Saturday, May 27, 2006

Insight Driven

I hadn't planned to write a post today, but I am awaiting my Amatriciana sauce to spice up and decided to fill that time sending my unsolicited thoughts into the blogosphere. I want to write more about the act of telling your story. I was thinking about this ever since the interesting conversation that followed my In Medias Res post. My reader Human asked me a set of questions that required me to speak more intelligently about what I think I am doing in the classroom than I had planned to while I was writing that piece. I had no idea where I was headed when I embarked on that post, but the discussion that ensued got me thinking a great deal about how I approach texts.

SteveG and I had a brief conversation about this on Friday, wherein I refined his juxtaposition of "content" vs. "structure" as governing teaching styles to "insight" vs. "big picture." I am not sure that is a perfect way of capturing what I strive for, as opposed to SteveG and Human, but I like the emphasis on "insight." This really hit me last night as I curled up reading several of Alice Munro's short stories from her collection Runaway (I highly recommend!). The short story genre always appeals to me because it is constrained to a short sliver of time, a moment, or an event. Munro's stories sometimes feel like they are ending too abruptly, and yet that is part of what really appeals to me about this genre. It doesn't sum it up. The story doesn't end with "and in that moment she realized that this event had shaped her whole life . . ."

The abrupt endings mimic more accurately they way we live. We make a rather uncharacteristic decision, or an unexpected death jars us from our doldrums, and the landscape of our lives takes on a dramatically different hue. We are set free from a course we had settled quite nicely into. We search for ways to integrate this halting interruption into what we take to be our identity. The process of making sense, of telling our stories, is unending. There is never--I hope--a point wherein I will say, "and those were the moments that defined me." Instead, what I search for is "insights." I find these often in ficition, memoirs, and the kind of philosophy I love most: phenomenology.

Last night I stumbled upon one of those passages that I press students to find in the readings I assign them, you know, the ones that give some shape to our otherwise ineffable experiences. I thought I would share the passage with you that profoundly resonated with me and gave me a way of making sense of much of my own behavior.

Juliet knew that, to many people, she might seem to be odd and solitary--and so, in a way, she was. But she had also had the experience, for much of her life, of feeling surrounded by people who wanted to drain away her attention and her time and her soul. And usually, she let them. Be available, be friendly (especially if you are not popular)--that was what you learned in a small town and also in a girls' dormitory. Be accommodating to anybody who wants to suck you dry, even if they know nothing about who you are.