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I’m teaching a new class this semester. It’s called The Personal Essay, and it is new to the department, the students, and me. It is a cross-listed creative writing and English course, and so I find myself in the delightful and slightly intimidating position of developing new in-class exercises, assignments, and ways of thinking about reading and writing.
As with most of my teaching, writing, and research prep, when I am at a loss for where to begin—too many ideas, too few, too amorphous—I turn to texts that have been recommended to me at some point. There are many! Last week, as I thought about how to get sixty-five students excited as well as informed about essay writing I picked up Writing Down The Bonesby Natalie Goldberg. If you’re not familiar with it, this is a pretty popular writing book. My copy is the thirtieth anniversary edition, if that give you any sense of its staying power. There are some things in the language of the text that show their age, but on the whole I find it a direct, clear, and surprisingly effective book of suggestions for getting yourself writing.
The section I brought to class last week is called “Composting.” In it Goldberg states,
It takes a while for our experiences to sift through out consciousness.
This is one of those observations that feels so obvious and yet also profound. From neuroscience to psychoanalysis to theory to practice there are myriad explanations of how humans take timeto process experiences fully.
This time business can be infuriating if you are impatient and if, like me, you are a human living in the twenty-first century when the speed and circulation of information, not to mention the ingestion and metabolism of information, is faster than ever before. I mean, this is not news, but still…
So composting: Natalie Goldberg uses it as a metaphor to remind writers that we need time and the distance it gives to distill our experiences. She puts it this way (note the evocative use of ‘garbage heap’ – I kind of love it, because here the garbage heap of the self is cast as a fertile bricolage of sense and experience):
Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.
The solid ground of black soil. I love that. And I love that in preparing to teach a new class about writing the self I am starting to find ways to think through what it means to write publicly while feminist. It will take time. It has taken time. It will take more time.
But here I am, ready to sift.