I’ve written often about what I take to be the deeply performative nature of writing: from the collaborative performances associated with much workplace writing; through the years of the Stanford Study of Writing, from what my students called “performing for a grade" to a full-blown, three-hour Hip-Hopera written, choreographed, directed, and performed by a student in her senior year; to these students’ insistence that good writing always involved a performance, an act of “making something happen in the world.”
My grandniece Audrey agrees. An eighth grader in public school, she has been getting assignments that invite her to think of her writing as embodied and performed. Most recently, while studying about the American Civil War, her history teacher asked students to imagine a person alive at the time of the war, to place that person in a specific time and place, and to create a day-by-day diary or journal that person might have kept. This assignment captured Audrey’s imagination, and she thought hard about it for days, trying out several possible diarists before she eventually came up with Jane Puckett, who lived from 1836-1866. She traced Jane’s family tree back several generations and showed how the families included soldiers fighting on both sides of the civil war.
As I read and viewed this lengthy journal, I was struck by how Audrey helped bring Jane to life through her diary, using reported speech and dialogue along with vivid descriptions and illustrations, and also how she performed her understanding of the complexities of the war and the fateful and often fatal choices people had to make during that time.
The imaginative journey this assignment invoked involved trying to step into the past and embody someone else’s experiences, speaking and writing without anachronisms (not always successfully!). Audrey was acutely aware of the challenges she faced: “He’s the hardest teacher in the whole school; I’ll be lucky to get a C.” But she persevered, choosing a free handwriting font to type up the entire diary on 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper cut in half and using tea to give the look of an old, slightly stained manuscript. Then she bound the pages, including illustrations, in leather covers tied with a leather cord. All in all, a pretty impressive performance, I thought.
As this example suggests, young writers today have a strong sense of the performative qualities of writing, one that didn’t seem available to me when I was a middle schooler. At any rate, I am very happy to see that next year’s CCCCs meeting will focus on the theme of Performance-Rhetoric, Performance-Composition. You can also see some scholars speaking to this theme in a video, where one person quotes August Wilson as saying “Performance is embodied knowledge.”
I hope to attend next year’s meeting, where I expect to both deepen and expand my understanding of what it means to perform rhetoric and composition. In the meantime, I plan to ask Audrey to talk more with me about how she and her 8th grade classmates think about such acts.