When I was a kid, I was really interested in eastern religions (particularly Zen). The framework of Buddhism just didn’t work for me though— absence of striving? WTF? Fine for rocks and trees, not so useful for people. People need things. That’s the only way we learn anything— we must need to learn. Learning, in fact, seems to me to be the goal of consciousness.
Learning should not be confused with literacy. Learning seems to be more deeply connected with a core part of being human, our predisposition toward planning. Squirrels, regardless of the clichés, don’t have retirement plans. Sociality (and thus communication skills) is nonetheless a central need for those with an eye on the future. We hairless apes are not particularly self-sufficient. We band together to survive, honing specific skills to be accepted within our tenuous circles of sociality. We figure out how to fulfill someone else’s needs, so that we may in turn be satisfied.
When I was a kid, I craved images. I would sort pictures into little piles, trying to figure out why I liked them and wanted to return to them. I usually couldn’t vocalize, let alone write down why I liked certain images over others. The more images I saw and collected, the more inexplicable the whole process became. I read a lot, at first to figure out how to make/do things and later to understand why people did the things they did (my father suggested Shakespeare and the Russian writers). I discovered Blake, Milton, and the rest of the usual suspects (Vonnegut, Kerouac and the Beats, etc) that a young man reads. But I didn’t need to be a writer. I was satisfied with reading; but I felt like I could make images. I spent decades learning most everything I could about it.
Somewhere around 36, I finally felt a need to learn how to write. I had to come up with an exhibition statement. A friend named Jeff, who was completing a masters in English Lit at UC Irvine, went through my rough draft with a pen reducing it by about two thirds. Reading between all the blacked out words, it was better. It seemed like writing was a lot like composing images— getting rid of the junk so you can see more clearly the subject that interests you. Writing didn’t seem that hard.
At 37, I found a need to write. I was smitten by a woman half a continent away and the primary form I had to relate myself and my feelings was through (electronic) love letters. Words worked out well between us, but the when I moved to Arkansas to be with her the reality did not. I didn’t understand why I failed so miserably. At 38, I went back to school both to try and meet new people and learn how to make a better living.
At first, I wanted to study everything— Art, History, Literature, etc. but eventually two paths emerged. I loved literature, so hanging out with other people who liked reading it too was cool. But it wasn’t much of a career plan. Images weren’t being kind to me by this time either; everything seemed so painful. I felt like a walking nerve. People seemed to think I was a good writer. I was never quite sure why. An English professor suggested that I look into technical writing. So I got a dual BA in Rhetoric (seemed much more interesting than “technical writing”) and Literature.
Moving forward into a Master’s degree in Rhetoric (I never could stay interested in technical writing) I was allowed to teach, I loved that. The fundamental need of most students who want to survive college is the need to write. Granted, writing papers is not nearly so interesting as writing love letters or novels, but it is a specific survival skill. Later, I grew to love teaching technical writing as well because it is clearly writing that fills a need in the world. The world doesn’t need a lot more hackneyed love letters or lame novels. We need to understand what we are saying to each other more completely.
I didn’t finish my Ph.D., though I did all the course work because I just simply couldn’t find the need to. I loved teaching, but I never loved the politics of evaluation. How can you really know if you are meeting other people’s needs? I’m not so god-like as to profess to know.
It’s hard to find any real need to write these days. I’m happy, and I really want to rediscover my relationship with images. Some things, you just can’t describe in words. Maybe it’s time to get back to sorting it out. I suppose it’s best to blot out the bits that don’t fit.1
1When I first entered the composition classroom, this was the first assignment that greeted me: compose a literacy biography describing your relationship with writing. Often, there were hidden traumas in there. For example, during my first attempt at community college a million years ago, I dropped out because I wasn’t getting a good enough grade in “English composition.” I was a victim of the grammar cops. So what? I also didn’t have a reason to write— a detail that seems far more important to me.