Learning from Writers, Learning from Readers: Hearts and Minds in Balance

What an interesting time.   As I continue to shed my classroom-teacher identity, I am learning more and more about the imposter syndrome and semantic gaps in our culture between professional expert and layperson, and about the power of reciprocal apprenticeships.  And the delights of mixing heart and mind.  I am learning from young writers I know, and all over again from writers long gone, and from readers engaged in this fascinating un-book group, Motley Readers of Joyce’s Dubliners.  I’m learning ever more about myself as a writer and thinker as I finish a position paper for Orton Family Foundation (on why community storytelling is essential for the health of rural towns), in which I must balance knowledge and passion.

beneath the facade

Hearing from some of my fellow Motley readers about how they feel vulnerable posting their “unschooled” thoughts about Joyce’s stories bothers me.  Not because I wonder why they feel this way, but because I know all too well that they feel this way for good reason. It is similar to what I hear in communities about ordinary people participating in planning processes:  they often don’t feel welcome because the gap in language between professional and nonprofessional is so difficult to straddle.  It’s something that storytelling works at bridging in rural communities.  And here, in social media spaces, we must work at those bridges as well, even in a reading group.

Literature should grab us by both the heart and the mind, I think, and not let us go–to help us to articulate why it does so, sure, we want to learn more about how it is that language and narrative work.  Some of us want to know about the context in which the writer was working–and certainly what was going on in Ireland and in Europe and in Joyce at the time of his writing has quite a profound impact on our understanding of the collection.  This is all good.  Great books should, I think, lead us to other books, to other learning, to other thoughts.  And then we should have our own.   My father used to urge us to read from across the political spectrum before we entered the daily dinner-table debate over current events.  It makes sense that we need to hear a variety of views from across the spectrum of experience and knowledge. That’s one of the beauties of a diverse physical community–coming into contact with all sorts of life views, understanding, knowledge, expertise, taste.

One of the beauties of great writing is that it can also move us and speak to us without all that knowledge of theory or history.   I love reading Joyce, 100 years after he wrote those stories, for what they tell me about beauty and life now.  They’re timeless.  I don’t think we should close ourselves to expertise, but it shouldn’t be our only guide. It isn’t heart or mind, feeling or learning, but both.  And unfortunately, school is really trying to educate the heart right out of us.

In a postcard I just received from Chris Lott (more about the Motley reading postcard experience in another post soon), I love how comfortable he is in both the poet’s skin and the scholar’s (and believe me, he’s one of the most learned, brilliant guys out there)  as he expresses the heart-rending beauty of reading Joyce:
He weaves his learning in, his passion–without feeling bad about it.  Balance. I’m learning about balance from all of these Motley Readers, the ones who have a background in literary studies and those who do not.

I’m also learning about heart and mind from one of my former students.  As her first book hits the bookstores, I am bursting with excitement.  She did it.  Anyone who knew Stephanie Saldana during her college years knew she would publish, but in those days we thought it would be poetry.  Her nonfiction book, The Bread of Angels, brings her poet’s heart and eye, and her scholar’s training and knowledge into unusual balance.  A bit like how Chris does in his Motley posts and postcard.  It’s a beautiful book, a book that takes us through layers of life in the Middle East as it brings us along on the journey of one young woman on a Fulbright in Syria.  I learned a great deal about the common ground between Christianity and Islam, the beauty of daily life, Stephanie herself (and I thought I knew her and this story well), and about the power of mixing poetry and scholarship.  Wow.  What a teacher.

I’m also learning more these days about weaving together the parts of oneself from my daughters.  Talk about reciprocal apprenticeships. My daughters teach me all kinds of powerful lessons about life, about art. The one who lives in New York writes gorgeous songs. When we talk about them, I learn ever more about the ways rhythms and sound intersect with words, about how silences work with sounds.  My other daughter has long had one foot in the writing world, with several articles published about her travels. Now she is pulling together her love of food, photography and writing on her new blog and in an internship with an Italian food magazine (real incentive for me to stop pretending I speak and read Italian and learn).  I’m learning from watching her thread her various passions together.

This is one heck of a classroom.  The further away from school I get, the more convinced I am that this is the most powerful kind of classroom of all: the messy one engaging in learning relationships across group, network and diverse community.


8 Responses

  1. Hmmm, until I can come up with something more learned… can I just toss in a “HELL YEAH!”…?

    • Heheheh… you’ve been one of my mentors in the search for balance between formal and informal learning, between voice-from-one’s-own-heart and building a strong argument based on scholarship. Your beloved WFMU is a model of that sort of balance–deep knowledge about music and sheer fun-love for whatever song for whatever reason/no reason. So, hell yeah right back at you!

  2. Messy is right. One attraction to the credentialing hierarchy is, I think, its sense of clarity and relative simplicity.

    See you guys tonight, I hope –

    • Indeed. Funny that. Perhaps all the convolutions and contortions of the most fossilized academic thinking make people have to seek that kind of clarity in something, at least.

  3. I am sorry to be missing out this Motley Read but time isn’t permitting. But this post recalled to mind the experience of re-reading Ulysses in 2008 with Chris and Jared. I studied Joyce quite a bit in my undergrad and had been through Ulysses at least twice, once in a full year course dedicated to Joyce. But coming back to it 20 years later, for pleasure, was eye opening. I was able to read it differently, free from the pressure of needing to “get” every reference and treat it like a puzzle to work out, and actually realized that, as erudite as the work is, and I’d never want to claim it wasn’t, it is also incredibly funny and joyful. I was able to experience a work I had only previously understood as a Modernist masterpiece as also “just a novel,” (that’s not a slight, but a leavening) even a very readable one (well ok, the Hades episode really tested me on this hypothesis, but nonetheless…)

    And I also realized that, far from being the puppets on which Joyce was working out so much deep thinking (though undoubtedly there WAS a huge agenda in the work) he actually *liked* his characters, had empathy for them (Buck Mulligan is freakin’ hysterical and Bloom heart breaking at times), which is something I TOTALLY missed when I read it in an “academic” context. That context forced me to see much that IS in the work, but funnily, also caused me to miss even “simpler” aspects of storytelling that are ALSO there.

    So hear hear for messy reading outside the confines of the Academy; I’d like to think Joyce wouldn’t have had it any other way.

  4. I’m sorry, too, that you aren’t a part of the fun (it’s not too late, you know). Reading your trio’s exchange about Ulysses was one of the reasons I was excited about joining this book unclub.

    I am having much the same experience returning to Dubliners after having taught some of the stories in writing classes and in seminars on contemporary Ireland but not having read it for years cover to cover just for the pleasure of it. At first I felt guilty that I was choosing to read an old friend of a book instead of putting that reading time into one of the many many books I have yet to read stacked next to my bed. But I got over myself in about two minutes, actually, after I was a single paragraph into the first story. Reading a classic for pleasure alone is a reminder (again) that I haven’t quite shed all the academic ties that bound me. Reading Dubliners with a motley crew is even better–we’re all over the map with the reading and how we respond and what we respond to in the text. I find myself re-reading each story about five times.

    Such fun. You really should put aside whatever else you had planned for this weekend…

  5. I wonder what y’all would think reading about single cell phytoplankton.

    I’m thinking about boundary crossing (rather than imposters)



    • Well, Nancy, I think it would depend on the writing. A great writer makes me overcome my own likes and dislikes for the moment I am in the thrall of the story. I remember reading Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love, for instance, a collection of stories about characters in real life I would, most likely, find repellent. I loved them. They opened my heart. Single cell phytoplankton? The great science writers can make them absolutely thrilling.

      I like your boundary crossings–leaving the safe zone of academia (well, not so safe but known and understood) has me learning to be a boundary crosser. It’s challenging and exhilarating to say the least!

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