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moments with youth

On juxtaposition

In this column for the past eighteen months, seven youth workers and I have been sharing short stories (sketches) about our experiences working with youth. These stories are part of a study (qualitative inquiry) that we are conducting. Our goal in the study is to deepen our understanding of our experiences with youth. As we write our stories, we have also been developing our method of inquiry, Self in Action. We improve our method of research, in other words, as we learn about our experiences.

The study has also reinforced our belief that our stories are interconnected with our stories about our work with youth. A couple months ago, Quinn Wilder, a member of our study group, provided an example of how some of us have been juxtaposing experiences from one moment in time with experiences from another point in time because together these experiences seem to shed light on one another. A moment from our own youth, for example, informs a moment from youth work.

In my own work, this is a process I have been using and trying to understand for several years. For our readers, who are interested in qualitative inquiry, I thought it might be helpful to share a brief description of this process that I am working on for the preface of a manuscript that is almost complete.

Preface: Pavilion: A Portrait of a Youth Worker
"The same or almost the same points were always being approached afresh from different directions and new sketches made. Very many of these were badly drawn or uncharacteristic, marked by all the defects of a weak draftsman. And when they were rejected a number of tolerable ones were left, which now had to be rearranged and cut down, so that if you looked at them you could get a picture of a landscape. Thus the book is really only an album (Wittgenstein, 1951, in preface to Philosophical Investigations, pages unnumbered)."

For several years I tried to draw a tolerable set of sketches about my life and work with troubled youth that I could put in an album. Like my reading of Wittgenstein and other philosophers and poets, there was something about these sketches that I could hear, but did not quite understand — an existential hum perhaps. My sense was that if I could get these sketches to ring true, I would as my friend, colleague, and mentor, Jerome Beker once said, “Hear it deep and look to the questions that do so much to determine the soul of our work.”

Using techniques I learned from literature and qualitative inquiry, I drew and redrew each sketch several times trying to make it look, feel and sound right. Sometimes I broke a sketch down to a line or two. Then I rested and started again, looking for what belonged and didn’t belong.

As I worked, I interpreted the sketches in relationship to what I had learned from literature, art, philosophy, music, psychology and my work with troubled youth. This helped me decide what to leave in and out. But I did not make the interpretations part of the sketches. Like a good story, I wanted a sketch and/or series of sketches to stand for themselves — images that alone or in combination rang true.

I borrowed a note card that short story writer Raymond Carver kept above his desk with following quote from the poet Ezra Pound, “Fundamental accuracy of statement is the sole morality of writing.” I also read novelists, short story writers and playwrights, such as Margueritte Duras, Anton Chekhov, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, and Samuel Becket, who had the ability to create clear, precise images with a few simple words.

In search of my own voice, I read my work to my writing teacher. Hearing the words in anticipation of her response helped me listen. Then, when my lessons were over, I read alone, trying to escape the imaginary audience and please myself.

Once I had drawn several sketches as best as I could, I began to combine and juxtapose them, looking for ways they fit together. A sketch from my childhood, for example, would seem to work with a sketch from a later period of time, or vice versa. Gradually I found myself breaking the sketches into fragments and interspersing them with other fragments because this seemed more consistent with my repeated reflections on the experiences. Rarely did I see a sketch as a whole. Parts of it in combination with parts of other sketches came at me as I was doing one thing or another.

At times it was as if I was looking through a kaleidoscope. As I twisted and turned the fragments in my mind, patterns or themes appeared and became the topics of new drawings. One of the new drawings became a play because that seemed to be the best way to frame the dialog. A few fragments were turned into poems. Many sketches and fragments were dropped. These were either still "badly drawn" after several tries, or simply didn’t fit.

Eventually a central narrative emerged from the few that were left. This was drawn in regular type while the fragments that wove around it were drawn in italics. Seven sketches, each comprised of two or more fragments, and an epilogue remained. All of the fragments were dated. And, finally, since many of my reflections occurred during my daily run, I framed the entire work in a run, which also seemed to provide the correct tempo. What resulted was a self-portrait, a work in progress named after a place I often return to, Pavilion.