Thinking and Writing About Experience

This project has involved each of you in the act of paying close attention to to the lives and institutions created by other people.  From your journal entries it is obvious that all of you have worked to try to understand how others understand their world, and see themselves within it.  Your understandings have developed from careful observation, from interviews, from casual conversation, from brief chats as well as readings, and documents that support your thinking. Click and read on:

Yet your paper is not simply a report (“The Bread of Life in Wisconsin” or “The Ski Industry in the Pacific Northwest” or “Life Among the Homeless”). It includes you, your learning, and the often transformative experiences that have occurred to you as you have engaged in this four month long investigation.  How to build these experiences into your project paper and presentation is a central issue.  The brief essay that follows is an reflection on that dilemma.  Read on!

Conveying the Ineffable, or What the Hell Should I Write About Anyway

The meaning of experience comes in many guises and sneaks up upon us when we least expect it.   Meaning can manifest itself as a wave of feeling washing over us; as an understanding of a connection we had not seen or felt, or a sense of purpose; as an articulation of an idea, a concept, or a desire; as a truth/recognition about oneself now or in the past; as an attachment to others, to a place; as a plan or at least the next steps.  

The center of all these meanings is you. Yet joining you in this process are all the persons and places that trigger these recognitions.  With you too are all those other experiences, places, and circumstances that set you up for/made you ready for this now – this present experience/these present meanings.

All this experience is vital, full of life, energy, despair, ecstasy, humiliation, love, decay, growth and death. Experience is like that. Sometimes the meanings jump out at you, flood over your and make you stop, change, or grow.  And sometimes a trip is just a trip.  We don’t know beforehand. All of you are reporting meaningful experiences – experiences that change, move, and transform you. How can you incorporate those subtle, ineffable, liminal transitions into your projects? So often meanings feel ineffable and ephemeral as if we look too hard the insight would evaporate as dew from the grass. Or we sense that if we tried to explore and articulate them they would break as if we were studying watch- making with a hammer.  I want to suggest that these experiences are exactly what you need to explore if you want to write well and use writing to develop your ideas and understandings.

Remember that the inklings of the potential for such experiences and their significances are why you chose to undertake your project in the first place.  You have a project. It is your project. Presumably that project emerged from your real desires and your willingness take a risk to do something - deliberately and self consciously - to understand whatever issue you chose. By writing, by making an account, by reflecting, by talking with others, by exchanging journal entries with each other, by thinking about your project when you are just walking down the street, when as Nancy Koppelman says your antennae are up and you are tuned into your experience, you are coming to answers for the fundamental reflexive questions of “How do I know what I know?” and “So what?” Thinking about these questions offers a key to writing about your project.

Both questions have answers that go back to Mills’ Sociological Imagination, to the ley lines of Rebecca Solnit, to Tuan’s experience of place, Selznick’s moral sociology, and the persons and stories of Kesey,  Diaz, or Paley.  To know how we know, we need to understand the physical, historical, collective social conditions that manifest themselves in our lives as received knowledge of the community/culture/ society within which we have grown.  And we need to recognize in our lives, our story, our truths, our limits, our ambitions, our attachments, loves and fears. We know this history and our lives as people living within a global social order in the 21st century, within a capitalist democracy, structured by hierarchy, literate, not in desperate poverty, comparatively rich in leisure.  We know our lives also because we are all in on this project, are all affiliated with this program. We have these classmates and faculty and with them we have a place to share our experience.  Our experience and its meanings open up to us because of all this.  

About all this experience and meaning each of us has to ask “so what?”  How does this experience, this understanding of the world, make a difference to me?   I would suggest that there are two important answers. First this reflexive approach to knowing places our experience within the flow of biography, society, ecology, and history. In a sense it embeds us within our culture and allows us to see it, not simply exist within it. In short, it helps us be self-conscious beings. Beyond this, these truths/meanings of experience permit us to choose (not infinitely), plan (subject to revision), and work together with persons or groups to act in a purposive manner.  

All this is a long winded way of suggesting that building your experiences, especially those that challenged and transformed you, into your written work on the project with the goal of showing why the realities that created your new understandings are central to your project.  By taking these central insights and understandings and developing a reflexive view of them as they emerge from our culture, our history and your own life, you can build a structure for your paper that reflects your most important insights.  Trying to see social structure, history, and your own life experience as developing your capacity to see the world clearly and accurately is a central task of writing about your experience.  Your writing helps teach/share what is important in this work in a reciprocal way.

This need not mean that take your experience head on as the entire substance of what you write.  But by taking on the context/place, by taking on crucial positive and negative incidents that moved your understanding of your self in that place, by taking on a person or persons whose understandings or actions explained your situation or forced you to reflect, you help us see the world and your experience. Your description of how this particular event/person/place affected you, how you reacted/interpreted the experience, shows us how you see the world and how you change. From working on these tasks of describing the situation and the experiences, by linking to them questions of history and structure you build a way to show others, and indeed yourself, the meaning of your experiences. Such an effort does not disenchant experience but makes it more real, connects it to your life in the world and to others.  Write on!


Comment if you are so inclined in the general discussion section.