In English 317, the course that trains Writing Assistants to work in the Writing Center, one of the assignments is to write a “literacy narrative.” Because these can provide such refreshing insights into the meandering ways in which we become our English major selves, Dr. Larson has shared two of them with us this term. Here’s how he explains the assignment and introduces two models, for your reading pleasure:
One of the first things I try to do in English Courses is to get students to take ownership of their identity as a “writer.” Most of us imagine that noun as referring to a published professional, when in actuality it evokes an activity we do daily. Several decades of reading and writing have already contributed to your own path toward literacy. Recently, students in English 317 (Composition Theory & Practice) wrote literacy narratives, a genre that challenges people to reflect on how they became writers, while offering something for their fellow writers to recognize in themselves. The following, by Athena Lathos and Megan Lester, provide two strong examples of this exercise in recognition. -Dr. Larson
The Stories and the Lamp by Athena Lathos
For me, literacy began with The Tale of Peter Rabbit. When I was a baby, entirely captivated by the gifts of sensory perception, I would listen attentively to my parents as they told me his story and follow along by tracing his image on a small patterned blanket. In this simple way, Beatrix Potter’s small book does not only compose my first memories of a good story, but also my first memories of life.
Before my parents began reading to me, they would turn a table lamp on to see the pages. These are the first recollections I have of my childhood: the sound of those stories and the light of that lamp. It cast the softest, most reassuring glow over my first bedroom. The combination of these auditory stimuli and mental pictures produced in me a feeling that I have never forgotten: the feeling that books are a kind of magic.
Perhaps it was that soothing bedtime tradition that moved me to seek out books on my own accord. My parents have told me that at three years old, I spent hours just turning the pages of books before I even had the capacity to read. I would pull them in large numbers off of the shelves and arrange them in stacks around me as I sat with legs crossed on the living room carpet. Then, I would then open each one and touch the words on the pages one by one. It wasn’t the pictures that interested me, they said. It was the black lines they pointed to every night before I slept. Even at that age, I seemed to know that those words held more information than the pictures ever could. It was this magic of the story that I wanted to access myself.
In this way, my love for the physicality and substance of the book developed early, and with time I began pulling not just my own picture books off the shelves but my parents’ books, too. Of course, battered copies of Wheelock’s Latin and The DSM IV, both of which are always lying around our house somewhere, had no significance to me at three years old; and yet, I would meticulously trace the verb conjugations and lists of symptoms, making up my own explanations for them as I went along.
Perhaps because of these early lessons, I learned to read when I was just four years old. By the time I entered kindergarten, I was well beyond my peers in terms of literacy skills. And yet, since that time to this day it has been difficult for me to accept those beginnings as successful because of how lonely they made me.
Enthralled as I was with reading and growing through the sentences I read, I never seemed to fit in with my classmates. I wasn’t motivated to play games in the playground or sports in the field; I was simply interested in different things. As a result, I was very quickly and somewhat permanently ostracized by my schoolmates and left alone with my perspective. While the other kids ate lunch on the red plastic tables outside, I would sit on the railing in the corner of the play yard and eat my lunch. Most every day, I would read while I ate.
Over the years, the red plastic tables became house parties, the railing, the library or the inside of my car. I never considered myself better than anyone, only occupied with different things. Many books helped me navigate my confusion, most notably A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Franny and Zooey, The Awakening, and The Bell Jar.
As a 14-year-old, I had many assumptions about good writing that I now know to be largely flawed. For the most part, I only knew of great literature what my naïve Google searches of “100 Best Pieces of Great Literature” could tell me, and I perceived only flowery, antiquated language as features of legitimate form. At the time, I didn’t understand how striking and beautiful contemporary literature could be.
It was at this time that I began to write poetry. It was the era of rhyming and Keats’ Endymion. My own writings were pseudo-eloquent mimicries of Keats’ work and the verses of many others. They were lofty and dry, dripping with lengthy and unnecessary adjectives. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time talking about rain. I think that I was so attached to this style because I associated propriety and tradition with my own maturity. In any case, looking back at these poems today I am nothing short of horrified.
When I was a freshman, I was chosen by the City Council of my hometown to be the first Youth Poet Laureate in the Bay Area. I was honored, and worked very hard to introduce poetry to people my age in town. Unfortunately, the program was somewhat of a failure; I could not seem to get anyone interested in what had become one of the most important aspects of my life. Now, I see things with a different eye. I know that if I was not so caught up in the elegant rhyming of 19th century British poets, I might have been able to tap into the highly dynamic young writing community that I see active today. Unfortunately, I was completely debilitated by that unwavering commitment to “proper” tradition in my reading and writing, and it took my experience with the program to see what meaningful composition could really be.
This transition regarding my relationship to writing was the epoch of Mexico City Blues – a piece that held all the answers to me at 16. Living right outside of San Francisco, my friends and I always had some contact with the scattered legacies of various Beat writers. Sometimes on Saturdays, we would take BART into the city and run upstairs at City Lights hoping to catch a glimpse of Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the old rocking chair or grumbling behind a bookshelf. We had always cared about him and the writings of his contemporaries in some form or another, but what developed in me during this time was more of a passion than a care. It was a belief that only this kind of writing was legitimate because it had raw honesty and substance and, most importantly, it had energy.
In the case of Mexico City Blues in particular, which I indeed read as a high-school exchange student in Mexico City, it was the form almost more than the content that inspired me. It was Kerouac’s assertion that he wanted to be remembered as a jazz poet above anything else. This claim, and the structure of the choruses as they sounded throughout the piece, was so innovative that it led me to consider a series of questions that began changing my whole approach to writing: What are the limitations of words? Can words be music? Can genres cross and mingle? How can that magic I perceived as a child be further possessed and repossessed, adjusted to our adult problems and sensibilities, without becoming something overly intellectual or devoid of emotion, something too aloof to be accessed by people who can benefit from it?
I considered these questions for years, and when I looked hard enough, I found the color and life of Mexico City Blues in other writers’ voices as well. Langston Hughes’ jazz poems were among these powerful bodies of work. It was in my search for the vibrant and unpretentious nature of these pieces that I found the answer to what makes both good writing and literature. The answer, to me, is sincerity.
An understanding of sincerity brought forth a new era in my relationship with literacy, and that time of my life can only be branded with Pablo Neruda’s Explico Algunas Cosas. It is through Neruda that I discovered why authenticity is both the purpose and the benefit of great literature. His poems are so real that they are almost tactile. They are his odes to “common things.” They find the simple in the expansive and the expansive in the simple. To the ear, they are rhythmic, to the eyes, beautiful. Of course, linguists will tell you, particularly in the case of Spanish-speaking poets like Neruda, that words always have meanings lost in translation, nuances that cannot be accessed in terms of other languages. And of course, this is often true. In the language of my ancestors, for example, there are four Greek words for love all with different connotations. In Spanish too, there are words like añoranza. Translated best to English, this word means “yearning”; and yet, it is a word we do not have. It is a highly melancholic desire for a past that is too far gone to access; it is a word of pure emotion.
It seems in these conversations that English invariably gets labeled the most stagnant and disabled of all foreign tongues. And yet, in the context of my new discovery, I found through Neruda that a writer need only be sincere and the limitations of any given language are transcended. When my mind is tired, for example, I read Neruda in English and it is stunning. When I am feeling fresh and vibrant, primed for the work of a translator, so too, is his work beautiful in the original Spanish. The sea is still the sea, a “shining, magnetic abyss,” a forest is still the stuff of dreams, and a pile of clothes still a lingering question of metaphysics simply because he has chosen such sincere words that they hold irrevocable and enduring meaning.
By this, I mean that it does not matter if a work is written in the style of a classic Victorian novel or with the formless musicality of a jazz poem. As long as the writer is true in his or her portrayal of human beings’ relation to one other and their environments, the structure and style of the piece aren’t vastly important. Genres and generalizations mean nothing to truly good writing. When the words are strong enough, honest enough, even simple enough, it is only the beauty of the work that has enduring influence — not its adherence to some subset of creeds and characteristics.
This was a lesson I learned over the course of many years. Now that I have discovered what valuable writing is, I no longer affix my relationship with literacy to specific writers and works that both express and shape my consciousness. My tastes are now are vast and eclectic. I love Haruki Murakami’s strange examinations of inner life and Japanese culture, Jennifer Egan’s careful exposition of aging punk rockers; I love Whitman, Woolf, Aristotle, and Hemingway; Morrison, Borges, McCarthy, and Dickinson. Indeed, these writers have been my teachers as I develop as a reader and writer, but it is their sincere approach to uncovering the human condition that instructs me on what it is to really write something worth reading.
In this way, the connective influence of honest, often simple words has become something powerful to me. While it is certainly something that my two-year-old self would label “magical,” it would suffice to say that truly effective, sincere writing is much less a kind of magic than a genuine agent of comfort and change.
Leaving Literacy by Megan Lester
In the month of April, year 2013, three very important events took place in my life, which was based in Salzburg, Austria at the time. I read my first David Foster Wallace essay, began Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus The Goddess, and left my teenage years forever. Little did I know that upon turning twenty literacy would be one of my foremost concerns—and not global literacy, but my own—and not becoming more literate, but less. My hopeless effort to discard literateness did not begin in Salzburg. It began when language was forced upon me as a helpless diploid named Tyler, or Amy, or Megan…
In grade school, I remember my father reading The Wall Street Journal every morning, my mother devouring novels after work, and staring at my bookshelf, memorizing how to spell ‘encyclopedia.’ I learned to read and write like any other kid my age, first with the ABC’s, then tracing giant letters on paper. It never occurred to me that I could not learn English. No one ever asked me if I wanted to be literate. The first steps of learning to read and write were entirely taken for me.
I consciously took the next step in literacy. In fourth grade my teacher Mrs. Cole encouraged me to write poetry, and I began reading and writing constantly. It is unclear if I discovered my love of writing with Mrs. Cole’s guidance, or if I fabricated interest because I loved Mrs. Cole. Regardless, I know that having a mentor greatly influenced my reading and writing. This mentorship would be repeated throughout my education.
In high school, Abbie Lentz, my AP Language teacher, took it upon herself to convert me to Christianity and read prolific amounts of literature. She was temporarily successful in both endeavors. We would meet for coffee weekly and talk for hours about Christian dogma or Steinbeck. Under her guidance I read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Betty Friedan, C.S. Lewis, and The Bible. Together we read Jane Eyre, Les Miserables, Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment, Grapes of Wrath, Madame Bovary, The Jungle, and countless other classics. We would write back and forth in green notebooks, which expanded my vocabulary, helped me develop style, and let me become comfortable having my writing read. Having someone I respected and loved encouraging me to read, write, and analyze literature made me pursue literacy like never before.
Freshman year of college meant leaving my hometown, my family, my mentor and my religion. I declared as an English major, showing my forced-literacy from childhood had evolved into a full-fledged monster. Cara Hersh’s Renaissance Literature class consumed me. I could not believe all there was to learn: writing can emulate movements, a stanza can commend and criticize, a semicolon can say more than words. What is this madness!?
Literacy seemed, happily, to be my path in life. I went off to Austria with a copy of my newly favorite author, Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day. I traveled around with Mrs. Dalloway, and immersed myself in The Waves. Then April hit. I turned twenty while turning the pages of The Alphabet vs. The Goddess, and I was horrified. Leonard Shlain traced the rise in non-hieroglyphic alphabets with the demise of Goddess-worship through Mesopotamia. It went further, still. The rise in patriarchal cultures correlated perfectly with growing literacy rates. As societies began writing and reading, fertility idols were smashed. As transcription grew more and more common, a monotheistic, male deity took shape, and women were pushed into lower and lower castes. Shlain, a neurologist, hypothesized that literacy made one left-brain dominant, and the left-brain was masculine.
Was literacy to blame for my sex’s sad social standing? Were women stoned in Iran, brides immolated in India, and girls trafficked in Saigon because of literacy? What was I pursuing? Are rhetorical questions perhaps a little melodramatic?
Around this time I read David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water.” The speech is brilliant, and touches on a lot of aphoristic points. One that resonated was ‘question your assumptions.’ I realized that I had never conceived of a life without language. I had been indoctrinated into literacy just as I had accepted, thoughtlessly, the blue sky, and wearing underwear.
With Shlain and Wallace echoing in my head, I decided to silence them, and myself by disregarding literacy. No more literature, no more writing, no more Tolstoy. I would reclaim my unadulterated brain, and relearn how to think sans sentences. I would stimulate my right-brain with images and emotions. Abandoning literacy would be the ultimate poetic gesture, a comprehensive dismantlement of the patriarchy, a step in intentionally becoming who I needed to be.
I did not shake my literacy. It is impossible. I sat for hours on a train to Munich, begging my brain to stop narrating what my eyes saw. I lamented every figure written on a sign that I automatically read from left to right, that became sounds, that became words, that took on meaning instantly. I tried to think in pictures, to reason with color, but the process was directly short-cutted to words.
My left brain became the bane of my existence. Why did I have to analyze everything and delineate the world into pieces? My right-brain felt so weak, things did not appear to me holistically. I looked for tips and tricks to silence synapses firing in my analytical hemisphere. While scouring the internet, I came across a speech by a neurologist, Jill Bolte Taylor, in which she described the experience of a left-brain stroke. Dr. Taylor, suffered a massive stroke on the left side of her brain. While this inhibited her from calling for help, or even speaking coherently, she saw the world as never before. I stewed with envy as Dr. Taylor described a right-brain world, one in which everything is connected; pixels make hairs on arms which blend into the atmosphere until all is one great existence. The stroke made Dr. Taylor deeply spiritual, and it saddled her with 8 years of recovery.
It was evident that I could not become illiterate. It was apparent that I was not going to have a massive stroke. It was also clear that I was deeply unhappy without a book. April ended, and it was time to come back to literacy and America, humbled, and broke—a modern-day prodigal son.
My break with literacy meant I had to make a conscious effort in rejoining the literate world. It started with Paulo Coehlo, and Anita Diamant– short, contemporary, enjoyable, tales. I went further with Ethan Frome, and was formally back in the club by Lolita. Nabakov challenged me; he made me laugh and he made me sick. New ideas were presented, the status quo questioned. I pursued my literacy like never before: independently and cautiously.
My break from literacy helped me evaluate the nature of writing. Here’s what I’ve come up with. Mentorship is vital for a deep connection with a text. Reading is often a solitary endeavor, but when approached as a collaborative project, a new dimension is given to the texts. Still, to reach a higher echelon of literacy, one must have an independent relationship with reading and writing. Writing, at some point, must be shared. That giddy, nervous, ego-centric feeling as someone’s eyes read your words must be felt again and again until it subsides. Literacy, though perhaps once an instrument for devaluing women, is a powerful and beautiful art that should now be used as an instrument for equality.