I’m writing this post above the clouds, on route home to NYC after three days in Estes Park, Colorado for the AEPL conference, “Inviting the Edge: Mindfulness in the Writing Classroom and Beyond.” Here I respond to the question any academic conference begs: “What did you get out of it?” I have three answers: 1) I found out that running in high altitudes made this long-time runner slow and barely able to breath 2) Being “mindful” requires grounded attention, work that is grueling, rigorous, and practical and 3) 1 and 2, running and staying still, sometimes confront each other in the act of writing.
Throughout the conference, teachers and scholars approached “mindfulness” not as a state of being assumed but as an activity acquired through practice. Being present is one way to notice where we are in writing and life. At the same time, it’s a way to “detach” from any hang-ups that block a clear view of where we are.
Writing with mindfulness made the most sense to me articulated as a narrative, a quest, for finding a topic. This was how Doug Hesse, Professor and Director of the University Writing Program at the University of Denver and the conference’s keynote speaker, began his talk. Hesse used objects and images, personal history and cultural critique to ask how information of our present lives comes together in stories. He narrated the evolution of his search for a keynote “topic” and through that story, came, circuitously, to a thesis.
That thesis came in the form of a charge: to notice the difference between two kinds of writing: narrating data in order to turn it into pithy prose and narrating in order to offer history and perspective, memory and vision. The second sort–mindful writing?–has long been the domain of a genre that maybe in jeopardy. That genre is the “long form” essay.
Writing is everywhere in this digital age. But also everywhere is discourse that, in Hesse’s words, often seeks the “bon-mot” or snark, offering meaning that is “implied” not “stated.” Without any indictment of technology (Hesse is an avid user) Hesse asked that we consider the proliferation of writing today and where it’s going.
That might be the most important question to ask of any writing topic.
To be clear: I like pith, wit, innuendo. Even snark. In writing, in culture, in life. They confirm that, yes, I–“we”–are on the inside of the keen joke, the right position. They affirm: I exist.
But how much affirmation do we need, and where, ultimately does it go? Can the academy and writing in the academy suspend affirmation for a bit and ask instead for heightened participation in our changing culture?
I don’t want to sound too rhapsodic (thought transporting, the conference did have its usual moments of scholarly angst and I was sure to insist on some discomfort by wearing my completely un-mountain-mindful sandals). But being at this conference did offer a radical alternative to the standard affirmations of academic conventions.
To be present at this untraditional conference I needed to suspend disbelief. And disbelief and critique define, if not identify, academics as academics. Doing yoga, long periods of quiet writing, chanting (well, pretending to chant) are all activities that suggest a wacky and wanton neglect of scholarly seriousness. Where were the arguments? The theses? The running across greatness in the form of the year’s big idea? The mindful workshops here focused on how to realize “what is” as writers, teachers, scholars–not what was or could be. Yet attention to the present was not some excuse for rejecting rigor. Here in the mountains I experienced a kind of intensity of focus that confounded and enveloped me.
It takes practice, sometimes two or three days, to stay with, and run into a “discovery.” Rigorous attention is required when paying attention for seventy-five minute sessions. The standard questions of stuffy convention hall elevators: “Is there some other panel more suited?” “Would I get more out of something or someone or somewhere else?” had no place here. The culture of this conference was to stay put and listen. It lacked the “bon-mot” and, in turn, avoided manic meandering–the constant checking of conference programs for who’s who or could be, the shuffling between panels, the looking around to find the next new thing not to miss.
I was grounded. No pacing about the conference and, because I was a stranger to the altitude, no running up the Rocky mountains either.
And, when the workshops were over and it was time for an afternoon break, I realized that I had to learn to breathe without going for a run. Put another way, we can progress in our thinking or writing without accelerating, without moving it forward.
Revision is “seeing writing again,” just like Nancy Sommers once argued. But it’s also seeing what is already there. It’s staying with, and staying put, with the writing.
Without the potential for distraction or my routine escape (running) I had to face what was right in front of me: the twelve pages of researched prose I prepared for the conference.
“Distraction in Innovation” was the title of my paper, prepared for Saturday afternoon–the final session of the conference. I think it offered the audience an opportunity to link what we think of as “lower-order” writing (distracted or crappy writing done at the start of a piece or crappy writing done by novice writers) and what we consider “big ideas”—the stuff of intellectual “paradigm shifts.” It revealed examples of “higher order” distraction in great critical thinkers, the paradigm-shifters of literary criticism (using Cleanth Brooks’ work in New Criticism as an example) and hinted at a relationship between this kind of criticism and the writing of beginning students in first-year comp classes.
But it moved fast. Fast enough that I now want to return to the connections I tied together to make this conference paper, a fifteen minute story of how ideas work. Before my sneakers hit the concrete again (only a few hours), I will try to employ some mindful techniques in order to think how I could have made these ideas more grounded for the audience, more tangible in “the present.”
But I will also consider presentness that moves over time and place. I’ll ask questions of the article that take me not just to the mind and body, but also to the brain, the domain of that neglected genre–the essay. For it is the brain that holds memory and that makes the present noisy, unruly, and sometimes very busy. Mindfulness bumping heads with the messy quest for purpose: perhaps this is a mess for writing to sort out.
So: What can be remembered from this essay? Does it participate in something larger than the temporary affirmation of its existence?
I’ll have to find out when my feet get back moving on the crowded concrete of my home-town’s city streets.