We store in the memory only images of value.
My experiences with IWT—and really as a teacher—began with a piece of luck. Before the first day of classes, my department chair brought in an associate from the fledgling Institute for Writing and Thinking; we were to examine Picasso’s sketches of a bull. I can remember almost everything about that day. In the filtered autumn light of a basement classroom, our leader presented us with this series of sketches. Though I was the newest member of the department, I could not contain myself as we wrote to explore Picasso’s thinking.
Picasso’s eleven “states” of the bull first complicate, then simplify the form, moving to a stunning level of abstraction. As we examined the drawings, we were studying the very act that we were committing: the thinking process made tangible. (Picasso was performing his own “radical revision”!) All the elements of my eventual pedagogy were present in that first workshop: writing to learn; visual texts; modeling the thinking process; collaborative inquiry. Scribbling away on a pad of paper (I do not believe we had notebooks back then), I began to understand thinking as a physical process. I spent the next 6 years consciously and unconsciously exploring what I had begun that day, and along the way invented a course in what I then called “the discursive essay.”
How do I know what I think until I see what I say?
At my next school, I came to IWT for weekend workshops and one splendid summer week, including “Fictions: Memory and Imagination” and “Visual Thinking.” The workshops emphasized the inner workings of the mind and put participants into their real relationship with the material. With each experience I learned new Institute practices, and found that they could often be put to work in my classroom the following Monday. Collaborative learning questions, jump-in reading, text rendering—these approaches could readily be applied to whatever text I might be exploring with my students. The practices sometimes felt subversive in a traditional department that stressed teacher-centered practices. But a few like-minded colleagues would make the trip to Bard with me, and on the ride to and fro we would have heartening, aspirational discussions about teaching.
It was during this period that I developed an approach to writing a close reading. The exercise—which I call “Overview and Inventory”—is designed to help students use writing as a tool for discovery, while allowing teachers to see their students’ minds at work. Students move between visual and written text, think recursively, and engage in meta-cognition as they work towards an interpretation. With a Calderwood Teachers-as-Writers Fellowship, I was given the opportunity to write about my work.
Our excellent teacher (Judy Goleman, UMass Boston) helped me “bone up” on composition theory. Among my stack of books, I found Ann Berthoff’s Forming, Thinking, Writing: “The point of this double-entry system is that it encourages you to think about your thinking and to carry out an audit of the meanings you are making…[this] continuing audit of meaning…is at the heart of learning to write critically.” As I read along I had an unsettled feeling of déjà vu. My approach was eerily similar to her dialectical notebook. She even used the work “inventory” in her discussion. Had I unconsciously plagiarized? Though a writing teacher, I had never read any comp theory, didn’t even know the field existed. And yet my ideas were exactly aligned with what I was reading. How was this possible?
One afternoon, in the library (the same filtered light of that basement workshop) it dawned on me: It was IWT, the years of shuttling back and forth between New England and Bard. I was not thinking consciously of Picasso’s bull or the other principles that had been modeled for me over the years. But I had thoroughly absorbed the theory along with the lessons. Through intuition and practice, my thinking had aligned itself with the foundational thinking of the Institute.
When we encourage our students to look and look again, we are not differentiating creative and critical writing, which should be kept together.
My formation has continued to be uncannily in-synch with the Institute. When my dissatisfaction with “five paragraph” essay formula became unbearable, IWT started offering workshops on the “Assaying Essay,” “Radical Revision,” “Reimagining the Academic Paper.” I was part of a larger teaching venture, full of like-minded explorers. At my new school, more teachers were open to the idea that writing is thinking, rather than a performance of understanding. There were many happy trips to Bard. My department chair asked me to develop a writing course for struggling students based on my practice.
So at last you’ve come home…
When I am at IWT, my mind works in the way it wants to, allowing me to respond to difficult moments in the text, to juxtapose seemingly unrelated ideas, to build an interpretation alongside others. The results are sometimes dazzling. I am surrounded by colleagues open to puzzlement, to vexing language, to restless questioning, to the power of the unconscious.
Being a part of this year’s conference on Creative Nonfiction was fantastic. As we examined roles for experimental CNF in our daily practice, my journey seemed to come full circle. As Luc Sante put it: “…creative nonfiction is essentially a process in which a writer retraces his or her steps through a subject, taking the reader along for the ride. Since there are as many possible subjects as there are grains of sand, and as many paths through any of them as there are human beings, each work of creative nonfiction is singular…”
The singular human mind at work: That is the center of the essay, and of my teaching, and of IWT. I have come home.