writing is ordinary (?)

In thinking about FYC, I’ve long shaped my approach on two premises:

  • One has to be a writer before one can be a good writer. That is, FYC is generally predicated on getting students to reach a certain standard of performance with academic discourse. In other words, it’s about being "good" or at least "good enough." The problem generally is though that students don’t see themselves as writers at all–often because they have been structurally defined as deficient (i.e., a student is defined as someone who does not write up to a certain standard).
  • In this context, a "writer" is someone who uses writing on a regular basis to acheive personal, professional, and communal objectives. That is, writer does not simply write at someone else’s behest but on one’s own initiative. As a writer and a student one needs an independant agenda into which one fits one’s curriculum and writing assignments. That doesn’t mean one should be single-minded, but I see FYC as a place where students need to realize that in order to get their money’s worth out of college, they need to take ownership for their educational experience.

While I don’t want to abandon these premises, I have been thinking that there is some over-emphasis on pragmatism here that I want to shift.

The notion of ordinariness summons Raymond Williams for anyone in rhetoric and composition.  In terms of discourse it would generally mean recognizing the value of "everyday" discourses and the integral role they play in producing our culture. At the same time one recognizes the importance of specialized or expert discourses in accomplishing rhetorical tasks, whether they be in physics or graphic design or mountain climbing. That culture or writing is ordinary does not mean that it is not specialized in each of its instances.

I suppose I want to suggest something similar: writing is an everyday activity. Like culture it is not a unique event, the result of grand inspiration. It’s making the donuts (to reference a long past commercial). Sometimes it’s a chore; sometimes it’s a joy. It’s a habit. I suppose some people find writing addictive. I guess it’s like that for me sometimes. But mostly it’s like the other kind of habit, the kind you work to cultivate (like exercise or eating healthily).

Actually, I want to compare writing with the habit of Zen meditation. I’m not a Buddhist and will claim little experience with zazen. However, I do understand that in zazen, particularly in the Soto tradition, there is little or no notion of anything "special" happening (like inspiration or enlightenment). It’s just you sitting there… you and your ordinary thoughts. In this sense, meditation is easy: you just sit there. But then, it’s also hard. Try it and you’ll see.

Writing is the same way. Most college students can write sentences. Writing is easy. But then, it’s also hard. Try it and you’ll see. Most ordinary activities are this way.

We can say that we write (and peform these other activities) to acheive pragmatic goals. We exercise and eat well to have a healthy life. We do household chores to keep our lives ordered. We meditate to calm our minds (or perhaps we hope for enlightenment). We write (as students) to pass our classes and graduate. This is the kind of pragmatism I referenced above.

But I don’t think that’s really accurate. At least I don’t think those motivations are enough to maintain ordinary practice. So what motivates the ordinary practice of writing if it isn’t some pragmatic goal like getting paid or getting grades? Is it the indirect value of reputation I discussed in my last post? Maybe that’s part of it, but I don’t think that’s sufficient either.

In addition, both the pragmatic/transactional and reputation motives raise questions of ethos (see my last post). On the other hand, I wouldn’t find the notion of alturistic motives particularly convincing either. I doubt many people write purely for the betterment of humanity.

Instead, I think it has something to do with ordinariness itself. Life has to be made of something. You can exercise, meditate, write, eat well, etc. Or not. What will make up the fabric of your life? I realize there are issues of desire here, as well as issues of ideology and morality and so on, shaping motivation.

I guess my point is that rather than trying to shape the idea of becoming a writer primarily around the notion of pragmatism, I want to approach it from the idea of ordinariness. To invite students to take up writing as an ordinary part of life, to not see it as a special activity for acheiving certain goals but as part of the way life unfolds.

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