Get Me Some Book-Larnin’

Drawing: Samuel ClemensJust because I have had the benefit of a decent education doesn’t mean I am smart. We all know that it’s entirely possible to have any number of degrees and diplomas, plaques and endorsements, letters and titles decorating your name and still be a complete fool. Idiocy is a far less rare condition than the number of high school and university graduates would have us believe.

Indeed, I have read a great quantity of writings during the course of my life, but I would never go so far as to say that I am well read. Among other contradictions to that claim would be my incredible slowness as a reader, both in speed and in comprehension: as a multifaceted dyslexic, able to turn words, letters, numbers, directions and relative spatial placements all inside out and upside down without even trying, I can easily spend four times the amount of energy and hours reading that any decent reader would need to get through the same amount of text. And of course that doesn’t guarantee that I will actually understand what I read in precisely the way the authors intended.

A more important reason that I don’t consider myself well read is that I have managed to conquer only a relatively small segment of the library most scholarly and literate persons would consider to be well written, informative, accurately researched and defended, or just plain must-read, important stuff among books. Long before I knew why it took me so long and so many tries to read a mere paragraph, let alone a book, I was required to tackle a handful of the so-called Classics of literature, and a bit of contemporary contenders for the title as well. It’s just as well I didn’t imagine I had such an anomalous reading style or that it was considered a disability by others, because I might have had yet more frustrations and difficulties in trying to fit the mold of how one was expected to overcome such things, instead of finding that by plodding through in my own backward way, I became attached to some of the books and stories to an equally unexpected depth. Whom should I, as a struggling reader, admire most among authors but those champions of the dense and complicated, say, Charles Dickens and Robertson Davies.

On the other hand, it’s probably less surprising that I also favor the purveyors of the most outlandish and appalling and ridiculous, from Ogden Nash, Evelyn Waugh, and Edgar Allan Poe to Mark Twain, S.J. Perelman and Franz Kafka. This part at least makes some sense, if you tend to believe I’d read writers who reflect something of my own mind’s workings or the weird ways in which I see the world. In any event, this latter crew might explain a little more about my tending to choose the least arduous paths in life, since I find a certain sort of familiarity in the strangest of their inventions and so can perhaps navigate their writings with a surer strength than otherwise.

So while I may not be the sharpest pencil in the drawer or the most edified of readers, I have at least a few pieces of proclamatory paper in my coffers to prove that I did my homework somewhat dutifully if not doggedly. My degrees don’t confer any special wisdom upon me, but they at least excuse my curmudgeonly attitude about how long it takes me to read my own posts, let alone anyone else’s books and articles and poems and proposals, no matter how brilliant and scintillating and clever and beautiful they are. I’m still trying, but give me plenty of time!

I’d Like to be Shakespeare, but It’s Too Much Responsibility

white pencil on black paper

I'm much better at being the family curmudgeon than the curmudgeon that turns the family story into art . . .

Much as I always complained about it in my students as whiny entitlement, I too am consistently under the spell of that dream wherein one becomes Great without any sort of effort or even natural-born gift that should make it happen. I’d probably even be quite content with being a one-hit wonder, if for example it happened to be one of those comfortably money-producing sorts of a hit, because after all, it’s not the notoriety per se that appeals to me (as I still enjoy my dork-in-the-corner shy side’s privileges) but the benefits of the notoriety, i.e., exceedingly fat living supported by a steady stream of however-undeserved wealth. All the better if I can manage to convince anyone, at least myself, that it’s marginally deserved; hence, the one hit I’d gladly have.

Meanwhile, back in reality-land, I will go so far as to lay claim to having actually read work by a number of superior writers, studied art made by a talented-rogues’ gallery of artists, and paid some serious attention to what great thinkers and doers of all sorts in fact DO to make their hits just keep on coming. It’s fascinating to see who’s been prolific and who hasn’t, and perhaps more so to see who among those has produced higher or lower proportions within that of impressively high quality stuff. Not least of all, it’s intriguing, if sometimes only in a sort of sadly prurient way, to see who’s burned out our died young, and whether there appears to have been any connection between the productivity and its quality-quotient and that early “deadline” or not. It’s sometimes as though they were outfitted with a cosmic ending-detector that made them squeeze as much into and out of an unfairly short life span as they did.

My own plan is that, if that’s a requirement of greatness, I will be so unbelievably UN-productive and UN-talented and UN-dedicated as to live a Methuselah-like yet party-filled lifetime unnoticed by the gods of fame and fortune. Pretty sure I can do it.

But to be fair, lots of standouts have lived long, prosperous and even exceedingly happy lives, so my preference, my actual Plan A, is that I will get to have it all instead. There are footsteps worth following, and paths worth admiring but not wanting to touch with a ten-foot pole even when wearing full hazmat gear. Not that I wouldn’t look adorable in a hazmat suit, especially if I could find it in safety orange! With a fake fur collar!

But I digress.

If I am to succeed with Plan A, I am willing to concede that I might have to lift the proverbial bale and tote its concomitant barge. Sigh. So I do keep reading, writing, gazing, drawing, and otherwise studying and practicing whether I happen to be quite in the mood or not. It may be that my lucky stars will never get into the specific alignment required, the necessary coincidence never happen at just the right juncture, despite all of my best efforts–which would be a disappointment, given my inborn desire to enjoy all things in the least effortful possible manner and my determination to thwart that inclination in pursuit of productive betterment. But I do believe the only way to tip the odds toward, no, to actually make it possible for, any such confluence of desirable consummations, is to do the work. Pity, but there it is. So the old bum does get off her old bum. What else can I do but do?

This will not, I guarantee you, turn me into a Sure Thing. But it’ll pave the way, should any stars just get in the mood to align in my favor, and along the way, it’s kind of funny, but I find the more I work at the writing and art-making and, heck, even some other things at which I’ve been known to buckle down and work, the more often I find I can derive pleasure from the process itself. This is indeed a really fine thing; if I can’t guarantee that working hard will produce any tangible objects-o’greatness, at least I’ve figured out that I can guarantee it’ll produce some personal pleasure along the way. All else had better be considered bonuses.

Now, I am well aware that the whole idea of a one-hit wonder is fraught with a certain air of condescension among the cognoscenti. There’s more than a hint of disdain in the phrase, as though the wonder-maker were kind of a loser for not having followed up on the whole hitmaking process. I think that’s a horribly unmerciful judgement. Maybe even sour grapes. How many of us ever manage to produce a single notable achievement in our lifetimes? Talk about pressure! The response to a miracle of significant action or production, the thanks you get, is, “Cool–where’s the rest of it?”??

In spite of the danger, for as I’ve said I would be mighty impressed with myself if I could accomplish one really amazing thing in my lifetime of toiling as artist, writer–never mind as daughter, sister, friend, wife–I will keep on plugging along. Because I can’t, finally, figure out how to stop it. Because Twain and da Vinci and Shakespeare and Morisot are dead and so I don’t have to compete with them, only my yesterday’s-self. Because it’s worth doing even when only the process makes it worth doing. Just because.

mixed media portrait on paper

. . . because I Will do it . . .