Recently, I was invited to the 2012 Survive & Thrive Conference and Festival in St Cloud, MN. It was an event dedicated to the medical humanities, with its theme this year being centered on the heart. It was a fabulous event, and it provided attendees ample opportunities to explore various medical humanities topics. A diverse crowd attended the conference: from medical doctors, to college professors, to writers, to business people, and so on.
I was originally going to read an excerpt from an essay I’ve been working on about suicide and teaching titled, “Red Ink.” However, I was asked to run a workshop, and I jumped at the opportunity to give attendees a safe space to write about healing.
Those who’ve worked with me know that I’m easy going and often accommodating with collaborators. I’m that way not because I like to acquiesce; I’m that way because I find collaboration to be a dance, an odd polka; sometimes you have to give, and other times you have to take.
But, I digress.
Anyways, I put together a workshop focused on writing and healing. It was well attended, and I was told later during the conference that my workshop created quite a positive buzz. I’m always happy to hear that people enjoyed their time with me as co-learners.
Writing is an inherently expressive act. We can’t escape it because at the root of every text is a human, and humans are expressive creatures. It seems current writing pedagogy and theory spurns expressivist thinking. It’s mostly a reaction to the great expressivist movement in the 70s and 80s; from that, we got cognitive writing theory, then we got a combo, and now we’re coming back around to current traditional style writing theory, where grammar is the only thing of importance.
Drawing on the spirit of scholars, like Peter Elbow and Donald Murray, I focused the workshop on the theory and praxis behind writing and healing, identifying experiences on which to journal and why, and continuing practice with the aid of prompts. Importantly, we did lots of writing.
I provided two handouts to the workshop participants. First, I gave them a short bibliography of relevant sources for them to explore about the workshop topic; and, second, I gave them writing prompts clustered around certain themes related to the workshop topic.
Co-learning with these workshop participants reminded me of how powerful writing is in many contexts. Whether it is for healing, for business, or for the public, writing has power, and it can do great things. We should never forget the power of writing because it is an act that can free us all.
For those interested, here are the slides from the workshop:
Image by Flickr user Steve Snodgrass // Creative Commons licensed: CC-BY
(This post is cross posted on the HASTAC site, where I am a HASTAC Scholar)
“I’ve never renounced anything I’ve written because I’ve been afraid of certain consequences. Nothing intimidates me when I write. I say what I think must be said.”–Jacques Derrida
Writing is action. It is something that we engage in for many reasons: to satisfy a test, to tweet, to blog, to answer assignment prompts, to publish, etc. While there are many reasons to write, there is often only one reason we don’t write: fear.
I doubt that when we fail to write, we consider the exigency of that failure to be fear-based. However, fear is at the root of most decisions we make in our lives in some way, so why not writing? It’s not as strange as you may think. When we sit down to write, we enter into a process of discovery, and there are times we do not like what we discover. We discover things about our lives, our friends, our research, our teaching, and our notions of truths. It can be hard to accept something when it challenges our understanding of the world.
That’s what writing does best: challenges us. Writing challenges us to consider our realities from different perspectives, which we may or may not like. Often, we fear being misunderstood or misread because readers bring their own interpretation to our writing, and it is quite possible that our reader’s interpretation will trump the interpretation put forth in our writing. Why is this frustrating, and why does it produce fear? Well, we know what we want to say, and how we want to say it. We know because we wrote it; however, given that our reader’s often haven’t had the same experiences we draw on in our writing, it makes sense that they would bring a different interpretation to what we wrote.
I’ve written some pretty academically polarizing stuff. I’ve written about abolishing for-profit schools, university oppression, the arbitrariness of grades, and sports and learning. I’ve been accused of less than complex thinking, of being blunt when I should be nuanced, and kicking the hornet’s nest. I’ve written pieces on teaching that have gotten me dismissed from writing gigs, and I’ve written things that have gotten me lots of writing gigs. You know what? I regret nothing. I don’t regret one single thing. Despite all the mostly vapid criticism, I ultimately write for myself. I see things I don’t like, so I write about them. But, I won’t stop writing polarizing work and pieces that challenge the status quo just because some people don’t like it, though I know some who have.
It’s disturbing to know that some have forgone writing polarizing pieces, especially in the form of public discourse, because of the critiques of the mob (i.e. the public). As a writer and writing teacher, I find the critiques of the mob useful, even if often colored by slight ignorance. Indeed, the mob is no more ignorant than some academics attacking what they do not understand. In response to some things I’ve written, I’ve received hate mail (in the form of emails and tweets) from academics and non-academics alike.
Did I stop writing? No.
Did I stop writing even when I was being attacked from all directions by academics and non-academics? No.
Did I stop writing even when I was being attacked by those who I thought would be most open to enlightened discussion (i.e. academics and some colleagues)? No.
I kept writing, and I will never stop writing. Am I afraid to write some things? Occasionally, yes, though never pieces criticizing my profession. I can understand how people would be afraid. I talk to my students often about overcoming the fear of writing and the perceived inadequacy of their own writing. In my case, I’m not so much afraid to write something, as I am aware that what I write may be unpopular with the antiquated and tradition-steeped academy.
I most certainly do not want this post to turn into a “pity me” post, but I wanted to use examples from my own interactions with people, the same interactions that often reinforce the fear of writing in others, to show that fear of writing is real and, often, warranted. It’s perfectly normal to be afraid of writing. Writing is a deeply personal act. It’s more personal than people realize. When someone writes, they are creating something that is often somewhat unique to the particular context through which it arose.
Depending on what you’re writing and where you’re writing, the discourse created will have different implications. Jacques Derrida was most certainly correct in his famous assertion: “il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” or there’s nothing outside of context (see Of Grammatology, p. 163)). The fear of writing is always contextually based. There are times we fear to write to our loved ones, but we don’t fear to write something criticizing our profession (and vice versa).
We shouldn’t be afraid to write. Often, it is in the middle of a swamp of discourse that we are most in control of things. We decide what to write, where to take that writing, when to release it on the world, and whether or not it should be deleted and never revisited once we’ve finished it. That’s the power of writing (and all discourse): It serves at the pleasure of humanity. Unfortunately, this is a two-sided coin in that by deleting a piece of writing, deleting something so personal to us, we may delete part of ourselves.
Indeed, fear may be an integral part of the writing process. That fear heightens our awareness, and it drives us to articulate exactly what we want to say. In my process, that fear is a fear of misinterpretation, so when I do experience fear of writing, it actually isn’t until after I’ve written what I wanted to write. No matter where the fear creeps into our processes, the main point is that we shouldn’t be afraid to engage in an act that is so personal and integral to understanding the world around us.
Write to yourself. Write to your loved ones. Write to your teachers. Write to your friends. Write to your colleagues. Write in loud cafes. Write in secluded bathroom stalls. Write in the corners of buses. Write in your bedroom. Write in places where you see no writing.
We should not let the fear of writing dictate what and where we should write. We should write what we believe must be written.
We must write, though our world perishes.
Photos by Flickr users epSos.de and Kelly Schott, respectively. Graphic by the author. // All Creative Commons licensed: CC-BY