Writing is informed by prior experience. “Obviously,” you’re probably thinking, and you wouldn’t be wrong to think it. That statement seems too easy to say, too undeniably true to even need to be said. But then, what are the underlying forces at work here?
It’s probably worth keeping in mind that the earliest forms of writing were pictorial, geared more toward conveying broad ideas than addressing issues with any specificity. Naturally, there had to have been a first system of writing that didn’t draw from any previous system. That makes it seem as though the initial assertion is wrong—but it’s not. Writing is always informed by prior experience, but it isn’t necessarily informed by prior writing experience. The nature of writing is to address “social situations and audiences organized in social groups,” which are the needs of a civilization, “through recognizable forms associated with those situations and social groups” (Bazerman 35). Early writing, then, was informed by the social climate that made it necessary. Egyptians needed more sophisticated ways of communication. As Captain Picard would say, they made it so; now when we see hieroglyphics, we automatically connect it to the identity of ancient Egyptian civilizations. Every use of writing and every development that followed was “shaped by the writer’s earlier interactions with writing and with other people and with all the writer has read and learned” (Lunsford 54).
Just like the earliest pictorial hieroglyphics evolved into cursive counterparts over time (equally intertwined with the culture of the times that produced them), modern languages undergo transformations that depend on the cultures that make those transformations. These changes are “sustained by a variety of factors, including religions, economic systems, cultural myths, languages, and systems of law and schooling” (Scott 48). Even though writing being informed by prior experience seems like a blatantly obvious statement, there are a number of factors at work that determine how the past informs the present. Just take a moment to think about your word choice across different kinds of writing.
Hearty welcome and cordial reception carry different connotations. The choice of lower-class Englishmen to use words derived from French and Latin as opposed to Germanic was informed by the histories and cultures surrounding those languages. In that sense, it becomes clear that the ways we communicate are also ideological “because discourses and instances of language use do not exist independently from cultures and their ideologies” (Scott 48). The differences in language, culture, and identity present themselves in the writing that those social groups produce.
Now that we’ve got all of that out of the way, how is any of that useful to a creative writer? Does someone writing genre fiction benefit from knowing and understanding this? Absolutely. In fact, I’d argue that it’s necessary. Even penning a harlequin romance requires that “writers come to develop and perform identities in relation to . . . values of the communities they engage with” (Roozen 50), in which case the writer has to know those values—they have to respond to the cultural framework that genre exists within and frame their work around their own experience with that genre. A horror writer enacts the genre when they “summon up the features” of horror works they have written before as well as works they have “learned about by reading and talking about the . . . genre,” and they do this with the understanding that strategies that work for one genre or task may not work well in a different genre (Lunsford 55). In that way, the author enacts the identity of “horror writer.”
However, just like the English language, genres are free to change over time, either despite or in spite of the conventions that define them. That’s one of the many joys of language. Its forms and uses are always in flux. All the implicit ideologies and cultural values tied to writing that we take for granted could very well mean something entirely different one hundred years from now.
We can even go one step further and look at writing on a personal level. As individuals, we each have certain quirks to our writing that someone familiar with us might be able to identify. You can think of that as the written form of an accent, or as a calling card. Even without seeing the name of the sender, you might be able to identify who sent you a text message by their use of punctuation, capitalization, emojis, abbreviations, etc. The same forces that determine how a language/writing system develops and evolves also determine how individuals come into their own as writers. Just like the cultures they are part of, an individual’s identity as a writer depends on “their histories, identities, and processes” and how those components “are situated in a given historical context” (Yancey 52). Not only are those identities crafted through the way we write but also the topics we choose to write about. Our identities as writers are diverse and exceptionally nuanced, and finding that personal identity is critical to becoming a confident writer.
Bazerman, Charles. “Writing Speaks to Situations Through Recognizable Forms.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 35.
Lunsford, Andrea. “Writing Is Informed By Prior Experience.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 54-55.
Roozen, Kevin. “Writing is Linked to Identity.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 50.
Scott, Tony. “Writing Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 48.
Steindorff, George, and Keith Cedric Seele. When Egypt Ruled the East. The University of Chicago Press, 1942, pp.122.
Ted-Ed. “How did English evolve? – Kate Gardoqui.” YouTube, 27 Nov. 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIzFz9T5rhI.
Yancy, Blake Kathleen. “Writers’ Histories, Processes, and Identities Vary.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 52.