The Woman in Memoir

Earlier this month I took advantage of Barnard’s awesomeness by attending the Athena Film Festival. It’s a four-day celebration of women in movies, with features, shorts, documentaries, discussions, and panels that are all wonderfully accessible to students. One of the documentaries shown this year was Rebel, the story of Civil War soldier and spy Loreta Velazquez. I’m from northern Virginia, where we pretty much breathe the Civil War whether we want to or not, and an early exposure to the Battle of First Manassas gave me an enduring affection for the subject. So you can bet I was there for Rebel.

What stuck with me wasn’t any new understanding of the Civil War. This is, after all, an area of longtime obsession interest for me. What was more interesting was the movie’s discussion of historical storytelling. We know of Velazquez through her memoir, The Woman in Battle, which was popular in her time but delegitimized immediately after it was published. Its erasure from historical canon is due in large part to the criticism of Jubal Early, a Confederate general who controlled the depiction of Southern history in the wake of Civil War defeat.

Since then, The Woman in Battle has been a subject of contention for historians. Director Maria Agui Carter has carefully corroborated Velazquez’s story with other historical sources wherever possible. I love the boldness of that pursuit. What pushes me to the edge of my seat is thinking about a woman in the present writing anew the self-told story of a woman in the past.

Lots of people are fond of the phrase “make history.” They usually use it to mean “do something impressive or interesting.” I’d rather use it to mean “write it down” or “write it over again.”

The words spoken from Velazquez’s point of view in the movie are not entirely hers. After the movie, Carter spoke of how difficult and flowery the language of The Woman in Battle is to a modern moviegoer, which I respect. This is an interpretation, a retelling, made powerful by supporting research and the advantage of a long backward glance. With dedication and respect, we the people of the present have the power to do this with the stories of the past.

I left the screening feeling like I owed it to Loreta Velazquez to find a copy of The Woman in Battle to read for myself. Then in my preliminary research I discovered that the full text is online, but in print it comes to about 600 pages, which is a little heavy for me right now. I’m not ruling out the possibility of reading it eventually, though. An abiding topical obsession interest can take you far into madness. But I decided that what I really owed to Loreta Velazquez was to write my story. We won’t all be women in battle, but if we write we will all be women in history.

Rhetoric’s Role on the Small Screen

I’ll admit it; I’m a little bit obsessed with the show Scandal. I love a good drama, and the Washington-based political thriller always delivers shocking twists and tons of intrigue. But as I was catching up on the latest season, a question occurred to me: how is Olivia Pope so successful given her poor rhetorical choices? After all, she works in crisis management, a field in which rhetoric is tantamount. Great communication and presentation skills are key. But Olivia spends more time agonizing over her affair with the president than she does skillfully negotiating. As a matter of fact, when she does act in a professional setting, she is hardly a model rhetor. On the contrary, she orders people around without discussing or rationalizing her decision making process; she usually refuses to compromise in negotiation settings; she expects people to know what she’s thinking without any explanation. In short, Olivia Pope’s rhetorical tactics just wouldn’t cut it in the real world. So why is this the model that Hollywood gives us of effective rhetoric?
It seems that the entertainment would rather deliver perfectly polished drama than powerful speech. For whatever reason, great rhetoric just isn’t sexy. So even though Olivia Pope is a successful professional woman, she is primarily depicted as a love interest or sex symbol. And it isn’t just Scandal. Most popular television shows don’t showcase great and powerful rhetoric. That’s a problem. If our models of speaking skills are so heavily romanticized, where does that leave rhetoric? It relegates rhetorical choices to the back seat; speech is suddenly less important than vicious cat fights, passionate romance, and unrealistic intrigues.

That’s not to say that great rhetoric is non-existent on the small screen. Shows like The Good Wife and House of Cards make rhetoric exciting, fascinating, and, well, sexy. But this is the exception, not the rule. On the whole, over-the-top dramatics and romance win out over great rhetoric. But surely it’s possible to have both. I love a good scandal as much as the next person, but I also want good, effective, powerful dialogue and speech. I’m not saying that we should take all of the drama and romance out of television, because we shouldn’t; that’s what makes it exciting. But all that drama should be grounded in solid and effective rhetoric. Because words matter, even the people saying them are fictional characters.

Healing Through Writing

Last week, I helped plan a slam poetry event with spoken word performer, Caroline Rothstein (carolinerothstein.com) . This is the second year in a row that I have worked with Caroline to bring programs to campus and over the year I have had the opportunity to get to know her and her experience quite well. Caroline is a survivor of sexual violence and an eating disorder and uses poetry and performance to talk about these issues.

When I learn about Caroline’s traumatic past through her speaking and performing, I can’t help but wonder how such a strong and powerful woman arose from such terrible circumstances. What is amazing about Caroline’s work is that she uses writing and performing not only to share and empower, but to heal. For me, writing has always been therapeutic. During the most difficult times in my life, I have filled journals with dark words of loss, hurt, and struggle. And then in the midst of it, I might use the paper to paint a picture of a good day; to observe the world around me, or to think out a thought. Looking back at the scribbles on the pages years later, I can see the ways in which I am continually transforming and evolving; my writing shows the ways in which I have overcome, healed, or remained in heartache.

Writing, for me, is most powerful when it is for me. Words can be inspiring and moving to others, but if you can look back at your own words and grow within them, that, I believe, is the true sign of great writing.

 

Let There Be Fresh Meat

In class today, my professor quoted William Carlos Williams, who writes in Spring and All, “If I could say what is in my mind in Sanscrit or even Latin I would do so. But I cannot. I speak for the integrity of the soul and the greatness of life’s inanity; the formality of its boredom; the orthodoxy of its stupidity. Kill! kill! let there be fresh meat…”

Writing in direct critique of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Williams hits upon an oft-quoted piece of writing advice: write what you know. Fancy, misused words or half-formulated classical allusions never impress the reader. The conventions of academic writing grow stale and overwrought in the absence of fresh points of view. Although we address these ideas often in the Writing Center, Williams’s hilarious turn of phrase stayed with me. For those of us who have ever tried to write like Williams (or play guitar like Johnny Cash) it is reassuring to imagine their styles as nothing more than an absence of something else.

Let the parts of a paper a student most wishes to change represent her own contribution of “fresh meat” to discourse.

The TED Commandments

The TED Commandments

The TED Commandments –10 great speaking tips to keep in mind before and during delivery. Practice your speech, but always make sure to be yourself—you don’t want to sound too rehearsed. Don’t read off of a Power Point slide. Create a very brief outline with your major points and elaborate from there. Keep it simple. Establish a connection with your audience; engage their interest by using the tools available to you (which are many). You have visuals, your gestures, your eye contact, your tone, your pitch, etc. 

Most importantly: BE YOU!

 

Becoming a Speaking Fellow

A little less than a year ago, I applied to be a Speaking Fellow. Just over a month ago, I officially joined the program as a full-fledged fellow. The process was long and often difficult. Our required semester-long training course challenged much of what I thought I knew about rhetoric. I quickly figured out that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did; but that realization came with incredible benefits. We explored all different types of speech: persuasive, debate, discussion, informative, and casual. Moreover, we talked about the theories that underlie rhetorical skills. We grappled with some really challenging questions. How does gender affect speech? To what degree does rhetoric change with time and culture? Why study rhetoric at all? The resulting discussions and debates raised questions that I continue to ask myself. As amazing as my training experience was, I had some reservations about officially becoming a Speaking Fellow. Had I learned enough? Was I actually ready? What if I wasn’t able to help people improve their speaking skills?
Now that I’m officially a Speaking Fellow, however, I couldn’t be happier. I get to teach others about one of my favorite things: public speaking. What’s more, I’m learning so much. With each session that I lead and observe, I learn something new about my own speaking style and about rhetoric in general. I’ve realized that you have to practice what you preach during sessions; you can’t discourage the use of fillers if your own speech is peppered with “um’s” and “like’s.” Coaching can be scary; sometimes peers ask questions that don’t have clear answers. At first, this was terrifying. How can I help someone if I have no idea how to answer their question? But I’m figuring out that it’s okay to not always have an answer. I’ve learned that, most of the time, being present, listening, and being honest is the best thing that you can do for your peers.
My first one-on-one session was last week. It was incredible; the student made so much progress and I could see her embracing her style of speech. After the session, she said “I feel so much more confident with my speech now.” For me, this really rung true to the mission of the Speaking Fellows program: helping students feel at ease speaking with their unique style. In that moment, I was so proud to be a part of the program. More than ever, I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year holds in store for the program.