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.