The Value of an English Major

A friend of mine on face book posted this opinion piece from the NY Times Sunday Review on the loss of the English major in education. Below is my response.

I guess I’m more pragmatic about the topic. I’ve always thought writing well, and reading well, should carry its own reward, and I believe it does, regardless of ones avocation. If this is true, then I’m pretty sure we’ll start to see previous business majors sheepishly come back to school willing to do the hard work of learning to write, even if it is based on the desire to give themselves a leg up on the competition.

There is a corollary to this point, which is also important; that is if writing well and reading well are not a virtue, then they should go the way of the buggy whip. I also believe this to be true. Seriously, if you can write like a pro, and still cannot explain the value of writing to our culture at large, either you’ve over estimated your wiring skills or its value.

As I alluded to above, I think the “real” reason we’re seeing a drop in English majors is because learning to write is hard work. Most people would rather take an easier path, and they will up until they discover that easy and fast doesn’t always equate with best. Some day these skimmers of “internet facts” these believers in a Cliffs Notes education will come across an enemy who has taken the time to read “The Prince”, or pretty much anything of Shakespeare, and will happily eviscerate those poor souls (with words alone, one hopes) who thought skimming a good replacement for deep thought. Yes, the pen is mightier than the sword, bitch, and I keep mine sharp.

I’ve always thought the proper reason for an English degree–although I guess it applies to the whole of the humanities–was for someone who still did not know what they wanted to be when they grow up. This is not intended to be a slight, even today at the tender age of 50 I am not sure of what I want to be when I grow up. There is a genuine need for people to learn in university the skills they will use to discover themselves and the world.

Success

I dreamed about my father last night, something I have not done since he passed almost four years back. In the dream he was talking to me, telling me that some obscure thing I had invested in would pay off really well. Later in the dream this proved to be true. Since I don’t do much in the way of investing in the real world I assume the dream, the investment, and the succeess are all metaphor.

For all that he grew up a cowboy, my father was ever the banker, and worried about money and its intendant security more than anything else. He never really grasped why I am self-employed. The idea was almost abhorrent to him. For years whenever we would talk he would ask if I had gotten a job yet. Never mind that I was making more money freelancing than he ever did, it was the insecurity of my position which worried him. The irony is of course that his “secure” job never proved to be any more secure than mine, but that is the nature of people and parents. At least I can say is that he spoke out of the concern of a parents, and I cannot honestly say that  this concern was always misplaced. Freelancing is not for the faint of heart.

It wasn’t until after he passed, at his funeral in fact, that his wife (my step mother) appreoached me to say, “You’re father wanted you to know he was very proud of you.”  Kind words. I would like to say it would have meant more coming from his lips, but that was not his way. Perhaps I am biased, but I seemed to recall hearing more of my father’s concerns than I did his praise. My sisters had this experience as well so if I am biased, at least it is a shared one.

So when my father spoke to me last night in my dream, his words were pretty much like always. He was telling me, not really talking with me. He used the same tone he used when asking, “Are you sure your client’s are going to pay you?” Anything I might say in response didn’t really matter, and would likely be ignored. He would simply bring up the subject in our next conversation exactly as if we had never spoken of it before. In short, he was stating something completely obvious, and with his voice of authority. Mind you, I do this myself sometimes, the manners of the father are often passed to the son. So much so that a friend of mine often jokes, “Eric Tolladay, Master of the Obvious, Curator of the Plainly Seen.” I can only hope that my pronouncements from on high of “the obvious” are not as painful as his were to me. Doubtless this is not always the case. Lucky for me most people are willing to overlook this annoying habit of mine. Those that cannot, well I can’t say that I blame them.

But I find it odd that my father would be speaking as he was in my dream. He was so very concrete, speaking in metaphor was not his way. I can only hope it is a sign I am doing well. I suspect this investment metaphor refers to my writing. I certainly hope so as it is an investment. Especially as a time when I really should be more mindful of filling my spare time with paid work. The vagrancies of freelance work means I often stumble into stretches of no work. I try to fill that time with writing, when I can afford to do so, but it is costly in terms of money not earned. Lucky for me, Teri does not mind this investment, or is kind enough to bite her tongue when I do. Since I’m not heavily invested (be it time or money) in anything else, other than my family and our home, I can only assume this obscure hobby of mine will eventually come with a paycheck.

The funny thing is Teri is forever dreaming about friends and family who have passed. It one of the things I truly respect about her. For her such dreams are a way of letting go, saying goodbye. They don’t always start well, but they end with a sense of balance and closure. I’ve not had dreams like this, at least until last night. Do you supposed some of her is rubbing off on me? God I hope so.

Rite of Change

Something struck me this morning as I was listening to a story on Igor Stravinsky on NPR. This year, 2013, marks the 100th anniversary of his ballet Rite of Spring; a piece of music so muscular, so intense, that the first time it was played it caused a riot.

Nowadays this kind of idea is difficult to fathom. Its had to imagine a musician today, be they popular or off in their own little corner, who could cause such a reaction. Can you imagine a riot caused by a Justin Beiber concert? I can’t. The only thing that comes close to my mind is either the Beatles playing the Ed Sullivan show or when Bob Dylan went electric and pissed off all his fans.

You might recall “Rite of Spring” from the Disney movie Fantasia. Its the famous piece with the T.Rex killing the Stegosaurus.  The music, however, is more memorable than that scene. Much more. If you listen to it with a musician’s ear you’ll find it full of mixed meter, rather bizarre and almost frightful chording, and is just plain intense. A big orchestra playing a very big sound. In person, the darn thing can blow your ears off. No wonder people rioted.

Now the thing that struck me this morning was not the intensity of the music — I’ve known that for a while, ever since I won tickets to a Hollywood Bowl concert of the Rite, and went with my buddy Clark Souter. Listening to the piece in that context, shorn of the animation, and shorn of any other mean sing, allowed me to really listen to it. All I could think was “Fuck me! This is big!” What really struck me was the time in which it came out. 1913 sounds like a long time ago, but in terms of orchestral music, it is really near the end of a very long era. 1913 is well over 100 years after Beethoven’s famous da-da-da-dumm of the Symphony #5 was written in 1804, and just short of 90 years after his 9th Symphony was written in 1824. Its 190 years after Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” hit the scene, 54 years after Liszt suggested his New German School, and about 100 years after Schubert. In short, it came out well into the end of what we generally consider “Classical Music” and even the end of the Romantic Era of classical music. And yet, this very, very, late, late-comer to the classical music scene, this 30 year-old punk kid wrote a piece of music so intense, so awesome, that it freaked people out.  It caused riots in the streets of Paris. It started a whole new movement in classical music called Modernism. It changed things.

As a writer, working along the long thin edges of the form of art we call the Novel, I am heartened by this. Stravinsky teaches us there is still room for radical change within a medium that appears to be lethargic. Not that I’m interesting in tinkering with the modern forms of the novel, I find the post-modern stuff to be a lot of crap if done for the sole purpose of shock. I don’t think Stravinsky intended to shock as much as I think he intended to stretch his limits, to push his own internal boundaries. Something he was want to do his whole long life. Hell, the man was writing interesting pieces well into the 1960s.

What the “Rite” teaches me is that somewhere out there is a novel yet to be written that is so intense it will cause a riot. Just the idea that this novel might be out there, somewhere, is enough for me. It doesn’t have to be mine, it just has to have  the possibility of existence. Like holding a lottery ticket that will not be drawn for a few days, it gives one room to dream. Dream great big muscular dreams. And I like that feeling.

Now its time to lift some word weights, and get my scrawny writing muscles into shape.

How being a witch looks an awful lot like being a Christian.

I’ve been reading a wonderful series of books by a guy named Terry Pratchett. Rereading really. I read them once, and now I’m reading them to Trevor. Most of them take place on a planet (if you can call it that) named Discworld, and most of these books use the same 8 or 10 characters. Recently (as in 5-6 years ago) Mr Pratchett developed a new character. Her name is Tiffany Aching, and she is a witch. Only she’s not like any witch you’ve ever read about before. She is young, smart, resourceful, and talented at working. She also does the magic stuff well, but that is really a rather small part of the novels with her in them. Mostly what she does is grow up and learn from other witches, and its what these other witches teach here that I find amazing.

Below is a long quote from the second Tiffany Aching book (out of four) called A Hat Full of Sky. In this scene she is having a conversation with Mistress Weatherwax, who everyone agrees is the best witch around. In this conversation they refer to two different witches who are polar opposites. They are Miss Level who is the kind, long-suffering witch that Tiffany is now training under, and Mrs Earwig, who is selfish, conniving, and not the least bit helpful to others.

Miss Level’s life is difficult because she is so self-effacing that no one respects her, they literally walk all over her. Mistress Weatherwax understand this, mentioning it at the beginning (its her speaking at the start), but look at where she goes with it.

“Respect is meat and drink to a witch. Without respect, you ain’t got a thing. She doesn’t get much respect, our Miss Level.”

That was true. People didn’t respect Miss Level. They liked her, in an unthinking sort of way, and that was it. Mistress Weatherwax was right, and Tiffany wished she wasn’t.

“Why did you and Miss Tick send me to her, then?”

“Because she likes people,” said the witch, striding ahead. “She cares about ’em. Even the stupid, mean, dribbling ones, the mothers with the runny babies and no sense, the feckless and the silly and the fools who treat her like some kind of a servant. Now that’s what call magic – seein’ all that, dealin’ with all that, and still goin’ on. It’s sittin’ up all night with some poor old man who’s leavin’ the world, taking away such pain as you can, comfortin’ their terror, seein’ ’em safely on their way . . . and then cleanin’ ’em up, layin’ ’em out, making ’em neat for the funeral, and helpin’ the weeping widow strip the bed and wash the sheets – which is, let me tell you, no errand for the faint-hearted – and stayin’ up the next night to watch over the coffin before the funeral, and then going home and sitting down for five minutes before some shouting angry man comes bangin’ on your door ‘cos his wife’s havin’ difficulty givin’ birth to their first child and the midwife’s at her wits’ end and then getting up and fetching your bag and going out again. .. We all do that, in our own way, and she does it better’n me, if I was to put my hand on my heart. That is the root and heart and soul and centre of witchcraft, that is. The soul and centre!” Mistress Weatherwax smacked her fist into her hand, hammering out her words. “The . . . soul. . . and . . . centre!”

Echoes came back from the trees in the sudden silence. Even the grasshoppers by the side of the track had stopped sizzling.

“And Mrs Earwig,” said Mistress Weatherwax, her voice sinking to a growl, “Mrs Earwig tells her girls it’s about cosmic balances and stars and circles and colours and wands and . . . and toys, nothing but toys!” She sniffed. “Oh, I daresay they’re all very well as decoration, somethin’ nice to look at while you’re workin’, somethin’ for show, but the start and finish, the start and finish, is helpin’ people when life is on the edge. Even people you don’t like. Stars is easy, people is hard.”


So Mistress Weatherwax thinks the most important thing about being a witch is helping others. Obviously the author does too because this is a theme that is constant through all of the Tiffany Aching books. Work hard, help others, measure your value by how you help people, don’t waste your time on material things, its the people that count.

To give you an idea, here’s a quote from the first book in the series, The Wee Free Men. In this quote a very young (9 year-old) Tiffany is talking to Miss Tick who is a witch finder (a lady who looks for girls showing unusual signs of power). All of this is done partially in secret; where Tiffany grows up, they don’t like witches. In fact they kill an old woman because they think she was a witch. But I digress.

 


“Witches are naturally nosy,” said Miss Tick, standing up. “Well, I must go. I hope we shall meet again. I will give you some free advice, though.”
“Will it cost me anything?”
“What? I just said it was free!” said Miss Tick.
“Yes, but my father said that free advice often turns out to be expensive,” said Tiffany.
Miss Tick sniffed. “You could say this advice is priceless,” she said, “Are you listening?”
“Yes,” said Tiffany.
“Good. Now…if you trust in yourself…”
“Yes?”
“…and believe in your dreams…”
“Yes?”
“…and follow your star…” Miss Tick went on.
“Yes?”
“…you’ll still be beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy. Goodbye.”

 

 

Notice how the traditional advice given in movies (trust in yourself, believe in your dreams, etc.), all those things we like to tell our children, the author happily tramples with hard work, and an education. This is a kids book, and yet the advice is so absent of fantasy, and so full of practical good advice that it tickles me pink.

And you know, every time I run across these words I am reminded how much they sound like Jesus. Which I find fascinating.

I’ve been reading some Dick…

As in Philip K. Dick, the sci-fi  author. The book is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep which is the book that the movie Blade Runner is based on. Yes, that book. Yes that movie.

What I’m finding is interesting. For one thing Dick is not all that smooth a writer. His copy is disjoined at times, his characters talk past each other, his worlds are put together with glue and despair, and not much else. But oh can this man write. Its the little quirks he gives, little throw away lines, that say so much. One character says, “Hey, I think this dead cat is going to decay” and then he smiles (for a completely different reason). But still the juxtaposition is perfect. So you have to ignore the bumpy parts of the prose and the plotting, and then you get these wonderful little gems of character development. Crazy, yes. But still gems.

Dream within a dream

Last night I woke up around 1:30 in the morning. In my dream I was flying in a plane. It was a huge plane, large enough that one could stand inside the hollow wings. The plane was made of thin sheets of foam, layered and layered on each other, with carbon fiber reinforcement.  As it was flying I could hear the wing creak as it flexed, I could see the light coming though the foam, I could hear the electric motors humming. It was all very cool.

When I woke, it came to me what I was doing in the plane, and why. It was a story idea, a good one. a nice Heinleinesque beginning with a made-up close call to get the reader in the action, and then a quasi informative, quasi love-story unfolds afterwards.

So I sat there, with all of this running through my head, and I groaned. I couldn’t let this pass. It was too good. I knew it. So I got up, and stumbled into the office. turned on the new computer, and starting typing. About an hour later I had churned out a bit over 1000 words, and had written most of the opening scene. So I got up, and climbed back into bed.

The only problem was how I had ended the scene. After I had laid out everything I had gone over in my head (while laying in bed wondering if it was worth it to get up) I had added a throw away line about how the main character almost died later that week. My mind was thinking WTF, but it was very late, and I’ve learned not to question my subconscious. So I banged it out, and went to bed.

The thing is, as I was trying to go back to sleep, that line kept bugging me. What was it he did that almost killed him? Before I knew it, the rest of the story clicked in place. This happens often to me on short stories. I’ll start to write the story, and once I get into it long enough to nail the tone, then the rest of the story sort of falls into place.

So now I was sitting there knowing what else is going to happen, and wondering if I will forget it if I don’t write it down. After a long while I got back up, stumbled back into the office, and starting fleshing out the rest of the story. An hour later, I finally ran out of steam.

So its back to bed. Again. And wouldn’t you know it, the muse is still full of ideas. OMG, I’m thinking. It’s fricken 3:30 in the morning, and you still want me to write? Well this time I decided to try to memorize the important parts and then drop off to sleep. It took me forever, but finally I did sleep, although my feet never did get warm after that second session. I kept having to rearrange the blankets to try and stop the occasional draft.

When I got up this morning, the ideas were still fresh. So after helping Trevor with some homework, and getting a light breakfast in, I wandered into the office, and fleshed out the story outline. And it all came back. Cool.

The story is called “Take Off”. Look for more comments about it here.

Solo or group?

The fantasy author Kate Griffin has an interesting blog post on what it is like for an author (normally a loner by nature) to work in a group environment. This came out the same day that Sarah Hoyt did a marvelous piece on maintaining the creative process, which she refers to as not being a machine. All of this reminds me of my own perilous attempts within differing milieus of creativity, and what I have learned from them.

For starters, one can create by themselves, or in a group setting. In some instances, one can do both. The dynamics for group creativity are significantly different from those of creating on one’s own. This difference is important, I would go so far to say essential, for finding one’s creative niche. However, before I get to this let me explain more about what I mean.

Solitary creative tasks are easy to spot. They are writing (especially fiction), song-writing, painting, etc. Anything that ones does on their own. Solo. Just you and your muse. This is different from a group creative environment, which ranges anywhere from playing music, to making movies, to designing advertising art. Yes, I am aware authors often collaborate with each other (making it a group process), and that song-writing also falls into both camps. This is because most creative forms can be done in a group, or by one’s self. Some however, cannot. For instance, one can play a mean oboe solo, but one cannot never play the oboe part of a symphony, and have it be a symphony. The same is true for any rock group. One instrument alone does not make the experience. Only a group can do that.

I make this point because how a person interacts with the creative process (group or singular) can be just as important as doing the creative process itself. For instance, I have been a musician on and off several times in my life, and have two close friends who both have followed music for most of their lives. What is interesting is that for my friends being involved in music is something they liked to do on their own. They are both happy to write and play music with no one else in the room. In fact they thrive on this. But see, I never could. Practicing for me, especially by myself, was just plain boring. I hated it. Even as an adult with a clear idea that it was a much needed ends to a much beloved means, I still had a hard time with it. But put me in a group, and suddenly whamo, I’m ready to go. Moreover, I’m ready to create new ideas, go off in new interesting directions, take on new worlds, as it were. But only in a group. Never alone.

The funny thing is, I am more than happy to work alone creatively as an author. Its not that I cannot create by myself, I just can’t do it well with music. It’s just not all that fun for me, especially compared to being in a group.

Way back when I was in my early 20s I was lucky enough to play in a band with a couple of really talented guys, Justin Souter, and Alan Williams. Playing with them was always a joy as they were so darn good. But what I enjoyed most about playing with them was the process we developed for song-writing. We would just start jamming, and run a tape recorder. Usually I played bass while Justin player guitar, but sometimes we switched. As we bumped up against each other’s ideas, the music started to blend and swirl until it would reach some form of consensus, and thus a section of a song was formed. It is a very democratic process to write this way. There is no form or direction. The ideas are tossed out, and they either stick or they don’t. Eventually something will click, and a piece of music will take shape.

Anyway, that was what I liked best about being in a band. The group creative process. I found it frustrating that Justin and Alan also found happiness in doing music by themselves, but I could never find that part fulfilling. Eventually our band broke up, but I carried with me that love of group creativity and when I eventually stumbled upon another creative process done as a group (advertising design), I made that field my vocation.

All of this to say, if you are doing something creative, and not finding parts of it fulfilling, perhaps you need to explore doing that work either solo or as a group. In essence, do the opposite of whatever you have been doing. You may find it doesn’t work well, you may find it does. Like me, you may find that it only works for you one way, but not another. That’s all well and good. In the end you will know more about yourself, and will have a better idea about what makes your creative process work. Both goals leading to the same thing, a better you.

New story

A wrote a short little ghost story last November, and after showing it to a neighbor, promptly forgot about it. Since we’re coming up on halloween, I thought it time to dust it off and let everyone read it. Enjoy.

Last Dance

Cool story snippet: The IBS

In the future everyone will have a internet blog score (IBS), which is maintained by a third party and is comprised of all of an individual’s internet input (included  any aliases they may use) and rates that person for integrity, politeness, mental health, aggressiveness, and other factors. This IBS is used in job interviews, dating services, etc, to help weed out the crazies and limit potential legal action.

On Roller-Coasters

I love roller-coasters. They are awesome, plain and simple. Hop on one and you get to safely come close to death; to cheat him, as it were, and still walk away without having to give him your soul at some later date. Sure it costs a few bucks, but that’s cheap compared to being dead or losing your soul.

But here is the real reason why you should love roller-coasters: They are the perfect metaphor for your creative process.

What? you say. What are you talking about? What metaphor? What creative process?

Well I’ll tell you. You know that feeling you get when you’re going down the track, and you can see it drop away in front of you? You know, when your breath catches in your throat, and your arms grip the cushions (or your boyfriend’s arm) really hard? Its that part where your body is saying, “oh crap. I’m about to be launched into space,” but your face is smiling because your brain knows it’s only going to last for a moment. It is that duel reality part, where your body is saying one thing (Holy Shit!), while your brain is saying another (Weee!) that makes the ride so wonderful.

You see most of the time we listen to our bodies, and do what they say. So when your eyes see a car coming at you while you are crossing the street, you jump when it tells you “Watch out!” Or when you see a cute girl (or guy) walking down the sidewalk, your body says, “hey, check that out,” and your head follows. Most of the time this is a good thing. Its good that we don’t get run over, and its good (or at least pleasurable) that we notice attractive people. However, the problem is that sometimes the messages the body sends are not so good for us.

You see, your body will respond with the exact same fervor when it senses the danger of a car trying to run you over, as it does when it senses the danger of a new idea of yours being criticized by your best friend. On the one hand, the body’s response is helpful and appropriate, but on the other had, not so much. Mind you, your friends criticism might be hurtful (although probably not as hurtful as a car accident), but then again it might not. In fact, it might be helpful. And therein lies the rub. Unlike the black and white response to a speeding car, there are levels of grey involved with the creative process. But the body doesn’t know this, and so you get the same “Oh shit, we’re about to fall” feeling when you’re on a roller-coaster going over the edge, as you do when you are creating something interesting.

So here’s why a roller-coaster is so helpful to the creative person. Because it teaches us to listen to the “oh shit, we’re falling” response from the body, and yet do nothing about it. With the creative process, that “oh shit, we’re falling” message the body sends is crucial. Not because you are about to die, but because you are on the right track. It is your body’s way of telling you that you are getting to the good stuff. That you have struck a rich vein, and it’s time to dig hard.

You see, creativity requires risk. Sometimes big risk. I will even go so far as to say without the risk there is no reward. But your body doesn’t know this. When your are hurdling down the roller-coaster track, and fly over the edge, your body can only see the track drop away, and then quickly calculate the likely result. In other words, the risk. This is all our bodies can understand. It is what they are trained to do. This is why you hold your breath, and grip the cushions hard. Now it is your brain, on the other hand, that knows perfectly well your body will be safe (far safer then the automobile drive to the amusement park) so it allows you to smile even while your knuckles turn white. The brian knows the reward will come at the end of the ride, and doesn’t panic even while your body is trying to.

The problem is, when you start to do a creative process, your body senses the risk, and responds like it is supposed to do. “Danger, Will Robertson. Danger.” It senses the risk, and responds in the appropriate manner. If you are not used to this, you will sense this risk, and stop being creative immediately. The danger signal will overcome your creative impulse, and shut your brain down, just exactly like it will take over your thoughts to get your body out of the way of a speeding car. Alas, this is the exact opposite of what you need to do when you sense this risk, because the thing the body is of afraid of is usually the good stuff, the rich vein of ID, the mother-load of creative ideas. In effect, it is exactly as if your body is working against yourself, trying to keep you from being creative.

But this is true only if you are not expecting it; if you don’t know how to react to the “danger” signal your body sends. Once you know that the “oh shit, we’re falling” signal can be a positive thing (at least in terms of creativity) you can turn it around, and use it as a tool. It is a signal that you are on the right track. That you are digging down the correct mind shaft (yes, I spelled it that way on purpose). That you are going in the right direction. Yet to do this trick, you have to learn to separate what your brain is saying about your creative process, from what your body is saying. And that is not such an easy task. Which is why a roller-coaster is so darn handy. In a blink it does what no amount of thinking or talking can do; it separates the brain/body signal quite cleanly, and for very little cost. Certainly much cheaper than a session with your therapist.

So the next time you find yourself at an amusement park, ride the coasters, and dream great big dreams.