“Unpublished, unprocessed, never read out loud to anyone except a cat and/or the mirror,” boasted the eblast. I marched up to the front of the packed house in the same shoes I wore the day I got married. They were missing a few rhinestones, and some of the lace was peeling off my left pointed toe. I had discovered I was nervous a few moments before, when I realized I wasn’t listening to the reader who went right before me, and that my hand was shaking on my wine glass. I took a deep sip of my wine, and a deep gulp of air, and marched my beating heart up to the front of the room.
I read from my creative nonfiction project that ruminates over the lives of my grandparents during WW II, as my grandfather developed the atom bomb in Los Alamos, and my grandmother followed him obediently into a life of secrecy. It chronicles their resulting depression when the bomb was dropped. I told the salon that I didn’t know if this was a story I could write. “I can’t wrap my mind around 90,000 people dying in an instant,” I explained. What right did I have to tell this story? I feared that my publisher wanted me to write it as a page turner. I didn’t want to write this story just to titillate. I wanted to do justice to the very real humans on the other side of the nonfiction mirror.
I found myself miraculously encouraged by an audience composed of DePaul and SAIC professors, indie press editors, and professional authors of all makes and kinds. Like spitfire, they shot out suggestions ranging from incorporating my grandfather’s math, to putting more of my own vulnerable voice into the story. “Just say, I don’t know how to tell this story,” one offered. “You’ll figure it out through the writing process,” offered another. I walked away feeling exhilarated, motivated, and full of fireworks.
But from the comfort and seclusion of my living room couch, I realized there was more to that exhilaration. It wasn’t just the ideas that had sparked my passion. It was the shared community of authors and thinkers who had listened and commiserated. I felt a little less alone on the isolated pathway through the woods. And I realized, then, that what I really learned from the experience came from asking my own questions, in those seconds before I got the answers. I had needed a community to hear me first. And then I had needed to listen to my own questions hanging on the air.
In second semester seminar this week, we started cultivating plans for our own instructional inquiries. I surprised myself with my excitement over my own tentative proposal to investigate the Socratic method in the classroom, linked to Noam Chomsky’s cognitive development theory. I decided I wanted to focus on the power of the interrogative rather than the declarative. In fact, I was so excited sitting in seminar, that I sent proposals of my theory to my mentor, and a few other faculty members in my department to get reactions and reading suggestions. Andy Ball gave me Aquinas, Hume, Descartes, and Derrida. Then my mentor, Ben Rubin, pulled the carpet from beneath me. “There’s nothing magic about Socrates,” he insisted, and instead he offered me structuralism and post-structuralism. I found myself back at square one, looking at a blinking cursor, wondering about words.
In an unsteady world of signs and signifiers, and nuanced interpretations of homographs, homonyms, and connotations, there’s not much that can clearly be asserted as true or correct, if anything at all. But that playful uncertainty is exactly the murky terrain that I love so much about literature. I love that when Hamlet ponders, “To be or not to be,” he may be contemplating suicide, or he may be having an existential crisis, or it may be Shakespeare himself questioning the metaphysics of the fourth wall. I love the loose ends that keep sending me down the rabbit hole.
I may be no closer to narrowing in on my instructional inquiry than I was yesterday. But, I have a whole slew of new questions. And I love that turning to Andy and turning to Ben sent me back in a downward spiral. Because every time I think I know which way is up in literature, it’s time to lose my footing. And I suspect it’s the same way for teaching. That way I can spend my whole life searching for answers. And the answers will keep changing as well as the students. But there will be one constant. Like the moment before I received the answers, as I stood in the salon, pouring my heart off the page in the form of long and tangled sentences, unwrapping the mesh of WW II in a quiet, well-furnished living room in Evanston, I realized the magic of that moment was in the awkward pause. I had read out loud to someone besides the cat and/or the mirror. And in the moment before the response, I was alone with myself and my words.
I found myself reflecting on my working book title, “Ships Named After Women,” and all the great and horrible ships of warfare named after mothers and lovers. I found myself thinking about the Enola Gay, the ship that delivered the atomic bomb to Hiroshima. I found myself remembering that even the Enola Gay had been named for a mother, and then I started wondering about the signs, signifiers, connotations, and nuances of being alone. After all, Enola was alone spelled backwards. And in order to write I have to be alone. But I think I realized last night, as I explored structuralism and the theories of opposites, that without first establishing a writing community, there is no definition of alone. And this correlates to my role as teacher like a ship sailing away into the horizon, after sixteen weeks, my student will be alone. I want to leave them alone with their questions, like a trial of breadcrumbs.