Directions to the Magical Land of Ideas

My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.

Anaïs Nin

Without doubt, I love all of the English classes that I teach, but my Creative Writing classes always tug a little tighter at my heartstrings. I think I know why. We write. We draft. We workshop. We revise. We share. We bond. Together.

Aside from valuing writers’ bond, I like writing with my students because I want them to see that seasoned writers struggle perhaps as much as fledgling writers. I want them to see that writing is work. No, I want them to see that writing is hard work. More, I want them to see that with lots and lots of mental lifting they can become agile writing gymnasts.

Here’s another reason why I like to write with my students. As an educator, I want to experience, as nearly as possible, what my students experience: coming up with a topic to meet someone else’s requirements; developing a draft; workshopping the draft with peers; revising the draft based on peer feedback and personal afterthoughts; and sharing with the class the woven words of heart, mind, and soul.

Also, as an educator I want to feel the pain of jumping through the same deadline hoops that “the good professor” imposes on his students. It’s a much-needed lesson in humility, one that I can experience every two weeks, since that’s the allotted timeframe for each writing assignment: drafting; workshopping; revising; and sharing. Spread over a 14-week semester, I am humbled seven times.

In the past, I’ve done my “writing-with-my-students” stint once or twice each semester, eventually bowing out as the semester progressed because of the full range of my professorial responsibilities, namely commitments to other classes. And that is true. Can any full-time professor be a full-time writer? I doubt it.

My students, generally, are full-time students with the full range of their own full-time student responsibilities, and yet I expect them to be full-time writers, too.

This semester I promised myself that I wouldn’t bow out of writing with my students. Actually, I established more rigorous requirements for me than for them. I decided to write and publish a blog post every week.

I did not make known my personal commitment. Nonetheless, week by week, I chatted with my students about my writing. I wanted them to know that I was writing and that I had my own self-imposed goals and Monday deadlines.

At the end of this semester, we celebrated and reflected on our growth and accomplishments as writers. During my reflections, I projected my blog so that the class could see it on the big screen. Several students follow the blog and others are regular visitors, so they knew already that I had published 24 posts this semester. But those completed posts weren’t at the heart of my sharing. Rather, I wanted to watch their faces when my 17 drafts–at various stages of completion–popped up on the screen.

When I finished, one of my students pinned me to the wall with a pointed question: “Where do you find those ideas?”

How do I answer a question like that? To answer assumes that I can provide directions–a map, if you will–to the magical land where ideas reside.

I wish that I could. Sadly, I can’t.

I’m not certain that I even understand what it means to “find” ideas. Where do I look? And how shall I begin? And how do I know when I’ve found one?

As for me, I don’t go around looking for writing ideas. However, I do go around listening to the world. My world. Inner. Outer.

When I listen–when I am attentive–ideas seem to “find” their way to me. This post is a good example. My student’s question captured my fancy: “Where do you find those ideas?” And in response to his question, I shared with the class a writing idea that found its way to me that very morning.

Its working title is “Growing Up More than Once.” While driving to campus, I had been thinking about Fall 2022 as my last semester of teaching. In the midst of my reverie, I had an insight. I’ve grown up three times. Once in the traditional way that we all grow up and launch our own lives. Next was growing up as a researcher and scholar at the University of South Carolina and the Library of Congress. Now I’ve grown up as an educator at Lord Fairfax Community College. And as this phase comes to an end, another phase will open, giving me an opportunity to grow up once more! I will share no more for now. Otherwise, I won’t have anything more to say when I get around to writing that post.

But here’s my point. I didn’t go looking for that idea.  Seemingly, the idea came looking for me. And as soon as it found me, I captured the tentative title and a barebones outline in a WordPress draft as soon as I walked into my office and turned on my computer. Some might call it journaling. But it’s not. I don’t journal. For me, it’s simpling listening. It’s being attentive. Then it’s taking the time to honor an idea that found its way to me.

The same thing holds true for this post. It found me during class when my student asked, “Where do you find those ideas?” Perhaps equally important, the question continued to abide with me as I drove home. Now here I am extending my answer to Morgan through this post. The idea found me; called for–no, demanded–exploration; and I’m honoring the call.

I’ve just shared how one idea found me while teaching and how another idea found me while driving. Other ideas find me when I least expect to be found. Biking, indoors and out. Listening to gospel music. Taking a shower. Pulling weeds in my garden.

For me, it seems that whenever I lose myself–whenever I’m doing something that takes me away from me–a door opens and an idea enters, hoping for home and for honor.

Those are the best directions that I can give to the magical land of ideas.

Get Behind Me, Satan– REVISITED

A memoir forces me to stop and remember carefully. It is an exercise in truth. In a memoir, I look at myself, my life, and the people I love the most in the mirror of the blank screen. In a memoir, feelings are more important than facts, and to write honestly, I have to confront my demons.

Isabel Allende (Chilean-American writer who calls her writing style “realistic literature, rooted in her remarkable upbringing and the mystical people and events that fueled her imagination.”)

I have always been a staunch practitioner of Robert Frost’s precept that “Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes all the pressure off the second” (Letter to Sydney Cox, January 3, 1937).

That’s why I rarely share anything that I am writing with others until I am reasonably comfortable that my “draft” is fast approaching my “fair copy.”

But I would explode if I didn’t share teasing tidbits about what I’m writing with a select few along the way.

For example, when I was drafting “Get Behind Me, Satan,” I shared the basic idea with a friend, telling her that my goal was to create a funny, humorous post that would mention not only the way that my siblings and I dashed out the door as my mother rebuked the Devil, broom in hand, but also the way that the Flip Wilson Show in the early 1970s caught my mother’s comedic fancy. Whenever Geraldine did something wrong–and she loved misbehaving–her defense was always “The Devil made me do it.” My mother loved it. She made it clear that she did not want to be bothered when Flip Wilson was on TV.

When I finished the first draft of my post, I texted my friend:

“Well, good grief! I just finished a crummy draft of ‘Get Behind Me Satan,’ and it slid off in a direction that I did not see coming at all! Any deliberate humor is gone. Flip Wilson is gone. And I’m not sure what the post … IS. Well, it’s crummy. But, at least, I have a crummy draft calling me tomorrow night!”

She texted me back instanter:

“Maybe you have 2 posts in this: the one you set out to write and the one that happened. Can they be two with different messages?”

I replied enthusiastically:

“Hmmm…maybe so! I like that idea a lot! I may use it and NOT give you any credit OR maybe you will become my ‘Linden (VA) Correspondent.’ Oh! I’m liking this a lot! ‘Get Behind Me, Satan, REVISITED!’ Yep! This is a winner!

So now, dear readers, you have the first-hand backstory of the post that you are reading right now.

Obviously, since my Linden Correspondent paved the way for me to explain my initial plan for “Get Behind Me, Satan,” I’ll go right ahead and do so.

I’ve already mentioned that my siblings and I would dash outdoors when my mother started rebuking the Devil.

I’ve already mentioned how my mother fell in love with Flip Wilson and Geraldine.

What I haven’t shared, though, is something that I had intended to include in my initial post if it had not melted away in a different direction. Read on.

Who would have believed that after all these years–and just like my mother–I hold the Devil fully accountable for anything and everything in my life that’s negative.

As you know, especially if you read my post “Baking Up My Past,” I don’t suffer baking failures lightly, and, fortunately, those failures don’t happen often. But I have been known to toss a culinary dream right into the trash can, all the while rebuking the Devil with language not found in the King James Bible and not proper for this post. Nonetheless, the fervor of my rebuke is on par with my mother’s.

And if you remember my post “The Power of Consistency and Persistence,” you know that I take my biking even more seriously than I take my baking.

Without doubt, it’s when I’m biking that Satan tempts me the most. Just imagine. I’m on my bike doing my best to get into my daily routine, and almost always after about twenty minutes into it, I hear that voice:

“This is tough, no? Never gets easier, does it? Hey, give yourself a break. Why not quit for today? You’ve done enough already. Just stop.”

What a mell-of-a-hess that leaves me in, sitting there on my bike, Gospel music shaking the rafters, with that Devilish little voice doing its best: Stop. Hop. Off. Quit.

But it’s at that moment that my pedaling kicks into overdrive. I speed up from 20mph to 23mph, rebuking the Devil out loud, above the blaring Gospel music:

“Satan, you ole slew foot, you! You’d love for me to stop biking now. But I’ll show you who’s the master of this bike. With God’s help, I’ll bike the full sixty minutes, maybe more. So go. Leave me be!”

And for an extra punch, I pause just long enough to light up my Sage Smudge Stick to give my workout area another layer of cleansing purification.

At that point, my dog, Ruby, gives me her puzzled look, tucks her tail, and dashes off to safety, leaving me to fight my own battles.

My biking rebukes work well until the next day or so when inevitably the Devil returns to have another round with me!

So that’s the direction my initial draft was going, and it was moving along exactly as I had expected. That is, until my sister Audrey sent me my mother’s Dickson Bible, the one that included Through the Bible in Pictures. The Gustave Dore images were marvelous, especially the one of the Devil that was the most frightening thing I had ever seen as a child.

After I had looked at that well-worn Bible showing heart-wrenching evidence of my mother’s travels and travails, my next draft of “Get Behind Me, Satan” started to veer away from my intended humorous course.

Then, when I saw that the image of the Devil had been ripped from the lower quadrant of the page exactly where the Devil always stood with his pitchfork and his long serpent tail, waiting for my return visits as a child, it veered further still.

Needless to say when I realized that I must have been the one who destroyed the image as my guileless way of rebuking Satan once and for all, the draft veered into its own and claimed itself, triumphantly.

It became what it was supposed to be.

It became a reflection that captured the simple truth as I recalled it rather than a jazzed-up post aimed at entertaining readers.

If my mother were here, she would look at me, smile, and remind me of what she taught me all along, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Touching Lives through Giving

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

Sir Winston Churchill

As a student and as a professor, I have learned some of my best life-lessons through classroom repartee—those lively, light-hearted and spontaneous exchanges that give way to intellectual magic.

As this season of celebrating and gifting winds down and as the year 2021 that gave us all fantods comes to a thankful end, I am reminded of one those magically powerful exchanges from long, long ago. However, its initial significance has been outdistanced by its long-range influence: perpetual mind food (more accurately, soul food) given freely (perhaps, unknowingly). It matters little or not at all whether it was intended for mind or soul. It matters little or not at all whether it was given deliberately or unknowingly. I have savored it and relished it down through the years.

I was a 25-year-old graduate student in an American Literature class at the University of South Carolina. One of the short stories that the late Professor Joel Myerson gave us to read was “Life Everlastin’” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.

I knew that I had better know all the intricacies of the story before going to class. It was, after all, a graduate class. Equally important, the class was so small that we met in a small conference room and sat around a small oval conference table, with Professor Myerson charismatically leading us. Youthful (only several years older than I and the rest of the class), energetic, and intellectually stimulating, he inspired us to come to class prepared to engage in stimulating conversations, demonstrating our abilities to analyze literary works. Professor Myerson was a Formalist and a Textual Bibliographer. Nothing mattered but the literary work itself. Nothing mattered but the text. Without doubt, I needed to give that story my best.

I had been introduced to Freeman the semester before when another professor gave us some of her stories to read, and I had fallen in love with her fiction. Having to read her “Life Everlastin'” was a joy for me.

I read the story initially, and I gave it a second reading, and I am confident that I gave it yet a third reading. Professor Myerson loved giving literary works a close reading. So did I.

I wondered what take he would give the story.

Would he give it a close reading based on the story’s accurate depiction of New England village life?

Would he give it a close reading focusing on the sharp character delineations of the two diametrically opposite sisters? Maybe Mrs. Ansel who is totally preoccupied with being fitted for a new bonnet: “She was always pleased and satisfied with anything that was her own, and possession was to her the law of beauty.”

Maybe her spinster, non-churchgoing sister, Luella Norcross, who was always giving to others, who was always going “somewheres after life-everlastin’ blossoms. … If she was not in full orthodox favor among the respectable part of the town, her fame was bright among the poor and maybe lawless element, whom she befriended.”

Would he take the conversation up a notch or three by pitting seemingly shallow churchgoers (e. g. Mrs. Ansel) against those of seemingly deeper convictions (e. g. Luella Norcross) who stayed home and foraged the fields in search of life everlasting blossoms to give away, much in the same spirit of Emily Dickinson’s “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church”? Or would he perhaps compare Mrs. Ansel’s apparent lack of religious depth to E. E. Cummings’ poem “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls”?

Or might he go even deeper and explore the story as a subtle indictment of religion similar to the charge that Mark Twain gave organized religion in his “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Who does not recall the fact that Dan’l, the frog, was so full of quail-shot that he when he went to hop, “he couldn’t budge: he was planted as solid as a church and he couldn’t no more stir than if he was anchored out.” 

And, without doubt, Professor Myerson had to give the backbone of the story lots of attention: Luella’s discovery of two murdered neighbors; her discovery that the alleged murderer (John Gleason) was holed up in a vacant house next to her home; her realization that she had to give him up to the law; and her dramatic decision that she had to give in to her faith: “I don’t see any other way out of it for John Gleason!”

I went to class fully prepared to give my own two cents worth on any or all of those angles.

Indeed, we gave all of them lively pursuits, all that is save one. We did NOT discuss what seemed to me to be the very essence of the story: life everlasting.

I was stunned. No. I was surprised. I suspected that it was with deliberate intent that Professor Myerson did not take the conversation in the direction of the story’s obvious eschatological meaning: the destiny of the soul and of humankind after death. I knew that he wanted us to think about—and talk about—that aspect of the story independently without giving us any coaching.

Silence fell over the class.

There I sat, feeling that we had an obligation to move toward the eschatological and that he had an obligation to take us there. I gave a question that broke the silence.  

“So, Professor Myerson, what exactly IS life everlasting?” I was hoping that the question I gave him would make him squirm.

But he had the upper hand and knew precisely how to make me squirm. An expert in the Socratic method, he gave the question right back to me. “What do YOU think it is, Brent?” 

Aha! The chance for repartee had arrived! I gave in to the moment. I seized it. 

I looked him square in the eye, with an ever-so-innocent look, as I gave him nothing more than the straight botanical definition—a flowering plant in the mint family, noted for its healing, medicinal properties. Then I rambled on about Luella’s inclusion of life-everlasting in the pillows that she made and gave to help neighbors, especially those who were asthmatic.  

I could tell that Professor Myerson was on to me. I was known for this sort of academic maneuvering, and he was not amused. He gave me his over-the-glasses look that he was so skilled in giving. 

I waited to see what he would say—he always said something whenever he gave that look—but we both had to give up for the time being. Class ended.

But Professor Myerson always had a way of getting his way, in one way or another. This time would be no exception. A few days later he stopped me in the hall. With a twinkle in his eyes, he gave me an offprint of one of his articles that had been published in a scholarly magazine. On the front, he had written:

Brent,

This is life everlasting.

Joel Myerson

“What does THAT mean?” I pondered, as I walked away. I confess, however, to no small degree of jealousy. At that point in my life, I was unpublished. Nothing had appeared in print under my name.  But here was Professor Myerson—already a well-known, published scholar, albeit a young one—giving me an inscribed, offprint of his most recent scholarly article.

I had to give this gift more thought.

Did he realize the full impact of his gift?

Or was he a young professor giving me the selfsame banter that I had given him in class?

Or was his gift more serious? Was he giving me another way to look at life everlasting—perhaps different from the traditional eschatological view? Was he suggesting that we live on forever through what we share with others, especially ideas that are immortalized in print? Maybe so. After all, some cultures believe that we live as long as our name is spoken. If that was his intent, he succeeded. Here I am blogging about him, nearly fifty years later. Here I am placing his name in public view, albeit this time under my own name. Whoever reads this blog post will speak his name, even if silently. They may even share my story with others. Professor Myerson continues to live. 

His inscribed offprint had an immediate impact. It gave me some extra encouragement not only to finish my doctoral degree in American Literature but also to publish my own scholarly articles and books. I wanted to give my ideas away to others through the printed word. When that happened for the first time, I was thrilled, and the high that I experience now through being published is as high as it was then.

But here’s the greater truth. His gift touched my soul perhaps more than it touched my mind. It kept me mindful that as human beings we all have needs—immediate and long-range.

It kept me mindful that the needs are great, always and in all ways. In fact, during these pandemic years, the needs are daunting. No. They are staggering. 

Fortunately, for us and for others, the ways that we can touch lives through giving— whatever it is that we have within ourselves to give—are countless. 

We can give our ideas.

We can give our talents

We can give our time.

We can give our purse.

We can give our love.

We can give ourselves—mind, body, and soul

Our gifts need not be large. Our gifts need not be given with any expectation of ever knowing how much they touch others’ lives or of how much they impact others’ lives. This much, though, we do know about giving. It connects us to one another. It binds us to one another. It makes us aware of our relatedness to one another. 

Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, when we touch others’ lives by giving freely of ourselves—without any expectation of receiving anything in return—we might be edging our way, even if unawares, closer and closer and closer toward the very essence of life everlasting.