Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What a Concept

I tore up – well, deleted – this post a number of times before getting to this version of it because I wasn’t entirely sure what I was really trying to say.

I had posted on my Facebook page last week about how surprised I was to see the students back at Columbia. It had reminded me of a crack my late father-in-law once made about the perfect university being “no students.” It was a crack – I remember at his memorial service how so many of his former students praised his dedication and commitment. He was a great teacher, but even great teachers have to let off steam sometime.

And it also made me think of all the different kinds of institutions of “higher learning,” whatever that means – maybe better to say “post-secondary” schools -- there are: the big “research schools,” the “teaching schools” (you mean you can’t do both?), the small liberal arts colleges, private colleges, community colleges, “land-grant universities,” “for profit” schools (as if schools with big endowments and big sports teams don’t make money).

And somewhere in that mess of categories is Columbia, where I do most of my teaching. It’s an arts-oriented college – I don’t say “arts college” because there’s also a lot of allied marketing and media aspects to the place. But it’s “artsy” enough.

And we have the biggest Creative Writing program in the country – at last count, five hundred students majoring in one Creative Writing degree program or another: Fiction Writing, Creative Non-Fiction, Poetry – at grad and undergrad levels.

Five hundred students.

Hell, if I handed out M-1s and hand grenades we could take over Kenosha, not that I’m sure what we’d do with it once we’d taken it, but we could.

Five hundred Creative Writing majors. No wonder I’m happy here.

Yes. I’m happy here. I’m happy at a job.

And that’s the strange feeling, and why I couldn’t figure out what I’ve been trying to say. I’ve had so many jobs where I’d spent so many hours in sheer misery – I mean, MISERY. MISERY. MISERY! Repetitive tasks under bad circumstances and bad conditions, often working with some really great people but also working for some – some, I say – terrible bosses.

The notion that you can have a job and that it can be good and rewarding and challenging and fun – and that your colleagues and bosses have your back … it almost seems, well, radical.

It reminds me of a couple of linked incidents that occurred to me shortly after I started grad school at Northwestern. One of my professors was Barbara Newman, medievalist extraordinaire and the go-to person on Hildegard of Bingen. I had a conference with her where we discussed a paper I was working on (which later became the basis of my thesis/Master’s Essay). She asked me how I liked doing the research and running down answers to questions in the library. I started to say I found it interesting and compelling and … I halted.

“Ye-e-s?” – like she was expecting and coaxing the next word out of my mouth.

Finally, I said it: “Fun. It’s fun.” I may have said it like I was confessing to a murder.

She smiled and nodded. “That’s it. My work is play.”

That was it. The bookcase could have tipped over and crushed me. I wouldn’t have noticed.

It was not that this was a great revelation. Somewhere, way back in the past, I knew of this – work could be play. And play was learning. In some ways, play is the most intense and meaningful learning we ever receive.

Yes, yes, of course. I knew that. But could I do that? Was it a possibility for me?

Teachers had been telling me, counselors (some at least), family (at times), friends, even, have said, “No. Not for you. Shut up and get back to work.” They had me convinced.

When I went back to my job (I worked full-time all through my academic career; I don't know what going to school "just as a student" means), after meeting with Professor Newman, and mentioned this notion to a colleague – that work can be play – she snapped. “The hell it can! @%$#@ (*&#@(!!!!!” she said. Then added, “@*#&# @*&# @(*&@$@!!! !!! !!!!!!”

I don’t think she thought it was a good idea.

But the idea never left me. If work can be play, play is something more than “play.” There’s more to it than just an enjoyable way to learn, but it’s important – especially when we’re learning about the arts and even – yes, even – the humanities.

Columbia may not be a perfect school – oh, it has problems, the same problems as many other colleges, and a few that are unique to the place. But there’s an attitude, and an atmosphere and a collection of people that are on the same wavelength.

I can work here.

And be happy.

And I have to get used to being happy at what I do – when I’m not writing.

I am almost always happy writing. If I’m not happy writing, it’s because I’m too busy writing to know how I feel at all. It’s not bliss, per se, but it’s engagement. I’m one with the job of writing. Happiness, writing and me are all synonyms.

The trouble, for a long time, has been getting me there: seat of the pants on the seat of the chair. When I’ve experienced something that can be called “writer’s block,” it is, I suspect, a part of me that’s saying, “This can’t be work. You mustn’t do this – if it’s work, you shouldn’t be enjoying it. If you’re not miserable you’re not working hard enough!”

This isn’t to say that writing, or teaching, isn’t hard work. It is. That’s not the hard part I’m still trying to get my head around.

It’s not that hard work can’t be enjoyable if you’re loving the work. It’s not that you can love the work – I’ve been believing that since way back in the sixties, and after that, when all my classmates “knew” that the only important thing was making money, and didn’t matter how much you hated your job because, so they thought, it wasn’t your life – you can have your life after work: drink beer, watch TV, play pool, get food poisoning on a cruise ship and other fun things. It's not that at all.

It’s that I can be happy.

What a concept.

I’m in the department office, or in the library, and I run into former students or teaching colleagues, and I’m happy to meet them, and enthused, and even if I’ve had a terrible walk from the train station, or my head exploded from a migraine early that morning, they ask me how I’m doing and I say I feel great. Not because it’s the expected answer, but because in spite of the little disappointments (and a few big ones, maybe) I’m happy.

I’m working at it.

Now all I have to do is figure out how to make a living.

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