Writing, Obsession, and the Sacred Question Mark

In my morning routine, one of the things I do is scan a news aggregate source to see what’s going on in the world. This morning I came across a piece from Salon contributor Patrick Hicks that resonated like a tuning fork. Hicks is Writer-in-Residence at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he teaches creative writing.

In checking the Rate My Professor website, Professor Hicks discovered a review that called into question his dedication to teaching as opposed to his dedication to writing. This made him sit down to do some deep self-assessment and ultimately to write an apology to the anonymous student for being “more interested in his own writing than teaching”, “unimaginably self-absorbed”, “closed-minded” when it came to other people’s opinions, and egotistical.

In trying to understand why this student would think this about him, Hicks wrote a couple of passages that resonated so strongly with me, I almost cried. The one that really got me was this:

Artists are driven and obsessed people. We’re always thinking about our craft, and we can’t turn it off. Don’t believe anyone that tries to tell you otherwise. Even artists who appear serene and gentle — the ones who sip green tea and speak softly — are obsessed. For artists, the world collapses down to a blank sheet of paper, a piano or a spinning clay pot. It’s who we are, and we’re only happy when we’re working on a new artistic problem. — Patrick Hicks, writer, educator

This triggered some introspection on my own part—after I’d come down from the “Yes! Yes! YES!” moment it afforded me. It made me start thinking about happiness in relation to how often I am NOT working on a new artistic problem, not caressing that piece of blank paper (or its digital equivalent). I am, I realized, not merely unhappier when I am not productively writing or editing or researching in preparation for either of those things. I am not a nice person to be around. I am, in a word, surly when I am forced by circumstance or necessity to do other needful things that take me away from writing and related activities. This is exacerbated by the fact that I make my portion of our household income writing and editing and when I am not doing those things, I am also beset by the oppressive feeling that I am not carrying my weight in the family.

It is made even worse when I dither about what to work on when I am in writing time. I don’t believe in writer’s block exactly. And after I figured out that—in my case—it was more a case of writer’s gap (about which I have written) I’ve never encountered it. What I do suffer from is a vicious variant I call Prose Paralysis. It goes like this: for whatever reason (and they can be very good reasons), I am kept from writing for a time (measured in days). I become a bit depressed and anxious. My thoughts get disorganized and random as I’m forced to deal with … well, random activities. My writerly schedule is in disarray, and my brain follows. When I finally sit down again to write, all my wonderful mental organization has gone to hell in the proverbial hand basket, and I am overpowered by the same feeling I get when I step through the door into my daughters’ bedroom: “OY! HEADACHE!” followed swiftly by a sense of powerlessness.

It’s hard to write from a position of prostration or while banging your forehead on your keyboard. I sat myself down this morning and thought about what gets me back on track and to some extent it comes of getting back into some semblance of my routine. This is not always possible, of course, so I made an effort to isolate what elements of the routine had a significant impact on my ability to put symbolic representations of ideas into my computer. Is it that first cup of coffee? The Greek yogurt and biscotti I almost invariably have for breakfast? The half an hour I spend on the stationary bike each morning? The prayer I say, the sacred texts I ponder, and the moments of meditation that follow? The trawling through news stories for information and ideas?

When I can get all of those things together, as I was able to do this morning, it’s grand. I even wrote the lyrics to a song today, along with this blog, and a new chapter of the novel I’m working on. Go me!

But what if I can’t have it all?

Obviously, the answer for every writer or creator is going to be different, but for me, the essential element is that quiet time in which I plug into God and myself, and ponder whatever text I happen to be studying. (This could be anything from the Bhagavad Gita, to the Black Elk Speaks, to Baha’i scripture. Right now it’s a volume called Foundations of World Unity). This is because, as Patrick Hicks suggests, it is in my nature to create and this exercise always, without fail, gets me back in touch with my creativity.

But I share my space with my family: husband, son, daughter-in-law and daughters (also an aging dog, but he thinks I’m a goddess because I feed him and rarely asks what I think about a particular cartoon character). Professor Hicks’ blog made me contemplate what the activities on the inside of me look like from the outside, just as he did. He writes:

This must be why I come across as “unimaginably self-absorbed.” I can see why a student might feel this way, and it probably has much to do with the quiet inner world I inhabit. Plus, I’m an introvert. Strange, no? I mean, if you see me behind a podium, I look pretty outgoing and confident and not shy, but that display of extroversion comes at a high price. I have to close my office door and recharge my batteries. I don’t like being the center of attention for long.

He speaks about his insecurity too, in contrast to the student’s perception that he is full of himself. He looks at his nameplate on his office door and is surprised; he wonders when he goes to the podium, what gives him the right to do so. He feels like a pretender.

Wow. I have that same set of insecurities to tango with whenever I send a manuscript to a reader, or my collaborator, Michael, or my agent or editor. And when I am packing for a convention—yow! insecurities galore! How dare I, hack that I am, even dare to sit on the same panel with a Tim Powers, a Jerry Pournelle, a Larry Niven? Larry has been coming to our concerts for years, but having him walk into my writing workshop at a convention last year almost brought on a full blown case of the vapors.

I do understand how all this writerly abstraction looks from the outside. I once had a good friend and band mate tell me that when she first met me, she thought I was aloof and snobbish. What I really was was horribly shy and introverted and trying desperately not to intrude on other peoples’ space.

Pat Hicks feels as if his student also has him wrong on another count—and here, ladies and gentlemen, he makes what is, to me, the most resonant statement of all as he rebuts the idea that he is close?minded and not open to new ideas.

To be honest, I often wonder whom I might still become. Life is big and grand and we’re all jostled in new directions when we least expect it. I’m only 42 and the world is so vast, so beyond one lifetime of knowing. What other cultures might influence me? I love being in a foreign city getting lost and talking to locals who think differently from me. My former student obviously sees a man who lives in a world of rigid statements, but for me, the question mark is a holy symbol. I worship it.

The question mark is a holy symbol! What an utterly divine way of putting the thing that compels so many writers and other artists to do what we do. What if? we think, and fly off on a quest. And it’s not just artists. Scientists and mystics, too, worship the Holy Question Mark. They dig about in the inner workings of the Universe pursuing the divine symbol. Artists, scientists, and mystics all follow the Question Mark (Questing Mark?) into the inner workings of humankind asking related questions, but finding answers at different levels of existence. 

I’m pretty sure I’m going to get a science and religion blog out of this sacred symbol, but whether I do or not I still think it’s a way cool way of expressing the curiosity about ourselves and our inner and outer environment that drives so many of our intellectual activities. 

A post script and aside to this is that I went to the Salon site and left a comment, thanking Mr. Hicks for his blog. I was stunned by what I found there. Though what he wrote was full of the love of creation, was apologetic to his anonymous critic, and even thanked him or her for making him stop and think, the comments his article drew were for the most part, hateful litanies about what a terrible teacher and, further, what a terrible human being he must be. I expect that sort of verbal bullying when it comes to controversial subjects like gun control, immigration, or women’s reproductive rights. I surely didn’t expect to see it in response to something like this. 

Many of the remarks expressed umbrage over Hicks’ admission that he loved writing more than he did teaching it. It was as if the two things—writing and teaching—were a one and zero in a mathematical equation. It had to be either/or. The sentiment was so strong that some commenters believed Professor Hicks had said he didn’t like teaching. In fact, he said the opposite. He said that one thing he loved about teaching was that it “yanks me out of myself”. There is a lot of that binary thinking around nowadays. It seems to be in the water we drink and the air we breathe, and I think it makes us unnecessarily confrontational and divisive. 

Pat Hicks wonders who he still might become. I wonder what our society will become if we routinely decide that the best way to respond to another human being’s self-expression is to tell them how terrible they are. 


Writing, Obsession, and the Sacred Question Mark — 7 Comments

  1. This post resonated with me, too. I wonder if that is part of why so many writers grasp at things like Amazon stats and awards in an effort to convince themselves they aren’t the phonies they feel like?

  2. Not noticed then, in your morning news roundup that New Orleans and Louisiana wetlands are getting beat up again, even on the anniversary of the Katrina Failure of the Levees.

    Love, C.

  3. To be honest, I found your article to be far more interesting and insightful than his. Although a lot of the comments were trollish and mean-spirited, some did have a few good points. Responding to an accusation of close-mindedness doesn’t call for a explanation of one’s interests in Buddhism and living in South Korea (an oddly orientalist sentiment as well), it suggests that you might want to ask yourself what you may have done to come across as close-minded. Being dismissive of your students is a serious problem. Having been on the other end of it, I’ve been left in tears after a professor consistently dismissed my questions and suppositions without explanation.

    Personally, I’ve been accused of being condescending to my students. Horrified by this, I had to think back, and I realized that whenever I said, “Oh, but you don’t want to know about that,” I was being condescending. I was accusing them of a lack of interest. That hadn’t been my intention. I was only trying to say that I didn’t want to teach them things that I thought were foolishly overcomplicated and baroque. Today, I caught myself trying to do it again, and came down hard on myself.

    Although some things may have resonated (though honestly I found his description of the singlemindedness of the artist to be a bit apologizing and enabling. And having considered myself a socially awkward introvert until I went to graduate school and met real introverts who can’t perform the basic social interactions of meeting new people and putting them at their ease, that section also seemed a little shady.), what I didn’t see was any reason to take him up on his offer to try another class with him. I didn’t see a commitment to change, or to make sure to try to reach out and share a little of his inner world with his students.

    He did come across as defensive of his own status as an artist, while doubting his status as a professor. The hardest thing about being a professor is that you only ever get one chance to have the class go well, and then you get to do it over and over again, each time with only one chance. At least with writing you have an opportunity for revision. He seems to want the chance to revise his teaching, but it doesn’t seem like he understands the flaws in his manuscript enough to turn it into something better.

    • As one of those people you might have met in graduate school who lacked the basic social skills to put other people at ease, I’m afraid I can’t see his comments as “shady”. There’s a passage in Baha’i scripture that talks about capacity—”Let none, therefore, consider the largeness or smallness of the receptacle,” writes Baha’u’llah. “The portion of some might lie in the palm of a man’s hand, the portion of others might fill a cup, and of others even a gallon-measure.”

      The subject of the passage is spiritual in nature, but I think it applies to all aspects of life. What may seem like the simplest, easiest thing to do for one person, may require deep concentration and great courage for another.

      Here was my main problem with the commenters: While Professor Hicks didn’t judge the student or even question his role in the lack of connection, while he turned his gaze inward, the commenters were, by and large, judging him and deciding that he hadn’t done enough.

      A secondary issue, which I mentioned, is that the student’s adjective-heavy criticism of the professor is very short on concrete facts. He used a series of adjectives to describe Hicks: close-minded, self-absorbed, etc, without offering any clue as to what behavior or even situations prompted him to think that. It could have been, “He didn’t greet me when I said ‘hi'” “he ignored me when I raised my hand” or “he gave me a C on a paper I’m sure deserved an ‘a” or “he didn’t get my poem” or “he ridiculed my poem in class.” It’s hard to modify your behavior when you don’t know what behavior needs to be modified. I think Hicks did about the only thing he could do: ask what about his interior processes was driving his behavior?

      The only really concrete remark the critic made was that Hicks seemed to love writing more than he does teaching, so it seems reasonable to me that Hicks would examine his relationship with his writing and with teaching. He admits he does love writing more. But that does not mean, as many commenters suggested, that he doesn’t love teaching. Nor does it mean that all, or even most, or even more than just this one student believes that about him.

      In short, I saw a lot of people reading into Hicks’ article what was not there, and failing to see what was. But the BIG thing to me, was the shock of how such a gentle reverie was the target of such venom.

      Bottom line: One student criticized the man, and that single, anonymous criticism has been extrapolated into the shared belief that Professor Hicks is a terrible teacher who has failed all of his students.

      Am I wrong to think that is neither reasonable nor fair? And it’s reminiscent of that age-old advice our moms used to give: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

      Whatever the flaws in the article, I’m glad he took the approach he did because it gave me a couple of “aaaahhh” moments, a bit better understanding of myself as a writer (and a socially inept human being), and a deeper appreciation of question marks.

      • Thanks for responding. I have always had a deep respect for Marks of Interrogation, and was a little disappointed that he didn’t reference A Room with a View. I will never defend any commentator who used cruel or abusive language, which many of them did, but I didn’t want to dismiss the ones who disagreed thoughtfully and considerately out of hand.

        You also definitely pulled out the best parts of this article and set them in a good frame. But one thing I have always been wary of is the cult of the artist, and the way it has been used as an excuse to congratulate poor habits. Art can come from engagement with the mundane as well as interest in the sublime and foreign, and though a lack of capacity never necessarily means a lack of caring, when it is accompanied by a lack of caring it can hurt.

        And of course, because what he was really writing was self-expression, merely framed by the sparking idea of the student criticism, we got very little information by which we could evaluate the facts of the case, and many people clearly took the lack of facts as secretively and defensiveness. I think the real problem with the article was that it was presented as about teaching and about solving problems with your teaching, when it wasn’t about that at all.

  4. Pingback: Things You’ll Find Interesting August 29, 2012 | Chuq Von Rospach, Photographer and Author