Sermon Against Striving

When I finished my MFA program in Creative Writing at the age of 30, I began to fret.  I had no book deal.  I had no money.  I had no boyfriend or husband or child.  I had no job.  What had I been working so hard toward?  I walked around in a perpetual state of anxiety mostly thinking, “I should have gone to law school.”

One day I expressed my anxiety to my father the way I normally express it: through comparison.  Such-and-such friend got accepted to Breadloaf or got an agent for his novel, I’d say.  And such and such friend is pregnant.  So and so from high school has a retirement plan.  I’ll never forget his response.  He told me, “Casey.  Just because you went to graduate school, doesn’t mean you have to be a writer.  It is a gift for anyone to have three years to spend learning a craft.  Even if you never get a book deal, your time honing your craft will not have been for nothing.  It will have enriched your life.”

Another mentor–a poet whose young daughter I cared for–told me something similar.  She said, “Don’t apply to writing conferences.  Don’t look outward like so many young authors for validation.  Just write something good.” 

In both cases I was released briefly from my constant state of striving.  Their words worked in direct counterpoint to the aims of an English professor I had in college who was so rigid and joyless in her expectations for essays and class discussion and intellectual achievement that I still hate Romantic poetry and prose.  This martinet of a teacher–her grey perm looked like an armored helmet–almost kept me soured me on literature classes and writing for the rest of my life.  It took me 6 years, 2 degrees, and 3 jobs to return to writing after her stupid class.

I teach students who live in a constant state of striving–work harder, get better grades, run faster, do more, achieve, achieve, achieve.   I feel exhausted just listening to them talk.  I also empathize.  But, mostly, I want to scream at them to stop striving.  I want to slap them across their faces like I’m Cher in Moonstruck, and say, “Snap out of it.”

Because….what are we striving for?

I’m not making an argument against rigor or discipline here–those practices serve us well, but they work best when they arise from calm and a sense of perspective rather than from desperate urgency or unchecked, egoistic desire.  Or, at least they do for me.  I tried to explain this once to an ex-boyfriend, another writer.  

I said, “I write better when I imagine that I can affect a small audience.  I’d be happy with a column or a book read by smart people.  I’m better when I’m unshackled from achievement.  I don’t necessarily think I’m good enough to win the Pulitzer, and that’s okay with me.”

He said, “Really?  I wouldn’t be able to keep writing if I DIDN’T believe I was good enough to win the Pulitzer Prize.”

I should have broken up with him right then and there, but I would have “failed” at keeping the relationship going and I was a hardcore striver, you see, so failure was not an option. (P.S. Surprise, surprise, we failed anyway, and thank God for that).

Yesterday I sat through a yoga teacher training about spinal anatomy.  During the session I learned that the pelvic bones do not fully fuse in humans until the late teen years, for males sometimes as late as 21 years of age.  The point?  That asking teenagers to perform repetitive movements that cause strain (weight-lifting, for example) can warp the bones before fusion, causing all kinds of lifelong posture and mobility problems.  Children are meant to play, not perform or achieve.  This, of course, doesn’t mean they won’t achieve or have successes or learn or grow, but the constant striving toward achievement can damage them.  And if science shows the possibility for damage in their physical bodies from too much striving, what about their emotional and intellectual beings?

And speaking of science, neuroscientist David Eagleman spoke to teachers and students at my school today about the unconscious brain.  One thing he said resonated with me: the unconscious mind can do all kinds of things that the conscious mind interferes with.   What is a constant state of striving for achievement if not the conscious mind placing demands on the often unconscious work of art-making or idea-generation? Eagleman also reiterated again and again the importance of emotional salience in work and learning.  Students (and humans in general) perform better–achieve more–when the tasks required of them engage them emotionally.  

What are the ramifications of all this on writing and the teaching of writing?  For me, the following:

1. The more I “strive” to be a better teacher, if said striving means constant anxiety about adhering to and successfully completing a tight list of objectives limited to the scope of academia, the more I’m going to exhaust myself and do a disservice to my students.  

2. We adults can set the expectations for young people.  We can say with our actions, words, and demeanor and with our own life choices that intellectual play, intellectual integrity, and intellectual risk matter more than intellectual achievement.  We can keep their intellectual “bones” healthy so that when they finally fuse they function correctly and facilitate rather than hinder movement. 

3. I can ask my students to love reading and writing at an unconscious, emotional and visceral level first before I then direct their conscious, striving minds to interfere. For a great manifesto on this, read Dean Bakopoulos’ “Straight Through the Heart.”

4. In my own life, I can wake up everyday and know that I am enough.  I am enough.  My life is enough and always was.  And then I can work hard.  But my decision to work hard must stem from a real awareness of my internal worth, from the core of my soul, rather than from a list of elusive, ever bigger accomplishments. 

5. We must all play.  We must all rest.  These actions are not wastes of time.  They are vital, nourishing, and preeminent.  Maintaining respect for play and rest is quite different from settling for mediocrity.

6. We should all get a “B” at least once in our lives, in school and in life.  It builds our characters and teaches us resilience.  Sometimes getting a “B” or “C” is also a nice way to say “Screw you” to things and people that don’t really matter.

I don’t think any teacher can make all her students amazing writers, and striving to do so might kill her.  Aiming for the Pulitzer Prize might kill me too.  But I think each student and each piece of writing I put into the world matters, because I believe in stories—their power to make sense of fact, their power to create meaning and hope for people.  Stories offer us solace, because they give us characters into whose shoes we can safely step for a while.  Novels, stories and poems speak to our whole person.  They open up the rusty doorways that lead to empathy and communion, an opening that is critical for adolescents who are trying to navigate the newly complex world around them.  Learning to read and write well offers us a way of thinking that is invaluable, regardless of whether it makes us any money or gets us into the Ivy League.  My father said this to me in his words.  Rainier Maria Rilke also speaks to the value of every person learning a craft in his Letters to a Young Poet when he writes, “But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet…Nevertheless, even then, this self-searching that I ask of you will not have been for nothing.”

And, you might just achieve something along the way.  



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