I still have a little tweaking to do on my syllabus, mostly in the form of replacing old boilerplate with new — although the underlying policies may not change a great deal, the phrasings do, and in order to placate the accreditors in whom we live and move and have our beings, we must incorporate that phraseology into the syllabi. But before that, this.
I spent the past two days attending the obligatory pre-service the college puts in place each year. My approach to these events is shaped by a couple of lines I’ve picked up over the years. The guy who was my creative writing guru when I was doing my M.A. used to talk about listening to readers’ comments (in workshops or whatever) “with ears wide open.” Let the words or comments in, but don’t worry about them or act on them unless they run into something that’s already in your mind. If a comment or suggestion resonates with something that’s already there, it may be worth your attention. If it doesn’t, then allow it to flow out of your head as easily as it flowed in. The other guideline is one I’ve heard from friends of mine in 12-step programs: “Take what you need, and leave the rest.” (This line is also familiar to fans of The Band, but that’s not quite where I’m coming from here.) Accordingly, when I run into stuff that resonates with me, I find something with which I may work, Otherwise, at least there’s free soda during the breaks.
Yesterday afternoon’s topic was the business of helping our students (and perhaps ourselves) explore vocation and purpose, and being open to the idea that this is not necessarily a linear process. At one point, the speaker asked those of us who were doing what we wanted to do when we were 18 to stand up. Out of a room of 60 or so faculty, two stood. I didn’t (which was likely just as well — my right knee is really jacked up this week), but as I thought of it, I kind of wondered if I should have. I knew I was interested in a career in academia. My field of study changed from the sciences to the humanities (two hemispheres — no waiting!), but that’s what I have. I wanted to write, and I do, and get paid for that sometimes. I wanted to play music, and while I’m between bands at the moment, I’ve done that, and get paid for it sometimes. I knew I wanted a life where being a non-conformist (sometimes naturally, sometimes willfully) was at least tolerable. I think I may have that.
But at the same time, there have certainly been odd left turns in my path. Institutions of higher learning on both the undergrad and graduate level offered me invitations to go elsewhere — I’m pretty sure that the U of KY saw my Masters as a terminal one, and for them, it was, as they declined to bring me into the Ph.D. program. Likewise, my six years in the magazine biz, while useful (beyond mere issues of food and shelter; I learned a lot about writing during that time, and also learned that having the almost-right job can be as disheartening as having a completely wrong one), mainly served to remind me of what I really wanted to do. And as I said, I went from studying the sciences to doing whatever the heck it is that I do now.
As part of all this, the speaker asked us if we’d be willing to talk to groups of our students about how the process of exploring one’s purpose works (or sometimes doesn’t). So I’ve volunteered, and may be doing this later in the semester. It may be interesting.
Lately I’ve felt a strong urge to listen to the Call, a band I’ve loved since I discovered their second album, in 1982, thanks to its minor hit, “The Walls Came Down.” I happened to notice last night that today marks the eleventh anniversary of the death of Michael Been, the band’s guitarist/bassist/vocalist/principal songwriter. As the link from this blog’s first year demonstrates, I noted the death when it happened, but I wasn’t consciously aware this week that Been’s year-day was at hand. Maybe — reasonably — it’s coincidence. But like Horatio’s philosophy, our understanding of such matters is incomplete, so maybe it’s closer to synchronicity of a sort. Whatever it is, I’ve enjoyed hearing the group’s music this week, and thinking fondly of a man who treated me well when he didn’t have to.
I’ve recently talked about my discovery and enjoyment of Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series of detective novels, and mentioned that I seem to share a fair amount of musical taste with the protagonist. Apparently, I have some taste in common with McKinty as well, including a liking for the poetry of Philp Larkin. McKinty recently shared Larkin’s “Aubade” on Twitter. It’s a poem I occasionally share with students, especially those who think that formal poetry has to be stilted. So here it is.
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
I’m not teaching a creative writing workshop this term, but I often find myself thinking about them, and of course thinking about my own work as a writer. Along those lines, I found myself thinking last night about ways of forcing the mind and imagination out of routines, or at the very least, adding different components to the process.
That in turn led me to think about Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards that (per St. Wiki) each provide “a challenging constraint break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.” Examples of card texts include things like “What would your closest friend do?” and “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.”
I’m considering bringing these both into the classroom and into my own work. To that end, if any of y’all have used these, I’d love to hear about your experience.
Lunchtime draws near and I have a couple of errands to run this afternoon, so I think I’ll wrap this installment up. The Dolly Rocker Movement were an Australian psych outfit from 2002-13. This track offers a nice nod to Ennio Morricone, with enough reverb-drenching to keep everyone successfully zoned out. Here’s “The Ecstasy Once Told.”
See you soon!