Redefining Writing and Reading

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I’ve always been a fan of NPR, and of Scott Simon’s Weekend Edition, but I haven’t usually had time to just sit and listen attentively to it. In this time of sheltering in place and social distancing, however—and on a cold, bleak, and rainy Saturday—I tuned in and followed the entire program. As usual, it was full of stories that intrigued and sometimes alarmed me, like one about the scarcity of clean water on the Navajo nation or one about a group promoting dark humor as a response to the coronavirus. But the day’s show also featured interviews with three authors: Terry McMillan, Julia Alvarez, and C. Pam Zhang. Now I have three new books on my “must read” list: McMillan’s It’s Not All Downhill from Here, Alvarez’s Afterlife, and Zhang’s How Much of these Hills is Gold. So I am ordering these books from my local independent bookstore, which is closed now but fulfilling online orders, and I hope to write about them in future posts. Today, though, I wanted to share parts of the Zhang and Alvarez interviews, which especially captivated me by calling for expanded or re-definitions of writing and reading.


I’ve written in the past about the difficulties of defining writing—and ended up with such a convoluted definition that I had to laugh out loud. I haven’t written for publication about defining reading, but I have thought for a long time about the word’s derivations and its relationship to closely related words that originally meant “to advise.”


So I like thinking about how we define these two words that are so central to the work that we do, and I was fascinated to hear two novelists suggesting expanded ways of thinking about and/or defining writing and reading. Scott Simon asked if Zhang was currently writing and Zhang first responded that she was not, but then went on to expand:

I think we have to expand our definition of writing. I’ve taken to saying in recent years that walking is writing. Crying is writing. Talking to your friend is writing. All these experiences help you give shape to what you’re thinking about the world, and that will come back to the page eventually, even if you’re not able to form words right now.

I like this expanded view of writing, which certainly fits with my own experience. And doesn’t it seem that such a definition would be reassuring to struggling writers or to multilingual writers trying to coax words in unfamiliar languages? I can imagine students making a list of all the activities they would include in their own definitions of “writing.” I bet cooking would be on those lists. And biking and running and so much more—all activities that free up thinking and lead to writing. So thank you, C. Pam Zhang!


Later in the show, Simon spoke with Julia Alvarez about her new book, which she says is her first written as an “elder.” I’ve had the pleasure of sitting with Alvarez in Vermont and listening to her talk about her commitment to students, to teachers, and to learning, so I leaned in especially close to this interview. Toward the end, she and Simon started talking about the current pandemic and the way it has utterly changed our everyday lives—social distancing; sheltering in place; staying home, often alone—and about reading during this time of forced isolation. Alvarez paused and then said,

It’s always been something that reading is about, you know? It’s about being together apart. I’ve thought a lot about that, because that phrase has been bandied about, and I thought, well, now that’s a definition of reading.

What a wonderful way to expand our understanding and definition of reading: being together, apart. Perhaps that’s why reading—and writing—are such a comfort to me during this time of national crisis, because they allow me to feel closely connected to others even though I am very much alone, apart. Thank you, Julia Alvarez.


And thanks to every teacher out there who is using writing and reading to connect to students and who is reaching out to assure them that their teachers are there—even when we are apart.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 690584 by Free-Photos, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.