Nearly all my writings are memoirs. I write about a variety of topics: nature, culture, food, community, emotions, professional options, art, creativity, entrepreneurship, recovering addictions, making life changes, family, loss, and growth, all from my perspective. I don’t try to be an expert and provide definitive information. I try to convey a point of view.
I began to wonder if there was something wrong with this kind of writing. After all, who wants to read about me? I’m not really that narcissistic, am I? But then I realized that I am a vehicle for the words I write. In reality, very little is about me. I’d like to think it is about humanity, as I am learning to understand it. It is just as much about you. If not now, then perhaps at some other point in time.
My chosen genre of the written word is creative non-fiction. Perhaps it always has been, but it was hidden for sometime.
In high-school we are taught not to write what we think. We report. We regurgitate. If we are lucky, we create. The use of the first person is discouraged. Undoubtedly, this carries over into college. I remember taking my English class at a community college. It was taught by this wonderfully inspiring and creative young hippie-chick. One of our assignments was to write a narrative.
I came back with a fictional story with characters inspired by the archaeological lab work I had been doing near Cahokia Mounds. It wasn’t exactly what she was looking for. She wanted a narrative of our life. I was baffled. I didn’t want to write about my life! Writing was my escape from my life! Luckily she allowed for revisions and helped me develop the narrative to be about the work I did cleaning artifacts and how certain details of ancient life could be interpreted from these pieces of the past.
I cherish what she taught me. It opened up a whole new world of writing. Sadly, accepting writing from my own experience did not transfer over to the university. I shared before about the trauma of my first writing assignment at the university level. I may forever blame that professor, with his full beard, thick glasses, flannel shirt, and overly critical ways for the blow to my self-confidence. From then on, I stuck to the acceptable way of writing. No use of “I”. Write about the subject as an expert would. Be authoritative. Be clear and concise. Use proper paragraph structure with at least five sentences to support the topic.
It worked, through courses in anthropology, ecology, wildlife biology, geography, and American Indian Studies. Even into graduate school, I stuck to the strict method. Even in my field of study (American Studies) which was, as an Anthropology professor described, “Heavily reliant on narrative rather than analysis.”
I remember the day when that all changed. I was half-way through my third semester of graduate school. We had just made our way through an intense unit on cultural theory. We had an open-ended assignment to write a response paper on the theory unit which was full of works that questioned authority and power. I had an idea that had nothing to do with my prospective thesis topic, but everything to do with my life at that moment. I was five months pregnant and, for the first time in my life, facing physical limitations. So I ran it by the professor, who interestingly enough also had a beard, glasses, and might sport a flannel shirt from time to time. But let me tell you. This professor was a thousand times cooler than the other professor.
He listened to my thoughts on the assignment, but was stunned when I asked the question, “I can write this in first person, right? The use of “I” as the subject is okay?” I think his response went something along the way of, “I don’t see how it would be possible not to.”
The whole world opened up. I wrote a paper entitled “Redefining Pregnancy through Expressions of Agency”. The opening quote read,
Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility. -Donna Haraway, A Manifesto for Cyborgs
I do believe from that moment on I continued to enlist the possibility that rested in the use of “I” in my writing… even my thesis became part memoir, part cultural-environmental history. What a powerful thing to be able to do when thesis writing coincided with bed rest!
What a delightful thing for me to revisit now, as many of my emerging perspectives are influenced by multiple-versions of physical well-being. Something I was just beginning to explore in that assignment. And what a wonderful way to reflect and appreciate that the greatest things we learn are about our own abilities, even in graduate school!