Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/11/2011

Why I write this stuff

College writing students often plaintively comment about assignments, “I don’t know what you want us to write.”  I used answer, “I write to find out what I think.” This is a pretty common understanding of writers about writing.

These days I write to find out who I am. What I think is ultimately of little importance. Of course, one should find out who one is in private, not in the most public venue in history. I started writing here when I believed what I think is important. One side effect is that several people who thought they were my friends have rejected me (unfriended me on Facebook, where I post this stuff) because they discovered what I think to be distasteful.

Yesterday I spent most of the day with members of the football team with which I am, by virtue of my employment as a teacher of writing, associated. I won’t write what I think about that. My understanding of the relationship of my employer to them athletes would not be helpful to them. They already have an impossible “row to hoe.” Abuse does not have to involve sex.

I want to write about (to find out who I am in relation to) the presumptuousness of “teaching” writing. Each of those guys is more intelligent than I am. They have one of the types of intelligence I cannot imagine having—athletic ability that translates to an understanding of the game—it’s “Just Gaming” (look up Jean-François Lyotard if you don’t understand)—that  I can’t comprehend when I watch it, much less were I to play. But even more than physical/athletic intelligence they have an internal gut-level intelligence that is necessary for their survival. They are caught up in a deadly game of the survival of the fittest. On more levels than I can comprehend.

The topic I’ve thrown out for my classes to wrestle with grew from our reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (1). I’ve challenged them to ponder the possible grotesquery of scientific medical experimentation run amok. My athletic friends have discovered such subjects as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, performance enhancing drug use by athletes (especially Barry Bonds—they aren’t the least bit interested in Lance Armstrong), and Sickle Cell Anemia research.

One of the students—after we talked about it for half an hour—asked me with apparent trepidation if he could focus his research on the possibility that the Tuskegee Syphilis Study  was racist. All I said was, “It looks racist to me.” I wish I had some objective corroboration of my observation that the atmosphere in the room changed completely.

But since my writing has nothing to do with objectivity, I will dismiss that wish with a shrug.  I will say that, after ten weeks in class, after having had one-one-one conferences about the two papers they have written previously, after hearing my irreverent and, I’m afraid, sarcastic attempts at humor about everything from Rick Perry to the Green Party and back again, after watching me fail absolutely to keep order in the classroom, their (apparent) uncertainty whether or not I would allow them—in this “color-blind” society at this university that congratulates itself on its cultural “diversity”—to write about racism shocked me. I have no hard evidence that these students have struggled through their entire educational careers against a system that demands

that the student [see] the error of his ways, for, inevitably, he [will] find that the more effective ethos would be one that aligned with the values, morals, and codes of conduct deemed acceptable by an audience of [the institution] (2).

I’d guess they have struggled against that system. Ethos—the moral authority to approach one’s audience—comes not from who the student is but from who the institution wants her to be, from the assumption that the student will “conform to institutionally accepted values.” There would be no problem

if those values only involved what makes writing good. But, let’s not kid ourselves: The production of “good writing” is often intimately intertwined with, if not dependent on, the demonstration of the values of what makes a good person (3).

Surely I don’t need to point out that the institutional idea of what makes a good person may have nothing to do with what these students think will make a good person. My friends who have unfriended me on Facebook cannot comprehend—or accept—that while what I really think about any given topic may not [demonstrate their] values of what makes a good person, it’s more important to understand that what I think has nothing to do with what makes me a good person. Or that I care if anyone thinks I am a good person.
This is not a liberal rant about the vestiges of racism in this country (at least in Dallas, Texas). It is not a petulant rant born of anti-social immaturity (although I am immature and somewhat anti-social).

I want to learn to die before I die.

I want to learn to die before I die because I’ve had a glimpse or two that

learning how to die while living constitutes one of the essential skills in the art of living. . . indispensable for rendering absurd the glamour of vanity: “Meditate again and again” on death, insists the renowned Tibetan scholar Tsong-kha-pa (1357–1419), “until you have turned your mind away from the activities of this life, which are like adorning yourself while being led to the execution ground” (4).

I don’t write to find out what I think. These days I write with the fragile hope of learning who I am. I take the concept of learning to die before I die as a

spiritual technology human beings have utilized throughout the ages, and across a variety of cultural and

religious contexts, as a means for understanding, defining, experiencing, and, ultimately, transforming the self in relation to the dominant culture that otherwise shapes one’s personal and social identity (5).
For me, part of that technology is writing. Most of my writing is, in fact, private. Today, however, I am thinking about how to be in existence, in relationship with college football players. I think—though I do not know for sure and have no idea of convincing anyone else this is true—that “one who practices mindfulness of death is ‘not stingy . . . does not cling to things, is endowed with the perception of impermanence . . . and the perception of not-self’” (6).

I’m not exactly sure what is meant by learning to die before I die. However, a tiny, endangered part of myself understands that I want to “decipher the true nature of [my] being and, by so doing, undergo a process of self-transformation that is decisive” (7). A transformation of myself that will not stand in the way of a young man who needs to write without [alignment] with the values, morals, and codes of conduct deemed acceptable by [the institution] in order to find his own “process of self-transformation that is decisive.”
(1) Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.
(2) Allen, Sarah. “The Cultivated Self: Self Writing, Subjectivity, And Debate.” Rhetoric Review 29.4 (2010): 364-378.
(3) Allen, loc. cit.
(4) Perreira, Todd LeRoy. ““Die Before You Die”: Death Meditation As Spiritual Technology Of The Self In Islam And Buddhism.” Muslim World 100.2/3 (2010): 247-267. Quoting: The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Vol. One: The Lamrim Chenmo. Joshua W. C. Cutler, Editor-in-Chief, Guy Newland, ed.  Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2000 (160).
(5) Perreira, op. cit.
(6) Perreira, quoting Arahant Upatissa. The Path of Freedom (Vimuttimagga), The Rev. N. R. M. Ehara, Soma Thera, and Kheminda Thera, trans. Colombo: The Saman Press, 1961.
(7) Perreira, op.cit.



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