Friday, December 16, 2011

Writers I Have Known

There have been times in my life where I have wondered if anyone fits the dictionary definition of stability. Admittedly, I have asked these questions when witnessing the self-destruction of yet another artist. When I've known them personally, the shock takes on even more sorrow and melancholy. Based on multiple conversations with others over the years, I know the stories I am about to share occur over and over again.

My own worst days are now gratefully beyond me. One of the more difficult life lessons I've learned came by directly observing a couple of my professors. They were as instructive as teachers as they were disconcerting as human beings. In my early twenties, I came to understand, perhaps earlier than some, that some people never mature. Or, it could be said that some areas of their lives are gaping wounds, while other aspects are more or less sufficiently evolved. The best I can reckon is that some don't actively work on themselves in order to make improvement. Call it immaturity of a lack of self-realization, the effect is still the same.

My mentor in college was a published poet. Prior to college, poetry was a discipline I had only occasionally explored. I was inquisitive, eager to learn more, and by nature of my respect for him, I took several of his poetry writing workshops. He was well-known for being utterly devoted to his students. It wasn't unusual for him to work overtime with a student to personally and thoroughly revise poems, line by line. Eventually, I'd sit down with him twice a week to work on the same piece. In a few short months, my output greatly improved in technique and everyone in class noted my progress from poem to poem.

These were in the good days. The cracks were just beginning to show, but I didn't realize at the time how serious the situation really was. A protracted tenure fight just beginning to rage quickly took on a very ugly dimension. Overnight, seemingly, the happy-go-lucky person I once knew became perpetually bitter and angry. I'd ask if there was anything going on, or whether or not I could help, but he'd never say a thing beyond a polite, but firm denial. By the end, it seems he was a little more than a pale shadow of his former self.

This was years after I graduated, but a friend in the department filled me in on the blow-by-blow. His final class as a faculty member was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Aware by then that he had not made tenure, every gathering of students was either an extended rant against the English Department or abject incoherence. I was told that he was often so drunk that a graduate assistant had to finish up the hour. When our heroes disappoint us, we can be devastated or recognize that we all share flaws and a common mortality. I was a little of each.

Another teacher was equally well-known for her inappropriate classroom remarks and complete lack of healthy boundaries. During the first class, she asked if anyone was on a particular anti-depressant. She was seeking feedback, she said, because she had recently been placed on it. Her honesty was so matter-of-fact and unashamed that some people didn't catch on to what it revealed about her mental health. Our first assignment, I recall, was to write about something that scared us. Those were the guidelines, as defined by the syllabus. As rendered, the papers submitted and topics chosen took on a quality of group therapy. I was not exactly sure that this was a good way to structure a workshop.

Eventually, enough people complained and she was no longer allowed to teach. Aware of her reputation, other colleges and universities in the area showed no interest in hiring her. A recovered alcoholic, she became a virtual recluse, rarely leaving the house. Her writing output, which had once consisted of a series of several regionally popular novels, slacked off to almost nothing. With time, her addictions overpowered her as they had before. She developed a heavy dependency on pain pills, an affliction still prominent the last I had heard.

I cite both of these examples, in part, to measure how far I've come. And, I write to state the difficult reality. Artistic, creative people often badly manage the very sensitivity that serves them well and drives their work. Even with all of the mitigating circumstances of my life, I have pushed through the worst of them. Unlike many, I have not let my demons overtake me.

Fears and anxieties have momentarily gotten the best of me sometimes, but they have not dominated my life. People have viewed me in the midst of a panic or two, true. But I have pushed through my pain, not run for a chemical tranquilizer, nor justified my own dysfunctional behavior. In time, these folks will see me in greater contrast, in higher focus. I have faith in my ability to improve my quality of life.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see only an indistinct image in a mirror, but then we will be face to face. Now what I know is incomplete, but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

No comments: