English 521:
Composition Theory and Pedagogy

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Personal Essay


by Jenna Griffin Mulford


Dr. Michael DeBakey is a cardiothoracic surgeon. He was my hero. He may well still be, even though he is a throw-back to the days when I was more concerned about science than symbolism.

They say in the Chinese proverbs that "if you don't change direction you will end up where you are going." I have come to believe that this is true, and that most of the time we didn't want to go where we were headed anyway. New paths that come to fruition, "digressions" that become the assertions you are trying to make, aren't really digressions at all. They are, instead, the appearance of your "whole point" (Elbow 10). I don't know what my point is, really. Maybe I am waiting for a brilliant digression. It is a digression that brought me to this crazy craft of writing in the first place.

I can tell you that Michael DeBakey is a pioneer in the field of heart surgery. His work saw the first artificial heart from the drawing board to the operating table. I can tell you facts because I actually looked them up for a high school English paper back in the day when papers weren't about insight, but rather people and places and all those objective matters. I wrote to Michael DeBakey and got a form letter and a whole bunch of information about his life and trials that they send to other freaks who want to be cardiothoracic surgeons at one point or another. I still have that information somewhere, tucked away with the caduceus my brother bought me when I graduated from high school and entered college as a pre-med student.

They say that focusing on "x" will often lead you to discover "y,"which is exactly what happened. While I was toiling all those hours applying to pre-med programs all over the country, I was also spending an hour a day with a woman who was letting me explore the world of words. And as I spent more and more time trying to gain acceptance in a number of pre-med programs, I was making myself more of the writer that eventually abandoned science to be. I was spending all this time writing admissions letters to people telling them why it was essential for me to open up the hearts of the sick and heal them.

Now I realize that the heart-sick are not always curable by a new heart or a Dacron tube. Instead, there are mysteries of the heart that can be cured through the words of another. Therein lay my new love. Yes, I spent much time working on the craft of a persuasive essay "why I need to go to school XYZ and become a doctor," but it wasn't until my first semester at college, enrolled as a pre-med student, that I let myself abandon the study of the diagram of the heart and shift my focus to the silent and intangible processes of the heart that make the world go round- or make the world seem like it has ceased going round. Love, heartache, murder. These things stirred inside me a curiosity I had never felt before.

My change-of-heart weighs on the shoulders of my A.P. English teacher senior year of high school. Paula Roy let me be a reader-writer. My definition of reader-writer being that insatiable urge to read followed be a reactionary writing process wherein I delve into my impressions and suggestions regarding the book. She didn't force me to be a reader-writer, but she bore me into the world of reading-writing.

On the first day of school she handed a spiral notebook to each member of the class. Those seventy blank pages were to become our Bibles for the course. Each one of us created our own different guidebook. Each class started with a reaction to some poem or idea, some song or picture that we eventually tied into the course readings. The course was based less on syntax and the funnel paragraph (dread the funnel paragraph, die, die, die) and more on how we felt about the books. Through the carelessness of Paula Roy, we abandoned the distracting editing-while-you-write process which is, I now believe, a counter-process. Carelessness is a word chosen with much thought, as that is what it took for myself to reach the level of writing that I have. It wasn't that Paula didn't care about what we produced. Conversely, she cared so much that she left us without much instruction. She wanted the raw elements of her students, and tried her best to "un-teach" us into writing freely. It took us a while to write without distraction, as we were so trained in the editing-writing process that getting a word out of us was like drawing blood from a stone. Eventually though, I learned to express myself in a way I never thought possible. A way I wanted to keep exploring. I began to un-learn the rules and re-learn myself.

I was always a reader, and became a writer through Paula's process. She encouraged me to be reactionary without instructing me how. She let me stray away from the who, what, where, when, and why of the previous years of writing and begin to relish writing as life guide, savior and sensory delight.

Throwing off the conventions of process brought me to a different level of thinking and writing. I learned to strip away the expectations of what was to appear on the paper. My very structured way of planning and writing grew to a more scattered process of free and reactionary writing. It seems backwards, but the idea that I was going to "create" something, anything, was enough to get the writing ball rolling. The papers I began to write were less "Anne Hathaway, Her Life and Times" and more projections of myself.

I had spent years yearning to express myself in words, but was afraid that no one would care what I had to say, I was so focused on the audience that I didn't even let myself express my own thoughts about the world around me. And when you are in school, these books and courses are the world around you. I realize now that I write for me, because so many experiences in life are universal. When I write for myself I am writing for others, too.

I was fighting with the craft for so long because I was taught at an early age to edit while I produced, but as soon as Paula Roy took away my safety net I began to take more risks in my writing than I ever had before. I discovered writing in a special way that made me end up in a place wholly opposite from where I was headed. And I love it here. Here I learned the craft that makes me more useful at the typewriter than the operating table.


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