Firmament-ation: The Trials and Tribulations of Learning to Live in the Both/And

With this prompt, there is a part of me that feels I have to neatly organize, rationalize, and conclude everything I have known and learned here; I know that this isn’t possible, but I think that’s one of the toughest emotional elements of graduation—that it feels both that the world is ending and just beginning, that there is both so much that I will miss and so much that I need to leave behind. I’m experiencing, in my personal life, the both/and of the growing pains of hurt and love. Both academically and personally, this class has taught me more about navigating through complications of all varieties, and how this influences avenues of connection and engagement with the broader world. This is one of the things that I will miss most about Geneseo—the way that our English department has the ability to genuinely change the lives of its students by cultivating a sense of the both/and in every regard. To have the opportunity to close my time at Geneseo not only with yet another English course that accomplishes the growth of these perspectives so enormously, but through exploring the both/and of Morrison’s writing and prose as a whole, has truly changed the way that I will move into post-grad life.

For this class specifically, I have been especially challenged in how I understand collaboration and communication. I did not have much confidence in my ability to engage in collaborative writing before taking this class, especially as a student who had not encountered collaboration as immersively as this class approached it prior to this semester. While I’ve been brought to consider collaboration and its many values and benefits in many English courses, not a lot of those thought experiments had been genuinely put into work or actions concretely as we have done in this course. Thus, having to face collaboration head-on felt a little strange and overwhelming to me—I was concerned with executing the ability to understand and write about the perspectives of nine people, much less attempt to coalesce nine different writing styles and approaches, when I’ve only ever been charged with one. Because of this, it took me a little while to get the hang of things; by the end of the first collaborative paper, however, I was starting to feel more confident about and secure in this opportunity to write papers in a way that I never had before. In our second collaborative paper, when I was put into a new group, I also started to realize some of the benefits of collaborative writing that benefitted me and my writing style, specifically—because we had lots of folks working on this assignment at once, I could afford to advocate for specific elements of the text that I felt were important to represent and work through my own thoughts and notes about it (with Jazz specifically, I was fascinated by the matching up of the maps of Purgatorio and Manhattan). However, in this specific example, when I inevitably found myself in the conspiracy theory woods off the thesis-driven path of the paper, poring over each reference of the number seven in some of the most infinitesimal details of Jazz, I had a group full of people to keep me on track. This collaborative writing, thus, became a both/and of me discovering and growing from my own personal pitfalls in academic writing, as well as recognizing my ability to offer fruitful thought and analysis to a group of people who are equally enthusiastic about a concept of shared curiosity and passion.

Another daunting element of collaborative writing that had originally put me off at the beginning of the course was the translation and intuitive communication that group collaboration requires. I know how to write papers by myself mostly because the ideas originate rather cohesively from inside my own brain; there is little effort required in understanding or formulating thoughts, just in how to write them down. With more collaborative writing, however, it becomes necessary to both understand and translate the thoughts that are in the head of someone who isn’t even me. This feat is one that requires a lot of skill, not just professionally, but personally—there is an essential empathy, a willingness to both engage with the people around oneself and care for their ideas. Obviously, this is important, both professionally and holistically; at this moment in time, I plan to pursue editing and publishing, either in journalism, literary fiction, or poetry, all of which require a great deal of this sort of collaboration.

That being said, I am able to recognize that the level of collaboration we have experienced in this course is definitely exaggerated to an extent that I am unlikely to encounter in the professional world—it’s improbable that I’ll find myself in a situation outside of college where I have to sit down and write a specific article or handle an assignment as collaboratively with as big a group. In editorial work, it’s likely that I will be trying to refine the work of one or a couple of people who are writing something specific to their own narrative, but even here, collaboration comes into play—I will need to understand the thought and reasoning behind the piece, but only after the writer(s) themselves have done the work of trying to communicate that. Editing and publishing, too, address the inevitable truth that each piece of writing must at some point face—that writing is subjective, and is, as we know so thoroughly from Morrison’s work, something that involves unprecipitated collaboration between the reader and writer even in the way that it is read. This collaboration and the empathy that it teaches might be considered a bit more relevant in the field of journalism. In this profession, I might be trying to communicate or represent more than one story or perspective; even then, however, even then it is likely that I will be the sole handler of these assignments, trying to process and translate those perspectives the way that I specifically think they ought to be represented. Thus, the experience of having written an essay with eight other people with eight other distinctive minds, perspectives, and experiences, is not irrelevant to the way that I will step into post-grad life; it might be more apt to say that the lessons and values derived from that experience will likely prove to be extremely beneficial down the road.

Morrison’s writing, of course, accomplishes this in its ability to resist convention and “easy reading,” inviting collaboration with ease and borderline necessity. I loved the quote from Anna Mulrine’s article, “This side of ‘Paradise’: Toni Morrison defends herself from criticism of her new novel Paradise,” where Morrison referenced the way she feels about how people interact with her work—“‘I have people tell me, ‘Your novel is on my bed stand.’ I don’t want books to be what people dip into before they go to sleep’” (qtd. in Mulrine). There is so much to be earned from this way of approaching literature. The reader of Beloved is not meant to pick a side or decide whether or not they think Sethe was “right” for killing Beloved, though our instinct is to do this—to make something clear in this winding prose and complex story that resists a simple conclusion or answer. Rather, we are brought to understand Sethe’s experience through the accessibility of the harsh and traumatizing conditions that Sethe reveals throughout the novel; this isn’t easy to read. Morrison reveals the intentionality of that in allusions to Sethe’s emotional experience:

Why was there nothing it refused? No misery, no regret, no hateful picture too rotten to accept? Like a greedy child it snatched up everything. Just once, could it say, No thank you? I just ate and can’t hold another bite? I am full God damn it of two boys with mossy teeth, one sucking on my breast the other holding me down, their book-reading teacher watching and writing it up. I am still full of that, God damn it, I can’t go back and add more. (Morrison 83)

In these passages and many more, there is a desperate need for a connection between the reader and Sethe’s character. Without this, the novel’s purposes fall flat, revealing, more often than not, a lack of willingness for the reader to fully immerse themselves in the many emotional trials and tribulations of engaging in Morrison’s work. However, if the reader is willing to engage with the novel with genuine care for understanding the experiences of Morrison’s characters and story, there is so much to take away. In Beloved specifically, we learn about the multiplicity of representing slavery narratives, as well as how and where healing is possible from intergenerational trauma and wounds relating to racism. These takeaways are vital lenses through which to view the world today, especially as racial violence and inequity continue to unfold in this country day after day.

It is also important to note, however, that the many conclusions I have felt able to draw from our time engaging with Morrison’s writing have been skillfully guided by the work and reflection of my peers in this course. Looking back on my class notes from this course, I can remember clearly the excitement that I felt on specific days of group discussion where I was brought to consider new connections that I had not made on my own. I remember a class period in early February where we discussed the importance of guides in both Beloved and Dante’s Inferno, which, though it was not an idea or theme that I had fully fleshed out in my independent reading and interpretation, became a major theme of the first collaborative essay that we completed in this class due to the extent to which it impacted both my and my group members’ understandings of the novel. At the beginning of our reading of Jazz, too, I recall a class discussion where we began drawing more explicit connections between the different novels of Morrison’s trilogy (specifically pertaining to Beloved at that point in the semester), between the writing of Dante and Morrison, and between different core concepts that we have focused on throughout this semester. These conclusions are not ones I would have come to independently; rather, it took me approaching each class period mindfully, prepared to engage with the ideas of others and present ideas of my own, for these connections, which elevated the reading and class experience of most (hopefully each) members of the class, to be drawn.

None of this experience could have been possible had I not trusted the value of the community that we have established in this class, as well as accepted the discomfort that, for me, came along with collaborative writing. As I step into this next period of my life, where that sort of academic community will be far less accessible, I am ever-grateful for the time that we have dedicated to multiplicity, collaboration, and complication—the both/and of everything in life—in this class, both through the manner of the course as a whole and the dedicated approach to Morrison’s writing. I feel confident in asserting that this sort of work could not have come about as fruitfully in studying any other writer, especially in examining the intersection between Dante and Morrison; however, having garnered these skills of observation and collaboration, I am feeling, too, more confident in how these skills will continue to ripple my life post-grad, professionally and personally. This course, in its collaboration and study of Morrison’s writing, have helped me make peace with the impossibility of any critical thinker, reader, or writer to “neatly organize, rationalize, and conclude”; more importantly, this course has led me to recognize the beauty and inherent meaning behind this impossibility. It has taken me three years of intensive English courses and challenging conversations with my professors and peers to embrace this, but I am leaving both Geneseo and this course more in love with the both/and of literature and life. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage Classics, 2007.

Mulrine, Anna. “This side of ‘Paradise’: Toni Morrison defends herself from criticism of her new novel Paradise.US News & World Report, 19 Jan. 1998.

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