Write like a Victorian, or write all the time

Victorian writers wrote a lot. Professional writers in the Victorian period published a lot.

They were in the midst of a technological revolution. The industrial revolution was a publishing, printing, distribution, writing revolution, too. Steam engines hurried things up considerably for printing, paper making, and moving text into new places, previously unreachable, or unreachable in a timely fashion. Speed often confers reduced cost–in this case, text became a whole lot less expensive and cheaper, too (lots of Victorian paper is falling apart now because it was so cheap then). Big groups of people previously priced out of text were able to get at it. Perhaps the changes to education requirements (by various laws through the century but only slowly enforced) helped to revolutionize writing and consuming of writing. Perhaps the cost and distribution were what really changed things. No matter how it happened, it happened–writing happened and got published and got in front of readers as never before in history.

Charles Dickens, who was NOT paid by the word, helped to change the way Victorians wrote by working/writing/publishing serially in the mid-1830s.  Almost something he stumbled upon, the serial really worked for new readers, making story available a chunk at a time through periodical or part publication. (Alexander Dumas did much the same thing in France at about the same time.  Cool, huh?) Dickens published all his novels in this way, even becoming the mentor and publisher for more writers who published serially or in parts; I’m thinking here particularly of Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell (two of my very favourites–British spelling, thank you very much).

Dickens’s letters, the ones editors have been able to recover and transcribe, include something like 12 volumes (not sure if any more are planned), but that may not include letters the editors didn’t have access to at the time of publication. For example, 35 letters were just purchased this year by the Huntington Library. The Brownings’ Correspondence (BC) currently includes at least 16 volumes that I own, plus several more, that are currently bending my bookshelves, by Wedgestone Press (the BC publishers): letters from Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB) and Robert Browning (RB) to EBB’s sister, Arabella, two more volumes, and a collection of RB to a mutual friend, Isa Blagden, two more volumes, and a new collection of EBB letters to Isa, one big, fat volume.  AND the projected BC collection will be 40 volumes when complete in 15-16 more years.

So just including these three Victorian authors–Dickens, EBB, and RB–that’s a lot of letters. Oh, and they wrote a lot of poetry, novels, and journalism (well of this last, Dickens the most, EBB some, RB not very much). What else did they do? Because if you wrote that much–without benefit of a writing machine, like a typewriter, word processor, computer–you’d be writing all the time.

And they were. A Victorian scholar tried to write out a few EBB letters to see how much time it would take, and it took 8 hours to hand write a few letters (I have no idea who–so this could be one of those apocryphal stories like alligators in NYC sewers, but ones that Victorianists hear–anyhow, I like it). Given the amount they wrote, they must have been writing every day.

Nothing wrong with that.

Instead of whining that students never write, maybe academics who say things like that should shift their/our perspective and celebrate the writing students do: online, on walls, via phone, within social media. Sure, it’s not all great, but really, do we read ALL the writing Victorians created? No. That’s a silly thing to even think. But we do value all the writing they did and are recovering everything in proper literary, rhetorical, archeological ways in order to form broader and deeper visions of that time, culture, so on and so forth.

Are my students writing all day? Yes, they are. In fact, if they think I’m not really paying attention, they try to write to each other via their phones through the whole class, or they pray that while they write on Facebook on their laptops, I believe they are taking notes. What on earth could be so important that they need to write through class? What could they possibly be writing about if it’s not directly about me and the class I’m teaching? Why is it not about me? It should be. Wait. Maybe not.

As I recall, I wrote notes nearly every day in my misspent youth. I recall now a quite famous correspondence (famous to me) I carried on with my first boyfriend for full year while I as in 7th grade. I kept boxes of those notes for years and years along with notes from friends. I often was chastised for engaging in that writing by parents, teachers, authority figures who were dismayed that I would spend time exchanging notes with a boy, with my girlfriends, through individual notes, and through sharing writing notebooks. We grooved on multi-colored pens and dotting our i’s with hearts or happy faces, writing in all lowercase or all uppercase. We played with slanting our writing this way or that, printing rather than cursive, changing directions every other line, writing in patterns on the page (circles, squares, etc.) in the middle of the page or around the borders. Turned out to be not such a bad thing for my writing life, I think, I hope, I know.

When I taught 6th grade, I encouraged note writing–and my students did the SAME thing I did–boys and girls–and it wasn’t all that long ago. Experimentation on paper types, inks, pencils, computer and handwriting combined with images…all that was happening and hip. (I was “wicked” according to one of the veteran teachers for encouraging such casual writing with no attention to spelling and grammar, but by then I viewed that sort of criticism as a hallmark of success, may I burn in Hell.) Today, I would expect note writing from young students (who desire communication to define their places in the world), and still not on the phone/computer because most K-12 schools have banned cell phones for students (at least in my part of the world, but they must sneak them in), at least during the day (after kids get home, it’s a whole ‘nother story).  Still writing to communicate and define has a place in the identification of who we are. Writing is being done right now; it just may not look like what we want it to look like in college classes, er, that is, not academic writing, but maybe our students are training themselves for something greater than we can see. I certainly value the informal in my writing classes–writing every day is the only way to go, and some of it needs to be wretched–in literature classes, too. No one who works with me gets out of writing. (I know I write some of this in reaction to colleagues who fuss about how students don’t write anymore. When did students ever only write acceptable academic college-level papers? Frankly, if I were to hang out with people who only wrote academic writing, I’d pitch myself from the roof.) Writing all the time, no matter what kind of writing, is a good thing. (Can you imagine if we applied this to reading, as some do–sigh–that in order to be good readers, we should only read great literature? Egads. I’d be nowhere as a reader without Isaac Asimov, Dick Francis, Margaret Mitchell, Robert Ludlum, and Rosemary Rogers.)

I was Victorian; my 6th graders were Victorian; and a project I’m involved with today is Victorian: Writing Spaces, an open educational resource (OER). It’s smashingly Victorian, and thankfully, work that informs my current self-identification in really fine ways (partly because it’s open and because I see it as Victorianesque). Here’s how it’s Victorian: it’s on the revolution road. It’s OER at its best. It’s free to students and teachers–to anyone (which is the open part). So many Victorians were passionate about changing how education happened and making it universally available. OER, then is something many Victorians would have loved, though many would have swooned over educating everyone and did. Is universal education a Victorian ideal? Is open access a Victorian ideal? No and no, but they worked hard at both, public libraries everywhere they could do it and finally passing the Education Act in 1870 and improving literacy rates by the end of the 19th century whether people wanted it or not. Writing Spaces, the project, and Writing Spaces, the book, levels, it equalizes, it’s freedom. Everyone gets it whether they know about it or not–there it is–already owned by everyone who can click three times. Glorious.

So who is just like the Victorians? We are. We are just like Victorians–driven by the need to communicate–with so many possibilities for doing it (and just as confused, conflicted, and conscious about where we find ourselves). If Victorians had this kind of technology, such as the kind I’m using right now in this blog, you know they’d be all over it. They totally got the self-awareness thing we have going on now. And 100 years from now, folks will be ooohing and aaahing over the writing we have done in this way. Think what scholars in the future might be able to understand from Facebook as it exists right now, the web right now? It’s not inconceivable, but it approaches that. Or think what a scholar in the future might be able to learn from a cache of notes written by an 8th grade boy and a 7th grade girl covering an academic year in which they mostly talked about how crazy they were about each other, but which often dipped into historical events, pop culture, family, school, friends, and more.

Isn’t this the stuff that dreams are made of, that many of us scholars yearn for–knowledge of others and other times and what that means to our understanding of who we are? Isn’t that why we study, no matter what we study? Isn’t this our raison dêtre? (And why we studied French translation but never learned to speak French?) Isn’t this why we teach?

My answer is: yes, that’s exactly why I’m teaching and spend a lot of time thinking and writing. I want to keep learning, to keep getting there. It’s the journey. So, I write like a Victorian–all the time. Some of it’s awful; some of it might matter to my friends, students, colleagues right now; some of it might be good; some of it might give a future reader something to ponder or analyze or recover or chuckle over. But I write and partly to figure out how I connect with ideas and others. When I think about my writing and the writing of my students, I think we are very like the Victorians. God save Queen Victoria… and OER.

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