I’m not sure where I’m going…But I do know where I’ve been.
“…and you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” — The Talking Heads.
Life has a way of leading us down paths we never thought we would travel. I never expected to be where I am, right here, right now; back in school and finishing a degree I began nearly twenty-five years ago. However, looking back, I do not think I would change a single thing. All of the good and bad have shaped who I am right now, in this moment. Moreover, although I am not yet where I hope to end up, I am closer now than ever. My journey through life has shaped and molded my literacies and how I can, in turn, share them with others.
It was 1998, and I had just moved from Pennsylvania to South Florida. I was leaving behind a failed engagement — I was way too young anyway, so it was probably for the best — and I was determined to start over. I was a musician, so after a few years of playing in cover bands at probably every bar in Ft. Lauderdale and an equal number of years perfecting my painting and drawing skills (I use the term ‘skills’ loosely), I got the bright idea to go to college and try to prepare myself for a better future. Not everyone can be a Rock Star/Artist, after all.
You can do the math if you want, but I will save you the trouble — I am old. You would call me a ‘non-traditional’ student, even then (and probably even more so now). I had taken a gap year after High School that ended up lasting eight. I finished my Associate of Arts degree and intended to transfer to Florida International University for the remainder of my undergraduate work. At the time, I dreamed of being an Anthropologist (I found out later that this was the number one least employable major, so I dodged that bullet), and most of my electives during those first years were intended to prepare me for that career.
I certainly do not regret taking any of those courses, as they all showed me how much our culture defines us as human beings. All these experiences, combined with my exposure to art and music, made me a well-rounded and — ostensibly — culturally enlightened person. These successes and failures were the foundation upon which I began building the theories and ideas I will share here. Additionally, I believe that all the writing I have done during my education and professional career has given me a unique insight into how to get my message across to my intended audience. I would even go so far as to say that being a musician helped me in ways I would not have conceived of at the time. Standing up in front of a crowded bar full of people, you have to be able to make connections. And not just with the group but with each individual in the room.
There are two separate but related topics I would like to discuss. The first is the idea that nearly all writing — whether you write professionally in the business sphere or one of many other rhetorical genres — can benefit from the use of story or narrative, and that is because of how we are wired on an evolutionary level. And then, once I have sufficiently browbeaten you into seeing things my way on that topic, I would also like to talk about the importance of weaving Visual Art, Music, and Literature into the curriculum for English education because these are the things that genuinely make us Human. They call them the Humanities for a good reason.
Since this began as a story, let us start there.
Storytelling brings with it an inherent emotional appeal. It has the power to captivate your reader and to engage them on deep conscious and subconscious levels. If you are a good storyteller, your words evoke emotion and can also help to make it easier to communicate more complex ideas and make them relevant and relatable.
In my research, I learned from Catherine Ramsdell that “…stories are a fundamental and primary form of communication, and without them, we would lose an important way to teach our children, to train our employees, to sell our products, and to make information memorable to those of any age.” (Ramsdell 2011) This quote emphasizes the cultural need for the use of stories. Since the dawn of language, humans have been using narrative to relate important messages to one another. Whether it be a tribal elder sharing the stories of their ancestors — likely to pass down wisdom or fundamental ways of doing things learned over time — or a mother using stories to teach their growing children valuable skills to enhance their survivability, the story has always been an effective means of communication over time and space (Finally got to use my Anthropology knowledge here!). The connection of story to rhetoric is elucidated by the quote Ramsdell shares from her research “A story is a fact, wrapped in an emotion that compels us to take an action that transforms our world.” (Maxwell and Dickman 2007) This clearly indicates the importance of using stories to facilitate the changes we want to see in our world.
Storytelling, and by association, rhetorical discourse, is an art form. But, as I spoke about in our first Mini Assignment, like art and music, writing — and, therefore, compelling narrative — is indeed an art that can be learned and perfected over time.
In the article Weaving Personal Experience into Academic Writing, Marjorie Stewart emphasizes the importance of using personal experiences to strengthen the presentation of the ideas we are trying to share in our academic writing. (Stewart 2020) In addition, we can use our experiences to make connections to our research or exposition that help the reader better understand our intentions and motivations and, if used skillfully and thoughtfully, make our writing even better.
The Songs We Sing, and The Pictures We Paint
The second topic I wanted to discuss, the importance of which is reinforced for me by my personal experience more than scholarly research, is the need to include art and music in the English Curriculum and to do so early on in a child’s academic career.
There is a strong correlation between what we see as conventional literacy and the creative arts. Writing and other forms of artistic expression have similar qualities, and they all serve as a way for the artist to get their message ‘out there.’ In literature, thematic elements of creativity and imagination are plentiful. Often these works explore artists’ lives and struggles, as Oscar Wilde does in *The Picture of Dorian Grey.*
As another example, graphic novels are a great medium that uses multi-modality to push the boundaries between literature and visual art. Their popularity has been a boon for humanities education because they are getting kids (and adults) that might not be as interested in traditional literature to read and explore their literacy. When literacy and art come together and act to enhance one another, we are opening the door for artists and writers to explore new and exciting forms of communication.
Music can act in much the same way as Visual Art. For example, the songwriter must use rhyme and meter in writing lyrics — a process not altogether different from writing traditional poetry. They often pour their emotions into the song and give the listener insight into their innermost feelings and emotions. Song lyrics require a firm grasp of language, poetic devices, and storytelling techniques. And, because there are so many ‘genres’ of music, there is also a great deal of linguistic diversity.
Music can also be a fantastic tool for teaching traditional language skills like vocabulary and grammar. In addition, it encourages creativity, artistic expression, and a deeper awareness of one’s culture and the cultures of others.
The essential foundational skills and ideas intrinsic to creative expression, imagination, and personal growth lie at the crossroads of music, art, and writing. When we combine the forces of these core humanities, we give kids — and adults — the keys to unlocking the complexities of today’s modern world; we provide them with a compass to successfully navigate the treacherous waters of life. And most importantly, by using the guidance of humanity’s past and present, we give them the tools to carve out their futures and tell their individual stories.