In the peer led session this week, we discussed the articles by Elbow (1987) and Ong (1975) and their perspectives on concepts of audience and voice and how they shape both the conception of thesis meaning and the production of thesis writing.
Audience and voice can clearly only ever exist in a dance with one another. Our task in developing as writers of our own meanings is about beginning to untangle this relationship in an attempt to have some control over it through understanding. The effect of audience upon voice is profound, and all of us will have our own powerful memories of experiences by which real audiences have validated or silenced our voice. I remember diligently rehearsing by rote a poem about the Australian dreamtime to recite on the stage as part of a performance to parents, to obtain a badge for Brownies. As soon as I surveyed the (small) sea of parents’ faces that made up the audience, the words of the poem left me completely and I dissolved in tears – an experience repeated inwardly in many a public speaking event since. As Elbow warns us, audience problems do not come only from actual audiences, but also from phantom audiences in the head. Past experiences of critical, judgemental voices from parents, teachers and others can feed fear and shame around the legitimacy of what we want to say, growing into internalised voices of self-doubt. Blocking these voices out at will can offer the potential to be more creative.
Elbow suggests that it can be difficult to work out new meaning while thinking about our audience, as these two demands can pull against one another. He sees ‘writer based prose’ as offering a response to cognitive overload, and identifies that we often feel that we don’t have anything to say until we succeed in engaging ourselves in private ‘desert island writing’ for ourselves alone. It was certainly only once I allowed myself to forget my audience and focus on myself when writing meaning into my research, that I believe from both feedback and faces that I paradoxically became less boring for my audience. Inviting ourselves into the text, locating our self at the centre of our writing process, acknowledges self-worth and locates the unique voice that gives us the perspective to convey what we wish to. Attending to the task of working out ‘you-ness’ can hence be seen not simply as self-indulgent navel-gazing, but a responsibility in the endeavour of finding out the unique contribution we have to offer.
Elbow espouses the value of turning off the babble of voices outside our head and listening instead to the quiet inner voices. He reminds us that far from this focus on the self-alienating our actual audience, we trust the authenticity of voices more when we know them to be unaware of us as an audience, rather than tailoring their message to what they know we want to hear.
Coming to recognise the ways in which our research is always connected to us as we have explored though this group, acknowledges that the task of meaning-making is oriented not only to others, but also for ourselves. Elbow gives the examples of Chomsky’s effort into developing writing that he had no plans to share with anyone, or more simply, the child who labours over building a sandcastle, only to knock it down before any adults see. This engenders the question of whether we are able to pick apart discernible differences between what it is we wish to understand ourselves, and communicate to others, though the process of our research.
Elbow, P. (1987). Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience. College English, 49 (1), pp. 50-69
Ong, W.J. (1975). The Writer’s Audience is Always A Fiction, PMLA 90, (1), pp.9-21.