When salesman types a reminder on his phone’s calendar, a student scribbles a plan for a paper on a napkin in a coffee shop, a mother leaves her family directions for preparing dinner, or a teenager composes a birthday money thank you note to her grandparents, each person thinks his or her writing is completing a physically solitary task, but in actuality they are all connecting with an audience. Some audiences may be larger than others, but it doesn’t matter what writing an individual does. Writing and rhetoric connects to society. Whether recording plans for a meeting or assignment or sharing information to a specific reader or group, the act of writing is social because “writers are engaged in the work of making meaning for particular audiences and purposes, and writers are always connected to other people” (Roozen, 2016).
Irish poet and artist, Christy Brown was born with severe Cerebral Palsy in 1932. He had a limited range of movement and could barely speak. His doctors thought his mental capabilities were equal to his physical challenges, and they encouraged his mother to have him institutionalized. His mother refused their advice and made it her mission to connect with her son. By talking to him, reading to him, and valuing him as a human being, she taught her son to read. She did not know it, but she had succeeded. Without the use of his hands or his voice, how could he show her?
Christy had an audience and desperate need to make a connection with his society, mainly his family. Grabbing a piece of chalk with the toes of his left foot, the only muscles he could really control on his own, Christy attempted to connect with his audience. Below is a dramatization of the moment he succeeded.
In this clip from the 1989 Academy Award Winning Film My Left Foot, starring DanielDay-Lewis and Brenda Fricker, focus your attention on Christy’s audience and its reaction. Hollywood may have embellished the author’s text, but the reactions of his audience are accurately dramatized. Like most Hollywood films, this excerpt from Brown’s memoir is a bit romanticized. He started writing like most people do with the alphabet.
Brown understood the importance of what he had written, and how it was going to change his life.
Christy Brown continued to write and became a famous Irish poet, author and painter. The more experience he gained, the bigger his audience became. But if he had not tried to connect with his family in such a way, his connection to society would have been totally different.
Although it is often overlooked, the technology a writer chooses when composing also connects them to society. Christy Brown began communicating with a piece of chalk and slate floor, but the technology behind ballpoint pens, mechanical pencils, post-it notes, keyboards, legal pads spiral bound notebooks, and other writing utensils have been created because they solved a need for writing communication (Rozen, 2016, p. 18). People saw a need, a new product was created, and that product becomes part of writing history.
Most people do not think about the larger idea of “writing history” or even that there is a history connected to something wrote. The mindset of “I’m doing the writing” is limiting because once the message has been composed, it is available for any audience. Hopefully it is useful for its original purpose, but that may not always be the case. Sometimes those audiences are the intended ones. For example – little brothers find hidden dairies, email messages are leaked to the media, lost love letters are found in antique bureaus, and families can ignore mealtime instructions to order pizza. This connects quite easily to section 1.2 Writing Addresses, Invokes, and/or Creates Audiences. Audiences happen whether the writer is aware or not.
The key to this concept is to appreciate the benefits. Knowing that writing always has an audience will influence the purpose for writing, the word choice, and how best to compose the message. What if writers were to think of their audience and its needs before they began composing? The text would be more effective because the writer would be addressing, “what the audience knows and does not know, why audience members might need certain kinds of information, and what the audience finds persuasive (or not)” (Rozen, 2016). Always having this in foreground of their thoughts, writers can use their compositions for change and action.
Brown, Christy. (1999). “My Left Foot.” Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. (Original Work published 1954).
McCormack, C. (2015, May 17). ‘Day-Lewis never forgot Christy’, three decades after ‘My Left Foot’. Retrieved November 30, 2018, from https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/theatre-arts/daylewis-never-forgot-christy-three-decades-after-my-left-foot-31228696.html
Rozen, Kevin. (2016) “Writing is a Social and Rhetorical Activity.” Naming What We Know (L. Adler-Kassner & E. Wardle, Eds.). Boulder, CO: Utah State Press.