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Introduction: Breaking into Breaking

(photo: Alice Lesnick)


Ways In/Ways Out

Introduction: Breaking into Breaking
Alice Lesnick, 2005

There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.
-- Leonard Cohen, The Future (1992)

. . . [A] reader is a person who puts together fragments.
-- Bartholomae and Petrosky, Ways of Reading (1996)

A place to start:

In the vanguard of the British Rock phenomenon of the 1960’s, Ray Davies of The Kinks used his mother’s knitting needle to break through his amplifier’s speaker and get a strong new buzz, never heard before, to underlie the track. It made a new kind of sense.

I’ve called this sourcebook Breaking because it focuses on the necessity and creativity of the work people do to break bonds, patterns, and histories; break into new thoughts and forms; and in so doing change themselves, what they write and know, and the world. This book is inspired by my life experience as well as 25 years as a teacher of literature, writing, and educational studies. In my personal and professional lives, I have focused on the relation between learning and change, on the ways in which learning is change. I always seem to end up, in life and books, hanging out with someone who broke away: from a crazy family, from convention, addiction, town. Sometimes I have been that one. There is a road, as the Grateful Dead say, no simple highway.

This book is centered on breaking as deliberate, creative rupture. It arises in reaction to an equally strong impulse in the opposite direction. I have long recognized in myself a strong pull to reach across difference and division to make common ground, common cause -- both coaxing people into fellow feeling and away from the isolation of competition or craziness, and putting at a distance anything that locates me fortunately within hierarchies and so enlarge the chance for community.

Having spent a great deal of energy reaching across in these ways, I have come to see how the urge for connection can cheapen, if not ruin, the integrity of distinct forms of life and thought. Although fear should not be wholly discounted as a motive for growth it is not a trusty path to common cause. In this collection, life and writing are reoriented towards connection that does not eclipse difference. This wish -- accompanied by a hope that such connection may usefully inform others’ lives and learning -- is the source of this book.

I’m setting breaking up here as an essential part -- sometimes precondition, sometimes after-effect -- of connection. No yes without the possibility of a no. No new world without a new map of the old. This is about change -- really turning a different way -- in imagination and in action.

Breaking, insofar as it is associated with independence and autonomy, is often described in terms of gender binaries. In fact, these confuse something much deeper and more cross-cutting about the tacking between sociality and singularity. Despite the top billing females get in this struggle, males are not independent of the challenge to integrate voice and relationship, to use Carol Gilligan’s (2002) phrasing. Amid the growing popular understanding of the problem with essentializing gender traits -- seeing them as inborn rather than as performed and challenged through daily interaction -- the image of women as connectors remains strong. Robert Frost’s poem “The Silken Tent” evokes a seductive ideal of this kind of gal, who, as compared with the central cedar pole of a tent, is “loosely bound / By countless silken ties of love and thought / To everything on earth the compass round.”

Yes and no.

* * * *

The last time I saw my mother was the fall of 1991. She died ten years later from complications of mental illness (no treatment for diabetes, congestive heart failure, or loneliness). I found her in a poorly lit ward of Ancora State Mental Hospital in New Jersey. I found her dog in her condominium in Little Egg Township. Her husband, the step-father I had known since I was 12, was in a Florida motel room because that’s as close as she’d let him get. He had called me to pick up the dog. Like some kind of reverse Gretel, I followed a trail from a neighbor who told me she’d had to call the police, to the local precinct office, to the E.R., to the state hospital, where I found my mother, mild and tired. I told her I’d take care of the dog, her accustomed breakfast companion at McDonald’s.

I didn’t know it would be the last time but I had been preparing to give her up. My sister-in-law, a glib psychotherapist, once quipped that my mother was my baby that didn’t thrive. After 25 years of trying to carry her and losing her right along, I set her down -- though that break took years of labor, and not only my own.            

That evening I joined my husband (then my boyfriend) at his apartment for dinner. He cooked me scrambled eggs and toast while we watched The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the kitchen on his black and white TV. It was a lovely time. I didn’t tell him where I’d been and he didn’t ask but he seemed to know.

It could have been her life or mine I broke with and I held on to mine.

At the first break, my parents’ divorce, I held onto theirs. Recently it struck me that “my” divorce not only broke my home but in some sense broke my will to break -- imprinted me to fight breaking. As Sergei Dovlatov, the Russian novelist and memoirist put it, “My parents separated but I stayed on” (1989). What other choice is there? I stayed on with academic rigor, holding the bouquet and the mirror for my parents when each remarried at the start of my adolescence.

I also stayed on call during 25 years of my mother’s ride on the tilt-a-whirl of an intense mental malady -- whether steroid-induced psychosis, an extreme case of bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia we never got clear.            

The first source of this book is in my long loss of my mother and my decision, taken during my late twenties, to stop being in touch with her on her terms -- the only ones she ever worked in; to stop answering the phone and to stop calling. Before, I would never bend to this sorrow; then, I let it break in. I grew up on a kind of suspended deathwatch but then I broke it.

I did not manage this break all on my own. Breaking is seldom solitary or sovereign work. In fact, I believe it is deeply pedagogical and deeply social -- the choice of connection with a different social context than the one broken from. I was helped by an excellent therapist, over several years of hard work on both of our parts. I was helped by friends who shared a world in which more than one set of terms could co-exist vibrantly. In the high school where I was teaching English, I was helped by students and colleagues who gave me space to use language as a source of revision. In fact, the first poems I ever wrote were inspired by my tenth graders’ work. In one of them, composed right after one more awful dinner with my mom, I declared my independence:

The Womanly Arts

As long as you stain it
No cradle of yours will rock me

And while you croon such wicked lullabies
None of their ribbons will soothe me

I will not eat your bloody meat
nor drink the tea you boil from sacred roots

The quilt you stitch outside this circle
I will not ask to comfort me
And I will never seek shelter in the mean wool you spin

Mother, come inside.
Our true names make good bread.


One of my husband’s and my favorite movies is Men in Black II. (I is fine, but II is sublime.) It’s about how a lot of the people you meet or hear of are in fact malign aliens and about how some folks (the M in B and some of the aliens) work tirelessly behind the scenes to protect earth from the hostile extra-terrestrials. These protectors are absurdly brave and often funny. For me, they represent people who, owing to life experience, a certain vision or spirit, or perhaps an insensibility to risk, see into and beyond breaks in the way things seem to be. They don’t always use this seeing to serve others. Sometimes just by being what they are they make life more possible.

My hunch is that that there are protectors of some kind keeping an eye out. I feel as if I’ve met a few of them. They give an impression of having broken through a screen, of being oriented differently to time and attachment. They are like the character Strider in Fellowship of the Rings who wanders the borders without being lost -- vigilant but light of step, distanced and sobered by his responsibility, kindly. I imagine that the role of a breaker who protects life on earth is always out there to be inhabited, if fleetingly. To play this role you need to break through -- to let go of some of the ties that typically bind and be open to parallel worlds.

When I was in labor with my second child, I had the distinct feeling of entering into a zone of labor that is always present. It was as if the contractions were not so much within me as I was within them. Maybe the role of breaker/protector works in a similar way.

Breaking in Writing and Thinking

The word “Breaking” turns up in intense, evocative phrases: breaking with (a faith, an organization), breaking up (a partnership, an affair), breaking away (from family, tradition, oppression), breaking down (to analyze, to examine, to see component parts, to fall apart). “Breaking” signals things coming apart so that new separations and combinations become possible. There’s also breaking news (this just in), breaking in (illicitly, as in a robbery, or politically, as when a marginalized group gains access), breaking through. Used in these senses, breaking accompanies revisions and transformations.

This project explores the essential moves of breaking as radical, essential revision in experience, in thought, and in writing. How do people do it? What is it good for?  How much does it (have to) hurt? What are we learning about how to be ready for it, even to celebrate it? As Bartholomae and Petrosky suggest in the epigraph, there can be no reading, no interpretation or construction of meaning, without breaking, fragments, the broken glass of other people’s language and of our own. The contributors to this book and I invite you to see what happens when we allow the necessity of breaking as a creative force central to our work and thought.

In the pages to come, you will read, and find welcome to contribute your own, stories, analyses, and poems of breaking by the amazing people who took up the invitation to join this project, or who found out about it by word of mouth. You will also find writing and teaching prompts following each selection to structure further inquiry and creativity. 

When I began this project, it was midnight writing, work I did after my “real work” was done. Slowly and over a long time, I have been bringing it into the daylight, given courage by the generative power of the metaphor of breaking and by the ideas that become accessible when people share their experiences of it. The poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen writes, “There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” I hope that through this project we can find  light -- generate tools and ideas -- to experience and write more breaking truths.


Bartholomae, D. & Petrosky, A. (1996). Ways of reading: An anthology for writers. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press.
Cohen, L. (1992). “Anthem.” In The Future. Sony Music Entertainment (Canada) Inc.
Dovlatov, S. (1989). Ours: A Russian Family.
Frost, R. (1969). The Collected Poems: Complete and Unabridged. Henry Holt.
Gilligan, C. (2002). The Birth of Pleasure. New York: Vintage.

With deep thanks for courage, help, fortitude, creativity, skill, and friendship to: Elizabeth Catanese, Alison-Cook-Sather, Anne Dalke, Rob Goldberg, Paul Grobstein, Alfie Guy, Kristine Lewis, Xuan-Shi Lim, J.C. Todd, Emma Wipperman, and Christine Woyshner. 


On to the first project

Back to the Breaking Project home page



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