Be Your Own Professor
In her memoir Lit, Mary Karr tells a story of a night she conversed with a professor, telling him all sorts of haunting things and crying — no doubt a vulnerable situation. (For both of them, surely. It wasn’t a school year if I didn’t cry in front of my teacher or professor, and yes, that includes graduate school, when I broke down in front of Lauren Winner.)
Karr writes that she felt “buoyed up” after talking to her professor. The word, “buoyed” makes me think of weightlessness and ease. It makes me think of being surrounded and held by something sturdy and something I trust — something I cannot see, but something I can feel. As Karr begins to walk back home, reflecting on this and noticing the night sky, “..the cold had polished and clarified the sky into onyx. The stars seemed close enough to scoop up.” And then, Karr felt “an internal click” of understanding regarding a sentence she’d been puzzling over for one of her courses.
“I thought you were here to put stuff in our heads,” Karr tells her professor after she’d broken down in front of him, and in return he tells her, “Unless we deal with what’s already in there, I can’t accomplish that.”
Karr’s professor attended to “what was in there,” or at least enough of it so that Karr could do three vital things next:
- Walk home
- Notice her world and render it into a scene so that the reader knows something magical is about to happen and we’ll want to pay attention
- Have a new or deeper understanding of something
“That why I clung to the myth that poetry could somehow magically still my scrambled innards,” Karr writes.
I don’t think this is a myth (and I don’t think Karr does either). Poetry is the buoy. It can steady us, settle us. It might not be linear, but poetry offers us some order. It gives us permission to set things down. Poetry can show us the path home, and on our way, we might see the magic and beauty of our surroundings. We might understand something new.
Thank goodness for Karr’s professor and for all the teachers who “deal with what’s already in there” so we might all find ourselves at home in the mysteries of our lives.
What can we do, though, when we don’t have a teacher to help us do this? How might we adults attend to what’s within us? Certainly this is a life skill.
I’d like to suggest being your own professor. In Lit, Karr is on her way to becoming, and she has people to help her along the way, but isn’t becoming a lifelong quest?
This year, I’m embarking on a new reading project. I’m rereading Kristin Lavrandatter. I’m taking the entire year to do it, and I’m doing it with other writers I admire. I want to do this slowly, and I want to do it my way.
The project came from this desire to attend to what is within. Not just attend to it, but see if I might bring it forth. Maybe it will help me home, where the oak tree in our backyard reaches its bare branches and shivers only slightly at January’s blue sky, but not so much that the snow that collects in the crooks of her trunk falls to the ground. She holds on, waiting for something magical to happen.
Here’s a reading and writing practice to try when you are reading a challenging story.
1. Read a set amount of pages that you believe you can summarize in 100-400 words.
2. In your journal, write a summary of what happened. Feel free to riff and reflect on the pages you read. This will only help develop your writing voice.
3. Write 1-3 haiku about the text.
Here’s an example from my journal:
Kristin Lavransdatter, pgs. 107-114
I guess Kristin is a nun now, and I don’t get that, and they’re on some field trip looking at shoes (I TOTALLY get that) when all of the sudden someone yells that wild leopards are loose and also a snake and EVERYONE LOSES THEIR MIND. Kristin isn’t so scared, though, and I think that’s pretty cool. She seems to want to try to get a handle on the situation but that is pretty impossible when you’re in a mob.
Kristin’s roommate, Ingebjorg, who makes me laugh every single time she pops up into the story, and who apparently never stops talking, also loses her mind and runs into a forest. Kirstin follows her because she doesn’t want to be separated from Ingebjorg, which I find ironic because you’d think after all that talking Kristin would want some peace and quiet.
Anyway, they’re in the woods, and obviously something nuts is about to happen.
And here is my haiku:
Shopping for shoes and
leopards and a snake bring
me into the woods.
Browse writing prompts
I have been a fan of Callie Feyen’s writing for quite some time but I finished this book in almost one sitting. If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.