A Manifesto on Leaving Academia

Some of you have already seen this wonderful piece, which was first published in Paraphernalian, and later in  Inside Higher Education, where it received some predictably arrogant and conceited responses from some of the small-minded people who make academia a miserable place.  I resonate with everything that this writer states.

Because: a Manifesto

January 5, 2011

Because the failures of a flawed system are not my personal failures.

Because I am tired of being made to feel like a failure because I have been failed by a flawed system.

Because doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is stupidity.

Because participating in a system that degrades, demeans, and disempowers you is masochism.

Because productivity for productivity’s sake is futility.

Because stupidity, masochism, and futility should not be rewarded.

Because obfuscation, elitism, arrogance, and self-righteousness should not be rewarded.

Because my talents, accomplishments, experiences, and hard work are not acknowledged or rewarded in this system.

Because I am not not nurtured, encouraged, or valued in this system.

Because those in a position to change the system do not.

Because I refuse to believe that a system that does not value me is the only one in which I can have worth.

Because I am enduring personal, financial, and professional hardship to no perceivable purpose.

Because I am being limited personally, financially, professionally, and creatively.

Because I already got what I came for — three advanced degrees and immersion in a subject I love.

Because I want to continue to love it.

Because life is short.

Because sometimes I consider how my light is spent.

Because I don’t want to live here.

Because I am prevented from doing the work I was trained and prepared to do.

Because there are other places where that training and preparation will be rewarded, respected, and used.

Because I am capable of more than I can do here.

Because leaving the system is a reclamation of the dignity and agency it has attempted to take from me…

I am leaving the academy.



Bikram Day 26: the back and the belly and the mind

What I’m liking best about bikram these days is the yogatalk in the locker room afterwards.  Today I mentioned that sivasana is still incredibly painful for me and elicited a chorus of similar complaints and advice.  The consensus view is that I don’t know how to stand or sit properly, like lots of women.  What I need to do, the women in the locker room said, is tilt my pelvis back while tucking my butt under and pulling in on my stomach muscles.   A number of them demonstrated, in various states of undress, standing and kneeling on the floor.

It’s not like I haven’t heard this before.  My wonderful Iyengar teacher in Hotchkiss, Nancy, suggested that I think about my pelvis as a bowl of milk.   I need to tilt the bowl back, bringing the front rim up, so that I don’t spill the liquid that I’m carrying in it. This is an old metaphor.  As the lover says to the beloved in the Song of Songs,

Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.

According to the naked and sweaty women in the locker room at my yoga studio, combined with the advice I got from my wonderful Iyengar teacher in Colorado, my back pain, which is sometimes so debilitating that I can hardly move, comes from not having enough respect for my belly.

So where does this leave me?  How do I continuously focus on how I’m holding my self, my spine?   I don’t know if I can do this, but I will try.

What I am noticing now on day 26 is not physical.  I haven’t lost an ounce and I can’t see that I’ve tightened up in any one of my muscular areas.  My arms still look flabby, damn it.  I’m still drinking a couple of glasses of wine every night.  But I am eating less junk food, and I do notice that I’m craving healthier meals.  Yesterday, for example,  I did a double class–four hours in a 90 degree room, three of them holding poses–and afterwards I wanted to eat green stuff.  But the greatest noticeable benefit is psychological.  I feel calmer, more centered.  I feel more self-confident and less anxious.

For example: today I sent off my book proposal. This is a huge achievement.   I’m embarrassed to admit how long I’ve been working on it.  Something about the commitment to yoga made it possible for me to make a commitment to myself in this way.  After years of anxious hiding,  I finally said to someone, “hey, this is my theory, and it is mine, and you should pay attention to it.”  Also: “My ideas are interesting and worthy of publication.”  And, “I’m not going to sit on this for one more minute.”

What is the connection between this locker-room lesson about the belly and the back and  my having sent out something that I have been sitting on and fretting over for 10 years?  The sending out of the proposal is a kind of birth, a kind of delivery of what is within me to the world.   This gesture, so long guarded against, so long feared, has helped me to relax.  But I wonder if I would have been able to make this vital move if I hadn’t also been going through the same 26 spine-altering poses for the past 26 days.

Tonight I practiced yoga with a woman who I have had trouble accepting, even though I have also been very touched by her.  When I first met her, I felt resentment, competition, and dislike.  Tonight my anxiety, or discomfort in the world, abated a bit, and I was able to see and accept her with much more compassion than before.  I caught myself comparing my ability to do the poses with hers, and tried to let this ridiculous competitiveness go.  Tonight she was rather noisy and self-centered and vain and domineering.   I sensed that her not very likable behavior was coming from pain and misery.  She’s very confessional and at the end of class she mentioned that, just before it, she had been weeping in her car.   Christmas is coming on and she just broke up with her boyfriend.  None of her family is here in Pittsburgh.  She doesn’t know quite how to get through the holiday.

Why did it take so long for my heart to soften and to see her as a human being whom I actually liked and wanted to help?  Is it not because I get into these habitual and rigid poses of the mind, not unlike the habitual and rigid poses of the body, that ultimately bring me pain?  Isn’t this guarding of the heart, and these customary ways of holding the body and the mind, a way of dwelling in dislike and distance and alienation from other people? I experience this alienation from other people as a form of pain.   I don’t know how I learned to hold myself in these ways, and it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I learn to change the way I carry myself in the world, not only in relation to other people but also in relation to myself.  The old habits of rigidity and separation may once have protected me from pain, but they can also increase the discomfort, the stiffness, that makes the movements of my body and mind excruciating.

Second Plein Air Painting

A little better today.  I spent more time on it and had a rag to wipe out mistakes and my brushes.  I’m learning.  The best think about painting is getting lost in the project.  I don’t think about anything else while I’m working.  I’m just trying to see what there is to see, and figure out a way to get it down in paint.   Even though I’m not good, I get a lot out of the process.  I feel authentically myself when I am painting, much more so than when I’m writing.  Maybe that is because I have no pretentions of being “good” at painting, while I do think highly of my writing skills.    

I think I indeed be quite happy living here.  The valley that you get to on Cactus Park Road here is incredibly beautiful.  I can’t imagine ever running out of things to paint there.

Could I live out here?

Could I?  Honestly, I don’t know.  I love it and it is part of my home territory.  My dad loved the West and drove us all around it for more than 20 years.  I’ve seen it change and I’ve seen it stay the same, exactly, as it was.  I love the subtle change of seasons in the dry brush.  It pays to pay attention.   I like arid, sunny, mountainous climates. I was born in the center of downtown Los Angeles.

Race is different out here.  First of all, depending on where you live, you hardly see it.  Inland and northern western states are very white.  White-Brown relationships are particularly complicated.  There is not simply a binary division between “whites’ and ‘hispanics,” since lots of hispanic people  are “white” in the eyes of Anglos  But it’s not that simple.   Southern California, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado have something in common with South Africa, in that these states share a culture  in which successive waves of very different white people came in, took over, and fucked a lot of stuff up.

I have seen one person of color since I’ve been here now for over a month and half, with a week break in the middle of the period.   It’s not normal.  Almost makes me ashamed to admit that a part of me thrives–no, comes back to life–out here in these sunny, arid mountains.   But lots of people come back to life in this climate.   That’s why it seems so weird out here—where are all the other people?  The community feels unbalanced, too homogeneous out here. Not quite “America.”

Plus there is no movie theater. Nor is there a decent bar.  Nothing even close to the symphony, not to mention opera or ballet or theater.   I can live without shopping malls–I order everything online anyway.  There is a good used bookstore.  It had a great s/f collection, and that is how I judge a bookstore.  But not much in the way of inspiring artists. At home I can not only know ABOUT an aspiring artist, I can also be get to know that person, and learn from her or him.

It’s a nice fantasy: myself out on the range, let’s say on an immense ranch of my own, with stunning views and clear streams, rustic exteriors and cozy interiors, great wine, fresh, organic, local produce, maybe even a few goats and chickens, and a steady supply of marijuana, of course, and books, and internet access.  Maybe I’d paint more.  Maybe I’d take up that rustic weaving project.  I’d revert to my hippie self.  Obviously I would grow herbs.  Maybe I would sell them.  I would practice Iyengar with Nancy and get very good.   I would converse with people through the internet, go to conferences, or not.

It’s such a common fantasy, it’s almost embarrassing to be having it.   What makes mine different is that I’d get to be near my brother, who is only a few years younger than I am.  I miss him.  And I’d be closer to my sister, and nearly all of my cousins and aunts and uncles.  My family.  But my son lives on the east coast, and so does my boyfriend.  So  I find myself in the same question: where does the heart yearn?  It years in opposite directions.  Irritatingly.

At least there is the prelude to Edvard Grieg’s From Holberg’s Time.”

In case you didn’t know, Ludvig Holberg was a Norwegian humanist, an Enlightenment thinker who is also called the founder of Norwegian and Danish literature.  Apparently he was pretty good at investing money.  I’ve never read anything he wrote.


Shoulder Stand

I had no idea how hard one could work to do a proper shoulder stand.  O, and I’m doing nearly every other pose wrong, it turns out.  My muscles all want to work en masse, fused together, locked down, whereas to do a good triangle, for example, my muscles need to work separately, in different directions.  It’s an interesting mental game to focus on muscles I didn’t know I had and try to move them separately.  Kind of like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time,  only much harder.

Well, it clears the mind to have to tune in so intently on the body, and to realize that the body is not even close to being something under the control of the mind.  No, in fact, the body–with all its learned postures, its hunches, its clenched jaws, its legs pressed rigidly together, or crossed, or arms folded, or brow furrowed–influences the mind, makes it miserable, and then the mind sends distress signals that tighten down all the hatches, and the sphincter jams shut, which backs all the toxins into the body, and the mind complains, and the cycle continues.   This is the feedback loop that Tara Brach calls a “trance.”

So when you practice yoga with an expert Iyengar teacher such as Nancy Crum Stechart, whose class I took tonight, you are working so hard trying to get your brain to send the right signals to the muscles you’re trying to isolate and move, not to mention the focus you need to hold the pose while your entire body screams “ENOUGH!” that you don’t have time for the trance.  All this thinking about what getting your thigh to move forward while simultaneously moving your pelvis back and up, and then lengthening the spine while straightening the back leg and bending the front one just another half-inch, while keeping the pelvis tilted and the front thigh moving in the opposite direction–all this actually interrupts the feedback loop that usually takes over.  The sensations of pain or discomfort that you experience have clear and obvious relationships to the thoughts that you are having at that moment, and there simply isn’t time to think about anything else.  The mind clears for an hour or two.  It starts to clutter up again in Shivasana, corpse pose, when you are supposed to let everything go slack but also to do this consciously, remaining aware of the body and sending release to those muscles which are still holding on.

My mind is a mess of monkeys jumping from thought to thought.  It goes right into the jungle swinging, and it usually takes me a while to figure out where I’ve gotten to.  And then I go back to where I really am, on the floor, listening to the sounds coming from outside, and sensing soreness or tightness or fatigue in my body, and just staying there. But soon the monkey-mind is off again, and I just go along until I realize that it has carried me back to the feedback loop, and that my muscles are clenching again. I come back again and again, because I’m trying to recover from all the times throughout the day when I’m caught up in the loop.

I have had the great privilege to take some classes with Nancy Crum Stechert (so I’m repeating her name), who happens to be one of the premier Iyengar teachers in this country.  She started practicing yoga in San Francisco in 1976 and began studying with the Iyengars in India in 1983.  She has been studying regularly with them since then.  She founded the Colorado School of Yoga in Denver as well as the International School of Yoga in Tokyo.  She holds a Senior Intermediate level certificate in the iyengar method.  But aside from all her accomplishments, Nancy is a lovely person to be around.  She’s calm, non-judgmental, funny, and intelligent.  She reads a lot.  She disliked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the same reason I did.  Neither of us enjoyed the sexual violence scenes. You can turn on the tv at any time of day and find a channel showing a film or show about a woman being menaced.  Why would anyone want to read more graphic descriptions of this masculinist torture?

I met a woman at a feminist function who raved about the trilogy.  I couldn’t understand why.  I like that they’re set in Scandinavia, because my mother was Norwegian.  And the little mystery about the photo frames was somewhat interesting.  But it took me a long time to get into the plot, which became a page-turner only because I had already invested so much time into the book.  But I really didn’t enjoy the blow-by-blow descriptions of violent rape.  I don’t mind graphic descriptions of sex.  In fact I like them. And I have no political beef with porn, in general, but simply do not personally get off on this particular type.  This seems to be the type of porn that people who like to say they’re against porn really like.  The quasi-feminist heroine gives them an excuse to indulge in this stuff they otherwise wouldn’t let themselves read.  They’re against rape and sexual violence against women,  but perfectly happy to spend hours reading and imagining it.   Indeed, they’re enthralled.  Well, I don’t enjoy it and feel unhappy when I have to experience more of it than necessary, either on screen or in a book.  Rant over.

I’m home now, exhausted.  I’m having a glass of excellent unoaked Chardonnay from Leroux vineyards,  halfway between here and my excellent yoga class.  I just ate an entire spaghetti squash, baked and served with butter and salt. My soup from last night, by the way, turned out to be excellent.

I’m going to end on this excellent note.

Edgy

So for three days now I’ve been rewriting the introduction and it is not going well.  I have written I think one paragraph that I like.  And I honestly do not know what else should go into it.  Enough introduction.  I am so heartily sick of writing the introduction.

The sun starts to hit the table where I work, in my brother’s kitchen, at about 3 pm, glaring off the screen and making it pretty uncomfortable to work.  I took a long break and drove up into the Grand Mesa National Forest, which you can only access by miles of dirt road.   Pretty awesome.  The road starts out through a valley bordered by a rim of rock that runs along the hills, winding through ranches with airplane-sized watering tractors, and long bunches of cedar and scrubby brush, and then heads upward so steeply that even my brother’s enormous truck slipped on the gravel at times.  I hadn’t put it into 4-wheel drive yet, trying to save gas.   After about 10 miles the ranches dropped out and there was just open sagebrush sea and scrub, and up ahead in the far hills a forest of gold.  And then I was in the aspen, all apricot shimmer and white trunks, and nearly hit a very black cow and its calf.   On I drove over a road that got markedly worse, so bad that I had to slow down and roll over the rocks and valleys at 1 mile an hour.

I reached Bailey’s Reservoir at about 4.  It is really just a lake nestled into the skirt of a small and barren valley.  Beautiful, but dark.  The sky was overcast, threatening to rain.  There was one bright yellow aspen against the black-green firs.  The ground was rust brown, mottled with cow-pies.  Little breeze.   I was away from the road, away from the truck, and tucked back into the woods, just the way I like to be.  Not a sound except for one weird cry that could have been a coyote or a crazy human. I guess it spooked me, because I didn’t want to stay there.  Maybe it was too quiet, deafeningly silent, after that.  There was no breeze, and I was too far away from the cows to hear them.  I regretted I had not brought the dogs.  It was so quiet that my brain started to make up sounds–to hear the buzz of the highway, or cars, or other kinds of urban noise.  These phantoms passed away.  An airplane thundered pass and it took a long time for the sound to fade.  But then it did, and all was silent again

I drove further down into the valley and headed back home.  Then I began to feel irritated with my cowardice, turned around, and headed back up to the lake.  But I couldn’t stay there.

I turned around again and drove downhill about a mile, across a rugged washboard road, got out, propped an easel against a rock, sat, and looked.  I could see way down across the Grand Mesa and out towards the West Elk Mountains and the flat land where Highway 92 runs from Hotchkiss to Delta.  I was way up on 3100 Road.

Even though I enjoyed the softness of the aspen trees that had already shed their leaves feathering up against the evergreens, and the broad swathes of gold behind them, and the valley spilling out below me; even though I was happily straddling a granite boulder like a horse, I couldn’t simply sit and be.  Too edgy.  I needed to move, get back, reach home before dark, before the rain.  Plus in this spot I could hear the cattle lowing, and they annoyed me.

They annoyed me more on the way back down, because they all seemed to have decided to go somewhere on the road at the same time.  Dinner?  There must have been thirty or forty of them, all told, on the way back.  All different colors, browns and tans, creams, and russets and blacks, bulls and cows and calves.  They frequently stopped right in the middle of the road, turned their enormous bodies sideways and stared at the headlights.  When I finally got through them all, and drove a little further down the mountain, I saw one pure white young cow grazing among the aspen.

I also saw hawks, and chipmunks, and deer.  I think they were deer.  Could have been elk.  One froze by the roadside, so I stopped and looked into her eyes until she decided I was no threat and moved on.  She had enormous ears.

Once I had a dream that three animals came to me, and when I awakened I fancied that they were my spirit animals, or totems.  They were an owl, a jackal, and a doe.  I saw the face of the doe this afternoon.

I’m making soup with last night’s creamed corn (I made it from fresh cobs), tomatoes that come from my brother’s garden here, caramelized onions and carrots, and sweet potato.  The broth is water-based. Since I’ve sworn off all processed foods I couldn’t use a cube, so I took a chicken breast out of the freezer and popped it in to the slow-cooker.  I made this before I left for my drive.  When I got back the chicken was tender enough and cool enough to shred with my fingers.  I poured another cup or so of water and about half a cup of wine into the broth, and it has been simmering for the past 40 minutes or so. I will have to let you know how it turned out.

Writing and Pontificating

I woke up a lot earlier than I had meant to this morning and was driven out of bed by remorse and anxiety.  I knew that I had not quite gotten out what I had meant to say in my previous post, and wanted to address it.  It took me all day to figure out how to do it.

I simply deleted everything that I didn’t want to say, or, rather, that I didn’t want to be recorded as having written.

This must be a disease peculiar to writers and politicians and members of the clergy: the compulsion to pontificate and the equally powerful anxiety about being held to one’s utterances.   This is a desire to be seen and heard that ceaselessly fights with the worry that you will be seen and heard and everyone will see that you are imperfect.   And then there is the fear that they will stop listening to, or reading you, and you will no longer be able to pay the bills, and then they will think bad thoughts about you.   Sometimes there is the fear, for example, that they will  think that you are not a nice person.  Or  that your readers or auditors might find you  rude, or unkind, or uncouth, or clumsy, or left-handed, or insane.  But if you are an academic writer, especially,  the worst thing that they could possibly think about you is that you are not smart.

For two reasons:

Either:

Because smart is what you are selling in this business.  Smart characterizes the commodity. And certain of your colleagues in this business will no longer associate with you because your lack of smartness might make them look less smart.  Smart defined,  of course, not as “really well turned out” or “put together,” but rather as “hyper-intelligent,” “brilliant,” “creative,” “uniquely productive of intellectual commodities.”

Or:

Because you yourself are really invested in being perceived as smart due to some terrible insecurity.  I think it is called imposter syndrome.  It is the fear that they will see through the pose, the mask, the pretence of knowledge, scientia, truth,  revelation, salvation.  You don’t actually know what salvation or sapientia, sophia, wisdom, is, and you have a sneaking suspicion that you have been faking it all this time and they will find you out at last.  And then they will stop liking you.  And then you will be alone.

And then? And then you will have to find different friends, and these friends could be human or animal or plant or mineral.

I don’t know why I always end up careening into saccharine preachiness and the pedagogical mode.  I’m not really that comfortable with it.  I doubt myself all the time, and wish that I were more certain about things than I am.

Like most people, I want to come to a quick conclusion, a moral of the story, because I  am attached to binary oppositions: dumb and smart, black and white, male and female, right and wrong, sane and crazy, rational and emotional, right and left, conservatives and radicals, sacred and  profane, sight and blindness, sun and moon, light and darkness, up and down, west and east, north and south, climbing and falling, dry and wet, hot and cold, salty and sweet, outside and inside.  These are the coordinates with which we map our universe, our experience of reality.  I know in my heart that they are both against and for one another, that they are together, not really separate.  The truth is far more complicated, far muddier.

I know this because I feel it but can’t quite articulate what It is.

Well, some of us can, or pretend do.  I think the job, the duty that one takes on when one signs up to be a minister of the word in a church or a university is to pretend to know the truth.  Popular preachers and professors are good at explaining everything they know and how all of it all hangs together, and passing this off as CORRECT.  For they know as well as I do that we need to make a profit in order to survive in this particular economic system, and that therefore it pays to be the person who can deliver the package, THE TRUTH,  in easily digestible chunks.

Sometimes I don’t know what  I’m thinking or doing.  I don’t always take responsibility for my mistakes, and I should.  Look.  I’m trying.  Seriously.  But it is not clear to me than an apology is what is needed here, but rather something more like a tirade.  But I can’t really work myself up into the lather of it all, because I never quite believe what I’m saying. And, yes,  I find this smug posture of ambivalence and fascination with ambiguity and “greyness” and fuzziness incredibly annoying, too.

So, fine! Grand denial, radical refusal to get carried away, big deal.  Haven’t we seen this all before in Hamlet?  And Hamlet is an idiot.  And so is Romeo, and lots of the handsome, dashing types in Shakespeare.   The handsome, dashing type is usually an asshole, so pleased with himself.  But you can find the exact same attitude of superior put-upon-ness in the working classes, or in among any oppressed group.  They can display the same dramatic self-indulgence and refusal to take responsibility for the mess that we have all, together, gotten into. All this posturing, by women, by men…

I’m starting to pontificate again, and so it’s best to stop.

Fear of Writing

fellow wordpresser relates that she typed in “fear and writing” and that a lot of stuff came up.

She didn’t explain what came up,, or what prompted her to google “fear and writing,” but she did say this:

A friend and I laugh about how it’s gotten that not only do you have to write a book, you’re expected to edit it, market it, and then pulp it too. You certainly have to know exactly what shelf it’s supposed to be on.

The stress and frustration comes when the mind refuses to participate.

The fear, of course, is that we will not be able to pull off all of these different tasks, which used to be shared between various people.  And that fear taps back into the anxiety that most of us picked up when we were children, when, no matter what we did to please our parents, we were still not good enough.

Now, it appears that the writer of this blog and her friends are non-academic writers, but the anxiety she describes about presenting her work as a commodity in the marketplace before it has even become a thing, a work of art, a symbolic expression, a statement to the world, affects scholars as well.  She writes,

The marketing buzz has gotten out of hand. We are trying to market before we’ve even created. And there are writing books that actually say don’t type a word until you know your audience. Don’t let a thought fill your head until you know who you’re going to sell it to.

Although we academics and the upper-echelon university administrators for whom we work like to pretend that we transcend these petty concerns of profit and interest, although we claim to be engaged in the pursuit of truth and knowledge, the realities of the market affect us, too.  Whole books are stifled because presses are increasingly under pressure to publish only what they think they can sell.  And who wants to read an academic book other than other academics?

A friend–I say “friend” although the trust on which a friendship is built has yet to be established–let us say, the husband of a friend of mine, a man who is the child of academics and who spent long years working in academia, recently said to me, when I told him that I was still plugging away on my book,

Why?  What is the point of writing something that no one, or maybe five people will read?  What are you writing it for now that you know you’re not going to get tenure at X?

He was not exactly encouraging. I, however, was prepared for him and answered that I believed that I had a contribution to make, an original argument that deserved to be published, and that it meant something to me to express it.   Then he asked me if I had anyone reading it, an editor or fellow-writer to bounce ideas off of.  When I said that I had sought such a helper in vain, he responded,

In my experience people who don’t have a reader cannot finish their books.  You simply can’t do it.

Okay, so this really irritated me in that way that a microscopic piece of glass under the skin of your index finger irritates you. And it deflated me to a certain extent because I have heard this same refrain in my mind for years and years. And yes, to a certain extent, the echo still reverberates.   This person seemed to be encouraging me to give up and admit that I had failed and would never finish the work that I had been working on for so many years, the book that I had originally envisioned completing in two or three years.   But for some reason I didn’t hear him saying this.

When people say things like this to me, what I hear is that they would like to write and are afraid to do it.  If they can convince me to give up my project, that will justify their decision to give up theirs.  This sort of statement only comes from someone who has bought into the whole, ridiculous belief-system that a person is only real once he or she has published a book, or made a fortune, or conquered a country, and so on.  What they–we–are all afraid of is of being scorned, or ignored, or somehow evaluated as inadequate.  And this fear probably comes to us not only from our childhood, from our parents, who projected onto us their feelings of failure and unworthiness, which they experienced in their own relationships with their parents and their cultures.

This is an old, old fear, passed down from generation to generation.  But it is also a new fear, one that we encounter when we enter into the market as writers and believe that what we are selling is somehow a part of ourselves.

I do not know how to write without understanding my writing as a part of myself.  I know that lots of people do grasp this.  Popular authors invent or copy a formula and reproduce it in a fashion that is sure to sell.   I also do not know how to write without feeling the pressure to sell what I am in the process of writing, of expressing.  It’s not possible to be a writer who expects or needs to get published without being subject to market pressures.  And this is as true for scholars as it is for popular writers, for novelists and poets and self-help manual-writers.  It is not possible to create art, to be an artist, without being conscious of, or in some fashion under,  the force, the influence, of commercialism. We live in a commercialized world.

Hell, we are all forced to become capitalists.  Or we are if we are wise.  In this economy, saving money in a savings account or CD simply pays so little that, after the effect of inflation, the value of our money actually DECLINES.  We think about what is happening to our wealth as a sum, a number, in nearly every decision we make–when we decide to rent instead of to buy, when we decide to buy goods of any kind–milk, paper, educations, lawnmowers, sheep, art, companions– at exorbitant prices or at the bottom of the market.   And in our particular economy (as opposed to say, earlier forms of society, when economic values were largely held in land and people and animals, as opposed to in money and stocks), it doesn’t pay to save money without figuring out some way to make that money grow.  People don’t keep gold coins in chests anymore.  People didn’t used to believe that money could make money.  They also didn’t used to approve of lending money for interest, or of deliberately paying a person to produce a commodity a fraction of what you know you’ll get when you sell that commodity in the market.

So, we think of our selves as body/minds for sale–newscasters and politicians nearly always have to be physically appealing to succeed.  And how many obese, female CEOs do you know?  We sell ourselves, our skin color, our education, our reading list, the newspapers we subscribe to, the cars we drive, the labels we wear, the dogs we care for, the accomplishments of our children, even our most intimate companions, our lovers, our wives, our husbands, these things become attributes, aspects of our abstract portfolio, our virtual net worth.  We are not evil or bad or selfish, inherently,  for thinking this way.  It’s our culture.  It’s all we’ve ever known.

So of course writing–and all art–is subject to market pressures, the need to know who your audience is, and how to market it, and where to try to sell it.  And yes, the people who are best at promoting themselves as commodities are in fact the people who make the most money.  They’re not necessarily the best at what they do.

Okay, so in very few instances, they are.  Mozart was good at selling himself, and he was great.

You could say that even the idea that we are writing for reasons other than material need is cultivated and promoted in the market as a way of trumping up the value of what we produce.  This “true expression of the spirit” is what we covet, what we as buyers want to purchase.  We put it on our bookshelves and on our walls when we are rich.

And yet there is somehow the drive, the insane push to formulate some kind of analysis or narrative of something or other, purely for sake of expressing it.  This is the same impulse that we are all under to “be creative,” to find some means of representing our “inner selves.” This, of course, cynically viewed, is just another way of buying into the idea that there is an inner self that could be expressed.

Still, there is something more than this, too, a need to contribute, to get into the conversation, with other people who also care about the past and who want their scholarship or their novel or their craft or skill to explain things in a way that will make a difference.

In the past, people like Milton believed that this wish to generate art, or to have a job best suited to his or her capabilities, was the yearning of God to show himself (Milton believed that God was male) in the world, to communicate with his creatures.  This was a radical idea, believe it or not, compared to the older belief that people worked in the fields and the stations to which they were born; they didn’t even have a concept of individual desire, inclination, or talent for one thing or another.   We are all subject to this longing–not just the writers among us, but also those of us who work in business.   In corporate culture more than anywhere, in fact, the pressure to be “creative” is felt.

I am still thinking that this may be a universal longing in the human spirit, even though I don’t actually believe in transhistorical longings on the grounds that our desires are constructed and sustained in historically specific environments.

Tara Brach writes and speaks about an ancient Tibetan wisdom which teaches that the divine abides in everyone.  She tells a classic tale about a monastery that has fallen on hard times.  There are only four monks left, and they are all old. The community is not thriving, and they have no ideas for how to continue.  One day the abbot goes to visit a rabbi.  He tells him that he is extremely worried about the future of the monastery, and asks if the rabbi has any suggestions for how to plump up their membership and coffers.  “No, I can’t think of any way for you to plump up your membership and coffers,” the rabbi says, “but I can tell you one thing.  I can tell you that one among you is the Messiah.”

The abbot is astonished to hear this and relates the news to his brethren.   Once they learn that one of them is the Messiah, the monks begin to treat one another with an extraordinary courtesy.  And an extraordinary change comes over the monastery, a light of kindness seems to glow in the faces of the monks, and bye and bye word gets out and new monks come to share in the extraordinary community.  Soon so many new members have come, the monastery swells and thrives.  All because each of them believed that one among them was the Messiah.

So Tara Brach interprets this tale according to the Tibetan wisdom that the divine inhabits each one of us, and that the god or goal we seek is already here, within us, and that our true nature is love.  This is not so different from the advice of my fellow blogger, Nina Killham, encourages us all to ignore the market and write out of love.  Love is the main ingredient, she says, of what we ought to be writing.

That’s nice.  But in fact we can’t ignore the market.  Nevertheless we could try to write out of love, not fear.  Fear comes to us, seeps into us, through the market, which transforms each of us into small children needing to be accepted and valued by “parents”–our audiences, our publishers, our critics, our rejectors, our deniers–who don’t give a shit about us, who have not entered into anything like a dignified and loving relationship with us, and who never will.

What I suggest is what Tara Brach would suggest.  Let us all put our hands upon our hearts and acknowledge with compassion the need to be loved, our longing to be accepted and valued–hell, not just valued, but SEEN, recognized, acknowledged–in this particular time-frame of human culture, and accept that this is.  Let us also see that we are seeing this.  Let us step above ourselves for a moment, and understand with love why it is that we need this, why it is that we fear writing, because of what it has come to mean for so many of us.  Let us find some way to write in spite of this anxiety, from which we cannot every fully come free.  Let us understand ourselves as writers with love, not fear, and try somehow to get across what it is that we need to get across, in order to have an intelligent conversation with someone, and to get a better sense of what it is that we are trying to understand.

Writing

Well, this is a relief.  I’ve had two good days in touch with my so-called real self, the scholar-writer person. I’ve been wondering about this particular persona for a while, since she’s been so out of touch.  Did she still live, after all this time?  Could we still talk, hang out?  Would it feel the way it used to?  Would the books still reassure me, communicate their serious love?  Would I still feel serious love for them?

It was, I am happy to say, very much a good experience.  I love to be in the library, especially when it is empty, as it is during spring break and summer.   The elevator always comes promptly, and I don’t have to wade through the hordes, more like seals draped all over the the place, on the way to my blissfully set-apart study.  And there I find these things, bound in plastic and string and god-knows-what kind of glue, that have carried me through these years.  My friends.  There is that one, who, like the other dear ones, has been with me through the whole terrible broken-from-the-start love-affair with X, and then after that through the heartache of Y, and then my father’s death, and the strange eye-in-the-storm calm that followed, when I was so busy with the estate, and felt, for a change, important, respected, needed.

I could go in to some inquiry about what precisely it is that makes teaching so horrible these days, so impersonal, so mechanical.  Not that I feel like a machine.  No, that’s the problem.  It’s not just the institution, but the students, who want me to be like a machine.  They want me to be like a tv program, or, better yet, like a music video, that fascinates and manipulates them, that robs them of their subjectivity.  They only seem to experience their subjectivity these days when they are feeling outraged over having been denied some service that they are convinced they have already paid for.

Having to read, discuss and write thoughtfully about feminism is definitely not what they signed up for.  And I’m not quite as trim as I used to be.  I no longer wear those killer tight miniskirts and high heels.  No, these days I’m more likely to show up in the only pair of jeans that still fits, a ski vest I’ve had for 12 years (Patagonia), and a long t-shirt.  I think my ratings used to be higher.  But I really don’t give a shit.

Yes, there are the few students, usually but not always women or gay men–sometimes heterosexual white men really come through, you know?  There’s no reason to trash the entire genus.  As I as saying, there are the few students who make it all good, who not only do the reading and follow what I’m saying but who for some totally inexplicable reason seem to live on the same planet as I do, and who, like the few people left who seem to be willing to declare themselves feminists, grasp that this is it, this cause, gender: understanding how we all participate in a world of predictable gendered patterns, and that we step outside of the normative patterns at our peril..

Not just the people who don’t fit into the heteronormative paradigm, the resolutely heterosexual people in the J. Crew catalog, are hurt by sexism, by narrow conceptions, rigidly enforced, of gender.  No, even the pretend-people’s earthly representatives, the really, really, really, you-can’t-even-imagine-how-rich rich people, who benefit from these crude stereotypes, are limited and depressed by them and the system that they perpetuate.   Okay so the pretend-people in the J.Crew catalog are better off than the women in Snoop Dogg music videos, and the men in those videos.  At least the crude stereotype that they are personifying do not depict women as universally nymphomaniac, narcissistic slaves.

Ya, even the guys at the various apex points of the multi-dimensional power-grid that we all inhabit, unequally, are damaged by these narrow visions of sexual identity.  Because these are so incredibly limiting.  Men have so much more to offer than they are represented as offering in the media.  And so do women.  Obviously.

Right.

Yep.  Think that’s where I’m gonna end this one.