Sunday Meditation #2

Hi everyone. I’ve been a member of AEPL for many years now and have recently enjoyed becoming more active by helping to establish, with Christy Wenger, AEPL, and my colleague Jen Consilio, the Writing and Mindfulness Google Group/listserv. If you’re interested in joining the listserv, send me a note at kennedsh@lewisu.edu.

For this blog entry, I’d like to address an issue that emerged as I was planning and teaching a one-credit weekend writing workshop this past spring entitled Journal Writing for Self-Discovery. The course was specially designed for our university’s “vocation” exploration program, in which undergraduate students are provided campus-wide opportunities to explore their calling—what to do and how to be—through academic advising, peer ministry, career services, and across the curriculum. The workshop outcomes focused on students learning how to use various contemplative and private journal writing strategies for self discovery, especially in terms of purpose and meaning. Ultimately, I wanted students to experience ways to develop a useful journal writing practice for meaning-making, for living.

One question emerged from the workshop, and still lingers: Should instructors make use of content that was never intended to be made public? I realize that my raising the question in a public space perpetuates the potential breach. I’m ambivalent about it all and welcome your own thinking here.

Perhaps you know the story of Vivian Maier. During the last half of the last century, Maier worked as a nanny on Chicago’s North Shore. Shortly after her death in 2007, she became known to the world through the sale and subsequent exhibition of some of her belongings found in a storage locker: more than 100,000 riveting and arguably truly artistic photographs capturing ordinary people on the streets of New York and Chicago. Here’s an introduction to the mystery of both her and her “hobby”: http://video.wttw.com/video/1706831766/

Her story and photographs captivate.

The night before the writing workshop, I posted the link to Maier’s story to our course’s online management portal, not yet certain how or even if I would “use” it. Maier—her story— raises all kinds of resonant questions: What does it mean to live a creative life? Does truly creative work require a public audience (as creativity scholar Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi contends)? Did Maier live what Parker Palmer calls a “divided” life? Should others now profit from her work? And, why did she choose to keep it all hidden?

image

Locked box

I showed the students the news feature of her story, contextualizing it based on the above. Thoughtful responses and additional interesting questions emerged, and “useful” things happened:

1) On whether others should profit from her work—which indeed is currently very profitable, with national and international exhibitions, documentaries, and print sales—an ongoing and potentially multi-million dollar industry: the consensus from the students was a resounding no. Only one student—a business major—disagreed: “Why not?”

2) On whether or not her story and her work should have been made public in the first place: this was more contentious—we talked about Anne Frank’s diary—until one student persuasively offered: Her photography practice and locked-up photos were equivalent to the private, contemplative journal writing we were developing in the writing workshop. Privacy is key. And, the evidence suggests that she was a deeply private person intent on keeping her photographs private as well. What right do we have to share information and artifacts of her private life and work?

3) And yet…after learning her story and seeing her work, students were moved, fascinated, inspired. That weekend, her story provided the clarifying lens through which to glimpse, understand, and discuss what it can mean to live and be and work as creative, generative, meaning-making people, and importantly, the extent to which one can or should seek to live “an undivided life” in which private and public selves merge. These are urgent and ongoing challenges for both young and old, and the story of Vivian Maier uniquely captures and reflects the choices, risks, and stakes.

4) And more…lives were changed; art and research were influenced. A student in the writing workshop was also simultaneously enrolled in our advanced Theories of Composing course. For her final project in that course, and as a direct extension of the writing workshop, she created a writing experiment for herself in which she compared the processes and effects of privately writing with and without a prior mindfulness practice. One such mindfulness practice was to concentrate on an image. She chose a photo by Vivian Maier, a close-up of an older woman—i.e., an “old” woman—somberly staring into the camera, gray hair, sagging skin, deep wrinkles. Upon meditating on the image of this woman for several minutes, the student wrote a lovely, even literary, homage to both the woman in the photo and her own projected older self—and learned about her present self in the process.

And so I and my students did, in fact, profit from the story and work and life of Vivian Maier. I’m still ambivalent about it. Is there a difference between my sharing and profiting from Maier’s story and work and John Maloof’s sharing and profiting—Maloof being the person who purchased and now curates, exhibits, and sells prints of the contents of Maier’s storage locker? Should I shine, and continue to shine, a light on a life who actively sought privacy for herself and her creativity? Do I really want to participate in the violation of her privacy? What right do I or we have to violate her privacy? What responsibilities do we have—to the dead, the living, art, wisdom?

I agree with Peter Elbow who notes in Vernacular Eloquence that we do not yet know how to fully understand the private diarist or the history of the private diary.

Perhaps “life is for the living”—and we make sense of what’s here, now, despite the way it’s uncovered or revealed. Or perhaps we make good use of the wisdom that comes from posing and responding to questions about issues of ends and means.

Like Maloof, we teachers and writers are collectors and curators. Every encounter, every observation, every connection, is potential use for our work. I wonder if I should have collected and curated and used something else to help construct the wisdom I was going for.

What’s your sense? Your experiences? I’d like to learn from how you make these kinds of decisions.

Sheila Kennedy

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One thought on “Sunday Meditation #2

  1. wendy ryden says:

    The question of how we “use” others’ writing is an ever present one, especially, as you point out, when it intersects with issues of privacy. As I was reading, I started thinking about the photographic subjects, and the ethical questions that their presence raises, which in turn made me think about the ethical obligations we have whenever we choose to write about the lives of others, as we must, when we attempt to tell our own stories. These have always been compelling questions for me, and it leads me to another: when do we relinquish control over our stories? It must have something to do with death and time, I think, despite our wishes while we are living. In the improbable event that someone discovers my private writings a thousand years from now, does my desire for privacy matter any more? I guess I’m thinking it doesn’t, but then we are left with the question, how long is long enough?

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