From the writer: This is a tall tale I produced to fill the first assignment for this class. I had to make it false, yet convincing, and the entire class would read this. Twelve pairs of eyes would be judging me, and I felt as thought I had to entertain them. I essentially gave up trying to make the story convincing and began concentrating on humor. If I could keep them from taking it too seriously, maybe they wouldn't be over critical. I didn't know anything about anyone's writing ability, only that I was probably the only freshman in the class and didn't want to be discovered because of my writing.
From the teacher: After reading William Bryant Logan's book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth a collection of essays that all took up, in widely varying ways, the central subject of "dirt," my WRT 209 for the spring of 1996 proceeded to write chapters toward their own book of essays, centered on a thing or concept of their own choosing. Heather's interest in film led her to choose "dialogue" as her central concern. Students tried to see what experts in a wide range of fields had to say about their topics (in addition to doing other forms of research--how can I forget Heather playing for me a tape of dialogue secretly recorded in the women's room on her floor?). In the research phase, the course emphasized an awareness of the rhetorical settings of the research sources and the transformation necessary to uproot "knowledge" from one context and plant it in another. When it came time to do the book, the writing challenge for the students was to join together in one text different forms of research and their own experience to support some thoughtful essay on a subject in the tradition of Montaigne.
Quote to be centered on the very first page of my book:
"Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries."
"People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged be a reality that they cannot articulate. What joins all languages, and all men, is the necessity to confront life, in order, not inconceivably, to outwit death: The price for this is the acceptance and achievement, of one's temporal identity."
--James Baldwin, playwright and novelist
And now, ladies and gentleman, my opening chapter:
The Name Game
My dad has this old Bill Cosby record that he used to listen to in the age of record players (now he's got the very same in CD version). It was a comedy routine in which Cosby describes his childhood. He reminisces in particular about how he could tell when he was in trouble. His father would say something to the effect of "GODDAMIT, GET OVER HERE!", and then Cosby throws out the punch line of the story: Up until he was about ten years old, he thought his name was "GODDAMIT."
I never had to be addressed as GODDAMIT to know I was in trouble. In my father's voice, it was volume that usually revealed this information. When my eardrums hurt from hearing my name, my FULL name, HEATHER MEAGHAN BROWN, my dad didn't want any other poor children within earshot to think they were in trouble; however, he did intend for everyone within a five-mile radius to hear that I was in for it. When my mother had to call out my name in order to reprimand me, even if it was in private, she had to pretend we were in church or something. Her voice became very low pitched, almost a whisper, and then came the recitation of the three lovely words with which I had been baptized, HEATHER MEAGHAN BROWN. Though she nearly whispered, there was nothing serene or endearing in her tone of voice when scolding me. It didn't matter what she said . . . "I love you very much" could be thrown from her mouth like a dagger when she used that tone of voice. There is a point in communication where words are of no consequence in bringing across a particular message. Sometimes, what is said is irrelevant, and how it is said singularly brings across this message. It all depends on diction.
Aristotle was the first to coin the term "diction" in his analysis of the making of art and other things in Poetics. Diction, Aristotle claimed (only I think he made this claim in Greek), clarifies language and alludes to a source of interest in a speaker's tone of voice. My mother's source of interest was, um, well . . . me. She wanted to make sure that I knew exactly where she was coming from and exactly what I was supposed to do about it. Diction conveys a verbal strategy. It is a way in which language is used as a weapon.
Certainly we are not always aware of using such battle tactics present in everyday conversation, yet we are constantly playing games in verbal communication. Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University (and someone who really ought to know) has conducted most of her research out in the field, actually eavesdropping on conversations, recording dialogue, in order to study the nature of discourse. Tannen's research is based on the idea that everyday verbal communication is made up of linguistic strategies that, while they are highly functional, occur spontaneously. These verbal strategies reflect interpersonal relationships as well as create them.
There are ground rules in conversation that are constantly evolving along with the personal relationship of the speakers. My father had a very different perspective on what was socially acceptable with regard to verbal admonishment compared to my mother, who regarded socially civility, privacy, and audience as determining factors in how she addressed her insolent child. My parents created two very unique environments of discipline, both of which were equally intimidating for me, as with either one, I was in an equal amount of trouble. These two distinct conversation environments had two distinct sets of rules, and thus created very particular conversational environments. While these rules cannot be fully accounted for nor comprehended completely, they are rooted in given circumstances such as age and gender, environment, background of the speaker, cultural context, and social obligation. The nature of the bond I have with my father, while equally as strong, is very different from the bond that has formed between my mother and me. This bond is rooted in the interpersonal involvement that has been the result of all of the dialogue that has taken place between my parents and me over the past nineteen years.
The environment created by each set of ground rules has tremendously helped my survival and advancement in this world. My parents, after all, were quintessential in shaping the way I address authority figures: it was my mother who showed me how to burst into tears on command, a technique especially effective in sticky situations such as traffic violations with pending fines, reducible to a warning on the presentation of a sufficient amount of sobbing uncontrollably--just kidding. Listening, interruption, interpretation, trust, and truth are among the many factors that appear in different amounts in everyday communication. Each has its own boundaries with regard to audience, social and cultural context, gender, age, and environment. Verbal communication is an art form as well as a necessity, used to lead, learn, persuade, identify, understand, harass, flatter, deceive, insult, glorify, and entertain. Language is an essential function of culture, without which the human experience would be vastly empty.
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