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CCCC 2006 in Review

A42 What Can the Mouth and the Ear Teach Us about Good Writing?

Peter Elbow, "Enlisting Two Kinds of Speaking for Writing"
T. R. Johnson "Play It by Ear"
Arthur Palacas "What Can the Mouth and Ear Tell Us about Grammar?"

Once the event staff realized the number of people trying to get into this session completely overwhelmed the original "Parlor," they moved the session into the Grand Ballroom. This created a sight that could easily be seen as metaphoric; hundreds of scholars and would-be scholars following Elbow down one hallway, up an escalator and eventually, into the cavernous ballroom, just as we have followed Elbow's insights down paths of creative pedagogy, up escalators of classroom success, into the huge sea of academic theory and praxis. Soon after we arrived, the metaphor continued. There was no microphone near the impromptu podium, thus Elbow had to speak in a loud voice which affected his ability to use intonation. Interestingly, intonation is a characteristic of speech he believes would make writing easier to understand—if we can find a way to bring the aural elements of pitch, speed and volume to the written word. We continued to follow Elbow as he led us through the twists and turns of his reasoning. He read a passage with no intonation, and it was difficult to understand the text. When he reread the same text with intonation and appropriate pauses, the content became much clearer. Elbow then reminded us that we refer to written intonation the in the phrases we use every day: Can you hear the meaning? Do the words sound right?

At this point in the session, a microphone was given to Elbow, and his speech shifted from a forced, sometimes difficult to hear and understand sound to a softer, deeper sounding voice that was much easier to understand. Again the metaphor became obvious, and as his tone shifted gears, so did his thought. He began to tell us that the key to shifting from a "speaking gear" that expresses our consciousness with spontaneous, less planned chunks of language, to a "writing gear" characterized by longer, unbroken sequences, can be found in the "unplanned glue" that connects short utterances generated by speech into longer strands found in written prose; Elbow calls this adhesive "spontax." In this method of writing, meaning is first constructed by "speaking to the page" and further developed by gluing spoken bits together, producing writing that is more easily understood by the reader, writing that has intonation; that sounds right. The writer must climb into the body, inhabit it, voice its reality and dimension, listen to her inner ear and put her body where the words are. Elbow reminded us that speaking is the easiest way to get thinking into words, and in the early stages, the writer must treat speech as writing, gluing together pieces of thought. Later, in the editing process, the writer must treat writing as speech, read aloud, tested by the ear for correctness.

Elbow sums up his thoughts in the program abstract. "While language is often too fragmented, digressive and informal for writing, nevertheless its directedness, clarity and audience awareness are often badly needed for writing." Near the end of his presentation he conceded the obvious, that this method does not clear up everything, but it produces writing that succeeds in communicating thoughts more directly than prose written with a conscious effort to create "correct" writing, one painful phrase at a time, in which little of the original thought survives. Once again we ducklings rejoiced in our good fortune to have Elbow lead us down the path of familiar experience, to an inspired interpretation of that which we already knew worked, but were unable to articulate.

— Toni Glover

CCCC ConventionFor more information on the CCCC 2006 conference,
visit the NCTE Web site at http://www.ncte.org/profdev/conv/cccc/.