March 3, 2010
There are few things in the world that match the feeling of being a senior in college and majoring in English. Sitting up to the early hours of the morning, typing away by the light of a half-burnt-out lamp I’d found in a basement closet, I clicked away until the poem, short story, or whatever I was working on that night was perfect. Caffeine, sugar, and the adrenalin of having walked around the campus three times at two o’clock in the morning pushed me and drove sleep away. Words were my medium. They still are. I won’t pretend I’m anywhere near as good as the greats that inspired me.
These were the standards, the pure forms of what I hoped to accomplish. I still do. While I’ve worked in education, government, and at various jobs that never required me to write anything other than a drink order, the study of words, of language, has served me well. The manipulation of homonyms, synonyms, and severed limbs is a skill every person should learn, if only to enrich the possibilities of the mind.
I recently tutored a student who didn’t understand why poetry and fiction were essential. He saw no use for an English class. Not for him. This kind of attitude is as strange to me as a shark with kneecaps. He wasn’t an English major, he said. He would never write a story, or a poem, or have to ever again analyze literature after leaving the class. It sounds like a reasonable concern. If you’re studying business, politics, or even biology, why in the world should you have to sit through a class on Emily Dickinson?
Because she’s awesome! That’s why!
But maybe that’s subjective. Maybe I just want everyone to have this level of passion. Schools make a big deal out of their kids reading more and more, but very few of them actually work hard to make sure their kids can write. Not just write, though. Students are never taught to really use and love language, to use it to not just communicate, but create. In the three years I’ve worked as a tutor, I’ve had maybe two students come in with creative writing assignments.
A lot of school districts usually cut the arts funding first. As we speak, districts in Indiana are cutting music programs. It’s an unfortunate story, but it’s happened in many districts throughout the country. Art in any way, shape, or form doesn’t seem to have a place in schools. It’s something fun, something that may make you either famous or doom you to a career of obscurity.
Art is how we learn. It’s play. Metaphors lead to the understanding of new concepts. Even mathematicians benefit from realizing the humor and beauty in their respective subject.
When I teach and find students are so entrenched in a single way of doing something and they can’t think of new ideas, I want to cry. Personal essays come out dry and cliché. Students worry more for form than content. The appearance of eloquence and ability is more important, is easier, than actually learning. If a movie is the right length and has special effects, it’s a masterpiece. If a book talks about endless love, it must be deep. If it’s got a budget equal to the cost of the Apollo program, it has to be good, right?
I want language to come back. I want everyone to appreciate art, good art, and strive to build something new. One of the worst things I was told while working as a speechwriter in Congress was that I was not supposed to make anything new or say anything too good. I was only supposed to write the absolute minimum to get things done.
That’s the philosophy we’re encouraging.
Language builds our reality. Be creative with yours. Think that six thousand years ago, before we had written language, our thoughts only had a single form: sound. When we uttered something, it was gone forever unless someone remembered it. With the advent of writing and later the printing press, our thoughts had a permanent form. Why don’t we encourage more creativity with it? Artists have a hundred ideas an hour, and yet we only ever really pursue one or two paths, a line here, a word there, a stroke of the brush between the sorting of mental clutter.
Sometimes I long for the days of a small, crappy computer and a burnt-out lamp. The pressure to create. I drive myself, and now this site drives me, too. It’s the biggest rush in the world. To create something that didn’t exist before, even something as small as a haiku, is a miracle. If every computer and piece of information was destroyed tomorrow, we’d rediscover nuclear energy. We could rebuild mathematics. Digital watches would come back in short order.
But art? Art is unique. In all its flaws, glitter of diamond perfection, and accidental genius, art is unique. Everything you’ve ever and never written was unique. But now art has no place in the world.
Reject that kind of thinking. Be spontaneous with your words. Start small. Write something on a bathroom wall no one would think of writing.
Curse with words you’ve never used for swearing.
Make up a term for how you feel when you first wake up.
Tilt your head to look at something in a new way.
Art is pain, joy, ecstasy, and chance. It involves showing a little bit of truth. Everyone can speak. Everyone can write. All you need is something to write with and ten seconds.
Start a revolution with a pencil.