A Gentle(wo)man and a Scholar

Streetlamp     “I’m not trying to tell you,” he said, “that only educated and scholarly men are able to contribute something valuable to the world. It’s not so. But I do say that educated and scholarly men, if they’re brilliant and creative to begin with…tend to leave infinitely more valuable records behind them than me do who are merely brilliant and creative. They tend to express themselves more clearly, and they usually have a passion for following their thoughts through to the end. And – most important – nine times out of ten they have more humility than the unscholarly thinker.”

– J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Woah, it has been months since I last posted. They weren’t kidding about grad school’s impressive ability to keep one busy – who are they you ask? Everyone. Seriously, it’s the first thing someone (un?)helpfully offers when you announce your intentions to go on to grad school: “you know you’re going to have no life right?” or the infinitely more clever, “so I’ll see you in.. two years then?” At any rate, clever or not, you were all right – I’ve been busy as hell.

That being said, I’ve made a pact to insert some fiction reading into my schedule this summer. Periodically I seem to forget that fiction calms, de-stresses, and just generally makes me happy and I’m going to need all the happiness I can muster as I embark on the madness that is an MA Thesis. This may make me slightly even more busy but I don’t consider reading (or writing for that matter) fiction something that takes up time – rather it enhances time, making life’s simple pleasures all the more enjoyable. I can’t tell you how many times a good book with even a single deliciously crafted sentence has opened my mind to possibilities and thoughts I maybe had access to all along but didn’t know how to reach.

You may notice, if you even care to read these ramblings, that I try to start my blog posts with a quote. It doesn’t necessarily have to come out of fiction, as not every brilliant word-smith writes fiction, but it has to be something that jumps out of the page and insists on arresting my attention for whatever reason.

And here is the point that ties all of that randomness above together: I’ve finally sat down to read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and if you want my honest opinion, it’s not really my cup of tea. It’s not a difficult read and it definitely has its unexpectedly poignant moments but I’ve never truly enjoyed the stream-of-consciousness style of writing and that is exactly what this is. Yes I am aware of the irony of me complaining about stream of consciousness in a blog format – I hope what I write here has a bit more flow to it and doesn’t stray too far into Joyceian territory but if by some chance it does I apologize.

Tulip Festival

Any way, to get back to it – The quote above is from the near end of the book and it struck me so hard that I suddenly knew it was finally the write moment for a new post. It may not seem spectacular to some, but give me a moment to explain!

As I sat reading this book (the point of which I’m still trying to grasp – all I’ve got is that he’s perpetually and thoroughly depressed) with a pint of Guinness at my side this sentence hit me, and I mean really hit me.

I’ve always considered myself a writer, I just haven’t decided to what degree I’m successful at it. My sister will tell you I have an over-active imagination and a penchant for exaggeration (in the nicest way possible) and I don’t deny either of these things. In fact, as much as they may get me in trouble sometimes I believe both of these traits are instrumental in a good read. It’s not enough to be able to describe moments, colours, sounds, smells and anything else a writer might draw on when crafting their beautiful linguistic tapestries.  One must also be able to embellish life – to enhance its brilliance, increase its saturation, and mould its many incredible facets in such a way that lights a fire in the imagination of the reader.

Instead of simply sitting at my computer (or preferably notebook and pen) and attempting to write the next great novel, I’ve chosen to get out there and experience life. There are moments when I can’t remember why I’ve decided to pursue my MA. Why not just get a job to pay the bills until I’m able to finally support myself by the pen (keyboard? Pen just sounds more romantic doesn’t it?).  This is what made the rather lengthy quotation above so wonderful. It reminded me why I’m here. Yes, I’d like to consider myself creative, I won’t go so far as to call myself brilliant per say, but this isn’t enough is it? There needs to be something else – ambition, a drive to learn to grow to constantly improve oneself. I think this is what school provides – be it grade school, high school or any other form of post-secondary learning (trades, college, university and innumerable other possibilities). The same drive that fuels one’s passion to learn is what pushes one to write that great novel, compose the next big symphony, push the boundaries of science more generally or gravity more specifically: to change the world as we know it. 

And yet, there is another way to read this quote. Yes a creative and brilliant mind is constantly pushed towards the next challenge, the next hurdle, the next lesson but it’s more than this. Not only do creative people make adept and inspiring scholars and intellectuals but the latter should strive to become the former. Choosing academics should not mean that one needs to squeeze oneself into the mould, leaving more creative pursuits to the realm of the hobbies. Where’s the fun in that? Whatever your personal form of creativity is, whether it’s working with (and sometimes fighting against) nature to create the perfect trail or spending hours in the studio to dance your heart out for 5 minutes on a stage in front of your loved ones this passion can and should be integrated into your work. One of the most inspiring lessons I’ve learned from my wonderful colleagues this year (and, now that I think of it, from almost everyone who has graced my incredibly blessed life thus far) is that if you truly work on what you love, there’s no limit to what you can achieve. Everyone I have met in this program in particular is fascinating in their own unique way and even if they don’t realize it, at least a part of their uniqueness and creativity manages to seep into their scholarly pursuits.

Colonel By
Now this man truly embraced his own creativity in his work – he erected a boxing ring in downtown Bytown so the local Irish immigrants could fight out their differences like civilized people!

And why can’t scholarly work be inspired, influenced and even crafted by creativity? We’ve all read those terribly dull monographs that are exponentially more effective than even the strongest sleeping pill and have wondered why in the hell they couldn’t make it more interesting. It’s incredible how easily even the most intriguing topics can be made mind-numbingly boring. One can’t help but wonder if whoever wrote said work was actually following their passion and, if they were, if they were allowing themselves to write about it as they wished to or if they were trying to fit the stereotype of the stuffy if successful tenured academic. I’ll admit that not every single person on this earth is the next William Shakespeare but everyone has a writing style that suits them and that allows their passion and excitement to shine through.

But what if it isn’t writing? What if they are best able to display their research through painting, music, film or landscaping? Sure, it may not suit the ivory tower model, and I’m not advocating a book burning or anything of the sort (remember – I love writing) but academics could certainly benefit from a widening of its creative scope. One of the professors this year created a playlist on youtube and encouraged their students to suggest music which matched the different themes being discussed in class each week – although it wasn’t for marks it was probably one of the coolest and most interactive tasks I took part in all year and it certainly got me thinking about the subject matter in a new light. We still had to slog through the readings but this was a fun way of reminding the students that seemingly abstract subjects like emotion and temporality are instrumental not only to academics but also to popular culture and, more importantly, to everyday life. If nothing else, this youtube exercise was an example of how creativity can be harnessed to break down the walls of the ivory tower in order to let brilliance and ingenuity flow between the oft separated worlds of academia and life.

There’s a brilliant book, the name of which escapes me at this moment, on the value of creativity in education written in a multitude of creative ways (poetry, short stories, songs etc…) that I will try and track down – it was recommended to me by my aunt who is an elementary school French teacher. Suffice it to say, I’ve noticed in my own life that when the academic going gets tough I need to step back and do something creative – this week it’s been rediscovering my love of piano-playing (OK OK so it was insanely frustrating at first but I can finally play Scarborough Fair again!). But since I’ve started my MA, maybe because I no longer have the creative outlet of journalism built into my degree, I’ve realized I need to bring the creativity back into my actual work if I’m not going to lose focus. I haven’t figured out the ideal method yet, and suggestions are always welcome, but I’m starting to think this blog may be the creative/work-related outlet I’ve been searching for.

As I said before, I love writing and that’s all a thesis really is right? Research, research, research and then a whole lot of writing. As I gear up for Ireland (in just over 2 weeks!) I need to remember to allow my creative side to breathe or the stress just might get the best of me.

As a final thought, a brilliant young man taught me this year to notice the small things – the seemingly insignificant details that inexplicably kick your mind into high gear and initiate the curiosity that may have killed the cat but most certainly will aide the grad student. He did so, believe it or not, by pointing out that there must have been piping under a portion of the path we were walking on where the snow was suddenly all melted. I would have just walked by completely clueless but his small effort in pointing to that patch of clear cement got me wondering what else I miss when I speed-walk from place to place with only the destination in mind. I’ve always been inspired by the written word but now I hope to incorporate the beautiful randomness of life into not only my scholarly work but my creative pursuits as well – at least until I can get the two to merge for good.

Only slightly enhanced - to make it closer to what my memory of the place was. Exactly what any good writer does :)
Only slightly enhanced – to make it closer to what my memory of the place was. Exactly what any good writer does.

I realize I may not have done a fantastic job at portraying the humility Salinger advocated for in the quote above but I hope that what I’ve written will inspire whoever reads this to indulge in their passions. Actually… don’t just indulge, that suggests it’s something to do once in a while and only when you deserve it. Make it an integral part of everything you do – you never know where your own creativity and brilliance may lead you.

And remember (especially if you’re at all daunted by whatever work is staring you down from the near future) life IS beautiful.

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