The Eye of the Beholder

in Creative Nonfiction and Academic Non-Discourse

(CCCC April 13, 2000)

Robert Root


Here's a way to understand the role of the beholder's eye in nonfiction writing. Take a photograph out of your wallet or billfold or purse, look at it closely, and try to freewrite about what you see for about ten minutes or so. Then trade photographs with someone else and let him or her write about your photograph while you write about his or hers. At the end of a second ten-minute freewrite compare the spontaneous responses you've both had to both pictures. What differences do you observe about the ways you write about the two pictures? What similarities do you observe in the way each of you writes about his or her own photograph and the way you write about the other person's paragraph? In a classroom I'd try to get people in groups of three and repeat the process until each person in the group had written on three photographs. An alternating approach would be to let each student write on his or her own photograph and then let all the students write on one or two unfamiliar photographs. Anyway this is carried out it culminates in shared readings of the freewritten responses.

This is what you learn: When you try to describe what you see in a photograph you carry with you, you soon begin to explain the context for the picture, the identity of the person or persons in it, the reason you carry this photo with you, its significance to you. When you try to describe what you see in someone else's photograph, particularly the photograph carried by a stranger, you soon begin to interpret context, identity, background, and significance. When you compare your explanation or your interpretation with those of others you find certain descriptive common ground but also, depending on the nature of the picture, a considerable divergence of comprehension and response. The meaning of the picture changes with the eye of the beholder, particularly when the beholder sees with the eye of the participant or the eye of the spectator.

Here's an example of what I mean: A student once showed me a photograph of three men kneeling over the bodies of three dead deer, lifting the heads by the antlers and smiling into the camera. It was night and the ground was snow-covered and the photographer used a flash to illuminate the scene. The figure in the center was the student, then about 17, clean-shaven, rosy-cheeked. On his right was a man in his late thirties, with unkempt dark hair and moustache and a day-old beard and a haggard smile; on his left was an older man, in his fifties perhaps, his hair and moustache mostly gray, his face more puffy and grizzled, his smile gap-toothed. Clearly the unshaven men were related, though it was less obvious that the man in the middle was son and grandson to the others.

I have tried to be "objective" here, merely descriptive of the picture's composition, but I slip easily into interpretation. This is a commemorative photo of a successful deer hunt for three generations of hunters, that much is clear. Were I to use it as a starting point for an essay of mine, I would comment on the sense of family tradition I see, the likelihood that this family has yearly hunted deer for as long as anyone can remember, the camaraderie that exists here, the sense of community, the bonds of violence and conquest. Since I do not hunt and do not sympathize much with killing, I might ruminate more on the ways children adapt the mores of their elders, might editorialize about alternative ways of creating the bonds among males that seem so central to this picture.

My student has a different reading of the picture. To him it is an anomaly, a rare instance of three generations smiling in each other's company and being in one place at the same time. His grandfather is an abusive petty criminal who abandoned his wife and children intermittently, in between prison terms; his father is an abusive, neglectful, philandering drunk who ignored his children as much as he could but not as much as the children wished he would. The student says that within ten days of the photograph he and his father had so terrible an argument that the boy moved out and lived with a friend's family for the rest of high school. He has had almost no contact with either man in more than a year. He keeps the picture around because it shows absolutely nothing of the reality of his life.

Once the student explained the picture from his perspective, I read the photo differently than I had originally. But when I write about it now, I write about the way I behold that student beholding that photograph. I can never write the story he can write. The difference is in the eye of the beholder.

The student wrote about the deer-hunting picture for an assigned journal entry captioning a personal photograph. I use the assignment in freshman composition, graduate composition, and nonfiction courses. Sometimes it leads to personal essays and brief memoirs; sometimes it's only an exploratory experience or an impromptu bit of prewriting. Sometimes I use photographs and videotapes as prompts for impersonal writing--our students take in more of their world in images than they do in texts and they need to be able to read what they see. They also need to know what's in the eye of the beholder.

Consider photographer Dorothea Lange's well-known picture called "Migrant Mother." Twenty-five people writing about what they see in that photo would produce a range of responses--subjective-personal, cultural-critical, aesthetic-interpretive, objective-expository. Robert Coles, referring to the nature of "doing documentary work," writes, "Who we are, to some variable extent, determines what we notice and, at another level of intellectual activity, what we regard as worthy of notice, what we find significant" (89). Everything's a Rorschach test. Lange's picture can be discussed as photography, art, photojournalism, history, sociology, psychology, rhetoric, aesthetics, women's studies, environmental studies, fashion, architecture, biology, health, and more. It is also evidence for autobiography and memoir. The woman in the picture was Florence Thompson, who died of cancer in 1983 at the age of 79. She lived another forty-seven years after Lange photographed her with her five children in a migrant tent; nine of her ten children were living when she died; some of her children and her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren are still living. Perhaps one of them will write a captioning journal entry or an essay or a memoir about family history, not about iconic photography. Nonfiction is the expression of and reflection upon observed, perceived, or recollected experience. Whether we are spectator or participant, expression and reflection are determined by the eye of the beholder.


The composition scholar Sue Lorch once wrote about a transforming experience in her writing life, composing a college paper about a painting. She described her confidence going to the Fine Arts Building "to knock out with grace, alacrity, and ease [her] first paper" for a college English class. She located the painting she and her classmates were assigned to describe and, in her words, "sailed up, sat down, and let the words flow. What could be so difficult about describing an oil on canvas depicting a few cows standing in a field surrounded by trees, I wondered. . . . I left some thirty minutes later, my one-draft, sure-fire A paper stowed in my knapsack." When, a few days later, her paper was returned with an F, her first instinct was to "look up whatever rules of good writing I had inadvertently violated, observe them" and essentially correct the paper as her effort at revision. But the teacher hadn't found those kinds of errors in her paper; instead he had failed her for being boring. She tried a variety of approaches to enliven her paper but at first felt no need to go view the painting again. After all, she says, "I had the most complete, albeit boring, description of it that anyone could wish. I had described it in meticulous detail, top to bottom, left to right, down to counting the spots on the cows." She muses further:

In the end she discovers that the painting is subtly ironic, that instead of "promot[ing] an image of the world as pastorally perfect or bucolically blissful," the painting "suggested the tenuousness, the fragility of such tranquillity and peace."

Sue Lorch remembers this experience as one that taught her a great deal about the complexity of "communicating effectively to another human being," the intricacies of composing process and rhetorical situation. I think--this is my interpretation of her experience--that it also demonstrates the vital necessity of engagement, of personal commitment, as an element of writing. It wasn't enough for her to simply look at the picture; she had to see it, which takes a different level of involvement. My experience over thirty-five years of teaching has been that student failure is less often a result of inability or dysfunction than a result of indifference or disinterest or disengagement, the half-hearted effort of a first-and-final draft hacked out during back-to-back episodes of Friends or The Real World, the time-serving somnambulism of those who intend to get a degree but don't expect their education to, like, overlap into their real lives.

In writing the eye of the beholder has to be open, has to endeavor to behold. It's not enough to look; you have to see.


"We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking," Thoreau tells us, and claims, "I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me" (3-4). Thoreau also observed, "Only that day dawns to which we are awake" (333). His phrases haunt me when I think about writing.

I do not take Thoreau to mean that the first person singular pronoun needs to be overtly present in every text but that every writer's presence has to be. It's no trick to eliminate the pronouns but the writer him- or herself cannot be absent. Only that writing is meaningful to which the writer is awake, as Sue Lorch's testimony tells us.

Even what Robert Coles calls "documentary work" isn't the simple task of recording reality undiluted; "with the best tape recorder in the world, with cameras that take superb pictures, and even with a clear idea of what I am to do," Coles says,

An individual engages and examines, responds to and reflects upon--in essence, beholds--subject matter, whether personal or nonpersonal, academic or nonacademic.

Efforts to eliminate the individual writer, especially in disciplinary writing, produce nondiscourse, the kind of writing Ken Macrorie so long ago labeled "engfish," the kind of writing decried by George Orwell in "Politics and the English Language" and Richard Ohmann and Wallace Douglas in English in America. More recently Scott Russell Sanders has inveighed against learning to write the "murky" and "anonymous prose that mumbles like elevator music in the background of our industrial civilization--the prose of memos, quarterly reports, grant proposals, program summaries, newscasts, run-of-the-mill journalism, court briefs, perfunctory scholarship, and tidy English papers" (B4). These expressions of horror over depersonalized, dehumanized, deliberately obfuscational writing are still relevant, particularly in regard to the current climate in literary and rhetorical criticism which seems to seek the highest levels of density, abstraction, and polysyllabification and the greatest length of chains of prepositional phrases in nominalized terms of least common currency in narrowest dissemination--the kind of academic writing whose point, according to Dennis Dutton, is to "beat readers into submission . . . Actual communication has nothing to do with it" (W11).

But it isn't only the obscure scholarly paper that generates academic nondiscourse; the approach to composition instruction that sees writing in college as separate from writing outside of college also produces nondiscourse. That is, in college writing we too often ask students to communicate minimal levels of information in texts that would not be interesting or informative to readers outside of our classrooms. In a course I teach in editing, graduate students are sometimes invited to submit papers written for other courses to a class-edited course anthology. Some of the submissions come from courses I taught the previous semester. It's eye opening to see what papers I assigned and graded have to go through to come up to speed as discourse for readers other than me and the handful of students who took that class. More and more I see my role in student writing as editor rather than as judge.

I think this is a crucial point. As editor my job is not directive, guiding each student to conformity with house style, assuring a homogeneity of textual product; rather my job is to recommend approaches to specific works-in-progress that help individual student writers achieve personal objectives. The question for me isn't, how can I make this writer's text more similar to every other text being handed in but how can this writer ratchet up the writing to a level where it accomplishes what it needs to, where it matches the writer's aspirations for it. But, in order to have aspirations or personal objectives, writers need to be engaged in the writing; they have to become not merely bystanders but beholders.


In Honey From Stone: A Naturalist's Search for God, Chet Raymo writes,

Raymo is a professor of physics and astronomy whose book is a geological-astronomical-spiritual-personal travel memoir, a work of stunning insight and dazzling prose. Honey From Stone and another of his books, The Soul of Night, reaffirm what, for me at least, academic life has too often seemed to deny: it's alright to have a self; in fact, it's not only alright, it's unavoidable.

It isn't a question of whether or not first person singular pronouns occur in the writer's text. As Scott Russell Sanders observes, "even when the self is not on display, an actual, flesh-and-blood human being still composes the sentences, and writers well trained in the first-person singular are likelier to feel a responsibility for the accuracy and impact of their words" (B5).

It's not only the "eye" of the beholder that makes the difference; it's the "I" of the beholder as well.


Chet Raymo ends the segment from which the passage above is taken with this sentence:

I read it and I think, I wish I could write like an astronomer--this astronomer and physicist, at least. I hope the person who teaches our Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences course knows about this sentence; I hope the person who sometimes teaches Advanced Composition in Physics knows about it. It's the sentence I want engraved on the commemorative medal celebrating the meeting of creative nonfiction and writing across the curriculum. It's the equivalent of a golden spike for me.

I tend to refer to creative nonfiction as "the fourth genre," a term Mike Steinberg and I came up with to instill the idea in readers that nonfiction is a literary form, equal with the traditional three genres of poetry, fiction, and drama. One problem in making that claim is the chance that some teachers will instinctively step back from it, nervous about stepping off the bedrock of composition into the quicksand of creative writing, just as some teachers resisted wandering off into the terra incognita of other disciplines when writing across the curriculum began recruiting crusaders. But those who are willing to risk the border crossings will discover that there are no boundaries, no moats or walls; there is the same as here.


What I like about being a writer and teacher of creative nonfiction is the way it keeps me centered on the values that brought me to composition in the first place. At the risk of losing whatever credibility I may have, I want to confess: I'm still interested in composing processes. I can no more imagine a "post-process period" of composition theory than a "post-gravity" period or "post-heliocentric" solar system. I am constantly nourished by a continuously brewing compositional stew with ingredients from Ken Macrorie and Peter Elbow, Janet Emig, the Jameses: Britton, Kinneavy, and Moffett, the Donalds: Murray and Graves, Winston Weathers' Grammar B in both the original and the Wendy Bishop recipes--too many ingredients to name. My motto still is this: Writing is a means of discovery as well as a means of communication. Nothing I've taught and nothing I've learned as a teacher or as a scholar or as a writer has led me to doubt the wisdom of that maxim. Working in creative nonfiction has helped me teach writing from a writer's perspective, has helped my own writing to be more authentically writing that comes from the "I" of the beholder, that first person who is always the one speaking.

What I've come to understand about nonfiction is this: It's the center of the profession. It embodies composition and creative writing, it generates literature and it studies literature, it provides a powerful site for linguistic, rhetorical, and poetical or aesthetic study. While my department, like most English departments, is doggedly compartmentalized, I feel connected to all of it, departmentally Whitmanesque--I am theorist and practitioner, essayist and rhetorician and litterateur and linguist, artist and scholar and pedagogue, the lit guy among compositionists, the compositionist among creative writers, the creative writer among literature scholars, the stylist among language scholars, the English education specialist among literary theorists, marginalized and centralized simultaneously, my identity dependant not on the eye that beholds me but on the "I" with which I behold myself and my world. It's a liberating place to be, and even more rewarding when my students liberate themselves by seeing with the "I" of the beholder.

Works Cited