A Review of Bad Ideas About Writing, Edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe

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Chapter 2: Bad Ideas About Who Good Writers Are. Review by Jonathan Brownlee

There has long been a stable yet nefarious mythology surrounding what it means to be a “good writer.” Myths of the good writer often involve social hierarchies, cultural presuppositions and prejudices—what Michel Foucault referred to as institutions of power (Honderich, 2005, p. 301), and the like. Whenever pen is pressed to paper, or these days, fingers are pressed to computer keys, good writer mythology is at play. In the chapter “Bad Ideas About Who Good Writers Are,” several scholars took up the task of debunking, detangling, and deconstructing some of the good writer myths. Such a task is virtuous and necessary, but the results of the task are consistently opposed by a wider world which still believes most of the myths to be true; "Some people are in fact good writers, right?" they say. But before the clash between myth and reality can be settled, the foundational structure which props up the popular myths must be laid bare.

The first myth dealt with in the chapter is that of “author-as-wand-waver.” As Teri Holbrook and Melanie Hundley put it, the author-as-wand-waver myth consists of the idea that authors are “like fairies who wave their wands and stories get created” (p. 64) without the condition of or need for hard work. In their section, the two authors gave several examples of how this myth gets manifested in pop culture: through movies, books, and public interviews with authors who are so well-groomed and stress-free that the myth perpetuates. The myth that to be a good writer one is (or needs to be) a genius, which Dustin Edwards and Enrique Paz deal with in the essay “Only Geniuses Can be Writers,” rests on the flip side of the author-as-wand-waving coin. Namely, people often believe that authors effortlessly, though with tortured souls, wield their wands of writerly brilliance because of their inherent (and/or inherited) genius alone (p. 64). To many people, genius is “natural” and unexplainable, a gift bestowed upon the writer without request or consent. The genius myth is also closely tied with the myth that some people are just born good writers, which Jill Parrott’s section took up (p.71). These three myths combine to form something of an intellectual and cultural narrative about who good writers are.

The author-as-wand-waver/genius/born-with-it myths might have the most implicitly sinister cultural presuppositions and prejudices attached to them. At first glance, they may not appear to favor any cultural category, but due to the stereotypical historical portrait in many-a-history book of the bespectacled writer in his lavish study, many people have subconsciously come to infer who good writers are and what they typically look like. (How many people of color do you know who the American populous commonly refers to or honors as a wand-wielding genius of intellectual writings? Are there many?) Such myths are not often scrutinized by our society writ large as they were in “Bad Ideas about Who Good Writers Are” but they are often internalized by students and aspiring writers.

However, three chapters—“There is One Correct Way of Writing and Speaking” by Anjali Pattanayak, “African American Language is Not Good English” by Jennifer M. Cunningham, and “Official American English is Best” by Steven Alvarez—spoke more explicitly about the overtly prejudicial and culturally enmeshed myths which surround good writers. As Pattanayak put it, “While the idea of arguing whether there is one correct way of communicating or whether writing is culturally situated might seem to be a pedantic exercise, the reality is that espousing the ideology that there is one correct way to speak and write disenfranchises many populations who are already denigrated by society” (p. 82). Myths about the primacy of certain discourses and discourse communities form narratives which impact teachers, scholars, and students alike. A student might wonder, “If I do not fit the cultural traits of a good writer, can I really be a good writer?” and this piece appears to be meant to help students and their teachers navigate this complicated terrain.

The author-as-wand-waver/genius/born-with-it myths might have the most implicitly sinister cultural presuppositions and prejudices attached to them.

Rounding out the chapter are “You Need My Credentials to be a Writer” by Ronald Clark Brooks, Allison D. Carr’s “Failure is not an Option,” Geoffrey V. Carter’s “Writer’s Block Just Happens to People,” Laura Giovanelli’s “Strong Writings and Writers Don’t Need Revision,” and “The More Writing Process the Better” by Jimmy Butts. Each of these essays, though dealing with less nefarious presuppositions than those mentioned previously, rounded out the mythological narrative which often leads students, and individuals who write in general, to feel dispassionate, unconfident, and anxious; sometimes these myths lead people to feel outright fearful of writing. Each section in the chapter is worth reading multiple times, and each lens used uncovers an important element of the myths’ constitution; however, what do we realistically do about the teachers outside of rhetoric and composition and the employers who still believe the “good writer” myths? How do we prepare our students for that reality? This is the foundation upon which the myth is built, the reason good scholars continue to try to unravel the myth: important people, people with power, still believe these myths. Several of the authors in the section offered concrete solutions to a few of the myths. For example, Holbrook and Hundley suggested that we can undo the myth of author as special being by analyzing “common themes circulating about writers and then strategize ways to combat them” (p. 58), yet more can be said in this chapter about how myths can be dissolved. What scholars and teachers do about these hard issues will determine how long the myth survives.