Review: Writing as a Way of Being
Abstract illustration, multicolor flowers with green stems: Talitha May 2014

An ontology of writing allows us to see that the experience of writing has an effect on the writer exclusive of the use of the writer’s text, which is not insignificant but remains subsequent to the act of writing; an ontology of writing enables us to examine that effect instead of focusing only on the text and its impact on a reader, as mainstream writing instruction does. (Yagelski, 2011, p. 107)


In chapter 4, “Writing as a Way of Being,” Robert Yagelski (2011) adopted a phenomenological approach to explain his ontological theory of writing. Not only did he examine his personal account of the experience of the moment of writing, but others’ touching accounts as well. Although the chapter relied on many unquestioned phenomenological assumptions, Yagelski raised a compelling argument for the transformative possibilities of writing.

Yagelski (2011) explained that his theory is based upon the phenomenological position that Barbara Couture (1998) expressed: “all essences or truth are located in the subjective experience” (p. 64). Even though Yagelski (2011) claimed that he does “not know what ‘the truth’ is,” he argued, “contemporary rhetorical theory and mainstream writing do not lead toward it” (p. 99). This statement is problematic because the phenomenological subject seems to be on a quest for an external “truth.” Considered alternatively, perhaps the “it” pointed to knowledge as the reciprocal relationship between self and world. In a sense, Yagelski’s using phenomenology to collapse the Cartesian “dualistic distinction between the world as it exists and the world as we interpret it” (p. 115). For Yagelski, the act of writing demonstrates the unified and reciprocal relationship between the self and the world.

Yagelski (2011) articulated a theory about the act of writing at the moment of writing. Through a personal account of a moment in his writing he explained, “I am at this moment thoroughly engrossed in this task of writing such that it becomes almost synonymous with my consciousness at this moment and profoundly shapes my awareness of myself as my self, a self existing both separate from and part of what is around me, both physically and metaphorically (p. 103). He explained that the act of writing focused “his awareness more deliberately” on his self and his context rather than if he would have relied on memory alone (p. 105). What differentiates this self-awareness from other moments is “the role of written language” (p. 112). In a characteristic personal, Whitmanesque, and ontological turn, Yagelski collapsed the divisions between himself as a writer and his readers along with temporal distinctions when he said, “yet at this moment, as I am writing, they [readers] are present. And I am present in the same moment. And so are you, whoever you are” (p. 105).

In addition to articulating interconnectedness, Yagelski (2011) maintained our sense of being is always contextual. He argued, for instance, “an act of writing is always an act of being, but the experience of being-in-the world at the moment of writing will be shaped by the context within which the writer engages in that act” (p. 125). Even though he does not explicitly reference Heidegger, Yagelski’s argument pointed to Heidegger’s notion of “being-in-the-world,” which essentially means we are always involved in a context. Heidegger (1962) even references the world itself as consisting of “referential totalities” (p. 125).

Although the phenomenological assumptions of this chapter are not unpacked, the most compelling ontological point about writing rests with what effects writing has on the writer exclusive of a text. Rather than focus on the writer’s writing, Yagelski (2011) asked, “what if we focus our attention on the experience of writing rather than on the text as a product of that experience?” (p. 107). Put more succinctly, “an ontology of writing enables us to examine that effect instead of focusing only on the text and its impact as a reader, as mainstream writing does” (Yagelski, 2011, p. 107).

Just recently, one of my composition students explained the transformative possibilities of writing that an ontological theory of writing can bring. It was through the act of writing his literacy narrative that he was able to focus his awareness of himself and his context more deliberately. The student had suffered brain damage and had amnesia for nearly a year. He explained that many of his memories were either “fuzzy or nonexistent”; however, it was through the act of writing that he began to remember his past. When reflecting upon the act of writing, he explained details became more vivid and he “felt like [he could] see what [he] writing about” (Student, personal communication, 2014). In many ways, this student’s act of writing enacted “the deeper relationship between our consciousness and the world around us” (Yagelski, 2011, 115). Rather than focus on the product of writing, what would happen if compositionists redirected focus to the act of writing? How would this shape mainstream pedagogy?