Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

on having nothing to write

As just about any rhetorician knows, there's no stranger misnomer than "basic writing," though "advanced writing" is equally strange. Toward what exactly is writing advancing? Perhaps by basic we could mean the minimal physical skills to perform the act of forming letters with a pen on paper or typing. I defy anyone who claims they fully understand how humans acquire the cognitive ability to compose sentences for speech or text. At its worst, basic writing is a forced march through the punitive pedagogy of correctness. Often basic writing is the rehearsal of formulaic heuristics that can be stacked together to produce little mechanistic essays. This is what my kids learn in grade school: things like T-charts and "repeat to complete."

Why do you like to write in school?
I like to write in school because…

These heuristics "work," meaning that if you teach them to students, then, as a group, the students will produce predictable results in response to carefully constructed prompts offered in controlled testing situations.

But here's a question. In what way does writing short, boring, predictable, mechanistic paragraphs constitute a "basic skill" that is a foundation for writing something that someone would actually want to read and/or that might accomplish a real world task beyond passing a standardized test?

The answer is that I don't know. I am skeptical that there is any relation. But I don't know because I don't know what the foundational/basic skills of writing might be. I'm not sure that such things exist. I know that one can try to idiot-proof composition by creating conditions where the likelihood of going off the rails is reduced. But does that lead to writing? Does constructing a detailed assignment and working closely with students to the point where 80% of the class produces essentially the same essay mean that we are moving toward learning how to write?

The greatest, and most common, complaint/problem I hear from students is that they have "nothing to write." This occurs when one gives them a detailed assignment (and they say they aren't interested in the topic) or when one allows students to pick their own topic. Sometimes students think they have something to write, but they really don't. (This happens to all of us, too, btw.)

Yes, it is a problem of invention, I suppose. But it is also a problem of motivation and literacy. The most interesting things to write about are often the most difficult, so we must be motivated to write about them. To invent ideas, topics, arguments, etc., we must be able to recognize them when we see them. That's an issue of literacy, of rhetorical fluency. It also requires having the willingness to experiment and fail.

There's really nothing "basic" about invention. It's not like you can master invention and then move on to more "advanced" issues. But without invention you don't have writing at all. You can't bracket invention by providing students with a topic or an outline. There's invention in each compositional event/moment, in each word choice, or however you want to slice up writing.

So when my students say, "I have nothing to write," I think, now you are experiencing the life of a writer. Only writers have nothing to write. Others simply don't write. Having nothing to write, in a pseudo-zen sense, is the beginning of writing. And it isn't like you have nothing, then you have an idea, and then you write until the text is done. Having nothing to write and then something to write is like alternating current. Between each paragraph, each sentence, each word there is nothing. (You can see it, right? the negative space?) It's nothing that John Cage hasn't/has taught us.

Maybe we never have something to write. Maybe the something that is writing has us. Who knows?

Maybe having nothing to write is what is basic to writing. It's not a deficiency. It's not a problem to solve. It's not the grist for the mill of resentment and bad conscience. And if we are going to advance writing, perhaps we should advance toward nothing.