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OFF CENTRE: Stifling of the personal

Sherwyn Walters

OFF CENTRE: Stifling of the personal

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“I’ve never been to me.” Those regretful words of Charlene’s song could well be the heart cry of many a student in writing and reading classes in our schools.
Unfortunately, the engagement of the blank page or the word-full one is not generally part of a personal journey.
Now, mind you, I am not saying there should be an abandonment of utilitarian and even academic involvements. Those are syllabus requirements, of course. So I am not blaming teachers. As is often the case, it is the system.
Even so, we should not let these necessities just squeeze out more vibrant involvements.
Regarding writing, the omission of the personal stake, in particular the emotional and felt experience aspects, stunts emotional development, robs of self-actualisation and creates writing aversion, among other things. Of the latter, the distaste for (if not actual fear of) writing among adults – even well schooled ones – is sometimes almost palpable.
But how can you value and come to an easy accommodation of something that has never truly connected with you? School, in what could be the most vital intimate area, practises children in a dangerous distancing from self.
So where can we go with school writing that would allow children to engage themselves – and not just the task of writing?
Find what they “ache with caring” (to use Mem Fox’s expression) about. If we are absolutely truthful, even as adults we are more inclined to talk about things we don’t really care about. We talk about what other people put in the air: the political situation, cricket, what some entertainment star did, this neighbour, this workmate. Do we in our heart of hearts deeply care about those things? Hardly.
You know what we care about – and wish we could share? The things we wake up in a cold sweat thinking of; the things that really consume our thought life; fears; wishes; fantasies; replaying of this experience or that one: this accomplishment; this let-down; enjoyments; this anxiety; this frustration; this difficulty. Write your list and see if it matches what you actually mostly talk about. Or what, if you are a teacher, you ask students to write about.
Diaries and journals provide evidence that what we would like to talk about we would write about.
But in the schoolbook? Alas!
The reading side of the coin is no more inspiring. The personal gets a raw deal there too. Look at what schools generally do with “literature”. They take stories, poems and so on and instead of using them as avenues for entering into the experiential and the emotional, they make students mostly toil over themes and traits and symbols and societal insights – the analytical. Of course, that has its place, but where, oh where is that which connects with the elemental nature of the work?
And with you?
Indulge me as I share my journey to a shocking realisation. As an early teenager, I was turning out 2 500-word story after 2 500-word story and even a novella when I was 15. Along with gluttonously consuming novels, I was busy reading virtually every story in every collection of short stories in the Public Library and the two books there at the time on how to write them: Let’s Write A Story by Cedric Astle and The Lonely Voice by Frank O’Connor. My work, like that of most writers, was meant to be experiential, emotionally engaging, to give enjoyment of one kind or another, to show readers “characters” (not necessarily humans) like themselves in situations in which could be found some kinship with their own, to engage their hearts and souls and senses, and perhaps, subtly, the more rational faculties. But it soon occurred to me that what schools and universities were doing in the study of stories (whether novels or shorter works) was somewhat at odds with the genesis of those works. The academy had gone almost exclusively after the ideational, rational aspects, largely ignoring the dynamic humanity writers were working hard to put in. Why, so often, is the academy a turning away from real life?
Now, I believe there is a place for the idea-focused study of literature, but not as a prime engagement and certainly not in schools. (I can see the long knives of conventional thinking coming out!)
How you could take young, fresh minds, on the brink of falling into aliteracy, and in some cases illiteracy, on the edge of coming to be, and squeeze them into the confining spaces of “literary study”, rather than reading as a vibrant personal engagement, with all of its possibilities for individuals’ own psychosocial development, has long baffled me.
And then up come somebodies and insist that school should be about preparing children for jobs. Sure, schools must have a key role in this, but living healthily with ourselves and with each other should trump a narrow focus on preparation for work. It is probably the case that our failure to foreground the emotional, psychological, interactional aspects of living is a major contributor to inefficient and toxic workplaces (stress, poor people management, unsatisfactory levels of productivity, unethical interactions and so on) – even as people enter supposedly more specifically prepared to do the “job”. How then shall we know ourselves? How then shall we live – together?
Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor. Email [email protected]