Saturday, February 6, 2016

Writing the Self: Chapter 3 (An Example of Write First, Introspection Second)

This chapter is titled "Exercising the Soul & Mind," and chronicles the self-writing composed during The Renaissance. Heehs covers the writers Margery Kempe (who wrote the first autobiography in the English language), Martin Luther, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila and even the founder of the Mughal Dynasty, Babur (who authored the first autobiography in the Muslim world [43]). 
The section I would like to focus my summary on is the lengthy description of Michel de Montaigne's writing and his impact on self-study for centuries to come.
My last post wondered about the sequence of a self-writer: do those who already practice self-reflection and then write about their conclusions differ greatly from those who use writing as a means to achieve self-reflection? And if so, what are those differences? This question wiggled in my mind all day, as I thought about my Composition students and their blog writing. In speaking with them, self-reflection is not a practice to which they are accustomed, so they are attempting to use writing as a tool to gain self-knowledge. In early history, thinkers seem to have already been in the practice of self-reflection and later wrote on their findings. This brings me to Montaigne, who began his Essays like my students begin their blogs: writing first in order to gain introspection second. 
After retiring from public service in courts of France, Montaigne dedicated his mind to reflect, but what he found in those hours of mental solitude was chaos; his endeavor at meaningful thinking produced "'many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose'" (Montaigne qtd. in Heehs 38). Earlier in the chapter, Heehs cites Teresa of Avila's similar problem and solution: "'It is very important at the beginning when we embark on prayer, not to be frightened by our own thoughts'" (Avila qtd. in Heehs 37).
The "ramblings" that plagued Montaigne and Teresa of Avila are, to Heehs, something encountered by everyone who tries to engage in self-study (38). So, instead of forsaking his self-study, Montaigne began writing his "attempts" (in French, essais, which is where we get the word "essay"... perfect for a Comp teacher who teaches writing as a process, non?) 
What results are writings that look like free-writes, which was a "new literary departure" (Heehs 39). Montaigne was amused by the roads that his mind traveled, and what's more, he viewed the practice of free-writing as beneficial: "It is a thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds, to pick out and immobilize the innumerable flutterings that agitate it" (Montaigne qtd. in Heehs 39). 
The focus, of course, is always Montaigne, himself, and his writing is creative in that it is producing the main character, Montaigne. His self-writing is actually producing the soul: "Painting myself for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made me" (Montaigne qtd. in Heehs 40). 
This idea, of self-creation, is chewed on constantly by many diarists that I have read. The thought, "if I write this down, will this be who I am? Do I write this because it is who I am?" or simply, "What I write will be me" is the philosophical thread in even teenagers' self-writing. In previous research, I came across the writings of Mary MacLane, a teenage American diarist at the turn of the twentieth century; she writes, “I don’t know whether I write this because I wear two plain dresses or whether I wear two plain dresses because I write this” (qtd. in Culley 14).
Probably at no other time in history do these ideas resonate more; web 2.0 tools and social media provide countless ways to "create" an identity through writing. This concept is going to lead me to my other big question of diary writing and authenticity (and does this have everything to do with travel diaries [my specific research focus]? Yes!).
The implications of writing and self-creation are what interested me the most about this chapter. It touched on many aspects of my previous research, and it seems I want to continue pursuing this further.


Works Cited

Culley, Margo, ed. Introduction. A Day at a Time: The Diary Literature of American Women from 1764 to Present. New York: Feminist P, 1985. 3-26. Print.
Heehs, Peter. Writing the Self: Diaries, Memoirs, and the History of the Self. New York: Bloomsbury P, 2013. Print.

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