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Published on September 30th, 2012 | by Thompson


All Art is Autobiographical

For as long as I can remember, I have thought all art to be autobiographical.   Though all writing is not considered to be artistic, I think there’s an element of the writer that gets left on the page regardless of genre – a sweat that stains the composition leaving a distinct odor that had a bloodhound got a whiff she could track down the author.  So Donald M. Murray’s brief essay “All Writing Is Autobiographical” didn’t really blow my socks off.  In fact, I doubt it blew Murray’s socks off or those of his discourse community.  Its brevity alone may prove my point.  In using autobiographical tactics (historical reference, first-person narrative, and calling upon personal experience), I think Murray draws plenty of attention to the autobiographical nature of writing in order to back his claim.  I’ve always felt first-person narrative especially helps build a trusting bond between reader and writer, and Murray’s openness only works in his favor.  “My voice is the product of Scottish genes and a Yankee environment, of Baptist sermons and the newspaper city room, of all the language I have heard and spoken,” Murray eloquently states early in the essay, which I think is an honest enough revelation for me to trust him (67).  Explaining the “multiple contexts” from which he, and everyone writes from, Murray’s apparent validity increases.  He, in effect, gives us no reason not to trust him.

Corder says “our narratives are the evidence we have of ourselves and of our convictions.  Argument, then, is not something we make outside ourselves; argument is what we are” (415).  I think if we consider Corder’s words here it would be difficult to avoid projecting our life narratives or arguments onto any text…but then I think about technical or scientific writing and how that’s supposed to be autobiographical.

I know my friends in the sciences would say the main goal of scientific writing is to conceal the writer, which makes it hard to have an autobiographical nature.  My reply to them would be to read any abstract and try to tell me the author(s)’ agenda, ideology, or even attitude doesn’t occasionally shine through.  The title of a scientific report can even serve as evidence of an author(s)’ agenda.  For instance, a title like “Does Information Matter? The Effect of the Meth Project on Meth Use among Youths” implies a bit more about the author’s intent than “Medical Marijuana Laws, Traffic Fatalities, and Alcohol Consumption.”  Asking the question “Does information matter?” brings up the question, “Why ask that question in the first place unless it doesn’t?”  (Ironically, the researcher concludes that information regarding the Meth Project doesn’t matter…meth use among youth decreases with or without the information and the statistical significant effect of the Meth Project information is “indistinguishable from zero.”)

Though these scientific reports share the same author, D. Mark Anderson of Montana State’s Economics department, the “Medical Marijuana Laws…” paper was written with two co-writers, which may be why the title is more opaque, or less subjective, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t autobiographical.  It just means it’s less autobiographical.  So I guess that covers scientific writing, but what about technical writing?

While reading Murray’s essay I couldn’t help but think of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Robert Pirsig, who wrote technical manuals and step-by-step instructions, and how he jokes, “Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind” (206).  His idea of injecting Quality into technical writing to make tasks easier or more enjoyable for readers makes a ton of sense to me.  I can’t recall how many times I’ve been turned off from directions simply because of the ineffectiveness of their form or confusing content.  I just don’t feel the writer wants anything to do with what I’m assembling, and it makes me lose interest in the assembly as well.  Pirsig goes on to say:

“At present we’re snowed under with an irrational expansion of blind data-gathering in the sciences because there’s no rational format for any understanding of scientific creativity.  At present we are also snowed under with a lot of stylishness in the arts – thin art – because there’s very little assimilation or extension into underlying form.  We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the results is not just bad, it is ghastly.  The time for real reunification of art and technology is really long overdue” (377).

Reading Anne Wysocki’s take on new media makes me optimistic for this reunification.  I truly think new media modes will allow for art and technology to stand together in harmonious texts.  I think the Web has already played a large role in improving technical writing by allowing for more artistic modes and methods to present instructions or data.  Drawing on Feenberg’s “acquisition of craft,” Wysocki connects with Pirsig on a Zen-like level.  “This notion of craft contains a particular sense of relationships among the maker of an object, the thing made, the users of the object, and the social context in which the object is made.  Under Feenberg’s conception, when someone makes an object that is both separate from her but that shows how she can use the tools and materials and techniques of her time, then she can see a possible self – a self positioned and working within the wide material conditions of her world, even shaping that world – in that object” (Writing New Media, 21).  If this “acquisition of craft” doesn’t scream Pirsig’s Quality I must be deaf.  It all goes back to giving a damn, doing things with care, and loving what you do.  This “self positioned and working within the wide material conditions of her world” is the autobiographical.

So is technical writing a genre that lends itself to autobiographical tendencies?  It seems Pirsig would like it to.  “The ancient Greeks never separated art from manufacture in their minds, and so never developed separate words for them” (Pirsig, 372).  I guess I’m willing to say technical writing was meant to have autobiographical tendencies, but we went and screwed it up.  Here’s an example of what I think Pirsig would call technical writing with some Quality, or with the art still in it.

Though it’s a long time coming, I do think if we heed Wysocki’s warning to read with generosity and “approach different-looking texts with the assumption not that mistakes were made but that choices were made and are being tried out,” (Writing New Media, 23) we can inject technology with an artistic adrenaline needle and make swing sets and motorcycles easier and more enjoyable to assemble or maintain.  Keeping an open mind is essential to effective argument, as Corder would advise, and Wysocki echoes his concern that we just aren’t caring enough.  We’re too quick to judge a book by its cover and in our investigation of rhetoric in new media I know we’ll find that technology can help make texts available to wider audiences, not because of the vastness of the Web, but because of the opportunities available in the presentation of new media modes.


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About the Author

When Thompson isn't busy writing for Go Gonzo Journal, you may find him drunk at the movie theater with Professor Heinous or stirring up trouble in a bar with his attorney. Thompson also enjoys skiing, hiking, camping, and watching and betting on baseball and football.

One Response to All Art is Autobiographical

  1. jenny thornburg says:

    I had to respond to your discourse on art. You quote Persig: “At present we are also snowed under with a lot of stylishness in the arts – thin art – because there’s very little assimilation or extension into underlying form.” In my Lit 438 class, Wallace Stevens poetry and the Lucretian Sublime, we discussed the idea of the ‘thing behind the thing.’ Picasso painted a portrait of Gertrude Stein, which people said looked nothing like her. Picasso’s response was–“It will.”
    The idea is that he was painting at a deeper level. He was painting not just an image, but all the things behind the scene that make up Gertrude Stein. That it didn’t look like her actual physical form, was irrelevant. Picasso may also have meant that in time, she would come to resemble the portrait, at least in public conception. Stevens makes a revealing statement in his poem, Postcard from A Volcano: “…and what we said of it became a part of what it is.” This loops back to the idea of social interaction, how identity is formed through social context. Shipka says texts can be landscapes, conversations. Then surely they can also be images, paintings. Which makes a strong case for the use of image in writing.
    When Persig claims, “The time for real reunification of art and technology is really long overdue,” I heartily agree.

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