Last Friday I went to a workshop organized by my department, called “Stop, Write, Reflect–Teach!” They pitched it as a chance to take time out, return to the writing that nourishes us, and think about why we became teachers. I was really excited for this because I’ve been feeling a renewal of interest in and motivation for writing lately, and the opportunity to have community support for my writing is just not something I’d pass up right now.
In this workshop we were led through a process of exploring our personal histories, specifically with regards to teaching, as narratives. The facilitator diagrammed a plot arc on the board and asked us to think about the initiating events, the conflicts, the moments of heightened tension, the crisis and the denouement of our teacherly lives. She had us do little five minute writings in which we would write continuously for the five minutes — a shorter version of what Natalie Goldberg calls writing practice. And as I was writing, I kept thinking about how “these are my stories…” as in, the stories that have congealed over the years into episodes in a narrative that I’ve told, I feel, too many times. These supposed standout points on the plot line of my life — I felt like I was watching once again a VHS tape that had been rewound and replayed too many times.
Natalie Goldberg was one of my first true heroes, one of maybe three writers who seriously influenced my intellectual, spiritual, and artistic development when I was in high school. I wrote about her in my college application essays. I still consider her mode of writing practice to be the foundation of all creative writing (for me), and I share her “Rules for Writing Practice” and “Beginner’s Mind, Pen and Paper” at the start of every single writing class I teach and probably always will. People who take more than one class with me get to read it multiple times.
Maybe it’s because of the ideal implanted in me when I first read her book Wild Mind in tenth grade, or maybe it’s just my own neurosis, but I am always striving to write something that’s not boring. I was afraid my teacher narrative (which is also to some inevitable extent my grad student narrative) had crossed the line from vibrant, illuminating, impassioned, to boring, processed, twice-told. It just felt like the same old stuff, and I felt ready to let go of it.
I think those memories, the “turning points” (in plot-speak) that I identify as part of my “story” of how I came to be an adjunct community college English teacher with a Ph.D. In American Studies, are important, and some of them even make good stories, but it’s just been so long that I’ve been rehashing them. I learned a lot through both living them and analyzing them, and now I’m wondering what it would be like to try on a different narrative. Like trying a new hairstyle, it could change my whole personality. I’m curious what it would be like: a story that would read my past a different way, and maybe thus shed light a little way into the future.
It feels like a story that hasn’t been written yet, and like all blank first pages, it’s a little daunting. But it came to me again that I need to imagine the teaching job that I actually want, and it makes sense to reimagine the context in which it — and I — would exist. A new read on my past; a new theory of why I care about teaching (and what else I care about, and why): It’s so — so — lit analysis circa 1998!
What first comes to mind for revision is this whole category of memories filed under “failures.” These mainly have to do with a. social missteps (large and small) resulting in hurt feelings (mine or another’s) or embarrassment or both, b. social ineptness related to shyness and insecurity, or c. lack of proper career development. Those are, of course, arbitrary interpretations of ultimately neutral material. I would like to free myself from those calcified, crusty stories, with which I punish myself whenever a random reminder causes them to rise in by brain. How I handled myself when a friend moved away. Various lies I told or petty acts of revenge I committed in high school. The reasons why I didn’t get promoted. These and unbelievably many other negative stories about myself, I haven’t yet been able to let go of. But I feel like in this go-round, at the writing workshop, as, out of annoyance, I struggled to find some new interpretations of the material if memory — that grip cracked open just a little bit. As a result, at least part of me feels not just ready, but straining to release those beliefs about what a failure I have been.
I’ll share an example of an episode whose moral I need to rewrite, one that has come up since the workshop: my relationship with my dissertation advisor.
I sometimes have moments of clarity when I realize that in general, I habitually see almost every aspect of my life as evidence of another dismal social failure, or maybe the next installment in one epic social failure that began exploding on my first day of preschool and hasn’t yet ceased to be a continual disaster. As I review my actions and my days, it’s automatic for me to think of how I screwed myself over by not being willing or courageous enough to initiate, or skilled enough to maintain, conversations, friendships, relationships. I just feel I suck at this and always have. It’s, in my estimation of myself, one of my greatest flaws and sources of shame.
Well, when I was in grad school, the process of finding and working with an advisor took me way longer than most people, because I just couldn’t steel myself to ask someone if they would be my advisor. It took me even longer to get a committee; my department actually started harassing me to to get these established already before they dropped me from good standing (it was close!). I ended up asking this wonderful woman, a queer Chicana who’d gone through the same program as me, and who shared my political orientation, to be my advisor in like my third or fourth year. It was really hard to do. But she said yes.
Then, I always felt like a crappy advisee because I never checked in with her about my dissertation. Unlike my colleagues, I never sent her chapters as I finished them, never workshopped anything or got her feedback or suggestions for revision. I barely talked to her except when I had to meet with her and get a form signed every semester. I thought she was great, I really looked up to her, but I couldn’t stand the idea of the possibility of her not liking my work. It had happened enough times — maybe someone thought I wasn’t theoretical enough, or didn’t claim my argument strongly enough. What if she thought my work was unworthy of my program? I literally couldn’t take the thought of it. So I didn’t send her a thing until I was about a chapter away from totally finishing my dissertation — then I sent it all to her and asked if she thought I could defend it in a couple of months.
Unbelievably, I got away with that! She barely had me to any revisions — said she liked it, and arranged for my defense. My committee members were all pretty hard core about what they liked and didn’t like, yet somehow they all gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up. I had never heard of anyone avoiding their advisor, writing their dissertation with practically no input from anyone, and then passing like that! I considered my way of doing things a major failing; I continually berated myself for not taking advantage of the opportunities for intellectual development and friendship that can come with the advising relationship. I simply could not make myself do it.
As a result, I always assumed that she thought little of me — that she didn’t think of me at all. I figured I was a blip on her radar, an unmemorable experience, and I more or less tried to forget about what I thought if as my failure as an advisee.
But the other day, my partner, traveling several states away to our alma mater, actually ran into my advisor, and according to him, she said she really missed me. I thought, how could she possibly miss me, with as little as I talked to her? Yet apparently, whatever I thought of my own actions and appearance, she remembers me as a smiling person who wrote a great dissertation. She said she actually refers people to my dissertation as an example, and that she strongly hopes I will still publish it because some people need to read it, in her opinion.
What does it serve me to hold on to this idea that I was a sucky grad student? So all these writers and academics passionately loved and hated their advisors, were pounded into greatness by their advisors, went to barbecues with their advisors … so what? I always look at that as the standard, and see myself as deviant. It’s the same with so many things involving social interaction. I just feel like such a loser.
But could it be possible to really rewrite my story in a way that values what I did do? I’m wondering if there is a way for me to re-remember those years and determine that the way I went about grad school was just fine, it was just the way I personally did it, and it was a success, and I did everything exactly as I should have, in the right and perfect way for me. I didn’t develop into an academic superstar and I never became truly comfortable or confident in those intellectual-social-collegial circles, at least not in MN, at least not at that point in my growing up. But dang it, I pushed myself a lot; I didn’t hang around in my comfort zone. For as terrified as I was, I navigated the tricky situations and survived, academically and spiritually and physically (and there was some doubt about all of these at one point or another). I did get straight A’s (ok, one A-). I got a bunch of really awesome people to be on my committee. And the author of the book I based my dissertation on loved how I used her work. So maybe I didn’t totally wreck it, my grad school career. Maybe I could start being proud of myself and stop being ashamed.
… And now I have a sneaky feeling that the diss needs to be published. To which I respond: Oh, shiiiiiit. But returning to and finally finishing that project would be the perhaps the best dramatic rewriting of the old advisee story, the one with the sequel, “I’ll Never Publish my Diss.” It requires facing the same things again that scared me before: submitting for approval, exposing myself to criticism, plus revisiting stuff I’m out of the flow with, and my fear that revising that diss for publication would take all my time and I would dangerously overwork myself even more than now, and I would have a mental breakdown of some kind.
But something has shifted lately, maybe because I came to a crisis point in my life recently which has convinced me to be open to any guidance or any possibilities that I feel led to — especially, or really only, things I have not tried before. I just got simultaneously fed up with both the stagnation of my quest for a living wage and the worn out methods I’ve tried repeatedly with no success. So whatever I do, it had to be something different. And I have never seriously tried to publish my dissertation before.
Ok, although I have a whole ongoing string of thoughts and reflections I’d like to post here, I’m aware that this is already a really long post about my mental process — so if you’ve read this far and you really are interested, well, I’ll be writing more in other posts.
If you’ve stopped reading, although you won’t be actually reading this, namaste. And if you haven’t stopped reading, namaste, and thanks.
Snow always makes me introspective.