Saturday, October 26, 2013

Writing through a Loss of Voice

A number of posts from Jenny Mackness, Bon Stewart, and Paul Prinsloo caught my attention this week. All three deal with loss of their individual blogging voices. By accident, I read them in reverse-order, but the series was started by Prinsloo, self-described as "an education consultant and researcher at the University of South Africa (Unisa), an African mega open distance learning (ODL) higher education institution." As was the case with Bon Stewart, Prinsloo was a new voice for me, so it was somewhat ironic that I found his voice as he was losing it.

In his post Being tongue-tied and speechless in higher education: implications for notions of (il)literacy #metaliteracy, Prinsloo eloquently describes his precipitous loss of voice, so that after an extended period of prolific blogging, "Suddenly I have become illiterate (a point to which I will return later), in a world I did not understand anymore." He looks for reasons for his aphasia (problems with any or all of the following: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.), but "there is nothing specific that comes to mind. Not only do I suspect that there are many possible reasons, but the reasons are also interconnected, interdependent and layered." He concludes his fine post by wondering if many our students are also "tongue-tied and speechless, but not illiterate?"

Through a happy Twitter-enabled chance, Stewart picked up on Prisloo's post, and it resonated with her. She, too, had fallen away from blogging, sensing a loss of voice, and as had Prinsloo, she looked for explanations: "My silence hasn’t been mainly personal, though: rather, it stems from same uncertainty of speech writ large and broad; a pervasive, sinking sense of not knowing the contexts into which I speak and write and share my ideas."

Mackness suggests in her sympathetic reading of Stewart that perhaps she is frozen by a sense of conscious incompetence, or a sense that one is unable to perform competently in some arena. This was actually the first post of the series that I read, and I was intrigued enough to follow the discussion back through Stewart to Prinsloo. I am interested in this loss of voice as I have experienced it myself and in my students. I teach writing, and the "tongue-tied and speechless, but not illiterate" condition that Prinsloo describes is familiar. In a follow-up post, Mackness recommends advice from Jack Kerouac and Stephen Downes to keep moving forward, keep the fingers moving, and almost by magic the ideas will start moving again. The written voice will emerge from the moving fingers. Perhaps. I do use free-writing exercises with my students, but I can't say that they always work.

Several things occur to me about this exchange. First, all of these people are accomplished, polished writers. If they can suffer a loss of voice, then I can understand even better that my students who are not polished writers can also suffer a loss of voice, or not become confident enough to develop a voice in the first place. Public writing of most any kind means putting oneself out there. It means exposing oneself to possible ridicule and attack, embarassment and injury. This can be most threatening to beginning writers who have not become competent with language, but it can also be threatening to experienced writers who find themselves in a conversation about which they know relatively little or in a conversation with others who have much more power than they do. I do NOT think this is the case with these blog writers, but it is definitely the case with most of my students. Not only are they unsure of their command of written English, but in school they are forced to write to advanced experts, their teachers, about topics, the teachers' topics, that the students have not yet mastered. This is an awful situation, and probably the only sane thing to do is to plagiarize some expert just as we all once plagiarized our parents' political and social views in grade school.

But as I said, I don't think these writers are suffering from a sense of conscious incompetence. They know they can write, and they know that they have some useful knowledge to share. They also know that in any given conversation, they may encounter someone more knowledgeable or more mellifluous. In this case, silence is the intelligent response, or at most, some probing questions. I studied with Isaac Bashevis Singer at the University of Miami, and it was clear from our first meeting that I would never know as much about writing as he nor would I ever be able to say what I did know as well as he. So mostly I was quiet, save when I had an intelligent question. Singer was kind enough to treat all my questions as intelligent. I'm currently reading Michel Serres, and again, I'm mostly silent, making few pronouncements about the text, mostly asking questions. Serres knows more than I do about his issues, and he says it better. We have all been annoyed by those who were too bold and too dense to know when to be quiet.

But again, I don't think these writers are cowering before the collected brilliance and insight of the Internet. They are all experienced net writers, and they know that everyone is always more brilliant than anyone (e.e. cummings would be most proud), but they also know that it takes the voices of all the anyones to make up the voice of everyone. I think that their loss of voice stems from other causes.

I think that they may be overlooking fatigue. Sometimes, I'm just too damned tired to talk. Stewart notes that she is currently in a doctoral program, and like the rest of us, she likely has a range of other social, familial, and employment obligations that each take up half of her time. The trouble is, of course, that the Net is never too damned tired to talk. It is incessant, and no one can keep up with it. Burnout is real for me, so I think it might be real for them, and sometimes, the only intelligent response to burnout is silence.

But I think that Stewart points at a more potent reason for loss of voice when she says that she has "a pervasive, sinking sense of not knowing the contexts into which I speak and write and share my ideas. … Over the last year – particularly the more I followed and unpacked the hype cycle of MOOCs – the more I felt like I no longer recognize the story of education as it gets told. Or enacted in policy and curriculum design. Or reported in the news. I have been silent because I no longer felt like I knew how to talk about any of it." I think Stewart is spot on here. She has not moved; rather, the conversation has moved, and she's no longer certain that she wants to be part of it. It's as if she were singing in a choir that suddenly and unexpectedly shifts keys to C and she's still singing in B. As would any intelligent, sensitive person, she quits singing until she can reorient herself, and she doesn't rejoin the singing until she decides that the key of C works for her.

I, too, joined early the conversation about MOOCs, mostly because I found MOOCs so engaging and inspiring, but also like Stewart, I lately find the conversation shifting to a different key, one not suited to my vocal range. I may write a post about that shift, now that Stewart has pointed to it, but I'm not sure that I have the interest to think about it. More likely, I will continue to think about MOOCs in ways that make sense to me, and trust that enough others will engage in that conversation. If they don't, then I will eventually quit talking about MOOCs, I suppose.

I think this shift in conversation is familiar to most of us, certainly in our social contexts. I think we've all been in a good conversation at a party or other gathering when the conversation shifts gears and becomes less interesting to us. Maybe new people join the conversation, and all of a sudden, the tone changes. It's time to get a drink or go to the john.

It's unfortunate that this shift in conversation can have such an adverse affect on the best of writers. The change in a conversation can make us feel as if our loss of voice is somehow our fault—after all, lots of other people still seem to have lots to talk about in this conversation—but I don't think it is our fault. Rather, our silence is a reasonable response to the new conversation that has emerged. The key response to such a situation is to disengage in silence (shouting usually does no good), and find or create another conversation. Engaged and sensitive writers such as Prinsloo, Stewart, and Mackness will always find an engaged and sensitive audience, I think.

Finally, I want to point out that all of these writers were able to write through their loss of voice, despite their loss of voice. It illustrates the advice I give my students when they say they have nothing to say: I tell them to write just that and to keep writing it until they write something else. Writing about not writing is a great way to kickstart your writing and find your voice. I have a bit of respect for silence. The long, slow writing that Mackness refers to can include long, slow stretches of silence. At least for me, and I'm good with that.
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