Monthly Archives: August 2011


One of my classmates in high school heard me whistling and told me I had an amazing musical ear. I don’t know what a musical ear is, but, because she played multiple instruments and sang in the choir, maybe her praise meant something. I’m not sure.

Whistlers don’t qualify as musicians. These days, I whistle when I seek help or offer help identifying a song or when I straighten up the house while everyone else is away. Sometimes I just find myself whistling. Whatever music I’m carrying steps out of my brain and into light. Unconscious, unsought, and unschooled, my whistling is not deliberate, not—to me—gifted, and not accomplished.

This week, with my son’s help, I hung my art show at the school where I teach. As you might expect, seeing my paintings and drawings on gallery walls was thrilling. It gave my work new dimension. There was so much of it and so much that marked it as created by one mind. Many of the paintings were new to everyone outside my family and—out of the darkness of the portfolio where the paintings usually reside—they almost seemed to glow.

My colleagues have been very nice, complimenting me on how colorful, meticulous, and prolific my work is. They ask me how much planning goes into the pictures, how much time I spend on each, and what artists I emulate or admire. They ask me if I ever sell my work.

Answering these questions is fun, but I’ve never known how to handle praise. I answer as factually as I can. I say “thank you” and little more. I secretly wonder if their compliments are real or simply polite. I wonder if, being my colleagues, they’re indulging the fantasy I’m an artist. After all, most of my co-workers pass through the gallery two or three times a day and say nothing. I’m too sensitive, but their collective silence seems a more conspicuous comment.

My art is abstract and automatic in the surreal sense, meaning that I drift in the currents of whatever I’m working on. Each action suggests the next and opens the possibility of following or violating rules I’ve just created. For some years now, I’ve been doodling in meetings, creating crazy full-page drawings of nothing in particular. In my show, doodles plaster a tiny wall of the gallery, and a receipt tape of doodles divides the sections of the other walls—about 75 feet of doodles in all. I’d hoped to raise doodling to the level of Art, but I can’t help wondering if I’m really just whistling. What if the silence I hear means, “No big deal”?

What does it mean to take credit for art anyway?

An artist himself, my son would say I’m stupid to doubt, even stupider to talk about it. He’d say, “You just make this stuff. You get pleasure from it, and whether other people like it is up to them. You can’t force them… and, if they do like it, you ought to be grateful.” I haven’t heard him say so because I’ve been withholding the opportunity. He’d be right. And I am grateful.

On a more philosophical level, however, I wonder how much belongs to me and how much belongs to inclination, good fortune, and happy accident. Some artists seem ready to own their achievement, but how much can you own and how much has nature or God or circumstance simply lent you?

Yet, even if you believe yourself an instrument, you can’t help wanting people to react, wanting them to admire, wanting to believe they take you as seriously as you take yourself. I may be accused of fishing for compliments here, and I suppose that’s true, but affirmation is intoxicating. And maybe vital… I marvel at artists who persist without it.

I’m grateful for the compliments I’ve received. I’d like to feel proud but feel oddly removed instead. The first few moments of looking at the gallery hit me dramatically, but then the images quickly faded as if, liberated at last, they floated away like disembodied whistling, author-less and strange.


Filed under Art, Doubt, Ego, Gratitude, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Visual Art, Work, Worry

Difficult Student

Not all teachers were good students, but most of us regard ourselves as models. Our expectations for students arise partly from our own schooling: a former shirker might anticipate students who want nothing more than to elude work, and former grinds might focus on each student’s responsibility to study relentlessly. Of course, school is complicated—intellectually we know each class is a collection of individuals—but, emotionally, we teachers start with the dubious assumption we’re normal.

I haven’t been a student in any context for ten years, and I was the age of my students thirty-five years ago. Still, as the student in an NEH Shakespeare Institute over the last couple of weeks, a question kept jumping into my brain, “What’s it like to teach a horse’s ass like me?”

My goal wasn’t to be an ass, but my teachers’ assertions invariably inspired me to amend, refine, counter, adjust, contradict. So much of what I said needed the subtitle, “Yes, but…” and I could not shut up. Every day I started by writing “QUIET,” at the top of that page of notes, and, every day, I heard myself speaking. My teachers started calling others before me. I think they hoped I’d give up. I felt that unmistakable unwelcome vibe.

And I didn’t blame them. I do talk too much and rate my perceptions too highly. In classes I’ve taught, students like me sometimes need a gentle conversation after class about ‘”giving others a chance” and “the value of hearing different voices.” Even when students have something valuable to say, sometimes they say too much. Offering too many comments seems selfish, an assertion this class is really all about me, not us.

My rationalization is that I have to handle ideas to understand them. If you tell me that most of what we know about Shakespeare’s women comes from conversations between men, I will go searching for other applications or examples. If you tell me Shakespeare presents no positive examples of lasting marriages, something in me recoils and readies itself for a dispute. When a question elicits silence, I feel an overwhelming urge to fill it. I can’t just copy interpretations because I want to participate. To me, teachers are rivals as well as guides. I envy what they do. Believe me, I know that’s hard to take.

Our instructors at the NEH program were brilliant college professors, well-versed in critical theory and the consensus about the plays we studied. They were very persuasive in presenting their thinking. They know so much more than I do, which at times made my remarks especially naïve and/or dense. And I could see their expressions and demeanor shift. They would ask me, “Really? What makes you think that?” As a teacher, I heard traps springing.

I was making a fool of myself. I wrote another “QUIET” at the top of the page.

In my classes, I’ve found ways to compensate for students like me… and my nature. I seldom walk into a class with a thesis to suggest, support, or establish, and I try instead to lead an investigation of a question that everyone, including me, can participate in equally. If what I know (that they don’t) comes in handy, I’ll use it, but I try to avoid the easy and popular game of “Guess What The Teacher Is Thinking.” I suppress questions like, “Any other ideas?” that often mean “That’s not it, try again.”

My classes don’t always cover as much as they ought, but I console myself by hoping the experience—the brain training—is plenty. I try not to worry too much about being off the subject because, I tell myself, the subject is whatever arises from our investigations.

And I sympathize with “difficult” students who won’t go along and won’t buy what I’m consciously or unconsciously selling. Though they can be annoying and occasionally get under my skin, I try not to take their objections personally. Maybe—as a student or as a teacher—I just like to be shaken. After years of leading discussions of works I’ve read so many times, I love a changed sense of what I understand and believe.

Last fall, after a particularly disputatious conversation about a passage in Macbeth, one of my students apologized for getting so emotional, and I told him, “Nothing to apologize for.” Any other response would be hypocrisy.

Let me offer a similar apology to my teachers and classmates over the last couple of weeks. I’m sorry I’m such an ass. I hope you can say, “Nothing to apologize for.” I know myself—it appears there is no better answer.


Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, life, Memory, Shakespeare, Teaching, Thoughts, Worry

Writing Like a Reader

writing.gif As I’m away studying Shakespeare, over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reprising posts from my old blog…

I like to tell my students that reading and writing have a secret marriage, but that sounds sexier and simpler than the truth. Writers who concentrate on reading like an author can certainly shape their own writing. Others might too, if they have a knack for unconsciously absorbing the rhythms and deep order of another writer’s prose.

But no writer can make much progress without steady and deliberate practice.

In the first chapter of Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose describes the way she connects reading and writing:

It’s like watching someone dance and then secretly, in your own room, trying out a few steps. I often think of learning to write by reading as something like the way I first learned to read. I had a few picture books I’d memorized and pretended I could read, as a sort of party trick that I did repeatedly for my parents, who were also pretending, in their case, to be amused. I never knew exactly when I crossed the line from pretending to actually being able, but that was how it happened.

What is central to “how it happened”? Is it desire—saying “I’d like to write”—or make-believe—saying, “I’d like to be known as a writer”? The two impulses strike me as different. Desire rests on a sort of profound identification, as if the writing gene were already inside you waiting to be awakened, whereas pretense is craving an outcome, as if you’d made “published writer” one of three wishes.

Perhaps I’ve been unfair to her thinking. If someone does become a writer, Francine Prose knows, the two motives are ultimately indivisible. Neither, by itself, might be enough. Yet, though the moment she bridged pretense and desire may be impossible to isolate, it’s nonetheless critical…maybe the most critical part of the process.

And, with the writers I work with, that moment often arises during practice—during those hours and hours of making the one million choices every paragraph elicits. You can watch Fred Astaire movies until the end of your days and write a great essay about his distinctive moves. Unless you secretly try out those steps in your room, you will not dance as well…and certainly not better.

A few of the students I teach approach writing algebraically. They don’t read much, and limited exposure to the myriad and magical varieties of prose leads them to believe they need only learn a few equations to write well. You put “x” here and “y” there, and you have an effective “z.” Sometimes maybe, but that path is so narrow, and it seldom leads to new territory or resourceful expression.

I might advise those writers to read, to study the way other writers operate. However, to be honest, they rarely succeed. I have to give that counsel—I don’t know what else will help algebraic writers—but even when the student takes my advice to heart, the outcome is unreliable. As much as they might want to be better writers, they make the leap only when they learn to work and rework their own prose. A few of my most talented students can mimic unconsciously, but the algebraic writers—who have just as much ambition—must make a painstaking, self-conscious, and deliberate attempt at imitation. Their road is so much more challenging. For some, it’s too much.

Whereas, every year, I teach a student like Penelope (don’t worry, not her real name) who comes to me with considerable reading experience and poor skills…but does make progress. Penelope was always willing to work through drafts, to reconstruct any sentence multiple times, and if I said, “That paragraph is twice as long as necessary and that one is half as long as necessary,” she returned having attempted to change both. The paper she was working on may not have improved that much, but she always learned. Other students fixed their essays. She learned how to fix them.

By the time she graduates, Penelope will have two or three times more practice writing than her classmates. She will also make more progress, and along the way she will pass some gifted writers who don’t spend that sort of time composing.

Maybe Penelope’s effort turns my head —it’s hard not to root for her. Maybe the real secret IS the reading, the unconscious absorption of rhythm and deep order seeping back to the surface at last. Maybe she possesses a level of belief the algebraic writers can’t muster—convincing herself “I am a writer.” I don’t know. However, I can’t believe any of those maybes would matter without her hours of work.

Practice is the fundamental value of most education. No, you won’t need to do geometric proofs as an adult; however, you may be grateful later for a brain habituated to doing such complicated  and painstaking work. Though Francine Prose says you can’t be a writer without being a reader, much of her book addresses how to practice what you discover.

One of the most depressing aspects of being an aspiring writer is being able to see what great authors are doing without being able to do it yourself. What turns a wannabe writer into the real thing? Whether you start out wanting to be a writer or wanting to be known as one, ultimately words may be no different from the other instruments artists wield. You have to learn how to use them. Studying others (and with others) can help, but only if you practice, practice, practice—practice even to the point of finding your own way, a way others might imitate. You may not know when, but at some point you will stop pretending and really be a writer.

As Francine Prose asserts, writers must read…but they also must practice steps over and over.


Filed under Art, Education, Essays, Genius, High School Teaching, Identity, life, Meditations, Reading, Teaching, Thoughts, Words, Work, Writing

On Being a Poet

poet_titel.gif As I’m away studying Shakespeare, over the next couple of weeks I’ll be reprising posts from my old blog

Edith Sitwell called poetry, “The deification of reality” and when someone wears the title “Poet,” maybe that’s what I expect—a secular priest, a shaman, or at the very least a pretty damn good professional magician.

I have the poems I wrote in junior high and high school. They are truly horrible, but their tone is uniformly reverent, as if every time I wrote I thought, this time, I might stumble on truth, the last statement, an incantation to open a world of new awareness.

Later when I studied how to write poetry, I still thought about writing THE poem and making that mythical leap closer to universal value….and publication…and fame.

I think differently now. H. L. Mencken said, “A poet more than thirty years old is an overgrown child.” I understand Mencken’s point of view, but I haven’t a child’s idealism or belief anymore. On one level, writing a poem is, for me, an action. When it goes well, it’s an immensely satisfying action. But I don’t expect to meet God in seven dimensions or hear Him or Her in nineteen-part harmony anymore. I never have met Him or Her…or, for that matter, discovered that what we call “God” is anything anyone can “meet,” really.

When I write poems now, I assemble words as best I can, hoping for a little Guidance greater than simple technical decision making. No ecstasy. No prophecy. Just good fortune.

In his 1902 book Varieties of Religious Experience, William James argued a truth’s worth exists independently from its origin. He said, whether a religious leader’s revelation came from schizophrenia, from moldy wheat, or from an actual visit from God on a goodwill tour, the origin has no bearing on the revelation’s value. I’ve concluded poems don’t have to arise from epiphanies—maybe rapture needn’t be accompanied by parting clouds or soaring music.

And I like writing poetry a little more now that I’m not trying to find God.

One of my friends tells me that, when he paints, the emotion of the moment makes its way into the work unconsciously, that the fabric of that moment is the fabric of the piece he’s created—directly, without his assuring it, without his needing to. Often I think that might be good enough for poetry too.

I only get hung up again when I consider what my lowered expectations mean about calling myself a “poet.” If you expect nothing more than a poem, any poem, anyone can be a poet. If poetry slips from its exalted place and becomes a thing I do, I am a poet… of a lesser sort. On one hand, accepting the name might be proof of an unforced, uninflated act. On the other hand, it might be settling for the distant suburbs of Parnassus.

Me, a Poet? I’m still not sure.

I write poetry. Why say more than that?

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Filed under Aging, Art, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Genius, Identity, Laments, life, Poetry, Thoughts, Writing