Maybe if the universe sent me a sign…

What if we each arrived with a personal list of absolute “self” ingredients strung on our umbilical cord or a Table of Contents loaded on a readable chip inserted in a nice discreet body spot like say, under our third toe?

What if the mind-body problem was already solved? Well, then I might be out of a job and what would inspire the artists? Yes, it’s the artistic nature of exploration we’ll bring to this class. We’ll use literary craftsmanship to tiptoe our way out of the dark of unselfconsciousness and, with any luck, avoid for at least a semester the curse of the unexamined life.

From the catalog, our Course Description:

In Composing Self students explore the relationship between identity and writing. Students will study a variety of genres (personal essays, researched essays, academic articles, news reports, case studies, and ethnographies) and theoretical approaches to learn how and why writers create versions of themselves for rhetorical effect. While investigating identity construction in writing, students will hone their own rhetorical and stylistic skills. Students will compose narratives, essays, reports, and multi-genre compositions, drawing from personal experience, observation, and primary and secondary sources. The course will also address the role of self in the research-writing process by requiring students to conduct original academic research projects. This course is appropriate for all majors, and no specialized writing experience is assumed. (Offered fall semester.) 3 credits.

What exactly, will we be learning?  Rudimentary academic procedure dictates that defining terms is de rigueur, a prerequisite to research.  So now, I must ask you, “Who is this self I wish to compose?” Which self are we talking about? Why do people compose different selves? Is there any such thing as The One True Self?

From there we’ll explore the narrow ledge of truth.  Is truth the same as non-fiction? Whose truth gets told? What stories are you the only writer fit to tell?  What stories deserve to be told? Why? What makes you the best writer to tell any particular tale?  Does form impact the written piece? If so, how and why? Are some forms more suitable than others to tell a particular story? Why? Why not? How do rhetorical methods work on creating a truth?

Do I need to insist you answer all these questions before we begin to compose that self?

Thankfully, this class is listed under the category of “Written Inquiry.” Inquiry means to investigate, to ask about, to look into. So no, there isn’t a requirement that you have firm foreknowledge of this evasive entity called “self” before we begin.  Rather, we’ll apply the writing process as a flashlight, shining it into moonless corners. We’re as apt to find cobwebs as silver. We’ll try not to shriek as we write our way toward an understanding, (please believe that I’m precise in my language, I didn’t say the understanding, but an understanding.)  We’ll explore ways of discovering self by a process that might best be described using the Sanskrit concept, from the Upanishids, of neti neti.  (You can listen to a lovely poetry reading by Laura Nye; her poem neti,neti will give you a literary introduction to the term.)

We might get lost, but we’ll have faith in the process and know disorientation is merely temporary. How could we not succeed in the quest?   Don’t you always believe in truths which mysteriously unfold just for you?   For example, the photo above archives a scrap of truth I found a few weeks ago in a pile of sawdust on the construction site that will soon be my new home.

And now you’ve found it too.

About Catherine Keefe

Catherine Keefe is the founding and managing editor of *dirtcakes* a journal of poetry, creative nonfiction, art and photography. Her creative nonfiction essays, interviews and book reviews have appeared nationally. She teaches undergraduates how to Write About Literature, or Write Creative Nonfiction, or Compose Self at Chapman University in Orange, CA.
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