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Theodore Roussel: Portrait of Myself (1901)

"Teacher, teach thyself."

What sort of book have I written? What does this manuscript aspire to become, and what have I achieved by creating it? These questions dominate my internal dialogue as I listen to this almost-finished work for the very first time after spending months producing it. The story–the narrative arc—seems familiar but not overwhelmingly so. I only sometimes know where each story's going from its beginning, for I seem to have been blessed with a remarkably short memory. Each story's conclusions also seem familiar, though I often feel that I hadn't previously recognized some aspects. I often think the endings, in particular, exhibit a certain eloquence, a sense of accurately summing up something, but what am I reading? Fiction or non? Biography or vanity? Gibberish or wisdom or some tragic combination of the two?

The work seems just fictional enough to hold attention, though I based most of the stories upon actual events, however embellished.
They don't always seem to sum to believable fiction, so they must be true, or truer, at least, than entirely false. I seem to have written them in some kind of earnest. Upon what was that earnestness based? Who was my target audience, and what message was I attempting to send in their direction? Was my goal simple diversion or something more profound, perhaps even sinister? As I near a third of the way through my first listening, it occurs to me that I'm attending a christening. I baptize the work in breath and voice and thereby immerse myself in it for the very first time ever. Who's baptizing whom, though? My mind wanders, and I realize I am learning about myself by listening to these stories. I seem to be TeachingMyself something!

As astonishing as this realization seems, it carries an unmistakable authenticity, for I remain primarily ignorant and ill-informed. I was never much of a student, my mind wandering at the pace of instruction, either lost in the dust or so far ahead of the teacher that their narrative couldn't reach me. Where was I supposed to attend the classes intended to teach me about myself, and who might have even been qualified to create the course and present the material? Only I could have ever become qualified to teach this student this particular curriculum. The writing of this manuscript amounted to course creation. The finished manuscript's reading amounts to the course's pilot teaching. I seem to be TeachingMyself.

TeachingMyself what, precisely? Nothing terribly precise, for one does not learn about oneself through precision instruction but by inquiry. One asks oneself questions without anticipating precise answers. The responses might seem rambling, often heading around the block to arrive somewhere continually surprising. Never the same place once. The quality of this manuscript includes this ability to contain ambiguity, to mean something different upon reflection than it suggested on first listening. I was concerned about the lack of deliberate plotting, but such dialogue should not follow a narrow narrative but broader pathways. The book might be best described as a work of Friction, neither fiction nor non-, but a definite provocation. It purports to investigate Success, but the tour guide admits up front that he's no expert in the subject. Instead, he provides subjective analysis, intended to discover and teach himself about more and different than merely his subject.

I feel intrigued without understanding who else might find me TeachingMyself very interesting. Might a reader find the technique intriguing? Could a few readers recognize their universals lurking within the material? Or, might this manuscript be particularly well-suited for a mass market of one, a single copy sufficient to service the broadest extent of its natural market, destined for leather binding and vellum, a book of spells or curses unintelligible to anyone but its original owner? Who knows? More importantly, who cares? I'm just an undergraduate studying myself while TeachingMyself, too, an unlikely and probably impossible pair. Yet here I sit, trying my best to absorb the material as the student, my inner author both the creator and the instructor. The teacher might learn more about his subject than his most attentive and dedicated student. Teacher, teach thyself, I guess.

©2023 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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