Save yourself; save your work 2/6/17

I met with a student this weekend (who does that? I do.), and we discussed writing and thinking and blogging and Basic Writing.

First we talked about a possible lost post from her blog (it wasn’t lost, but some of us couldn’t see it at one point). It might have been cold comfort for her, but I told her the story of how I worked for hours, in a blissful frenzy writing what could have been the greatest blog post of all time. And then lost it all. Except for one letter: m. I tried everything to get those hours back, to recover the words. Nothing worked. I did something weird with my flying fingers, and it was just gone. I tried to recreate it, but it became a shadow of what I thought it was going to be as I was writing it the first time through. It felt like magic the first time. I can still feel how that was. I can close my eyes and see my desk at home, the music in the background, the sun streaming in a side window, the utter comfort of writing, the smell of a marshmallow candle, the tap tap tap of the keyboard, the ease of the words flowing out of me, the feeling of triumph, of winning. Then it was gone.

After I tried to reclaim the words, the moment, and failed, I cried a little. Got up. Made coffee. Looked out the window and felt all kinds of sad for myself. But then I sat down and did it again. It wasn’t as good, but it was a good lesson. In order to save myself, I needed to save my work.

Below you’ll find my sad story that I shared with my student and how I recovered some of my creativity by allowing myself to be vulnerable…again. Exactly how it felt and what I was writing about as well. Is that ironic? (Just hit “save as draft” again. FYI. BTW. FWIW. I mean it, right now.)

There’s a TED talk below I that I mentioned in a previous post for this class. It’s garnered a ton more viewings since I first wrote about it below, but it’s still relevant to basic writers: people are afraid to be vulnerable, and when they hold onto that fear, it cripples openness and creativity. The difference between a closed fist and an open hand. With a closed fist, you can protest, you can fight, you can bang on things. With an open fist, you can hold hands, wave hello, grasp anything, write, surrender to vulnerability so you can create.

This term I’m teaching a course on Being Human for the honors program with several other professors. At the core of being human is creating. We ARE a maker culture. We need to create, but when we’re afraid, when we are closed off, when we are little fists of hate, we tend to not be so open or creative. The best of humanity is the creation of lives worth living, art, stories, environments in which other humans can flourish. Eudaimonia. This is at the core of the video I talk about below. Watch it when you can because I promise it will be assigned later. It’s not about Basic Writing, but it’s about basic writers.

Below is what I wrote, and…

A Couple of Beers and a Banana Nut Muffin

…I wrote what I thought was a brilliant post on another blog–over 2,000 words of extremely deep insight on teaching, writing, and vulnerability–and then accidentally deleted it. I didn’t even try to recover what I’d done. I was left with this text:

m

Yep. One little letter “m.” I type really fast sometimes and have done weird things before, like deleting paragraphs or even pages, but a whole post? I did it; so I have lived with it.

Surely, it was crap and  had no right to existence. I had a horrible head cold while I was writing it and that must have fogged my vision. What I thought was so so so fantastic might have been the worst dreck I ever churned out. Perhaps it’s all for the best.

But here’s the bummer: the concept has been haunting me. I can’t shake the idea I was writing about could have saved my soul. (That kind of profound feeling might have had something to do with the head cold.) It’s been darting in and around the edges of everything I’ve done for a week. That’s the thing about my writing: it’s its own thing. An idea will consume me for a time, and until I get it out of my mind/body/spirit, it irritates me some.

I’d titled that post the same as this one. Clarity over this particular title will come later. All you need know right now is that I couldn’t let this go–to the point that I even had to re-use the same post title. Bad choice? You can say so at the end.

Occasionally, I will be strong enough to ignore an idea if it is really inconvenient–I’ll let it sit in draft form for a long time, and it will eventually get deleted in a frenzy of computer housekeeping. That’s happened to five or six posts for this blog, seven or eight for other blogs I write in/on, and for a LOT of documents I create offline to get out my very-much-not-for-publication writing ya-yas. It’s always a bit of a shock when I run across something I wrote a few years ago and try to reconstruct what I was thinking and why I wrote what I did. Sometimes I can do it, the reconstruction, and sometimes, it’s just crap.

I could not let this one idea go.

So maybe the lost writing was a shitty first draft.

That’s the thing Anne Lamott says about writing, that sometimes a writer needs to get out a shitty first draft before the writing can get good–it is through revision that writing can be more than shitty. Most writers I know say revision is utterly the core of writing. Some of us do a lot of writing in our heads first, but that’s an acquired taste, like añejo tequila. Not everybody is going to be able to stand tequila with the first tipple, but after a few times, it’s a smoother process and one that can be appreciated–like writing can be appreciated after years of practice. (Google “shitty first drafts” and you’ll find several copies of Lamott’s chapter and a link to buy her book, Bird by Bird, where the chapter is originally from.)

I love to write and not make a lot of sense–often. The shittier the draft, the better, but then I tinker. Frequently, it takes a lot of tinkering and/or substantial re-thinking to get at the kernel of what I wanted to say. Sometimes, it stays awful. Sometimes, it just flows.

The day I was writing about “a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin” it all just flowed. I was trying to put my game face on it all at the beginning of this post–the writing and deleting accidentally–ho hum. But I loved writing that day, and it was a total bummer to lose it the way I did. I was on a wondrous roll. Words flowed, ideas connected, synapses were firing, satellites were linking up in space, my GPS was pinging that I was in the right place at the right time with the right idea. I know it was good. I just know it. Damn. And then, boom goes the dynamite, and I ended up with “m.”

But here’s the thing I know deep in my writer’s heart, it had to go. I must have had to think about it more in order to understand the whole thing.

(WARNING: title clarity is coming, I promise.)

Between then and now, I have been doing some more thinking about writing and teaching and vulnerability, but it’s taken a personal turn. I was first inspired by my usual serendipitous romp through texts, then a journey through TED.com. I had been reading about the history of teaching in England, specifically the 19th century and teaching with the cane (and how demotivating that must have been), and then I happened to fall upon this talk by Brene Brown viewed 2,126,404 times (as of 11/23/11 at 4:27 pm): The power of vulnerability.

Dr. Brown is a professor of social work at University of Houston who studies shame and vulnerability and, I think, risk. That’s the part that interests me, the ability to take a risk. Not BASE jumping, but risk of the heart. I admire those who can do this–risk their hearts, be vulnerable.

She found, after many years of research, that vulnerability was a necessary component of living fully. Not that it’s comfortable. It’s not, but it is necessary. The difference, she learned, between those who are content and those who are full of fear is that those who manage to live fully believe they are worthy of belonging and love. In her TED lecture, she talks about studying shame for six years (the fear of human disconnection–that if others see us as we really are, we will be disconnected from them, that we are not worthy). What it all comes to–after her years of study, a book, and a breakdown–is the need for humans to be vulnerable, that vulnerability is a thing that makes us beautiful.

Are you thinking, as I am, of the Wayne and Garth moment with Alice Cooper? “We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy…

Alice Cooper: we really may not be worthy… (Wayne’s World, 1992)

Brown calls those who function with vulnerability “wholehearted”–interesting concept, isn’t it? Because, if we’re not wholehearted, then we’re what? Part-hearted? Partially hearted? Minimally hearted? Ick.

She had some trouble with this as a researcher–a person who spent her life dedicated to controlling and predicting data. Can’t do that with those sorts of things we feel. In order to forget the discomfort, she says, we numb hard feelings–with a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. But the trouble is that we numb it all when we numb. Every bad and good thing–all the joy and creativity gets numbed along with the vulnerability. Like the alcoholic who drinks because he hates it that he drinks, so he drinks more to forget he drinks so much. Vicious cycles. Throw in a banana nut muffin and you have the scenario she claims is so ugly, that threw her for a professional and personal loop, vulnerability and what it does to us, what it allows. Our fear of it can do damage, in the numbing of that fear, greater damage can indeed be done. But.

Vulnerability utterly negates perfection. In fact, it embraces the imperfect.

This makes a lot of sense.

But rather than fear being vulnerable (and I fear it, make no mistake about that), Brown suggests we can live our lives with less of the shame and blame that cripples us and more of the courage and goodness, sweetness and light, that makes us able to live wholehearted lives. Could we do these four things?

  • Let ourselves be seen, really be seen;
  • Love with whole hearts, without guarantee of return;
  • Practice gratitude and joy, even when we’re terrified;
  • Believe that we are enough, that we are worthy of hanging backstage with Alice Cooper.

Okay, that last part is from me–the Alice Cooper part. (I love that he’s a great golfer. It’s like everything I wouldn’t expect from him but am delighted to find he’s all about. He says it replaced an addiction… like beers and banana nut muffins?)

(See how the many weird strands of this post are all sort of coming together in a really cool sort of way… Perhaps, it will be a lovely tapestry at the end.)

I like that Brown thinks we can do these four things. I’m not a researcher like she is; I’m much messier. I’m a writer, inherently a wildly untamed creature (not undisciplined, mind you, there is a difference) and not able to be controlled or predicted. So you’d think I’d be all over what she talks about. But not so much.

I’m bitter that I lost the post I wrote about writing and teaching and vulnerability. I really wanted to wrap my brain and arms around that and be vulnerable in my writing and teaching, but then… shame. I lost it and felt really wretched, like I’d done something wrong (and I had). But then, I’m annoyed by vulnerability in myself. I admire it in others but avoid it whenever I can. I don’t want to be in pain. I don’t want to be vulnerable. I want to be Superman but without the kryptonite. I want invulnerability. I want invincibility. But damnitallanyway, I just don’t get to have those things.

Most folks might say that I do the above four things because I am a ball of love most of the time and charge right ahead like I’m worthy. I would argue that I appear to do those four things. I do have sprezzatura. (I “own” that term like it’s mine.)

I lost my writing that day, but I couldn’t lose the essence of my discomfort with the idea of it, as a writer, and as a teacher–most of all, as a person. Now I’m writing in an oblique way about all that–and it’s not coming together in ways I’m happy about. I’m feeling very vulnerable. And I don’t like it. I want to say this thing or that thing, and I’m not getting it said in ways I want–but then this might be the less shitty second draft on its way to the better third draft. (Please, let it be this way, please, please, please.)

At the least, I have written something about “a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin,” and gotten that off my chest and put down more on the screen than “m.” Next time, I might get to “n” or “o.”

[Addendum 1: I just found an article by one of my favorite authors of all time, Roger Angell, who mentions “sprezzatura” as a term that’s largely unfamiliar to many. And if you’re not into Italian writing from the 1520s, that could be true. Or perhaps you don’t speak Italian. Or maybe you don’t know a Renaissance scholar. I first heard the word from a Renaissance professor who said I had sprezzatura. I thought it might be mildly insulting at the time–and it sort of is, it’s loaded with meaning–but it’s also accurate and lovely.]

[Addendum 2: As soon as you finish reading this–save your work.]

[Addendum 3: Many basic writers would give up after losing everything and use that as an excuse to not do the work. What we must always model is resilience, determination, grit, getting back up on the horse that threw us off. Heaven knows, it’s painful and puts us in a vulnerable position, but we cannot quit and still grow. We grow from failure and perseverance. I’m not sure we can teach these traits but we can emphasize them as necessary for college writing success (see the Framework) and we can model this kind of sprezzatura in the face of disaster.

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When you are tired and your heart aches… 1/30

When you’re tired and your heart aches and you think, “I don’t know what to do,” do something for someone else. Let your students know they are safe in your classroom, at the very least. It doesn’t cost much, and it could mean the world to someone who is having a horrible day, week, month. Writing classrooms, especially, need to be places where love reigns and safety is the first order of business, because it’s collaborative, because we share our thoughts, because we are so vulnerable when we write. The professors in basic writing classrooms are overcoming years of discomfort and distress–so they must be understanding of student fear and help allay in all ways possible–including posting signs or including statements like this in their syllabi.screen-shot-2017-01-30-at-8-39-19-amThis image is a bit fuzzy because it’s a screen shot from Facebook, but why not create one WITH your students FOR your students BY your students and YOU.

The best writing comes from a place of vulnerability. Don’t be afraid of that. Embrace it for your basic students. They already know how vulnerable they are: being graded, assessed, evaluated, judged. Help them understand that in your writing class, they are vulneralble but safe: no one will hurt them with words of pure anger, hate, bitterness. And if anyone is dares such an incursion into your classroom, you must promise to jump in immediately to insist it stop, ask why, push for answers, and have a conversation. Such a thing might be the hardest work you ever do, but you cannot let such behavior pass if your students are to believe you are the creator of the environment in which they can and will flourish.

We live in some really difficult times, no matter your political persuasion, but the one thing you can do is be entirely open and honest about what you’re doing as a professor. And what matters to you and that is always ensuring your students have a place to flourish in your classes. Human flourishing is called eudaimonia, a Greek work that means… human flourishing (more than that, but that’s all I’m dealing with at the moment).

Human flourishing is the point of higher education–not to be an expert in pharmocology, or English, or history of the year 1859, or physics. Sure, you can become specialized, but the point of the core classes and a LIBERAL ARTS base is to stretch the brain beyond one small area of certainty. The way we do higher education (at AUM) is about getting multiple patterns of learning into your life and head and heart so that you can flourish and keep on flourishing–always–as you choose in ways you choose in fields you choose. You. Choose. And best yet, you can always choose again because You know how to learn. Higher education isn’t an end game. It’s the starting point for creating a fulfilling and happy life. Maybe it’s about earning money, but that cannot be all it is, because when the money goes, what have you?

And we enter into this college thing vulnerable as babes. Professors of Basic Writing need be especially nurturing to help the students on the brink of non-flourishing to pull themselves in the right direction to keep going. It’s a lofty and noble profession that few folks call that. But ask any student who’s started in BW (or a similar math) about their experiences in getting over this hurdle. It’s like the cow jumped over the moon.

[image by Caitlin Dundon, artist, http://www.oneheartstudio.com]

[image by Caitlin Dundon, artist, http://www.oneheartstudio.com%5D

I like to show three videos to students as they try to figure out how to manage in college.

One is by Brené Brown, a sociology professor at University of Houston. It’s a TED talk on the power of vulnerability. It’s now been viewed over 28 million times. 45 of those are me. She’s become an important voice since 2010 when she first gave this talk–a voice for facing our fears, for daring to try, for understanding how shame can drive us, and the importance of knowing creativity comes from vulnerability. My students have loved this and changed the way they see themselves because of her words.

Brené Brown on The Power of Vulnerability

Another video that is wonderfully powerful to share with BW students is this one by Elizabeth Gilbert. She dispels the myth that every writer needs to wait for a muse or a bolt of lightening to charge down from the heavens directly into their fingers so they can write. Writing is work. The more you work, the more you have to say–whether that’s thinking of your own things to write about you or doing research so you have something to say about a lot of other people’s ideas–the more you can write. It ain’t magic, baby, it’s thinking in your brain, on paper, through conversation, through drafting, through BW classes, through writing together and alone. Writers write and it’s hard work. This one’s been viewed over 12 million times since it was published on the TED site in 2009.

Elizabeth Gilbert on Your Elusive Creative Genius

Another of my favorites is by Sir Ken Robinson about whether schools kill creativity. And the answer is yes, some schools do. My BW students recognize this and are angry and Angry and ANGRY when they see what’s happened. Then we back up and figure out a way over this hurdle–the cow jumps over the moon. How does the cow do it? The cow believes it can.

So we need to change the way we think of what’s happened to us and start thinking about how WE (profs and BW students) can use higher education to start us on our journeys to jump over the moon.

Sir Ken Robinson on Do Schools Kill Creativity?

You cannot teach people to write who are afraid to write a word, say a word, be in a classroom. You need to recreate the place where they work, see themselves differently, see the work in a new way.

You thought your job was teaching Basic Writing, but it’s really about revising how writing happens, how beginning writers see writing, how they see themselves.

Just like writing is so much about revision, teaching writing is so much about revision.