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College of Arts and Science

UN546 Journeys: Mapping the Interior

capstone program

Connie Griffin

Adjunct Faculty in English

This course is also offered as EN64601

"And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
—T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Premise

Coming at a time when you find yourself at a crossroads in your life, a significant juncture where the challenge of choosing your future direction faces you with a steady stare, if not glare, this Capstone course offers a brief pause in the midst of life-shaping choices, a calm, still space where you may sort through the complex and often contradictory aspects of your life.

Beginning with your educational experience at Boston College, your relationships, past and present, as well as your sense of identity within the various communities of your life (chosen or not) we will explore questions of personal meaning, value, and purpose as we move toward an understanding of how our personal values might most happily intersect with our engagement with the work of the world.

Rather than impose upon ourselves externally defined goals, we will delve into the multi-faceted self—profoundly solitary and yet intimately relational—on a journey of discovery that will unearth our authentic natures, deepest desires, and (all too often) hidden hopes.

By merging the principles of Zen practice with the art and craft of creative writing we will begin with simplicity and child-like wonder, following our breath (our literal inspiration and expiration) until we drop down into the inner byways of our minds, thoughts, being, breathing, always coming back to the life-force of our breathing. We will begin with silence. We will begin with stillness. We will begin with not knowing.

"How can you know what will be? What will be best in it is what you really do not know now. If you know it all, it would not be creation, but dictation."
—Gertrude Stein

The practice of Zen mind is beginner’s mind; thus, we will attempt to empty our minds of preconceptions, expectations, and the answers to our questions. Virginia Woolf describes this state as one of “active passivity,” essential for the creative productivity. Zen practitioners describe it as being “fully attentive.” Through a synthesis of Zen practice and the mysterious state of creativity, we will begin, not by trying to make something skillful, sophisticated, or specialized, but by writing simply and with our full attention.

"Art is not technology and cannot be mastered, it is endless access to revelatory states of mind."
—Shirley Hazzard

Practice

Drawing on focus techniques, clustering exercises, and journaling, we will use the first five weeks to delve into our personal experiences of the past so that we might more fully comprehend how we have been shaped by our experiences to date. Coming to know ourselves requires returning to the experiences of our childhood, the education of our college years, the relationships that nurture or drain our spirits.

In writing about key people who have touched our lives in the deepest ways, modeling for us a life lived fully and passionately, by exploring our college transcripts as a Rorschach and finding patterns of choice that mirror our seeking selves, by considering our particular place in society, as well as specific contributions we have made that in some small or large way have made a difference, and by searching out our own soul’s spiritual nature, whatever that may be, we will face the future that is the unknown with an attitude of the adventurer, gazing as far as possible down the roads which intersect with our present very limited knowing.

Building on this early coursework, we will enter into a process of community where we become avid listeners for one another, offering “readings” of one another’s works-in-progress. At this point in the semester we will create a writing workshop environment in which participants enact the roles of both writer and reader. We will pay careful attention to the stories of others and, in so doing, we will become more adept at finding the stories in our own telling.

As our stories emerge, we will enter into a re-visionary process that will assist us in moving beyond the “telling” to let the story do its work. This ability to move from participant to observer and back again allows us to enter into a state of witness to our own stories, thus learning from them as we might from any other tale.

In the third and final stage of the semester, we will reflect on our written stories, revitalize our sense of our deepest values, and turn to our plans for the future with greater clarity and purpose. With this in mind students will conclude the semester with a portfolio of four polished pieces and an essay that addresses the questions:

  • What have I made of my life and education to date?;
  • What kind of work in the world will give me personally, the greatest sense of meaning?;
  • What do I, as a citizen of the world, have to contribute to the larger communities of the world that is unique to me?; and
  • How do I define my spirituality and what are the forms through which it might be expressed?

Projects

  • four highly original, well-crafted creative nonfiction pieces, about five pages in length, will be written and significantly revised over the course of the semester – 30%;
  • final essay, presentation, and class discussion addressing the four areas of work, community, relationship, and spirituality will provide an analysis and synthesis of the creative works written earlier in the semester – 30%;
  • written responses to peers’ work will be due over the course of the semester – 15%;
  • active participation in the seminar through weekly written reflections and oral discussion of required readings, sharing one’s work, and being responsive to others – 25%.

Being there

The absence of any member serves as a missing link in the continuity and community of the seminar; therefore, course participants are held accountable for attending all class meetings. Any absence will affect participants’ evaluations. Students are responsible for discussing with the instructor, in advance, any conflict in schedules. It is the student’s responsibility to initiate makeup of any missed work.

Companions along the way: Readings

  • What Should I Do with My Life? Stories of Men and Women Who Answered the Ultimate Question, Po Bronson
  • Choosing Simplicity: Real People Finding Peace and Fulfillment in a Complex World, Linda Breen Pierce
  • Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
  • Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki
  • The Wisdom of No Escape, Pema Chodron
  • Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal, ed. Kitchen and Jones
  • Handouts of short writings (i.e., Mary Oliver, Billy Collins)