Friday, January 25, 2008

Thirty Years of Experience

One great thing about teaching on a college campus is that I don't sit at my computer all day long. In order to get to classes, I have to put on my overcoat and walk through whatever weather the day presents. During the bad ice storm of February1994, tree-sized limbs crashed onto sidewalks all over campus. Most of the time, however, the ten minute dash across campus is uneventful and gives me time to think and observe.

This week's grey, cold weather with drizzle threatening to turn to ice turns my mind to Groundhog Day--and more specifically to the film Groundhog Daystarring Bill Murray. In my household, watching Groundhog Dayat the end of January has become a tradition. Living the worst day of your life over and over again seems to pretty much sum up many people's views of their lives. Few people seem to have found the perfect marriage of vocation and avocation. Their daily pattern of driving to work, spending eight hours like Sisyphus pushing the same rock up the same hill over and over, then driving back home to make dinner, do laundry, help with homework, and vacuum until it is time to fall into bed and arise the next morning to the same schedule--well, let's just say the cold grey days of winter create a mood that does little to break such a bleak spell. Fairly existential stuff. One might ask: Is this life I lead really who I am? At what point does life become worth living?

I think the writing life is my personal antidote for existential malaise. For one thing, if you are seriously writing, there are no idle moments to ponder your misery BECAUSE WHATEVER PROJECT YOU'RE WORKING ON, YOU'RE BEHIND AND YOU NEED TO GRAB EVERY SPARE MOMENT TO WORK ON IT. Sure, the effort is futile. No one will ever read what you're writing because the chances of it being published are slim. But as Phil Connors (Bill Murray) learns in the film, there is something to be found in the simple act of repetition. The way to become a better writer is to pay attention and write regularly, daily if you can manage. I have seen few writers who do this whose writing remains stagnant. And if publishing is your only goal, if being sure you are good and having the world acknowledge it is your only objective, Merwin quoted Berryman once in a poem: if you have to be sure, don't write.

The difference for Phil Connors as he repeats the same one day of his life over and over and over again is that although the world around him wakes up each morning like a goose in a new world, carrying over no knowledge of what has previously transpired, Phil himself IS aware of what he has learned in his yesterdays. That's what we do when we write. We don't have one year of experience thirty times: we have thirty years of experience. We build cumulative knowledge. We grow as writers just as we grow as people.

Which brings me to my own past thirty years. January 25, 1978 -- January 25, 2008.
Thirty years ago today, I was working late in The Writing Center at the University of Alabama when a colleague I had just met touched me on the shoulder and said,
"Let's close this place down and lock the door. Truman Capote is reading right down the hall. We should be there, not here."

As badly as I wanted to hear Capote read, it never occurred to me that I could leave my post early, even though there were no students. This guy tempted me with a delicious, enticing thought: I could use my own judgment.

And with his help for the past thirty years, I have continued to make choices that don't always follow the chain of command and certainly don't follow popular opinion.


brelandkg said...

What a historical event (and an important one, in my case)! How lucky you are to have seen such a legend read his genius work, and let me add that you are even luckier to have been able to share it with the love of your life, who also happens to be a genius writer/poet/"inventor" in many ways. It's amazing how your soul mate can help you get past the boring borders of your life and open your eyes to opportunities of greatness (as a partner in life and as a writer!). I now know how lucky I am to have such a man in my life! Kudos to you for closing up early (even if it was breaking the rules, I'm sure that Eddins surely would have approved for such an incredible author!) and going against the expected to follow your heart. As I learned in an Eddins class on Frost, I'm sure that "it has made all the difference."

Proudly Your Daughter,
Katherine Miller Garner Breland

joshua said...

Groundhog Day-Each day we open our eyes to another test, every day is in its essence the same, only our choices may vary. I have seen lists of favorite "Buddhist movies"-Groundhog Day seems to make these lists fairly consistently. I am not sure how much I like the idea of every day being the same- it almost seems like a letdown from the constant "newness of things" I imagined life would be as a kid. One of my Dad's favorite sayings is "Life is Paradox"; I guess that applies here. Life is the same every day/ Life is new every day. Same Old Grind/new opportunity to transcend the Same Old Grind. And as we accept the sameness with increasing honesty and humility we transcend to ever more profound intensities; which are new to us. Weird. Anyway, Thanks for a nice blog!
Your Student,

Jeanie Thompson said...

In yet another rotation (a la Walker Percy) during this Aquarian season, I read my best friend's reminisence and her daughter's comment about it on the same day. A collapsing of 30 years into several paragraphs. I wonder if my mom saved the letters I wrote her from college because that's the closest analog here. I had witnessed a professor have a melt down in class because students came in unprepared. He ranted and raved and flung his hands at us (well, them, I was prepared.) He was my first philosophy professor and although I knew he was extremely wierd, I also thought he was a genius. I was worried about him when this happened and sat in a diner on the strip and wrote my mom a long letter on the legal pad I used to take notes. Later I went on to experience the same thing as a teacher and I understood better his frustration, though I don't think I ever vocalized it like he did to unwitting summer school students.
Anita and Katherine, you both inpire me to close up early today!

Anita Miller Garner said...

Kat, Josh, Jeanie: thanks guys for the feedback. 'Time' is doing some crazy stuff these days. Tomorrow, for instance, is Super Tuesday PLUS it is also Mardi Gras, the opening day of the new session of the Alabama Legislature, the birthday of one of my favorite people, and tornadoes are expected. Perhaps, JT, TOMORROW is the day we need to close up shop early. Go figure.