Tuesday, October 13, 2015

What Would You Do with Your MacArthur Winnings?

We are in the middle of awards season--the Nobels last week, the MacArthur Fellowships a few weeks ago, and soon, the National Book Award finalists and the Pulitzers.  All of these prizes come with money, and I've often wondered if it makes a difference to the winners.

I remember reading an interview with Octavia Butler in Poets and Writers in 1996 or 1997.  She said that the MacArthur Fellowship bought her time to write.  She'd had all these stories in her head, but she had to work a variety of energy crushing jobs which left her too drained to write much.  After winning the prize, she could focus on her writing.

This New York Times article asks the same question and concludes that unlike lottery winners, who often end up in worse circumstances, MacArthur Fellows are able to manage their money. In part, it's because they've had lots of practice in managing money in service to their vision.

I was struck by this vignette:  "Steve Coleman, a saxophonist who won last year at age 57, said he had created a life over decades that required little money to maintain and could be supported with even less when times were tough. That way, he said, he wouldn’t have to worry when recording deals or performances dried up. He could still make music and pay his bills."

I have not arranged my life as expertly, a point which becomes clear when the discussion turns to what we would do if my main job vanished.  I have a variety of income streams, but without my main job, it would be much harder.  And I am nowhere close to having my artistic passions pay my bills.  Over the past ten years, my artistic passions would not even pay the electric bill.  There have been a few times when money comes in, and I think, "What if . . . "--and then the editor leaves or the magazine folds or the website changes its approach.

Clearly, I am not a model member of the freelance economy.

I am also struck by the scientist who funded others with her MacArthur winnings: 

"For Dr. Otto, the money was incidental to her work. Even though she grew up quite poor, she said, she never thought of spending the money on herself and said that her research would not benefit from extra funding. (She uses mathematical models to advance research on genetics and evolution.)
'The nature of what I do means that time is more precious than money for my research,' she said. 'When I received the MacArthur it wasn’t, ‘Now I can do that study I wanted to do.’ I felt I was very supported by my university and by grants. But what I did feel was that as a scientist and a person I could have more influence' by giving it away.
So that’s what she is doing. So far, she has made three gifts of the entire annual amount to the Nature Trust of British Columbia, an environmental conservation program in Indonesia, and a fund at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches, to pay student researchers working on conservation issues."
I love this idea of helping others, of giving back to one's community, however one defines that community.  I love the idea of taking one's winnings and making it multiply across the field.  The article shows that even when MacArthur fellows don't give away all of their winnings, the benefits still ripple out to others.  The saxophonist, for example, "put it [the money] toward an idea he had started to develop — a program that brought musicians together to live in a city for three to four weeks to perform and be part of the community."
My favorite fantasy has always been winning one of these prizes--or the lottery, for that matter.  I don't want the fame that the award might bring--although I might.  I dream of the time that might come with the money.  And I love the idea of the other worthy projects I could fund.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Lessons of Columbus for a Creative Life

Writing time is short this morning, so let me run a Columbus Day post that I wrote a few years ago.  It's one of my favorite meditations on Columbus.

Today we celebrate Columbus Day: October 12 was the actual day of the first sighting of land after almost 2 months at sea. I’m always amazed at what those early explorers accomplished. At Charlestowne Landing (near Charleston, SC), I saw a boat that was a replica of the boat that some of the first English settlers used to get here. It was teeny-tiny. I can't imagine sailing up the coast to the next harbor in it, much less across the Atlantic. Maybe it would have been easier, back before everyone knew how big the Atlantic was.

In our creative lives, we may have to set off on a tiny boat. We might wish we had different resources, but we start with what we have. Sure, it would be nice to attend that MFA program or to have the job that only has a 2-1 teaching load (do those exist at an entry level anymore?). But the good news is that we can make our way across a wide ocean, even if we have less resources than others. All we need is a smidge of time and the resolve and self-discipline that it takes not to waste that time.

Important journeys can be made in teeny-tiny boats. It's better than staring longingly out towards the sea.

We often think that starting the voyage is the biggest hurdle. But once you begin the journey, the hard part may be yet to come. I've often wondered if Columbus and other explorers ever woke up in the middle of the night and said, "What am I doing here? I could have just settled down with my sweetheart, had a few kids, watched the sunset every night while I enjoyed my wine." Of course, back then, a lot of options were closed to people, and that's why they set off for the horizon. No job opportunities in the Old World? Head west! Sweetheart left you for another or died? Head west!

Maybe we need to just set sail, knowing that we're going to be out of sight of land for awhile. Maybe we need to get over our need for safe harbor, for knowing exactly where we're going.
It's easy to feel full of enthusiasm at the beginning of a project. It’s far harder to keep up that enthusiasm when you're in the middle of a vast ocean, with nothing but your instruments and the stars to guide you, with no sense of how far away the land for which you're searching might be.

Maybe we have a manuscript that we feel is good, but no publisher has chosen yet. Maybe we have a batch of poems that seem to go together, but we have no sense of how to assemble the manuscript, while at the same time, we know we need to create 20 more poems. Maybe we have a vision of the kind of job that might support our creative selves, but no idea of how to get to where we want to be from where we are.

I'm guessing that many of us have similar feelings during our creative lives. We start a project full of enthusiasm. Months or years later, our enthusiasm may flag, as we find ourselves still wrestling with the same issues, even if we’ve moved on to other projects. We can take our cue from the great explorers of the 1400s and later. It’s true that we may feel we’re making the same explorations over and over again. But that doesn’t mean we won’t make important discoveries, even if it’s our fifth trip across the Atlantic on a tiny boat.

I keep thinking of the ship's logs and the captain's journals, which Columbus kept obsessively. Perhaps we need to do a bit more journalling/blogging/notetaking/observing. Maybe it’s more calibrating or more focused daydreaming. These tools can be important in our creative lives.

Maybe we need a benefactor. Who might be Queen Isabella for us, as artists and as communities of artists?

The most important lesson we can learn from Columbus is we probably need to know that while we think we're sailing off for India, we might come across a continent that we didn't know existed. Columbus was disappointed with his discovery: no gold, no spices, land that didn’t live up to his expectations. Yet, he started all sorts of revolutions with his discovery. Imagine a life without corn, sweet peppers, tomatoes. Imagine life without chocolate. Of course, if I was looking through the Native American lens, I might say, "Imagine life without smallpox."

Still, the metaphor holds for the creative life. Many of us start off with a vision for where we'd like to go, perhaps even with five and ten year plans. Yet if we're open to some alternate paths, we might find ourselves making intriguing discoveries that we'd never have made, had we stuck religiously to our original plans.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Playing Chopin with No Sheet Music and Other Inspirations

Last night, we went to hear the Symphony play Chopin--the pianist, who was also my spouse's Music Theory teacher, played from memory.  When she wasn't playing, she moved a bit with the music.  At first, I worried that she might be ill.  Then I realized that she had practiced so much that the music had become part of her.

As I watched her play with no sheet music, I wondered how we can all internalize our art this way.  How can we physicalize our art, if it's not a physical art?  Or is memorization the key?

I thought about one of my writer friends in South Carolina, who can still recite poems that she learned throughout her school years.  She memorized them years ago, and thus, they can never be taken away from her.

I've also been thinking about the Russian woman who won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday--the first journalist to win this most prestigious award.  I've been thinking about displaced people, since one of her most famous works deals with Chernobyl.  As I drove around the city on Thursday listening to commentators, I thought about how wonderful it is that literary prizes are still deemed newsworthy.  I loved that it was her writing that was discussed.

And although I have to hunt hard some days to find it, I'm glad that the Internet provides this kind of ongoing conversation about writing and artistic works.  I find it in a variety of places:  newspapers that are available online, NPR stories, and the various posts from Facebook friends who are writers and other artists.

If Svetlana Alexievich hadn't won the Nobel Prize, would we be revisiting Chernobyl?   I listened to this NPR story about how wildlife is thriving in the 30 kilometer wide containment zone around Chernobyl.

I thought of containment zones and other catastrophes.  Would it be easier to leave one's homeplace if it just stopped existing?  Would it be harder if one's homeland existed, but one was not allowed back in?  I have the glimmerings of a short story.

I also continue to be fascinated by the pre-dawn sky.  This morning, I saw Mercury, just to the left of the moon:

I wrote another poem this morning.  It was inspired by my act of writing a grocery list over a map of the sky.  It may be unfinished, or it may not.  I thought of the woman yesterday who walked her dog as I stood in the street, gaping at the sky.  I said to her, "Look at that moon."  I wanted to signal that I was not some crazy person.  She hurried along, not looking at the sky.  Metaphor?  Unsure.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Bright Stars of the Morning

I know that Venus and Jupiter are not planets, but the phrase "bright planets of the morning" doesn't have the right cadence.

I have been watching Venus from my writing room window for weeks now.  And this morning, I can also see Jupiter.  Soon the moon will rise a bit higher.  I'm not really seeing Mercury yet.

Pam Ward-Reagan's picture

Later in the month, we will be able to see 2 other planets with our naked eyes.  For more on this morning's sky layout, go to this site.  The moon is beautiful this morning:  a slim crescent with the outline of the moon above it.

I'm reminded of an old saying about the old moon cradling the new moon in its arms.  But I don't have any cameras that can capture what I saw this morning.

I was up many hours before the moon rose.  I sent off 4 short stories to 4 journals.  I wrote a new poem and took the skeleton of a poem from a year ago that I never finished and filled in the blanks.  I made a veggie risotto (recipe here), since I had an eggplant and peppers that weren't going to last much longer.

I thought about grading papers but decided that could wait until later today.

My spouse thinks that if I set the alarm, I would sleep later; his theory is that I wake up early because I am so afraid I will oversleep.

My theory is that I wake up in the hope of having the kind of morning like I've just had.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Report on the First Day Back in the Physical Classroom

In yesterday's blog post I wrote about my return to the physical classroom.  Before yesterday, I hadn't taught in a physical classroom, teaching a traditional college class, since 2009.  I'm happy to report that it went well.

Some things haven't changed.  Some of my Facebook friends commented on my energy and enthusiasm in the classroom--yep, those are still there.  I love the hopeful mood of the whole room on the first day of class. 

Some things have changed.  I need my reading glasses to check their schedules to make sure they have cleared holds and are allowed in class.   That's a small change.

Larger changes are more subtle, known only to me.  I'm using my own writing, published writing, to serve as a model.  I'm hopeful that it will help build that ever elusive writing community in the classroom.  I'm not the expert with the red pen.  I'm a writer just like everyone else.

In 2009 I wouldn't have had many essays to choose from.  Now I do.  I'm thinking that I'll use ones that have been published, just in case there might be copyright issues later, as I'm loading them onto school equipment, and I don't want anything to happen that might interfere with my right to use them later.

Yesterday I handed them my essay on Hildegard of Bingen, which was published here at the Living Lutheran site.   I said, "We're going to be learning to write essays by using many different approaches.  Today we're going to try a 19th century approach."  And then I explained how I wanted them to copy the essay, writing by hand on paper.  I expected objections.  There were none, although I did have to ask one student to put his phone away.  I told them that as they copied, to think about the strengths and weaknesses of the essay. 

We did this experiment last.  A peaceful, meditative state descended on the room.  I thought about doing some work on the computer, but I didn't want to ruin the mood with clicking keys.  I realized that I used to read a lot of books as I waited for my students to finish their writing tasks.  I'll start bringing a book with me to class.

It was a wonderful way to spend a morning.  I do realize that it's wonderful in part because I'm only teaching one class.  If I was teaching multiple sections, it might be different.

But I spend much of my day in the office hearing from students with complaints, hearing from people who have discovered issues that must be addressed immediately, hearing all sorts of tales of woe.  It was nice to get out of that environment and back into the classroom.

I'm looking forward to next week.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

An Online Teacher Returns to the Physical Classroom

I last taught in a physical classroom in December 2009.  Of course, I've done teaching of sorts since then:  leading retreats, leading a class here and there, presenting information.  But traditional teaching for a school term in a physical classroom?  It's been awhile.

The tradition used to be that when a person was promoted to department chair, that person didn't have to teach for a year.  In 2010, I was promoted to department chair of the General Education department.  I stopped teaching for a year, and for a variety of reasons, I wasn't required to teach again.  Loss of staff meant that more and more non-teaching responsibilities were given to me, and teaching fell away.

Two years ago, I returned to teaching when I was offered the opportunity to teach online classes.  I had issues/worries with online classes, but I could see the way the wind was blowing.  I wanted to have the experience, should I be forced to find another job.  I didn't expect to love it as much as I have come to love it.

I will be interested in seeing how my online teaching has changed the way I approach my physical classroom.  I expect that I will be sending out more e-mails and trying other ways to stay in touch with students and keep them on task.  Our onground classes meet only once a week--it's easy for students to go astray.  I'll use some of the techniques I've learned from online classes to try to keep from losing them.

I've been wrestling with eCompanion, our learning management system.  It's clunky--but then, I have yet to find an elegant LMS.  Maybe clunkiness is a feature, not a bug.

I'm teaching what we call Topics for Composition, a sort of Composition II class.  Instead of using a book of essays as models, I'll be bringing in my own essays.

I think of when I first started teaching writing, back when I was an idealistic grad student.  All those years I had been saying, "If I was the English teacher, I'd run the class this way."  And now I had a class of my own.

I was surrounded by like-minded grad students teaching for the first time.  We talked about writing communities and how to build community in the classroom.  I tried all sorts of peer editing.  I never took my own writing to my students.

For this quarter, I am keeping my class simple, while at the same time, I'm already thinking of ways I could enrich it in the future.

It was good to take a break from teaching.  But the last two years have taught me that I really do love it.  I do have some skills and talents in this direction.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Writing Projects: Short, Linked, Long, Longhand

These past two weeks have been the kind of exhaustion inducing time that makes me wonder if I'll ever write anything interesting again.  In these times, I sometimes wonder if I notice the creative output of others more--is it because I'm feeling like I have so few scraps of creative time that I envy what others are doing? 

Instead, let me see this time as one that contains inspirations for later, when I, too, will have more time.

"I wanted the stories to feel so entwined that if you were to lose any one of them, the rest would sort of fall apart a little bit," says Anthony Marra on his new collection The Tsar of Love and Techno.

I love the idea of these short stories being so entwined that the loss of one of them would diminish the collection.   He  goes on to talk about the collection of short stories as a mix tape that tells a narrative--and he's made a mix tape (OK, not a tape, but a collection of songs) to go with it, available on Spotify.  You can hear the whole interview here.

I've thought of mix tapes and albums before, but usually in terms of books of poetry (see this post).  It's an interesting approach to short story collections too.

On the other end of the spectrum, from short stories to novels, a Facebook friend noted the art project of Tim Youd, who is typing 100 novels in 10 years.  The photo on the home page of his website shows him typing The Sound and the Fury in front of Faulkner's Oxford house.    So far, he's typed 35 novels--only one by a woman, Virginia Woolf.

I think of nineteenth century rhetoricians who had their students write the works of great Greek and Latin writers.  What might we learn by such a project?  Would the pounding of the typewriter keys imprint the work into our brains in a different way than writing by hand?

Tomorrow I meet with a new group of writing students for the first time.  I won't be making them do this, but I'm always intrigued by the idea.  If I gave them an essay that had gotten an A and had them write it out by hand, what would they learn?

I say I won't do this, but maybe I will think about it.  Hmmm.  I won't use a student essay, for reasons of confidentiality.  What published essay might I use.  Hmmm.

What if I used one of my essays that had been published?  Hmm.  I think this might work.