Mimesis, and Teaching Writing

As I explained in my last post, I am trying to make explicit a rather intuitive, implicit process–the act of writing about a poem.

So, I of course quote Flannery O’Connor as I attempt the beginning of the first body paragraph video:

“I write to discover what I know.” And believe me, that’s what I was doing. I was not sure where this essay was going to go or what I was going to say, and I hoped fervently that Flannery would once again turn out to be right as I fumbled my way narrating the first part of that paragraph.

Many of my students have been responding well to this step by step process. It may be a bit too slow for some of them– but even the ones who already know (intuitively or otherwise) how to write a poem analysis will benefit, I think, from making some of these good habits clear and explicit.

I tried making the video below as I had done the one above and the others before, thinking out loud as I wrote it. But, as I moved from merely describing or summarizing the poem to analyzing it, I found this dual level of thinking to be extremely difficult and distracting. I couldn’t focus on the poem AND focus on HOW I was focusing on the poem at the same time–at least, not adequately.

So, for the video below, I deleted my first attempt and simply finished writing the first body paragraph and then pressed the “record” button, explaining to my students my thinking process. I went sentence by sentence through the paragraph, immediately after I had finished writing it, to try to capture that elusive thought process that can seem so opaque to so many kids. I also employed a highlighting exercise to help them see the difference between summarizing a poem and analyzing or interpreting it. They need to do both.

The reason I am approaching teaching poetry analysis this way is largely because, when I try to think back and remember how I learned to write, I realize a lot of it had to do with imitating good writers. When I read lots and lots of C. S. Lewis in middle school, it seeped into my eighth grade English journal entries. When I read lots of Chesterton in high school, I found myself playing around with sentences and trying to make them sound more paradoxical (not always with elegant results). I’ve even noticed that some of my earlier blog posts here employ abrupt sentences with ending ironies that sound a little like Flannery O’Connor.

Aristotle, in his Poetics, says that art is imitation, or mimesis. Tragedy, for instance, is the imitation of a particular type of human action. Watching a tragedy can bring about catharsis, or the cleaning of our own pity and fear–and thus is an educative and even a healing experience for us.

Teaching itself is an art and I think needs to involve a lot of mimesis. We can’t just expect our kids to go and do something–we need to show them what that something looks like. After all, imitation is how we all learned to do so many things without fully even realizing it–to walk, to speak, to argue…

These acts of imitation are not always conscious or intentional, but if we can make them so for our students, we may be finding a way to work with their human nature instead of against it. There is a reason for the cliche “the apple does not fall far from the tree.” Whether we like it or not, we learn how to be human from the other humans around us–and, I would argue, we learn how to write from the writings we read.


If I could Teach One Thing About Writing…

… this is what it would be. I don’t know how I can really teach this, or rather, impart it. I do not know even if I have grasped this myself really.

“Wouldn’t it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you.” – Flannery O’Connor

source: theatalantic.com
source: theatalantic.com

I had a conversation the other day with someone asking my opinion about Ayn Rand. Suppressing an (involuntary) shudder, I replied that if you’re vocation is propaganda, go into advertising, not novel-writing.

But Ms. Rand is just an extreme example of what most bad writers do. They come at a work with an “idea” they wish to impart– a “meaning”– or, much worse, a “moral“. You see this especially in bad fiction, but also in bad essay writing where the essay is supposed to be concerned with drawing out the meaning of a poem or work, and instead imposes a meaning upon it like a straightjacket.

You hear it in the worst English classes: “water means baptism, renewal. the sun means energy, new life. green always means X, and red Y, and this that, and blah blah blah….”

I want to tell my students: life just isn’t like that. Stop trying to impose your own patterns on it and let the God of all patterns show you His strange and forever-suprising designs. They might not be what you think. And if He doesn’t show them to you, so be it. It is okay. You don’t have to know.

It’s better to say, “I don’t know” than to pretend like you do.

Even in essay writing. Even in English class.

Some of my favorite essays I have ever read express an honest uncertainty– not a cop-out-I’m-too-lazy-to-think-about-anything– but rather a truthful and painful acknowledgement of inadequacy before the truth: “It seems like Dickinson could be saying … although it is possible that she … and ultimately this ambiguity shows the reader that …”

Flannery got it right when it comes to fiction. As much as she was (and is) an opinionated and ornery Southern lady, she was also a humble Christian and knew when to shut her own mouth and let the mystery speak for itself–whatever it meant to say.

The hard thing is literature is like life–and tells us about life. Life, too, is far beyond our silly pattern-making. I know several people (including myself) who love to “discover” patterns in their lives and thus ascribe different meanings and morals and oh now I get its, but these are just silly.

How do I tell you that writing reveals the secret?

It is better–far better– to discover a meaning in your writing, in your reading, in your life than to impose one.

And, as Flannery says, don’t be afraid. Nothing you write–or live– will lack meaning, because the meaning is in you.

There is the Holy Spirit, who “breathes in us sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).