On Writing, Reflecting, and Hacking My Own Education (And What All that Has to Do With Voyaj)

23 Dec


Right now, I am sitting in my bedroom with an open copy of “The Artist’s Way” beside me, looking down now and again for reassurance as I make my way back to an abandoned manuscript. I think about all the ways that I have run away from writing and it has pursued me tirelessly in return. Every time I criticize pop culture (or celebrate it), every time I look at my son and wonder what I will leave him, and every time I read with my students, I think about my writing, how it’s not good enough and how I still have to do it.

A friend of mine wrote a post a few days back in response to all the Beyonce’ brouhaha bubbling up on the blogosphere, basically reminding us all that creativity, expression, sex, and sensuality are all bound up together and that they are our birthright. We don’t need it to be packaged and sold to us for us to experience the life force that we all have pulsating inside of us. And I do think that it’s easier to be a critic (and it’s a damned important job, don’t think I’m saying it’s not- we need people to poke holes in the pop culture confections we are sold in sheep’s clothing as rebellion when it really is conformity, but I digress…) but it is easier, at least for me, to be a critic than to really hit the ground running and to create for the sake of my own psychological survival and also to give the world the medicine that only I can. 

For a long time, I thought it could come through travel writing, and some of it did. Or through teaching- and everyone knows how all-encompassing that profession can be for a cultural creative. After a unit on Thoreau, Majora Carter, and environmental justice and another on Gothic Literature and The Haunted Mind, I have had to come to grips with what haunts me and what have I always done in the face of changing social conditions (change is the big idea or big concept tying it all together for the first few units of my class on American Literature(s) this year btw.)

It has always been writing.

When I was younger, it was poetry. I started writing in a red journal with pink flowers when I was in the fifth grade filled with the terror and promise of a new suburban environment. I wrote about the grass and trees everywhere… and I wrote about the dragons- I wrote about feeling isolated and alone, the covert racist comments, and the boredom. I wrote about the city I had left behind and now mythologized. The subway was no longer filthy and filled with leaking water and scrawled over with graffiti. It was a magical place where a token could “show me your dreams.” I continued to write, with the encouragement of my teachers, and began to expand into story and memoir-  mostly morbid explorations of my own social awkwardness, really. I wrote and read Sassy magazine and learned about zine culture but also wore a lot of makeup and spent tons of time trying to perfect a high bun, dark lipstick, and brown suede granny boots look with the hopes of resembling a young Veronica Webb.

But I was also studying African and African-American history in school and putting together an assembly on MLK’s more radical writings for the school with my friends and discussing academic tracking in our school district with my aunt who was a community activist, and at this point on the school board. I was beginning to get a sense of academic and community agency and thought that this would all continue in college, and that I would magically continue writing and become an academic scholar.

I think a lot of that changed when I actually got to college because, while I enjoyed my courses, really my most fascinating, juicy, and creative discussions happened outside the classroom to the point where I barely wanted to go to class anymore. My mother’s illness happened. A boy who played, “Love you, love you not” happened. Depression happened. And then the political fault lines in my mind happened as well, I think. It wasn’t conscious but a part of me began to think that if you wanted to make change, you needed to roll your sleeves up, join the rest of the world, and get dirty. So I joined an alternative teaching certification program and did just that.

But always, it comes back to writing. I just found a quote by Stephen King, or I should say it just found me on my Facebook newsfeed, where he says, “Writing is not life but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.” Whenever I have most needed my sanity, when teaching, especially in the South Bronx and later in Brooklyn, threatened to grind me down writing has been there. My only mistake was that I thought that I needed to be accepted into an M.F.A. program in order to pursue it. Not that an M.F.A can’t be valuable and perhaps one day I will want that level of singleminded devotion in a community of fellow writers but that attitude stalled me, in a BIG way. Not having enough money stalled me. Not getting into a program nearly broke me. I walked away semi-determined to get this writing thing out of my blood. But that’s the funny thing about teaching- kids will always let you know when you’re letting yourself down and (just maybe) being a hypocrite by telling them to work hard and follow their dreams and you don’t do the same.

Which brings me to the whole hacking your own education thing. I recently heard about Dale Stephens and his Unschooling movement where the thinking is you can educate yourself to know and do most of what you need to change the world and I knew it was something that I needed. Yes,  I do think that some of the philosophy comes from a privileged place (most of these folks who espouse the whole no college lifestyle come from at least a middle-class background) but I think there are lessons there for someone like me who was always most successful in school. I thrived on its atmosphere of class discussion and teacher-dictated deadlines and realize that I often flail without those restrictions. I needed the grades, the gold stars, and the verbal praise in order to motivate myself to pursue my passions. With teaching, that kind of happened with evaluations and student attention span and outcomes. But tying my self-worth to other people’s growth and learning has its disadvantages- and when coupled with high stakes test scores, it’s been a relative drain on my creativity.

So, recently, I’ve been regrouping; gathering all my resources, be it books or wine, and working on creating order in my family’s small home, organizing a creative space, and scheduling short blocks of time. Today, I was able to write two pages of my manuscript-  My goal is to write five chapters by the end of this semester. So begins my journey…

Which brings me to what this all has to do with Voyaj. Well, it is not just about travel writing, it is now my “Unschooling” university- because I kind of need deadlines, and assignments, and gold stars. I’ll settle for myself as teacher for now.


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