Image by Flickr user Taylor Liberato

I was born logical and creative and comical and dark and practical and dreamy and compassionate and angry. I was born understanding myself as a whole; I never questioned my own composition. For a long time in my life, I believed that I could be anyone. But lives move forward in choices and in those choices there is growth. Most of those choices are necessary, but some of them are false. It never occurred to me that one day I would have to begin the doppelgängers’s dance, the double-walking life of one made to divide one’s self. Again and again in my life I have been presented with a choice that I now know is false: the choice between artist and analyst.

Over the years, I tried to put myself back together by various means, to return to my sticky and complex personhood. As an adolescent, my writing skills made me a darling, but I was more interested in pouring over fossil cases in the natural history museum than attending Shakespeare productions. My copy of Sylvia Plath’s seminal poetry volume Ariel, dog-eared and deeply loved, was touched here and there with doodles of DNA strands. To my parents, it was simple: be an artist and most likely fail at it, or do something practical to get a job and make money. When I arrived in graduate school to do my Master’s in English, I faced the dilemma again: I was a poet or I wasn’t. I cared about my art or I cared about my students, their writing and their struggles. I was writing all the time or I gave up on writing forever. It was my choice, of course. But always I had a choice and always I had to choose. It was in this state that I arrived at Michigan State University to start a Ph.D in rhetoric: my still-divided status mirrored the divisions between creative writing and analytical writing, between poetics and rhetoric.

I believe that, because of the innovative nature of the rhetoric and writing program at Michigan State, my teachers and mentors were perfectly willing to understand me as a whole person, but I wasn’t, not yet. After years of trying to forget part of myself, I was suddenly thrown into a place where I had to resurrect and remember and work again. It was terrifying. I can say that never in my life have I called myself a “poet” as much as I have during my time at Michigan State. I remember that in my first year of classes I used to preface much of what I said in class by saying that I was a poet. At the time, I leaned to heavily on my “poet” identity, the chosen self from years before, in order to be understood. It was a rhetorical move, an apology. It was a justification for not knowing certain things, but instead knowing other things that I assumed were uninteresting to others. But eventually “poet” became a point of division. What I did not understand then was that I was inviting my audience to put me in a box and eventually disregard my perspective. I was alienating myself from those around me. “Poet” became my albatross. I have only myself to blame for it.

I remember a day in my History of Rhetoric course when my professor gave me a special assignment–she wanted me to write my upcoming reading response in the form of a poem. I struggled with the task, but eventually composed a poem responding to Kenneth Burke. When my prof asked us to discuss our responses in class the following week, I hesitantly read my poem. My prof stated that my poem was, in fact, an act of theorizing. It surprised me to hear this, but I saw it as a sign that I was doing the right thing for myself. By reading the response aloud alongside my classmates, I had made a hesitant but important step toward putting myself back together. From then on, I became more comfortable with showing the real me in my writing, the person who writes artfully and analytically. I came to realize that I had always “been in rhet/comp.”

Rhetoricians are poets and poets are rhetoricians, and all are compositionists, really. Perhaps it’s something akin to being bilingual in the United States; if you speak more languages than English, it’s assumed that you must speak English poorly. Somehow, knowing one language takes away from your understanding of the other. I don’t resist rhetoric. I am rhetoric. But so many things have been put in my way to try to make me think that I’m not, that I cannot be unless I choose, unless I only use ones side of my body while I let the other side wither and atrophy. It doesn’t work like that; there’s no poetry side and no rhetoric side. There’s only me, and the scars left over from where I tried to cut myself in half for the sake of being someone. I’m happy to say that those cuts never did make it all the way through.

The series of false choices forced upon me over the years have left me with a lot of pain that I still feel. My writing has suffered; I have a long way to go. But I can no longer blame. I have to go forward because Michigan State has given me a place, finally, where I can grow as a scholar. I know that in my academic career I will encounter many more who will expect me to be one thing or the other, or who will assume that I’m either a pretender poet or a phony rhetorician. I will learn to expect this, and I will continue to complicate others’ expectations and divisions by being myself. But in my academic career I will also encounter those who understand that I am a whole being. I don’t walk in two worlds. Two worlds walk in me, and yes, they walk as one.

 

 

2 Responses to Toward A Whole Academic Self

  1. Jason says:

    This is so relevent to my new endeavor as a grad student in the MA English – Rhetoric and Writing program. Like you, I have doubted my ability to juggle between the worlds of poetic and rhetoric, among other contigencies. I hope this path that I am about to venture will be a new discovery of my academic identity.

  2. What an amazing journey. As I was reading your piece, I found myself thinking about Parker Palmer’s book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. This, as well as his other writings, explore exactly this theme – living an undivided life. I am afraid that all of us, in our own way, share in your struggle to be whole and complex, not divided into compartments and labels that we continuously feel we must defend as unauthentic.

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