Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The 1-page autobiography

For many years I taught writing to first-year students at a small liberal arts college. Every semester, one of my first assignments asked them to write a one-page autobiography. When their papers came in, I'd offer extra credit to anyone who would read their life story to the class. But few students were willing to introduce themselves to their fellow students with the same language they had chosen to introduce themselves to their professor.

I'd say, "The lesson is not that it's hard to tell the truth about yourself—that lesson will come after college, for most of you—but this one: The I on the page and the I in your head are two different entities. The I who shows up in class isn't the I who shows up at the fraternity party or the supermarket or the rowing team. The I in your head isn't the same as the I that lives in your heart when you grieve for the loss of a friend."

One of the big, dumb jocks in the back row would raise his hand and say, "Are you saying that in our civilization, the thing we call the self is a social construct, and that different social milieus can produce different selves?"

And I would say, "Let's not go there. You're all 18 or 19 and you're all desperately trying to construct a unified self at the end of chaotic adolescences. It's upsetting to think about how many selves might be fighting for the microphone inside you, and I don't want to upset you this early in the semester.

"So we'll just say that the I on the page is a black mark on white paper. The I in your head lies among the billions of electrons that dance through a forest of neurons in the dim moonlight of your frontal lobes. They're not the same.

"For one thing, the I on the page is easier to edit."

Then one of the bright sorority girls sitting in the front row would raise her hand and say, "But why would you want to edit yourself?"

"Because some of the selves you contain are better than the others. They're smarter. Have on more expertly applied makeup. They study more and refuse to shoplift. Are you sure you want to talk about this?"

Then a pre-med student would raise his hand and say, "I don't know about anyone else, but I just have one big self. It's going to become a cardiologist, marry a beautiful nurse and drive a Porsche."

I would say, "Perhaps during your psychiatric residency, you'll discover that the unified Western Self exists only as a quaint 19th-century artifact. Twentieth- and 21st-century selves were shattered by modern warfare, Freud and consumer culture. They exploded into fragments around 1917. You won't be able to afford a Porsche for every one of your selves. Some of your selves won't want a Porsche anyway, and will make your other selves miserable by criticizing their unconscious ostentation."

By now my lesson plan would be out the window and I would be trying to think of some metaphor that would get across what I meant.

"Imagine you had a bright electronic billboard that everybody could see," I'd say. "You could put pictures on it. Poetry. What you did on your date Friday night. Family. Friends. Nasty things about professors who give weird assignments.

"That billboard would become you, to most people. And maybe they could write on your billboard, too, and say what they liked about you. Because people are different, everyone who looked at the billboard would see a different you, according to their focus.

"All the time, you'd be changing what was on the billboard, trying to adapt to feedback, trying to make your billboard all things to all people.

"No one would know the you that sits alone and lonely in the billboard control room. Before long, you would face a choice: either climb out onto the billboard and jump around among your brilliantly constructed glittering selves, selves who have a reality you can only aspire to, or wither and die in the dark. What would you do?"

At this point, one of the students in the middle of the class, working part-time to pay her tuition and become the first person in her family to graduate from college, would always raise her hand and say, "Can we talk about comma splices and sentence fragments?"

"Of course," I'd say. "That's what this class is all about."

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