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Writing as performance

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In contributing to Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s Naming What We Know: Threshhold Concepts of Writing Studies, I tried my hand at discussing the performative nature of writing:

I have been thinking about this “threshold concept” recently as I re-read some of Peter Elbow’s work on voice (his edited Landmark Essays on Voice​ and Writing) is another very rich source for thinking through this difficult and often problematic concept. Elbow is an eloquent proponent of voice in writing, arguing that its attention to voice can help students improve their writing and actually enjoy their writing; moreover, voice in writing helps captivate and guide readers.

I don’t want to join the debate for or against “voice,” partly because Elbow has already tracked that debate pretty thoroughly. Instead, I’ve been thinking about whether describing writing as “performative” might get at some of the same qualities Elbow and others extol in good writing.  A few years ago, a student challenged my claim that writing was performative:  “I don’t see how you can say that. The writing I do in college doesn’t perform anything.  It’s just lifeless prose I turn in because it’s assigned.”  This student later decided to spend a term exploring the claim, and we spent ten weeks debating and looking at examples of writing he felt was “like a performance, like doing something.”  Many of the examples he brought in to discuss came from speeches, particularly those by Martin Luther King.  These speeches seemed to him clearly to be performances – to be performative. 

So then I challenged him to figure out, concretely, what that meant.  By the next week, he had a list of characteristics he said helped to make a text performative, “and it didn’t take rocket science,” he said, “to figure it out.” At the top of the list of features was rhythm, followed by repetition (and even rhyme).  Vivid images, strong active verbs, concrete, specific nouns, metaphor and other figures of speech, and direct address followed in quick succession.  These are some of the elements that make a text come alive, that make it “speak.” Now I’m wondering whether the individual choices writers/speakers make in deploying these elements can account for a good portion of what we think of as “voice” in writing.  My guess is that the two are strongly connected—and I plan to follow up with some students this summer to push a little further into this exploration. 

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.