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On Community and Writing

Monday, April 26, 2010

Maybe obviously, part of what I’m trying to explore and to understand via the experiment of this blog is just what it is I do, what I want to do, and what I can do in the area of reading, thinking, and writing. Those who have known me over the past decade or so know well that I’ve struggled to align what I do, want to do and can do with what seems to be valued, recognized and rewarded in my profession. In other words, I have experienced something of a misalignment between what I do for a living and what I’d most like to be doing.

Some qualifiers: I do know that I’m fortunate to be making a living at all. Much of the world’s population struggles just to get enough to eat, to shelter and to clothe themselves. I also know that even among those who are able to make a living, the misalignment I just mentioned might not be all that uncommon. Indeed, for many people who make a living, their way of making a living may have nothing at all to do with what they most love to do. Some of those might pursue their love, their vocation, in their free time, using their day job to subsidize their passion. Others might, sadly, have just resigned themselves to a life lacking the cultivation and exercise of their vocation. So even within the set of those lucky enough to make a living, I know and appreciate that I am part of a lucky subset whose day job at least has something to do with what they love to do. I have a good job, with a great deal of flexibility in my schedule, summers off, and the opportunity to get paid to spend a fair amount of time playing in at least the general area of what I love: reading, writing, and thinking. So what’s my problem? Where’s the struggle? After all, I have tenure at the University of Michigan. I get to teach pretty much whatever I feel like teaching and, while my salary might go up more slowly and I might never be promoted to Full Professor because of it, nobody is breathing down my neck to publish.

I think it comes down to community. Now, community is a word that, in general, really irritates me. My experience with it in the academy is that it gets thrown around quite carelessly either in a self-congratulatory manner by people who believe a community gets made just by declaring it so, or in a hand-wringing gesture of lamentation by people who believe that community is a thing and that if they only had more of that thing (a thing, by the way, that someone else is supposed to provide them) then all their problems would magically vanish. Either way, it often winds up sounding sort of exclusive, formulaic and rigid, and somehow about perpetuating itself. Moreover, I’m a bit shy and somewhat introverted and so talk of community tends to make me nervous, my knotted stomach preparing in advance to shrink awkwardly in a corner trying to avoid everyone at the academic equivalent of a middle-school mixer.

But I recently had an experience for which I (and my fiancée Claire) could come up with no better word than community. And that experience has shed a certain light for me on my struggles over the past decade or so. I’m not sure I can (or want to) define community. But maybe if I can describe the experience, I’ll be able at least to extract from that description some of the qualities of what I think of as community.

Claire’s youngest sister, Louisa, came through St. Louis last week, on tour with her band, The Shondes. Along with Louisa, we hosted two other members of the band, Eli and Temim. They arrived on a Saturday afternoon, played an energetic set at a local club (to an extremely sparse crowd – a detail that may yet have some bearing on what I am calling community), and then stayed with us until Friday morning. They’d originally planned just to be with us until Wednesday morning, hoping that they could arrange for a gig in Memphis before their next scheduled appearance in Fayetteville on Friday night, but they seemed happy enough to scrap those plans when Claire and I somewhat sheepishly told them that we didn’t want them to leave. So we had about six days with The Shondes as our guests in our comfortable but not over-large two-bedroom apartment (a detail that may also have some bearing on what I am calling community).

Here is some of what we did during that time: went to a late-night diner at midnight to eat grilled cheese, fries, and milkshakes; Claire and her sister stayed up ‘til five in the morning one night talking over childhood and adolescent memories; ate pizza and artichokes and drank beer to celebrate Eli’s birthday; ate delicious donuts from quirky quaint establishments that Temim – following a passion of hers – had tracked down; talked about the details of their first record contract and the experience of recording their second album; talked about my life, particularly about the difficulties of trying to sustain relationships with my children (ages 18 and 19) while living far from them, but also about my parents, my siblings, and my childhood; talked about the Enneagram and each of our personality types (1, 2, 4, 6, and 8) and how they play themselves out in our lives and relationships; ate an incredible banquet of middle-Eastern food, after first airing extensively our anxieties about ordering food, especially food to be shared with others – and then, stuffed though we were, got ice-cream from a famous local landmark, Ted Drewes; walked around our neighborhood with a basketball, found an incredible old cabinet with phonograph and built-in speakers, hauled said cabinet back to our front porch in their van; ate another tremendous meal; walked around in Forest Park, overwhelmed by the smell of jasmine and the fading sunlight, where, while Claire and Louisa wandered around getting to talk some more, Eli and Temim and I enjoyed a beer on the dock of the boathouse and talked about their lives living in Brooklyn; ate Chinese food; talked about what Claire and I wanted to do with our lives; watched ridiculous videos on Youtube of extreme slip-n-slide and then perused the astounding culinary monstrosities on thisiswhyyourefat.com; ate one last incredible meal at the Fitz’s soda bottling plant that left us all stuffed to the gills and engaged in a ridiculous but irrepressible game of punning of the name “Fitz” on Claire’s Facebook wall, even as we were all seated around our kitchen table with our computers.

Then, horribly, Friday morning came, they loaded their things into the van, took a few Fitz’s sodas with them for the road, hugged us, and as my eyes filled with tears, drove away, Claire and I standing arms around each other waving goodbye. Claire and I, of course, were sad to see them go, but we were also unsettled by the whole experience. We took a long walk together the day The Shondes left and tried to sort it out. The first thing we realized was that we had, almost continuously while we were with The Shondes, felt that we had gotten to be completely ourselves. It doesn’t mean we didn’t perform at times, but when we did perform it was exuberant self-expression, not a craven desire to conform to expectations. We were -- crowded into our apartment -- foolish and difficult and generous and loving and that foolishness and that difficulty, and that generosity and love, were all noted as inseparable parts of who we were and what was appreciated and loved about us. We were vulnerable and strong, individually, together as a couple, together as a group of five, together in whatever combinations of two or three of us might have arisen at a given time. We laughed and laughed, we also cried, we were silent at times, we struggled at times, we talked and talked and talked and then talked some more. We were fully alive. And we realized that we had gotten to be around others a way – fully, expressively ourselves -- that we usually only get to be with each other (or maybe with our therapists).

That seems to me to be the core of what community can deliver: a nurturing, dynamic, human environment that invites you out in all your foolishness and glory and encourages you to be who you, uniquely, are. But wait, there’s more: because in this particular community, sharing time and space with this group of late-20-something musicians, all of whom have day jobs and bills to pay and tribulations like the rest of us, but who had determinedly arranged their lives so as to put their creative vocation at the center of their lives, come what may (even a disappointingly sparse crowd), Claire and I were reminded that we too had creative vocations. We were reminded of this, and reminded that gaining access to these powers was much simpler and closer to hand than we might have thought – had we not more or less forgotten that we had them in the first place. We felt inspired to plug back into these powers as individuals, as a couple, and to orient ourselves and our plans for a life in a way that would nourish those vital, creative capacities. So community not only lets you be yourself, I think, but also inspires you to get in touch with your best self, the part that most energetically participates in the creative force of life.

Coming back to my struggles in the academy, I think that this experience of community is what -- despite the ease and indeed relative luxury of what I do for a living, despite the friendships I have made there, despite the rewards of teaching – has been, crucially, missing for me. And it has been missing most conspicuously and harmfully for me, I now think, in the realm of writing and of the aims and styles of writing in particular. The academy has a number of forms which perhaps strive for, certainly mimic, and maybe even for some actually deliver an experience of community: conferences, journals, lectures, reading and writing groups. The problem, as I see it, arises first because performance in these forms tends to be tied in some way or another to a competitive system of reward (publication, tenure, and promotion), second because these rewards are scarce in relation to the number of individuals seeking them, and third because the criteria for judging performance and so providing rewards are relatively narrow and self-reproducing. In other words, unless you are predisposed to ask not the same questions, but the same kinds of questions as those judging performance; unless you have the same idea of what constitutes a problem to work on; unless you are naturally inclined to obey the conventions of academic discourse (which include not only a style of writing, and a form of argument, but also predetermined sense of what an essay is (around 30 pp. double spaced), what a book is (around 250 pp. double-spaced), not to mention the necessary scholarly apparatus of footnotes and bibliographies) – unless all of that is in place, then you aren’t likely to feel, when you are at a conference or preparing a manuscript for submission -- all those wonderful things Claire and I felt around The Shondes.

And that’s my situation and has been for sometime. I may still be trying to figure out what I want to do and what I can do, but I’m fairly sure that the prevailing forms and conventions of literary studies in the contemporary academy aren’t the community for it, whatever it is. For one thing, I want to be read and understood by people who don’t have Ph.D.’s and the things I’d have to do with my writing in order for that to happen are exactly the things that would make my writing illegible to the purveyors of judgment and reward in the academy (I know this because I have both received and purveyed such judgment and reward for nearly two decades now).

I don’t expect the academy to deliver the kind of experience of community we had with The Shondes. That’s sort of the point. I’m realizing that the community I might help sustain and that might help sustain me isn’t there. It doesn’t mean I’m quitting my day job. But it does mean I’m trying to actively to look to other circles in which to offer my efforts at making community.

I think that the kind of writing I want to do used to be done by academics in this country. They used to publish not in specialized academic journals but in literary reviews, alongside poets and storytellers, and maybe occasionally also in even more popular magazines. I’m still thinking about all that changed – in the discipline, in the American university at large, in the publishing industry, and in literary culture more generally – so as to make this sort of writing (and the community of readers and writers that sustained it) disappear. But while I think about that, and while I figure out what I want to do and can do, I’m thinking that maybe this blogosphere – isn’t that what they call it? – might actually provide the next best thing. (I really don’t know much about blogging and so would welcome responses from anybody who knows more about it than I do).

I remember at some point in graduate school, stuck with my dissertation, asking one of my advisors about who my audience was supposed to be. He said, your audience is whoever is still around after you’ve been saying what you think for a while. Maybe I’m coming around to understanding that. Maybe your community is who is around and loving you when you are being fully yourself. And I think that maybe through this blog I can contribute through my being my self in writing to the coalescence of a community – however small -- of readers and writers who may sustain themselves and one another and in so doing breathe a little life into the dying embers of an alternative way of reading, thinking, and writing.


megan April 27, 2010 at 12:12 AM  

Your days with the Shondes nearly broght tears to my eyes. I wonder why those moments always have to end? And what if they didn´t?

For me the interesting thing about blogging is that we have no idea who our readers are, or if we have any readers at all. And that gives us a different set of thoughts when we´re writing a blog post...

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