A couple of weeks ago, I published this little essay over at Mockingbird, thinking through the implications of a class-activity I do with young writers. Basically, we make some writing, and then get rid of it, the way a painter scrapes the morning’s work from a canvas, or a sculptor smashes a nascent bowl that’s going wrong back into a lump of clay on the wheel. It’s a little risky, but fun, and the students, I claim there, feel more free as writers afterward.
The essay attracted 30 or so positive responses (people who bothered to send emails or comment on twitter, etc)—ranging from “Fascinating and insightful,” to “Wow! This is great.”—and one dismissive, jeering, troll-like response. Never much one for practical accounting, I am fixating, as any creative person will recognize, on that one.
I explained to my pop-up interlocutor as patiently as I could, the impetus behind the assignment: I had just read Rene Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, and so was thinking about the notion of sacrifice and its necessary violence when crafting the assignment, so this was a natural out-working of that.
I do this often. Rather than silo-ing my intellectual activity, when I read an interesting bit of theory, be it literary criticism or theology, I think What would taking this seriously look like in a poem? How would I apply this in a classroom? I could be wrong here—or I could be highlighting the differences between educators trained in research-universities and those in SLAC’s—but isn’t that one of the things college classrooms are for? They’re incubators for ideas, places to try new things. Some will work. Some won’t. Learning happens either way.
The heckler heckled. “Oh, give me a break,” she said, not buying the concept of applied pedagogy.
I feel like I was given permission to try such an audacious pedagogical experiment (if, indeed, it is that) by Alan Jacobs, who writes in this essay
If you trust your teacher and your fellow students, then you can risk intellectual encounters that might be more daunting if you were wholly on your own. That trust, when it exists, is grounded in the awareness that your teacher desires your flourishing, and that that teacher and your fellow students share at least some general ideas about what that flourishing consists in.
Maybe that’s why the assignment works in my classes even when it doesn’t sound like it would work in the abstract. Build an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect and it’s amazing what you can do. For one instance, in the Imaginative Writing class I taught just last night, I shared an essay I’m working on that has some problems with my students. I presented the problems, read them what I had so far, and solicited feedback. And they were so helpful! I actually think we cracked it. Teachers don’t usually, I think, share their own writing with students, especially unfinished pieces, but I felt like it was possible in our class because I trust them to take it seriously, trust that they won’t judge me, trust their taste.
I should have just written her off. As the great prophetess Taylor Swift has taught us, “The hater’s gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.” I should have deleted my facebook by now. But I couldn’t shake it. It bothered me.
Just this morning, I was reading Austin Kleon’s excellent little book Keep Going and came across this story. Kleon writes:
When my son Jules was two, I spent a lot of time watching him draw. I noticed that he cared not one bit about the actual finished drawing (the noun)—all his energy was focused on drawing (the verb). When he’d made the drawing, I could erase it, toss it in the recycling bin, or hang it on the wall. He didn't really care. (69)
and then, I found out that Kurt Vonnegut used to have an assignment for high schoolers that went
write a poem
don’t show it to anybody
tear it up into little pieces and throw them in the trash
The idea, as Kleon summarizes, is that “when you’ve lost your playfulness,” you need to “practice for practice’s sake” without focusing on results. Yes.
That is precisely what I was trying for in this assignment.
Somehow, reading that these forerunners, my betters, have tried similar experiments, or even the exact same ones, allows me, Billygoat Gruff, to stamp right over the bridge they’ve made, pleasantly ignoring the trolls beneath.
There’s just something about having a team. Whether they’re people that one knows IRL, or dead authors, or French theorists, or sketch artists, it’s possible to cobble together a cloud of witnesses who make solo notes into chords, into progressions.
So, the lessons, as always:
there is nothing new under the sun
whether in life, business, classrooms, or art, you should make great and daring work
expect criticism for said, but also
be fortified against the above by the team you’ve built, stretching across time and space, angels waiting to steady you, as the Psalmist says, “lest thy foot stumble against a stone”