"A man knows when he has found his vocation when…
“There’s too much music everywhere. It’s horrible stuff, the most noise conveying the least information. Kids today are violent because they have no inner life; they have no inner life because they have no thoughts; they have no thoughts because they know no words; they know no words because they never speak; and they never speak because the music’s too loud.” — Quentin Crisp
SUMMER OF 1998: MY GOAL
“Illi mors gravis incubat, qui notus nimis omnibus, ignotus moritur sibi.”*
*Death lies heavily on the man who, too well known to others, dies a stranger to himself.
My life as a writer and thinker never much coincided with my life as a student. It is not that I did not learn many important skills and lessons in the classroom because I did. It is just that rarely did what was most important to me intersect with what we were studying in school. Let me be more specific. My high school English teacher urged me to take the rigorous AP English class when I was in my junior year. A serious athlete with workouts before and after school, I went with an easier class so as to cut down on my homework load. A professor once urged me to enter a paper into an undergraduate writing contest. More interested in seducing the pretty coed sitting across the lecture hall, I let the opportunity pass me by. I never was much for letting school get in the way of my education. Almost all my formal schooling was in history, political science, and international relations – next to none of it in literature. I passed easily my English teacher qualification tests due only to a kind and thoughtful father who read the poetry of W.B. Yeats to the family at the dinner table and would buy me any book I wanted, no questions asked – an arrangement which resulted in many visits to the bookstore over the years.
I did learn grammar and spelling in elementary school, and was pushed greatly in high school by a certain stern old lady who taught English literature and would flunk me if I did not give her my absolute best effort. How I enjoyed the contest of writing her essays! Fifty-five minutes in class under the gun to either produce and pass or choke and fail! But I am a Protestant at heart when it comes to reading, preferring no priestly intermediaries between me and the Word. Such it was in the beginning, so it is today, and thus it will be when I die. As writers, we all need mentors and cheerleaders. But teachers of writing? As someone who has pretended to that title, I have been humbled. The terror of sitting down in front of a blank piece of paper with pen in hand is not something that can essentially be made easier by someone else. Writing is not a group activity, and I strongly suspect it is no more possible to teach someone how to write than it is to teach them how to think. Nobody ever “taught” me how to write, but there is a little of every author I ever enjoyed in my prose.
It should then be less than surprising that my experience in “teaching” writing so far has been less than satisfactory. I have always been a voracious reader, and it still nonpluses me to hear a student tell me they don’t like to read: You announce a period of time in class for free reading, and the students moan as if it were a punishment! Despite hours of teaching topic sentences, paragraph organization, and countless hours of editing drafts of student essays, the writing is not close to what it could be; and I am tired of the science or the religion or the math teacher complaining about the poor writing of students! It is eminently demoralizing! I wonder if the momentum we have built up in the last two and half centuries of progress in the written word is at risk of being destroyed by the deafening, omnipresent roar of television “white noise” and vast influence of a mass media more concerned with sensationalism and titillating images than anything more substantial. Aristotle began his Metaphysics by claiming that “all men by nature desire to know”; television is threatening to replace that noble maxim with “all men desire to be entertained.” We as a nation are becoming conditioned to sit back lazily and be entertained by stimulating visuals, skeptical story-lines, pumping music, and adrenaline-pumping violent action. Style is victorious over substance; appearance is more important than reality: all is skepticism. We turn on our televisions and turn off our minds; we substitute mindless instant gratification for knowledge dug from deep places.
School? Books? The written word? Wisdom? Truth? When I ask my students at the beginning of the semester if they like to read and write invariably they answer me in the negative, adding that they only do so when forced by teachers and parents. “It’s boring, it’s not exciting enough, it takes too long!” they explain themselves indignantly. Products of a culture which increasingly prizes entertainment above all, they have come to see comfort and comedy as the sine qua non of the “good life.” And having been conditioned to watch passively rather than to read and think actively, can we really blame these young people for their lack of interest in school? (How many of their parents, after all, live their lives reflectively through the written word?) The discomfort and unease (not to mention the blood, sweat, and the tears! — what an education costs the heart!) which true learning brings with it unfailingly are inconvenient, unnatural, and to be avoided. I wonder if reading long, complex narrative is to be replaced by electronic technologies and new aural-oral mediums. Will writing dense and structured prose vibrant with feeling and layered with thought be supplanted by home movies, video journals, and multimedia software? The latter, after all, is easier and faster than the former! And everyone is too “busy” to sit with their feelings at length! I wonder if we English teachers today in America are not the most forsaken of God’s creatures, and the path of least resistance to me would seem to move full-time to teaching history — supposedly the least favorite of academic subjects to our students. What should I do? Not only are students often nearly illiterate, but even many of my fellow “teachers” find it difficult to pass basic instructor qualification tests. I could do some other job.
Am I an American? Can I be a serious reader, in the private sense, and yet still be fully an American? Without a doubt 99.9% of what I see in the popular American culture of sports, movies, and rock music interests me not at all. I sometimes pause to scratch my head, scour my memory, and examine carefully if I have not missed something vitally basic when I reflect how much money, fame, and adulation revolves around puffed-up actors, models, sports figures, and television “personalities” in the cult of Hollywood celebrity where it is more important to cut a fine figure than to achieve anything of lasting value. The most heroic person I ever met was an old lady who spent 30 years teaching masterfully high school math to thousands of often difficult teenagers for a mere pittance of a salary. When she finally retired, they gave her a watch, shook her hand, and told her “good-bye.” She was dead within two years. Why do we ignore her, and then turn all our attention to some singer who – by the vagaries of blind fate – has been blessed with physical beauty and an excellent singing voice? Why does the latter find herself rich and famous beyond her wildest dreams while hardly out of adolescence? Why does the former find herself an old woman eating tomato soup out of a can?
“You’re not anybody in America if you’re not on TV,” claimed a vapid newswoman in a particularly mordant line from a recent movie. As if you don’t see it in the media, it didn’t happen and/or lacks importance! What rubbish! I find myself going the other direction: I threw my television out the window in a fit of frustration years ago and have lived without an idiot box ever since. The older I get, the fewer are the brawls in day to day politics which actively engage my imagination. I read more and more newspapers and weeklies every year and it takes me less and less time. I read two or three books at once, but rarely anything written less than 50 years ago. Does this leave me “disengaged”? Am I still a full-fledged American? Am I not disqualified to teach contemporary American teenagers, growing up as they are in an “Information Age” of digital visuals and multimedia technology? What should I do?
I write maybe a few hundred words every day and have done so for the last seven or eight years. That for me is a writer: someone who writes every day, an individual who processes experience through the medium of words and records it as such. It matters to me not at all if a person writes well or not, been published or not. They write every day and they are a writer. Period. But I have never gotten on well with the community of writers in my own country: I would rather swallow my teeth than go to a poetry reading, rather kiss a gorilla than join a book reading club. And I look at the various gladiator bloodletting among rival cliques in the book-reading communities and wonder if the savagery of their infighting is made only more vicious because it means nothing to anybody outside of the chattering classes of literary New York and San Francisco! I read the latest university English journal and marvel at the barbarous prose of trendy academic jargon, so divorced from real life and the central concerns of the human heart. It is as if we were back in the Medieval Age of Scholasticism, with a few anointed priests writing to and for a handful of other specialized clerics about minor issues of abstruse theological disputation which only they understand! They “deconstruct text” rather than read books, and then they insult their readers by playing clever literary games rather than telling stories which are worth anybody’s precious time to read. It astounds me that persons aspiring to the honorable title of “author” would disrespect their readers so.
I apologize if I begin to sound like something I am not: a curmudgeon. But I mention all this to underline the fact that my life as a reader and writer is and has always been irreducibly solitary. My brothers line the walls of my library, and the evening when I relax with an old friend in the form of a musty leather-bound book is by far the time of day when I am most vibrant and alive. I nearly gasped when I first read the following advice from William Penn to his children about how to read:
“Have but few Books, but let them be well chosen and well read, whether of Religious or Civil Subjects… reading many Books is but a taking off the Mind too much from Meditation. Reading your selves and Nature, in the Dealings and Conduct of Men, is the truest human wisdom. The Spirit of a Man knows the Things of Man, and more true Knowledge comes by Meditation and just Reflection than by Reading; for much Reading is an Oppression of the Mind, and extinguishes the natural Candle; which is the Reason of so many senseless Scholars in the World.”
Penn’s advice is now posted on the wall above my writing desk, and in the future I hope to pare my reading down to only the most vital core: the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Milton, Emerson. I hope to read and write less, reflect and think more. Or rather, I hope to read and write at a higher level through better reflection and thought. I truly believe the mind and soul, like the muscles of the body, can be improved through constant exertion in a disciplined effort focused on their improvement. We shall see.
We read not only for pleasure but for instruction. By reading, we discover our world, our history, and ourselves; and by writing we hammer out the impressions which skitter across our cerebral cortexes into some fashion of the truth, as we have best come to understand it through our flawed and frail human faculties. I hope thusly to distinguish more clearly the truth through the forest of illusions and doubts that presently surround me. I hope to understand myself and my world better, refining lesson plans while taking time to meditate deeply on what is most important and finding allies where I might, support and sustenance where I can.
Let this then be my goal for this summer of 1998.
“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.” — Henry David Thoreau