Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Scholarship and Writing Creatively

This post attempts to front page some of the discussion unfolding here and here, conversations spurred by posts here and here.

Way back in Ye Olde Olden Days of Yore, I was a semi-miserable graduate student who had just completed a year of study. I felt like I was in the grip of crisis, unable to decide between the reality of advanced literary study and the fantasy of being a novelist or poet or some other kind of lucrative creative writer [I write "fantasy" now but at age twenty-two it seemed that all I had to do was embrace the writer's vocation and I would, of course, become famous. I had taken enough creative writing courses as an undergraduate to minor in the subject so, hey, I had the credentials ... I just needed a good plot or something]. I had just been to a public lecture by Helen Vendler at which she had mentioned that, as a girl, she wrote poetry of her own, including a piece in which she figured herself as Moses in the arid desert, striking water from a rock (SPOILER: for those who have trouble with symbols, that "water" would be mellifluous verse). The image haunted me, but so did Vendler's admission of an abandoned career.

Helen Vendler had been my teacher in a Wallace Stevens seminar. I admired her confidence, her gift for finding the perfect descriptive word, her definitiveness. Yet after that lecture I kept wondering: at what point did this famous scholar of contemporary poetry decide that she was going to be an interpreter of art rather than an artist? A critic rather than a poet?

Having decided to confront Vendler with my question, I made an appointment with her secretary and came to her office in the English department. I was filled with an excitement I only vaguely understood. I suppose I thought that on this day I was going to be granted an epiphany: Vendler would reveal to me how she resolved her own inner struggle over critical analysis and the scholar's life versus poetic production and the artist's. I'd be given the tools and inspiration to resolve my own insomniac uncertainties.

We exchanged pleasantries as her assistant bustled, gathering correspondence and arranging unanswered mail into neat stacks. I sat uneasily in my chair, knowing that the Big Question was about to be uttered. I blurted it out too quickly, revealing too much of my own turmoil as I spoke. She looked at me quizzically, and then the telephone rang. "Excuse me," she said and gave a brief interview to some newspaper. As she hung up and realized I still sat expectantly before her, she smiled and said, "I don't know." She turned to her piles of mail. "I really don't know. I've never thought about it." Pause. "There was a time I was writing poetry." Envelopes whizzed into the trash bin. "Then there was a time when I was writing poetry and writing about poetry. At some point the poetry just stopped." She looked at me in a way that signaled it was time to leave. "I suppose I realized without knowing it that I wanted to write books about poets. But it's not as if there was a turning point."

"Thank you," I said, but I really thought NO! Can it really be that easy? Can we choose without a crisis?

Many years later, I'm prepared to say: yes. We carve what we do into so many sub-disciplines and we draw so many lines to box our products from contamination with other forms. But let's face it, sometimes the crisis doesn't arrive ... or if it does arrive, it's getting in the way of thinking about the alliances, the shared energy, the potential for monstrous offspring. I am currently the chair of an English department that combines a creative writing faculty with a literature faculty. We all gain from the fact that we're not segregated into separate quarters. Yes, I do think some incredibly shallow writing comes from introductory creative writing courses, just as each semester I grade some incredibly shallow interpretations of Beowulf, the Wife of Bath, Marie de France. If we're good teachers, though, we instruct our students in such a way that such depthless response is challenged and creatively rethought.

One last thing to admit: my own Helen Vendler moment has been in not going into crisis over abandoning the fabulations in Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity. Of the manuscript's three initial readers, only one suggested that I remove them (actually, he requested that I delete the book from my hard drive). I took the fabulations out because I found them too distracting. They demanded attention disproportianate to their brevity; the argument suffered through being outshone. I'm not yet a good enough writer to integrate such flights in a way that satisfies me, but I do hope that in the future as I continue to work upon my craft I'll find a way to make such experiments work.


Eileen Joy said...

JJC--thanks for sharing this story; I love it, precisely because you are willing to admit, via your anecdotes about Vendler and also yourself, that sometimes the [we can see later] very big decisions we sometimes make in life are not the result of "crisis" and "epiphany" so much as they are the result of small acts of inattention, randomness, and even, I would argue, drifting. My own story is both an affirmation, but also a departure, from your narrative. As I've shared on this blog in the past, my decision to pursue a Ph.D. in medieval literature, after having completed an M.F.A. in fiction writing, was mainly a kind of Vendler-style, "oh it just kind of happened that way while I wasn't paying attention," and also had to do with a certain Chaucer scholar daring me to do it. I was also scared, based on the examples of friends of mine who were published novelists but still waiting tables and/or working as adjuncts, that if I couldn't "make it" as a writer [or even if I did], I simply wouldn't be able to pay the rent. It seemed I had some kind of capacity to write about literature and it was almost, at first, like the path of least resistance. So, the decision to pursue a Ph.D., initially, wasn't the result, for sure, of any kind of grand epiphany about my destiny. But the decision, later, to continue those studies, definitely was.

When I was about two years into my Ph.D. studies, I became practially suicidal. As much as I loved the so-called intellectual life, and as much as I undertsood that I was genuinely invested in thinking and writing about literature, the whole academic context, in general, made me feel pretty profoundly depressed. The most succinct way I can put this is: there was no joy in Mudville. I've discussed this here before and I don't want to go over old ground. Suffice to say, I didn't want to commit to a such a seemingly joyless profession, so I dropped out, from 1996-1999, and worked as a gardener, during which time I returned to my fiction writing. I hung out with really creative people--painters, horticulturalists, writers, etc., and I felt invigorated. I had this really cool former professor--Tom Heffernan [some of you will know who he is]--who would meet me on the occasional Friday at this drugstore that had a lunch counter [in downtown Knoxville]. We would eat grilled cheese sandwiches and he would tell me all the reasons he thought what I was doing was really sane. In his mind, I had kind of escaped academia at just the right moment--when it was all going to hell [never mind the details]. I seemed happy, he would say to me, and what else matters? In the meantime, a lot of my friends were saying to me, how can you not finish your Ph.D.?

I was torn, and this was, in point of fact, a crisis for me. I honestly did not know if I was supposed to be an artist or an intellectual and I somehow had convinced myself that it was an all or nothing proposition--either I was going to be an artist, OR, I was going to be an academic, but I couldn't [somehow] be both. I must admit, I had some serious fun, and in addition to working on my writing, I had some very visceral experiences "in the wilderness," as it were. I could not have been more confused, and the real crux of the matter could be located directly within my wrriting, of both varieties: when I had previously turned in seminar papers, I was told they blurred the boundary too much between creative and more academic subjects; when I got rejection letters from editors at literary journals, they would say something to the effect of: wow, you write beautifully, but your stories are too cerebral. Again, this was a crisis for me, and the way I defined it was: no matter what I choose, I have to pursue it wholeheartedly, and without compromise. So, either I am going to be a fiction writer who writes intellectual, cerebral fiction, OR, I am going to be a medievalist who writes, um, artistic scholarship. I partly wished I could be both [I had these ridiculous notions, at first, that maybe, like C.S. Lewis, I could write stories about Narnia *and* philosophical treatises on evil--not!], but also realized I only had the energy for one or the other. I had to choose, and let's just say, that it was a very tough decision and one I still agonize over. If I have any kind of mission with my scholarship that devloves from this whole situation, it has something to do with wanting to try to make the argument [somehow] that literary criticism is itself a kind of art form, and one that should be practiced with an eye equally fixed on both beauty and truth.

I still write and publish fiction, by the way, but I'm more invested in my intellectual work, I have to admit. At the same time, I hate to see these discussions where we try to distinguish, or discriminate, between the enterprises of creative writing [so-called] and literary scholarship [so called]. Most days, I simply can't tell the difference.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

literary criticism is itself a kind of art form, and one that should be practiced with an eye equally fixed on both beauty and truth.

Thanks for that account, and especially for that line. What a path you've followed.

Do you really find, though, that we are part of a profession devoid of joy? For me that was sometimes my impression as a graduate school, but in retrospect it had more to do with my own sourness than anything else. Now I find plenty of joy abiding in medieval studies. Just look at this blog.

Eileen Joy said...

In all honesty, JJC, I find that, in many places in our field, yes, the state of affairs is joyless. But more and more, as I have connected with people through my endeavors with BABEL and also through you and your blog, I find the situation to not be as hopeless as I once thought. I do often ask myself why I had to pick one of the *most* [I think] forbidding and stodgy disciplines: Anglo-Saxon studies, but that's a matter for my therapist, I guess, if I had one. A former mentor of mine told me a few years ago that maybe I was trying too hard to convince my audience--other Anglo-Saxonists--that I was really "one of them," and that it was ultimately futile. Perhaps, he told me, my work would be better directed at those outside the field as a kind of public relations campaign: "look, medieval studies can be fun, everyone!" "Gee, look at all the nifty things medieval studies can do--they're actually relevant sometimes!" All kidding aside, I didn't think the advice was half-bad, actually--I *do* enjoy writing scholarship that is directed at more general audiences with the purpose of demonstrating [hopefully] that medieval studies can say something meaningful about contemporary life, issues, etc. But thanks, especially, to this blog and its readers, I have more hope that those within the field are wanting, asking for, and even writing, a more capacious scholarship.

Karl Steel said...

Do you really find, though, that we are part of a profession devoid of joy?

Can be, but hard to tell. What's more admired, what's more indisputably 'valuable' than the (purportedly? legendarily?) painful sacrifice of ourselves to the archives? A few years ago, but not long enough ago, when I assembled my orals lists, I made a point of avoiding most Chaucer, instead piling on the longest, most dull Middle English works I could find. Who wants to read a bunch of John Mirk? Or Prick of Conscience? But these works were popular in their day, far more popular, say, than SGGK, so I thought I was the professional, and my colleagues, the people who loved Beowulf, the Pearl poet, and preferred their Miller's Tale to their Melibee, were the dilettantes. The perverse thing here is that I came to love these 'boring' works, so much so that I started my dissertation with one, the encyclopedia Sidrak and Bokkus. Surprised by Joy indeed. I'd like to think I've grown up a bit, now, which, in reverse of the standard narrative, means giving sacrifice the boot.

No doubt you've had something similar happen, EJ, with the Anglo-Saxons.

I'm having a puerile chuckle that we're talking about a profession devoid of joy with Joy, so it's self-evidently not devoid of Joy, or Steel, or Cohen for that matter.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl just reminded me that, on those occasions when I have also sacrificed myself to the archives, it was less than joyful. I've never been one to feel the secret thrill of touching the vellum leaves and smelling the Anglo-Saxon ink. When I was working in the Cambridge University Library this past May, my favorite part of each day was going to the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse each day around 5:00, drinking beer, posting to this blog, and then watching whatever film might be playing. Yeah, that was my favorite part. Except for when I saw "The Davinci Code"--bad, reallly really, um, bad.

Anonymous said...

I thank you too -- reading this post couldn't have come at a better time for me. I'm a graduate student, I love what I'm doing right now, but I also have started to become more and more nervous lately about the creative writing problem. I'm pretty sure I promised myself three and a half years ago when I entered grad school that I would still write on the side, but it has, of course, been minimal -- mostly occasional poems, translations, and in my first year of grad school I did a pretty good job of convincing professors to accept oddball term papers and seminar presentations. I have come far enough to realise that my best genre would be creative non-fiction, but it's awfully hard to start writing when I'm not sure what I want (or have) to say.

The funny thing about the Vendler anecdote is that it reminds me a bit of how I wound up studying Old English. It certainly wasn't by choice. I took it because I had just switched out of science and, figuring that none of my courses would be useful now, I would take the most useless course that would count towards my English major. It also offered a whole language with only a year's commitment. (Ha!) I loved it, but I loved other areas too, so I didn't suspect the trap. And then... well, Beowulf was offered, so I thought I'd take it just because I could... And then I started feeling inexplicable urges to take Latin... Before I knew it the whole matter was decided for me.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Oddly enough, one reason I became a medievalist because, having just given up on my biology major but still possessing the remnants of a scientific mind, I decided to start my new concentration at the beginning: Introduction to Old English. I loved it, moving on immediately thereafter to a full semester of translating Beowulf with Marjorie Woods.

Anonymous said...

Oh, that's superb. I was actually in life sciences, which at Toronto was the standard way to med school. I later realised that one of the things I hated about it was the practicality -- I don't care how many bacteria are in a petrie dish, I just want to make a pretty graph. I always suspected that if I had taken pure calculus and chemistry, I might have stayed. I guess I was doomed for practical work from the start.

That said, I did find when I began taking Latin that the pleasure of translating a sentence felt exactly the same, in my gut, as that I used to feel when solving an algebraic problem.

Anonymous said...

Love this story and all the comments on it. Couldn't be better timed (my MA application essay is mostly done and my MFA application essay is not even close).