life, poetry, teaching, writers, writing

Where the Liberal Arts Take You

This year, my oldest son is beginning high school. As a freshman, he has begun considering possible college majors that he’d like to aim toward. His big love is theater, especially musical theater (insert pragmatic-dad eye roll here). He is a member of the school band, and he is trying out agriculture, as our family has a long history of farming in addition to teaching and other professions.

As much as I’d like to give him the whole lecture about “getting a degree in something useful,” I’m realize in no position to advise him to be practical about his eventual course of study. I’ve done a pretty unconventional thing, earning a terminal degree in creative writing later in life, and I can’t say it has turned out badly. No matter how many guidance counselors and career advisers may say otherwise, getting a degree (or two!) in the liberal arts can in fact make life more fulfilling.

Readers of this blog know that I recently spent a week in the Wisconsin Northwoods, leading poetry workshops and kayaking the lakes of a beautiful part of the country:

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And earlier this summer, I spent a week in Appalachia simply pondering how best to order my latest manuscript of poems:

 

Then there was the summer of my 40th birthday, where the whole family and I traveled to Lisbon, Portugal because I received a partial scholarship to attend the Disquiet International Literary Program:

And before I became an “international” poet, there was the summer I spent a week at the Juniper Writers Institute (also on a scholarship), where I explored the home of Emily Dickinson:

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And the farm of Robert Frost in Derry, New Hampshire:

 

Oh, and then there was the time (in the middle of my MFA program) that I was kindly given a full ride to the Glen West Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This would have been in 2013:

Add to that the workshops, seminars, and conferences that I’ve been able to attend closer to home (The National Graduate Creative Writing Conference in Carrollton, GA; AWP in Tampa; the Other Words conference at Flagler College in Jacksonville, and many, many, more), and you’ve got yourself quite a travel itinerary spread out over 10 or 12 years.

Lest the audience think that I am only measuring meaning by travel, there are plenty of other ways that my liberal arts degrees have enhanced my biography. Before I entered the realm of education, I used my Bachelor of Arts degree in print journalism to report for newspapers — now nearly an extinct species. In the process, I drove through (over!) the flames of brush fires, got shot at twice, had a beer bottle hurled at my head during a riot, and witnessed life in a way that few other people ever experience.

I spoke with flood survivors, celebrities big and small, government officials, and even the occasional inmate. All these experiences expanded my lens and allowed me to view the world from a variety of perspectives. It wasn’t the liberal arts degree that provided breadth and open-mindedness about our human situation; those understandings came along well after I’d received diplomas, in fact. But I never would have had those encounters without the degrees I earned, and I absolutely would not have interpreted those encounters in the same way sans higher education.

“But what about the money?” you may ask. “Is it true that people with liberal arts degrees earn less than those with vocational and technical degrees?” While I can’t speak to the assets held by those in hands-on professions, I can tell you that we’ve always had enough. My two boys, my wife, and I have had sufficiency and surplus in varying frequency, and even during times of struggle, our scenario has been eased by the knowledge that we are not the only ones to have faced difficulty. A thorough education in the humanities provided both fictional and nonfictional examples from which to learn. Some of our Christmases may have looked like the Bob Cratchit family or an O. Henry short story, but along with that sparsity came the closeness that such stories also featured. Enduring with beloved others is its own wealth.

“What about the cost? Not everyone can afford a spiffy degree from a small, private institution, you know…” True enough. I’m well aware of our national student debt crisis, and I also know that liberal arts colleges can be expensive. For me, the payoff has been worth the initial investment. The promises made by my parents and grandparents turned out to be true: Earn a college degree/ start a career/ live the American Dream, etc. Certainly this has not always been the result for others. I’ll leave it at that.

I do know that when someone is willing to work hard and smart, when he or she gives back to the profession, and when relationships are tended with near-agricultural precision, a liberal arts degree can help make life worthwhile. Sure, there’s a Wall Street Journal article that also bears out the truth of what I’m saying, but for today, I’m speaking from personal experience.

What am I going to tell my son about earning a “useless” degree? Go for it. No, I’m not a proponent of “follow your bliss” or “do what makes you happy” exclusively, but we need at least some modest enjoyment from making our livelihood. Work is still going to be work, no matter what, but fulfillment? That can be achieved, and a liberal arts degree can serve as the welcome mat for it.

 

 

 

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poetry, Uncategorized

More VS. Different: A human quandary

Adding isn't always the answer.
Adding isn’t always the answer.

Recently, I’ve been consumed by one mistake that I’ve made throughout my writing and teaching life. In some ways, this error is stereotypically American: When I feel the need for change, instead of choosing something different, I just pile something else on. It’s a childish mindset really — I’m unhappy with the one thing, but if I had two things, I’d be happier. Fallacy, fallacy.

When I was a young man just starting out, I didn’t make much money. Oh sure, I’d been to college and done my part to begin a journalism career, but a fresh degree and limited experience meant a meager income. My solution was always working harder, not smarter. I’d take on extra jobs until my every waking moment was consumed with responsibility of one form or another. And when you’re just setting foot into “the real world,” being industrious is admirable. But I found out pretty quickly that burnout is very real, and being obligated non-stop is a great way to compromise your health.

The lesson didn’t stick, though. When I changed careers about four years after getting my bachelor’s degree, I began to repeat the same mistakes in education: “Oh, teachers don’t make much? That’s okay. I’ll just take on more duties. I’ll tutor after school and pick up some freelance gigs on the side.” By this time I was married, and the incessant lesson planning, grading, and researching were all taking their toll on the homefront.

I added titles to my own job description, becoming a technology guru, a committee and department leader, a curriculum developer, and a professional development coordinator. My writing, of course, was taking the back burner to my overwhelming career roles, all because I assumed that if I had more to do, I’d somehow be happier. And granted, the experiences I earned while tackling these titles proved valuable. I know about a wealth of fields that make me an asset in the workplace. But meanwhile, I still wasn’t content.

The truth was, I needed something different, not something more. One more graduate degree wasn’t the answer, despite my 4.0 GPA. One more assignment wasn’t the panacea to discontent.When you’re tired of digging ditches, buying more shovels isn’t the solution.  I needed to work smarter, not harder, and I needed balance.

By shouldering more and more responsibility outside my home, I’d minimized the time I had for my family life. I had become that workaholic husband and father who can’t show up to his kids’ birthday parties, and writing? What was writing? Certainly there was no time for such frivolity. Our bank account was steadily reaping the benefits of my overexertion, but the price beneath my roof was far too great. It was time to restore some sanity and clarity to every part of my life.

I began cutting back on extra teaching opportunities, and started riding my bicycle again, for starters. I took a more active part in church life. My wife and I were dating again. I flew kites and threw Frisbees with my sons on the weekends. This was different, and it was good. Our financial situation was okay, but we still weren’t rich. And for one time in my life, I didn’t care. Money, I found, was reciprocal: we received what we gave, and often, we reaped more than we sowed, to use some biblical terminology. My new quest for balance and “smarter work” was paying off. My new and more flexible schedule now included a daily writing routine during the early morning hours, and soon, I had a thick volume of work. The MFA became not “one more degree,” but a natural outcropping from my own talents and interests, which my re-balanced life had shown me.

So now, as spring break draws nearer and the end of another school year will follow not long after, I feel another mile marker approaching. Change is coming in my professional life, and this time, my hope is that I’ll remember the lessons of my personal history. Work smarter, achieve balance, and don’t mistake more for different.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Business and the Personal

Image borrowed from terraverdeonline.com
Image borrowed from terraverdeonline.com

In the movie You’ve Got Mail, Joe Fox, multi-millionaire chain bookstore owner (played by Tom Hanks), advises small bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan): “It’s just business. It’s not personal. … Recite that to yourself.” Ryan’s character responds with, “Whatever something else is, it should begin by being personal.”

I see the merit in Kathleen Kelly’s sentiment, but having been in the rough-and-tumble world of publishing recently, I think I’m inclined to lean more toward Joe Fox’s approach. Yes, poetry, writing, and book-making are all endeavors that involve a person’s heart, even the soul. However, when it comes time to negotiate about matters like royalties, author’s copies, and similar factors, it’s time to put away the purple prose and break out the spreadsheets and graphs.

Lots of writers don’t want to hear this. They’d rather live in their sheltered creative Xanadu, pondering air castles and planning their next great narrative. On the other hand, rarely does one find publishers who can’t distinguish pragmatics from the emotional. Publishers, for the most part, are able to put aside their feelings and prejudices in favor of their latest project. I recently dealt with a publisher (name omitted intentionally) whose approach to book production was seen not as a creative-commercial enterprise, but rather, as an extension of her/his inner self. The publisher in question viewed the relationship with the writer as an deep emotional bond rather than seeing it primarily as a business arrangement. This person also slammed the work of similar publishers, some of whom he/she had worked with in the past.

As things became increasingly unprofessional, I politely declined the services of this publisher. I attempted to word the rejection softly, as I too have had my fair share of let-downs. In response, I was told that seeking a traditional or academic publisher was “insulting.” There were hurt feelings, apparently, despite my best attempts to avoid such ugliness. As a recent MFA grad seeking an experienced and respected publisher for my creative thesis (a mighty fine collection, if I do say so myself), I really don’t need a business partner who is affronted by every minor exchange.  It’s great to be invested in your craft, whatever that may be. Likewise, it’s necessary to differentiate between an expression of intellect and an expression of love. A consumer decision is not a romance.

Yes, creating (be that writing or publishing) is showing the world a piece of yourself. But when that creation crosses the transom into product, it’s time to evolve into strategist. Even for those of us who’d rather “dwell in possibility,” there must come a time when strictly cognitive and logistical decisions predominate. Once the art is done, business belongs in its proper perspective. Let’s keep it professional.

poetry, Uncategorized

The Poet as Peddler

I’ve never considered myself much of a salesman. As a kid, I sold a few candy bars and other fundraisers for school, but other than that, I’ve never had much of a knack for getting people to part with their money. Truthfully, it feels kind of dirty. Even when I’m selling a product that I firmly believe in (like my own writing), I find it difficult to persuade others to buy.

This past weekend, I had the benefit of participating in the Polk Authors and Illustrators Festival, a downtown marketplace-style gathering of writers and artists in Lakeland. There I was, hawking my wares to Joe Public, having the grandest of conversations about poetry, Florida, and a thousand other topics. I fell into sort of a groove at one point where people were buying books left and right, not because I was pushing my product on them, but because I engaged their natural desire to talk about themselves.

As they spilled their guts about their childhood or their daughter-in-law, I found some kind of remotely related tie-in to my work. I opened the book up, showed them a verse or two that had to do with our conversation, and by George, they bought the book. I’m sure that those of you in sales have a name for this kind of approach, but far be it from me to know such things — I remain a poet and schoolteacher at heart.

The lesson, I guess, was just this: If you show up to a place all worried about how many books you’re going to sell (or not), then you reap the results of your anxiety. If you just take it easy, talk to the people like a normal human being, and do your best to be a good listener, the sales take care of themselves. Events like the Authors and Illustrators Festival help me to remember my place in this world; I’m not a pitch-man or a carpetbagger, thank goodness. I do, however, know good-sounding words when I come across them, and I’m a pretty fair peddler of free knowledge. I might do the festival again next year, but for tonight, there’s writing to be done. Time to close up shop.