Chaos in the Classroom 

by Francine Ringold

Theodore Roethke, that marvelous lyric poet and passionate teacher who died in 1963, liked to begin his first lectures to freshman creative writing students by saying, much to their amazement, “Today, I’m going to lecture on confusion. I’m all for it!” Well, so am I—for confusion and uncertainty and turbulence and Dionysiac energy, and a healthy bit of chaos now and then.

Obviously I am not a systematic thinker or a very orderly teacher.

On the other hand, I do have a firm belief that art is form, that good writing must be shaped and pruned if it is to have power and clarity and move from individual experience to the readers’ hearts and minds. Is my seeming lack of system purposeful? Indeed! It leaves doors open. It allows even strange ideas and characters to enter. Or, to put it another way, Apollonian order only results when Dionysiac energy is engaged.

I don’t deny that I walk into class with a plan, that I worry about what I’m going to say or not say, and that it would be much easier for me to lecture, to lecture alone, to have all the movement going from me to them and not ever to let them enter, not ever to let them motivate me, change my ideas, or even the shape of those ideas. But I have found that that just doesn’t work. Somehow, once an idea is down on paper and I am reading from it (no matter how eloquently), it becomes fixed; I hate to part with it. The paper from which I am reading becomes more absorbing than the faces before me.

And how quickly the audience recognizes that as we lecture we are fulfilling our need to be secure, not asking to know their needs, what “turns them on.” If we permit ourselves only a modest amount of lecturing, we are affirming that there is a dormant body of energy ready to be moved if only someone provides the awakening spark.

But here too there is a potential trap. So often when we say “motivate” we mean push, shove, get our listeners to do what we want them to do, what our plans on paper have foreseen. That attitude, of course, assumes not that our students’ creative capacity lies dormant but rather that it is dead or non-existent, that there is no spirit to give trouble, that each person before us will be molded to our pattern, to our beat.

What we want, then, is to help each student move in his or her direction, to allow each person before us to become a finely-tuned instrument, flexible enough, varied enough, and ultimately disciplined enough to express his or her unique voice in a manner that finds its mark.

And so, to that end, we break from our carefully designed lecture with a sincere question to the group, a conversation, a writing exercise, a physical exercise related to the writing. We reach with our arms as we reach for our words. We “dig” as well as “delve.” We acknowledge that words have muscles: prestidigitationoily, lull. . . aby. We may ask our students, no matter how old they are, to wither, bloom, curl, uncurl, flop. In essence, we feel the words, and in so doing begin to know the importance of choosing the right ones. We ask that everyone close his or her eyes and repeat words like crash, plunk, slither, warble. We remember together the importance of sound in writing, and then of rhythm, of stopping and starting. Nothing is too silly if it works, and a flexible, varied approach seems to work much better than a lecture about the importance of muscularity, sound, and rhythm, as well as sense, to make one’s writing roar.

All of the above may seem obvious.Yet if you attend any section of an MLA (Modern Language Association) conference or even the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs)conference/bookfair, you will find a great proportion of presenters boring one another, seemingly in an effort to impress, by lecturing instead of demonstrating by example the chaos, confusion, energy, and uncertainty of the classroom we choose to inhabit and make productive.

I do not claim to have a mainline to creativity. What works in one class falls flat in another. Each group seems to have its own character, just as each student his or hers. This composite of personalities, of those with you and agin you, the trusting and the hostile, the writers and the analyzers, shifts proportions and demonstrates that perhaps the only thing of which we can be certain is uncertainty. Rather than finding that fact depressing, we might welcome it, finding uncertainty, chaos, and confusion both a stimulation and a welcome challenge.

Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms.  Her most recent book is From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.

Image: Alpha Stock Images,


Review: EDUCATED: A MEMOIR by Tara Westover

by Helen Patterson

Tara Westover was born to fanatically devout parents who spent most of their lives preparing for the apocalypse and the subsequent collapse of civilization. She and her siblings had little formal primary education and went untreated for serious, life-threatening injuries because of her parents’ belief that the government, school system, and all of medicine were embroiled in conspiracies. After leaving home and studying at Brigham Young University (B.A., 2008) and Cambridge (M.Phil., Trinity College, 2009; Ph.D. in history, 2014), Westover wrote Educated: A Memoir about her experience growing up, and away from, her family.

Educated-Tar Westover

Religion and fanaticism are constant themes in this book, but Westover makes clear from the author’s note at the beginning that “This story is not about Mormonism. Neither is it about any other form of religious belief. In it there are many types of people, some believers, some not; some kind, some not. The author disputes any correlation, positive or negative, between the two.” Taking these words to heart is fundamental for understanding what Westover is trying to accomplish with the book. She is not attacking religion or Mormonism, and what she presents is not a morality tale or a conversion (or deconversion) narrative. The deeply personal nature of faith means it cannot be inherently good or evil; it is human. Anyone who reads Educated without taking this message to heart will miss the depth and richness of Westover’s book and her experiences.

Abuse and hardship have run throughout Westover’s life. The physical toll of working in her father’s junkyard, the debilitating injuries from multiple car accidents and third-degree burns, and the constant, grinding hardship of near-poverty are always with her. More dangerous is her unpredictable father, prone to fits of rage when his authority and religious dogma are questioned. Most dangerous, perhaps, is Tara’s brother, Shawn, who belittles and shames her, concusses her, holds her head underwater in the toilet multiple times, and breaks her wrist. Shawn drives a wedge between her and the rest of the family. He also drives a wedge inside her mind, making her ashamed and doubtful of her reason even as she succeeds academically.

In memoir, there is always the peril of falsehood. For Westover, memory—specifically, whose memories are “true”—becomes a battleground. Her abusive brother Shawn denies that he ever hurt her and reframes their every encounter so that she was the one at fault. He sways their parents to his side, and eventually this forces an ultimatum from their father: She can recant her own memories, renounce her willful, secular self, and return to the family. Alternatively, she can deny this grace, this way back into the fold, and stand by the veracity of her experience and emotions and lose her family.

Westover’s choice is difficult, but not impossible. She realizes that “Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. . . . If I yielded now . . . I would lose custody of my own mind” (304). For Westover, this is what it means to become educated: you gain your own mind and become your own person. You choose your own truth. When Westover stands up for her selfhood and denies her father, she is doing what every healthy adult does, though for many of us the stakes are lower.

While no review can do full justice to a person’s life story, I hope this one encourages readers to give Westover’s Educated the attention is deserves.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.