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"Follow your bliss."
Joseph Campbell
(Pedagogy) Philosophy and Nonsense      
Thoughts about writing, education, and experience                                  Presented by Forrest D. Poston

The first goal of teaching is to strengthen, deepen and refine our intrinsic love of learning. All other goals and all methods must stem from that idea. Any that do not support that goal must at least be questioned and adjusted, if not eliminated. Otherwise, we are not teaching but training.

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The trick is figuring out what your bliss really is, not what you may think it is.

Writing and Education

Autobiography Challenge

Considering Conclusions

Considering Introductions

Four Meanings of Life

Godot and the Great Pumpkin

A Major is More Minor Than
You Think

The Poetry Process (A look at 4 versions of a poem.)

Thoughts About Picking a Major

Quick Points About Education

Quick Points About Writing

Reading Poetry and Cloud Watching

Revising Revision

Reviving Experience

Reviving Symbolism

Using an Audience

Videos

What Makes a Story True?

What's the Subject of This Class? (Being revised.)

Why Write?

Writing and Einstein (The Difference Between Information and Meaning)

Writing and the Goldilocks Dilemma

Links to Other Sites
The Autobiography Challenge

     I adapted this intriguing, if frustrating, endeavor from references in the video "Your Mythic Journey" (Sam Keen interviewed by Bill Moyers), which I've shown each of my classes over the past 10 years or so. The premise is quite simple. Let's pretend that a major publisher has agreed to publish an autobiography, and they'd like to see a chapter outline and list of photographs you plan to use. We won't worry about just why a major company is so interested. Actually, we've all got stories worth telling.

     Sounds easy enough, and like most things doing it quickly is no effort at all. Doing it well, however, becomes a matter of weeks or even months of tinkering and thinking. For me, it was a matter of about eight years, and it never ends because our stories change as we change (and we change as our stories change. My students usually come in first with an outline based on linear time. Sometimes the breakdown is as simplistic as childhood, adolescence, adulthood. More often school plays a role, and we get elementary school, high school, college. The list of pictures usually depends on photographs that have actually been taken, family vacations, proms, and assorted traditional events. The problem is that such outlines and lists don't reveal anything. Everybody's list looks the same.

     The trick requires learning to find the important events, often important in symbolic ways that weren't clear at the time. We have a tendency to make assumptions about importance and order based on the patterns we've been taught directly or indirectly. Much of that revolves around time, particularly linear time, but we each have additional patterns, patterns that fit into the larger social picture but also reveal individual traits and tints. The first big and tough step is discovering, creating and refining those individual patterns. Then we can look at the intersection between the individual and social aspects, and it's that relationship that really starts to open up intriguing results.

      I usually introduce this project about halfway through the term and let it run for the rest of the time. Whether it becomes the primary project or weaves in and out of the background remains the choice of each student, but most of them find they can't resist weaving back to it from time to time even though they tell me conference after conference how hard the project is for them. I agree. "Of course, it's difficult. That's why I avoided doing it myself for eight years." Breaking past the wall of programmed assumptions is hard enough, but trying to sift through your life and construct your own program is almost as difficult as it is essential.

     Try tinkering with your own outline and list of pictures. It doesn't have to be extensive, and you don't have to follow any formal rules. Adapt the project to what you believe you need (need, not want). When you want to, you can look at my version and what I think it means. Anywhere along the way, feel free to get in touch to talk about your project. Also, I strongly suggest watching the video if you can find it. It was produced by Mystic Fire Video, but they no longer have copies available. You can find it in some library collections. The video is partially based on a book also title Your Mythic Journey co-authored by Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox.

 

     It may help to take a look at what I came up with once I finally worked up the nerve to try the challenge:

My Version of the Autobiography Challenge

     As I said in the initial challenge, I put my students through this process for years, while I resited doing it myself. Of course, my understanding of the process and use was limited while I wasted time being stubborn. Well, understanding is always limited. Let's say the limitations were far too narrow. Then the night came when I was driving across Indiana on I-64 once again, and around 2 AM, my subconscious pulled a sneak attack. Once a few ideas and images popped to the surface, I had to begin playing along, just as the insidious subconscious knows I will. After all, there really aren't many distractions on any interstate that time of night, and the adrenaline from pursuing ideas (when you don't have a boss or teacher telling you to do it) passes time and keeps you awake even better than coffee.

     Below are lists of some of the possible book and chapter titles I came up with and potential pictures (none of which really exist) to go with some of the chapters.

 

* Betweener.
* When the Time is Right.
* When Fear is King.
* Isolation or Incubation.
* Control.

And for the pictures:

 

* Shoe tying.
* The cannon and slide.
* Running from school.
* Walk in the snow.

     My original list has gone into hiding, but those should be enough items for me to play around with so you can get the idea. I kept the time frame to about the same period as my students would be dealing with, and I didn't use any of the traditional major moments (such as the death of a family member). We often deal with the major moments to the exclusion of the minor ones, and the emotion of such moments can overwhelm the meaning, sometimes to the point of over-sentimentality. The seemingly minor moments can be surprisingly rewarding, especially when you find the meaning shifts in unexpected ways.

     The Betweener title would probably be my choice as the book title because it captures many aspects of the larger patterns in my life. In so many ways, I have lived between cultures. Most of my family comes from an agricultural, labor background (mine fields of central West Virginia), but we moved out to the fringe of that area one week before I was born. As a result, I got my education in an up and coming town where the major employer included a large number of management personnel, and the education I received reflected that influence. The local library was very well funded, and the assumption was that I would continue in school, not head for the mines at the first opportunity. I lived in the working class neighborhoods, but most of my friends lived farther up on the hill in management territory, and they usually had at least one parent who had been to college. I was the first in any branch of the family I'm familiar with. Even now, my mixed background keeps me a bit off to the side of many of my colleagues. I often have more in common with my students, many of whom are now coming from backgrounds similar to mine. We Betweeners are a growing subculture.

     Many of the most important (even if I didn't know it) moments of my life have been controlled by timing. Very often I can't proceed until When The Time is Right. I can trace it back to tying my shoes, to my first date, and even to when I started teaching. So there we get the shoe-tying picture, and it connects to one of my earliest memories. Different people tried and tried to teach me to tie my shoes, but the process was an utter mystery to me (as most knot-tying still is for some reason). One day it was simply time to tie my shoes, a moment with no uncertainty in it. Everyone else was in other parts of the house, so I got my shoes, sat down on the floor on the north side of my parents' bed, and I tied my shoes. I didn't think about how to do it or experiment with it. It was time, so I did it. Now, I do tie my shoes in a particularly idiosyncratic way, but it turns out that almost no one ties their shoes in quite the same ways. I would never have imagined there were so many variations. Sometimes I still get annoyed when I want to do something that isn't "ripe" yet, but I have learned some patience and trust, two of the more important traits to develop when you have my temper and paranoia.

     The chapters about fear and control are closely related and might end up as one chapter. Fear has been my number one enemy as long as I can remember, maybe going back before I tied my shoes. Mostly I've feared humiliation, and that fear controlled my life in too many ways for far too long, including being the primary cause behind my first romantic disaster. I had a recurring dream off and on for perhaps 30 years trying to teach me to control fear. I don't think I've won, but I haven't had the dream for quite a while now. Then again, maybe I just wore out my subconscious.

     This is where the cannon and slide, both in the city park in my hometown, enter the scene. The cannon was from World War II, and the tip of the barrel was perhaps eight feet off the ground. One of the local games included climbing up the barrel, swinging under, and letting go. It wasn't that long a drop, but I couldn't do it. The slide was a similar story. There was that bar at the top, which many people used to flip over before sliding down. I'd done it before. I'd done a lot of things before. I had flipped and tumbled, fallen, gotten up and fallen again with the best of them, and I still don't know where the fear entered. I have at least identified it: releasing control. Each of the actions I feared required a moment of no return, giving up control to continue the flip, trusting myself and trusting that the universe wouldn't change the law of gravity to my sudden disadvantage. Eventually, I was biking through the park, stopped at the slide, climbed, flipped, and slid. I won that one. I think I was 22 years old when I finally got around to climbing the cannon and dropping off. I could finally mark it off the list, but it was too late to change my route.

     The walk in the snow goes along with the question of incubation or isolation. I think it was the winter of my junior year in high school, and I was out walking that night, as I did many nights back then, working through my version of adolescent depression. The snow was falling heavily with 2 or 3 inches already on the ground as I walked up and down some of my usual streets covering several miles. Going down one of my favorite streets, I looked over as I passed the house of a friend. Someone was standing at the picture window looking out, but with the light at her back I couldn't be certain if it was my friend or a member of her family, but whoever it was seemed to have a strange, surprised look on her face. I thought it was surprise at seeing anyone out on such a night, but it was a beautiful world to be walking through. A moment or two later, I reached up to brush aside some hair on my hatless and head and discovered that the falling snow had melted and refrozen on top of my head, giving me an icecap. Perhaps I had found the cause of my watcher's surprise.

     For many years, the image of the person in the window was an image of isolation and separation for me. My old buddy fear kept me from taking the risks necessary to form friendships beyond a certain level, and a number of family factors often kept me at home. I spent a lot of time with books in a very open relationship, but time with other people was often spent behind a series of protective walls, even when the other people didn't know it. It wasn't until I was explaining the image to my students that I began to see another possibility. After all, experiences and images are like poetry, fully capable of multiple and shifting meanings as we learn. Sure, the temperature wasn't suitable for sunbathing, and the snow would eventually make me cold and wet, while she was safe and warm in her house, but that window looks more and more like the frame around a cage. I was the one with the freedom while many people were being caged by a desire for safety. I've learned that safety is one of the most common and dangerous cages. Or maybe I'm just trying to make myself look and feel better. Both, and more, are true.

     That doesn't cover the entire list, and I'm quite capable of rambling almost eternally about any of these items, but the idea should be there for you to play with now. Look for those images and moments that reveal the patterns in your life. Look for the metaphors of your individual experience. Dare I say symbolism? I know many people learn to hate the term before high school ends, but when you take symbolism down from the clouds and platonic forms, it can serve a purpose. Ground the symbolism in individual experience, and it can help you find the connection between your experience and the broader experience of being alive. Ah, now I'm heading toward one of my pompous moments, so I'll stop. Eventually, I'll add a page about To Kill a Mockingbird, and how I learned to hate then eventually love symbolism.

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Other Essays and Poetry

Something Somewhat Vaguely Like a Resume

The Cat With a Bucket List

Being Like Children

The Blessing and the Blues

Booking Down Brown Street

David and the Revelation

The Dawn, the Dark, and the Horse I Didn't Ride In On (an odd, meandering, semi-romantic story)

Ghost Dancer in the Twilight Zone

The Hair Connection and the Nature of Choices

I Believe in Capra

The Mug, the Magic, and the Mistake

Sadie on the Bridge

Trumpet Player, USDA Approved

Videos

Poetry

Selected Poems

The Poetry Process

Writing by Current or Former Students

Ms. Write Meets Her Match in Jr. Ms. Write Now
by Heide Perry

I'll Just Have Cats
by Cara Hummel

Toys to Toys
by Allyson Bowlds

Scribbles and Bits

Links to Other Sites