San Diego Poetry Guild

notes on guild, poetry, and San Diego


Writing Under Duress

It's been said that teaching is invariably a form of coercion. If this is true, then teaching writing is the worst kind of coercion.

The typical plan when trying to teach someone how to write is to introduce a kind of "rhetorical situation" into which the one learning is then immersed and left (equipped, maybe, with a battalion of inscrutable conventions) to wander about in search of authoritative ease in whatever "discourse-de-jour" happens to prevail in that setting, that classroom, that assignment, that teacher's head, whatever.

In writing courses per se, there is the double-discourse of "writing" as its own content, its own set of protocols (sometimes processes) which a student is expected to learn in order to convey mastery by the end of the term. Absent a disciplinary bias (like "history" or "anthropology"), the kind of writing prompt (short essay, research paper, narrative) often assigned has the look and feel of an airline magazine crossword puzzle -- a time-killing activity whose product is left behind once the flight (and the turbulence) is over.

Education in general can serve several purposes, several "functions," in the parlance of the early great sociologists (e.g. Durkheim). It can regulate the flow of professional talent, can ready young minds for civic participation, can tame dissidence for better immersion in corporate life, can stave off the influx of workers in the labor market.

Writing instruction, along these lines, serves related functions also instrumental in the broader regime of education (at all levels). It's good then, I think, to think about how writers (and writing teachers) engage in coercive practices when going about their related businesses.

The fetish of "originality" is obviously coercive -- placing an impossible demand. To be a writer of any kind is to gain fluency in what the theorists like to call a "discourse community," and where the early gestures of a beginning writer are invariably imitative and derivative, the innocent borrowing of words or strategies is often punished either as outright "plagiarism" or, perhaps worse, as just plain bad writing, the mark of cognitive underdevelopment. In this case, the coercion comes in the form of a double bind. Forced to negotiate a higher status (by learning how to write), the initiate seeks membership in a community for which high status (lessons already learned) is a prerequisite.

Writing assignments are coercive -- especially where the model/practice/evaluate system of interaction dooms the writer from the get go. Having little access to an instructor's criteria for selecting certain "model" texts, I must (as a student-participant, say) perform the double duty of decoding the text and then applying it somehow to my "own" discursive exercises. I must read (interpret) and write at the same time, in other words. Coercive direction in the writing classroom doesn't account fully for this double rhetorical duty.

Writing itself is inherently coercive. George Oppen's "words are enemies" glosses the phenomenal distance we human animals must endure between ourselves and the world of symbols into and out of which we find our respective/collective ways. The force or threat of writing lies in the opportunities for false witness, variance, difference, betrayal, mutability -- the potential beauties of poetic language, no doubt, but real nuisances when one's academic career is on the line.

"Process" is coercive -- where writing gets taught as a cognitive canoe ride from "beginning" to "advanced" with a whole slew of recursive activities along the way (thinking, jotting, brainstorming, clustering, outlining, drafting, revising, drafting, jotting, thinking, ad. inf.). Never taught to swim, the pupil (all categorical nouns fail, so I'll use them all) is thrown into the raging river and then asked if the boat looks dry and comfortable.

Writing as "social act" is coercive, substituting a bridge for the canoe. On one side of the river, ideology is a dense, swampy lowland, very difficult to traverse, threatening to pull you down and out each step of the way. Writing (in college, especially) helps you across the bridge (sometimes helps you build it), and then on the other side ideology is a dense, dark forest of really big, thick trees. Some you leave standing and examine from a distance, some you cut down, burn, recycle. Perhaps one you climb up into, building a nest of its leaves, never to come back down. If you're lucky (I think), you wander the forest in a state of blissful stupefaction, writing madly as you go. In all cases, the goal is to help the blind see, finally, all the ideology around them. Not a bad lesson plan, no doubt, but coercive all the same.

I'm not sure at this point if a non-coercive pedagogy is possible. I concede to those who recognize right away the operational contradiction implicit to such a dream (again, teaching is invariably coercive, so how can a ped-a-gogy be otherwise?).

Still, I look for it, and maybe in the act of looking there's the easing of coercion that makes writing and the teaching of writing come alive in different forms. It is wrong (or at least less than honest) I think when writers say that they "love" to write. In so saying, they erase or sublimate the experience of coercion that all writers have at one point or another. To be "driven" is closer to it. But really, we are almost always forced into it, for one reason or another.

To write, and maybe to come to that point where "love" is possible, is simply to make peace with coercion.

That new pedagogy I'm looking for would at least begin by naming writing for what it is.


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