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

Hemingway’s Distance

 When the great author of The Old Man and the Sea was in Michigan, he wrote about Paris. Likewise, when he was in Paris, he wrote of Michigan. In speaking with other poets and writers, I have found there to be a common link among creative types: The farther (in every sense of that word) we are from our dearest subjects, the stronger our writing about it becomes.

For instance, when I return to my family homestead many miles south of here, I am not automatically inspired to compose lines about it. The spirit of the place is too strong, too close. Also, the peace I experience there is too great for the fevered activity of poetry composition. The old place’s effect is soporific on my muse, but once I’ve left and I’m on the road or even back at my current suburban home, then the poetic flood begins to rise. Images, sensations, memories, and the whole of the family farm experience (past or present) sets itself heavily on my writing mind.

Time also serves as a literary “distance” filter: Consider Wordsworth’s famous lines above Tintern Abbey, written five years after the visit took place. By having hindsight, the truest and most poem-worthy elements of an experience can rise like sweet cream to the surface of our consciousness. The traumas and impressions of the present are intensified by having some chronological separation. Only the strongest details remain after delay. Sometimes this separation can be mere hours, other ideas may require years for processing. It all depends upon the severity and sincerity of the inspiration in question.

I am not advocating the idea that writers shouldn’t “strike while the iron is hot,” however. If one is overcome by the NEED to write at a moment, then by all means, don’t let that desire cool in apathy. The Beats would tell us that our first thoughts are our best thoughts, but the discerning voices before and after that generation would advise us to refine those first thoughts into something far more elegant.

The big picture is just this: If you want to create truly reflective writing, then some form of distance is necessary. It doesn’t always have to be as radical as Michigan to Paris, but stepping back from the subject is advisable for any creative endeavor. If you don’t believe me, just ask “Papa.”