STATE OF THE ART
Vice Principal Wolters: I care about these kids just as much as you do. And if I’m forced to choose between Mozart and reading and writing and long division, I choose long division.
Glenn Holland: Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.(1)
I have a bad back. I have four prolapsed and four herniated disks. That’s a lot. But I carry on; I move forward; I adapt. It’s a hidden or ‘invisible’ handicap. Unless, I am having a particularly bad day, you can’t see my disability. I have a handicap placard in my car and that’s usually the only outward sign of my limitation. For weeks, months, at a time it is a preventative sort of thing: if I park close to the building, then I don’t have to carry my books, laptop, or groceries as far. I am not ever supposed to lift anything heavier than five pounds. Ever—so no Riverside Shakespeare for me, unless I am very, very careful. But other people don’t know that and they’re disdainful—sneering. “What’cha doing parking there? Selfish bitch, leave that spot for someone who has something wrong with them!”—(Yes, yes, it should be him or her. Experience has taught me it’s best not to correct him or her in this particular situation).
Writing is like that. It’s not like painting. You can walk into an artist’s studio and see the work in progress there on the easel. You can touch the canvas (at your own risk, of course). It’s not like music. You hear the musician’s work as he or she practices, even if, like Beethoven, the composer cannot. You can smell and taste the chef’s masterpieces. The results of writing are not immediately tangible; they are hidden away in some innocuously named word document filled with sentence fragments, bits of ideas, and well-loved quotes. It’s the invisible art—at least while it’s in progress. I wish I had, like Virginia Woolf, a room of my own.
Writing is never concrete, not really, not anymore; because, today, people expect the visual: “Lord of the Rings was a book, really?” People don’t want to read books, they want Peter Jackson to read books and interpret them on the big screen for them. And so the capacity of the human mind diminishes, but cannot go with Galadriel into a serene, better place in the West. People become less able to see things in their mind, less able to imagine. In late 1999, when I heard Peter Jackson was taking one of my favorite books and making it a movie, my first reaction wasn’t overwhelming joy. My first thought was, oh God, what if he doesn’t get the right actors—what if they don’t look the way they look in my mind? What if he changes their character or misrepresents the archetypes as I see them? What if, in his mind, Middle Earth is someplace different? What if it’s not the Middle Earth of my imagination? It’s a telling thought, because words paint pictures in the mind, in my mind. But like Lennon and McCartney, I just had to look, having read the book. (2) I wasn’t disappointed, but it wasn’t the book.
The object of Art is to give life a shape. (3)
I rise at five in the morning, almost every morning, and make coffee. It is my goal to eek out fifteen hundred words, three pages, single spaced, before I must get ready for work, or shopping, or housecleaning. On Saturdays, I start even earlier so that I can read and review work for other writers in the workshop group of which I am a part. I write before my family is awake, before questions of schedules, dinner plans, and daily life invade. I write before my partner has had his coffee and gets his guitar, filling the space with his art and drowning everything else. He too breathes in a language that makes him whole before venturing out into the fractured world.
I think about this routine a lot. I sit with my laptop and write. I sit quietly—typing. Obviously, I’m busy, you know, writing. The invisible nature of my art-in-progress is a handicap. My family of musicians and dancers will interrupt without missing a beat.
They’ll say, “It’s not like playing guitar, or ballet; you don’t have to go back to the beginning, with writing, like you do with music or dance; you can just start typing again, pick up where you left off.”
Well, no, actually I can’t; it doesn’t work like that. Once my train of thought is broken, I must regroup, restart. Writing is an art; it’s giving life a shape. It is a—the—foundational art. Without it there would be no songs, or television, or movies, or video games. There would be no politics, no invention, or religion. It all starts with words on the page. Words are humanity’s default form of expression, communication: language. Writing is the rock upon which modern culture is built. And it’s my art, damn it.
There it is, I said it. I surround myself with art: music, painting, photography, dancing, and above all writing, because that’s my art. It’s the reason I draw breath.
Once upon a time, writers, like artists, musicians, performers, and playwrights had patrons, people who supported them because of their talent; it’s not like that anymore. Like Jimmy Buffett, I’m two hundred years too late, at least, and probably the wrong gender(4). So, I do what many artists and writers do: I rise each morning and go to work. I, like most other creative people, have a day job. Our civilization does not value creativity from the point of view of the artist; the finished product is all that’s required.
I’m a teacher—and I love my job—but. But, in my heart, I am happiest typing, connecting one word to the next; taking what I see in the world and committing it to the screen, the page, committing it to eternity. I’m like Kristofferson, if I never have a nickel, I won’t ever die ashamed. ‘Cos I don’t believe that no one wants to know. (5)
I teach composition at a technical university. I know it sounds rather oxymoronic. My employers understand that all things are art—and that our students must understand that to excel in the world; that’s why they hired me. I understand that I’m lucky. I have friends, in their hearts they’re writers, who spend their days as smothering financial analysts and paralegals. Many of my friends teach, for the same reasons I do. It’s a way to stay connected to my art. I spend my days with words, with budding engineers and future computer programmers. They don’t understand why they need to take any writing courses. What value will writing ever have in their lives? It takes me weeks to teach them that no matter how technically evolved we become, our lives will always come down to words and how well we are able to use them. I quote Shakespeare, the bard, “Your tale, sir, would cure deafness”(6). Our words should create, make something whole, and cure.
Sometimes, I don’t get through to them: “I can’t write a paper about Electrical Engineering for you; you’re a poet, you’ll never be able to understand it.” It’s disdainful—sneering. The word poet oozes contempt; it implies something less than. My student could tell you if that was < or >, and on a good day I can too—the alligator eats one of the numbers—yeah, whatever. Just spell it out. This student (and there’s one in every class, probably at every college) sees my right-brained-ness as lack of intelligence. This is an error on his part for–if I be waspish, best beware my sting– he must spend all term with me (7).
He defines poet as less than.
But I have Immortal longings in me and so poet is greater than (8).
I often think in Tolkien or Shakespearean (or Austen, Heywood, Kurtz, Eddings, or a host of obscure others) quotes. I would like to quote something often attributed to Will saying, I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed. (9) But instead, my response to this student is tempered, “Well, if I don’t understand your paper, you haven’t done your job. If you are writing a paper about unicorns, at the end I must be able to say, Now I will believe that there are unicorns(10). If it’s about fiber optics, in the end I must believe in–know–fiber optics. Anything less is failure.”
I’m sure he sees me as the shrew, waspish. And I’m okay with that, good with it even, Katharina has always been one of my heroes.
Poetry is the love in the story that is humanity. It’s the magic that makes Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny, and faeries. Poetry is the drive behind religion and science. It’s the invention behind trains, planes, and cars. It’s poetry that inspired Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Tesla, Whitney, even Jobs, and Gates. Alexander Graham Bell, Tom Edison, Henry Ford. Einstein. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed. They all saw something intangible, touched something not quite concrete, something that escaped the five senses, something to give life new shape; at some level they all believed that there were unicorns. If poetry does not permeate every facet of your life, including your profession, I want to say to this student, you will not excel as an engineer. If an engineer is what you wish to be – then be passionate about it, damn it, and make your engineering a poem, a work of art. See the blessing in earning a living by your creations. So many people can’t.
Teaching writing is an expression of my art. It’s very visible—in your face. I teach the value of words such as fuck in writing. Good, concrete, Anglo-Saxon words that convey tone and attitude. I teach my students to be concise in their language and waspishly deduct points for each use of the word up. Really, if they are not using it to denote elevation, there is probably a better, more concise, word. I used to see my vocation as a writer—an artist—as committing words to the page, but some of my greatest masterpieces have been other writers and artists, engineers who suddenly see the art in their world. I teach others to listen to and love words. I teach them to imagine, to create, to translate to the page what they see in their mind.
The disks in my back “slipped” – such a bad word for the pain that is a bad back—and suddenly my handicap is not so invisible; students rush to help me carry my computer bag and books – even the engineering student. Words shape life, and I, vainly perhaps, think I have helped to shape his. Maybe not the same way Shakespeare and Tolkien have shaped mine – but I can see he is less deaf.
The next morning the alarm rings at 4:45am, I hit snooze and struggle to shift with pain searing my back and shooting a burning grief through my legs. I struggle to my feet, turn the coffee pot on, put the heating pad-thing into the microwave. I open my laptop. Ansel Adams photographs fill the screen. I set ear-buds in place: Bruce Springsteen sings, Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on (11).
To catch a glimpse of the unicorn.
To make the invisible thought tangible, a published essay. Writing as alchemy.
Won’t take nothing’ for my journey now, keep your eyes on the prize.
Hold on (12).
1500 words. My alarm sounds again, I turn it off. I have two hours before the pages I fill are young minds. I do believe that there are unicorns, though like many things in our world, they may be invisible. But through my words—my love—I can give them voice. I know that in black ink my love may still shine bright, forever (13).
Mel Jones teaches and writes in Richmond Virginia. Mel’s publications include, a book of poetry, Between the Lines (2005), and essays in The William & Mary Gallery, Sherwood Forest, and online at Little Seal and r.k.vr.y. She maintains a sometimes snarky blog, Mel’s Madness, which is more Bombeck than Shakespeare. She has MAs in Rhetoric, and Literature from VCU, and an MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles.
More from Mel Jones
1. Herek, Stephen. “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” Hollywood Pictures. 1995. DVD
2. Lennon, John. McCartney Paul. A Day in the Life. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. 1967.
3. Anouilh, Jean. The Rehearsal. New York: Samuel French, Inc. 1961.
4. Buffett, Jimmy. A Pirate Looks at Forty. A1A. 1974.
5. Kristofferson, Kris. To Beat the Devil. Kristofferson. 1970.
6. Shakespeare, William. Riverside Shakespeare. (2nd ed.). New York: Houghton-Mifflin. 1974. The Tempest (1610/11).
7. Shakespeare, William. Riverside Shakespeare. (2nd ed.). New York: Houghton-Mifflin. 1974. The Taming of the Shrew (1590/92).
8. Shakespeare, William. Riverside Shakespeare. (2nd ed.). New York: Houghton-Mifflin. 1974. Antony and Cleopatra (1607/08).
9. This quote is often attributed to Shakespeare, because it sounds like something he would have written. It has also been attributed to Oscar Wilde, but it cannot be found in any of his work either.
10. Shakespeare, William. Riverside Shakespeare. (2nd ed.). New York: Houghton-Mifflin. 1974The Taming of the Shrew (1590/92).
11. Springsteen, Bruce. Eyes on the Prize (traditional). 2006.
13. Shakespeare, William. Riverside Shakespeare. (2nd ed.). New York: Houghton-Mifflin. 1974. Sonnet 65 (1590/99)
Anouilh, J. (1961). The Rehearsal. New York: Samuel French, Inc.
Buffett, J. (1974). A Pirate Looks at Forty. A1A.
Herek, Stephen. “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” Hollywood Pictures. 1995. DVD
Kristofferson, K. (1970). To Beat the Devil. Kristofferson.
Lennon, J., McCartney P. (1967). A Day in the Life. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Shakespeare, W. (1974). Riverside Shakespeare. (2nd ed.). New York: Houghton-Mifflin.
Springsteen, B. (2006) Eyes on the Prize (traditional).