Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Everywhere I look I see writing doing stuff. It thanks my mom on Mother’s Day, apologizes to a colleague, assigns tasks to my students, and on and on to just about anything that might need doing. Writing does stuff.
But lately the news has made me think about what writing does for our experience of the world. And I see three big ways writing interacts with experience:
I’m sure there are more ways to connect writing to experience, but let me explore these three. Any one of these could be a long post in itself, but here I’ll just go after some big sweeping perspectives on writing and our worlds. But it all begins with James Comey and his memos.
Writing records experience
Writing can keep a record of our experiences, can document what happens.
What got me thinking about this role for writing were James Comey’s memos about his meetings with President Trump before he was fired. While the president tweeted threats that there might be “tapes” of his conversations with the FBI Director, Comey revealed the memos he wrote after his meetings with the president. Those memos recorded a president asking the FBI Director for loyalty and pressuring him to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn, the national security advisor.
You don’t necessarily need to have it on tape if you have it in writing.
It’s a practice I’ve followed and recommended to others, even though the stakes for my written records have never been as high as protecting the nation. After a request from a higher-up for information or an important meeting, I write a memo to myself with the basic facts of what someone asked and what I did in response. Emailing it to myself gives me a date stamp. Of course, I also follow the sound business practice of emailing a memo of record to the person I met with if I want to record anything we agreed on in that meeting. “As we agreed when we met this afternoon, I will . . . and you will . . .“ It’s a way of turning oral agreements into written ones. I haven’t yet had to pull out those memos to defend my program, or myself, but I’ve used them to jog my memory when something comes up again.
I haven’t been subpoenaed yet, either, but Michael Flynn has—and that demonstrates the flip side of the written record. Writing also records what you might not want others to know. It seems the former national security advisor has refused to hand over emails “and other records” subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee in the investigation of potential Russian meddling with the US presidential election.
Writing records our experiences—and sometimes it can incriminate us.
Of course, diarists and journalists (both kinds) have long valued writing as a record of experience. Those written records of our daily experiences—those diaries and journals and newspaper accounts—can be reminders to our future selves of our pasts. They also can reveal to others what we might not want others to know. Ask all those who burned letters, diaries, and journals after the writer died so as not to tarnish their reputation (what a loss from the supposed friends of Lord Byron and husband of Sylvia Plath). Without Boswell’s diaries, Samuel Johnson would be much less human to me, but Johnson might have preferred it that way.
Writing records our experience, whether we like it or not.
(Digital recording of our every online move is the scariest new version of the written record, and one that highlights the significance of who’s doing the recording—us? Or someone else about us? If Sam Johnson objected to Boswell recording his every move, imagine his reaction to the digital trackers of his every click. Or for a less English major-y version, read Dave Eggers’ The Circle—no, don’t watch the movie; read the book! It’s much scarier.)
Writing changes experience
Another story I ran across this week revealed that writing about our experiences can change our experiences.
Following one of those chains from one online story to another to another, I ended up at a Well column from the New York Times in 2015, reporting on research from even earlier. But it grabbed me, because it told about how writing can not just record but actually change our experiences.
African-American students at Stanford University who were struggling academically were asked to write an essay or create a video about college for future students.
“The study found that the students who took part in the writing or video received better grades in the ensuing months than those in a control group.”
Married couples who were experiencing conflict were asked to write about their problems as if they were a neutral observer.
“Among 120 couples, those who explored their problems through writing showed greater improvement in marital happiness than those who did not write about their problems.”
Writing can help heal emotionally (there are books and paid workshops on the topic now), whether the suffering is due to marital rifts, impostor syndrome, daily stress, or more traumatic life events. And writing to deal with personal issues and anxiety can help heal not just emotionally but physically, too.
Students at the University of Texas were asked to write for fifteen minutes a day, either about a superficial topic or an “important personal issue.”
“Afterward, the students who wrote about personal issues had fewer illnesses and visits to the student health center.”
Scientific American reports on a study in New Zealand of healthy older adults who needed a medical biopsy. Some were told to write for twenty minutes a day about daily activities, others to write about “upsetting events.” They all later had biopsies on their arms, and photographs tracked how well the arms healed.
“On the 11th day, 76 percent of the group that did expressive writing had fully healed as compared with 42 percent of the control group.”
Writing about distressing topics may work by reducing stress. Another study found such emotional writing reduced cortisol levels. Which may help improve sleep, which helps speed healing.
So just writing about what upsets us can change our experiences by reducing our stress and helping us to heal faster, stay healthier, get better grades, and be happier in our marriages. And leap tall buildings in a single bound.
It makes sense to me that writing can change our experience because it can change how we perceive our experiences. We tell ourselves stories about our experiences all day long—about our past, present, and future. “I shouldn’t have said that last night.” “I’m dressed all wrong for this party and everybody’s looking at me.” “I’m going to fail that test.” (At least, I don’t think that’s just me!)
But when we write those stories down, they lose some of their power. They’re on paper or on a screen instead of in our heads. And even better if we can write a different story—the version of our marital fight that an outsider would see, a view of college without our insecurities attached. Or write a successful outcome for that future fear; retell a past event with a different ending; make a mental note of the story about the present and follow it with a “Really?!? I think everyone in the room is looking at me right now?! C’mon, girl, get over yourself!” Or maybe that’s just me.
Whatever the reason behind it, the research is clear: writing about our experiences can change our experiences.
Writing Is Experience
Writing sometimes is the experience, and the experience of writing is enough.
I’m thinking about those times when writing becomes so absorbing that it’s the entire focus, the entire presence of the moment. Sometimes when I’m writing this blog, I get lost in the experience for hours without noticing. Sometimes I struggle with every word and wonder why I’m doing this thing, of course, but more often I find myself totally absorbed in the process, in the experience of writing. OK, maybe that’s not an experience everyone has, but it’s not just me.
That kind of writing might fit the meaning of “flow,” what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “the total involvement with life.” You can experience flow doing many things, but certainly for me writing is one of them. It’s not always writing a blog, even for me, but writing has the ability to involve us completely in the moment. Others might find the experience when writing a letter, a short story, a genealogy, a chain of text messages, or even a scholarly article. Writing can be the experience itself.
If you’re ready for a use of writing even more touchy-feely than flow, note that writing can be used for meditation. Written meditations use writing to focus attention on the present moment—the very definition of writing as experience. You’ll find lots of sites with written meditations online, including this one from the Mindfulness Meditation Institute that focuses on loving-kindness.
I separated out the three ways writing relates to our experience, but, as I wrote this piece, I started noticing that they all connect up, too. Writing about upsetting events simultaneously records and changes experience, and that kind of writing is surely an experience of writing itself.
And I described distinct kinds of writing that record, change, or are our experiences. Those kinds of writing—memos and diaries, emotional writing, written meditations—surely do illustrate the point most sharply, but that distinction, too, doesn’t hold, in the end.
In the end, writing always is experience. While we’re writing, whether it’s flowing or painful, meditative or exasperating, writing is what we’re experiencing while we’re writing.
And because writing always does stuff, I suspect writing is always changing our experience, even if no researcher is measuring the change.
And all writing records our experience in some way—what we’re thinking at the moment, or doing in the future, or trying to get someone else to do.
I suppose that means that this blog post records my experience, my thinking about this topic at this moment. It surely has changed my experience, since I think differently about this topic now than I did when I started out. And I struggled through this one a bit—not a lot of flow—but for hours it was my experience of the world.
Huh. Writing experience. Experiencing writing.
Who knew James Comey’s memos would be not just smart but inspirational?