To prod students to think about why academic conversations tend to take place on the page, I ask them, toward the end of the semester, to reflect on the virtues of writing and explain what they believe writing can offer that other communicative mediums—e.g. television, film, music, etc—cannot.
I believe this to be an important question, especially because of the structure of a university and it’s emphasis on skill learning. There’s little time during a semester to put those skills in perspective. For just one example, calculus classes tend to focus so much on how to take a derivative or compute an area that scant time remains for explaining why it’s helpful or (there’s certainly no time for this) why it’s beautiful.
Similarly, focusing on the techniques and patterns of academic writing sometimes obscures its purpose and power.
One tactic for revealing the purpose and power is to point out to students something that seems obvious: a writer chooses to write. Instead of employing some technology to produce ordered symbols on a page, a person could choose to express herself or tell a story or make an argument by performing an interpretive dance wearing only a meat helmet and a grass skirt. But certain occasions seem to call for writing. What are they? Why write?
In the reflection assignment this semester, one student claimed that while a song can express emotion, writing can explain the origins of that emotion. Even if that’s not a wholly accurate universal truth, it is a good place to start because I can recall times in my very own life—some heavy times, some light ones—when emotion compelled me to burst into song. I’m much less likely to burst into writing an essay. Can one even burst into such a thing?
Since most musicals interact with real life in a limp, lightweight, and sentimental fashion, their tropes come to mind when I assign a relatively insignificant disappointment too much emotional energy. Recently, I lost my sunglasses and, after fielding the excruciating questions everyone asks when you’re looking, (as in, as if it hadn’t occurred to you: Where did you see them last? When were you last wearing them?), I had occasion to marinate in and indulge my impotent anger and seething frustration. And I was moved to sing a song of Lucinda William’s titled “I Lost It,” though in my version I changed “it” to “’em” to preserve the grammatical integrity of my own circumstances. (At one point in the song, Williams claims she’ll never find another “one” to compare—which “one” I changed to “pair.”)
If you know anything about Lucinda Williams, you’re probably aware that she’s a tattooed, leather jacket-, acid-washed jeans-, and cowboy hat-wearing badass and even if you believe she actually lost something—even if you can summon in your mind a plot where she’s just discovered that her favorite guitar’s missing or that a lover betrayed her or that someone she needed died or that she was no longer an innocent—even if you can imagine that, such hypothetical plots soon fade to insignificance. The tune begins with pretty much straight blues in F with drums heavy on the downbeat. When she sings the first line, which is the title, it’s clear this is not a lament, but an assertion: she looks you right in the eye and rawly and openly admits that she’s unable to locate “it,” and that she’s currently right in the middle of that swirling vortex of emotions that attends losses and she’s not trying to run for cover or make excuses and, further, she invites her audience to lean forward in their listening chairs and really feel what she’s trying to express. She doesn’t seem interested at all in whether “losing it” felt for you the same way it felt for her. She’s too busy being open and honest and forthright and larger than life to worry about anyone else.
By the time you get to the sparse and filthy guitar solo that doesn’t linger on the blue notes as much as brush up against them, played on probably a Telecaster with gain way up, your focus isn’t on what she lost or where it might be, but on how much it sucks to lose, and how much Williams in particular feels her loss.
Everyone loses things: sunglasses, people you love, innocence, the person you once were, softball games, every second that passes. They don’t all feel the same, but they aggregate. Eventually, we form a communion in our loss. I think everyone’s capable of feeling as if we’re all of us hunched over a colossal storm drain holding ropes that slip through our grasp, wondering where it all goes. The feeling might visit infrequently, and not last long, but you know it. The point is the feeling’s common to all our lots, and Williams’ song reminds us.
Let me apply a philosophical framework here so I can further this analysis. Nietzsche describes ancient greek tragedies, the good ones anyway, as a marriage between the Apollonian plots of individual lives and the communal, wine-drinking, Dionysian, unified spirit, played, respectively, by the actors and the chorus.
So, something happens in Lucinda William’s incredibly glamorous and intense rock-star type life—some matter of plot, some details—that drives her onto stage in front of us to sing about it, to hold this emotion up for consideration and examination of its facets and nuances. And we sing along, because we too have tasted a draught of that bitter vintage. We’re plucked up and away from the forward forced march through time-space, suspended and buoyed somewhere else by sensation. The song ends. She returns to her life. We follow again our individual paths.
Apollo, plot, individuality (the details of the loss): time marching forward.
Dionysus, unity, wine, and emotion (the feeling of loss): suspension of time.
I began by asking what occasions call for writing and why people write. I’m prepared now to answer that you write when you need to do it all because you can do it all. You can do it all because you need neither an actual dramatic situation (as with greek tragedy) nor an implied one (as with Lucinda William’s song).
I’d like to suggest that writing’s both unity and individuality, and neither. It’s Lucinda, us, Lucinda and us together, and the thinking about it afterward and before. It’s recognizing physical and chronological constraints and tampering with, re-ordering, and recasting them to suit our purposes.
So, expository prose: obliteration of time.
The obliteration is a double-edged sword, because additional obligations attend anything so destructive.
I’m not in a position to prove the following, so I’ll just say I believe that writing can answer to the additional obligations of destruction more fully and honestly than these other formats.
Songs and movies and conversations have their place and aren’t inferior, but they have constraints–and constraints are often good.
I’ll make one last assertion then ask a few rhetorical Q’s.
Technology such as personal DVD players, iPods, and youTube attempt to provide what reading and writing have always provided: private and intimate congress outside of time in death-defying space between receiver and producer.
Here are the Q’s?
What is it you do when you feel up or down or all twisted around or just compelled to communicate something on the tip of your tongue that you can’t quite formulate? Do you sing about how you feel? Is that a question we can discuss? Just between us, reader and writer: how do you feel (and what do you think) about singing about how you feel? Can we whisper in each other’s ears and promise never to tell, since these words were wrought in time but are here, now and you’re there, then?