“The New Style”
For the first installment of my maniacal rant for 2017, I’d like to write about how I’ve grown and stagnated as a writer and teacher, and ultimately how I’d like to progress before the conclusion of this first year of the American Apocalypse:
On day one of our composition classes this semester, I told my students that I’m less concerned about mechanical error and formatting mistakes in their papers than I am interested in emphasizing the sentence style, paragraph coherence, and overall content, unified by an argumentative thesis throughout the structure of the essay as a whole. I know good spelling, complete sentences, and formal tone are important for writing good essays, but they are certainly not the most important things.
Robert Pirsig wrote in his magnum opus, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that the “thing that depressed him was prescriptive rhetoric…the old slap-on-the-fingers-if-your-modifiers-were-caught-dangling stuff. Correct spelling, correct punctuation, correct grammar. Hundreds of itsy-bitsy rules for itsy-bitsy people. No one could remember all that stuff and concentrate on what he was trying to write about.”
Pirsig’s on to something here. Many students constrain their writing voice because teachers have drilled into students’ heads that writing is about following the rules. I might suggest that good writing is more about breaking the rules than following them.
I’ve learned that, perhaps, the most important things about writing are 1) being honest with yourself about what you write, 2) scrutinizing everything you read and hear as an argumentative claim, and 3) writing without fear because of whomever may read it, whether it be family, friends, or co-workers.
The first item requires a life-long journey of learning about one’s self, as we fashion an identity that allows us to communicate with one another more clearly and comfortably. Most anguish about writing comes from not having enough confidence to express authority about controversial topics. For many young college writers, it’s potential anguish about speaking openly in disagreement against political ideas, religious rules, and argumentative subjects learned from elder family members, high school teachers, or supervisors at their local starting jobs. Becoming a better writer means to write openly and honestly without fear of repercussion from others, and learning to communicate with honesty. To be colloquial, I’d say I’ve learned that to write better, one must shovel through a lot of bullshit to get at the truth of the New American Rhetorical Situation.
The second item requires a writer to read texts, to become an authority on all the content about us in this complicated world. In this age of Trump, there is much potential argumentative content which is available about which to write. That’s a mouthful, but it’s absolutely necessary to pay attention by reading more…by paying attention instead of ignoring politics and religion, thereby allowing people in positions of authority to retain bad ideologies from both American institutions. Self-identifying as a writer at a very early age, I’ve maintained some tendencies that have been beneficial, including voracious reading of literature, the news, and popular culture. Sampling as much language as possible is ultimately the best way to become a better writer and speaker, and this has become an academic mantra.
The third item is a recent thing I have learned about myself, and it concerns my own personal stagnation as a writer. I have written to this point in my life with respect for my fellow Republicans and Christians, although it has been a waning respect. This past year’s election has seen the cessation of any modicum of respect from this writer for Republicans, since they aligned with Donald Trump. For eight years, I have seen a steady stream of propaganda from the Fox News network, based on invalid logic, hate speech, and drummed-up emotional fear, which my family and neighbors digest with regularity. Fox News contributors like Sean Hannity, Mike Huckabee, Laura Ingraham, Ben Carson, and Mike Pence have draped themselves in crosses, demanded to be voices for good Christian Americans, and distorted the goodness of Christian ethics through illegitimate argument. Some white American Christians sleep with their fundamentalist Bible under their heads, hoping that Jesus will come back and take them to Heaven while all the liberal infidels are left behind to suffer for their prodigal sins. This is unhealthy behavior, yet it’s drilled into our children’s heads in the White American church. I know this because it was drilled into my head, coming from a family that attended church too much and often targeted schools and teachers as being the environment and agents of the secular evil responsible for the end of blue-collar America. Facebook has been an eye-opener, as I have read the most appalling arguments, many of which come from people I love, who fostered me, and taught me about life, about what I thought it meant to be a good man. Unfortunately, I’ve been reviewing past conversations and revising opinions about what it means to be a good American citizen and Christian today. It’s discouraging and revealing, especially since many of those people do nothing but complain about what I write…
So, a new style must be adopted. In order to become a better writer and teacher, I must stop filtering the content of what I write and say through the sieve of false conservative ideology, based on the old-person voices in my head from those who voted for Donald J. Trump, the voices that have tried to say it’s okay to discriminate based on ill-defined subjective arguments using concepts like sin, evil, and promoting violence, the voices that promote prejudice and avarice, the voices of those who are constantly trying to tell me I’m wrong, the voices that attempt to repress me based on their own false sense of offense, while attempting to counter-explain ethics and morality back to a diligent student, teacher, journalist, rhetorician, and philosopher, all of which are societal roles consistently belittled by Republicans.
I no longer give those voices power in my rhetoric. I hope to evolve as a better ethical professional as a result.
Scott C. Guffey, M.A.