Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
Gustave Flaubert’s maxim caught me in it’s grasp when I first heard it in graduate school. It resonated with my split nature. On the one hand, I wanted to be a good, productive member of society, to please people, to be responsible. On the other hand, I wanted to be a poet, which seemed the opposite. My inner rebel sent me to poems, sent me away from the idea of a boring nine-to-five existence. But my lack of a benefactor sent me the bourgeois way.
After I finished my MFA, I set about establishing a career, to make a living so I could be violent and original and bohemian with basic cable. I had gotten engaged (by blurting it out on the phone one night, classic AD(H)D style) and had to prove (to myself, not to my future wife) that I could be responsible. The coming specter of student loan payments drove me to find income as well. I had filled out all the paperwork for enrolling in a PhD program but threw it away and instead secured a one-semester teaching job a Ferris State University.
I wanted to get my professional life started and in control, to become a good teacher, make enough money to cover my expenses plus dinner and a movie, and put that part of my life away in a box so there would be time to write. I should have recognized the familiar flawed refrain: I only needed to set up the right circumstances and the real writing would begin. In the past, I thought, I only needed to have my own computer, my own apartment without roommates, the right pen, the right chair. I projected my resistance onto the objects around me.
During my MFA days, one part of the degree was six semester hours of “MFA Project”; that meant that while the university paid me to each, I paid part of that money back for the honor of not going to class to work on my MFA thesis. My life for a semester was teaching one class at the university, a couple at the community college, and writing. Plenty o’ time to write in my own apartment with my own computer. Three and a half months into my four months of project hours, I finally started writing, and I took to tying my leg to my desk to keep me working on my poems for two hours a day. I got through my MFA project with talent, rather than discipline, as I always had.
I moved to Mecosta, MI, to the top floor of a house on a lake in the woods. The bottom floor was inhabited by the retired owners of the house: a kooky bird of a woman and her dementia-afflicted husband. Other than the occasional distraction from downstairs (one afternoon, polka music suddenly blared throughout the house, never to be heard again), I lived in isolation in the boonies. I had my own entrance and my own deck on the second floor, so it felt as close to a writer’s cabin as I could manage. I would begin the writing career I had long studied for.
I only had to get my teaching life in order. Easier said than done.
I taught five classes with three preps. Two of the classes I taught were basic writing classes, populated by students who did not meet minimum requirements for writing proficiency. FSU was open admissions at that time, so the classes were chaotic. I had never had to use any “classroom management” before. I wanted to teach college classes so I never had to yell in the classroom. I had to yell. Someone gave me advice that you should just lay it on the line for them: do this, and pass; don’t do this, and fail. That proved horribly wrong. It’s true that the standards had to be set up, but threatening them with failure seemed like more of the same crap they heard all through school, so they wrote me off.
I also met some of the strangest students in my life. In my research writing class, for example, I had a student who decided his semester project would be to prove the validity of the Bible. Another told me, in all seriousness, that she was the sort of student who did best if she never had to come to class and instead could just come by my office and turn in her work. I taught these classes that I had never taught before with students that I didn’t know what to make of at an institution where I didn’t know anyone, and I struggled.
I got angry with myself with struggling over basic motivation. I thought when I finished graduate school I would start being a grownup and stop fighting with myself over basic things like getting up in the morning, getting to my job on time, keeping my kitchen clean. I don’t know why I had this idea; perhaps it excused the present. I hadn’t been, until this point, a real grown up adult yet. I was always a student.
But two things occupied my life: teaching and worrying about teaching. Most evenings my worries kept me stuck on the couch, watching TV. Doing not much else. Nowadays with a house and two kids to take care of, I wonder where all that time went that year. I didn’t invest it in reading or writing, that’s for sure.
I experience slow periods where I feel frozen. I think the metaphor came from those days out on the lake. Deep in Michigan winter, that apartment felt cold with the wind blowing across the lake through my leaky windows. In a frozen period, my brain is occupied by the following unbalanced equation:
I want to do [something fun/fufilling] but before I can do that, I have to do [something I need to do, but can’t]. Therefore I will do [neither of these things while thinking constantly about both].
Instead, I watch TV, read novels, surf the internet, play computer games, plink on the guitar, none of which feels very satisfying.
I could never be regular and orderly in the boring parts of my life. Instead I am anxious and avoidant. The things in my life that I find boring and uninteresting indirectly grow into all-out constant worries. Therefore, by not thinking about them, I am constantly preoccupied by them. They won’t stay in their cages. They are the Stay-Puft Marmallow Men of my brain.