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Oral Presentation Slot A - Writing, Our Mirror

[For the required class readings, please see my previous entry. All other linked material is only presented as further reading for those interested in the topic.]

Although there was no way for Plato to be explicitly aware of the fact, his philosophically analytic thought, including his analysis of the effects of writing, was possible only because of the effects that writing was having on mental processes. We know that totally oral peoples, intelligent and wise though they often are, are incapable of the protracted, intensive linear analysis that we have from Plato's Socrates. (Ong 320)

The power (of writing) is this: that you can not only think in ways that you could not possibly think if you did not have the written word, but you can now think about the thinking that you do with the written word." (Searle)

Ong's argument is almost identical to Searle's: writing not only changed the way that we communicate with others, but also the way we interact with ourselves. The advent of writing expanded the human mind's potential, enabling it to externalize thoughts and then critically analyze and evaluate them, a trick that can't be done in oral culture (according to these scholars, anyways).

I would liken it to the function of a mirror. Mirrors give us the opportunity to see ourselves clearly and study the details of our own appearance privately; without them, we are forced to rely on others to tell us how we look. Words reflect our ideas, allowing us to consider them carefully before presenting them, but oral communication forces us to rely on others for feedback.

To take the metaphor further, consider this: we use mirrors because we want to be able to control our appearance and make it as pleasant (or, less commonly, as unpleasant) to the eye as possible. We want to look good, to impress others (or bad, to creep them out or disgust them). When we write, we usually do it in private and take the time to revise our ideas until we feel that they are pleasant/unpleasant enough to have the desired effect on our readers.

I'll even take the metaphor one more step: have you ever tried preening yourself in front of a mirror while others were watching? It's an embarrassing and uncomfortable experience for most of us, because it eliminates the privacy we prefer in such a situation.

[Class Activity]

We're going to try an experiment. We're going to pair everyone up into groups of two or three, and designate one person from each group as the writer. The writer will respond to the prompt I provide while the writer's partner(s) watch intently from close behind, looking over the writer's shoulder to watch the words as they are added to the page.

When we're finished, we'll regroup and listen to each writer's response to the experience.

[/Class Activity]

Once we start writing, we are able to then reflect back upon what we have written and we enter into this kind of recursive relation to our own written signs. And so only then a certain degree or experience of self-reflection that we now sort of take for granted comes into being. (Abram)

Writing and reading, it makes you think about your thoughts in a deliberate kind of way that you just don't have an opportunity to do in your ordinary action and talking. So the invention of writing contributed to what we call the growth of subjectivity, people's ability to think about their own thoughts. (Olson)

Take for granted indeed. The privacy and subjectivity afforded to us by writing is sacred. But completely oral cultures didn't have such a luxury. True, a politician could prepare a speech ahead of time by rehearsing it or outlining it in his head, but most of us are far too dependent on writing now to pull off this feat. Furthermore, in order for a speech prepared totally orally or in the mind to be memorized (and thus recalled at the time of delivery), the form of the speech (if it were any longer than a casual conversation) would have to be crafted with memorization in mind--meaning the use of rhyme, proverbs, parataxis, or other such devices of oral communication. Thus, oral culture naturally imposes limits on our ability to shape our thoughts effectively.

When we consider all this, what is the value of the privacy and subjectivity that writing provides us? Think of our earlier exercise, the one that asked us to write a personal essay about our relationship with books. How many of us would have opted to respond with an impromptu speech, given the choice? (Be honest.) How many of us would have opted to respond with a prepared speech, for that matter? Chances are we're all infinitely more comfortable writing than speaking when the topic asks us to critically analyze something (especially our own feelings and ideas).

Precisely because speech is nothing but temporary crowdings in air molecules, we can never revise it. If we speak in the hearing of others--and we seldom speak otherwise--our words are heard by listeners who can remember them even (or especially) if we say something we wish they would forget. (Elbow 137)

Without writing--our mirror--we would be forced to use speech to communicate, and thus we would likely lose our will to share anything too personal or complex.

'When you provide a space for these young women to express themselves, the conversation quickly turns to the things that matter most to them: their community, friendship, loneliness, attention, love or the lack of,'' she said. ''Their writing serves as a testimony to the crucial role that literacy plays in their lives as a tool for sharing emotions, ideas and thoughts that would otherwise be left untold.'' (Saslow)

The young women mentioned in Saslow's article are an excellent illustrative example. The power of writing to free people from their emotional and psychological inhibitions is phenomenal. It's no surprise that writing is often used as a form of therapy, similar to art and music; it reflects, as do these other media, and in doing so it externalizes pieces of ourselves we don't often share except in the most intimate conversation. As we stare into the mirror--or rather, stare at the completed page or the painting, or listen to the song--we come to see ourselves for who we really are. We then use that reflection to change ourselves (hopefully, for the better).

Camille Armstrong, a 10th grader, said the workshop had provided an opportunity to explore her voice as an author. In an essay titled ''Inside Me,'' she said, ''Inside me is a yearning, a hunger for knowledge and wealth, inside me holds pain, my dignity and my strength.''

''My pen is my power,'' Camille said in an interview. ''I write about love, about feelings inside of me, sometimes about things in the news. When there are things in my community that I don't like, writing is a way of letting it out and helping me control my anger.'' (Saslow)

Of course, not everyone is so self-conscious. Just as there are people who don't worry too much about their appearance (and thus don't spend much time in front of mirrors), there are people who are just fine talking about complex or personal issues. These, I would imagine, are the same people who would rather respond to a topic with a speech than with a written essay.

''We found a way of expressing ourselves through writing,'' said Rachel, one of proponents. ''But other people prefer to talk, and now we want to work together and help other kids.'' (Saslow)

Which kind of person are you?

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They use writing as a form of therapy because of how it enriches their life and helps them achieve self-actualization.

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