Why Do We Divide Writing into Modes?

 

When I was in high school, we used a textbook that divided writing instruction into different rhetorical modes:  description, exemplification, narration, process, comparison and contrast, classification, definition, cause and effect and argumentation.  While newer textbooks are now organized thematically —Jim Burke’s high school reader Uncharted Territory (2017) is a good example, organized topically by education, freedom, identity, and relationships—we often still draw those instructional lines when teaching argumentative, informative, and narrative texts as if each mode had different aims.

We English teachers love classifications because they help us process information.  I am guilty of divvying up writing skills and processes into isolated categories, and I’ve often sacrificed authentic student writing, creating expository boundaries where none existed, for neat and tidy curriculum units.

But real writing resists all that – good writing is especially resistant to classification. It’s good because it’s clear, artful, and has achieved its purpose, not because it has followed a pre-determined form or met the properties of a specific mode. In any given text, the three modes delineated by the Common Core—argumentative, informative and narrative—are blended to the point that the reader isn’t struck by disparate text forms but the gestalt of the whole essay. How would one characterize Oliver Sack’s A Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat or Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Heinretta Lacks?  These are texts which tell a story to enlighten the reader using data and scientific research surrounding a critical argument that serves as the heart of the work. Is Skloot’s book a narrative? Yes. Is it an argument? Yes. Is it an informational text? Yes.

As Andrea Lunsford attests in her book, Everything is An Argument, I would assert that Everything is a Narrative and Everything is Informative, and all of it is born from the writer’s creativity and critical thought. When strict distinctions exist between argumentative, informative and narrative writing, students begin to think of modal boundaries as inescapable territories beyond which their writing must not pass, even though the authors of the Common Core do concede that “skilled writers many times use a blend of these three text types to accomplish their purposes.”

“For all a rhetorician’s rules/Teach nothing but to name his tools.” – Samuel Butler

Writers determine their product by their own need and urgency to communicate and their (perhaps) vague awareness (at the outset) of their rhetorical situation.  On the occasion of publishing his first novel (after working as an award-winning short story writer for his entire career), George Saunders wrote an essay for The Guardian about his process of writing his novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. He says it’s a mistaken notion to think a writer has something to express and then he just expresses it.  “We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.”

Saunders’ claim – that the expression of an idea doesn’t become fully clarified until one begins to actually write and its birth is shrouded in mystery and pain – doesn’t apply only to fiction writers or writers working at a certain level of sophistication. As a writer myself for forty years and a teacher of student writers for nearly a quarter century, let me testify:   all writers struggle similarly and mightily.

All writers, at every level, attempting any expression, enter into an exasperating and blind process. It is only after the writing is finished that it’s seen as following a similar pattern represented within a certain house of discourse. Once I left my high school English classroom,  I never once thought of those modes because I never again found writing situations so nicely diced up.

 

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Why I Have No Favorite Books

A friend recently challenged me to name my ten favorite books, and I am ashamed to admit no such list exists for me.  Even though my reading past has been deep and wide, I have no favorite books.

The first book I knew was a small green Gideon’s Bible. I was about three.  One of my older brothers or sisters might have brought this home from school, and somehow I found it.  Even though I couldn’t read, I’d hunker down in the corner of a closet, run my finger over the tiny pages and whisper things in the dark.  This position of closet hunkering and prayer whispering has remained with me as an adult, my one nod to suburban mysticism.

When I was enrolled in Mrs. Blanton’s first grade class at Clintonville Elementary School, I recognized she loved reading, and specifically she loved Judy Edwards, whose grandmother had taught her to read. Judy stood up in front of the class one day and read a book to us.  I was floored. And jealous.  The next day, I stood up with a book I randomly pulled off the shelf and read it, making up elaborate subplots and tricky character developments based on the pictures on the page.  Mrs. Blanton sat at her desk and grinned.  (That day, in addition to discovering my affinity for prevarication,  I pledged my undying love to all those who teach and don’t tell.)

In elementary school, I plowed through Nancy Drew’s mysteries, Anne of Green Gables, and Heidi. I read to escape boredom and my fundamentalist pre-occupation with hellfire.  By sixth grade, Clintonville’s damp, basement library held nothing more for me.  My sixth grade teacher gave me James Michener’s Centennial, a 1000+ page mass-market paperback that crossed my eyes for the three weeks it took to read it.  I never picked up another Nancy Drew.

During the summers, Mom took me to the Bourbon County Public Library to check out books. The library was as sacred as the books it held – the air-conditioned shush, the musty smell, the severed elephant foot that served as an ottoman in the front hall.  I was not allowed in a certain section of the library.  I had been satisfying myself with the soft-core romance thrillers of Victoria Holt, but one day the librarian was at lunch, and a hippy intern was behind the desk.  My mother was in the car. I slipped into the adult section and pulled the first book I could find off the shelf. The hippy checked it out to me without question and stuffed it into my bag.  At home, in my room, I peeked at the book cover.  A half-naked woman chained to an iron bed frame.  Irving Wallace’s rape fantasy book, The Fan Club.  I read it front to back, twice, completely scandalized and hooked on trashy fiction.

In middle school and high school, I read books, wrote book reports detailing the plots of these books and got an A back for my efforts.  I read whatever I wanted.  Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Richard Adam’s Watership Down, Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, John Irving’s World According to Garp. I read and book-reported on dozens of books. It was a perfect arrangement.

As a junior in high school, I went to a summer program for nerds.  Every morning for four weeks, I met with a college professor and 10 other high school students to discuss Heart of Darkness and Tender is the Night.  At Bourbon County High School, my peers had little interest in discussing mutability or verisimilitude. (One of my favorite memories of high school English was Ms. Carter yelling at the back row of rednecks, “Sit back there and wear your dummy badges!”) In the summer program, we explored, discovered beyond-the-plot dimensions, and analyzed things that didn’t even exist on the page.  I’d never had a conversation about a book like that before.

When I enrolled at UK in 1985, I declared myself a bonafide English major and read the British-American canon with gratitude.  In a Southern Lit class, I encountered Alice Walker, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price, and Eudora Welty.   My senior year, I took a Kentucky Literature class with Gurney Norman and read James Still, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jim Wayne Miller, Ed McClanahan, Wendell Berry, and Breece D’J Pancake.  That there was poetry in the world written by tobacco farmers and short stories written about Wal-Mart was as big a revelation in my reading life as any other discovery I’d made. This discovery lead me to read with the desire to discover how the narratives were built, how stories worked, how I might learn to write from reading books written by people just like me.

From the Bible to mainstream romance to the canon to books written in my backyard, I have read for a variety of reasons, but basically, I just like to read.  Whether it’s Jeff Guinn’s Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde (which I finished last night) or Zadie Smith’s NW (which I am starting tonight), I am addicted to the decadent pleasure of lying on my couch and being somewhere else at the same time.

Reading is discovery, and as such, no book is any more of a revelation than another.  When I said at the beginning of this blog I have no favorite books, I should amend that to say: every book is my favorite.

Whatever book I’m reading at the time is the best book ever.