As I try to keep my writer's inspiration in tact through these ever-complicating times of political change, surprise, and affliction, I think back to the morning after last November’s election. I was to deliver a motivational wrap-up comment to my freshmen composition class; I wanted to offer some words of hope, some strategies to move forward through their final stretch of school-work, despite the political maelstrom that had just hit the social atmosphere—on our campus and beyond. But what was intended to be a spirit-lifting commentary became my own moment of emotional upheaval and, ultimately, breakdown.
Halfway through the speech my lips began to tremble. No doubt I was being moved by the painful emotions that now hung in the air after our open debriefing, in which students vulnerably admitted to their fears of the future, expressed their raw anger, sadness, and confusion. But, what seized me then was deeper than empathy, and stronger yet than my own shock at the day's events. It was something about the complete rupture of our expectations, the breaking of unsaid promises, which had opened up a new space that morning—a space from which I could now see in new resolution the importance of our academic and intellectual work. The emotion I felt was not "optimism." It had the hue of hope, but it also held the depth of truth, retained the darkness of the unknown, the intensity of the real. What had seized me, and what still brings me to the keyboard today, was the knowingness in our power when we join together to write.
In her book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit, an American political writer and prolific essayist (raised in nearby Novato) acknowledges the political power of the intangible; of ideas, imaginations and intelligent conversations: "Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later . . . all these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope."
Even when our actions as intellectuals seem to have no larger impact in our communities, even when they are contradicted by material devastation, to surrender our practice as writers and thinkers is to deny the intangible forces that inspire the path to positive change, and to which real revolution is tied by invisible threads, be they tangled by surprise, frayed by affliction.
To write a good research paper, and even to have a dynamic conversation with our peers, is to engage in the art of kindness and compassion that the world desperately needs right now. To think deeply is to invite and embrace diversity; to commit this conversation to paper is to host a space for consensus and disensus, and to represent those differences eloquently, respectfully, and authentically is to model the kind of world we want to live in. I looked around and gestured to all of them sitting on the grass, some with puffy eyes, tears still sticky on their cheeks: “The way you all just spoke to and listened to each other—it is nothing short of amazing. Papers are spaces to have these types of conversations too– they are not just technical and intellectual, they are compassionate, they are kind, they are emotionally intelligent. The art of argumentation is also the art of kindness when it’s done right.”
I might not be able to lessen our nation’s suffering with a paper on Virginia Woolf’s feminist grammar. But I feel it in my bones that, when I am writing—when WE are writing together, conversing (both on and off the page) with each other in intelligent, respectful, self-aware ways—we are doing something of immeasurable importance. When we are doing our school work, we are doing THE work.