Life Itself Is a Quotation


Joe Voigts

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"There is no room for the impurities of literature in an essay." —Virginia Woolf

While teaching composition to international students at DePaul University this past year, I fell into a ritual that I would like to share, a way of making habitual the aim of every language course, a novel path to "entering the conversation" (Graff, 2015, p. xiii). Every class, I write a quotation at the top of the board. Even though my long arms create a minor spectacle, the students may not notice the first time, when I invoke Sinclair Lewis: "Writing is just work—there's no secret. If you dictate or use a pen or type or write with your toes—it's still just work" (as quoted in Lindemann, 2001, p. 10). From there we free write, because "any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop" (Dillard, 1989, p. 15). We workshop, because "[revising] is like cutting your own hair" (Stone in Quotes for Writers, 2015). We revise, because "beginning again and again is a natural thing" (Stein, 1926). We proofread, because "writing is easy.  All you have to do is cross out the wrong words" (Twain, 1876).

I quote, because "truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person; it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction" (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 81). The more disparate the voices I invite into our collective—the more they vary in their register or origin—the more we all feel like Caliph al-Ma'mūn (in Crone & Moreh, 2000, p. 21), who said, "I want to join in, so get me a pot of ink," and less like Kurt Vonnegut (2007), who said, "When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth." "For excellence, the presence of others is always required" (Arendt, 2003, p. 198).

Taken out of context and placed so willfully inexplicably at the start of a lesson, these epigraphs carry with them, just by their mysterious presence, two implicit messages: "there is so much more to a book than just the reading" (Sendak), and “our histories cling to us. We are shaped by where we come from" (Adichie, 2012), even—maybe especially—when we are hard to understand. "I have found it of enormous value when I can permit myself"—and my students—"to understand another person" (Rogers, 1961, p. 18). “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write" (Didion, 1976)—or to read, which "is like conversation with the finest men [and women] of the past centuries” (Descartes, 1637). 

These extracted thoughts do not fit comfortably; "thought[s] may be compared to a cloud shedding a shower of words" (Vygotsky, 1962, p. 72), obscuring the otherwise simple .ppts they ostensibly illustrate. "Life is not a paragraph" (Cummings, 1967). Nor can "the written word ... be defended when misunderstood" (Plato in Freire, 1994, p. 78). And "we [still] have not learned the simple art of living together" (King, 1964). But, "properly conducted, language learning is one of the few occasions in which an adult can go through a deep experience of poverty, of weakness, and of dependence on the good will of another" (Illich, 1971, p. 45). And "the new must be dovetailed into the old as it were, if it were to endure" (Addams, 1910, ch. 15). And when it is, when quotation is woven into text, "writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar" (White in Madden, 2001, p. 475). The chemist turned writer Primo Levi knew firsthand, and I trust him, that "distilling is beautiful" (1984, p. 57).

Whether their relation to the day's lesson veers explicit or esoteric, "there is always something essential that remains outside the written sentence" (Calvino, 1998, p. 98) that pulls students—inevitably noticing I begin each class silently writing—into inquiry. "The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it" (O'Connor, 1970, p. 77), so I try not to dispel their curiosity too directly—unless, of course, they ask. "Wisdom begins in wonder" (Socrates in Plato, 1921, sec. 155d).

Some might argue all this philosophy goes over the heads of freshmen, and of second language learners in particular, but I agree with Thoreau (2004, p. 11) that "we may safely trust a good deal more than we do." In fact, I would take one step beyond him, reach further up onto the whiteboard, and urge, with Paulo Freire (1970, p. 58), that "apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other." "Study is cheered by nothing more than hope" (Quintilian, 1910, p. 107). And "hope is like a path in the countryside.  Originally, there is nothing—but as people walk this way again and again, a path appears" (Lu Xun in Kristof, 2014, p. v).

Joe Voigts teaches in DePaul University's Department of Writing, Rhetoric & Discourse and English Language Academy.

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ITBE Link - Fall 2015 - Volume 43 Number 3