For Normal Writing, part 1

“I could pretend that I had no body.”
(René Descartes)

In 1973, Uri Geller made an appearance on the Tonight Show. At the time, he was already famous for being able to bend spoons with the power of his mind, divine the contents of sealed containers, and see what other people people were thinking. He had been drawing large audiences to his public appearances and had even convinced a number of highly accredited scientists that his psychic abilities were real. Suspicious of his guest’s purported mental talents, however, Johnny Carson had consulted with the magician and skeptic James Randi to arrange stage conditions that would thwart any trickery; and that night, sure enough, Geller felt “tired” and was unable to demonstrate his powers. “I don’t know how he does it,” Randi has said, “but if he’s using his mind to bend those spoons, he’s doing it the hard way.”

I tell this story to my writing students as part of an effort to dispel an illusion that many of them suffer under. They think that writing is primarily a mental activity and that “the trick,” therefore, is to get into the right frame of mind. (Sometimes they call it “knowing”; more often, they call it “being inspired”.) This illusion is fostered by every piece of well-composed prose they encounter, which seems to effortlessly transfer ideas from the writer’s mind to their own as they read. It’s not for nothing that Stephen King has described writing as a kind of “telepathy”; a good writer makes it look easy to get someone to imagine what you are thinking. To get them to appreciate the real nature of the difficulty, I try to convince my students that writing, like playing the piano or drawing a picture, is not something we do first and foremost with our brains. It’s something we do with our hands. Indeed, it depends much more on sleight of hand than on telepathy. A writer brings about the distinctly “literary” effect of the text by concealing, like Geller, the most important parts of the process that produces it.

So one might think that I would be in agreement with Jay Dolmage, a composition and disability scholar at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “I’ve tried to work against the assumption,” he tells us, “that writing is not a physical act,” which, like I say, is also exactly what I do. But while I attribute this assumption to my students, Jay believes it underpins “the dominant discourse surrounding the teaching of writing.” While I try to disabuse my students of a common misconception about writing, Jay leverages the actual practices of his students against the “ideology” of literacy, especially as it manifests in conventional academic norms, which, he believes, have emerged from an “ableist” history that favors “normal” bodies over those of the disabled and otherwise marginalized. Fittingly, he titled his contribution to Kristin Arola and Anne Wysocki’s 2012 collection Composing Media Composing Embodiment “Writing Against Normal”.

It’s an interesting argument and I want to engage with it over a few posts in some detail. Indeed, Jay concludes his piece with an invitation to such an engagement and a statement of his aims, which I also share. “This is a critical turning-away from traditional body-meanings. This is a turn towards recognizing and enabling all bodies,” he says, adding that “this is a turn that asks you to revisit what I have argued for here, and perhaps to resist each of my conclusions, instead locating your own beginnings.” This is precisely what I’m going to do. While I, too, think that writing instruction should enable every-body, I’m going to resist, or at least take issue, with each of the conclusions he draws from his assumption that writing is a physical activity, a materially embodied and socially embedded process. It’s not the premise I disagree with but the conclusion. It’s not the goal he seeks, but the route he proposes to reach it, that I will challenge.

I want to argue that conventional prose writing has always involved “a critical turning away from traditional body-meanings”. Indeed, there is an absolutely critical tension already on the first page of Jay’s essay, which begins by asserting that “as a discipline, broadly speaking, we in composition and rhetoric have not acknowledged that we have a body, bodies.” Like I say, I certainly acknowledge this (i.e, that we have bodies, not that we fail to acknowledge them), both in theory and in practice, but what Jay means is perhaps better captured in his opening sentence: “The dominant discourse surrounding the teaching of writing focuses on texts and thoughts, words and ideas,” he writes, “as though these entities existed apart from the bodies of teachers, writers, audiences, communities.” This is of course entirely true, but what exactly is there to take issue with here? Is it not the whole point of writing to let us risk our ideas without risk to our bodies? That is, is it not the very aim and purpose of writing to give ideas an existence, as it were, “apart from” our bodies? And does this not mean that, far from failing to acknowledge our embodiment, the discourse on writing takes this predicament of ours very seriously indeed. In fact, if you’ll pardon it, it takes it literally.

We get a clue to the larger argument (and my response to it) in the next paragraph, where Jay introduces his disability perspective and his conception of norms and normalcy:

normalcy is used to control bodies; our normate culture continuously re-inscribes the centrality, naturality, neutrality and unquestionability of the normate position; our culture also marks out and marginalizes those bodies and minds that do not conform. Norms cir- culate, have cultural ubiquity and ensure their own systemic enforcement. The normate subject is white, male, straight, upper middle class; the normal body is his, profoundly and impossibly unmarked and “able.” On the page, this subject and his body translate as error-free, straight and logical prose; as a writing process that is a portfolio of progression towards perfection and away from all evidence of struggle and labor. (Pp. 115-116)

Jay is proposing to “write against” this normalcy and to teach his students to do the same. I want to argue that conventional prose writing has always afforded marginalized bodies such criticality and has never been taught as “a portfolio of progression towards perfection”. I will argue this through a series of famous cases, major writers who relied heavily on the particular affordances (and even imperfections) of conventional prose precisely to break with the conventions of normate culture, to overcome the forces that marginalized them and others. I want show that we are always writing against normal — that it is, in a sense, the normal mode of writing.

But let me end this post on lighter note. While I am an utterly middle class, straight, white male, I take exception to the suggestion that my subject position in the culture is “profoundly and impossibly unmarked and ‘able’.” Indeed, when I propose that students approach their problem as one of getting their prose “into shape”, I often steal a line from Don Knotts, from back when he was playing Ralph Furley on the sitcom Three’s Company. After describing my own modest jogging regimen as a model for training their ability to compose a paragraph, I take a beat and gesture proudly down the length of my very “normal” figure. “A body like this,” I tell them, “doesn’t just happen, you know.” It almost always gets a laugh.

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