Orality, Literacy, and Cognition

This week I kicked a major item off my bucket list: I told a story in public sans notes.

Although I’ve done some standup work, one of the challenges that has kept me off stage is the problem of how to compose for an oral medium. As an inveterate writer, I’m comfortable putting stories into words on the screen. But here’s the problem: the minute I commit words to pixels, I become wedded to the words. My process or preparation then becomes about memorization, not improvisation.

When I write, the words cease to live in my head.

Something similar went on when I tried to learn to read music. I found that if I learned a tune by ear, it was mine forever. But if I played by music, I always needed the music.

I am guessing that these are two distinct cognitive processes that (at least in my case) can seem mutually exclusive. I am fascinated by how dominant writing is in my brain space. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. As I tell my students, writing is the first technology that allowed us to communicate in our own absence. Writing is a powerful storage device that allows us to forget how to tell stories. Writing alleviates the need for ancestors—for an unbroken lineage of oral information.

But it is also not surprising that writing dominates my cognitive talents; in that I have spent most of my life cultivating the dialect that is written English, not honing my oral narrative skills.

At a recent storytelling workshop, I challenged myself to use a “born-oral” instead of “born-literate” composition practice. Instead of writing ideas down, I recorded them on my phone and walked around listening and repeating. Walking has always been part of my pre-writing process, and it was even more necessary to my oral composition and practice. The car was also a useful rehearsal studio.

I memorized the story’s beginning and ending, a few “landing spots,” a few turns of phrase, and then let go of everything else. It was delicious. It felt like flying. I didn’t feel worried about fucking up words that existed somewhere else. I wasn’t measuring this version of the story against a Platonic version. If I tell it again, it will be different, and that will be OK.

I think a lot about how the university has encoded both literate and oral practices for hundreds of years. We often examine graduate students both in writing and speech. We require students to produce a massive work of literacy, but then make them defend it orally. We go to conferences where people deliver written papers orally—a performance mode that seems extravagantly self-defeating (at least if your goal is communication). At a recent conference, my brain found itself furious about having to parse densely theoretical text audially that it would have had no problem reading. How amazing would it be if, instead of reading papers, academics just spoke them—storytelling style.

But while I am working to unlearn my dependence on writing for the purposes of storytelling, so much of my work with academic writers has to do with bringing orality back into the writing process. I use the oral process to help writers capture and really hear their own ideas. I teach faculty how to use orality in their advising to help students better incorporate their written feedback. For each of us, scholarly output depends on finding and capitalizing on what I call our cognitive superpowers.

I will always love putting words on the page, but right now I am excited about cultivating my ability to “write” and edit language in my head.

This morning I hit “record” and pitched the Moth a story.

Stay tuned!


Seven Strategies for Supporting Neurodiverse Writers (pdf download)

Also see: ​

Hacking Grad School for Neurodiverse Grad Students

Advising Neurodiverse Thesis and Dissertation Students

Resources for Neurodiverse Grad Students

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