Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. Even Science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit, and must fix on a point in the stars’ unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is at Nought. His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his; since Science, too, reckons backwards as well as forwards, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought really sets off in medias res. No retrospect will take us to the true beginning; and whether our prologue be in heaven or on earth, it is but a fraction of that all-presupposing fact with which our story sets about.
-George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
We have to start somewhere. Where is the True Beginning, and what does it look like? What did things look like before the beginning? There were no books, no language, no words to describe it. If we cannot describe it, can we only imagine it? And can we go from imagining to knowing? Or does that only lead to more questions? (and is that a problem?) Must we settle for a ‘make-believe’ beginning? Is that going to have to be enough? (and is that a problem?)
It has taken years of experience, both in the classroom and out, for me to learn that the only place I can start is with the fact that I don’t know where to start, either in my own thoughts or standing in front of a group of strangers on the first day of a class about speaking, listening, writing, reading. So much history there, a group of individuals with their own stories, opinions, ideas, questions. Some of them are tired, overburdened with jobs and loan obligations, confused, elated, distracted, in love, heartbroken, maybe a little hung over, any or all. If you hold still enough and let the silence stretch out, you can almost begin to hear beneath it the chaotic, conflicting, agreeing, harmonic buzzing of all of those thoughts. So many lives, sitting in chairs.
So in my hypothetical class (remember this is an imagined hybrid, a cobbled-together thought experiment made of things I’ve done that worked), I start with silence. It’s unnerving for everyone. There’s lots of looking around, phone-checking, fidgeting.
What is it like to sit in silence? What is it like to have no memory, no language, no words? What is it like to sit in prehistory?
Because I am a storyteller, and a reader, and a writer, I think to start with books, then quickly realize that doesn’t go back far enough. Texting? Facebook? That jumps too far ahead. I have to go to cave paintings, the birth of spoken language-what the hell did that look like, anyway?-around-the-fire tales, scraps of spoken epics, cuneiform inscribed clay tablets recording the trades and inventories of ancient commerce, China, Sumer, the ‘Dreamtime’ of the Australian Aborigines in which gods and men roamed the outback, creating crisscrossing paths across its vast expanse, naming its features and speaking them into existence, inscribing them in swirls of dots on crumbling canvases.
Because I am a person who, as Anne Lamott once phrased it, is ‘all of the ages…[I]…have ever been,’ I think to start with birth, when silence ends and noisy life begins.
This has some promise: everyone in this room has being alive in common. They may love to read, or write, or talk, or all three; they may hate it. But all of them have a life, have had a childhood they are preparing to both leave behind and carry with them all their lives.
So, okay, we’ll go with life.
I break the silence, finally, to everyone’s relief, by showing them this:
We are born into a world that already exists, of course, in medias res, which is where all stories begin, but we each must make our own true beginning, take our place in the world by naming it and making it ours: creating it. We do that by reaching out and touching and testing at first, then gesturing, then making noises that eventually shape themselves into words, then with questions, then with imagination and experiments and ideas. In combining all of the above we make a story, and that story becomes the world in which we live. And in those stories are all of the questions and answers and experiments and ideas people have ever had. This class is going to examine some of them, and ask these people in chairs to join the conversation that makes the world.
So let’s start there.
Each Class/Workshop will include an Exercise that can be used either as a class activity or as a homework assignment. They will appear at the end of posts just as this appears: red, centered.
[NOTE: Some posts will include messages to those who might be interested in using this material in the classroom (or anywhere else, for that matter). These will appear at the ends of posts just as this appears: bracketed, italicized, in purple.]
©Melinda Rooney, 2016