Unlearning Myself

Sweetland has inflicted on me the irritatingly insistent need to question and explore, to look at things from as many angles as possible. In the year-and-a-half since I started both the MIW gateway course and the peer tutoring program, I’ve started cracking myself open and trying to change and grow – and writing has played a big part in that.

I’ve always been obsessed with details, lists, and plans, but when I started freewriting, I invited messiness into my life. Before that (and sometimes even now) I couldn’t stand to write anything without a thorough outline. I’d stare at a page for hours, laboring over every word I wrote. When I started looking more closely at my writing process in 220 and 300, it occurred to me that if I didn’t change something soon, I wouldn’t be able to keep writing, at least not in any meaningful way. And when I started freewriting (to force myself to write more often, more quickly, and more creatively) I started uncovering other parts of myself and my life that were also stunted, in need of change.

‘Well, great!’ I thought, feeling oddly excited. Through my writing I identified problems and questions that I hadn’t seen before, which opened the way towards finding solutions. Right?

A few months later, I found myself clinging to a coffee cup and nervously flipping through note cards, getting ready to give a presentation about “dysfunctional writing techniques” (including procrastination and perfectionism) – all while running on an hour-and-a-half of sleep after I’d stayed up all night working on presentations and a paper.

Okay, so…fixing my problems wasn’t nearly as easy as acknowledging their existence.

Change takes time. Like, months and months and months of watching things get worse before they get better, of feeling like I haven’t moved forward at all even though I know I have.

It’s like I have a belief, a feeling of what I should do or who I could be “hovering, but not fully realized” (to borrow a phrase from a ‘Believer’ interview with Joan Didion) inside of me, but I need time to make that belief stick and to act on it. Peter Elbow talks about this concept in his book, “Writing Without Teachers,” in a way that really resonates with me, particularly when he says:

“If we get a ‘new’ idea, or perception, almost invariably it’s the third or seventeenth time we’ve encountered it. This time it took…What’s really new is the letting go of an old perception, thought, or feeling which was really preventing assimilation of the ‘new’ thing already waiting in the wings. Thus the crucial event in growing is often the beginning of a relinquishing…Only this permits the restructuring necessary for taking in the new perception, idea, or feeling.”


"Writing Without Teachers"


So as I’m in the middle of letting things go and undoing parts of myself to make room for growth, in a lot of ways, I’m less put-together and less in control of myself than I was when I started the gateway course. But (on most days) I don’t see that as a bad thing at all. I’ve opened myself up to growth in so many ways, even though I’m still in the beginning stages, and even though I experience huge setbacks: I’ve started to change the way I eat and take care of my body (and I wrote a piece about that for the Food Issue of my friend’s feminist zine, Peachy Keen), I’ve reopened the possibility of vision therapy for a complicated eye problem that I thought was impossible to improve, I’ve been writing more often and with less stress, I’ve started meditating regularly to give myself a break from to-do lists and anxiety, I’ve learned how to communicate better with my parents and my friends – and so much more.

I’ve learned (and am still learning!) to start with whatever I have, wherever I am, and move forward in any way that I can. Even if it doesn’t feel like enough.

[End self-help saga.]

2 thoughts to “Unlearning Myself”

  1. This is so insightful and made me laugh out loud!! I truly admire the extent to which you understand your own strengths and weaknesses. I would encourage you to continue focusing on the positive things that writing has done for you rather than all of the work you still have left to do. Take your new ability to exist without lists and structures and just run with it. Do you feel that your writing has changed due to this new openness, or just that the openness was caused by free writing? Something to think about – a situation like this can always be two sided, and can do more good for you than you realize or than you see on the surface!

  2. That’s real, and I love it–particularly that you recognize how gradual a struggle it is to achieve a change, and that it’s not only okay but healthy to just work with where you are and what you’ve got. It’s the kind of conclusion you can only reach after using college to major in Life and Living It. Too bad UM is not (yet) giving frame-able diplomas for that. Curious–writing is a really great way to monitor the progress of these kinds of changes (the unlearning what you know so you can grow type changes), but was it the different style of writing or something else that sparked the whole cascade? I personally find it fascinating when people can pinpoint the event or the moment when something clicked and they found themselves irrevocably different (and often bettered) for it having happened. Something to think about.

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