Wednesday, July 06, 2011

C.S. Lewis and Process Theory

by CWK

Many of the attributes of process centered writing are prevalent in other writers from other ages. I will argue that C.S. Lewis is, in his own way, a proponent of process writing. I believe Lewis can be a faithful guide in how we implement process theory on a practical level.
            I would suggest C.S. Lewis as a mentor in this field because one of the hallmarks of Process-centered writing is, “It stresses the principle that writing teachers should be people who write.”[1] C.S. Lewis is thus imminently qualified. He was first and foremost a writer, publishing everything from science fiction to children’s stories. However, he never, to my knowledge, wrote as much as an article advising others how to write. This does not mean, however, that his thoughts on the subject are forever lost. He gave informal advice on writing from time to time in many places, most prominently in letters and interviews. In this advice we find a treasury of wisdom. His advice is acceptable for the process proponent because it comes from one who was a writer, and taught writing as an overflow of his own ‘lust’ for the written word (that is his term, not mine).[2] We may also find some insight into Lewis’ wisdom through some of his former students, to whom he taught writing.
            Process writing is “rhetorically based: audience, purpose, and occasion figure prominently in the assignment of writing tasks.” In order to achieve an understanding of our audience Lewis suggests that we become students of the audience:

“…we must not decide a priori what other people mean by English words any more than what Frenchmen mean by French words. We must be wholly empirical. We must listen and note and memorize. And of course we must set aside every trace of snobbery or pedantry about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ usages. Now this is, I feel, very hum-drum and work-a-day. When one wants to discuss the problem of communication…it is chilling to be told that the first step is simply linguistic in the crudest sense.”[3]
            Lewis’ advice here may seem simple, but it is the necessary first step of communication: we must find out how our audience uses words. We must be students of those to whom we write if we wish to be understood.
            Lewis takes this issue of being audience centered to another level. He relates the development of a writer’s style to the audience in a striking way:

            “The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that. The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him. I something think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the readers will most certainlty go into it.”[4] Elsewhere Lewis phrases this advice differently, “Always try to use language so as to make quite clear what you mean, and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.”[5]

            Lewis argues that there is a connection between style and clarity, and what a breath of fresh air this is for the freshman comp student who is eager to develop her own style! One can become overwhelmed with the pressures of “being yourself as a writer.” I think the emphasis is all in the wrong place in such an approach. ‘Process’ rightly focuses on developing the student, on the becoming of the piece. However, what is it that the piece is becoming? Hopefully, it is becoming more clear. To impart this to a student simplifies the process of writing, while enabling ‘style’ to develop naturally. One of the problems of the traditional paradigm is that “it neglects invention almost entirely, and that it makes style the most important element in writing.”[6] If we focus instead on clarity we enable the student to express his ideas, withough neglecting the development of style.
            Process theory also emphasizes that writing is holistic. It views writings as an activity that involves the “intuitive and nonrational.”[7]

Lewis once commented:

 “I would not know how to advise a man how to write. It is a matter of talent and interest. I believe he must be strongly moved if he is to become a writer. Writing is like a ‘lust,’ or like ‘scratching when you itch.’Writing comes as a result of a very strong impulse, and when it comes, I for one must get it out.”[8]

            This is where we are most liable to fail students in the academy. We can teach them how to write but never inspire them to write. They will not write, and will not love writing, unless they have to write; an inner fire must drive them to write. How do we develop this “strong impulse,” this “lust” for writing? I don’t know, but I think the Process approach is right in drawing our attention to the heart (ie. the nonrational element) of the writer. Unless his or her heart beats fervently about something we will never see interest develop.
            Last of all, we look to the suggestion that writing as process means seeing writing as an act of learning: “writing is a way of learning and developing as well as a communication skill.”[9] Fundamentally, this means that writing is a way for us to think. Bacon once said, “writing maketh a man exact.” Writing forces you to be specific with your ideas, and to carry them out to what Lewis has called the “ruddy end.” I would suggest, however, that we must reconcieve the evaluating of writing if we are to implement this assertion that writing helps us think.
            Lewis provides an exemplar of how to use writing as a means to learn. One of Lewis’ students, George Bailey, has reflected on his interactions with Lewis as his tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford.[10] Lewis’ approach to teaching writing was no different than any other tutor at Oxford, but the approach is foreign to us:

“The Oxford and Cambridge tutorial system is based, as it were, on the direct confrontation of tutor and udnergraduate. The form of the system is simple: one essay a week on a set topic, which is read aloud bu the undergraduate to the tutor during an hour long tutorial. Ordinarily the reading of the essary takes up the first fifteen minutes of the hour. In the remaining time, the tutor attacks the essay’s argument or lack of one, and the undergraduate does his best to defend his work…the most important point about the tutorial system in general and Lewis’ use of it in particular is that ‘what you say’ is wither ‘well said’ or not. For the essay is always read aloud…The most important thing about having to write an essay aloud I sthat it forces the undergraduate to write for reading aloud. Because he himself has to do the reading aloud, he soon becomes aware that he must mke punctuational allowances for breathing pauses, which is perhaps the best way (because it is the most rudimentary way) to come to an understanding of sentence structure.”[11]

            Hairston objects that one of the basic problems with the traditional approach is that it assumes, “teaching editing is teaching writing.”[12] The Oxford system described above helps us to alleviate some of the burden of editing from the teacher. The student who has to read essays aloud will be forced to come to an understanding of sentence structure. If students were placed in a position where the clarity of their essay would be palpably clear (ie. reading it to their prof) then they would be forced to develop greater facility of expression. There are many other advantages to this approach to teaching writing, but the greatest is that it uses writing to teach students to think. I will explain.
            In this system the student views their writing not as a finished product, but as an attempt at an argument that must be defended. The final work is not the essay, but the defense of the ideas in the essay. In this way, writing is learning, and a vital part of developing the student’s ability to defend an argument. I am saying a very simple thing here. If a student had to meet with a Professor and defend the thesis of an essay they would be forced to think out their arguments, and have the advantage of a “devil’s advocate.” All I am really arguing for is more personal instruction: more interaction of Professor and student over ideas. I have a feeling that proponents of ‘Process’ theory would appreciate the way that Lewis teaches writing.
            I have argued in this essay that C.S. Lewis forms an admirable model for ‘Process theorists.’ His experience as a writer qualifies him, and his advice is practical and helpful as a way forward. It helps us answer the question: “How do we implement process-centered writing?” Furthermore, we can learn form Lewis’ context at Oxford. It may be the reason that  his advice is so relevant to a process approach; the tutorial system may indeed be the most helpful paradigm for the process approach.

[1] Maxine Hairston, “The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing,” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Feb 1982): 86.
[2] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper  (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970): 271.
[3] Ibid, 255.
[4] Hooper, 264.
[5] C.S. Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. W.H. Lewis (NY: Geofrey Bles: 1966): 271.
[6] Hairston, 78.
[7] Ibid, 86.
[8] Hooper, 258.
[9] Hairston, 86.
[10] Ed. Carolyn Keefe, C.S. Lewis: Speaker and Teacher (USA, Zondervan: 1971): 106-122.
[11] Ibid, 107-109.
[12] Hairston, 78.

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