Personal Writing: Theory and Method


A lot of what I’ll say here concerning personal writing circles back not only to yesterday’s post, but also (as Clancy points out) to what I was thinking last year, and also to the recent excellent posts (and the subsequent discussions they spurred) by Sharon Gerald and John Lovas. So, first, some givens: I agree with Sharon that “personal writing is academic writing,” and with John that “all writing is personal. All good writing conveys a sense of the person who produced it, including good academic writing.” No surprises there. And I think the insights offered by John’s answer to his rhetorical question are extremely useful, and also interesting in the way they anticipate the title of Thomas De Zengotita’s new book (referenced in yesterday’s post): “How does the personal intersect with knowledge-building? It means finding in each subject a personal connection, a dimension of the topic that connects to or illuminates one’s lived experience, including previous reading and mediated experience.” But what I’m talking about here is different from Sharon’s “personal” essays that “are all about something other than the student”: this is writing that is, in fact, about the student (more on this in the Method section), because I think such writing can work against those assignments that — as I said before — “rely upon a vague rhetoric of individualism and positioning, while actually ignoring individual and institutional context: they are simultaneously solipsistic, generalized, and abstracted from any concrete and particular context.” Personal writing is worthwhile in its groundedness, in its connectedness, in its being located in its done-for-its-own-sake non-exchangeable non-equivalent value: in its Use Value.

Which is why I’m puzzled when Clancy asks to what ends personal writing might be put; when she asks what it’s for; when she wonders about transforming experience into evidence. It’s not for anything other than itself-as-writing, I want to answer. Its value is in its doing. This weblog — even as I’m writing about composition theory, about politics, about the Romans who I love for their sheer cussed weirdness, about rhetoric, about material that may seem largely academic — is personal writing. But then I follow Clancy’s link to Joan W. Scott’s work on experience, and I start to understand a little.

Scott writes that experience-based writing can result in a multiplication of histories and subjects, which may “give the lie” (“Experience” 24) to dominant narratives. No, I reply: the supplementation (to borrow Derrida’s language) of additional narratives emphatically does not render one narrative untrue. This is flawed either/or zero-sum reasoning. The supplement, instead, makes for a multiplicity of narratives, a multiplicity of truths, a multiplicity of analytical frames. (Interesting here to note Wayne Booth’s advocacy for the pluralistic rhetorical strategies of Richard McKeon — both in his recent book and in his recent College English symposium with Peter Elbow — while simultaneously militating for what seems like a single rhetorical truth. Nietzsche writes: “The various languages placed side by side show that with words it is never a question of truth, never a question of adequate expression; otherwise there would not be so many languages.”) Scott takes experience as the evidence for the interrogation of a hegemonic truth, which it’s not: experience is itself not a tool, but rather an alternate truth.

What Scott seems to want to critique, in fact, is the use of experience in order to say, “See, things aren’t really that way — they’re actually this other way!” Which is precisely the problematic New-Criticism-disguised-as-Critical-Pedagogy move I’m so fed up with. This simplistic move in effect serves as a way for a teacher to (metaphorically) demand that her students sing “Amazing Grace”: “I once was lost but now am found / Was blind but now I see.” (Let’s not even talk about the ugly implications the following stanza holds for ideological domination.) And, of course, the teacher is always already enlightened: this is a horrifyingly smug manner of teaching that — as Peter Elbow implies in “Pedagogy of the Bamboozled” — turns teachers back to a deficit model in our stance towards our students.

In the equivalencies Scott sets up, she’s seeking to turn experience into critique, believing into doubting, hermeneusis into deconstruction (please, if you haven’t already, read Mariolina Salvatori’s brilliant essay “Toward a Hermeneutics of Difficulty”, in Audits of Meaning: A Festschrift in Honor of Ann Berthoff, Ed. Louise Smith. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1988. 80-95.), but these two things — while complementary — are separate. I’ll try to draw together Mariolina Salvatori, Peter Elbow, and Wayne Booth here (hell, that boy Mike’s nothing if not ambitious), and while I’ll likely do injury to their individual writings, I hope the importance of the collective parallels in relation to what Clancy’s suggesting via Joan Scott might become apparent. Hermeneusis/believing/assent is an inhabiting-of, a highly self-aware and reflective understanding of a thing’s constructed nature, its terms, how it came to be, and all that made it possible, seeing and inhabiting the circumstances that led to its construction and simultaneously being and monitoring its belief-system. Deconstructing/doubting/dissent is a being-in-alterity, a critique, an unspinning of a thing’s inherent contradictions and seeing how that which is present within the thing at once calls forth its absent counterpart and in so doing makes visible the limits within which and by which that thing is produced. And when these two difficult, complicated, and complementary (but most definitely not equivalent) moves focus on a person’s experience — whether of the word or the world — good writing can happen.

Before I get to the Method part, I’ll anticipate a last loosely related set of objections to assigning personal writing. Clancy has rather emphatically declared, “God. I. Hated. Writing. Personal. Essays.” This hatred, she writes, comes from a perception that “personal essays were an enormous waste of my time because I didn’t acquire any new knowledge.” Note the word acquire: I read Clancy’s weblog, see her regularly producing new knowledge, and wonder (here comes the critical pedagogy stuff again) what she might have thought then, as a resistant undergraduate, if she’d encountered Paulo Freire’s thoughts on “banking education”. The mode of writing she’s talking about — like Joanna’s “perfunctory ‘A’ paper written by the savvy student who knows how to play the game” — shuts off any possibility of inquiry, veers away from difficulty, and instead channels any writerly thought-activity into foregone conclusions. Clancy didn’t “acquire” any new knowledge because she chose not to. Of course, asking students to write about experience leaves this choice open — but also, when done right, it shows students (perhaps via those difficult moves described in the previous paragraph) that they can produce new knowledge on their own rather than “acquiring” it from books or teachers. I’m not talking about Romantic individualism here — yes, of course we all know that knowledge is mediated and social — but instead trying to describe a move from a teacher-to-student transmission model of education to a more multi-directional and reciprocal model.

And related to Joanna’s “savvy student,” I think, is the concern noted by Julie Lindquist that asking for authentic “emotional responses for the purposes of academic rewards becomes, for students, a matter of producing the ‘money shot’ on demand”: Lindquist offers the example of the canny writing student who spins a wholly fictional “tragic account of his friend’s car accident and death” (197) to please his teacher. (Yes, I just recycled my own words. One day I’ll do like Walter Benjamin and compose an essay entirely out of quotations, only I’ll be quoting myself.) This problem — the problem (cue Burl Ives’s booming intonation of the lines of Tennessee Williams) of mendacity in student writing — is difficult to address, but no more difficult than in the risk of a student’s telling her instructor what she thinks the instructor wants to hear in one of Jenny’s “general equivalency” essays (about, possibly, free-market individualist ideas or mass-media political correctness). And — apropos of mendacity — consider Jenny’s “general equivalency” vis-á-vis Nietzsche’s argument that “We know nothing whatsoever about an essential quality called ‘honesty’; but we do know of countless individualized and consequently unequal actions which we equate by omitting the aspects in which they are unequal and which we now designate as ‘honest’ actions. Finally we formulate from them a qualities occulta which has the name ‘honesty.’ We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual.” The “individual and actual” is Joan Scott’s “experience,” and the “equating” Nietzsche’s talking about is precisely her drawing-together of experience and evidence. But it gets even better: look at the following paragraph. “What then,” Nietzsche asks, “is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding.” This “movable host” seems to me to correspond to Peter’s believing game, the deeply personal inhabiting of a multiplicity of possible perspectives — alternative truths — that constitute “human relations.”

(Brief aside: I’m indebted to the Happy Tutor’s post on “How to Write Like a Liberal Sack of Garbage”, and its concomitant comment-storm, for sparking these thoughts on lies. As always, the Tutor offers provocative insights, in his fine and generous — albeit sometimes sharp — dialectical mode.)

But we’re not yet done with mendacity.


  1. Exercise: in class, ask students to write brief descriptions (one paragraph for each description) of three events in their lives; things that happened to them or that they did. These events need not necessarily be particularly interesting, but one of them must be a lie. Share with classmates in small groups: see if classmates can tell which one is the lie. Discuss as a full class. Revise, making it into a contest: try to fake out your classmates. Write down three different experiences, again making one of them a (this time better) lie; share with a different small group. Again see if the lie is detected. Discuss: what makes a lie about one’s experience effective? (Thanks to Diane Chase for the idea for this exercise.)
  2. Essay 1, Part 1: ask students to write a brief essay — say, 750 words — about an event in their lives, something that happened to them, something they’re comfortable sharing with the class. This essay must both describe and analyze the event and its implications. Audience is the class, not the teacher.
  3. Peer Response 1: students should each bring at least two printed copies of their essays to class. Get into small groups. Each student should read at least two of her peers’ essays and write a single-page single-spaced peer response letter to each peer for homework. This peer response letter must be entirely non-evaluative — don’t say good or bad, but rather describe the effects the essay had on you — and it cannot, under penalty of ineffable doom, address grammar, spelling, typos, or other correctness issues. (Correctness always comes last in the drafting process.) This peer response exercise may resemble Mariolina Salvatori’s triple-entry journal (“Conversations With Texts” in College English 58.4, April 1996), which asks students “first to write their response to a text, second to construct a reflective commentary on the moves they made as writers and the possible reasons for them, and third to formulate an assessment of the particular text their reading produced” (446). Alternatively, the letter can do what the UMass Writing Program calls “sayback, pointing, and questioning,” in which respondents “say back” in their own words what the text says, “point” to interesting, odd, or vivid moments, and “question” where the text might go or what it’s left unresolved.
  4. Essay 1, Part 2: revise according to feedback in peer response letters.
  5. Essay 1, Part 3: proofread and edit for correctness with the help of classmates.
  6. Essay 1, Part 4: note that the teacher has not yet seen the essay. This is important. Each set of essay drafts plus copies of peer response letters goes to three other anonymous student graders in the class (make sure students know that this is going to happen beforehand, so that their attention to audience will be shifted at least somewhat to their peers); those anonymous peer graders score the essay on the criteria given at the beginning of the assignment: description, analysis, depth and quality of revision. Note that this will require at least one class session of talking (and working with examples) about what constitutes good description, careful analysis, and substantial revision. That score constitutes half the essay’s grade.
  7. Essay 1, Part 5: re-draft the essay for the teacher-as-audience rather than the peers. The event described and analyzed must remain the same; the description and analysis must change substantially or even completely.
  8. Peer Response 2: teacher writes non-evaluative responses similar to those described in Peer Response 1; perhaps — in the interests of time — shorter, but not by much. After all, these are fairly free-form.
  9. Essay 1, Part 6: revise according to feedback.
  10. Essay 1, Part 7: proofread and edit for correctness with the help of classmates. Yes, this has to happen again: as we know, error increases with the conceptual difficulty of an assignment. Expect it to skyrocket here.
  11. Essay 1, Part 8: publish the paired final drafts in a class magazine. Assign the magazine as homework reading, noting that the following class day there’ll be a reading quiz, and that each student will be randomly assigned two peer presenters to introduce hir essays for discussion.
  12. Essay 1, Part 9: talk about the differences in drafts and perceptions: how do these things make you feel, and what do they help you see? How did these drafts — and these peer response letters — get read, understood, assimilated, inhabited? How — to use Peter’s term — did you believe them? This, I think, might be a useful way to help students understand the interconnectedness of reading and writing, of alterity and being, and of their necessary connections — via belief — to the rhetorical multiplicity of truth. And of course it’s difficult: do we, knowing how we write, expect it to be easy?

I’ll add, as well, that this engaged recursive process cannot be sustained through a 15-week semester. In one way, it’s similar to how we put artificial names to the individual steps of a concretized writing “process” in order to ask students to grasp the more abstract concept that the Writing Process is loose, temporal, and recursive, and in such qualities can’t be pinned down to a concrete “five simple steps to a great essay” generalizable process. It’s a making-visible, via Peter’s “believing game,” of one component of my pedagogy.

What might I follow it with? Well, I suppose the obvious thing would be the critical or deconstructive moves of Peter’s “doubting game” — but I wouldn’t go there right away. Perhaps, as an about-face from the personal experience thing, we’d move to a sustained engagement with (to borrow Mariolina’s terminology again) a difficult text (see Bartholomae and Petrosky’s Ways of Reading and Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts), wherein I’d first ask students to perform the believing game again and compose a draft that described and analyzed not only the argument of the text but the circumstances of that argument’s production — and only then move to the doubting game, to the minute and up-close deeply involved rhetorical analysis and deconstruction that leaves the text in a broken pile of its tiny component rhetorical parts. The assignment this time would be to then unite the two drafts into something uncertain, wobbly, Frankensteinian.

I’ve got more — like ideas about spinning an entire syllabus around the master trope of mendacity via secondary themes of belief, doubt, and revision, with a debt to Linda Brodkey via David Bleich — but I think that’s enough right now. The important thing here, to me, is understanding the complicated pedagogical ends of Peter’s believing game, and connecting those ends both to the possibilities offered by personal writing and to Mariolina’s engagements with difficulty.

I’d be grateful for any comments on theory, method, or both.

Personal Writing: Theory and Method

21 thoughts on “Personal Writing: Theory and Method

  • April 2, 2005 at 6:20 pm

    Of all the great things in this post, I’m going to comment on something minimal. A few months ago, a group of bloggers did your first exercise, asking people to guess which were true and which was not. I got all but one right in all that I read (many bloggers were offering mix CDs to those who guessed correctly, and I received some great things from it). It was a very interesting exercise, and interesting when bloggers family members became involved or those who have known the bloggers in real life, as opposed to thsoe who just read. It really could be interesting in class.

  • April 2, 2005 at 6:42 pm

    Wow. when you get on a roll Mike, there’s no stopping you. Some random thoughts–I don’t know if Clancy could have learned something if she’d chosen to take a risk on that long-ago paper. Maybe we should ask her. I mean, what if the choice was to write a less- than -polished paper rather than a slam dunk A? What undergrad or high school student is going to want to risk getting a less than perfect grade if she doesn’t have to?
    I am so glad to hear that people are addressing the “writer-as -victim(pointed out by her teacher)” theme. I hated it as a student and I hate reading about it as a teacher. I think it can force writers to come up with nonsense as a way of keeping their writing from being too personal. More importantly, though, it puts us in the position of moral omniscience, knowing that our students are “victims” and knowing that we can show them the way. I have more to say about this, but I need to get back to doing taxes.

  • April 2, 2005 at 9:23 pm

    Nels — any general observations as to what distinguished the lies? (When I did Diane’s exercise, I discovered that people often expected the most interesting thing to be the lie, and so I made my lies very dull.)

    Joanna — well, I hope Clancy might be reading, and offer some feedback, but your points about her response to the assignment are well taken. I was more trying to show that students always have the option of BSing the teacher, and that trying to engineer assignments specifically for the purpose of shutting down mendacity can be counterproductive. But yeah, I really dislike the student-as-victim trope, too.

  • April 2, 2005 at 11:11 pm


    I think you’re onto something really cool here in terms of connecting personal with external and in trying to show composition students how they could make that connection through their writing. But being your student myself, I immediately thought of issues you may encounter in trying to implement such an assignment.

    I remember that a lot of students ended up misinterpreting your assignments that called for analysis of difficult texts and books that exhibited varying viewpoints, and opted to write a high-school type essay that mainly summarized the arguments and acknowledged the presence of some higher meaning/issue that may need further analysis without performing the analysis itself.

    I mean, there is always the difficulty in asking students to transform their writing to abandon the high-school 5-paragrapher style, and I’m just wondering how much of a strain it may be on the students to also engage in the type of analysis you are proposing.

    I think the main issue would be to make them understand the specificity of the analysis you are looking for. Also, I’m not sure if letting the students know your theoretical intention behind the assignment would render it useless… and if so, then the question would be: can you you make the assignment clear enough for the students while at the same time disguising your intention of preventing “student mendacity”?

    Also, on a different point. Don’t you think the students would get a bit tired of writing three essays about the same thing — and to just keep revising it? I don’t know, I would be sick to look at that essay by the time I’m done with it, or all three of them. Just something to keep in mind. But yeah, very cool ideas Mike.

  • April 3, 2005 at 4:42 pm

    I plan to respond, but have just been busy with a ton of stuff, plus I don’t have much to say yet. Are you sure there’s something I could have learned that I “chose not to”? Are you saying I could have learned something about myself? If not, what? At the time, I had not encountered Freire’s thoughts. I’m still trying to figure out what I might have learned from writing about the experiences I wrote about — experiences I had already lived through and thought about — but I’m at a loss…to be sure, though, my attitude about personal writing is better now that it was as an undergraduate student. You wouldn’t have liked me at all back then. 🙂 I don’t know if I mentioned it earlier, but back then I used to assume that students in class with me who preferred personal writing to research papers were simply too lazy to do research. I’ve certainly revised that position. Here’s a question for you: What would you say to Clancy-as-undergraduate-student-in-your-class, who, without hostility, sincerely doesn’t understand what the purpose of this kind of writing is?

    Also, you said: “(about, possibly, free-market individualist ideas or mass-media political correctness).” Let me be clear: I am not advocating a “you thought it was this way, but see? It’s actually this other way” kind of pedagogy. What I am saying is that the persons behind the personal writing don’t exist outside of a social and political context, but you seem to suggest that it’s a slippery slope. Does acknowledging social location in the reflection upon and analysis of experiences necessarily have to be “critical pedagogy”?

  • April 3, 2005 at 7:49 pm

    Kirill, thanks for the feedback! Yeah, I’m sure it would be difficult — and your points about quickly getting tired of so many drafts around the same topic are well taken. Still, my hope is to transform Peter Elbow’s “believing game” into something resembling a Rashômon-style first essay that would serve as a method for future essays. And actually, I’m not so interested in preventing mendacity as rendering it a moot question: whether or not a student chooses to lie, BS, or attempt to tell the teacher what she wants to hear, the inhabitation of multiple perspectives with multiple audience responses might still (I hope) insure that the pedagogical work of the assignment gets done. As far as the difficulty goes: as the immense effort you put into your work in the course showed, good writing isn’t easy — and maybe writing teachers need to stop pretending that it is.

    Clancy, I think you and I may be working from different epistemological perspectives. (I love it when I get to use a 25¢ word.) As far as I’m concerned, I’m learning by writing, whether it’s a blog entry, a personal essay, or a dissertation chapter: I’m producing knowledge. What I hear you saying is that personal writing can only rehearse already-known and extant experiential truths — and when you describe it that way, my response is that such writing is only one kind (and a particularly atrophied and enervated kind) of personal writing. I want to argue that steps 2-12 above do something very different. A more concrete example: when my brother was arrested and went to prison, I was horribly upset about it. So I wrote about it: journal entries, attempts at short fiction, thoughts about crime and imprisonment, a longer piece of fiction, collage pieces, what-have-you. And the fiction I wrote led me to deeper understandings of my relationship with my brother, of what I do in my own writing, and of how I stood in relation to the series of events that culminated in his fourteen-year prison sentence. In other words, I learned something, I produced new knowledge that was useful to me about experiences that I had already lived through. This was writing as process of invention and discovery; and yes, while I’ll acknowledge that it’s a somewhat flawed example because it kinda buys into the display-of-trauma thing that I know you don’t like demanding of students and I don’t either, I use it because I know it’s familiar to you. And I set it up as an example of a person in process via personal knowledge — while I hear you making an argument that the connection between understanding and experience is one that’s always made in the past, and therefore static rather than in process. Hence the different epistemelogical perspectives.

    As for what I’d do about the possibly resistant student who doesn’t see the benefits, I’m afraid my answer would be simple: “Write and learn.” And I know you’re not advocating a hermeneutic unmasking, and of course no one exists outside of contexts: that’s what those steps above attempt to foreground. What I’m suggesting, following Jenny, is that the acknowledgement of social location serves no purpose (and indeed becomes Jenny’s “general equivalency”) when it’s not connected to the personal. This is not an either-or argument; I’m not saying “the personal instead of the political and social.” Following your insights, I’m saying the personal is the political and social, and so any useful pedagogy must connect the two, rather than privileging one over the other. Those assignments about mass-media political correctness and free-market individualist ideas privilege the political and social by eliding the personal — and, as Jenny notes, in so doing become a school genre, easily reproducible and exchangeable, lending themselves to little more than lip service.

  • April 3, 2005 at 10:04 pm

    Thanks, Mike, that’s a lot clearer…though I would have been stymied by “write and learn.” I would have found it too cryptic, too Yoda-like. Heh. So would that essay I love, Hungry for Air, be an example of what you’re talking about?

    Also, have you read Writing from the Center by Scott Russell Sanders? A friend of mine from my master’s program loved it, and I recently checked it out from the library. Those essays might count as the kind of writing you’re talking about, too.

  • April 11, 2005 at 10:57 pm

    Check out this essay — good example of the connection of the interconnectedness of personal, political, local, rhetorical, etc.

  • April 12, 2005 at 1:12 pm

    Clancy, it’s an interesting essay, albeit rather self-indulgent, as much of the rhetoric of “simple living” can be. (I think it’s a part of the recent trend towards an embarassment at wealth.) And yes, it connects the personal, political, local, and rhetorical — but it doesn’t work towards the inhabiting of a multiplicity of truths, the willingness to believe in inconsistent alterities (Keat’s negative capability?) that I’m seeking in the personal-as-dialectical. It remains securely sealed within its own frame of reference (hence the self-indulgence). Which isn’t to say it’s not a good essay, but I think the author’s missionary tendencies and romantic individualism run counter to the personal engagement of Peter Elbow’s believing game.

    “Hungry for Air,” I think, does go further; it does start to make those connections, to inhabit multiple perspectives, and to do so carefully and respectfully in its negotiating among the views of the (figuratively) tortured daughter, the dying mother, and the (literally) tortured prisoner. If I were a student, however, I’d have a really hard time writing a response to it, for the reason that the cause of death so agonized over in the essay is precisely the way my mother died: the neurological damage caused by ALS eventually impaired my mother’s ability to breathe so that she required greater and greater doses of morphine as she was able to take in less and less air, until she was killed by the combination of both, until the effects of morphine and lack of air converged on either side of the axis at its ultimate terminus.

    But my mother is not a metaphor. I will not use her memory, or her death, to serve some political end or make some political statement. And so I had a deep personal reaction against Deborah Stone’s essay. I appreciate that Deborah Stone learned something and found an ability to make a connection to the experience of others from her mother’s death, but her experience intersected with mine in such sharp and jagged ways that reading what she wrote made me angry. Once I got over that reaction, I saw what she was doing, and appreciated it, but it’s not something I would ever do.

    At age 11, I got caught in the rip tide off Cape Hatteras, and nearly drowned: I know a little, I think, about gasping, about coughing liquid from one’s lungs, which made me horrified when my Ranger friends in the Army described the first act of diver training: you are held at the bottom of a pool until you fill your lungs with water, until you are quite literally drowning, and then you are fished out and have the water forced out of your lungs — to help your face and overcome your fear of drowning. Is this brutal? Absolutely. Is it torture? I’m not sure. Was my mother tortured, to die the way she did? Absolutely not. She died as peacefully as she could, in the only way she could, given what her variant of ALS does to people. So, while I appreciate the upshot of Stone’s essay in its attempt to bridge and deeply believe in the personal perspectives of others, and think it does bear strong parallels to what I’m talking about with this sort of personal writing, I cannot agree with the conclusions she offers in the content of her essay.

    For personal reasons.

  • April 12, 2005 at 2:27 pm

    Mike–I’m confused. Do you have to accept her conclusions to see Stone’s essay as an example of the kind of writing you’re talking about? I think that you might have been sidetracked by your own experience of your mother’s death–and then by your discomfort about writing about it. If I had to summarize what you’ve written, it would be that although you can find many reasons to appreciate the political/personal/social connections of Stone’s essay, you are so uncomfortable thinking about your mother’s death that you want to distance yourself from the essay.
    Which is a pretty direct thing to say to someone in a blog. For what it’s worth, my mother died when I was 13, so I know what it feels like to go through the experience, so I’m speaking out of empathy, not judgement.

  • April 12, 2005 at 2:49 pm

    Joanna — no, I don’t have to accept her conclusions to see her writing as an example of what I’m talking about. I think it’s an excellent example of how a writer might write about her own experience in attempting to inhabit both her mother’s experience and the experience of a prisoner being tortured to broaden her own perspectives and learn something beyond her own experience — and that writing about inhabiting one’s own perspective while simultaneously being-in-alterity (and writing about that being-in-alterity, as well) is something I’d hope I might continue to try to do and to encourage my students to do. And part of my point is that people with different experiences will come to different conclusions: my own experience, and my attempt to understand the experiences of others, lead me to a conclusion radically different from Stone’s, that conclusion being that this way of dying is not torture, and a further conclusion being that — because I do not think this way of dying is torture — the political conclusions Stone is able to draw and apply to her own experience would feel to me cheap and shabby were I to attempt to apply them to mine within the context of my mother’s death. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but only that they don’t fit into my context in the way they fit into Stone’s.

    And now, of course, I’m suddenly uncomfortable thinking about this in terms of pedagogy. It’s uneasy, difficult, slippery stuff, making me think: am I cheapening this by talking about it?

  • April 12, 2005 at 3:15 pm

    Thanks for explaining things, Mike. I think that if you feel very strongly about the privacy of your feelings about your mother’s death, then you’d be better off not writing about it,at least not here. Thinking about it is another matter–look at all the ways that the experience informs your writing and teaching and being.

  • April 12, 2005 at 4:52 pm

    Joanna, it’s not at all a concern of privacy. There’s no reason for me to want to hide the fact that my mom died, and people who know how Bulbar Onset ALS works know that to watch its progress in a loved one is devastating — and I’d be a monster to not have been deeply affected by it. It’s not a concern with keeping private the event itself or keeping private the feelings attached to it, and if I were worried about the privacy of my own feelings, you’re right that I’d be a total idiot to shout it out to the millions of people on the internet.

    Rather, my concern is with the uses to which personal experience is put. I would not wish to use my own experience, as Stone does hers, to make a political argument, because — for me — doing so would transform that experience. My worry about the “uneasy, difficult, slippery stuff” was in how close I felt I was getting to connecting a hugely loaded experience to making a pedagogical argument, not in concerns about privacy.

    I still feel a little uneasy that I’m doing that right now, so let me shift gears. Imagine that I was deeply involved as a volunteer assistant coach with the Special Olympics, and spent a good number of hours each month working with a few athletes, and developed a bond with those athletes, interacting with them, but also seeing how other people interacted with them in different ways. Imagine I wrote an essay about this simply as an experience, trying to see the experience qua experience from my perspective, the athletes’ perspectives, the perspectives of others, and trying to inhabit those perspectives. I think I’d likely learn something. Now: imagine, instead, that I wrote about this experience as evidence for an argument. In doing so, I think I would alter the quality of that experience, and likely make it into an act of didacticism from which I would likely learn less that I might have with the first essay.

    It’s a fine line, certainly. But I think it’s an important one. Does that make sense?

  • April 12, 2005 at 9:54 pm

    Hey, Mike, thanks — this is helpful. What I’ve basically been doing, as you can gather, is asking that “What does it look like?” question most people find very annoying (I’m really not trying to be annoying in asking it though. I’m sincerely curious.). The Special Olympics example helps a lot.

    Oh, by the way, on your post about the tarot card reading, I left a comment, and it says it’s awaiting moderation. I can’t read mine or any of the subsequent comments.

  • April 12, 2005 at 9:55 pm

    Oh, wait, I can see the comments now. Never mind!

  • April 12, 2005 at 10:26 pm

    Yes, your example puts things in a much clearer light. Got it.

  • April 13, 2005 at 2:14 pm

    No annoyance, Clancy, though I’ll cop to some impatience in my comments at Sharon’s place, said impatience only arising from the fact that I’ve been very much following through in these thoughts on issues that you helped me see in the first place. 🙂

  • May 8, 2005 at 3:48 pm

    Hey, Mike, did you know College English had an issue devoted to personal writing a few years ago? Find College English, Vol. 64, No. 1, Sep., 2001 in JSTOR.

  • May 8, 2005 at 3:58 pm

    Yup, sure did — and made good use of it (as well as the September 2003 issue) in putting together the 4Cs proposal with Sharon and Joanna. Thanks, though! 🙂

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