Wednesday, November 20, 2013

On Writing

A few weeks ago, I was invited by an old friend, Theron, to stop by his university in Southwest Texas to talk to his students about writing, and how it is taught and learned in other places around the world. It was a serious symposium and an excellent chance to catch up with a Peace Corps buddy. The presentation followed another I had just completed in San Diego (also on language, but from a far different perspective), and the bulk of my preparation had been for the earlier gig. I gave the Texas topic little thought, figuring I would put it together once I got there and chatted with Theron. As the trip unfolded, I ended up getting very little sleep before the symposium, and I simply relied on a dated cache of anecdotes, nostalgia, and a rare bit of introspective honesty. Here, in essence, is what I said:
Good morning, my name is Michael, and I would like to talk to you about writing and how it is taught and maybe conceptualized in other parts of the world. To be fair though, I should probably share with you how I have used writing in my life. I am sure you know that writing is cultural, and I am also very sure you will be surprised when I tell you that I come from a very unique culture, probably the rarest of sorts. You see my parents met in a mental institution, and they weren't working there. My siblings and I were raised in a never ending environment of chaos, transition, and violence. When I finally left home at 17, I had a wealth of pain and confusion that I had no notion how to deal with. Eventually, I found poetry.
I had a very ambivalent relationship with poetry, and probably still do. I remember working so hard learning to read as a child, often finding it hard to grasp concepts and main ideas. Suddenly, around fourth grade, at teacher taught us poetry and that this crazy new thing could have any meaning, any at all. I considered it a trap and dismissed the genre, not wishing to suffer any additional literary humiliation. Later, that very ambiguity brought me back to the freer form of verse. I found that I could express some of my pain in my bad poetry (and it is bad, but mine) with a good degree of "plausible deniability" if I cloaked it properly. I needed to share those things, but to do so with a degree of safety. The obfuscation not withstanding, I was learning to let go of old demons and older yet guilt.
Now I write freely in my blog, facebook, and elsewhere. I still don't write well, but I write to consecrate my thoughts. I find a good bit of my intellect and language cursory and cheaply purchased. I see a lot similar prattle around everywhere. When I choose to write, I discipline those thoughts and emotions in order to purify and preserve them. Anything I hold precious, I eventually write about. The ability to capture these often fleeting feelings and ideas still alludes me generally, but I am trying.
That is enough about writing and me anyway. I have also had the marvelous opportunity to teach writing and to supervise writing programs in Yemen, Tanzania, Jamaica, London, and a few other places. Given my contentious relationship with the skill, I was curious to see how it played out in other cultures, how other children used it. My first realization though was that it wasn't the same at all, particularly those countries that had been British colonies or at least, been influenced by British culture. I found that there had been a premium on finding the right sources, citing the right experts, and feeding the teacher exactly what he or she expected. There were no thoughts about finding one's voice or creative expression, only "getting it right." This, by the way, explains for me why these students so often find themselves in trouble when they come to American schools, particularly in issues of plagiarism. They had never had their own opinions valued at school, let alone in print. Now, suddenly asked to create ideas or worse yet, to produce commentary on subjects with limitless experts in existence, they often run for shelter and resort to the "correct" sources. They know it isn't right to do so, and this is not offered as an excuse. But I understand, for they are running into the same trap I had eschewed all those years earlier, with far more serious consequences to suffer.
Despite the fact that the students I encountered overseas had never been exposed to creative writing, or much fiction or poetry for that matter, they used writing in their own fashion. I spent two years in an Eritrean refugee camp in Yemen, teaching orphans of the Eithiopian civil war. They had no electricity, running water, or basic school supplies - but they wrote. They found chalk and wrote passionate political messages on the wood siding of their shacks. They practiced writing everywhere they could, particularly in English. I would find scraps of old newspapers with crowded letters circumscribing the margins. But the most powerful literacy I witnessed was in the sand. Often, the smaller children would congregate near my tent and play with my books and personal effects - and my long brown (then) hair. Occasionally, they would call me out to draw and write in the sand, as they chanted diligently as I composed. I had never felt that kind of connection to other humans with words before, and still haven't since.
I had one more lesson in life and literature to learn from these little kids though. One night as a small group of girls were rummaging through my things, one of them knocked over a few of my books. They stood there startled and I thought that it was an odd reaction to the small faux pas. They hadn't been too conscious of their rambunctiousness to that point. I looked over and they had formed a little circle in that tight space, staring directly down at the back cover of Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah. The momentary pause in commotion and dialogue was supplanted by a loud stream of excited Afar (their native tongue that was not a written language). In the next half hour we negotiated urgently in three languages as I tried to unearth the cause of their plaintive inquiry. Eventually, I learned that they were completely shocked that a woman would be allowed to write a book, let alone a black women who looked liked the mothers they had once known. They had no schema for such things.
They asked me if I knew the writer and I tried to explain that I had met her. My feeble translation became that I knew her and the girls immediately rehuddled. They whispered for a minute or two and vowed to return the next evening. The next sunset brought the contingent back to my tent with a cloistered package. The bravest one stepped forward and demanded that I send the parcel to the woman on my book, my close personal friend. I stuttered, not sure what to say other than ok. They had scrounged all the decent paper they could find and made her six lovely cards with pictures and suras from the Koran. A week later, I travelled a few hours to the nearest post office and sent the gift to the University of Virginia, care of Rita Dove. The experienced had humbled me.
Three months later, the reply from America came to the camp. Rita had sent them a letter thanking them and detailing how she had put their cards on display in her office. The girls skipped and sang for a week. When I left the camp, they kept her letter and the back cover of the paperback that had started their correspondence and another bit of my salvation. Years later, I would find myself in Tanzania, working with young Peace Corps volunteers hosting Girl's Empowerment workshops, continuing the simple lessons learned in a small tent on the Red Sea.
Years before Yemen, I had also been a volunteer in Jamaica. I taught 17 boys from 7-17 in a one room school for orphans in Montego Bay. The orphanage had once been a quaint tourist hotel overlooking the airport. The boys, the headmaster told me, "were too spirited to appreciate the benefits of a public school education." I soon appreciated the euphemism, and spent a year with them, not teaching them too terribly much, but learning a great deal. When the three Rs turned to writing, I had little success. They weren't at all interested, and half barely had the capacity to spell. Eventually though, I found a little headway as I began to connect their love for music (Reggae and Dance Hall) and written lyrics. I wish I could say that we eventually turned those lyrics into profound English lessons, but we did not. What we did do was to recognize and legitimize their language in a way that had not happened before. I am sure that any contribution I made to their self esteem was manifested in the long erased verse scribbled on the small blackboard in the corner of that small makeshift classroom in that small converted hotel.
And there have been so many other ways I have seen writers write - from my Muslim students who labored lovingly over the caligraphy of their faith to the gracious notes and cards I have received from grateful students on four continents.
So, as you can probably tell, writing still amazes and confounds me. Those things that escape me come naturally to others in so many ways. I don't know if there is any great lesson here other than for you to find your voice, exercise it, share it, and do so creatively and freely. You have so many great resources here, as witnessed by your presentations and the spirit of this symposium. I wish you luck.