In which I confess that despite no longer being a teenager, Rainer Maria Rilke is my co-pilot
May 19, 2009
It’s been a quiet semester for this blog. Actually, a fairly quiet year. During the fall semester, I had some pretty compelling obligations pulling me away from blogging (finishing my MFA thesis and applying to PhD programs). I’ve had a fairly busy work schedule this semester, but certainly not as busy as some bloggers I know. I think, instead, I’ve been in a period of redirection, and for me, these are essentially private periods. I have trouble admitting to them, and they seem to turn out best when I don’t. Just as I didn’t tell my mother I was planning on applying to Interlochen for at least a year before I actually did so, my determination to apply to PhD programs took root during a summer of reading Sidonie Smith in the empty staff room over lunch. I need privacy and plenty of quiet to foster my own belief that my efforts might lead to something. I don’t know if this period is over for me, but I do feel like I want to talk about it.
In Feburary, I learned that I am about to have the opportunity to do what I’ve always felt scared to admit to myself that I wanted to do. I want to be worthy of it. How am I going to do this?
I’m 27. I spent the years between 15 and 20 trying to become as intense and artistic as I possibly could. I spent the years between 20 and 25 trying to get normal. Neither endeavor made me happy and both, eventually, tended to make me unhealthy, and that is why, over the course of the past two years, I have been thrust into a personal wilderness of trying to split the difference, or at least find the point upon which a life can balance. Specifically, my life.
I have not, so far, been successful at this on the work side of the balance. (Conversely, I’m thrilled with my personal and social life. But not fulfilled by it alone.) Between economic necessities and my own bad habits, I’ve become intellectually disengaged from most of what I spend time doing every day. Most of the time, I’m lucky if I can muster the discipline, energy, and focus to spend one hour at my writing desk. This is not nothing, but it’s not enough, either. I’ve become far too good at prioritizing the work I do (in my mind) to get by at the expense of the much more difficult work of getting better at what I say I actually want to do—write, read, and think.
What I’m going to have for the next six years (knock on wood) is the privilege of focus. I’m going to get paid for doing exactly what I want to do and in many ways be rewarded for being exactly who I want to be. At no other time in my life have I been able to say this. I don’t need to spend time making my façade of interest look authentic. I can come out and like what I like and want what I want.
The thing is, I’m finding out I need to do some excavation to recover what that might be.
There was a time when (or I was once a person who) I was intimately attuned to the weathers of my intellect. I read all the time, openly turning down invitations to be alone in my room with a book. It never occurred to me to read for basic ideas or nuggets of insight that I might drop into conversation. I read each word as if it mattered. If a writer asked a question, I made it my question. I had the naïve sense that anything in print had passed through a fine enough strainer of importance that I should take it seriously. I felt no qualms about dismissing entire realms of culture (television, popular music) and thinking myself superior for being out of step with my peers. During the summer after my sophomore year in high school, watching the French Open for hours every day, I told my dad: “I’m not watching television. I’m deconstructing the role of the intellectual.” In short, I was obnoxious.
As I think about returning to an unabashedly intellectual life, I’ve begun to notice the subtle ways in which I have pruned myself out of both the awkwardness and potential of this type of personality. I have stopped arrogantly inserting my oh-so-precious subject expertise into light conversation, but in some ways I’ve also stopped developing subject expertise. Now, I think too much about what other people are reading or how it might look that I want to spend time alone. I’ve gotten too good at blending in and too worried about doing the right thing, reading the right book, etc. When it comes to revealing or defending the depth of my own thinking on non-mainstream subjects, I have learned to shush myself. As a result, my thinking is often shallow. I want and need to change that. I know I am capable of it, and happier when I embrace that capability, but I also know I have gotten flabby in a lot of the mental and emotional muscles necessary to do it.
That one hour a day at my desk, the hour where I fend off my own doubts and the internalized criticisms—is that a model for the life I can have or an impossible ideal?
I think true success comes to people who find a way to make that hour into the center of their livelihoods—both intellectual and economic. Watching my friends from college, the biggest predictor of job success has not been planning around the job market but planning around innate interest. I don’t want to, and I don’t think it is even possible to, trust the machinery of a PhD program to accomplish this for me.
So, what can I do to build this life? Meditation? A stricter daily schedule? A reading plan? Be less apologetic about who I want to be? Less forgiving of my own laziness?
A stricter schedule—and some time spent working up to it, not just expecting myself to run marathons from the first day out—might be a big part of this, but I’m not sure the hour system is going to get me the results that I want. Something is missing from the equation when I block off my mind and my self into hours. I can spend X hours writing or reading, but spending X hours does nothing automatically to deepen my commitment to seeing poems through to completion (& submission for publication) or build an intellectual foundation upon which to one day write a dissertation.
And when I figure out what I’m doing offline, what will this blog sound like? Should I start using my real name and live with any consequences that come my way? Should I start blogging about what I’m reading in print more than what I’m reading on the Web (though surely the boundary between those two things grows more nebulous every day)?
Whether this is a sign that I am senselessly glorifying the passions of my teenage years or a sign he has something everlastingly meaningful to say, I find myself returning to Rilke. First, to his exhortation in Letters to a Young Poet that we must all try to live within our questions and not rush toward answers. And then to the poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” specifically its ending: “You must change your life.” I remember this line baffling me with its directness as much as the extended image preceding it baffled with its obsessive description of the male body. But, pressed by my high school Modern European Lit teacher to think about what it could mean, I started to see the contrast the closing line implicitly draws between each of our lives, with so many obvious potentials only half-realized, with the fullness of the life of this piece of stone. And then I agreed with it.