"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Revisiting The Conversation

August 10th, 2015 by

Comparing writing to a conversation became a commonplace during the 1980s and ’90s in Composition/Rhetoric circles. As short-hand for the many ways that thinking and writing are socially constructed, the metaphor of writing as conversation provided common ground among like-minded scholars.

In the years since, the focus in Composition circles has turned elsewhere. Now, one is more likely to read scholarship on issues that include genre, metacognition (which some scholars laugh at. Isn’t “metacognition” just more cognition?), and transfer knowledge as students move from their writing courses to other courses.

Still, writing is such a mysterious, scientific-method defying act that we should never let go of a useful metaphor for it. So this post may be nostalgic in its focus; it is, I hope, equally well-meaning. I’m going backwards a little to answer the following question: In what ways might writing be like a conversation? And what might we learn from the comparison?

Conversation and Courtesy
When I have thought about this, what has always come to mind first are the real conversations most of us are used to having. There are always levels to them. I was reminded of this sense of levels in talking when I read a Stephen King novel recently and came to a part in which two lovers meet each other again after a break up and an absence from each other. As they are re-introduced, their talk feels superficial. One of them complains about it, and then they have a break-through and get more real.

Writing can start out superficial, as we do with the niceties in the opening of a conversation, where we greet others courteously. We can circle around the outskirts of real communication, stating what is obvious or what no one wants to know. In a conversation, this is the greeting section. In writing, this is the first paragraph to a five paragraph theme.

But don’t get me wrong here. I think courtesy is important. As one writer-friend has noted about instruction that teaches the writer to “grab the reader,” as if by the neck, we prefer not to be treated poorly. The thing is, I find that in my conversations, my friends are usually happy when we leave that part of the talk and get into what really interests us. Readers are like that, too. It is interesting to think of a reader as we would a friend, someone with whom we want to share something of value or importance to us. This reader/friend connection is a kind of fiction, since we can’t often even know our reader. I suspect we are always getting to know our friends in more and more ways.

The Meander
Then, when we leave the niceties, there is the meandering, rambling flow of the conversation, the way close friends will allow each other to explore feelings and ideas. There is a strong corollary to writing in this, especially to the rough draft, the point when we are just beginning to rough out what we really think. The conversation, the rough draft, this is where the metaphor seems most apt.

And certainly, just after this is where the metaphor to the conversation can break down. In talking, we put up with or work our way through the niceties. Then we get real and basically meander and wander. In writing, we should learn to do these things, certainly. We need to warm up, and we need to explore and invent. But we also need to cut those surfaces and wanderings away. We certainly may have had to write them to get to what we really had to say. But now that we are where we want to be with our reader, we can revise.

Cut away the surface, five-paragraph-theme generalizations, and get to it. We might invent a hook, now that we know our real subject. But don’t keep the boring stuff.

Finally, writing is not the same as a conversation. In conversation, we cannot cut the bad stuff. In writing, we can.

Posted in Uncategorized| 5 Comments


Comment by Joseph Bentz on August 11, 2015 at 9:32 am

I really appreciate the ways you dig into the details of how writing can be like conversation. You are using the metaphor much differently than I usually hear it. I am often wary when I hear people call for a “conversation” about things–like race, or women in the church, or education standards, etc. Often what they mean is not really “conversation” as you describe, as in two friends sitting down for a friendly, meandering, honest talk, but they mean people pitting their ideologies against one another to see who wins the argument.

Comment by Tom on August 11, 2015 at 10:42 am

I also have seen “conversation” used as short-hand for an ideological confrontation. People are already settled in their beliefs and don’t want to explore. But I prefer the meandering conversations. Thank you, Joseph.

Comment by Emily Griesinger on August 11, 2015 at 5:12 pm

I love this post. Thanks, Tom. There’s something here that I want to incorporate into the way students “greet” and “meander” during a seminar. Occasionally, we get down to something real and true. Everybody knows when this happens but nobody knows how, and certainly nobody (least of all the professor) can make it happen. Anyway, what you say here is helpful in describing the kind of “meandering” conversation I want them to have on paper before class and be willing to share in class.

Comment by Tom on August 11, 2015 at 5:20 pm

Thanks, Emily. Your vision for your course, I think, is exactly what our students need to do to engage the material. I think meandering involves real discussions as well as writing/inventing.

Comment by David Esselstrom on August 13, 2015 at 11:58 am

Nicely put. Conversation functions on multiple levels and always contains as much, if not more, subtext as text. The metaphor is rich, but it does not simplify the process but rather complicates it by making it as intricate and multifarious as life itself. Thanks for keeping us grounded on the quest for reality if not firmly on reality itself.

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