Carra and I enjoy having our blogs intersect and play off each other. Rather than comment on my post, she’ll read what I write and then usually have a different way of looking at whatever my subject was, which, in turn, makes me review and adjust my thinking (and I’m hoping that what I write does the same for her). We’re both writing about writing. I’m more specifically writing about using personal writing in the classroom—because that’s what I’ve been doing lately—whereas she’s writing about a more general sense of writing in culture—and sometimes, just being in culture. Nevertheless, our friendship and blogs move us a little bit beyond ourselves, as all good friendships and writing do.
Our latest intersections involved some of my casual claims about natural writing, placing it in opposition (following the tradition of Ken Macrorie) to school writing (by which I mean most school writing). I didn’t know what I meant by natural writing, but she picked up on it and reframed it as authentic writing, including various takes on what people have meant by that phrase, ending with her own statement of what she means:
writing I care about,
writing that grows out of me and my experience, and
writing that reflects the process of its composition.
Actually, she hedged on this—she described what it meant for her specifically within the frame of a multi-media poem she was creating. I’m still not certain about what she meant by “writing that reflects the process of its composition”—but I’m imagining that it’s writing that is not overly polished—the reader can see, in the tradition of the essai, the writer working his or her way though to a thought or insight, like a Frank Lloyd Wright house, the form and function simultaneously developing rather than preconceived.
I have a place I’m going to in this post, but I know it only vaguely. It has something to do with personal writing, authenticity, vulnerability, and love. I know I want to bring these things together as well as have them play off against each other. I want these fields of affect to in some way inform productive teaching strategies—which I know might be too much. Let me see how far I can get with this.
I want to start with the kind of writing that comes naturally to me. I am a diary addict, so that is the most natural—just me thinking to myself in words that slip through my fingers and onto the screen. I have no audience (please don’t counter with notions of the other or later self). I’m basically just organizing my life, my thoughts, sometimes my day. Sometimes I’m whining, sometimes I’m just reciting a mantra—It will be all right, Irvin, just hold your breath. In this kind of writing, I am not vulnerable; I don’t take risks; and I don’t censor (ok—there are a couple of things I have decided not to write down). And love plays no part, other than I think I’m Ok—but I don’t love myself in the same way I love others.
I move outward to txts and emails to the people I love. This is actually a fairly large group of people who are my family and have become very close friends over the years. I love to write to these people. I do a bit of censoring, depending on the features of the relationship, but I’m usually exchanging honest thoughts with this group. I let them see me from the inside—and they do the same, which is why they are my friends. When I’m writing to them, the words simply seem to come out of me, almost like when I’m writing in my diary. This is clearly authentic/natural writing. Vulnerability can come into play here, although not as much as with a more anonymous audience. There are certain things that I will write to one member that I would not write to another. I will write things to Carl, my friend of thirty years, that I won’t write to my son, Jesse, things that I write to Jesse, that I won’t write to my daughter, Heather. Because I know these people very well, I usually don’t have to think about what gets written to whom: it’s just part of the relationship, a part of our connection. But there are times when I have to think about, should I tell her that or is it better to just be quiet?
I can see this post is getting too long—and I have to write an essay on vulnerability this afternoon (my students are writing one, and I always try to write what they write)—so I’m going to skip a few steps and get to the classroom (although I’m tempted to reflect on the what kind of writing this is—what risks I’m taking and how I have left myself open to readers I don’t know—that is, if anyone reads this).
In my Life Writing class, my students and I wrote brief autobiographies (which I will soon link to from this blog). They didn’t know each other very well, but they knew the other students in the class would be reading them—and then in a further step, that I might open their autobiographies up to the world by linking to them from this blog. Obviously, the risks and the possibilities of opening themselves up too much (making themselves overly vulnerable) were serious. We had several discussions about how far they should go. What family issues and broken hearts would be better kept to themselves. The flip side of the question is that the more you keep to yourself, the less interesting you are. The less likely anyone will be interested in reading you, the less likely you will be able to connect with others (see Brene Brown’s TED talk), and the less likely you are to connect with others, the more impoverished your life will be. Still, there are limits.
I had an interesting example (I don’t know how much I’m going to tell you here). I have my students write in online diaries in Moodle for the first ten minutes of each class. I seriously want them to know what diary writing can do for them. I can see their diary entries in a private forum, for which I give them credit, but I tell them, I’m not going to read them. In order to equalize the writing game, I write a diary entry, too, which they can see if they choose, if you will, to peek. During one of our how-far-do-we-go discussions, I told them about my entry for the day—a decision I made to only hint at something I had been worried about in my love life. This was a just-in-case decision, I said, at which point, one of my students asked whether anyone had been reading my entries, and another student popped up and said, “I always do.”
I hope you’ll get my point, as my students did. The choice of how far to go is always rhetorical. But it’s an important choice and in many ways determines the quality of your life.
I suspect that if you read my students’ autobiographies and what they wrote about writing them that we might reasonably say their writing here has been natural, or authentic—although they certainly were circumspect about some of the things they decided not to reveal.
After having done some research on the issue (like finding Brene Brown’s TED talk), my students are now writing essays on vulnerability (and I see I am about to complete mine). Their essays will be a step away in the degree of naturalness from their autobiographies (they have been talking about this), but they have been eager to write them because they are trying to work out in their own minds something about being open to others, their writing being only a metaphor for who they are. Most of the thoughts they gathered admit of no circumspection, like Hemingway’s: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed”; or from Linda Joy Myers: “I’ve often said to my students, ‘Writing a memoir is like taking your clothes off in public.’ True, but it doesn't go far enough. It's like taking your clothes off and reading your journal in public.”
Well, yes—and no. There are limits—but the essential truth is there: natural/authentic writing comes from opening yourself up to others, to readers you know and ones you don’t. The same is true with love and lovers. You will have a rich relationship when you open yourself up to the other—but that’s risky. We all know what I mean. What if she doesn’t love you back as you love her? I think in many ways, that’s the risk of being alive.
We all liked Brene Brown’s TED talk—although I think we could complicate the issue by exploring how students with disabilities or disadvantaged social groups are made vulnerable by the structuring structures (Bourdieu) of school systems (see Denise Claire Batchelor, “Vulnerable Voices,” Educational Philosophy and Theory 38.6, 2006). But here are two quotes from Brene Brown about courage (not exact quotes):
Courage is being the first to say, “I love you.”
Courage comes from cor—heart: to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.
What I have written here is close to natural writing, even by Carra’s definition.