Academic journal article Vitae Scholasticae

About Wishes and Invitations: Four Meditations on Life Writing with Carl Leggo

Academic journal article Vitae Scholasticae

About Wishes and Invitations: Four Meditations on Life Writing with Carl Leggo

Article excerpt

I heard Carl Leggo speak at a conference last spring. In a crowded and neonlit lecture hall, the pony-tailed, jean-clad poet/professor took the podium and promised "performance instead of proof." For the next hour, he delivered amply on his declaration; in a frenetic and living concert of theory, reflection and poetry, Dr. Leggo moved around the room engaging each of us--sometimes personally--in a discussion speculating on biography, writing, and identity. For me, it was by far the most gregarious and unreserved keynote address of the conference--perhaps in the entire history of conferences. At one point, I felt a hand on my shoulder as he stopped behind me to read a poem. Surprised by the unexpected intimacy and warmth of the gesture, I had a clear and undiluted thought: "This is just neat."

This essay is a response to two of Leggo's pieces, "Light and Shadow: Four reasons for Writing (and not Writing) Autobiographically" (2004) and "Autobiography and Identity: Six Speculations" (2005). As the articles demand, it is a personal and creative attempt at navigating through some of the ideas presented in Leggo's writing. The meditations are my own guideposts to thought. I am aware of my own limitations and unknowings as I write to respond to the pieces, and I know too that this deceptively unified and polished rejoinder is a part of my own story, an unstable attempt at understanding infused with a desire for the warmth of the alphabet, the informality of metaphor or a poet's hand resting against my shoulder under the neon lights of a keynote address.

There are many "neat" things about Leggo's writing that demand attention. His style is personal--at times, almost confessional. Reading his work, a palpable sense of shared secrets almost jumps off the page. In writing that appears sometimes as prose, sometimes as poetry, often in the center of the page or justified backwards from the right, Carl Leggo professes his belief that all writing is creative, that he only writes autobiographically (sometimes, sort of) and that at times he says "very little/not because I don't want to say more/but simply because I don't know what I mean." (1) His work is an experiment in life writing that makes an attempt to come close to the instability, impossibility, and playfulness involved in the work of living and presenting lives as subjects that might be studied.

This is a brand of academic work unlike anything else. Playing on the tensions between the deceptively simple and the theoretically complex, Leggo is able to find relevancy for his own life story in diverse sources such as Marxist history, curriculum theory, and the poetry of Dr. Seuss. At times, he charts the progress of living in a manner reminiscent of dreaming: a fragment from Derrida holds the same significance as a three-line poem about orangutans, or the universe. The performance-instead-of-proof proposition permeates, presenting itself in playful, perplexing puns and porous ponderings. (Alliteration mine.) Language is aware of itself, repeating sounds and beats and words, and something having nothing to do with itself at all. Yet throughout, there is a sense that Leggo is trying to tell us something about his life and life writing too, and that perhaps these two notions are neither separate nor unfamiliar.


Beneath the complicated, unstable theories of autobiography and identity rests the bedrock of pedagogy; Leggo is first and foremost a teacher. His interest in life writing stems from a philosophy of teaching, an almost urgent call to make the classroom a sacred space where lives might be written and read. "We need to compose and tell our stories as creative ways of growing in humanness," Leggo writes. "We need to question our understanding of who we are in the world. We need opportunities to consider other versions of identity. This is ultimately a pedagogic work." (2) In this spectrum, it is the work of the teacher to creatively approach and critically promote the telling of life stories, for many reasons. …

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