Learning to inkshed: Learning to belong

Miriam Horne
McGill University

When my students are feeling nervous and anxious on the first day of classes, or about an oral presentation they have to do, I talk to them about nerves and about being shy. I leave them incredulous when I tell them that I am shy. Despite the fact that I can stand in front of a group of people and speak with little effort, if I am inside that same group of people and asked to be a regular participant, I shrivel inside myself. It seems odd then that I have taken so passionately to inkshedding -- for both the activity and the community invoke the anxiety that breeds with my shyness. Yet inkshedding and Inkshed also manage to pull me out of my shell and give me a place to belong. When I first began looking at inkshedding for my PhD research, I wanted to know why it worked. I think that somehow I believed I would uncover a magical formula that would inspire composition instructors the world over. I have found, instead, an understanding of my relationship with the activity and the community. They teach me how, and give me a place to belong.

My first inkshedding experience came in one of my first courses at McGill as a masters' student. I was in the midst of the terrible loneliness that accompanies moving to a new city and taking on something new, a broken heart, and general insecurities about my abilities to meet the demands of graduate school. One of my elective courses was "Writing across the curriculum" with Anthony Paré. For comfort's sake, he held the class in the basement of Thomson House (the graduate student club) where we sat in small groups around tables. (This was, in fact, not very comfortable for me since it meant I had to actually participate in conversations instead of remaining quietly anonymous.) After a few weeks of the course I was just beginning to participate in small group discussions and talk to people during the break and before class. One evening Anthony came to class and asked us to do a freewrite in response to an article he had given us to read by Pat Sadowy (if memory serves, it was about getting students to write more and getting around the problem of correction and meaningful feedback by training TA's to give feedback). To sit in class and write a response to this article sent me into a cold sweat. A knot of fear took over my stomach. What if I didn't write the "right" thing? The intimidation of the blank page was tremendous. At least at home I had privacy for my insecurity. I didn't have the luxury of talking to myself, visiting the refrigerator or other such strategies I was used to at home. In this setting, others would actually see me write. Somehow that carried an added burden. I needed to write something significant. I drew on the only weapon that had protected me as a student, to be a critic. Based on everything I knew about being a TA as an undergraduate, I found everything wrong with Sadowy's article I could, and filled my page with criticisms.

While intuitively I realized that some purpose for this in-class writing had to exist, the discomfort of the writing task encompassed me too much to think of anything but writing. But once Anthony explained what we were to do with our texts, the writing part seemed miniscule. The monumental task that he asked us to do, that sent me into a virtual panic, was to take what we had written and pass it two people to the right. He explained that we were to read each other's texts, mark anything that stood out to us with a line in the margin, and then pass the paper on doing the same thing with other papers until ours returned. My panic now stemmed not just from my insecurities about writing, but also from an irrational fear I had of people reading my writing (much like how most people respond to public speaking) especially in front of me where there was no way to hide. I felt that my classmates were sure to laugh at me and realize my terrible secret: I wasn't really good enough to be there with them. Under the circumstances, however, I had no choice but to comply and pass my paper on. I focused on the paper in front of me and tried not to follow the progress of my paper around the table. In doing so, I noticed two things. First, the discomfort of some of the other students matched my own. I received the writing from my colleague beside me with an apology from her that had she known it would be read she would have written something better. Around the table there were squirms and giggles of discomfort as papers were passed two people to the right. I was not alone. Second, I was so uncomfortable at having my writing read that I found I was reading with a great deal more sympathy and attentiveness to what worked in these particular texts than I might otherwise have had. To that point, I had been extremely critical of everything I was reading for classes: my weapon. It was, after all, easier to critique than to say something new that might be wrong. But in this reading and writing activity, I found that I was not reading to be critical, but reading to make connections and support those in anguish like me.

I don't remember Anthony using the term at the time, but I now understand this activity is known as inkshedding. The experience stayed with me. Such trauma is not easily forgotten. Yet it is not so much the trauma I remember now, as the fact that I lived through it. Despite my discomfort, I pushed through. Someone on "the Wall" (part of a collaborative retrospective at Inkshed 20) wrote, "You/one can feel outside of the subtle tightness of inkshedding. It takes confidence to take part." Indeed, this is the insecurity I felt with all my writing that I was on the outside. But somehow, because of the structure of the inkshed activity, I pushed through and took part.

In the end, inkshedding pushed me so far out of my original realm and came to be so much a part of me that I chose to pursue a study of it for my PhD. I was, however, unprepared for the other Inkshed I would meet in this pursuit, and realize that my experience was the same: fear -- fear of the blank page, fear of the reader , fear of jumping in, and realizing the reward at the end. At the start of my PhD process, I thought that inkshedding referred to the activity I have described in which students respond in a freewrite to a text and then pass their writing around. Students respond to each other's writings. But inkshed also refers to a group of people who practice inkshedding. After deciding to study what I originally thought was the act of inkshedding for my PhD, I realized that I would have to meet people in this community, attend their conferences, and try to understand their connection with the action of inkshedding.

That fear of the blank page, the unknown, the joining in a conversation almost overwhelmed me, and I thought about giving up the whole endeavor before it really began. Before attending my first conference I spoke to Anthony about my fear of approaching and attempting to join CASLL. I explained that all my experience and all my knowledge about this group of people told me that they would be nice to me, but I was petrified. He laughed and told me that it would be fine. He said that some people had described certain people in the group as "tweed jackets," but that it was really an anti-conference I was going to. He waxed a little romantic about walks in the woods, long talks, and other wonderful things. But to myself I remained skeptical thinking, "Sure, that's fine if you happen to be Anthony Par‚, but this is me!" Nevertheless, I packed my bags and headed off.

I can still remember the anxious knot in my stomach as I neared the Inn where the conference was to be held. How on earth was I going to do this! I checked into the hotel. The folders and bags for the conference were all set out on a table, but there was no one in sight, so I gathered my things and headed for my room. As I walked down the hall I saw a man and a woman coming from the opposite direction. When they got near enough I realized the man's nametag said Russ Hunt. Now I had had pleasant email contact with Russ already; I knew I would need to get to know him and that he would be an invaluable source in my research. But at that particular moment I wanted to walk right on by and pretend I didn't know him (after all, I didn't really know him yet). It took all my courage in that split second decision to take the text already created by my entry into the PhD program and throw it into "the pot" to be read by all. I introduced myself. "Nice to meet you" he said.

After sitting in my room for a while and feeling anxious, I ate a huge chocolate bar to soothe my nerves, then I forced myself to knock on the door of the adjoining room and ask my next door neighbour (who I met briefly and with great discomfort when walking into my room) if she wanted to go down to supper together. She agreed (to my great relief) and we headed back to the main building of the inn. On our walk down I learned that this was her first time at an Inkshed conference too, and got the impression that she was just as uncomfortable in joining this conversation as I was. I was glad to know I wasn't the only one. We arrived at the main building and found a group of people congregated on the patio outside. We walked out to the group.

In my limited experience with professional and academic conferences, it is easy to remain anonymous. You can go and never talk to anyone. If you slip away or miss a session, no one will notice your absence. Not so at Inkshed. When we walked onto the patio a woman came rushing up to us saying we didn't have updated schedules and passed them on to us. We found a place to sit and all the people in the vicinity introduced themselves and asked about us. Yes, I felt awkward, but I was impressed by the effort and made an effort myself.

Shortly after we arrived and were chatting, Ann Beer arrived. Ann is a long time inkshedder and one of the people in whose class I have shed ink. With her coming an interesting thing happened and I don't know how it would have played out had she not been there. But as she was bustling around greeting people who were around me, she introduced me to them again not as Miriam from Concordia (as I had been identified, since that's what my nametag said) but as Miriam who is doing her PhD on Inkshedding with Anthony. By the time we went into the dining room twenty minutes later I was meeting new people who responded, "oh, you're the one doing your PhD on inkshedding." Her introductions ensured I was in the pot, where my timid greetings may not have ensured this so early in my inkshed community experience.

I found the introduction to the inkshed community much like my experience with the inkshed activity. I had to first create a text face the blank page. Then I had to throw it into the pot to the mercies of the group. The text that arrived at the conference that day was me, created, informed, and written on by my life experience in general and more specifically by my new PhD pursuit. When I embarked on my study, I knew I would be "read" frightening, but had to happen. Arriving at the Inn and registering I threw myself in the pot to be read, to read others, and to await the outcome.

The night that I sat so miserably in Anthony's classroom reading other people's texts with respect and interest, they were doing the same to mine. My text went around the table, classmates read it, interacted with it, and arrived at an understanding. As Bakhtin describes, the language was negotiated through writer, text and reader and the parts that had meaning stood out with the markings. Today, I don't remember what the markings on my page were, exactly, but I remember a sense of surprise at the respect and communication that took place. My miserable discomfort changed to relief, surprise, and pleasant satisfaction. Sumara (1998) writes about marking of a text and how a text can equally mark the reader. I think this reciprocity is true of inkshedding also. Just as my inkshed text in Anthony's class circulated to be read and marked, the text of Miriam circulated, was read and marked on in the Inkshed community so that I left the conference in a very different way than I arrived.

The second day of the conference, I attended sessions, met new people, continued to be introduced to people, and inkshed with people. Inkshedding with people who were the voices behind so much of what I was reading made the inkshed experience even more intimidating these were the "real" voices in the conversation. How could I inkshed with them? My fears had to be sidelined. I inkshed. After a session on story telling I found that my inkshed touched on many of the same feelings as others at my table the struggle between boundaries of being a "teacher" and the humanness that requires human interaction. I felt connected with my group. At another session I found myself inkshedding with Russ Hunt. I was really nervous about that one, especially because I found one of the presenters surprising in what he said, almost antithetical to what I believed about writing. Had I misunderstood? Was I doing something wrong? I didn't know how to inkshed about his presentation. I didn't want to write anything that might be "wrong" that Russ would read. So I didn't write about that presentation only the two others that went in the same ninety-minute period. I saw what Russ wrote. He mirrored what I had thought. My thoughts were validated.

Inkshedding was only one of the ways I was marked during my circulation. The second night of the conference, we were surprised with free time. To my amazement I found myself (as Anthony had promised) on a long walk in the woods deeply engaged in a conversation about the educational system in the Ukraine, its struggle since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the volunteers teaching there. Later that evening amidst scrabble and beer, I was even invited to join two "old timers" in their walk.

On Saturday morning I started down to the main building on my own. One of the organizers was quite a way ahead of me. To my surprise, she stopped and waited for me to catch up. We talked about inkshedding. When she opened the session later that morning she began with "we need to inkshed more so Miriam can see how it's done." I felt again like the text that had been singled out.

One of the most powerful markings on me took place on Saturday night. We all boarded an old yellow school bus and drove to one of the participant's homes for dinner. Amid the wine, beer and mineral water, I mingled and grazed. I watched how one participant repeatedly isolated himself from the rest of the group by physically moving apart and how others continued to keep him in the group by occasionally pulling him into the conversations going on around him. I sat and swapped stories of schooling, mothering, and feelings about inkshedding. This was followed by a talent show another aspect of the conference that sets it apart from traditional academia. I was roaring with laughter with the rest of the group as Roger Graves -- PhD, keynote speaker of the conference -- mimicked Red Green teaching writing, community jokes that only inkshedders would know. I cheered with the others at a gymnastics routine. I can still envision the image of an iguana created in my mind by a poem recited about a teaching experience.

And then came Susan Drain.

First she decried war in a way that reflected an era I was a generation too late to be part of, but always felt I belonged to. Then she sang. And after a few lines she had us all holding hands and singing with her, "last night I dreamed the strangest dream "

In order to understand the experience and the profundity of the moment, I think I need to explain a little about my own life experience which is inextricably bound with how I have come to experience the whole. I was born and raised in a liberal but fully active Mormon family. As a result of my participation in this religious community, I grew up with an absolutist position on life. Right and wrong were supposed to be black and white, and the nature of God was clearly defined and true. As I said, mine was a liberal family at least, intellectually. This meant that I had a lot of questions and often was left unsatisfied but quiet about the nature of my faith. Not until life began to happen to me as an adult did I begin to understand the concepts of social constructionism which are so antithetical to the absolutist community to which I belong. With this background, understand too that specific feelings and experiences that I related to those particular feelings were identified by my religious training as "spiritual." These "spiritual" experiences are given to somehow testify of God, or some aspect of God. Therefore, any occurrence of these particular feelings that had been defined as spiritual was a manifestation of the truth of God. All my spiritual experiences, while varied, took place within some kind of Mormon related context. Therefore, these experiences manifested the truth of the Mormon experience and therefore the truth of the Mormon God.

On that Saturday night as I sat in a crowded living room holding hands with a group of slightly intoxicated intellectuals, the feelings I had were welcome and familiar, but completely unexpected and out of context. Yet, it was no less a spiritual experience than other experiences of the same nature, even if there was no Mormon in sight. How to explain or describe the feelings that made the experiences so spiritual? Impossible to put into words, but it gave me new insight on spiritual experiences. (Of course it has taken a year since mulling over this to figure it out.) It's no longer (for me) about manifesting or witnessing the truth of something. There's too much implication there for a static and unchanging truth which is really culturally defined. But what I have come to realize on my reflection of this and other spiritual experiences is that they have all been a reminder to me that I am part of something, I am not an isolated organism, but a part of something much larger than myself. In my journal that night I wrote, "The whole of this group is much larger and significant than any one individual (even Russ Hunt.) I feel I have place here. I feel I belong. The power of the whole is astonishing."

A few weeks after the first inkshedding experience with Anthony, he arrived in class with a stack of Inkshed newsletters. In it were several responses to Pat Sadowy's article. Included was an excerpt from mine. Following was another article by Sadowy responding by name to our responses. Somehow, I had managed to jump into that ongoing conversation. To find my voice. To participate. To my amazement, my voice was heard, recognized and valued. I was part of a conversation larger than myself.

When I left the conference Sunday morning, I was reeling. It took the full six hour drive home to re-emerge into the "real" world. But I took home with me several precious things. First was the assurance that "The Wall" would be passed on to me to do something with. This reflected to me the trust that the community had in me. Second, many hugs from people who were strangers only a few days before showed me that I had managed to join in a conversation. But most of all, I left with the feeling that I was part of something. I had found my place.


Bakhtin, M. M. (1984). Speech genres and other late essays. Ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sumara, D. (1996). Private readings in public. Amsterdam: Peter Lang.

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