Art and method of the interview

Maura

Maura Flanagan

Recently, I published a two-part interview on ASweetLife with Maura Flanagan, a college classmate who radically changed her health habits and lost 100 pounds after a diagnosis with Type 2 diabetes. Read part one here and part two here.

These are my favorite kinds of stories to do. Interviews are akin to making one’s self a student of the subject. I ask in order to learn, and not to pruriently find out.

It takes both preparation and improvisation to conduct a good interview. As a teacher/scholar, when I’ve conducted studies on a teaching or learning question of interest, I usually incorporate an interview part. I really enjoy these kinds of engagements with people. And, whether the interview is for an online magazine or a research study, my method is similar. I describe it below, for other writers to consider as they develop their own practice as interviewers. At the end, as evidence that the method works, I quote Maura as to her experience.

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Early winter thoughts

On the shelf over my desk at work there is a picture of me at around age 11 sitting on my parents’ bed and practicing my flute. My mother gave me this snapshot in a small lucite frame, along with some other childhood artifacts, when I turned 40.

Sometimes I look at that photograph to remind myself, “That’s me.”  My hair is long. I smile. No doubt I had the room to myself, so I could practice. This was before my father built an addition on our house, so solitude was at a premium in our small house with seven people living there.

More and more, this seems important: to look back on the self before it became adult and look for some pure thing. Even 10 years ago, I would have disparaged (in my mind) others doing this. I believed — and rationally I still know this is true — that the self is mutable and changes every day that we are alive. Today marks the day that I am who I am.

Adult life is both full of and fragmented by responsibility to others. This is especially true as a parent and amplified by being a teacher on top of it. The nurturing of the potential of others feels like where a lot of my energy and mental overhead go.

Solitary chair, Cunningham Park, Milton, 11.29.2013

Solitary chair, Cunningham Park, Milton, 11.29.2013

Not all of it goes there. In the past few or several years, my egotistical thoughts and fantasies have become more important to me, as if they are getting unburied with the pressure of time. This is probably some adult developmental stage, and if I knew more about classical psychology or if I were in therapy, I could describe myself to me in a framework.

In my own thoughts, I am like an adolescent: who I am? what will I become? what can I accomplish that is significant?

But I am an adult too, and I remind myself that my life is well underway. The horizon doesn’t shimmer so much with promise as it does with the quiet light of certainty.

Roaring self resists. I document the accepting side of my thoughts, and a lioness stirs and says, “No. It cannot all have been written yet or done.” Promise is not only for Eli, Lydia, and Grace. Promise is not only for the college students I know for a semester or two.

These thoughts have been vividly alive in the last few months because I seem to have reached some limits. Certainly, limits can be overcome or gotten around, but to some degree I am trying to talk myself into learning to live with them and thereby retreating from the challenges they present.

If I don’t run, I won’t ever feel like an inadequate runner. If I cease my skating lessons, I can satisfy myself as a recreational skater. If I content myself with being a satisfactory writing teacher, I will quiet the desire for more authority, more prominence, greater effect. If I write only for myself and my students, I may marvel at how the written word can connect one person to another.

A smaller space might be enough. I could ease into a respectable old age.

I wonder therefore if my reflections on myself as child and adolescent are a way to carve out a space for myself alone, or a self before so many responsibilities grew in my life. “What did you want, Jane?” I can ask her, and only she can answer. The thing is, did she know?

Or, did she know, but she feared to say or do it?

It’s so coy to end on a question. If a student ended an essay or a major section of a paper with a question, I would call him/her out on it. “A reader wants to know what *you* think.”

The child in me is all desire: I want everything that I have ever wanted. The adult in me, all reason: prioritize, defer, and accept limitations (your own and others’).

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Well-made path to nowhere

We’ve lived in our house since June 1999. In the backyard, under a huge Japanese maple, is a dry, packed-dirt patch that has defied the planting of grass and flowers. Because it’s a long and narrow strip that follows the length of my neighbor’s fence, it has always seemed to be a natural location for a stone path.

But paths should lead you to a spectacle or stopping place, and one planted there would only lead you to my neighbor’s gate, which is never used. These neighbors are homebodies — the indoor kind — and we never stand in our backyards talking or offering pies to each other or doing whatever friendly people divided by fences do.

The path idea, though, had planted itself in my mind. Several weeks ago I picked a Saturday and wrote on my calendar: rent roto tiller! With that, a project was set in motion.

It takes longer than a morning to make a path. The labor happened over a few weekends; as of yesterday afternoon (Sunday June 2nd), it’s done. Here is how it unfolded in 10 illustrations: nine photos and one movie.

1. Tilling begins.

1 Path

2. Tiller does its thing; man follows. (Note: this is 7-sec movie.)

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Writer’s Dozen: Peter Selgin and Limits

This is the fourth in a series of posts, called “A Writer’s Dozen,” on texts that have been important to me as a writer.

When he was in his early 20s and struggling to get started as a songwriter, Peter Selgin was attacked by a black Labrador retriever owned by the woman for whom he was apartment sitting in New York. The dog chomped into Selgin’s left wrist. He underwent microsurgery to address significant scarring around the ulnar nerve that affected feeling in and mobility of the hand. Results were minimal.

This event is described in his essay, “Confessions of a Left-Handed Man,” which is the centerpiece of a new book of essays by the same name. I first read this essay in Best American Essays 2006.

Always a left-handed artist and writer, Peter Selgin knew at age 25 that the full manual dexterity of his dominant hand would not return after the attack and surgery. In the essay he recounts his attempt to train his right hand, which felt like “trying to sing with [his] fingers holding his tongue,” to do what his left hand had always done for him. Around this time he also broke his leg. One night he walked on crutches to the East River with thoughts of killing himself. He had always been the left-handed boy — had identified himself as that — and the mirror opposite of his twin brother George, a right-handed boy who became an economist. At the river that night he had a “good bawl” and “hobbled back” to his room.

Twenty years later, he wrote the essay from a point in time he no longer felt that his left-handedness had any special meaning. It simply was. Furthermore, he continued to write and make art with his compromised left hand. The work he made before and after the injury, though, have “nothing in common” with each other. He calls his style “naive, even primitive,” and he asserts that his “lack of dexterity has freed [him] from glibness, which in turn has delivered [him] from the temptation” to show off.

Even though Selgin’s theme for his essay is humility — he says that, for an artist, “to master humility” is as important as mastering the techniques of his medium — for me, the lesson is about limits that we cannot overcome, that we must work within. There is nobility in this, and necessity, once the sorrow passes. Continue reading

The world is strange again.

On the morning of the snowstorm, I am awake at the usual time. There’s no rush to get going. Still, I turn on the coffee and check “what happened overnight on the Internets,” as Jimmy would joke.

From my father, I read a gang email to all five of his children, exhorting us to clean off our cars before the temperature drops below freezing. His message may affect each of my siblings differently, but me, I feel watched over in a good way.

I put on my gear and go outside. Jimmy shovels; I clear the cars properly, even their roofs, and then I shovel around them.

Any mug can be a travel mug, depending on where you're going.

Snow removal from the cars, driveway, and sidewalk takes about 90 minutes. We jam the shovels in a snowbank — it’s great snow for igloo-making, why don’t we make one? — and walk over to the shops at Putterham Circle. Only two are open: the convenience store and Starbucks. While there are no cars in the rotary that feeds the shopping center, inside Starbucks it is steamy with people.

For once, no cars in Putterham Circle.

All footprints lead to the coffee source.

Then we walk, lattes in hand. It’s easy to shuffle across the intersection and down South Street. We walk and walk and pass only a few neighbors, here and there, out shoveling or snow-blowing. Ogden Street has not yet been plowed, and on the snow’s surface are chestnuts, still in their pods, that have just fallen.

Jimmy walks blithely down the middle of South.

Now, this is still life.

We see these fresh wounds everywhere.

Near Bournewood, we throw our empty cups into a dumpster in a driveway.

As we walk through the hospital grounds, I say, “I think Anne Sexton stayed here. And perhaps Robert Lowell.” Jimmy asks, “And Sylvia Plath?” McLean, in Belmont. Continue reading

More than the end

Lately, I have been thinking about endings because students are rehearsing and making presentations, ones that begin strong, build purposefully, and then break off awkwardly. At best, presentations seem to end with a gracious thank you to collaborators. Speakers perhaps wear themselves out, and when they’re done, they’re done.  Tough luck, audience.

Linda Flower (1979) described writer-based prose as an expression of the writer’s thoughts, for the writer, with no other purpose. Such prose is revealed in problems like a chronological process-based structure (first I did this, and then I did that) rather than an idea-driven one.  This kind of prose is not concerned with a reader’s experience; it is a record of the writer’s experience of thought, reading, or action. For my concerns about presentations, Flower’s theory of writer-based prose might be reframed as speaker-based speech. When I experience one of these presentations that simply break off — and, hey, I’ve occasionally made a few of these myself — I think what I’m seeing is an example of a speaker who has said everything she wants to say. Spent, she stops.

Stopping, though, is not concluding. Continue reading

Pleasures and problems of the ideal text

Writing teachers, when they read drafts, have a hard time resisting the temptation of the ideal text. As we read student work, we may be simultaneously reading — or really, creating — an ideal text in our mind of what that draft could become. No doubt this ideal text is based on our knowledge of other texts we have read and perhaps even written ourselves.

Ideal texts may help us see our students’ work ambitiously, as though all writings hold great potential. Ideal texts may also prevent us from seeing the work for what it is and for what it wants to become, or for what the writer wants it to become. Brannon and Knoblauch (1982) describe how an awareness of ideal texts and the inexperience of students can lead a teacher in a way to “appropriate” her students’ work (158).

The kinds of texts we encounter at school can be more than essays or reports. Oral presentations are texts. Videos. Portfolios. A proposed experiment. In the project labs I am assigned to at MIT as a communications instructor, it seems to me that the engineering and science faculty read or consider their students’ independent design and research projects against some ideal that the faculty themselves conjure in the acts of reviewing and teaching.

This ideal-text creation is largely optimistic, and, at the beginning of the semester, we see only potential. The push is forward. Right around now, though, with only two weeks before the last day of classes, our ideal-text creation machine is seeming a little peaked, which can paradoxically lead to teacherly acts of will and desperation: extra writing conferences, more office hours, and lavish feedback.

There’s another tarnished ideal text we teachers are facing right now and that is this: our own teaching. Perhaps I should drop the communal “we” right here and admit that the tarnished ideal text that I am facing, at this late moment in the semester, is my own teaching.  Way back in September, what I planned to accomplish and even be as a teacher was like a vision. And now I hold the reality of my teaching in my hands like a small pile of stones. Certainly, I have amassed something — I’m a better teacher now than I was 7 years ago when I started, and surely this has happened incrementally, including this semester — and yet the gains are modest-sized.

Oh, I’m not completely self-effacing. Not at all. As much as I’m seeing the shortfall in my work, I see too what I have achieved. In fact, nearing the end of the semester can be a weird time of reconciliation. Somehow, by making an account of what I didn’t accomplish, I force myself to look for what I have been doing: 4 classes and 60 students, and it looks like they’ll all reach the finish line intact and with a few flourishes.

I’m starting to reflect, too, on what my students have achieved, as I’m talking to them in meetings and conferences and as I think of them. I am reminded that they are not only the texts that they produce; they are very smart people to begin with who are growing as thinkers and doers, and teammates and teachers. In class, meetings, and peer reviews, I observe them teaching each other more and more. Often, I feel them teaching me.
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Image, “Brain of the Sistine Chapel,” by tj. blackwell on flickr.

This passing of grackles

I am drawn to the notion of what in Spanish is called querencia. It is a special version of an individual’s sense of place, and the word conveys intimacy, deep knowledge, and a pull. I first read about this in John Hanson Mitchell’s book, The Paradise of All These Parts: A Natural History of Boston (Beacon Press 2008).

He describes querencia this way:

Those with a strong feeling of querencia will know the weather of their country, will know the dates of the arrivals and departures of local migratory birds, and the flowerings of trees and shrubs. They will be familiar with the course and names of local rivers and streams, the dates of the seasonal passages of fish, and the location of hidden animal trails, of dens, swamps, hollows, cliffs, and odd boulders or outcroppings. Furthermore, they will know that certain sites within their terrain exhibit almost mystical emanations.

Is it possible to feel this way about an entire state? While I am no expert on Massachusetts, I have lived in it my entire life, and I love it as I do my siblings, and indeed I have known it as long as I have known them. Yesterday, perhaps the most beautiful of all of October’s days, I took a break from my desk and walked outside to have a look at the Charles River, which was roughed up by the breeze. Cars honked across the Mass Ave bridge and the sun glossed the John Hancock Building. Leaves, yellow. Honestly, I felt my heart lift in my chest.

In the past two weeks, in my own yard I have been noting the comings and goings of the migratory grackles. It’s that time again. Although they irritate the air with the sound of one thousand squeaky gates, I am delighted to see them.

Their appearance makes the world seems familiar and surprising too: on one day they scurry like a frightened mob from tree to tree, knocking acorns down onto cars parked in the street, and on another day they choreograph their flight gracefully. Continue reading

Three E’s: a paradigm

Years ago, when I was freelancing as a development researcher and writer, I helped the director of a new institute on children’s health prepare for a speech. I did the research that framed her remarks, which she wrote and ultimately presented to an advisory board. This was before the proliferation of Web-available information (in fact, Lydia was 8 weeks old at the time — 14 years ago!), and I conducted the research like a gumshoe, going stealthily from library to library, consulting periodical indexes, photocopying articles, and interviewing researchers.

At the Educational Development Center in Newton, I spoke at length to a library associate who first interviewed me, as a way of getting a bead on my questions and assignment. She asked me if I was familiar with the “Three E’s,” a neat way to think about public health problems, and she drew a simple diagram on the chalkboard in her office.

She explained that there are three kinds of approaches to addressing and attempting to solve entrenched problems, like teen pregnancy or gun violence: engineering, enforcement, and education. “Say you want to address rising teen pregnancy. An education approach would be to design a school-based curriculum at prevention. You might try to meaningfully inform teenagers about the responsibilities of parenting and offer them pragmatic advice about contraception. An enforcement approach would be to segregate pregnant teens from the main school program — this might be a disincentive to nonpregnant teens. The engineering approach would be the offering of Norplant, free of charge and through a school’s health clinic, to sexually active girls.” She added, “Whenever you can come up with an engineering solution to a health problem, it’s easier and usually more effective because it minimizes the human behavior aspects that enforcement and especially education rely on. Education is the hardest way to affect change.” Continue reading

– Open job ticket

Shawn, the electrician, comes in the front door lugging his toolbox and three light bars. “Are you excited?”

“This is the hard part,” I say. “We’re in the middle. So, er, no.”

Our kitchen has been undone since late December: food and dishes put away in boxes, tile ripped off the floor and walls, vintage appliances carted away, and cabinet doors unhinged and discarded.

We’re undertaking what I’m calling a recession renovation. (My phrasing is inspired by Marcia telling me she’s “recession reading”: getting to books she owns already and no bookstore splurges.) This project is not a total re-do; instead, it’s piecemeal. New this and new that, but some old remains.

Threshold (Jan. 2010)

New doors have already been hung on the old cabinets. New floor tile has been ordered. New countertop: Formica™ will have to do.

The project started. It’s underway. The last lick of paint is a long way off.

We’re in the middle.

I find the middle, of any creative project, to be a wide, rough patch (even this one, in which other laborers, and not me, are doing the lion’s share of the physical work).

Beginnings burst with energy. There is a decisive break with the old. The outcome shimmers ahead on a horizon only imagined.

Endings, too, gather energy to them. The finish line is in sight. Adrenalin surges.

The middle slumps. Continue reading