Tomorrow morning, I will be talking to some students at my former graduate school, Florida International University, where I used to teach composition and received my MFA in creative writing (one of the best programs in the country!). The class is English Composition 1102, and it’s taught by one of my friends and former colleagues. She’s always looking for new ways to reach her students. She believes that writing and rhetoric can change a student’s future and provide them with the skills necessary for success — even if they’re not an English major.
So tomorrow, I’m going to Skype into their class from my new office and tell them about how the skills they’re learning in comp class transferred into my job, my life, and my personality. And I’ve got to say, the lessons I used to teach my students (plus the lessons I learned on how to teach from my professors) has played a gigantic role in my life, but it’s impossible to ever measure.
Journaling and freewriting
If you’ve ever been in my class — or you ever really got to know me — then you probably know that I write in a journal all the time. I have countless journals with my thoughts, my dreams, my visions, my story ideas, and they’re probably the most prize possessions I own, because I can look back on those books and understand that it is the material of my mind.
Maybe that sounds strange. But when I was in graduate school, I took this pedagogy class with Kimberly Harrison. We read a bunch of theory, and I enjoyed it, but what I took away from the class, which impacts me everyday, is freewriting. Writing without thinking; writing without censoring; writing without blocking…searching, groping, hoping for some understanding to pop out of the page like a message from a dream.
In the most basic sense, learning to write write without judging was an important hurdle I had to overcome before I could actually communicate with others or myself. How often do we judge our writing? How often do we judge what we say in class? And how often do we stop from saying what we actually want because of fear? Well, freewriting taught me to believe in my words, to write them, to say them, and never look back.
Of course, this has some drawbacks. If I’m just saying whatever the hell I want, well, I’m probably going to say something stupid and offensive. But here’s another way I use freewriting: When I know I’m going into a difficult situation, when I know I have to talk to my boss about a sensitive issue, even when I know I have to talk to a loved one about a pressing matter, I write about it. I see what’s on my mind. I learn about myself. I learn about my fears. I learn about my thoughts. I learn about my insecurities. And what I’m really doing is strategizing by voyaging into myself.
You know, I could probably go on about all the things I’ve learned from teaching, but here’s something I’ve learned that seems important right now: Sometimes, you can plan an entire lesson down to the minute, but sometimes you just have to move on from that routine in order to find the point you wanted to make.
I’m getting married next week. Actually Saturday. I proposed to my lady, Heron, while I was teaching at FIU. Teaching, strangely, had a big part of this decision. And what I learned while teaching is that you always have to know your audience; you always have to know your genre; you always have to know your purpose.
Well, those are basic lessons for writing a paper, but those are the basic lessons for living a successful life. We teach our students to wallow in complexity, to not take the easy way out, and to find the right answer to complicated questions. And when I was trying to figure out if I was going to propose, I asked the same very questions I use to brainstorm a research paper.
So I looked at my life, and I wondered, who was the audience? Who was I living for? Ultimately, it was me, but it was my future wife. It was my dog. It was my family. It was my students. It was the voice I hear inside my head that tells what I’m doing is right or wrong.
And then I thought about the genre. What kind of a life did I want to live? Because I want to be a writer, part of me thought that I had to live some tragically beautiful life and suffer. I could have lived my life like a tragedy. I could have chosen to be alone and a wandering Gypsy. But no, I wanted to make my life another genre. I didn’t want to live a tragedy. I wanted to be happy. And I know what made me happy. I mean, I knew who made me happy.
And finally, I started to think about my purpose: The ultimate question. With my students, I asked, “What is it that you’re trying to accomplish in your paper?” With myself, I asked the obvious: What did I want out of life? And yes, life is tragically short, but I often imagine that when I die, I could be forced to watch my life on repeat, and back in graduate school, I knew that I wanted Heron to be in those scenes. I knew my purpose: to have an incredible family and be one hell of a writer.
Some might even say that being a writer and having a family is a paradox. But I’m the one writing this story.
Purpose, audience, and genre…