30 July 2009

Some wonderful things happen when you teach; as do terrible ones.  

Terrible: had to ask a student to withdraw from class (my boss did this, with grace and kindness, God bless him) for a variety of reasons.  It was one of those “for the good of the whole” decisions, and not an easy one.  I’m generally a believer in the wide gate when it comes to The Writing Life.

Wonderful:  I suppose “wonderful” isn’t quite the right word.  Stunning, maybe.  In both senses.  Let me back up a little.

Back in April, I wrote about a class I was hoping to teach, called “Writing Self/Writing Other.”  My interest was in proposing an alternative to the memoir and autobiographical fiction craze.  I love writing characters (and settings, and events) that have nothing to do with my personal experience; I love the exploration, the research, and the process of connecting with a character or place or time that is “other.”  I love how this process is almost always, ironically, a process of self-discovery.

That class has not yet materialized, but I’m still working on it.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Sarah Palin and empathy (or, her apparent lack thereof).  The gist of that post was that the artist’s vocation is an empathic one, requiring the development of an essential compassion; and that I’m glad to take part in this work, to the best of my ability.

Recently, I assigned a class a writing exercise, wherein the students were asked to write a letter, from one friend to another, at mid-life, after the experience of a great difficulty.  It was an exercise in Voice.  One student wrote a letter in which the narrator described the aftermath of her child’s tragic death.  

The Voice in this piece struck me as a bit too breezy, perhaps a bit too articulate.  As if the loss were not nearly as bizarre and incomprehensible as I imagine such a loss would be.  There is no experience further from my own — not only do I not have children, but I’ve yet to lose someone close to me to death — and so I treaded lightly as I provided comments.  “It seems like something that would live more in the subtext of a voice,” I wrote.  “That it would be unspeakable for quite a long time.”

The student wrote back to me (this is an online class) to let me know how much she appreciated my comments.  “That’s exactly it,” she wrote, and went on to tell me that her daughter and son-in-law were killed in a plane crash some five years ago, leaving three little boys.  

I can’t tell you what a gift this was, this student’s generosity and trust.  Life is hard, and we put on our armor to get through — layers of cynicism, irony, and stoicism.  It would be easy to lose our compassion, our empathy.  I am deeply grateful to know, in this small way, that in the midst of life hardships and learning to buck up where I am perhaps over-sensitive, I am also somehow managing to be a human being; and am more convinced than ever that our efforts to develop empathy are at the heart of our human-ness.

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