When St. Catherine University faculty and staff convened for the Teaching and Learning Network, a seminar for professional development, on January 25, they were enlightened by professor Geri Chavis's talk entitled "Truth, Lies and Fiction: Reflections on a Life's Journey."
Geri Chavis, Ph.D. is a professor of English and Women’s Studies at St. Kate's. Her specialties include Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century British and American literature; the genres of the novel and poetry; and courtship, marriage and family themes in literature.
Chavis is also a licensed psychologist, certified poetry therapist, master mentor-supervisor and the current President of the National Association for Poetry Therapy, a professional organization devoted to promoting the use of language, story and metaphor for personal development and mental health. She has extensive experience teaching courses and facilitating workshops in poetry therapy in the U.S., Ireland and Great Britain. Her latest book is entitled Poetry and Story Therapy: The Healing Power of Creative Expression, and she is currently working on a book dealing with British courtship novels, entitled Who’s Protecting Whom: Heroes, Heroines and Danger in British Courtship Novels From 1740-1920.
What we can learn from the literary works of Austen and Woolf
Chavis directed listeners to the writings of truth telling authors Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf for examples of characters modeling honest self-appraisal. She pointed to examples of heroines showcasing the process of critical thinking that combats potentially harmful prejudices and careless opinions.
"When you strip down Austen's work to the core — putting aside the gossiping townspeople, the tea parties, the picnics, the ballroom dances, and even the beautifully romantic courtship tales — what you get to is the female's journey to an ever-increasing knowledge of self and others," said Chavis. "What you experience is a women using her reasoning powers, and empathy and sensitivity to discern what is admirable and what is reprehensible."
What can fiction teach us about truth?
Chavis asks the question "If literary works by authors such as Austen and Woolf are supposed to profoundly capture our lived experience as these writers wanted their works to do, and if literary works such as theirs have so much to teach us about truth, how does the word fiction, a word often equated with falsehood, fit here?"
Her reconciliation is centered around a line from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey: "It's the truth, even if it didn't happen."
Chavis has used this line often with her students to emphasize the powerful authenticity of literary fiction. It inspires the notion that reading can evoke deep feelings, teach significant life lessons and move readers to a new understanding of the human condition. A fabricated universe, existing in short stories, plays, novels and poems, can embody an alternate form of truth, even if many of the details aren't verifiable facts.
Pointing to the likes of Sigmund Freud and Abraham Maslow, Chavis points out that the essence of truth discovered in poems and novels has been cited by psychological theorists over the years.
"The artist gets to the deepest truths, to which we others have to force our way, ceaseless groping amid torturing uncertainties," said Freud in 1908.
"Expansive truth telling in literature can be explained in part by its way of morphing the ordinary into the extraordinary through striking word choices, through ranging juxtaposing words, vivid imagery and the straight-shooting intimate voice," said Chavis. "It's the authentic voice speaking directly to you."
About Anne Joachim Moore, CSJ
The Sister Anne Joachim Moore lecture at the University's annual internal conference, the Teaching and Learning Network (TLN), is a faculty prestigious honor each year.
A 1937 graduate of St. Mary’s School of Nursing and a 1947 graduate of the St. Catherine nursing program, Sister Anne Joachim was founder and the first and only president of St. Mary’s Junior College, which merged with the then–College of St. Catherine in September 1986 to form the Minneapolis campus.
Her work in the 1960s and ’70s to transform St. Mary’s School of Nursing into a thriving two-year college earned Sister Anne Joachim a Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa, in 1989 and a place of honor in St. Catherine’s “Centennial 100” in 2005. She also served as a member of the University’s Board of Trustees. She died in December 2010 following a brief illness.