Reading & Literacy Commentary

Writing and Pleasure

By Thomas Newkirk — February 05, 2003 4 min read
The focus should be on showing what writing does, not on itemizing the 'traits' it has.

We don’t hear much about pleasure in this era of reform. The focus is on research-based instruction, on standards, rubrics, and prompts, and on the supposedly increasing literacy demands of the Information Age—all of which are discussed in the feverish language of cultural crisis.

These are all worthy topics, to be sure. But I want to explore something more basic, and, I’ll contend, more practical. Why write in the first place? Why do writers stick with an activity that to the outsider seems so slow and isolating? I want to say something about the gratifications of writing, not the delayed gratifications—a good college, a good job, a good score—but the immediate gratifications of writing itself. This is a practical concern because we all regularly avoid tasks that do not give us some form of pleasure, no matter how beneficial they might be for the future. Duty and reason, “what’s good for us,” will only take us so far. Just look at how Americans eat—or exercise.

I have made a study of the big spring cleanups in my hometown. This is the one time a year when we can take out big items— furniture, old washing machines, steamer trunks, and more. We all cruise the neighborhood looking at each other’s discards, half of which are gone by the time the trucks come. Every spring, I see any number of stationary bicycles, looking virtually new, purchased undoubtedly by someone who wanted to begin an exercising program but failed to keep it up. My theory is that these stationary bikes are picked up by other people interested in beginning to exercise—those who will the next spring put them out on the curb. I have this vision of hundreds, perhaps thousands of circulating stationary bikes.

Why, given the clear health benefits of exercise, do people fail to keep it up? Two reasons, I suspect. They find exercise too boring and too isolating. For a while they try to keep to a routine out of a sense of duty, and then, blaming their lack of willpower, they give it up.

Our instruction in writing can run into the same resistance. We can make great claims for the future utility of writing, but if we make it a dutiful act of delayed gratification, devoid of immediate pleasure, students will not write voluntarily, and they will not really engage with the work we require. And because they do not develop these voluntary habits, they won’t develop the fluency, the vocabulary, and the intuitions about texts that writers must possess.

If we make writing a dutiful act of delayed gratification, devoid of immediate pleasure, students will not write voluntarily, and they will not really engage with the work we require.

Resistant writers find literacy isolating and antisocial. Indeed, when interviewed, many of them claim that avid writers are only compensating for their lack of social skills. One way of countering this perception is to make writing much more of a social activity, where students can see the effect of their writing on readers—on peers, community members, and family members. But I want to stress that I am talking about readers and not rubrics, about conveying the human experience of being affected by writing. The focus should be on showing what writing does, not on itemizing the “traits” it has.

But what about the gratification of writing itself? Here the resistant writer is oppressed by the slowness and laboriousness of writing, particularly in comparison with talk. Experienced writers describe a very different kind of experience. They “listen to the text"—look for “the informing line” as if the very text they were writing was directing its production—they speak of an attitude of receptivity, of digression, of the writing taking on a new direction, when a single word calls up a new and surprising association or memory. Writers live for these moments.

Annie Dillard speaks of the experience of “unmerited grace” when the writing seems to come as a gift. Even inexperienced writers, as they write sequel after sequel of their space adventures, can have this experience of the openness and inexhaustibility of language. There’s a part in the movie “The Never-Ending Story” when the young protagonist asks how many stories he could wish for. He gets the wise answer, “As many as you want.”

So how might we begin to make these experiences available to students?

  • Resist teaching formulas. In his recent book The Testing Trap, George Hillocks shows how the standards movement has led to formulaic five-paragraph writing. We have educational consultants making thousands a day showing how to teach the “hamburger” composition for state tests. These tight forms perpetuate the untruth that what one has to say is less important than fitting a preset structure that no one in the real world uses anyway.

  • Help students develop an ease with writing. Good writing is rarely slow, laborious writing. Only by writing quickly do we outrace the censor, move beyond original intention, and capture some of that effortlessness that we experience in good conversation. Students need to understand the inverse economy of writing—the more you write, the more you have to write. The more you spend, the more you have.

  • Teachers of writing need this insider’s view of writing. We need to build into teacher education experiences where teachers themselves can encounter the same pleasures, those gifts of grace that Annie Dillard talks about. It cannot consist solely of learning strategies or methods. Without these experiences of engagement, writing teachers are outsiders to the craft they teach.

The good news here is that the standards movement and changes in testing have refocused attention on writing. But it is only good news if we keep in mind the reasons we write in the first place—and why we stay with it.

Thomas Newkirk is a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, N.H., where he directs the Literacy Institutes. This essay is adapted from his talk to the 2002 College Board Forum.

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