As I wrote in a recent post, during one of the “job readiness” workshops I conducted for HHB, the clients were totally enthralled by my laptop or, more specifically, by the magic of Microsoft Word. They didn’t want to search for jobs, and they didn’t want to Google. They wanted to type words on the screen and learn how to capitalize letters and compose little notes to each other. At the end of the session, I suggested to Cassie that we offer some writing workshops for clients. She was perplexed. Why would we want to do that? At the time, I didn’t know how to respond to her question. Because academics are required to write, writing is a practice that seems inherently meaningful, more so because it is so hard. I write because I have learned to admire suffering.
Or is that another delusion of (post)academia?
I was pondering that question when I met with HHB Director, Mary, to see what else I could do to keep volunteering for them.
I pitched my idea. “Why don’t we offer some memoir-writing classes? Clients could write about their lives and about issues that interest them, and we could provide an audience for them.” Since I’m a writing teacher and wrote about student writers in my dissertation, the idea that everyone should write is just a default position for me.
Mary was into it. She perked up and told me a story, from years before, about a client who wrote a letter to her landlord complaining about the appalling conditions in her building. Mary explained that it was a very moving letter. The woman had said, “I don’t even care if he fixes my apartment now. The important thing is that I wrote this letter.” Mary always remembered that. I said, “sometimes writing helps us gain some mastery over circumstances beyond our control.”
That got Mary going.
She told me about a Health and Nutrition class she had just completed at a local college. (She is enrolled in an M.A. program.) Mary was completely enthralled by what she had learned about the relationship between food, social class, and health. She described with passionate fervor her desire to help people in the Black community make healthier food choices by addressing them as whole people with complex lives. “If you have diabetes or heart disease” she said, “you will be told by a doctor not to eat fat or carbs. But say you live with your mother who fixes all your food. She’s the family matriarch and, for her, food is love, it’s tradition, it’s who we are. If you don’t eat her food, you are not only offending her, you are rejecting your family and even your identity.” Mary went on to explain that helping people make better food choices also means empowering them to address the conditions and relationships in their lives that make healthy eating so hard.
This is the kind of Health and Nutrition Educator that Mary wants to be. I told her that sounded exciting and very important indeed.
Encouraged, Mary talked for several minutes more about the research and writing she wants to do on the link between race and health. She described with intensity her interest in black women and hair, for example. “Hair straightening is internalized racism!” she told me with authority.
During her speech, I got a vicarious thrill. Ah, I remember the days when I was excited about learning, writing, and research. I remember when ideas and their contradictions and implications compelled me. I remember when the prospect of spending years studying (scholarly) texts on a theme seemed to put me in harmony with the world, when it seemed that was what I really needed to be doing right then no matter what.
Now? Not so much.
This is what often happens, I think, when you get a PhD. What you loved becomes drudgery. What inspired you becomes deadening. And what you thought was your life’s work becomes an obligation to submit yourself to a stultifying regime led by an all-powerful advisor-master.
By the time you get to the dissertation stage, your writing (often) has little to do with the “real world.” It’s not applicable to anything but itself. Having to blah blah your way through the whole dissertation defense just proves that writing as a grad student is often (note my academic penchant for qualifying each statement) just a performance of a competency. More than that, it’s a performance of a competency signifying nothing. Writing a passable dissertation doesn’t mean you can actually do anything (it doesn’t even mean you can write); it just means you can approximate the discourse of the academic club long enough to get through the door.
While I was reliving my academic dread, Mary kept talking about the passion that graduate study had awakened in her. I didn’t know whether she was a naïf or a visionary. Or both. I admired her for wanting to use her work to change the way people in her community live their lives, as impossible as such a goal may be.
While Mary was talking, I was reminded of Cassie’s question: “why offer memoir-writing workshops to people on the bread line?” One could also ask, “why should Mary write about black women and hair or the link between health and family?”
I realized the impulse to write shouldn’t necessarily be judged by whether such work has any measurable impact on the world or whether it provokes the suffering associated with art. I shouldn’t let my post-academic angst dictate how much or how little I value writing for the sake of writing.
Mary and her clients should write because they want to. It’s no more complicated than that.