30 Oct Mentors, Muses and Monsters
What is this journey of self-discovery upon which we are sending our children, and how can we as parents and teachers partner to support and enrich that journey? I was thinking about this as I was reading a piece in a collection called Mentors, Muses and Monsters, edited by Elizabeth Benedict. The piece in question is entitled “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life.” It was written by a young man named Alexander Chee when he was the visiting writer at Amherst College. In it, Chee writes about the impact on his life of a class he took at the Wesleyan University Writers Program from the great author Annie Dillard.
At the time Chee applied to be admitted into Dillard’s class, he was “an English major who had failed at being a studio art major and thus became an English major by default.” He’d gone to school to become an artist. But he’d “accidentally” fallen asleep in a drawing class given by the chair of the art department. And that was that. Chee was essentially pushed from the department that was to have trained him for his life’s work. He spent a summer wandering through senseless enterprises. And then a second “accident” occurred. A friend phoned to ask if he could borrow a typewriter.
“After I hung up the phone, I wrote a story on that typewriter in the four hours before he arrived that I can still remember, partly for how it came out as I now know very few stories do: quickly and with confidence. I was an amnesiac about my accomplishments. In high school, I won a prize from the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Foundation, and a play of mine was honored by Maine’s gifted and talented program with a reading by actors from the Portland Stage Company. But those felt like accidents, in a life next door to mine. For some reason this first short story satisfied in me the idea that I could write in a way that these other things did not…
All I could tell in that moment was that I had finally made an impression on myself. And whatever it was that I did when I was writing a story, I wanted to do it again.”
The short story got noticed by an editor who said if Chee expanded it into a novella she would publish it. At that point, Chee did not know what a novella was.
“Great and enviable things were happening for me. But I wanted [this] editor to tell me, Go be a visual artist and forget about this writing thing, kid. I was someone who didn’t know how to find the path he was on, the one under his feet. This, it seems to me, is why we have teachers.”
I love this idea that as parents and teachers we become guides to help our children recognize opportunity in failure, to help them discover themselves and recognize when they are onto something. To help them explore their passions, discover their gifts, learn how to honor those gifts. To make a place in their own lives in which they can grow into the most fully realized versions of themselves.
Chee knew enough to continue to honor his gifts, not to rest on them. He understood that talent alone can be a curse and not a gift. And he knew to embrace the concepts of teachers and mentors and work.
“I resented the idea of being talented. I couldn’t respect it—in my experience, no one else did. Being called talented at school had only made me a target for resentment. I wanted to work. Work, I could honor. Talent isn’t enough, she had told us. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing. Talent could give you nothing. Without work, talent is only talent, promise, not product. I wanted to learn how to go from being the accident at the beginning to a writer, and I learned that from her.”
There is so much in that paragraph that is important to keep in mind. The idea that we must help our children learn the great joy and reward of honoring their gifts by practicing them. The idea of the importance of developing “habits of mind.” Habits of practice, of discipline, of perseverance. Habits that allow our children to grow but also to reach deep inside themselves. Habits of time management, the mantra I hear at every middle school student panel when the question of how to survive the pressure is posed. This is what Annie Dillard was teaching her writing students at Wesleyan. Habits of mind. Dillard, in the opening of her book The Writing Life, quotes Goethe as saying, “Do not hurry; do not rest.” For us as teachers, parents and mentors, that means helping our children to find the things that give them joy, discover a natural rhythm of study and practice, and persevere through the tough spots, so that they, like Chee, can have the glorious experience of making an impression on themselves.