Don’t Let Them Squash Your Creativity

With all the roles that many of us have to fill throughout the day—friend, employee, spouse, parent, consumer, and so on—the creative self can be one of the most fragile. Even though for many of us the creative self is deeply embedded and even essential to our sanity, it is also easily crushed.

Many forces stand ready to squash the creative self. You no doubt have been struck by these enemies. Even the most successful people are prone to these creativity crushers. To name just one example, there are the naysayers. These are the people who tell you, either directly or in some other dismissive way, that you just can’t do it. You’re not good enough. Or you’re not as good as you used to be. Who do you think you are? Nobody asked for your creativity.

Growing up, I always felt vaguely embarrassed about wanting to be a writer. I feared that if I said too much about it, I was simply opening myself up to mockery. It felt so pretentious to want to write a novel. Who was I?

So I hid it. I wrote my first novel almost secretly. When I would go off to write, I would be vague with family and friends about what I was doing, telling them simply that I had work to do. In college, I was so paranoid about my roommates reading over my shoulder that I developed a secret coded language in which I could write when others were around, which I then had to decode later.

Today I am still tempted to let my creativity be squashed, not so much by naysayers, but by other enemies such as procrastination, the pressures of life, fear of rejection, weariness.

Yet the words, the ideas, keep bubbling up. When the ideas come, I think, I have to write this. Why is no one else saying this? I find myself writing as fast as I can, letting the momentum carry me. In those great moments, the creativity blasts right through the doubts, tiredness, discouragement, and second-guessing. I write. I create.

This semester I am working with an outstanding group of writers in a course I am teaching in the new M.A. in English program at Azusa Pacific University. The theme of our course, which I write on the board every week, is, What is possible for me as a writer?

Part of our work involves breaking down obstacles that discourage creativity. I will mention only two of them here, which stall many writers:

1. Nobody cares whether you create or not. The world is not asking for your work. Nobody is out there saying, “The world is a diminished place because you are sitting there not doing your writing.” If you don’t write, they won’t know or care. The world will go right on.

2. The market is already glutted. Mountains of work are already being rejected every day. So who needs you in there adding to that pile and struggling to compete?

Harsh, I know. I’m reluctant to even mention those things, but for many writers, it’s not as if these dark thoughts don’t already plague us fairly regularly.

So why keep writing?

Let’s look at that first obstacle. The world may not be asking for your work and may not think they need it, but the world in fact may be a diminished place without your writing. Think of your favorite author. Would your life be diminished if that writer had not written the books you love? Of course. For example, I love the novels of Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. Some of the most meaningful hours of my life have been spent with their words flowing through my head. The world would be a much shallower place if they had let obstacles to writing stand in their way, and for both of them, there were many obstacles.

You may or may not have the wide impact of those two writers, but picture one reader who reads your words at just the right moment, who is challenged, inspired, or entertained by exactly what you have to say. You have made the world richer for that reader, and perhaps many others, even people who haven’t been born yet. Write for those readers. It’s worth it.

As for the second obstacle, the glutted market, it’s true. Amazon boasts around 8 million books, more than the world needs for a lifetime. Online and print magazines, newspapers, website, blogs and other sources have an almost infinite number of articles, videos, lists, and other material available. There is no shortage.

And yet, as a reader, don’t you still find yourself searching for something new, something that fills a particular need that sometimes you can’t even articulate? Be the writer who writes that for someone else.

As a writer, I have known the joy of connecting with readers. Not as many as I would like to have connected with, of course. But I have known the fulfillment of connecting with that individual reader who gets what I’m doing, who loves it, who needs it. That’s what keeps me writing. I’m not willing to let anything crush it.

OJ Simpson? Never Heard of Him, Or Johnny Carson Either

When I started seeing the headlines and news segments marking the 20th anniversary of the OJ Simpson murder trial, my first thought was that the whole tawdry saga still felt too recent to be wrapped in nostalgia. My next thought was that, as a college professor, I have seen a big shift over those twenty years in how students perceive the OJ Simpson case.

In the first few years immediately following our culture’s fascination with the Bronco chase, bloody gloves, Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, Judge Ito, and all the rest of it, I could refer to the Simpson case any time I needed an example of an event that captured the attention of an entire culture, an event that you couldn’t get away from even if you wanted to, and that everyone seemed to have an opinion on.

I teach literature, and in one course we read some literary works that sprang from another “trial of the century” about a hundred years earlier. That was when Lizzie Borden either did or did not take an axe and murder her parents in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Borden, like Simpson, was acquitted, even though many people thought her guilty. The Lizzie Borden case still has a big following (the home where the murder happened is now a hotel that caters to fans), and many movies, short stories, articles, and other works have been devoted to it. Why?

It’s just like the OJ Simpson case, I used to say. Why did everybody want to watch it? Why was the trial carried on so many TV stations? Why was it the talk of the nation? Students could immediately see the connection.

Recently, however, teaching the same literature course at the same university, I tried to use the Simpson case as an example, and all I got were blank stares. OJ Simpson? Some students had a vague idea who he was, but not one knew anything about the case.

The 20th Century as Ancient History

The Simpson case is only one of many twentieth century references I have had to drop. A 20-year anniversary of anything means that it happened Continue reading

Quit Griping that “Everybody Gets a Trophy”

I’m tired of hearing about the “Everybody Gets a Trophy” generation. When I recently heard someone use that phrase again, I wondered, was it just my imagination, or were people constantly using that cliché to describe today’s generation in their teens and twenties?

I Googled “everybody gets a trophy” and came up with nearly a million articles, blogs, news stories and other items that use the phrase, so I guess I’m not imagining it. I read through some of the endless news commentaries and blog posts about this “syndrome,” as some of them call it, and I ended up even less convinced about it than I was before.

The basic concept is this: These young people are the spoiled products of a self-esteem culture in which they (or at least their parents) are afraid of failure. In order to prevent these delicate egos from facing any hint of mediocrity or failure, their parents put them on soccer teams and baseball teams and other activities in which everybody gets a trophy regardless of any lack of talent, achievement, or actual victory over the other team.

Because of this, the kids grow up thinking they’re far more talented than they really are, and they expect unqualified approval in every area, from academics to sports to the world of employment. Coddled and arrogant, they fail to learn how tough life really is. Their weakness of character erodes our entire culture, but someday they’re in for a rude awakening.

What utter nonsense.

As a college professor, I have spent years interacting with people in this generation. As a parent of teenagers who play sports, I have spent years watching what happens with the trophies. I simply don’t buy the usual “everybody gets a trophy” analysis.

Let’s start with the trophies themselves. My son and daughter have played on many teams in several different leagues over the years. They have played competitive softball, baseball, basketball, football, soccer, and probably a few other sports I’m forgetting. They do get trophies in most of those, or medals, which amount to the same thing. On most of the teams it is true that everybody gets one of these, win or lose. The trophy or medal is bigger or better if the team wins the championship, but everybody gets something regardless of the outcome.

The thing is, kids are smart about these things. I have never seen my kids or any of the other athletes interpret these medals or trophies as signs that they are all winners or that the loss of a game or championship is somehow not a failure. They understand failure. They know who the good players are and who the bad players are. If they’re not as good as the other athletes, it certainly doesn’t take the withholding of a trophy to make that clear to them. They know. Their teammates will make it clear to them in many ways, and so will the coaches, and so will the spectators. It’s absurd to think that a trophy or lack of a trophy changes that.

What, then, is the purpose of giving a medal or trophy to everyone? My own kids have their medals hanging in their rooms and the trophies are displayed on shelves around the house. These are not signs of egotistical triumph. They are mementoes of being on the team. My daughter also has her softball caps from her various softball teams displayed on the wall on one side of her room. They’re a way of remembering the experience.

I once worked at a magazine devoted to the sport of trapshooting. At a national tournament, I worked at the booth where we gave out metal pins that commemorated the event. Most tournaments gave out such pins, and competitors would attach those to their caps or shooting jackets as a way of showing how many tournaments they competed in. They were eager to get those pins, and when we ran out of them one day, they were angry until we got some more. They were meaningful, but they did not signify success. They were simply a souvenir. That’s the way it is with the trophies.

The men and women who coached my kids were certainly not interested only in the athletes’ self-esteem. They worked them hard. They taught them. They punished them. They encouraged them. They wanted them to win. My kids have plenty of trophies, but they have also tasted plenty of failure.

Regardless of what generation we’re in, life offers abundant lessons on how to handle failure. I wouldn’t be too worried about a few extra trophies being handed out.

Why I Took My Students to a Murder Site

The most recent field trip in my Honors California Literature course was to a nearby

My students at the scene of the crime--Banyan Street in Alta Loma California.

murder site made famous in an essay called “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” by Joan Didion. On October 7, 1964, Lucille and Gordon Miller were driving home from the Mayfair market after midnight on a sparsely traveled road called Banyan Street in Alta Loma. Gordon Miller was asleep and heavily medicated when the Volkswagen stopped and caught on fire. He burned to death, and his wife was charged and later convicted of first-degree murder.

Didion, an acclaimed essayist and novelist, is the author of such bestselling books as The Year of Magical Thinking and Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Her essay about the murder in Alta Loma is written in a detailed, seemingly journalistic style. Didion establishes credibility by throwing in sometimes obscure details that show she has done her research—the name of the TV show Miller was watching before he was killed, the temperature on the day of the murder, the exact amount of mortgage debt the Millers owed, etc.

It’s easy to get drawn into the essay and think that Didion is simply reporting the facts, but a careful analysis of her essay—and a visit to the scene of the crime—show that she is doing much more than reporting. Like a novelist, Didion is creating an atmosphere in which to set the dastardly crime. The place happens to be only a 20-minute drive from our campus, so my students and I went there to take a look for ourselves and to see how Didion’s description compares to our own impressions.

Here is how Didion describes Banyan Street:

“Like so much of this country, Banyan suggests something curious and unnatural. The lemon groves are sunken, down a three- or four-foot retaining wall, so that one looks directly into their dense foliage, too lush, unsettlingly glossy, the greenery of nightmare; the fallen eucalyptus bark is too dusty, a place for snakes to breed. The stones look not like natural stones but like the rubble of some unmentioned upheaval. There are smudge pots, and a closed cistern. To one side of Banyan there is the flat valley, and to the other the San Bernardino Mountains, a dark mass looming too high, too fast, nine, ten, eleven thousand feet, right there above the lemon groves.”

Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? In the context of the essay, fits well with the rest of the atmosphere Didion is creating, but when my students look at this scene, they see something very different. Some of the difference can be accounted for by the passage of time. The street is now part of an upper-middle class neighborhood with attractive houses and carefully landscaped lawns. But there are still some lemon trees, and their leaves don’t strike students as “unsettlingly glossy, the greenery of nightmare.” They’re beautiful trees, and so are the eucalyptus trees, whose fallen bark does not seem “too dusty” to us. The mountains in the distance are majestic, and their beauty is probably one of the reasons people built their homes here. They don’t appear to us as a “dark mass looming too high, too fast.”

Didion is such a good writer that students often overlook her biased perspective the first time they read the essay. Once they are alerted to how she skews the details of the physical scene, they also reconsider some of the stereotypes she puts forth about the entire region. She writes, “This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew. This is the California where it is easy to Dial-a-Devotion, but hard to buy a book.”

“Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” is a brilliantly written essay in many ways. Didion brings to life the lives of Lucille Miller and others involved in the case as she probes their backgrounds and motivations. For my class, visiting the scene helps bring the story to life in a different way, as we consider how a writer does not simply report reality, but constructs it in ways that build the story she wants to tell.

Creating a Perfect Opening for a Novel—Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”

In the California literature Honors course that I am teaching at Azusa Pacific University this semester, we are studying Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep, a classic of hardboiled detective fiction that features private investigator Philip Marlowe solving mysteries in a noir-ish and unforgettable Los Angeles setting.

After the students read the book, one of the first ways we studied it was simply to read out loud and analyze the first few pages. Chandler wastes no time. His opening establishes the novel’s tone and atmosphere, captures the personality of the narrator Marlowe, and propels the plot into motion. It isn’t easy to do all those things at once. If you don’t believe me, try it.

Take a look at The Big Sleep’s first two paragraphs:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. he didn’t seem to be really trying.

What information do we learn from these two paragraphs? A private detective has dressed up in a nice suit in order to call on a wealthy client who lives in a mansion.

Those are the facts, but Chandler’s words tell us much more. Why describe the outfit in such detail, even down to the socks? If you pick up a hint of sarcasm in that little bit of over-description, it is confirmed in the next sentence: “I was neat, clean shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.” That declaration conveys more than the surface meaning of the words. As one of my students put it, “Someone who is usually sober doesn’t need to point out that he is sober.” The same is true for being clean and shaved. Marlowe may be revealing a few weaknesses in that sentence, but also a few strengths: he’s frank, down-to-earth, and he has a self-deprecating sense of humor. I like him already.

Almost every sentence in these two paragraphs has something to commend it. For example, take at “I was calling on four million dollars.” A lesser writer might have settled for something like, “I was calling on a wealthy client.” Chandler’s sentence is better than that in both tone and content. We now know how wealthy General Sternwood is (his four million is in late 1930s dollars), and more importantly, the tone indicates Marlowe is not over-awed by money.

His sarcasm toward ostentatious displays of wealth is extended in the second paragraph, when he describes the Sternwood mansion. He doesn’t need any direct comment about how gaudy he thinks the place is. The fact that the entrance doors “would have let in a troop of Indian elephants” tells the reader plenty about Marlowe’s attitude toward the house. His commentary on the stained-glass artwork tells us as much about the unpretentious detective as it does about the questionable artistic taste of the Sternwoods.

The opening paragraphs of The Big Sleep let us know we are starting a journey with a narrator who knows what he’s doing, both as a detective and as a storyteller. We like him from the start, and we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next. He doesn’t disappoint.

Teaching and the Joy of Repeating Oneself

One of the most frequent questions I get asked about teaching is, don’t you get tired of teaching the same things year after year?

The answer is a resounding No. I never get tired of it. In fact, the repetition is part of what I enjoy about my job. I am in my 22nd year as a professor of English at Azusa Pacific University. Before that, I taught for five years at Olivet Nazarene University. Before that, I taught part-time for three years at Purdue University while I was a graduate student. I have been teaching non-stop since I was 21 years old. If I were going to get tired of it, I think it would have happened by now.

I teach various courses in American literature. Some of the writers I teach change from year to year, but most of them stay the same. The individual works we cover from those great writers are also sometimes different as semesters go by, as anthologies are updated and as I shift my focus in the courses. But even if the writers and works stayed exactly the same, I still wouldn’t mind.

One of the things I love about teaching a work I have taught before is that through repetition, I learn what does and does not work in the classroom. I learn which questions provoke the most fruitful discussions, which areas of inquiry lead to the richest understanding of the work, and which issues fall flat and are best avoided. I know what responses to anticipate and can be ready for where I will lead the discussion no matter what direction it heads. Each time of teaching the work becomes, in one sense, a performance that I can hone and improve.

Because I teach the same authors, I also have gathered a wealth of material about each one over the years—new articles, photos, biographical information, popular culture references, and so on. I end up with far more information than I can ever use for each writer, but that allows me to fill the class period with rich material.

The Same—But Always Different

I have been emphasizing what I enjoy about the repetition of teaching, but as any literature teacher knows, no class is ever really the same twice. No matter how much I approach a literary work in the same way I taught it before, it always comes out a little different. Last semester I taught the same class two hours in a row, and even one hour later, with a different audience, it was a whole new experience.

In this sense teaching literature is like a basketball or football game. Athletes—and fans—know that no game is ever the same. That’s why players keep playing and fans keep watching. They like the repetitive aspects of the experience, such as the fact that the football game always has four quarters, the same number of players, the same rules, and so on. But each game is its own separate drama that unfolds in unexpected ways.

People who ask whether I get tired of teaching the same literature over and over might just as well ask basketball players whether they get tired of shooting that same ball into that same hoop again and again, or baseball players whether they get tired of smacking that same ball with that same bat, or golfers whether they get sick of hitting that little white ball into hole after hole, game after game, year after year. The answer would be No, they love the game, and there is just as much suspense in the 537th game as there was in the first.

When a familiar literary work comes up in the course schedule, I enjoy it the same way I enjoy a favorite song I haven’t heard for awhile when it comes on the radio. I don’t enjoy it less because it’s familiar, I enjoy it more.

I am grateful for the repetition in teaching. The only repetitious aspect of teaching I don’t enjoy is grading papers, but that is a topic for a different post.

 

Forty-Seven Different Endings? Some Lessons from Hemingway about Revision

For the past several weeks my students and I have been immersed in the novels of Ernest Hemingway. I have had the pleasure of teaching a course on him and William Faulkner this semester. In most literature courses, we study only the final, published drafts of novels and other works of literature. That gives us the chance to enjoy the final masterpieces, but it doesn’t reveal much about the torment the author went through to make the book as good as it is. How many revisions did it go through? How many false starts were there? How much bad writing did the author produce before he found discovered the right way to tell the story?

A new edition of Hemingway’s masterpiece, A Farewell to Arms, was published earlier this year that sheds light on his careful, sometimes agonizing writing process. Depending on how you count them, Hemingway produced up to 47 different endings. The exact number is tricky to determine because some drafts use bits and pieces of other drafts and therefore are not completely distinct from one another. The editors have grouped the 47 drafts under nine categories, such as “The Nada Ending,” “The Religious Ending,” “The Live-Baby Ending,” and so on.

Examining these very different endings reveals much about the creative process of writing a novel. Here are a few points his methods illustrate:

• Even very good writers are capable of very bad writing.

Hemingway may be a brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning, best-selling author, but some of these drafts are just bad. One of the “Nada” endings, for example, says, “That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.” The first of three “Funeral Ending” drafts says, “When people die you have to bury them but Continue reading

Living by the Rhythms of the Academic Calendar

Some people divide time by seasons, some people by weeks and months, but I live according to semesters. Instead of saying that something happened “last year,” I am more likely to say that it happened “two semesters ago.” If I do use the term “last year,” I probably mean last school year, not last calendar year.

One of the things I enjoy most about teaching is the rhythm of the academic calendar. I don’t hear this talked about much, but I have lived my life to that rhythm. I started school when I was five years old. After I graduated from high school, I went right into college, and then I went directly to graduate school, and then I started my full-time teaching career that continues to this day. So for the last 46 years, I have been on the academic calendar either as a student or a professor (and sometimes both at the same time).

The Rhythm of Individual Courses

Not only does the school year have a particular rhythm, but each individual course has its own reassuring pattern as well. The course I have taught most consistently over the years is an upper-division course called American Literature Since 1865. I have taught it for all of my 22 years at Azusa Pacific University, and I taught it several times at Olivet Nazarene University before that. We study about 50 authors in that course. Some of the individual authors and works change from semester to semester, but the bulk of the readings remain the same. I now associate particular authors with certain times of year. I start the course with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, so I always associate that book with Continue reading