Open Letter

Dear students friends,

Yesterday I typed a long ramble about writing assignments in introductory literature courses, and in the process of that I went off into at least five directions, none of which really pertained to my point.

What you need to know about me, right now, before we get started, is that going off onto multiple tangents (and sometimes tangents within tangents within tangents) during a conversation or discussion or writing workshop is a signature move for me as a teacher human being. It’s how I think. It’s what my creative process would look like if you could jack into my brain. (Please don’t. You’ll get in the way of the hamster on her wheel.)

We might begin the hour talking about Marissa’s characterization of a young journalist in her first job and end up laughing about mink farms, after an odd detour into sexual revenge and a few YouTube video shares. (No, this never happened. That I remember.) Or we could be focusing on the idea of work, and work relationships, and find ourselves cataloguing all of the crappy bosses we’ve had the misfortune to work under, in the process forgetting about Marissa and her semi-formed journalist, notepad and ideals in hand.

Most of my tangents involve stories. That’s another thing you should know, up front. If you say something like “The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper sounds kind of crazy,” I’m going to think about how I felt right after my daughter was born: freaked out, lonely, desperate for adult human companionship, and trapped in my house. A prisoner of motherhood. And I’ll want to tell you that story. I’ll want to tell you so badly that I will just do it — interrupting whatever flow you thought we had going in the discussion. And my story will of course provoke your stories, make them pop up out loud, spawning their own associated stories, ad infinitum. The next thing you know, it’ll be the end of the hour and you’ll think yourself no more enlightened about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story or characters than you were at the start of this wild outburst of associations.

It’s as if I’m driving a school bus into unknown territory and you’re all captives in it. As I drive, I make sudden turns and strange stops. You feel the lurch and bump of the poorly suspended vehicle and sometimes wish you had a seat belt. Your fellow passengers will be singing — loudly — songs you can’t stand to hear. You might feel compelled to shout your own. Others will be goofing off with paper footballs. Some will be staring out of the windows with abject expressions. The sun will begin to go down. You may notice that we haven’t seen any signs for gas for a good many miles, and since we’re coming out of the mountains and heading for what looks like unbounded desert, you might be — understandably — uncomfortable. Frustrated. Angry.

Where the hell is this woman going? you might think. How long until we get there? Is it a place I want to be? Or even This. Must. Stop.

The truth is that I sometimes don’t know where we’re heading or even how I’ll know where to stop. But (you have to trust me here) I usually find a place to stop that seems right, and when we look back at the road we’ve taken, we begin to see how it makes some sense.

The place we stop offers us a new perspective, a fresh vantage point on where we started. And that point of view allows us to reimagine, or understand, or connect — and this is the best verb I can think of in this context — where we started with where we’ve ended up. This connection becomes our “aha” moment. Our epiphany. What we’ve learned.

I must confess that I’m usually ashamed of myself for having taken us to this place, for having picked a road filled with strange turns, sudden stops, reversals and occasional dead ends. I leave classrooms with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, thinking So that happened.

But I’m writing this now to defend, in advance, my tendency to go off on tangents, to turn down unexpected roads that may lead to nothing more than a broken down shack or a blowing plastic bag against a wire fence. Because it’s very possible that this shack sparks in your mind the image of an old man, scratching out his life story on an warped board with a piece of charcoal, an old man who connects the story you’re writing or reading with someone important to you who you never, until this moment, fully saw or understood. That old man, writing his life story, might be you in 70 years, or your imagination at this moment, or the embodiment of the author (Melville, Gilman) in your imagination. And once you make that connection, looking back at the story we’re discussing or the story you’re writing, you’ll take your understanding of the story to the next level of intensity.

That’s when we can all get back on the bus and head back “home.” In the quiet, tired and strangely comfortable with each other now, the experience ending but still fresh in our minds, maybe the magic intensity of that ineffable connection will solidify into an idea, an insight, an action plan that you didn’t have when you got on the bus.

That’s the ideal, in any case. And it’s one of the reasons why, even though they can scare and embarrass me, I give myself permission to keep doing it — driving off into tangents again and again.

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Laurie MacDiarmid serves as Director of Faculty Development and Professor of English at St. Norbert College, a small Catholic liberal arts college on the banks of the Fox River in De Pere, Wisconsin.

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