I’m thrilled to begin teaching expository writing tomorrow, modeled on a professor‘s experiments in teaching expository writing as digital citizenship through blogging. The thing that is least decided at this point is the question of sound: how much shall we practice reading aloud, and how shall I explain why I believe in the live, voiced, spirited language that is both heard and read? (Yes, that’s shall. We’re in serious territory here, baby.)

Soaking myself in these questions, I picked up some old Peter Elbow this morning. In some ways I was encouraged, especially in his descriptions of how writing often trains our ears to pick up on mysterious resonances in writing. But he also says some things about audience that I’ll have to confront in a class about blogging–which is in many ways predicated on the crucial shaping effects of writing with audiences. In Writing with Power (the 1981 edition, bought in a low-ceilinged, yellow-lighted library bookstore in DC), Elbow writes:

Real voice. People often avoid it and drift into fake voices because of the need to face an audience. I have to go to work, I have to make a presentation, I have to teach, I have to go to a party, I have to have dinner with friends. Perhaps I feel lost, uncertain, baffled–or else angry–or else uncaring–or else hysterical. I can’t sound that way with all these people. They won’t understand, they won’t know how to deal with me, and I won’t accomplish what I need to accomplish. Besides, perhaps I don’t even know how to sound the way I feel. (When we were little we had no difficulty sounding the way we felt; thus most little children speak and write with real voice.) Therefore I will use some of the voices I have at my disposal that will serve the audience and the situation–voices I’ve learned by imitation or made up out of desperation or out of my sense of humor. I might as well. By now, those people think those voices are me. If I used my real voice, they might think I was crazy. (306)

There’s a lot there, and I know I’ve broken like every blogging recommendation by going on for so long. But I think his point needs to be dealt with: whether the voices we put on for audiences crowd out our ability to write with a real sense of power, real resonance, real voice.

I’ll be asking my students to write dialogues as freewriting on the first day of class, so I might as well try it here, since my feelings on this are kind of split and uncertain:

  • The part of me that looks like a 19th century photo of a staunch, bearded president, like James A. Garfield: Well, Elbow’s point has obvious problems. When, exactly, am I writing with my “real” self? No, really–I want you to point it out to me.
  • The part of me that looks like a hippy–perhaps if James A. Garfield stopped grooming, like Allen Ginsberg or something: But don’t you feel sometimes like you have a real self? When you write something that feels true and honest, doesn’t it feel true and honest and good? Couldn’t you point out those moments in your writing?
  • Garfield: Well, I suppose. But that’s not the point. The point is that I believe we always put on rhetorically chosen selves when we communicate with different audiences. These rhetorically chosen selves are collectively “ourselves.”
  • Ginsburg: Um, that’s really sad. Seriously, do you know how sad that sounds? You’re basically adopting the persona of secular humanism here, pushing aside all possibility of spirit, of true identity. And more to the point, you’re pushing aside the possibility that writing can be more resonant when writers push aside their fears of how audiences will judge them. That’s the real point here, isn’t it?
  • Garfield: But you can’t just push aside audience concerns, especially in the age of blogging. [Garfield pulls out an iPad or something in the portrait?] Audiences who don’t jive with how you’ve chosen to write won’t take the time to keep reading; they can go elsewhere, to places that fit their discourse style. Audience is king.
  • Ginsburg: If audience is king, then you’d better make sure that you don’t lose something personal and precious in the transaction. In other words, be careful that all that catering to audience doesn’t lead you to ape the content that you think those audiences want to hear. Say the things that you want to say, and to an extent, push the boundaries of what they expect, too. I mean, people like to be surprised, man.

So that’s that. I kind of thought writing this out would lead me to more fully embrace one side or the other, but instead I feel less decided than ever–but more comfortable with my indecision than ever. Nice.

I’m not sure I know, and I don’t think you do either.

Let’s look at some definitions of expository writing, all from .edu sites. First, a site that is, oddly enough, hosted at Stanford’s website but updated by people with umich.edu emails, “Information about Expository Writing“:

Exposition is a type of oral or written discourse that is used to explain, describe, give information or inform. The creator of an expository text can not assume that the reader or listener has prior knowledge or prior understanding of the topic that is being discussed. One important point to keep in mind for the author is to try to use words that clearly show what they are talking about rather then blatantly telling the reader what is being discussed. Since clarity requires strong organization, one of the most important mechanisms that can be used to improve our skills in exposition is to provide directions to improve the organization of the text.

The first sentence stops me with a bit of a “Huh?” (This will be a continuing pattern.) I suppose this definition is trying to carve out a space for exposition that is different than persuasion, but the more I think about, the less I buy it. When are we not explaining/informing? There’s lots of explaining in persuasive discourse. We could even make a case that there is a sort of “explaining” that happens in nondiscursive forms, like music and visual art.

But what makes this definition stand out is its focus on what all this explaining means for a writer: that you focus really, really hard on having clear organization. So exposition is all about clarity, which seems to say, “Do you want to make turns toward the creative, toward the beautiful, toward the purposefully roundabout, toward the non-Western? Well, this isn’t the place, buster!” (Am I being too harsh?)

Here’s how expository writing is defined at WikiEd, a College of Education endeavor at the U of Illinois Urbana-Champaign:

Expository writing is the process of writing to communicate information to an audience. It is often an explanation or a process, and tends to emphasize well-organized and concise information.

Again, my first reaction is kind of a dumbfounded silence. “Okay,” I should ask myself when writing, “am I communicating information? Is it for an audience? I guess it’s expository writing, and I ought to be well-organized and concise!”

Professor Marilyn Ivanovici posts a pdf handout on “The Elements of Effective Expository Writing,” listing 12 of them. Here we learn that

The purpose of expository writing is to explain something, that is, to provide readers with information worth knowing and thinking about.

And by implication, other forms of writing/communication are of the kind that aren’t necessarily worth thinking about….? (I’m being harsh, I’ve decided.)

Finally, there’s a chart of possible organizational structures you can use in your expository writing over at Marla DeSoto’s page at Glendale Community College. I find I like this better, if only because of the way the page design emphasizes that there isn’t a single, rigid, 5-paragraph essay design that will give you the best expository writing. We’re told that organization matters because “one of the most important mechanisms to improve skills in exposition is to improve the organization of the text.”

That leads me to Big Question #1: In what ways, exactly, is this emphasis on clarity and organizational perfection different from professional writing? The answer: expository writing instruction seems to focus on making students better at the imaginary academic essay genre, while professional writing seems to focus on making students better at real professional writing genres that they’ll encounter in “the workplace” (whatever that is). I didn’t see any emphasis on these pages on using bullets, headings, extraordinarily clear first sentences. So why are we so dedicated to keeping up this front of artful, essayistic indirection when we tell students over and over to be clear?

Which leads to Big Question #2: If we want our students to use artful, essayistic indirection, to be perfect little Montaignes, why not use examples and techniques from creative writing? There’s plenty of amazing work going on in the creative nonfiction and memoir world right now, and there’s a lot that can be learned from the creative writing workshop model that would help our students find a more engaging style, more natural and beautiful forms of organization, and so on.

But here’s the thing: let’s not present students with the claim that they have to somehow find a middle ground between these professional and creative writing poles, that they must write ┬ástunningly, beautifully, and still with absolute clarity. Right? Wouldn’t some genres/situations demand more or less of this, not both at the same time?

So in the end, I’m not saying I know what expository writing is. I think I’d rather say that nonfiction writers choose from a variety of techniques, depending on the particular rhetorical situation they’re in, and that those situations may demand more or less clarity, more or less pizazz.

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