awards, gets published, becomes acclaimed, etc. 

The question then becomes (and again, this is a postmodernist issue), how do the people who make these decisions (teachers, editors, publishers) become authority figures? How is it that if there is a standard for good writing, it does not seem to exist a priori, now does it? It keeps changing. That means that what we consider "good" writing is based on our values, as a society and personally, and if what we consider "good" writing can change as our values change, then there is no such thing as a priori "good" writing. 

Which means that it matters terribly whether our innate talents are squelched or encouraged, and I can guarantee you that your innate talents and interest in writing will mostly be encouraged if you write in a way that is in accord with what others consider "good" writing. Do you see the power imbalance here? Writing then becomes inherently political, if there is always someone with power over us who must be convinced before we will be taken seriously, listened to, have our voice heard. Writing is not a democratic act, and, I would argue, is least democratic, ironically, in that bastion of egalitarianism, the university.

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