Why do we write?

In this morning’s newspaper three thoughtful members of our County Board responded to criticisms made by a fourth member.  I say they are “thoughtful” because their 600-word column beautifully described the complexity of making policy judgments.

I read their column and better understood their ideas and experiences with policy making:

(1) policy development is a complex process,

(2) a lot of thought goes into crafting policy language,

(3) people of good will can disagree about the best policy,

(4) that does not mean one side has good intentions and the other side does not.

While watching television later, I was subjected to the Rick Perry campaign commercial that starts, “Washington elites are wrecking American life.”

The thoughtful newspaper column will be read by a few hundred people near Asheville, NC.  The campaign ad will leave an impression on tens of thousands who will vote in the Republican primary and the 2012 presidential election.

To learn about the power of these ads, read Marshall McLuhan or either of the “Persuasion” books: Persuasion: A Means of Social Control (1952), or Persuasion: A Means of Social Influence (1976).

Oh — I forgot.  Americans don’t read books.  We get information online and through broadcast radio and television.  This is the point of the Shift Happens YouTube videos.  Google them and watch a few.  You won’t have to read anything longer than a bumper sticker.

Public education critics, like those who produced the “Shift Happens” videos, say schools are failing because they use outdated technology, which leads to low test scores.  Really?  That isn’t why schools are failing.  They’re failing because they don’t teach why humans read and write.  Two of the greatest creations of all time, and American schools are silent on why they were created.

County board members wrote a column so others could study their ideas.  That is why we write–so our ideas can be studied.

Think of the contrast between the newspaper column and the Rick Perry commercial.  The column described the complexities of the judgments that go into policy making.   The commercial screams a belief statement as it shows the image of President Obama.  Is it true that, “Washington elites are wrecking American life?”  We can’t study whether it is true because it is not in writing.  And it is not in writing because the ad’s purpose is to produce an emotional impact, not to present Rick Perry’s ideas.

Where in your education did you learn about this distinction and the power of broadcast advertisements?  Didn’t you want to learn about the hidden powers you were exposed to on radio and television?

You don’t have to look far to see why public schools are failing.  Look right in front of you.  They are failing because they don’t teach why humans write (and therefore, why we read).

I am not a stuffy professor arguing that everybody should be more academic.  I am describing something you know from your own experience.  You were taught that you should read and write, but not why humans read and write.  If teachers had explained why, wouldn’t you have wanted to write down your ideas and have them studied by others?  Wouldn’t you have wanted to study other people’s ideas (known as reading with comprehension)?

You would have, if teachers had presented these creations in a way that showed you how to be a successful reader and writer.  Unfortunately, that kind of teaching requires imagination, courage, and humility; and today’s teachers were taught to be unimaginative, fearful of truth, and proud.   Not surprisingly, they teach the same vices.

Today’s quiz:

1.  Why do humans read and write?

2.  Where did you learn that?


The premise of this poster is that we write for many different reasons. But is there one reason that applies to every time we write? Can you find it?

  • We write to make sense of the world.
  • When I write I find hidden trails. . .  trails that lead to new vistas.
  • Writing generates new thinking. 
  • We write to find out what we didn’t know we knew.  We write to know deeper and truer.  We write to connect the dots, a whole new constellation.
  • Through the deliberate but unhurried dance with the written word, I can more fully reflect on ideas, relive moments in my life, and reveal hidden truths about who I am.
  • Writing is an adventure.  (a descriptor, not a reason) We write to explore the world–to study places, people, history.  We write to discover ourselves.
  • We write to explore who we are, to connect to those in the world around us, and to create something new.
  • Writing allows me to build a whole city and all its inhabitants–not out of mortar and metal, skin and blood–but out of words.
  • I write for the joy of mortaring words together–the sweat, spatter and discovery in the doing, the chance to make something new and solid. 
  • I write so that I can then teach children that their ideas matter and their words have power.
  • I write to bring all the wayward parts of myself together, to discover what I believe and who I am. 
  • Writing is waiting for a place to happen.  As writing teachers, we just need to create the space.
  • We write to imagine the possibilities and make our thinking visible to others. 
  • We write because we want to learn more about ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, our world. . .  we write from a place of wonderings, not a place of answers.

We write for different reasons on different occasions, but there is one reason that applies to every time we write. We write so others can study our ideas.  Even in the case of a grocery list, the “other” is the person pushing the grocery cart, relying on the person who wrote the list while looking at what was missing from the cupboard and refrigerator.

Which reasons will students carry all their lives — that people write for all the reasons listed on the poster, or that people write so their ideas can be studied?  If students learn the universal reason, they can extrapolate to all the others; but if they try to learn all the others, they might miss the universal one, which one of the poster authors pointed to — “(to) make our thinking visible to others.” That is why we write.


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