staying hungry

wandering-saltimbanques

Four years ago, as an English teacher at a midwestern university, I caused a student to drop out of college.

He was from China, quiet and bright, one of only two students who had shown up to an optional class on the day before fall break. Toward the end of the semester, as part of a speechwriting unit, I played a video of Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech. His conclusion, a rallying call to the graduates, is a phrase that has since become iconic:

“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

It’s also nearly synonymous with privilege, the opportunity to drop out of Stanford (as Jobs did), to pursue one’s dreams at the cost of a steady, easy future. Those of us socioeconomically blessed to be only figuratively hungry, or smart enough to be only figuratively foolish, could really get behind it.

Afterward, my class dissected the speech, spoke keenly on Jobs’s pathos, his ethos. The students seemed to like it all right, but not overwhelmingly. We didn’t bring Jobs up again for the rest of the semester, and my students, fledgling rhetoricians, left for winter break.

A few months later, the Chinese student appeared at my office door. I offered him a seat, and he told me that he had come to say goodbye, to thank me, because he had decided to drop out of his engineering program.

“Why are you thanking me?” I asked.

“The Steve Jobs speech you showed us in class, it inspired me to do what I really believe in,” he said, “to be a missionary, to serve others.”

Even then–before Jobs became a sometimes reviled, sometimes revered, majorly controversial figure in the public consciousness–I regretted immediately that I had shown his “stay hungry” speech to my class. Like Jobs, my student was going to give up, for however long–maybe forever–the chance to receive a degree from a respected (and expensive) university. His parents must have been in conniptions.

I didn’t want to let him leave. We talked for a time and he seemed happier, lighter than I’d ever seen him. As the details of his parents’ desires and his unhappiness came out, I saw that he had been quiet for more reasons than I’d imagined. He had already planned his flight to Africa.

Recently I listened to an interview with Andreas Merkl, CEO of Ocean Conservancy. When the interviewer, Robert Rimm of Arch Street Press, asked Merkl what advice he had for young entrepreneurs, his answer was strikingly familiar:

“Find something that intrinsically fascinates you–are you a network builder? do you like to take things apart? are you a storyteller?–and let that get you up every day,” he said. “Let that evolve what you do. Maybe that means an NGO career, or an environmental career, or maybe you’ll create three dimensional environments that revolutionize the way we travel that takes tons of carbon out of the atmosphere, which will have a bigger effect on the world than if you became an environmental lawyer.”

Stay hungry, Merkl was saying, above all else. Brilliance is fleeting, an irregular sort of by-product of the act of getting up every day to understand, pursue, practice that intrinsically fascinating thing. And hardly anything truly great, truly remarkable or outstanding, was created without that kind of love.

I can see my student now. He is silent, as always, in the back of my classroom. When I call on him, he whispers. He writes a paper about the difficulty of immersion for foreign students in American universities. If he has a question, he approaches me at the end of the class. He whispers. In his paper, his freshman roommate gets completely smashed and urinates on my student’s bed on a Friday night. “How do I conclude this paper?” he asks.

I don’t know.

I don’t know what happened to my student. Maybe he became a missionary, and maybe he has built a school. Maybe it’s a marvel of engineering, and he will go on to build many schools, their style a staple for a hundred years to come.

Or maybe he has found something else that gets him up every day. For now, the thing isn’t so important as the act.

“Have at it,” I said to him when he left my office, and I wished my student well. I wished him the very best.

photo credit: Wandering Saltimbanques by Honore Daumier – photo by Cliff (license)

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between authenticity and schmaltz

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At the microphone, a woman with cropped hair and suspenders put her hands to her chest. “My love for you, Cheryl,” she said, “is a secret message between my heart and yours.”

Cheryl put a hand to her own chest, her face lit, eyes crinkling.

This was the start of the question and answer session between us–mostly young women in late-fall trench coats and boots–and Cheryl Strayed of the Pacific Crest Trail, of drug addiction and recovery after her mother’s early death from cancer, of cutting wisdom and wit which had inspired an almost cult-like adoration for her among the lot of us in the D.C. synagogue.

The next woman approached the microphone with a similar outpouring of adoration. And–despite our moderator’s admonition that we should “just ask the question, please,”–the flow of vignettes did not stop. “I found you when I Googled ‘best book to read after a breakup,’” one woman said.

In the row ahead of me, I heard a whisper-exclamation: “That’s how I found her, too!”

Thanks to Oprah and Reese Witherspoon, she had achieved the kind of celebrity status that led most of us, having never met her before, to feel that we knew her well. And, of course, the most important reason: she wrote about herself (the human condition, really) so nakedly, so compellingly that anyone who’s read Wild or Tiny Beautiful Things has felt, for a couple hundred pages, that they were friends with a woman named Cheryl Strayed.

Some part of me sensed–resisted–the low hum of schmaltz. But then, even holding a lime-green copy of her book of quotations, I was teary, too, when she described the more than twenty years since the death of her mother.

“It’s terrible,” she said. “I’ve lived so long without my mother and yet I carry her with me every day. She is like an empty bowl I’ve had to repeatedly fill on my own.”

She described the deepest parts of her depression–the drug and sex addictions–and the years she spent miserable, lost. But her mother had loved her too well to let Cheryl ruin her life. And so she had gone on to many things: the Pacific Crest Trail, for one; graduate school; a family; and of course, the publication of Wild.

“Time doesn’t heal,” Lera Auerbach observes in Excess of Being, “it simply shifts the focus.”

A few minutes later, Strayed spoke of being a mother. “It’s a strange thing: for the first six months of my children’s lives, they were basically eating me,” she said, her hands waving up and down her body. The young mother she was giving advice to–”be gentle on yourself,”–laughed, obviously grateful.

Everything about her resisted inauthenticity, even when we closed in on her with our affection. Even when the internet popularized dozens of her sentences into memes, distilled her writing into inspirational quotes.

In a college workshop, my professor once critiqued a story’s ending by saying it was “too saccharine.” Too sugary, too sweet. Authenticity, he said, relies on a kind of trueness to the human condition that’s sometimes depressing, and sometimes optimistic, and often bittersweet.

Maybe this is why she has a honed edge. Apparently, she told us, many people were having her writing tattooed onto their bodies. “How many of you here have one of my quotes tattooed on?”

We were silent.

“Man, D.C. is fucking laced up.”

We laughed; it was true.

After the reading, hundreds of us were filing out, keeping ourselves to a neat line that wrapped around the back of the nave instead of cutting through the pews. Behind me, a woman said, “We’re all being so gracious because of Cheryl.”

A few seconds later, the woman and her friends were sidling between the pews. And that felt like something Cheryl might have condoned, too.

remembering your origin story

grey-door

It was Halloween, and we stood in the alcove of the Monastery of the Precious Blood.

My canvassing partner rang the bell. We waited. Normally we’d have left a door hanger and gone after half a minute, but we waited a long while. For as strange as we felt trying to convince sixteen Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood to vote that Tuesday, we were shamelessly curious.

I was remembering a line from Excess of Being: “Don’t cushion your life with too much caution,” says Lera Auerbach.

No cushion here, Lera.

After a minute, a wooden slat opened. Through the grate, a woman’s face, her hairline a white and blue habit.

“Good morning, Sister,” we said.

“Good morning,” she returned, predictably a little skeptical of us two in our red shirts, clipboards at our hips.

My partner launched into his pitch, introducing us, our organization, the importance of preschool in New Hampshire, a list of candidates committed to early education, and would she allow us to talk to the other Sisters about voting this Tuesday?

“Well,” she said, “we already voted. Absentee.”

She didn’t open the door for us.

When we got back into the car, we checked the monastery off as a success. The Sisters really liked one of our candidates, and she had seemed chipper through that grate. It was our second day of canvassing, and we already had rhinoceros hides.

And for good reason. The afternoon before–my first time door-knocking–a disembodied voice had called out through a window: “Go away–please leave!” A man working in his garage froze when the door chime sounded, his sneaker gone immobile in the small gap where the garage door wasn’t fully lowered. One of our canvassers was chased down a driveway by a determined pomeranian.

There are two kinds of canvassers: those who have been menaced by dogs, and those who haven’t canvassed much.

Before I ended up at the monastery–before I’d even traveled to New Hampshire–I got advice from a coworker who had rawed his knuckles on doors for years. “Remember your origin story,” he said. The origin story, he explained, is why you do the work. It’s what makes you tireless, unflappable.

His origin story was his two young children. What was mine?

I didn’t know. Even when I arrived on the first stoop, I didn’t know, because I had no children of my own, no nieces and nephews. I just wanted to help kids.

In my first hour of canvassing, an elderly man opened his door. That day I was with another woman, the two of us complete novices. We delivered a halting, uncertain pitch, which he humored. He was smiling at us, in fact, as he told us that preschool was really just babysitting.

“Women should stay home with their children,” he said. “When you two grow up and become mothers, you should stay home with your kids. Did your mothers keep you at home until kindergarten?”

“I went to preschool,” my partner said.

“I went to montessori,” I said, surprising myself. It’s a fact I can easily forget, but it’s where my earliest memories come from: a young woman holding a picture frame out to me, the center replaced with a portion of a dress shirt that she wanted me to button. When I had done that, she switched it for a frame with a shirt with snap-buttons.

The first memory I have is of preschool. The first memory I have is of learning.

“Montessori,” he said, nodding deeply. “That’s a good education. But I still don’t support those candidates.”

That was fair, we said, and we got off his porch. I liked him. He was patronizing, entirely opposed to our issues, and he was the first (and only) person who had asked me about myself, had forced me to consider why I was there at all.

After that, not much fazed me. I had doors opened and then shut on me, dogs barking between their owners’ legs, dozens of knocks and door chimes never even answered.

I’d remembered my origin story; the rest was easy.

the difficulty of being real

sign-language-friend

I’ve graduated to a new improv class. Our first meeting, we sat in a circle on tiny chairs in the elementary school and shared what we hoped were likeable details about ourselves. “My housemates got me into improv,” I said. “Even their arguments are funny.”

We got to know one another’s names with gestures and spirit animals. I was Porcupine Shavonne, my fingers splaying out like needles. We went around the room, jumping into flamingo and cat postures, calling one another’s names.

In the next exercise, we took up silent poses in the center of the circle, playing at a knighting, a pseudo-selfie of the group, whiffed high-fives. Twice, we imagined a bee had flown into the circle, and we threw our hands up, ran yelling, swatting.

This is the beauty, the strangeness of improvisation: if you don’t throw off the trappings of adulthood, reclaim the loudness and largeness of childhood, then you’re hardly improvising at all.

And part of reclaiming that loudness is letting your oddness, your awkward noises and motions and words, just be. Things happen, and then—a second later—they happened. The scene is still barreling forward, and you’re still a part of it. By which I mean, if you’re still inhabiting your embarrassment from thirty seconds ago, then you’re sunk.

All of these things I objectively understand. Sometimes I even get them right.

Then our teacher gave us “real scenes.”

We had to sit–a pair of us–in chairs, and be utterly ourselves in front of these people we’d just met, an audience of them. I was reminded of Lera Auerbach’s line from Excess of Being: “the eyes of my readers leave bruises on my skin.”

With my partner, I jumped instantly to books.

“What’s your favorite book?” he asked me.

I knew the answer to that, but there was a blunt vulnerability in answering, a risk. In my nervousness, I became Bizarro Shavonne, a caricature of myself. I have a vague, painful memory of saying that books were like people–that the author’s consciousness was transferred into a book–and so I couldn’t choose between them.

The teacher stepped in. “Tell us a favorite book of yours,” he instructed.

“My actual favorite?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, “your actual favorite.”

So I said it: East of Eden, and then I was asked to explain why it was my favorite, and suddenly my introvert’s preference for deep-diving intimacy in conversation was broadcast to this audience of people whom I wanted to like, and who I wanted to like me.

Some staticky, terrified frequency lit through my brain, a low white noise. A shot of adrenaline, maybe, past which my thoughts struggled into words, into sentences.

Bizarro Shavonne took hold. She claimed she had three copies of the book, had memorized it—I don’t even have the Star Spangled Banner memorized!—and on and on, spiraling who I was into absurdity.

I knew it was absurd, but no one else did. They had only just met me.

When I returned to my seat, the next pair started up. “Rein it in,” the teacher said quickly, because they, too, had started to go to extremes. This was something he had to remind the group of several times during our real scenes: to return to normalcy, to be ourselves and not overblown, comical versions of the people we are.

And for some groups, that meant charming small-talk, a light touch, commentary on decor and the weather. There was a comforting familiarity to this, a reminder of work, the gym, the street corner.

Holy crow, I think now. Real scenes aren’t an anomaly, just some class exercise: they are everywhere, every day. We improvise constantly, and we are always testing the depth to which we can go, how honest we can be.

I wasn’t alone in that exercise. It’s unbelievably difficult—for me, there must be a deep rut in my brain’s pathways—to resist donning that mask, to avoid revealing too much truth.

But it’s double-sided. For as much as I fear giving my unfiltered self over, I also want to. Maybe this is a deep truth for all people. Maybe others want to dive deep, to show themselves completely, and for someone—maybe multiple someones—to light up, to say, “me too.”

After class, at a nearby bar, one of the women in the class leaned close to me. “Tell me about East of Eden,” she said.

 

photo credit: sign language : friend by r.a. olea (license)

why do we expect our greatest creators to be perfect people, too?

Beyond brilliance, there is only one thing we revere more highly. It’s often subconscious, unstated, and for many of us, it is what makes a genius worthy of our admiration.

It is goodness.

In Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul, David Castro argues that “the problem in our culture…is that we associate perfection with people who are strong creators. We expect them to be like gods because their creations are godlike, a clear category mistake.” And further, he points out our society’s belief that “to create something valuable requires an individual or team to be good as a foundation for their creativity.”

It’s true that society cannot abide by an unkind icon, and maybe there is a cognitive dissonance in this, some kind of egoism. What did Steve Jobs’ fall from grace mean for those who had invested fully in the Apple ecosystem? To endorse the brand was also to endorse the man who was its face, and to believe in his goodness, because—deeply, even subconsciously, but irrevocably—we believe that we are good.

As Castro points out elsewhere, this is doubly true with those legends who died long enough ago that their imperfections have been swept aside. It is easier to remember Thomas Edison in a single, pure phrase — the inventor of the light bulb — than it is to delve into the questionable way he treated inventor Nikola Tesla. And it is vastly preferable to avoid dredging up George Washington’s affair with one of his slaves (or, really, that he was a slave owner at all). And this is as logical as the way we looked on our parents as children: godlike, infallible, the predecessors on whom we rely for our history, our political institutions, the light bulbs above us.

Put simply, we just don’t want to revere jerks, as brilliant as they may be.

But on reading Castro’s argument, my first thought was of writers, and artists at large, who are often famed for—even thought to be creatively charged by—their imperfections. There’s an underlying association between artists and suffering, that the two often correlate, that an interesting (imperfect) life has produced some of our finest, wrought creative minds.

Why are artists exempt from this standard of personal perfection, to the extent that alcoholism bears some strange association with brilliance? William Faulkner, who, after finishing revisions for The Sound and Fury in 1929, “locked the door and drank until he blacked out,”1  isn’t considered any less remarkable for his tortured life. He is only more fascinating, maybe privy to life and the human condition in ways that we regular folk are not.

There’s a certain worthiness conferred by an artist’s personal suffering, as though things must happen in the artist’s life that will render her wholly flawed, and thus wiser, a better fount for the understanding we seek in paintings, in novels.

The common thread between the inventor and the artist is that he must still be good. Tortured, an alcoholic, yes, but striving toward goodness, operating from a fundamental place of light. We can forgive the artist her imperfections because they seem inherent to the darkness that often accompanies good art—that unveiling of all the parts of the human condition—in ways that we envision are separate from those masterworks that seem undiluted: drafting the Declaration of Independence, discovering the theory of relativity, pioneering the personal computer.

Artists are allowed, arguably encouraged to be imperfect, uncertain. “Almost all creative genius is deeply flawed,” Castro writes, and perhaps selfish, envious, sometimes full of humanity’s worst parts. But that doesn’t make their genius—or that of our inventors, scientists, or social and technological innovators—any less impactful.

It just makes them like us.

 

1 A. Nicholas Fargnoli and Michael Golay, William Faulkner A to Z (New York: Checkmark Books, 2002), 75.

memory, not fidelity

“I’m just going to watch you,” he said. He was smiling, sunburnt, a lanyard around his neck. Realizing the strangeness of what he’d said, he added: “I’ve always wanted to draw,” pointing to my sketchpad, the pen in my hand.

We were in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Above us, Rubenesque women and attendant cupids, the embossed wisdom—”words are also actions and actions are a kind of words”—of Emerson, Bacon, Milton, Carlyle.

The man beside me was a middle school teacher, he said, from New Mexico. Around us, a hundred almost-teens, some with phones held aloft. They joshed, laughed, looked at each other as much as anything.

I couldn’t blame them.

I remember that age with a kind of cataracted eye, a haziness. “Take pictures,” my parents had instructed on field trips, pressing a disposable camera into my hands. I did, but none of them lasted—not the ones of walls, or ceilings, or women and their cupids, at least.

And why should they? We’re not photographers, most of us. But we do our crude best to capture people, and those are the images we most often keep. The rest are poor stand-ins for the memories we’d like to commemorate.

But the camera isn’t enough.

My instructions were to spend an hour drawing an archway, the curve and flat of the pillars, the stairwell and cupola above. After a time, one of the women in my drawing class deposited her book and pencils on the ledge next to me. “Watch my stuff?” she asked, and then went in search of a bathroom.

I took a break from my drawing, leaning back on the ledge. I watched. This was a place I’d normally bring my camera to bear on, as though the act of taking a picture exempted me from having to look closely.

And that’s the problem: at some point, the camera began to function as my third eye, and I’d come away with a half-cocked impressions of places, the ghosts of buildings, monuments.

These places deserve an exactitude in our memories from which we have grown slowly apart. We glance, we say, “how pretty,” and then our phones flash white.

In a picture is worth…: the voice of today’s high school students, David Castro and Alisa del Tufo observe that, “when the youth of a community become educated, committed and effective, they can become productive and politically engaged changemakers.”

What does it mean for a young person to be committed, to be effective? How can a field trip—a temporary displacement from New Mexico to Washington, D.C.—properly educate?

To start, it is not enough to bring teenagers to the Library of Congress. It is not nearly enough to give them smartphones to document it. There are 350 billion unique images on the Internet, and several thousand of the same ceiling and windows and archways. And how very impressionable we are when so young. What a shame to place cameras between us and these things.

At the very least, we ought to sit, to consider.

Briefly, I imagined what might happen if the teacher from New Mexico put pens in his students’ hands and said: write this place, draw it. Tell me what you see. Tell me what you understand.

photo credit: Library of Congress – 3 ex. HDR (handheld) by m01229 (license)

What it means to say only yes

“What exactly do we remember? Which version of our lives?” – Lera Auerbach, Excess of Being

My improv friends have taught me a rule, the first and most essential to any improvisation:

Yes, and…

Yes, the plane is crashing, and we must save it; yes, this toboggan will win the race, and we have to buff it; yes, you’re a klutz, and let me sweep up that glass you broke.

It’s about expansion, about raising the finger of possibility into the air. In improv, those possibilities swell outward like a balloon; in just a few lines, the world is borne: two, three people, the place they stand, their relationships with one another.

These friends play a game called ‘genres.’ They must improvise the same scene inside any genre the audience calls for: action, noir, bad horror, telenovela. Throughout, they must remain in scene, they must not laugh.

Above all, they must say yes.

In comedy, invoking “no” is a kind of death knell for the scene, a betrayal. It is one person falling backward only to find that the other has retracted his arms.

This is in direct contrast to drama. In my MFA program, we practiced exercises in refusal. “Write a scene,” a professor told us, “in which two characters tell each other ‘no’ in various ways.”

In fact, one could argue that good drama is about characters saying “no” to one another all the time.

This is because the first, critical tenet of fiction is conflict. It must be in the eyes, the flick of the hands, the speech. It’s the hot core from which stakes are raised, around which any good story must revolve. And we novice writers are taught to pick it out wherever we can: from our perches on benches, through thin walls.

Last year I wrote about shyness and writing. I argued that shyness is a symptom of sensitivity, the capacity to feel, and that we writers ought to embrace shyness, to “be uncomfortable” and let conflict get inside us.

Now I wonder. To live by conflict is to live a certain version of life: one that expects to hear ‘no.’ Indeed, that version of a life seeks out–clings to–all the ways in which we and others are refused.

In Wild, Cheryl Strayed writes that “fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story.”

So what if I choose, above all, to remember a different story? What if I choose to say yes? Cheryl Strayed changed her story; today, Tiny Beautiful Things stands as a better book of advice than any I’d ever expected to read in my life.

In it, Strayed tells us not to “surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true anymore.”

Okay, Cheryl. Let’s try it differently.

photo credit: balloon-03-look-inside-a-balloon by Wansan Son (license)