Posts Tagged ‘writing


Strangers on a plane

How would you describe the CEL (Conference on English Leadership) and NCTE convention to others? As I traveled home, I found myself explaining it to Alphonso, a D.C. pedi-cab driver who toured me past the monuments; to strangers on a plane, a mother and daughter returning from a trip to Puerto Rico; and to a shopgirl a perfume fragrance counter saleswoman at Macy’s. Notice, I already monitored my phrase and revised it because of my audience. In what ways do we self monitor and alter our messages for specific audiences?


During the conference itself, I used persuasive terms with a college professor who was at the contemporaneous ALAN conference, and beforehand I chose humorous analogies to give my students a picture of where I was heading. For my parents and sisters, who know a lot about my 25 year teaching career, and have attended professional conferences themselves, I wrote a letter detailing particulars of my personal involvement that would distinguish this year’s conference from those of previous years.


As I had the privilege of visiting a New York publishing house office this week, I noticed this sign on an editor’s desk: “I am silently correcting your grammar”, which was hilarious to me because both English teachers and editors, whose complex roles cannot be distilled into a single phrase, are frequently oversimplified and misunderstood as grammar police. This becomes evident whenever we meet strangers on a plane or train, who suddenly feel the need to excuse themselves for speaking improperly, or for not being readers or writers.

Since all writing is language choice, we choose language to suit the occasions of our dialogue. I have never had the chance to use these words in a sentence before, but CEL made it happen: “THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS PUBLIC AND PRIVATE.” Can you picture me, waving my bill under the ticket window of the National Harbor Ferris Wheel, contradicting their devil-may-care no cash policy?

Tailoring our tongues to meet particular situations involves knowing something about our audience. Kylene Beers and Bob Probst insisted on this as one of the keys to adolescents understanding complex non-fiction, as they shared recent collaborative work with us on Tuesday at CEL’s closing session. “What does the author assume I know already?”

Learning to listen
As I planned this blog post, I expected to present you with a fun challenge to write about a recent event you attended — conference, performance, holiday celebration, service opportunity — for several different audiences, say: children, peers, strangers and administrators (the Oxford comma debate matters here).

“I went out to dinner with some new friends, and we rode the Ferris wheel together…”

“I spent several days with high-powered speakers on cutting-edge topics…”

“I got to go to Washington, D.C. to tell researchers about the exciting writing you guys are doing…”

But as I relive each of my actual conversations, I realize they involve not so much constructing a stance, but rather listening to the person I am interacting with. I found out from Nadine at Macy’s that she was an English major, but could not stand the thought of her love of books such as Jane Eyre being dehydrated by dry analysis; that Alphonso, a D.C. native, used to be a bike messenger and has never been to California, and will have to find different work when weather prohibits operation of his pedi-cab for the season; that the mother-daughter love reading books, which were stolen the second day of their two week vacation; that the visitor from Paris at the Blue Note jazz club believes Paris is “not what is used to be”; that the airport shuttle driver works seven days at peak travel seasons; that Audrey, a session attendee, believes collaboration can lead to shared values and assumptions about writing.

We not only enrich a conversation by knowing the people we speak with, but I learn and grow myself by hearing them. The difficulty comes now, when I ask myself if I can be as diligent, open-eared, and knowing of those in my inner circle as I am with strangers or acquaintances.

All the “out-of-town” practice, as David Perkins calls it in learning, has to be brought to bear on the big games: our marriages, families, significant friendships, and career.

What good is it if I carry on inconsequential small talk with someone I meet once a year or once in a lifetime, if I don’t apply more careful listening in my most dear relationships?

Because of this,

Sara, I want to be the best listener I can; please be patient with me. I love you more each day, and want to know you even better.

Susan, I want to be a better friend and colleague, to keep asking the right questions.

Patrick, I want to be a better friend, to offer support where you need it and receive your input when you offer it.

Tyler, I want to be the kind of encourager you are to me.

Judi and Janice, I hope to be the brother you can depend on to celebrate your triumphs and share in your disappointments.

Evan, I hope I can be a better mentor; please help me know the ways I can support you this year in your teaching.

Writing is important, and conferences are helpful; but relationships and love are essential, necessary, foundational. The purpose for communicating is understanding, empathizing, knowing and loving people: communion and community themselves.

So go ahead, know your audience. Don’t just be a clanging cymbal, Gordon; “though I speak with tongues of men and of angels…[without] charity…I am nothing.” My plea: reduce me to Love.

(me on the left, Chris Bronke on right)


barbers and bagels

While traveling this summer I perused quite a few entries on Yelp and UrbanSpoon. Entries that aimed at providing readers with a fair assessment of the quality of certain establishments: bagel shops, barber shops, coffee shops. Restaurants and bookstores. I tried to glean what I could from the reviews, often carefully written.

“Terrible bagels! too chewy”; and (of the same shop) “Excellent bagels: authentic and chewy”. (They were delicious.)

“A gem of a bookstore; a shame if it ever closes”. Image

Falling for that one, I entered a cave of doom, where all neglected grammars and primers go to die among the remainder copies of biographies of Jane Fonda and Pee wee Herman. Still, a discerning reader had enough information to make an informed choice.

I became unsettled about the reliability of these reviews when, as I sat in the barber chair, either humoring or being humored by the man with scissors and comb, he urged me to go to Yelp and post a review of his shop.

“There’s a contest.”

Does this mean you will give me a free haircut? If a product is good, I expect it will promote itself, and customers will think to themselves, “Hey, I read about it on Yelp, so I’ll go home and review it myself now.”

I think the reason the barber’s request concerns me is that it fiddles with writing that ought to be intrinsically motivated. I did go back home that afternoon and write my first ever Yelp review. But I did so under protest. I didn’t enjoy it. Left to my own choice, wouldn’t the spirit of my praise have sung off the page like a Pinsky poem? 

I am curious to tap in to the enjoyment, the intrinsic motivation that drives people to post a specific type of review on those sites. Reviews filled with the aroma of fresh bagels, the nostril-tingle of freshly ground coffee beans, barbed attacks at the tattooed clerk for not calling your name loudly enough in the crowded hipster storefront whose product is addictive despite your barely veiled loathing for the people who hang out there. These reviews consist of elaborate narratives woven for a specific audience and with a specific purpose. They contain another element, though, Plot.

Reviews of restaurants and cafes, especially, are subject to a plotting device. Writers set up the scene with exposition, providing the necessary character background, information we will need in order to understand the state of mind of the characters when they stumble upon the excellent/poor service/food that inspired them to write. “I was out with my two children, a three- and a five-year-old, who are notoriously hard to please. A dreadful rainstorm had threatened to undo a perfect shopping trip when we found ourselves inside Pasha’s moroccan kitchen and its 31 flavors of phyllo… They even let us take home a quart of chutney ‘just for the kids’!”.

It feels to me, the sceptic, as though these reviews leapt off the pages of Penthouse “Forum”  from the eighties. The same principle applies: the ostensible purpose and audience for the communication gracefully bows out of the way so that authorship takes center stage, and story is born. But what compels a person to move from “I’ll post a quick review on UrbanSpoon because I really liked the service at that place” to “I will compose a short story; I will transform real life experience into art”? One might imagine such a writer wanting to serve the broader community by posting a very practical and handy reference tool – amounting to notes on a dining experience, in his early phase, with the intention of equipping future diners seeking good food. One can even see that for such a writer to offer a whole back story and, in a later phase, to craft a plot may aid such seekers, and possibly entertain them. But I wonder what feedback the writer receives for such work. Where does the satisfaction come from?

The artful review phenomenon is not peculiar to foodies. Having recently succumbed to the siren song of the safety razor and shaving soap, I hunted around on the internet for some goodies (product reviews of hard soaps) and was caught off guard. Writers are doing the same thing here!

“I close the bathroom door and turn on Bolero”, begins one.

“I wait a few moments, filling the room with steam, until my head swims in the lavender bouquet…” continues another.

Descriptions of lubricating the face, loading the brush, and lathering are not merely alliterative, but take on Joycean resonance.

Daily rituals of eating and shaving offer access to any writer who wants to build a story out of simple, known experiences. But, somehow, belonging to a community of writers and readers who may enjoy and appreciate the fruit of your labor feeds the desire to write, to build. A few of my own students write chapters of books which are passed among friends, who encourage them to continue the stories.

I suppose I should relax. Sure, some people are motivated to to write stories that are actually reviews. Yes, there are any number of reasons a person might want to post a review, casting doubt on its reliability. But people are having fun with writing. Lighten up, Gordon Let people try their hand at verisimilitude without criticizing their motives. Are they really so different from Montaigne?

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