Since I only live 50 minutes away, I decided it was worth the trek to Savannah to hear Stanley Fish speak about writing. A group of faculty from the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University felt the same way, so I joined with a few others to make a fun outing of it.
We went early so we could enjoy a dinner out on the town, and then made our way to SCAD for the talk. Looking for seats together landed us front and center—literally. I mean, I’m talking front row, close enough for Fish to spit on us (luckily, unlike one of my undergrad professors, Fish doesn’t spit at his audience!).
He began his talk by asking the audience to look around the auditorium, pick four objects, and write them down on a piece of paper. Then, he said, write down a verb. I looked around and, being the geek that I am, I wrote down:
- Speaker (that would be Fish himself)
We’ll get to this later, he said.
His lecture was entitled, “How to Write a Sentence.” (But I decided to attend anyway!) There are bird watchers, he said, and celebrity watchers, and other kinds of “watchers.” “I belong,” he said, “to the tribe of sentence watchers.”
After a lengthy harangue of Strunk and White (which, by the way, was the favorite style guide of The Unabomber, according to Catherine Prendergast in “The Unabomber’s Strunk and White,” College English, 72.1), he noted that the “very act of putting pen to paper [is] an anachronism I find it hard to let go of….” (Wouldn’t the Unabomber have approved?)
“The enemy of learning how to write is content. . . . Ideas should be banished from the composition classroom,” continued Fish, in an intentionally heretical statement. He argued that, instead, form precedes thought.
A laptop took up an inordinately large section of real estate on the podium at which Fish stood. It projected the SCAD logo on a large screen to Fish’s left and center stage. Fish never used the computer, except perhaps as an unintentionally comic prop when, at least twice during his presentation he managed to disconnect the computer and then took time from his lecture to reconnect it.
Now it was finally time to play with our word list. Make a sentence out of our four nouns and one lonely verb, he said. Of course, he added, you will probably need to add more words. So, my sentence:
“The speaker at the microphone nudged the laptop, and the screen went blank.” Not exactly poetic, of course, but perhaps my list was at least prophetic!
Fish noted that sentences were composed (by and large, anyway) of logical relationships. Forget about thought, he added: it’s the form that counts, not the thought! I couldn’t help but be reminded of my son, many years ago when he was still very young, opening his presents one holiday. I could see his disappointment after opening the first few presents and finding only clothing. But he knew he was supposed to at least pretend to appreciate whatever presents he received, so, he looked at the giver and said, “It’s the count that thoughts!”
I can’t help but respond to Fish with the same words….