There is a paradox to literacy in our contemporary societies. This generation – sometimes called digital natives – read and write more than any other in history; yet, they are also as adverse to writing activities as all others. Go ahead, and ask any student on any college campus when was the last time they wrote anything. They will stare at you askew and hesitate to answer (and not just because you just accosted them minding their own business with a random question.)
This dislike of literacy, I admit, is multifaceted. There are social, economic, and political reasons that overdetermine people’s disinclination to reading and writing. With that said, one source worth pointing out – because it is unintentional – of people’s resistance to it comes writers and teachers. People whom one would think should be champions of literacy.
Most writers and teachers tend to still think of writing and reading in aesthetic terms, writing is novels, poetry, short stories. This view has become the only way the general public also think of reading and writing. In South Asia, especially, this mindset is so dominant that it is almost invisible. When you ask someone what if they write, they interpret the question as asking whether they write creatively. The answer is usually no.
This is a problem for anyone who wants people to read and write more. Most people simply do not live as literary persons. This is not to say they are anti-intellectual. They are not invested in acts of expressing themselves. It can be embarrassing to bare oneself publicly. They might be shy. They might not think they are good enough. For when any idea of writing comes up, they begin to compare themselves to specters of great authors, Tagore, Shakespeare, Rushdie, etc. This comparison will always get people stuck.
There is a conceptualization of writing as individual expression that is both a cultural commonplace as well as a pedagogical program. It is a way to both think about and teach about writing as creative writing, a way to make art. This view of writing is a historical development, one that emerged during the Romantic era, which saw also the rise of bourgeois society and a view of genius as a person in the throws-of-inspiration. The image of the writer was that of the tortured-artist, sentenced to paroxysms of letters on the blank page, trapped in the scene of isolation. It is terrifyingly symbolized by Franz Kafka in his short story “In the Penal Colony,” where the narrator is killed by being strapped to a writing machine that tattoos him to death. This image held even for the woman, as Virginia Woolf proposes, in her famous essay, the image of solitude as a prerequisite to writing: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
Given this image of writing, it is no wonder that most people do not want to write. Only masochists would be excited about writing when this is the understanding of the task. It filters out anyone not inclined towards solitude, a disposition to express themselves in the written word, or simply in love with the sound of their voice. Most people tend to not think of themselves in such pathologies and therefore they freeze up whenever they start writing. They might chatter-on or message their friends about “a funny thing that happened to them on the way to the classroom,” yet then draw a blank as soon as they are asked to write down the experience meaningfully. They develop, in other words, writer’s block as soon as they are asked to think of themselves as writers.
Another way to think about writing, which everyone practices all the time, is articulated communication or activity. It sees writing as a tool used to connect and transfer information in an activity system. This is a more prosaic view of writing, but more accurately represents the vast majority of writings’ functions. This view of writing can sometimes be charged with reducing language to simply a commodity. It also can be charged with reducing the person to a part of a larger system. The writer is someone who pours meaning into a container and sends it away to the person who will read it. It makes the writer disappear.
This is a wrong way to view communicative writing because it ignores the adjective “articulated” in the concept. It refers to not simply spoken communication, but a sense of conscious choice. Stuart Hall, a prominent cultural theorist, explained it in terms of links that connect trains of thought, like carriages are connected on a train, turning distinct units into one body. In this idea, the writer is someone who chooses ideas out there and mixes them into a new whole. They are cooks who mix ingredients into cuisine. The writer, at their most dramatic iconography, is not isolated at all, in such a view, but an interlocutor in the conversations of mankind. Modernists writers, writing in the early part of the twentieth century, made this axiomatic in their writing. Most of their major works as explicit continuations of classical works. The epigraph in T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock is taken from Dante Alegeri’s Inferno; Joyce’s Ulysses was a play on Homer’s Odyssey.
This communicative function of writing and a framework to literacy in such terms, I have found in my research on everyday professional writers, tends to open people up to writing. Examining how scientists and social scientists write for their professions, I find that accomplished writers tend to frame the literacy work they do as textual transactions. They write to exchange information. This helps them get out of their way when writing because they focus on how they can add value to their readers or help them see the world otherwise. They do not find themselves concerned with what the reader might think about them because the writer does not matter in this scenario. They do not matter as much as what they have to communicate.
To think of writing in such terms is a way to demystify it. It is to think about it as an act of labor, a task based on reading and communicating new ideas by refashioning what one has learned. There is little room for inspiration in this process. It is “a breathing out” of the readings one has done as one breathes in, to paraphrase what Stephen King says in his memoir On Writing. It frames writing as an act of dialogue and interaction, which clears it up as what it is. A fundamentally social act. The only thing anyone needs to do to write in an everyday life is to live it, responding to the things in examined ways and as an everyday task or job.
A version of this has been published in The Daily Star, in March 2020: https://www.thedailystar.net/literature/news/what-does-it-mean-write-everyday-life-2055765