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Alternative discourse, "On Being Religious," and the teaching of writing.


A student of Lawrence since my twenty-first year, when I read him for the first time, I am also a teacher of writing (academic as well as creative) and, increasingly, a teacher of university teachers of writing. These parts of my professional life have often pulled me in different directions, most obviously on the multiple occasions when deadlines for work on Lawrence conflicted with dates for completing and circulating university Writing Task Force proposals. (Lawrence almost always lost).

But my work on Lawrence and my work on writing, academic and otherwise, also feel profoundly connected: I need to welcome their complications and competing demands, to acknowledge and maintain their crucial and inter-related complexities in my teaching, research, and administration.

I can identify three major paths diverging or converging, as the case may be, and each September, as I walk through Edmonton's river valley, they even seem to be doing so in a yellow wood. If I were to choose just one, it would make all the difference--but I don't want to. I want to follow all three or at least find out how they might intersect, weave together occasionally, to take me in the direction I want to go.

First Path: Lawrence

I'm a raw North American grad student at University of Kent at Canterbury in the early 70s, trying to write a Ph.D. dissertation on Lawrence. I'm in love with his nonfiction, but puzzled by fellow grad students who refuse to take it seriously, as far as I can tell, primarily because it's lively and fun to read and lacks footnotes. (1) Thus, I choose to work on Lawrence's nonfiction as "art speech"--"the only truth," according to Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature (14)--and on his epistemology, with the help of Michael Polanyi, focusing on the Study of Thomas Hardy as Lawrence's theory of knowledge, a theory that reveals him to be not only capable "of what we ordinarily call thinking" but--pace T. S. Eliot (58)--also prescient in challenging and redefining "what we ordinarily call thinking." (2)

Second Path: Creative Nonfiction

I'm a mid-career academic increasingly writing, reading and teaching creative nonfiction. Working intentionally with The Fourth Genre (the thing itself as well as Robert Root and Michael Steinberg's text) gives me additional ways of theorizing Lawrence's nonfiction as "creative nonfiction"--a problematic term, but one I'll use for now, having listened to my fair share of papers in the past few years devoted either to defining it or suggesting alternative terms. Root's definition of "the nonfiction motive"--"the desire to express, reflect on, and/ or interpret observed, perceived or recollected experience" ("Variations")--certainly applies to Lawrence's writing, as long as I understand "express" broadly to include "art speech," that is, the ability of creative nonfiction to draw on the strategies of any genre in order to render or recreate experience, to give readers experiences to shape and extend their thinking. Creative nonfiction also gives me ways to think about Alt Dis (Alternative Discourse) and the possible role Alt Dis might be able to play in academic discourse, the third area of my professional life.

Third Path: Academic Writing

I'm a specialist in Writing Studies charged with introducing students to university writing and with helping instructors teach academic writing. On this third path, I frequently struggle with conflicting perspectives--valuing, respecting, and benefiting from strong academic writing while tearing my hair out with boredom and despair over mechanical, weak, or unnecessarily turgid academic writing, whether produced by students or by professors, myself included. Often I long not only to integrate the three parts of my professional life, but also--unrealistically--to figure out ways to help my students (and me) write more like Lawrence.

As it turns out, I'm not the only writing teacher out there with this crazy idea. In 2001, Gordon Harvey, then Associate Director of the Expository Writing Program at Harvard, published a short piece suggesting that Lawrence's nonfiction should be studied in first-year writing courses:
   I have students compile, based on the semester so far and my
   comments on their essays, a list of qualities that make for
   persuasive essay writing. These usually include sticking to a
   single thesis; not repeating oneself; having a clear and tight
   progression of thought; supplying concrete facts and evidence for
   claims; being calm, trustworthy, and fair (e.g. by making balanced
   concessions to other viewpoints and qualifying ones' position);
   maintaining a consistent and serious tone; and writing in a way
   that doesn't call attention to itself and especially not to one's
   mood or personality. Lawrence's prose ... doesn't follow these rules.
   And yet one is irresistibly drawn along by it. ... Lawrence's prose
   arguments get much of their power from forbidden sources--from
   being nonreasonable and nontransparent. (236-37).

Harvey, like me, had no magic formula to help students figure out how to access this kind of power in their writing. When students attempted to write like Lawrence, the results could be dreadful--wild, undisciplined, disorganized, ineffective in the extreme. I also worried that encouraging students to try some of Lawrence's strategies would be irresponsible, would mislead students as they tried to face the traditional demands, genre constraints, and discourse community expectations ahead of them in their subsequent years of academic work in their major fields.

Lawrence's nonfiction has received thoughtful attention, from Howard Mills and David Ellis's book-length study in 1988 to shorter explorations of his travel writing, the early philosophical works (Michael Black in 1999, for instance), the literary criticism, the psychology books, Movements in European History, and Lawrence's shorter essays--but it is still his fiction and poetry that receive more serious recognition. Even Lawrence scholars occasionally describe the nonfiction as illogical and irrational (3); Harvey himself, who clearly admires Lawrence's essays, claims they get much of their power from being "nonreasonable."

Converging Paths

Figuring out a way to bring these three paths together in my work wasn't going to be easy. I wasn't doing all that well at figuring out how to integrate creative nonfiction and academic discourse, (4) let alone how to bring Lawrence into the mix. Doing so would require, first of all, articulating an understanding of rationality I could live with, one that could accommodate Lawrence's ways of thinking and working as well as the academy's. It would also require me to identify and describe more clearly various writing strategies of Lawrence's that might be accessible and productive for me, my students, and my colleagues. And it would require more skill than I currently possessed at the multi-genre approaches claimed by Alt Dis--enough skill, if possible, to convince colleagues that some important kinds of intellectual work might even depend on those approaches.

Maybe I was fooling myself, but there did seem to be moments when my students, experimenting with alternatives and trying out various forms of exploratory writing, sounded more alert, mentally agile, and curious. At such times they produced and/or discovered an energy that made them sound, if not like Lawrence, at least more like thinkers--like, as Lawrence put it in his poem "Thought," men and women "in [their] wholeness, wholly attending." I knew I couldn't be the only teacher who was longing to hear that sound and to hear it more often.

Task A: Growing My View of Rationality

In my doctoral dissertation I had relied on Michael Polanyi, scientist turned epistemologist, to help me talk about Lawrence's theory of knowledge. Polanyi had argued, notably in Personal Knowledge and The Tacit Dimension, that we always know more than we can say and that our bodies, our intellectual passions, and our commitments are vital to all thought, indeed that they uphold human knowledge. Polanyi also looked to the history of science to support his view that descriptions of the scientific method usually ignored the crucial moment in significant scientific advances because this moment couldn't be accounted for rationally: the moment of discovery when the working scientist, after years of apprenticeship in his or her field, immersed in the scientific tradition as well as in a particular problem, crossed a logical gap that could never be completely explained in objective terms or in the light of existing scientific knowledge and methodologies.

Polanyi redefined knowledge as something always simultaneously discovered and created, always dependent on social factors and human consensus (to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the field, ranging along a continuum from math to physics to biology to sociology to literature and art), but able to claim a redefined objectivity nevertheless (that is to claim universal validity in spite of inevitable personal elements and limitations). This redefinition allowed me to put Lawrence's view of knowledge into a new context. The Lawrence who writes about human beings as "thought adventurers" vividly described his sense of "thinking at the edge" (a phrase from epistemologist Eugene Gendlin) and "looking at the unknown" (a problem-solving heuristic emphasized by mathematician George Polya) in the early Study of Thomas Hardy:
   I wish we were all like kindled bonfires on the edge of space,
   marking out the advance-posts. What is the aim of
   self-preservation, but to carry us right out to the firing-line;
   there, what is is in contact with what is not. (18-19)

In Polanyi's view, the fact that all knowledge, from the scientific to the religious and artistic, is provisional--that none is definitive--does nothing to undercut true objectivity: "objective knowledge" is marked by its fruitfulness, that is by its ability to lead to further discoveries in the future, discoveries that may indeed extend and even contradict aspects of it. And Polanyi argues that a sense of a theory's potential fruitfulness is something that scientists are carefully trained to ascertain--indeed, that they often base their entire professional lives on highly educated and informed estimations of the fruitfulness of a particular hypothesis or theory. In such an epistemology, a mind is more real than a stone because of its ability to surprise us, to reveal itself in unexpected ways in the future.

Polanyi's work and the writing of his son, John C. Polanyi--a Nobel-prize winning professor of chemistry at University of Toronto--have continued to influence my own evolving theory of knowledge. Then, in the late 1980's, I was introduced to the work of Eugene Gendlin, psychologist and philosopher at the University of Chicago, through Writing Studies (Sondra Perl and Peter Elbow both worked with Gendlin's ideas on felt sense). Gendlin's theory of knowledge supported and extended Polanyi's, especially in his work on the role of the body and of feeling in all thought ("Thinking") and proved especially important in my further understanding of Lawrence. (5)

More recently, I've found confirmation and extension of Polanyi and Gendlin's theories in contemporary research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience on the "new unconscious," also referred to as the "adaptive unconscious." (6) Such work can be seen as enlarging, enriching and complicating our view of both consciousness and the unconscious and doing so in ways that link closely to positions Lawrence developed in his books on psychology. That is, instead of seeing the unconscious as something the conscious mind needs to discipline and control, scientists are more and more describing it as the seat of creativity, the protector of the mind's interests, and the power behind the throne; their research is suggesting that the unconscious is more active, flexible, creative, dynamic, refined, subtle, quick, complex, and spiritual than we had imagined, responsible for many of our most admirable actions and behaviors, our humanity, our rationality and our intelligence. It is capable of problem-solving, narrative construction, emotional reaction, prediction, learning, and judgment.

Consider, for instance, that while the conscious mind can only process (at a liberal estimate) forty pieces of information per second, our senses take in over eleven million pieces of information in the same amount of time. Luckily for us, we make use of much of this data outside of conscious awareness (Wilson 24); indeed, we would be rendered emotional and mental idiots if this were not so, if our adaptive unconscious were not doing much of our thinking for us.

Yet university writing pedagogy, as Harvey underscored above, often continues to encourage student writers, even after bursts of freewriting or brainstorming to get some preliminary ideas jotted down, to be conscious at all costs when they compose, to plan carefully, to organize their ideas and their information in a linear way, to discipline the unconscious or set it aside--to distrust it. No wonder, then, that we discover ourselves wading through stacks of unreadable academic discourse late into the night, vacated prose with no human voice or intellectual commitment in evidence, prose that may be organized mechanically enough on the surface, but that is incoherent at deeper levels.

Do we need to rethink our relentless celebration of conscious skilled order in academic writing? Perhaps our unconscious isn't all that untrustworthy and we need to be trusting it much more and figuring out ways to allow our students to access it, to discover ways that it can nourish, feed into, their academic writing. Most of them, like many of us, only seem able to access it only under the last-minute stress of deadlines, a fact that shouldn't surprise us since the research is showing that under stress, in overload conditions, the unconscious tends to take over a lot of our decision-making.

Another whole essay could be inserted here on possible invention strategies to help students bypass their conscious censors in order to access some of the energy and brilliance of the adaptive unconscious, to get more of it into their writing, (7) but I want to shift gears for moment to focus on Alternative Discourse and the work being done on Alt Dis in the field of composition and rhetoric, especially as it relates to Lawrence. After all, we can't encourage students to explore alternative strategies for writing and thinking if we're not willing to accept those strategies, value them, or recognize them as powerful and effective tools for accomplishing intellectual work.

Task B: Linking Alternative and Academic Discourse

Specialists in the teaching of writing have been working since the mid1970s to change the climate in the academy around academic discourse, with limited success. Lawrence scholars, unless they wear two hats and are also Composition and Rhetoric scholars, may be unaware of the way in which Lawrence's nonfiction has been used as a major example of Alt.Style or Alt Dis, or what Winston Weathers's classic text on the subject, An Alternate Style: Options in Composition, refers to as "Grammar B." Weathers focuses particularly on Studies in Classic American Literature, quoting from "The Spirit of Place" and the chapters on Cooper and Melville repeatedly (9, 20, 29, for instance) to illustrate the power of such nonfiction prose strategies as the list and the refrain (i.e. repetition). In Part II of An Alternate Style--a brief anthology of Grammar B authors from Laurence Sterne on--Weathers reprints Lawrence's essay on "Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance" in its entirety to show how Lawrence "circles and probes; lists and repeats; truncates the paragraph; plays with words; double-voices by way of the questions/answers of an ongoing interior dialogue" to convey the intensity of his convictions (75). Indeed, according to Weathers,
   Lawrence uses Grammar B to communicate more than thesis and
   demonstration; he uses alternate style to communicate his own
   energy, involvement--less to make us agree with him, more to
   provoke us into dealing ourselves with the literary/cultural issues
   he raises. For Lawrence, the alternate style is one of
   display/stimulation--in contrast with Grammar A's
   proposition/proof. (75)

Winston Weathers first wrote about Lawrence's alternate "Grammars of Style" in the January 1976 issue of Freshman English News, including Lawrence in a list of writers such as Sterne, Blake, Whitman, Dickinson, Stein, Joyce, Forster, Dos Passos, Barth, and Barthelme. Eighteen months later, Donald Stewart's essay in College English (8) drew on Weathers's list of Anglo-American authors to present possible alternatives to what Stewart called "rhetorical malnutrition" in contemporary prelim questions and in published literary criticism. Instead of the dominant restrictive organizational paradigm Stewart discovered in his research ("thesis statement, supporting generalizations and examples, conclusion" [122]), Stewart suggested that we should enrich, not replace, our rhetorical options by trying some of the organizational moves Weathers had examined: "the crot labyrinthine sentences and sentence fragments, lists, double-voices, repetitions/repetends/refrains, synchronicity ... and collage/montage" (129).

The crot, "an autonomous unit, characterized by the absence of any transitional devices that might relate it to preceding or subsequent crots," could be as short as one word or as long as several paragraphs. Weathers had identified it in An Alternate Style as "an obsolete word meaning 'bit' or 'fragment' ... given new life by Tom Wolfe [in 1973] in his 'Introduction' to a collection of Esquire magazine fiction, The Secret Life of Our Times, edited by Gordon Lish" (14).

While contemporary writers of creative nonfiction might argue with elements of Weathers's description of the crot (notably his claim that crots are randomly positioned, given the effects regularly created these days in segmented essays by the careful ordering, juxtaposition, accumulation and/or contrast of crots), Weathers's three pages on the crot reveal a rich understanding of its power and possibility. He doesn't identify Lawrence as a creator of crots in particular (he mentions Katherine Anne Porter, E. M. Forster, and--in connection with a collection of aphorisms--Eric Hoffer), but he does list Sea and Sardinia under "Suggested Readings: Toward Grammar B" at the end of his book. Indeed, when the history of creative nonfiction comes to be written, we may well find that the use of segmentation, crots, and white space in Sea and Sardinia makes it one of the first extended nonfiction collages written in English.

Weathers caused something of a stir when his book came out over three decades ago, but we have daily evidence that academic writing hasn't changed significantly as a result. Composition scholars have tried to build on his discussion of Grammar B: Wendy Bishop draws explicitly on Weathers's work in the collection of essays she edited on Elements of Alternate Style: Essays on Writing and Revision (1997); Robert Root in his work on the segmented essay (what he calls the polyptych) has also been trying to open up possibilities for the teaching of writing from first-year comp to creative nonfiction, as have Chris Thaiss and Terry Myers Zawacki in their look at writing across different fields in Engaged Writers and Dynamic Disciplines (2006). Others have followed Weathers in pointing to Lawrence's nonfiction as a possible model for alternative forms of academic writing; see, for instance, the third edition of Toby Fulwiler's College Writing (2002), to which he has added a new chapter entitled "Writing Alternate Style" that uses Lawrence's work as an example of double-voice and collage (185-97).

Building on Weathers's and Stewart's argument that our current default paradigm for "good" writing might in fact be shielding us "from insights which another, less rigid paradigm, might generate" (Stewart 126), Patricia Bizzell, Helen Fox, and Christopher Schroeder, after challenging--in three separate monographs--the hegemony of current paradigms of academic discourse, brought fifteen composition scholars together in Alt Dis: Alternative Discourses and the Academy to argue that new forms of writing "make possible new forms of intellectual work" (Bizzell 5). Indeed, Bizzell claims that certain kinds of intellectual work simply cannot be done without opening up the possibilities of academic discourse and allowing more experimental forms.

In other words, composition scholars are creating a climate in which Lawrence's nonfiction can be read differently, as part of the as-yet-unwritten history of creative nonfiction and the tradition of developing and using certain powerful strategies and effects of the alternate style or Grammar B for all of our thinking (stategies like disjunction, juxtaposition, crots, lists, labyrinthine sentences, fragments, double-voice or polyphony, repetitions and refrains, collage or montage, orthographic schemes and foreign words, language variegation, synchronicity).

It's one thing for Laurence Sterne to be using such strategies in a novel, but "Lawrence moved the alternate style into a prestigious forum, that of literary criticism" (Weathers 75). Weathers sees this happening primarily in Studies in Classic American Literature, but of course Lawrence scholars know that it started at least as early as the long Study of Thomas Hardy that Lawrence took on in 1914 as an assignment to earn some much needed cash; indeed, so necessary to Lawrence's thinking was his characteristic circling and probing, his "pulsing, frictional to-and-fro, which works up to culmination" (as he described it in the Foreword to Women in Love [486]), that he couldn't rein it in even to complete and get paid for a mere 15,000 words on Hardy.

Can we imagine an academy in which all the devices, voices, and strategies of the verbal arts were available to scholars and taken seriously as forms of thinking? An academy in which we were able to use (and mix, as needed) all imaginable genres (poetry, drama, fiction, creative nonfiction, letter, interview, collage, mosaic, segmented essay, business memo, meander, (9) loop, (10) lab report, etc.) to do our work?--that is, to position ourselves at our assigned edge between what is known and what is unknown in our respective fields and then use whatever writing tools were necessary to investigate that boundary and share our findings with others?

Lawrence, of course, couldn't imagine it otherwise. To him, it was obvious that there were certain kinds of thinking we could not do, certain questions we could not explore, using traditional forms of academic discourse. And if an alternative discourse, style, or structure is needed to do the intellectual work we most need and want to do and that our field most needs, then we need to draw on Lawrence's expertise at revealing the mind in action, dynamic, in the process of discovery rather than in the business, as Donald Stewart described it, of "delivering knowledge cold" (125).

Task C: Reading "On Being Religious"

"On Being Religious" is perhaps not the best short essay with which to introduce undergraduates to Lawrence, mainly because religious issues are so problematic in university classrooms, outside Religious Studies departments where students have explicitly chosen to examine religious phenomena and ways of knowing. On the other hand, for that very reason, the piece can highlight memorably Lawrence's strategies, successful and unsuccessful, for trying to think through a risky subject in the presence of a reader, for showing a mind at work.

What challenges or confounds reader expectations in this piece? This seems a good question to start with not just because Lawrence seemed to specialize in startling his readers, but because Michael Polanyi's philosophy of science emphasized the role of surprise as an indicator of reality, of something important going on. Surprise may be the last thing we have learned to expect or hope for in student academic writing (indeed, it is probably the last thing students expect or hope for in a university writing course), but since Alt Dis itself gains some of its power from not meeting our expectations, from surprising us, we should begin with the problematic elements in this piece.

The first is tone. We might expect a serious, respectful, indeed circumspect tone in dealing with such a touchy subject. Lawrence, however, takes exactly the opposite approach, summarily dismissing with his very first sentence a question that has been debated for centuries: "The problem is not, and never was, whether God exists or doesn't exist." He then proceeds to offer as proof for the existence of God our habit of using God's name in vain: God is "connected with our deepest explosions." Using God for curses and swears shows that God's name has power, even for those who claim they don't believe God exists.

By the end of the fifth paragraph, Lawrence has offended just about everyone and we're fully aware where he stands. Out of the four possible positions described--1. There is no God; 2. There is a God (2a is sincere and 2b is sentimental); or 3. I don't know whether there's a God or not--only 2a is worth bothering with (the other options bore the author).

Lawrence's fourth and fifth paragraphs have presented a clear outline (1, 2a, 2b, 3), but lest we settle back for a structured academic discussion, the sixth paragraph presents four auditions or mini-dramas (or four man-in-thestreet interviews), complete with stage directions ("exit," "enter"). True to his decision not to debate the existence of God, Lawrence begins each of the first three auditions not with the question "Do you believe in God?" but instead "How do you believe in God?" He's briefly interested in some uncertainty expressed by the third interviewee, but in the end, all three fail the audition; post World War I, Lawrence has no patience with the three fraudulent formulations offered: that God might equal goodness, love, or tolerance.

If we expect the fourth audition to follow the same pattern, again our expectations are confounded: almost as if he's given up hope of finding what he will eventually call "a true believer," Lawrence seems to have cancelled the auditions. But a fourth fellow accosts him, asks most of the questions, argues with Lawrence, puts him on the spot, calls him a funny customer, and even teases him about his size ("thin enough").

Of course, Lawrence the author is in charge, he's the one making this fourth interviewee more lively and worth paying attention to. But he manages in the process to make the point that the truly interesting character is the one who initiates and surprises and has an alert sense of fun. And because we are surprised and are paying closer attention, we have probably stayed with the essay at least this far and, indeed, have been wide awake for the presentation of Lawrence's most serious point in these four dialogues: that the kind of god Lawrence wants to talk about is not the sort you pray to or use or do something with; the real issue is what God does with us--in Lawrence's case, using him as "the thin ["thin enough"] end of the wedge" (188).

By now we're nearly through one third of the essay and have already encountered several different genres, moving from the standard, non-definitive, meditative philosophical treatise suggested by the title ("On Being Religious") to a sequence of dramas with four different characters (a number of additional characters were never allowed to audition, having been declared boring in paragraph five). We've somehow continued to read on even though we've probably encountered at least a few pronouncements that we completely disagree with (that, for instance, the word "God" has never been defined and cannot be defined; that God exists; that agnostics, atheists, and sentimental believers "bore us even to the death of boredom" [187]), and we've been implicated in these positions by Lawrence's use of the first person plural pronoun ("we" and "us"). Throughout, we've been aware of comedy and a flippant tone that, if we had been consulted, would have struck us as completely inappropriate for such a fraught subject and that probably caused some readers to turn away already, readers for whom humor and religion did not mix.

Obviously, none of these moves are ones we would have advised undergraduates to make in a reflective essay on being religious. By this point, we might want to ask how a reader can figure out how to hear/ interpret this text? Satirically? Ironically? Humorously? Soberly? The answer might be "all of the above and then some"--the reader of this piece will need to be alert and light-footed, able to move from comedy to deep religious feeling and back again in a moment.

If we wonder what appeals there are to authority--what disciplinary conversation this piece might be a part of or which community of inquiry it might be addressed to, if any--the answer becomes even more complicated. The comedy might succeed in drawing in a wide range of readers, including the most insistently non-religious, especially as the spoof develops further in the next few paragraphs:
   The Almighty has vacated the throne, abdicated, climbed down. It's
   no good your looking up into the sky. It's empty. Where the Most
   High used to sit listening to woes, supplications, and repentances,
   there's nothing but a great gap in the empyrean. You can still go
   on praying to that gap, if you like. The Most High has gone out.

   He has climbed down. He has just calmly stepped down the ladder of
   the angels, and is standing behind you. You can go on gazing and
   yearning up the shaft of hollow heaven if you like. The Most High
   just stands behind you, grinning to Himself. (189)

But despite the shock value of Lawrence's describing the fourth mini-drama as "a conversation between two true believers" and of saying that God has abdicated, it's clear that he is also counting on an audience of devout Christians sticking with him. Not simply the biblical echoes throughout ("He picked up His throne and walked" [189]) or the liturgical moves (from antiphon to repetition and refrain) or the sermon-like phrases ("Woe betide you," "So it is," "I tell you," "He is the same today, yesterday, and forever," "salvation through Christ Jesus our Lord") or the familiarity with central theological concepts (the trinity, the prohibition of sinning against the Holy Ghost, the notion of Jesus as the "way to the Father"), but the insistence on the reality of God and on God's power makes Lawrence's inquiry compelling. Lawrence insists that it's not blasphemy to say that God has moved and that Jesus is no longer the way to God, because God can do whatever he wants. Christians would be petty, limiting God's power, if they told God that he had to stay put:
   The Great God departs from the heaven where man has located Him,
   and plumps His throne down somewhere else. Man, being an ass, keeps
   going to the same door to beg for his carrot, even when the Master
   has gone away to another house. The ass keeps on going to the same
   spring, to drink, even when the spring has dried up, and there's
   nothing but clay and hoof-marks. It doesn't occur to him to look
   round, to see where the water has broken out afresh, somewhere
   else, out of some live rock. Habit! God has become a human habit,
   and Man expects the Almighty habitually to lend Himself to it.
   Whereas the Almighty--it's one of His characteristics--won't. (189)

Water breaking out of some live rock, God referred to as "the Great God" or "the Almighty" or "the Lord Everlasting" or "the Most High" or "the Father" or "the Lord God" or "the Lord of time and space"--these are ideas, images, and phrases that do not confound the expectations of devout Christians. Indeed, they do the opposite--they provide comfort and familiarity.

And yet puzzlement in equal measure. How can an author who uses these terms with conviction, who is familiar with the Bible and with central theological concerns ("How shall man put himself into relation to God, into a living relation?" [189-90]), also claim that "Jesus, the Saviour, is no longer our Way of Salvation" (192)? By the time Lawrence moves into the final third of the essay, Jesus, who after all only burst into the piece at the halfway point, has been replaced by the Holy Ghost--who is figured as the "Hound of Heaven":
   Only the Holy Ghost within you can scent the new tracks of the
   Great God across the Cosmos of Creation. The Holy Ghost is the dark
   hound of Heaven whose baying we ought to listen to, as he runs
   ahead into the unknown, tracking the mysterious everlasting
   departing of the Lord God, who is forever departing from us. (191)

At this point, those in the audience who were not Christian, who might have hung around partly because of the comedy in the opening pages and the sense of adventure conveyed in Lawrence's investigation, find themselves drawn more fully into the conversation:
   We've got to find our way to God. From time to time Man wakes up
   and realises that the Lord Almighty has made a great removal, and
   passed over the known horizon. Then starts the frenzy, the howling,
   the despair. Much better listen to the dark hound of Heaven, and
   start off into the dark of the unknown, in search.

   From time to time, the Great God sends a new saviour. ... All of them
   showing the Way of Salvation and of Right. Different Saviours.
   Different Ways of Salvation. ... And the Infinite God, always
   changing, and always the same infinite God, at the end of the
   different Ways.

   [Christ] was the Saviour, and is not. ... Now, for the moment,
   there is no Saviour. (192)

So to which community of inquiry, which discourse community, is this piece addressed? It's clearly not part of a disciplinary conversation in any academic sense; one cannot imagine theologians or scholars in religious studies engaging with it in terms of doctrine or historical and cultural content. The appeals to authority exist, but are completely unconvincing; indeed, they seem spurious and off-hand ("ask any astronomer," "ask any philosopher or theologian," Lawrence says, making it clear that it's not worth his time to collect and present that kind of evidence; readers can do it on their own time, if it matters to them).

Doubtless a reader completely uninterested in or even annoyed by what it might mean to "be religious" would have been warned off by the title. The ideal reader is probably constructed early, in the line that closes the fifth paragraph: "Remains the man who sincerely says: I believe in God. He may still be an interesting fellow." That is, those continuing to read either believe they belong in the category of "interesting fellows" or have decided to rise to the challenge of being dismissed as boring: they are intrigued or antagonized enough to pursue Lawrence's thinking at least long enough to be able to dismiss or disprove it.

Looking at the way the reader is constructed by the use of pronouns reveals a lot of movement between first person plural ("we," "us" and "our") and second person, often within the same sentence or paragraph and usually when Lawrence needs to use the singular first person ("I do not ask you if you know the Way to God. For the moment, we are lost. Let us admit it. None of us knows the way to God" [192]). Most often, he uses the plural first person to align himself with Christian readers ("God Himself said that He would receive us at the end of the road of repentance and love"), but twice he talks about Christians in possible contrast to himself, as in the following passage:
   And nobody will persuade me that the Lord Almighty doesn't roar
   with laughter, seeing all the Christians still rolling their
   imploring eyes to the skies where the hole is, which the Great God
   left when He picked up His throne and walked. (189)

How does Lawrence engage the reader, pull the reader into the text? Partly by continually shifting the reader's position. The reader is at times an ally, a fellow believer who takes these questions about God seriously, and is at other moments surprised, tricked, and/or shocked by having biblical and liturgical phrases turned on their heads ("There is no Way. There is no Word. There is no Light" [192]) and by having traditional beliefs undermined or, more often, by having one traditional belief--like God's absolute power--made to undermine another, like Jesus and love as the path to God.

How do we know where the author is going? It's not clear to me that Lawrence himself knows where he's going. Indeed, the point of the essay seems to be exactly that, that a true believer would be heading off on an adventure into the unknown, unsure of the destination, following "the strange calling" of the Holy Ghost "like a hound on the scent, away in the unmapped wilderness" (192-3). The essay's structure, such as it is, embodies the hunt, makes us participants in it, to convey not only that this lively uncharted movement will be fun ("God's own good fun" [193]), but that it will indeed be toward God ("A dios"--as Lawrence puns in his final paragraph).

I doubt that most readers experience this piece as incoherent or disorganized, despite its lack of obvious cues about sequence or organization. At a deeper level, it's profoundly coherent. And while some readers will grow impatient with Lawrence's characteristic rhythmic repetition (most notably with the overdone references to the pole-star), the constant playful movement in the text will succeed in carrying even most of those impatient readers along. Recurring features or patterns in the text, many of them recognizable Alt Dis strategies--the use of multiple voices, of sentence fragments, of refrain, of lists (especially lists of questions), of disjunction and contradiction, of juxtaposition, of widely variable paragraph lengths, of language variegation (puns, etymologies, curses, foreign words)--increase the sense of playfulness and inventiveness. And the mixing of genres, particularly of dialogues and mini-plays, keeps readers alert, drawing them into brief melodramas of dismay at various points:
   Where is He now? Where is the Great God now? Where has He put His

   We have lost Him! We have lost the Great God! Oh God, Oh God, we
   have lost our Great God! ... Jesus, Jesus, Thou art the Way to the
   Father, to the Lord Everlasting.

   But Jesus shakes his head. (190)

The reader is drawn into this particular mini-drama by the first-person plural pronouns, even into praying (or swearing?) with Lawrence: "Oh God, Oh God. ... Jesus, Jesus."

Although Lawrence doesn't use white space or numbering or section titles or any other typographical device to separate crots or to mark shifts in genre in "On Being Religious," the reader does experience some of the "crazy leaps of logic" Weathers attributes to effective crot use (15). On the whole, however, the essay reads like a continuous linear text with clear transitions from one paragraph to the next; and the nature of some of those transitions ("So it is," "I tell you") suggest the most apt genre description for the whole piece--the sermon.

While there is no church in which one can imagine Lawrence's "On Being Religious" being preached, delightful as such a prospect might be, it's nevertheless true that, as a subgenre of creative nonfiction, the sermon has always claimed the right to do what creative nonfiction sees as its purview: to use elements of all genres, all forms of word play and polyphony, in order to appeal to a wide audience, to render as well as describe experience, and to draw readers in and keep them actively involved. Seen as a bizarre kind of sermon, a performance piece, suddenly Lawrence's pace and tone--as well as the biblical, liturgical, and theological echoes in the piece--make more sense; indeed, the essay is almost exactly the length one would expect for a Sunday sermon in a protestant church. Positioning the reader not just as a believer, but as a believer raised in a Christian tradition makes sense too, especially since that is exactly the audience at which Lawrence's reframing or redefinition of blasphemy is aimed: he is arguing that it is not blasphemy to say God has moved and Christ is no longer the way to God; it is blasphemy to say that God cannot change, that He cannot move.

"On Being Religious" was, of course, not delivered as a public sermon. It was published in the Adelphi, one of a series of six essays planned for 1924 (all of them to have titles starting with the word "On"), a series that never materialized. A decade after the Study of Thomas Hardy fiasco, a piece that was never published in its entirety in Lawrence's lifetime, Lawrence still sometimes failed to follow directions or stick to the plan in order to get a series of nonfiction pieces published and earn some money; as is so often the case, he ends up writing a confessio fidei instead. Repeatedly criticized for sounding too dogmatic, too much like a preacher, even in his fiction and poetry, Lawrence was, nevertheless, often a preacher who could surprise, shock, and entertain, who could make us grin and think at the same time. Writing a good sermon is no laughing matter, even if--perhaps especially if--the sermon succeeds in making us laugh.

At any rate, writing like the Lawrence of "On Being Religious" is obviously not something I can straightforwardly suggest to my students, not only because they want to do the equivalent of getting published and getting paid (they want to earn grades and credit for their work), but because the tone of authority in Lawrence's writing would get them in trouble no matter what the subject matter. Research in writing studies has shown that professors give lower marks to undergraduate writing (especially first-year undergraduate writing) that sounds too authoritative, that doesn't project the appropriate student/apprentice voice. (11) Students with Lawrence's sense of vocation might well get into the same kinds of predicaments Lawrence got into, being told that their writing was unacceptable, even if they were writing about subjects much less fraught than religion.

But aren't these the very issues we should be discussing with students? It's been twenty years since Gerald Graff recommended that we "teach the conflicts" to our undergraduates rather than protect them by pretending that these conflicts don't exist or that we have ready solutions for them. The conflicts we face and need to teach will vary from field to field, but certainly those of us who teach both writing and literature could allow students to glimpse our puzzlement and dismay over the fact that--unless we are teachers of "creative writing"--we don't ourselves write or teach our students to write the kind of imaginative writing we value most and that we spend most of our time reading and studying.

Have I simply arrived, then, at the same position Gordon Harvey described in his 2001 essay?--that is, teaching my students to write one way and then asking them to notice how Lawrence's nonfiction succeeds in capturing and keeping our attention by violating all the guidelines they've been taught to follow?

Integrating Lawrentian and Alt Dis Thinking Strategies into Writing Instruction

Not quite. While I can't in good faith recommend that my students try to write like Lawrence or that they regularly incorporate into their academic nonfiction repertoire elements of Grammar B (like the crot, the list, polyphony, repetition and word play), I can ask that they learn something about the way genre variation and power and expectation function in the academy. I can question the notion that any one set of guidelines can serve their writing, thinking and learning well during their university careers, let alone over a lifetime. I can suggest the possibility that every genre and every verbal strategy should be open to them as they try to think something through, as they take off on thought adventures of their own.

How they decide to write up the results of those adventures after the fact is up to them. Perhaps if, while they do their own exploring, they have the kind of fun Lawrence seemed to be having during his own forays into the unknown, they won't feel too resentful about shifting tone, genre, and register to produce something that comes closer to meeting rather than flaunting academic expectations at the end of the journey.

I can emphasize the useful disjunction that is now fairly standard in composition pedagogy--the separation between exploratory writing (generating ideas, prewriting, sketching, creating rough discovery drafts) and editing (reshaping and revising to meet the needs of a particular audience, purpose and context). The strategies and forms that students use to do their thinking should be entirely their choice; they have much less choice, of course, about what final forms might be acceptable in order to present those ideas to a person who has power over them (a teacher, an examiner, an employer).

When I get to teach creative non-fiction, my students delight in the openness of the genre: they revel in the notion that all forms and techniques are available to them. They can explore and combine, as needed, elements from narrative, anecdote, poetry, drama, fiction of any length and kind from short-short story to graphic novel, interview, letter, prayer, swears and curses, oaths, confessions, sermons, theological treatises (serious and mock), liturgy, incantation, blasphemy, scripture, memoir, biography and autobiography, meander, loop, memo, dialogue, lab report, definition, recipe, cartoon, hypertext, web page, blog, tweet, resume, eulogy--any genre they can imagine or draw on from their experience.

It's never a matter of teaching my students guidelines for these genres--they're more familiar with many of these genres than I am anyway. And it's not a matter of teaching quirky new Alt Dis techniques; after all, any learned technique can become mechanical, depending on the situation. It's more a matter of emphasizing the huge range of choices our language offers, including ones yet to be invented, and then a kind of trust. When my students try out nonstop exploratory writing in class, often in a computer lab, their ability to play with these various forms often results in writing that surprises both them and me, writing that reveals adventurous thinking and feeling. But that writing is not a result of their having mastered a particular genre or technique--it's much more a result of allowing language to help them access what Timothy Wilson calls the "adaptive unconscious," to bypass their conscious censors about what's possible in order to access a level of thinking and coherence that our guidelines for academic writing rarely allow students to bring into play.

No discourse analysis of Lawrence's nonfiction can fully reveal the most essential and remarkable thing about Lawrence's approach to nonfiction writing: his remarkable trust in both language and his own mind (which, in Lawrence's view, included much more than conscious mental processes--it included his senses, his body, his memory, his reading, his culture, and his unconscious). And for Lawrence, writing and thinking, like being religious, either "looks like fun, or it's no go at all" (189).

Of course, I can't just deliver platitudes and tell students that writing should be fun. I'll continue to struggle with the tensions in my teaching, wanting to offer students more choices, wanting them to become more aware of the conflicts their professors struggle with and that the field of Writing Studies itself struggles with, while yet wanting to offer them tools that will help them do well in university in all the traditional ways. I take seriously my students' desire to earn high marks, to graduate in good standing and move on into careers or further study that will enable them to reach their goals. At the same time, I know that both students and faculty wish that the academic writing they're expected to produce or assign along the way could be different--richer, deeper, more pleasurable, more satisfying. If more faculty could see the exploratory writing I see, the writing that shows the student mind at work, struggling to figure something out, rather than "delivering knowledge cold," perhaps they would value it more and would find a place for it in their assignments and in the academy at large. And perhaps students, too, could occasionally risk sharing such pieces with their professors--or at least risk submitting both versions, letting the professors choose which one to mark.

The teacher in me will continue to want students to know two things: that writing and thinking aren't easy, that they take total concentration, investment, commitment, and lots of hard work; and also that all this concentration, investment, commitment and hard work equals--to use Lawrence's word--fun, that is engagement, absorption, happiness, flow (cf. Wilson 144-45). And then a third thing--that in the end, whether we pour ourselves into academic discourse or Alt Dis, whether we chose a traditional genre or an experimental one (or a combination of the two), what will matter most in our thinking and writing is that we be fully present--conscious, unconscious, body, mind, spirit--like Lawrence, in our "wholeness, wholly attending."

Works Cited

Bishop, Wendy, ed. Elements of Alternate Style: Essays on Writing and Revision. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Boynton/Cook, 1997.

Bizzell, Patricia. "The Intellectual Work of 'Mixed' Forms of Academic Discourse." Fox et al. 1-10.

Black, Michael. D. H. Lawrence: The Early Philosophical Works. Cambridge: CUP, 1992.

Brannon, Lil, and C. H. Knoblauch. "On Students' Rights to Their Own Texts: A Model of Teacher Response." College Composition and Communication 33.2 (1982): 157-166.

Elbow, Peter. Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. 1981. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Elbow, Peter, and Pat Belanoff. A Community of Writers. Third Edition. New York: McGraw Hill, 2000.

Eliot, T. S. After Strange Gods. New York: Faber and Faber, 1934.

Ellis, David, and Howard Mills. D. H. Lawrence's Non-Fiction: Art, Thought and Genre. Cambridge: CUP, 1988.

Fox, Helen, Christopher Schroeder, and Patricia Bizzell, eds. Alt Dis: Alternative Discourses and the Academy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Boynton/Cook, 2002.

Fulwiler, Toby. College Writing. Third Edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Boynton/Cook, 2002.

Gendlin, Eugene. "How Philosophy Cannot Appeal to Experience, and How It Can." In Levin 3-41.

--. "Reply to Wallulis." Levin 282-87.

--. "Thinking Beyond Patterns: Body, Language and Situations." The Presence of Feeling in Thought. Eds. B. den Ouden and M. Moen. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.

Graff, Gerald. Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education. New York: Norton, 1992.

Harvey, Gordon. "Lawrence's Poetry and Expository Prose: Writing with Power and the Canons of Composition." In Sargent, M. Elizabeth, and Garry Watson. Approaches to Teaching the Works of D. H. Lawrence. New York: MLA, 2001. 235-237.

Herbert, Michael. Introduction. In D. H. Lawrence's Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays. Cambridge: CUP, 1988. xix-lvii.

Lawrence, D. H. Foreword to Women in Love. 1919. Women in Love. Ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen. Cambridge: CUP, 1987. 485-86.

--. "On Being Religious." 1924. Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays. Ed. Michael Herbert. Cambridge: CUP, 1988. 185-193.

--. Studies in Classic American Literature. 1923. Ed. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen, CUP, 2003. (SCAL)

--. "Study of Thomas Hardy." 1936. Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays. 3-128.

--. Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: CUP, 1985.

--. "Thought." The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence. ed. Vivian de Sola Pinto and F. Warren Roberts. New York: Viking, 1971. 673.

Levin, David Michael, ed. Language Beyond Postmodernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin's Philosophy. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1997.

Paumier Jones, Mary. "Meander." Sargent and Parakevas 311-13.

Perl, Sondra. Felt Sense: Writing with the Body. With CD. Portsmouth: Heinemann Boynton/Cook, 2004.

--. "A Writer's Way of Knowing: Guidelines for Composing." Presence of Mind: Writing and the Domain Beyond the Cognitive. Eds. Alice Glarden Brand and Richard L. Graves. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Boynton/Cook, 1994.

Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. 1958. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.

--. The Tacit Dimension. New York: Doubleday, 1966. Root, Robert. "This is What the Spaces Say." 1993. Sargent and Paraskevas 321-328.

--. "Variations on a Theme of Putting Nonfiction in its Place." Unpublished paper. CCCC, March 23, 2002.

Root, Robert, and Michael Steinberg. The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. 4th Ed. New York: Longman, 2005.

Sargent, M. Elizabeth (see also Wallace, M. Elizabeth). "'Felt Sense' in the Composition Classroom--or, Getting the Butterflies to Fly in Formation." ADE Bulletin (Association of Departments of English) 134-135 (2003): 57-67.

--. "Thinking and Writing from the Body: Eugene Gendlin, D. H. Lawrence and 'The Woman Who Rode Away.'" In Writing the Body in D. H. Lawrence: Essays on Language,Representation, and Sexuality. Ed. Paul Poplawski. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001. 105-118.

--. "Title: See Below pp. 1-2." WOE: Writing on the Edge 18:1 (2007): 45-58.

Sargent, M. Elizabeth, and Cornelia C. Paraskevas. Conversations about Writing: Eavesdropping, Inkshedding, and Joining In. Toronto: Nelson, 2005.

Stewart, Donald. "Rhetorical Malnutrition in Prelim Questions and Literary Criticism." College English (October 1977): reprinted in Weathers, An Alternative Style 121-30.

Thaiss, Chris, and Terry Myers Zawacki. Engaged Writers and Dynamic Disciplines: Research on the Academic Writing Life. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Boynton/Cook, 2006.

Uleman, James S., and John A. Bargh. Unintended Thought. New York: Guilford, 1989.

Uleman, James S., John A. Bargh, and Ran R. Hassin. The New Unconscious. (Oxford Series in Social Cognition and Social Neuroscience). New York: Oxford UP, 2005.

Wallace, M. Elizabeth (see also Sargent, M. Elizabeth). "The Circling Hawk." In The Challenge of D. H. Lawrence. Ed. Michael Squires and Keith Cushman. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. 103-120.

--. "Study of Thomas Hardy: D. H. Lawrence's 'Art Speech' in the Light of Polanyi's Personal Knowledge" Diss. U of Kent, Canterbury, 1974.

Wilson, Timothy D. Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2002.

Weathers, Winston. An Alternate Style: Options in Composition. Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden,1980.

--. "Grammars of Style: New Options in Composition." Freshman English News 4.3 (1976): 1-4, 12-18.


(1.) Lawrence's nonfiction seriously can be risky, if one considers Black's 1992 volume. Curiously, Ellis and Mills, by focusing on the art of Lawrence's nonfiction, make Lawrence seem a much livelier thinker than Black does, by focusing on Lawrence's "philosophy."

(2.) See (under M. Elizabeth Wallace) my "Circling Hawk" (1991) and my unpublished dissertation (1974), "Study of Thomas Hardy: D. H. Lawrence's 'Art Speech' in the Light of Polanyi's Personal Knowledge," which influenced both Steele's work on Lawrence's Study and Mills's essay on the Study (Ellis and Mills).

(3.) See, for instance, Michael Herbert introducing Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, especially liv, lv.

(4.) I recorded my continuing struggle to do so in my 2007 article in WOE: Writing on the Edge.

(5.) See my 2001 piece on "The Woman Who Rode Away."

(6.) See Uleman, Bargh, Hassin, and Wilson.

(7.) See Sargent, "Felt Sense."

(8.) Stewart's essay was reprinted in Weathers's An Alternate Style.

(9.) See Mary Paumier Jones.

(10.) See Elbow, Chapter 8: "The Loop Writing Process," in Writing with Power 59-77.

(11.) See, for example, Brannon and Knoblauch 157-59

Betsy Sargent, University of Alberta, has co-edited Approaches to Teaching the Works of D.H. Lawrence and Conversations About Writing: Eavesdropping, Inkshedding, and Joining In.
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Author:Sargent, Elizabeth
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Date:Mar 22, 2012
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