Thursday, October 24, 2013

I Didn't Know That I Didn't Know

The most common and unsettling feeling I had throughout graduate coursework, exams, and the dissertation was realizing that I did not understand why the good things I said and wrote were good.

It's not that everything I said and wrote was good.

It's that when I did say something good, or when professors got excited about an insight or argument of mine, it often turned out to be the case that they valued my work for reasons other than those I had in mind.

Maybe this is because of what Verlyn Klinkenborg says in his book Several short sentences about writing:

The central fact of your education is this:
You've been taught to believe that what you discover
by thinking,
By examining your own thoughts and perceptions,
Is unimportant and unauthorized.
As a result, you fear thinking,
And you don't believe your thoughts are interesting,
Because you haven't learned to be interested in them. (36)

Klinkenborg's book is about writing, but his insights about all that goes into writing--noticing things, thinking about them, noticing that you're thinking about things, thinking about noticing that you're noticing things--suggest that these things have been deadened and killed off in most of us. But what has not been killed off in us, Klinkenborg says, is our ability to pick up on little disturbances in our prose, things that are just not quite right:

No one taught you to disregard these inner sensations.
No one taught you to be aware of them either.
No one even acknowledged that they exist.
You thought they weren't significant--
Mainly because they were occurring within you.
And what do you know (you're always tempted to ask)?
You know a lot, especially in a preconscious kind of
way. (53-54)

His articulation of that feeling "what do I know?" is right on. I don't know how often I have chosen to continue a line of thinking or inquiry that I didn't really care about because it seemed like the easiest path to thinking or writing in the way I was supposed to think or write.

To some extent, we have to learn and employ conventions in our academic writing. That's how we join the community. But who says that the things we notice, analyze, and theorize about have to be determined by such narrow restrictions in the first place?