National Writing Project

Book Review: Everyone Can Write, by Peter Elbow

By: Tom Thompson
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4
Date: Fall 2000

Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing

Peter Elbow. Oxford University Press, 2000. 475 pp. $45.00 hardcover; $18.95 paperback. ISBN 0-1951-0416-1.

When I first saw that Peter Elbow had a new volume of essays, I was excited. Even when I disagree with what he says, I can always count on him to challenge my thinking about what is possible in the classroom. A cursory glance at the table of contents, however, disappointed me. Rather than a collection of new essays, this volume seemed to be little more than Peter Elbow's Greatest Hits. Further, as I read the first "new" essay, I realized that it wasn't "new" at all, but was simply a published version of a lecture I had heard Elbow deliver eight years ago.

As I worked my way through the essay, however, I realized that I wasn't reading "old" material, but rather was enjoying the fruit of Elbow's particular writing process—a process that can let a piece "cook" and "grow" for several years before it reaches publication. Besides, many readers probably missed most of these essays when they were first published, either because the essays appeared in less-prominent forums or because they were published ten or even twenty years ago. Even those readers familiar with the essays will discover that many have been revised, with some pieces merely excerpted as "fragments" to complement other pieces in the collection. Finally, Elbow has grouped the pieces topically to offer a reasonably coherent presentation of his theory of teaching writing—a theory which merits careful consideration by anyone who teaches writing.

For that reason alone, this volume belongs in the library of everyone who teaches or studies composition theory. Previous efforts to infer Elbow's theory, usually based on only a few articles, come mostly from opponents of "romantic" or "expressivist" approaches. Even though I have trouble with Elbow's claim that more writing—with no intervention and no audience other than the writer—leads "inevitably" to better writing, I'd rather get the argument from Elbow himself than from someone hostile to the concept.

Elbow's theory is, as the title states, "hopeful." Although he acknowledges that "good writing takes hard work and skill," he bases his approach to teaching writing on what he terms some "hopeful truths":

It is possible for anyone to produce a lot of writing with pleasure and satisfaction and without too much struggle.

It is possible for anyone to figure out what he or she really means and wants to say and finally get it clear on paper.

It is possible for anyone to write things that others will want to read.

When people manage to say what they really mean and to get themselves into their writing, readers tend to have the experience of making contact with the writer—an experience that most people seek (xiv).

These premises might seem more "utopian" than "hopeful," but Elbow embraces utopian models, arguing that we need such models to help us see through deceptions served up by common sense. For example, he notes that, although observation tells us the sun revolves around the earth, we now accept as "true" a model that tells us the exact opposite. If we accept such "truths" to help us understand the physical world, it seems only reasonable to consider equally utopian (or hopeful) "truths" to help us understand how writers write.

The first writer Elbow attempts to understand is himself. In "Illiteracy at Oxford and Harvard," he recounts his struggles to write in college—he dropped out of Harvard before his inability to write caused him to flunk out—and attempts to make sense of his experience. The next chapter, "A Map of Writing in Terms of Audience and Response," turns practical, offering twelve different sites for writing, or twelve different kinds of writing teachers can assign. The third chapter, "The Uses of Binary Thinking," is highly theoretical, arguing that thinking in opposites can help us better understand any object or idea under consideration, and that "contrary claims can both be right or valid" (73). These chapters, along with a fragment excerpted from the 1998 edition of Writing Without Teachers, comprise the first section, "Premises and Foundations." The remaining sections—"The Generative Dimension," "Speech, Writing, and Voice," "Discourses,"

"Teaching," and "Evaluation and Grading"—are equally diverse in style and focus. Despite their diversity, however (or perhaps because of it), these pieces provide a reasonable explanation of Elbow's perspective on the enterprise of teaching writing.

Everyone Can Write is not a systematic explication of a coherent theory of writing. Elbow himself admits that a "skeptical reader might say that this book is just a collection of unrelated essays . . . and not be wrong" (xiii). In fact, Peter Elbow's Greatest Hits might be an appropriate title. Still, this collection of "hits," drawn from three decades of musings and reflections, demands the attention of anyone seriously interested in teaching writing.

About the Author Having taught at two high schools and a community college, Tom Thompson completed a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition at Florida State University, and is currently an associate professor of English at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, where he directs the Lowcountry Writing Project.

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