Since the crush of last fall’s deadlines, I haven’t been able to post here as much as I did in the early months. But the recent quiet is not a byproduct of too much work. I’ve been reflecting on the nature of the Memory Project and wondering if it falls into the category of “hypnotic” techniques that my teaching mentor, Madison Smartt Bell, discourages.
Some background. I wrote about Bell, his wife (the poet Elizabeth Spires) and the Goucher College writing program in the fall of 2001. The program has had several high-profile successes and it was located in the burb I covered for the Baltimore Sun. About three months after the article ran, I left the Sun. Bell then approached me to teach part-time. I had taught journalism in Johns Hopkins’ Writing Seminars, but never creative writing. But Bell seemed to think I could do it, so I gave it a try.
In preparation for my next semester, I re-read Bell’s “Unconcious Mind” intro in “Narrative Design,” a text I’ve used in every class. But a passage jumped out at me this time, charged with new meaning: “Now the implications for students and teachers of writing is quite interesting. You will recognize that if the inner process of imagination involves a process of autohypnosis, the teachers who concentrate on inner process are, knowingly or not, actually functioning as hypnotists. The sorts of exercises beloved of this kind of teacher are all tools of hypnosis, really. Soothe yourself with relaxing music. Lay your head down on your desk and try real hard to _picture_ something. . . . [But] if you are a teacher who relies, knowingly or not, on hypnotic strategies, you risk drifting over the line from pedagogy into psychotherapy, and since you are unlikely to be qualified as a _therapist_ all sorts of inadvertant abuses are likely to occur . . . It’s not that a student’s inner process can’t be influenced from without. It’s that it shouldn’t be.”
Is the Memory Project an inner process exercise? It wasn’t meant to be. It was meant to be like scales or some other kind of warm-up. And, in fact, the point was to eschew emotional or intangible words, to never state how a certain story made one feel, but to see if the story, once told, conveyed the emotion. (Of everyone who posts here, I probably break the rules more than anyone.)
But even if one follows the rules — is it the finger exercise I wanted it to be, or does it attempt to unlock the unconscious part of writing? I’m still working this out for myself. I need to figure it out within a week, when class starts. Because it had been my plan to ask my students to post here, if they so desired.
For now, I think I’ll go work on the syllabus.