Pattie C. S. Burke
Pattie C. S. Burke's story begins right on the book cover with her sketch of women of all ethnicities freely and gracefully expressing themselves in beautiful, individualized dance. It is titled, "We Have Our Own Dance to Do." An accomplished teacher and artist, Pattie has broken through many barriers in her life's journey and now, in her seventh decade, has published her first book, a memoir titled Women and Pedagogy: Education Through Autobiographical Narrative. Using prose, poetry, and drawings, Pattie explores through her own story the inextricable connections between teaching and learning, the ordinary and extraordinary, the familiar and unfamiliar, leaving home and returning home, absence and presence, life and death, war and peace. Her story intersects with her readers. stories in a myriad of ways. Here is a recent conversation with Pattie.
Read Mary Jo's review of Women and Pedagogy: Education Through Autobiographical Narrative for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Mary Jo Doig
Posted on 03/26/2010
One of the things I often hear other writers struggle with, and am experiencing myself in writing memoir, is how to organize the material. Your memoir is comprised of a wonderful variety of genres: poetry, prose, art, and response essays. I found this combination very powerful and I'm wondering how you arrived at using these varied art forms to tell your story.
It wasn't actually planned; it just grew, which made the entire endeavor much more exciting! Art had been a major part of my entire life prior to retirement. At that time, I began writing poetry and stories with the same passion that accompanied my art—as though the art begot the words. Therefore, incorporating some art into the volume felt natural; they are all part of my life story.
I don't want to give the impression that this was easy! I was unsure if any of it would work when I started. My oldest son was the sounding board for my doubts. It went like: "Patrick, should I include this? Is it too much?" and so on. His answer was always the same. "It's your book, Mother. Whatever you do is right.' It didn't take me long to quit asking.
Your title is Women and Pedagogy. My understanding of the word "pedagogy" is "teaching." Yet, after reading your book, my sense is there is a much richer, more multi-dimensional meaning to the word. Tell us your definition of "pedagogy" as it applies to your title and book.
Your understanding is correct. In fact, I considered using the word "teaching" until I searched Google and found that "Women and Teaching" was already in use. Therefore, the word "pedagogy" became a practical solution as well as an aesthetic solution that I have internalized. I love the word!
You are also correct in sensing more to the word choice: A few years ago I attended the Curriculum and Pedagogy Conference in Marble Falls, Texas, where I presented a reading from some of my stories. Through discussions that followed and presentations by others, I began to appreciate the importance that curriculum scholars place on autobiography in the classroom as well as in life. And for me, the word "pedagogy" also encompasses this life-writing method of teaching.
Do you devote a certain amount of time each day to writing or artwork? If so, do you have a certain time and/or place where you do so?
I am on the computer the better part of the day when at home. Most of the daytime writing is necessary business and personal e-mails. Late night is when the creative bug bites best! My desks, books, files, and computer paraphernalia are all in one room with a bed. (Don't let anyone tell you that this doesn't work!) I can be completely lost in writing until about 2am or later—whenever I feel sleepy—and fall into bed. If the phone rings in the mornings before 10, I will growl!
You and your sons found unexpected gifts during the writing of your book. Please share a few examples with us. Did the writing of your memoir change you in any significant way?
As verbose as I can be at times when I talk about my boys, this question has left me with a restrictive lump in my throat. Maybe some day I will be able to share to the extent this answer requires; for now, I can tell you that writing this memoir has given me an appreciation for the fullness of my life and for those who have been a part of that life, especially my sons.
What was the hardest part of your writing and publishing process? Was there any part that was easier than you'd expected? Did you experience any surprises?
The introduction was the most time-consuming. Although autobiographical, it required more research. The most tedious part was trying to work through all of the editor's queries, especially the ones concerning the Response Essays that followed my stories. I was grateful when my son, Patrick, took over part of that chore for me. (He may have been concerned for my sanity at that point!)
I was surprised at the frustration I felt over punctuation—not all punctuation; just commas! I can't say that anything about the whole process was really easy, but it was so satisfying when the words of the stories would flow freely and I could forget the technical stuff!
You give us such a strong sense of place in the book. Has writing about New Orleans given you further insights into how your life was shaped by that time and place?
Oh my, yes! I wallowed in those memories! When you read the story, I Know What it Means, in Part III—Home Is, you will probably see right through to my heart. Open and honest life-writing is a gift bag full of insights!
In addition to the insights discovered in my own writing, I was blessed with the gift of reliving New Orleans through the essays of my boys, Patrick, Kevin, and Billy. I could never have known them as well during those distracting years of extremes as I now know them through their writings.
All told, from beginning to end, how much time was involved in writing and publishing your memoir? From your present vantage point, is there anything you would have done differently?
It was over two years from the time I wrote the book proposal until the April, 2009 book launching. However, I had written several of the poems and stories much earlier and spent many hours revising and re-revising these early works before I felt they were right for the book. (My adult children have dubbed me "perfection-correction.")
I don't have an answer to your second question; it's not in my nature to think about what I might have done differently! I certainly learned a lot from the entire experience, which will be helpful in the future.
Georgia O'Keeffe is one of your favorite artists and is the central figure in your chapter, "Art is Landscape." What drew you so strongly to her work and how has her work influenced your own?
From the time my young boys were in school, and I was able to return to art, I became passionate about interpreting and painting landscape. I spent many hours painting and sketching outdoors with a small group in and around New Orleans. It wasn't until some time later that I discovered Georgia O'Keeffe and her compelling landscape paintings. Her passion for landscape was in her canvasses. She became the landscape. My passion was in the New Orleans landscapes: the cypress-filled swamps and magnificent oak trees with swollen boughs and powerful roots that spread their mighty muscles above and below the purple earth. That's who I was.
Then, in 1975, two months after my husband's death, I went to Abiquiu, New Mexico. I experienced Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings and the landscape that was her own: the mountains, dry waterfalls, bones, and rocks—they all became mine!
What is your hope for this book, the primary reason you decided to write it?
Actually, I started writing before I decided anything. Like many of us who start autobiographical writing, we do it because we have to! I also began reading and sharing my stories with groups. It was very satisfying when women in the group spoke to me about how they were living through many of the same situations that I had faced. I love to know that I am giving others a deeper understanding of their own lives and, hopefully, the incentive to write and share.
As for organizing these stories into a book: I may never have done so if it weren't for my son, Patrick, telling me that I had to do this. Actually, it was more like a command! When he found a publisher for me, I knew that I could complete the book. I had to do it!
The book is finished, Pattie, yet I have the strongest sense that you are still uncovering deeper layers of your story and that process will never stop during your lifetime. Can you envision writing a second memoir?
On the day I completed the book, I knew that I would have to write another memoir. Then, I thought of how much of my life I did not cover in this book and realized that one more book wouldn't be enough! In fact I had been working on some stories that I want to go back to whenever...I guess the answer to your question is yes.
Is there anything else you'd like our readers to know?
Yes, it is important for me to let our readers know that I have an even deeper appreciation than ever for the support and encouragement Story Circle has given me. I am especially grateful to you, Mary Jo, first of all for the generous and professional Story Circle book review you wrote for Amazon.com; secondly, for compiling these challenging, thought provoking interview questions. You forced me to dig even deeper into those unending depths of discovery!