Peter Elbow’s 1973 Writing Without Teachers

WWT, and everything else of Elbow’s I’ve read, is obsessed with the idea that nurturing invention through constant practice with active but nonjudgmental feedback will lead to more effective communication. Style, structure, grammar, any kind of formalism is swept aside by waves and waves of freewriting, drafting, and any exercises or classroom stances that promote germination. The expected metaphors of cooking, boiling, seed-planting, etc are all in constant evidence. The teacher is a coach, encouraging rather than evaluating, and gaining skill in writing is a difficult, slow, individualized, and organic process that is only hampered by various kinds of institutionalized meddling.

This is all communicated through Elbow’s characteristically plain and accessible style, which makes him easy to understand – and to underestimate. He cites cognitive studies here and there, but all in all, he seems to prefer sticking to practical pedagogy, with his chief tools being lore, experience, and gut feelings. From reading some of his other essays, at this point he probably thought of himself more as a teacher of literature than composition, but from this book alone, he seems firmly the latter. And he has what, I suppose, is probably better than anything for a teacher – he seems to actually want to help people write. He oozes thoughtfulness. Everything in the book is aimed directly at the goal of helping writing along with the focus of a laser beam. There aren’t that many books out there that are just about composition and nothing else – this is one of them (save, tangentially, for the appendix).

The form-bashing got to me after awhile, though. It’s just not an either-or distinction, as form and content spin around each other, but Elbow seems bent sometimes on making models for discourse irrelevant, which is odd, as modeling is as old as the hills in terms of inventive techniques. But I doubt I’m reading him right.

His appendix on doubting and believing tanked with me early on when he quoted Tertullian; there are better minds on finding truth. As for the pairing, I’ve known it for some time as ‘reading against’ and ‘reading with’ a text. My copy of the book is the 1998 edition; in the new introduction he makes a call for other scholars to finally get around to critiquing his D&B notions – with believing fostering more invention than doubting. There seems to be such a reply in a 2002 issue of RR, and a back-and-forth with Booth in 2005 in CE, but those will have to wait until tomorrow (or today, as it is 2:29 am) when the library is open.

Without having looked at them yet, I anticipate that Elbow gets his ‘believing’ notion from the general literary trend of the last hundred years or so that considers the benefits of readmitting faith to our scientifically-bound world. All the postmodern writers end up pointing to faith in some truth or God as the only reasonable (cough) way to live.

In my crash course of readings in the last two months, I’ve come to see writing and rhetoric as very closely linked to philosophy. What and how we write is bound up in how we make knowledge, how we perceive the world and our existence; the debate over teaching writing is often quickly reducible to a war of symbiotic epistemologies. And there are more possible positions than the four that Jasper Neel presents – indeed, there are as many positions as there are teachers. What makes Elbow compelling despite his deceptively simple presentation is that he not only understands but directly addresses these matters; what frustrates me is that he seems to think there are only two stances for reading a text, two all-or-nothing propositions, as if reading is a silent adaptation of Twelve Angry Men done with email.

When I read a text, I believe in some things and scoff at others, and I can simultaneously hold neutrality, cautious optimism, or bleak skepticism for yet other concepts; and when someone asks me what I thought of a text, they will get a vastly simplified summary of a morass of often logically conflicting opinions. What I think is not always what I can state at any given moment. I am not believing or doubting; I am floating in an endless expanse of positions. I told someone a few weeks ago that my idea of what teaching is changes every fifteen minutes.

I don’t like his assertion that juries are forced to play the believing game, either. A juror may not be allowed to ask questions, but there’s a boatload of doubting to be done in a jury trial – and once deliberations begin, the testimony of all witnesses and evidence is far from being treated equally. Most importantly, though, often the best result of a jury trial is not consensus, but a hung jury or a mistrial. I still smart at being picked as an alternate once at a week-long trial where, if I had been left on the jury, it would have either have hung or made another decision. I think Elbow has left principled indecision, a neutral skepticism, out of his mix, at the very least.

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