In the effort to teach them to reflect on themselves—and to be open to what arises in that process—I include an exercise called Four Directions for Writing. This is a 20-25 minute free-writing exercise, so I tell students to respond in that manner: just write. If they speak more than one language, which many of my students do, I encourage them to write in whatever language they prefer in the moment. Write in more than one language if you like, I say. Just write something. I also tell them that no one will read their writing. They won't have to turn it in and it won't be graded.
Parsons students often feel relieved by this combination: language freedom, privacy, and producing creative work that will not be evaluated.
The four directions are below. I put them on the board or projector one at a time, and encourage the students to free-write for five minutes per direction:
1. Teach us something.
2. Confess something.
3. Contradict yourself.
4. Forgive yourself.
I usually write along with the students, allowing myself to reflect on what arises within myself when prompted with a direction.
I have come to understand that that the genius is in the order of these directions.
When encouraged to teach us something, the writer assumes a position of knowledge and superiority. The writer knows something that the reader may not know, so perhaps the ego takes over. Pride, arrogance, and confidence may also arise here. The writer can also tap into a choice of selecting what "us" means: the students in the class? Their friends, family, other peers?
But then, when asked to confess something, the writer sinks into herself. She might ask herself what she's done wrong. She might question her motives, might mull over what she said in haste the day before to that guy on the subway. She may have done something vile. Cheated, lied, stole. The self-possession that may have characterized the previous writing in the teach us something phase is often transformed into humility and maybe even shame.
What do the writer really know, though? Like any human, the writer is layered. She is a tangled web of emotions, doubt, unresolved trauma, lingering desires. When prompted to contradict yourself, the writer needs to step out of the humility and potential embarrassment of the previous writing and slide into her complexity. She said that thing or did that other thing, yes, but she really meant something else. She is an amalgam of questions. She has wishes that contradict her experience and deep longings that still exist despite her accumulated wisdom, life experience, and better judgment.
And where does the writer end up? Potentially anywhere. This kind of investigation could devolve into a spiral of self-loathing that I refer to (lovingly) as the vortex of awfulness. The beauty of the last direction, though, is that it pulls the writer toward self-love. Please, writer, forgive yourself. You are human. You fuck up and you make mistakes, even if you don't know they are misguided wrongdoings at the time. You fail. You fail again. You love hard and hurt yourself in the process. You invoke the deepest, saddest part of yourself, infuse it into your work, and it gets laughed at. What can you do? Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself. You must.
Feedback from students is often encouraging. "I didn't really know where I was going with this." "Some stuff came up that I really wasn't expecting." "I feel clearer now."
If writing is, to some extent, being in the moment, four directions of writing asks the writer to investigate whatever comes up in the moment at not just an intellectual level, but an emotional one. The directions also offer the writer a short, experiential glimpse into what it means to be a flawed and promising human, and what it means to struggle and exist, however imperfectly, in a relational world.