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.

Sony’s The Interview, Citizen Kane, and the Power of Story

The controversy over Sony’s film The Interview and the hacking attack the company endured in response to it illustrates a principle I teach every day as a literature professor—the Power of Story. It shows how a fictional narrative that on the surface does no harm to anyone can still be perceived as such a threat that people will go to extreme lengths to stop it. The incident also reminds me of another instance when powerful people tried to squelch a movie they saw as a threat—Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941.

First, a few thoughts about Sony. Consider what triggered the devastating attack that cost the company tens of millions of dollars and brought turmoil to the lives of studio executives, actors, theater owners, and many others.

Was it a dangerous new weapons systems pointed at North Korea?

Was it a new round of economic sanctions that caused suffering for that nation or its leaders?

No. It was a story. Not even a true story, but a silly, unremarkable comedy that without the attacks that accompanied it probably would have been quickly forgotten.

 Why Not Simply Ignore the Film?

Some have asked why a dictator or anyone else would care about such a frivolous piece of entertainment like The Interview. Why not just ignore it?

Maybe those who hacked Sony fear the movie because they know, as I teach in my college literature courses every semester, that stories—whether novels, films, plays or other genres—are far more than “entertainment.” They often shape our perceptions and shape us even more than “reality” does. Stories may inspire, thrill, challenge, and teach, but they also may threaten.

Think of the most powerful films or novels you have seen and read. Aren’t those stories as moving and life-changing as any “real” incident you have experienced or heard about? Think of how stories have shaped your perceptions of places you’ll never visit, historical periods that otherwise would only be hazy in your mind, and aspects of human experience into which you otherwise would never have delved. For example, when I think of what I know about the World War II era and where that knowledge and perceptions came from, I have to acknowledge that far more of it came from fictional stories about the era than from my direct reading of history.

Stories move us and shape our view of reality. So it makes sense that a dictator would believe that the world’s perception of him might be shaped by this film, even if it’s an over-the-top comedy.

Citizen Kane as an Example of a Film that Defined a Real Person

Controversy over another film more than half a century ago shows just how powerful a movie can be in shaping the public’s perception of a real person. In 1941 RKO released Orson Welles’ movie, Citizen Kane, which some scholars have labeled the greatest film ever. The movie is loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, whose vast publishing empire made him one of the most powerful cultural figures in America in the first half of the twentieth century.

The movie gives an unflattering (but in my view, not entirely unflattering) portrait of Hearst and his mistress. Knowing the power of story, since that is how he made his living, Hearst and his allies fought the release of the film by pressuring distributors not to make it available to theaters, by ignoring it in the pages of their newspapers, and by other threatening tactics.

As with the hacking campaign against The Interview, the campaign against Citizen Kane was only partially successful in suppressing it. The controversy itself made people want to see the movie, and it did reach the public in a limited way. It got good reviews, but then it essentially disappeared from public view in 1942 and did not emerge again into the public consciousness again until the mid-1950s, when RKO sold it to television.

Is Kane Hearst? Is Hearst Kane?

That’s when something interesting happened. As the film gained popularity and exposure, the memory of the actual life of Hearst himself, who died in 1951, faded from public perception. David Nasaw, who published an excellent biography of Hearst in 2000 and showed what a fascinating and complex man he was, calls Citizen Kane a “cartoon-like caricature” of a man who was actually very different from Hearst.

However, over time, Nasaw writes, “the lines between the fictional and the real have become so blurred that today, almost sixty years after the film was made and a half-century since Hearst’s death, it is difficult to disentangle the intermingled portraits of Charles Foster Kane and William Randolph Hearst.”

In other words, the good story won out over reality. Even though people may be told that Hearst and Kane are different, and even though talented biographers like Nasaw might try to set the record straight, when you mention Hearst to most people, they’ll think of Citizen Kane.

The hacking attack against Sony is reprehensible, but the North Korean dictator may be correct about one thing: the fictional story may be how most people remember him.

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.

 

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