Academic journal article Composition Studies

Equaling Sorrow (a Meditation on Composition, Death, and Life)

Academic journal article Composition Studies

Equaling Sorrow (a Meditation on Composition, Death, and Life)

Article excerpt

Composition Studies, Volume 31, Number 1, Spring 2003

Dying is easy / It's living that scares me to death.

Annie Lennox, "Cold"

Knowledge of your sorrows

doesn't equal sorrow

. . .

what the letters spell

is not the same

as the letter's spell

Michael Blitz, Satellite Strains, 47

I am dying to share more than just the talk about family, house and purchases. I need more-god help me if I am flawed in some way, but I need more. I am dying to share-what a thing to feel one is dying from.

Unsigned letter

Nearly everyone knows how to die-or thinks they do. We're not so sure. Most of the time we don't even know how to think about it. As a friend of ours once suggested, not knowing how to die is, nevertheless, unlikely to stop us from doing so. What stops us is living with the idea of dying. Living is scary. It's an uncharted, dangerous enterprise.

Claude Mark Hurlbert is a professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches in the Graduate Program in Composition and TESOL. Michael Blitz, Professor of English, is Chair of the Thematic Studies Program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In addition to many individual publications in journals and edited collections, together they have co-written Letters for the Living: Teaching Writing in a Violent Age (NCTE) and co-edited Composition and Resistance (Boynton/Cook Heinemann).

The two of us have published a number of things that deal with the struggles our students have undergone in the courses, including their composition courses, of their lives. In our own work, we have tried to explore the profound beauty-and sadness-in the writing of our students. Why sadness? Why not focus on the joys and triumphs, satisfaction and optimism that come through in some of the writings? Why not focus on the stylistic elements, rhetorical gestures, discursive modes, or just the general diversity of the subject matter? Because any examination of the literature of composition will show that these investigations have been done, redone, and are still being done. Still, maybe it will seem inappropriate to spend time examining the idea of sadness-or sorrow-in connection to student writing. No doubt some will think it morbid to consider death and dying in the context of first-year composition. But for ten years now, the two of us have been giving our composition students the assignment to write a book about what they are burning to tell the world, and in all these years, more than two-thirds of our students have elected to write about things that have caused them sorrow, about the deaths of loved ones, about the deaths of neighbors, even of hope itself. And this is hardly surprising. As Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch remind us, "Moments die, situations die, and lives end. Even more obvious than the uneasiness of birth is the suffering (and lamentation as is said) experienced when situations or bodies grow old, decay and die" (115).

How we die, we believe, is connected to how we live. How do we live, in relation to the inevitability of death? How do our sorrows and joys instruct us? Do they prepare us, or is it our fear that prepares us? Do we try to avoid death by not thinking about it? By pretending that it will not come any time soon? Are there things we ought to be doing-and teaching others to do-toward "completing" our lives? Is the writing and the teaching we do part of some human project we are "all" working to complete each day without even knowing it?

We are, with our students, living lives of letters and words. We are also working our way(s) inexorably toward dying and death. And not just their deaths, or ours, or yours, but a world that, too often, seems to be hastening the process of self-destruction. Even pretending this is not true does nothing to negate its truth. Are writing teachers teaching people how to create a cultural record? …

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