You don’t have a calling or why I should go fishing

Lake

There’s nothing quite like fishing. To go fishing is to get a nice breath of fresh air, to be outside in the sun, and to get time away from the city. It also allows you a time and a place to just sit for a while and think. Fishing is intentionally taking things slowly. Even fly fishing, although significantly more active than using bait, still involves a lot of patience and quite a lot of waiting. It’s a wonderful hobby, overall, and I tend to think that more people should get into it.

After having gone fishing quite a lot and caught quite a lot of fish, I know quite a lot about fishing. I’m even fairly good at it. I even have a few philosophical opinions about the differences between meat fishing and catch and release, and, on certain occasions, I have a fairly intense desire to go fishing. You could possibly say that I even feel called toward fishing. But of course, that’s absolute crap: I’m called to something else, right?

In all honesty, both ideas are incorrect. There’s a myth that many people believe in that goes something along the lines of “having a calling,” or “being called toward” some profession. Personally, I don’t buy it. The discussion quickly becomes overly deterministic when people are talking about callings: something like if you’ve added x, y, and z to your childhood the result will be that you’re meant to be a doctor. The other way having a calling is discussed is as a convenient shorthand for being passionate about something. Either way, there is one major flaw: people are always looking for a calling. One calling. Singular.

I would like to substitute the myth of the calling with two things: first, a range of possibilities that a person can engage in. Of course, there are some limits. I’m a little short to play professional rugby, for example, but within the range of things that I am capable of doing, there is quite a lot of possibility. For the vast majority of us, this is the case. Unless for some external reason we are being forced into one profession, most of us would be able to learn to do quite a lot of things and would be able to learn to do them well. Which is where my second substitution for the myth of the calling comes in: work. I would argue that, given the time, everyone could learn to do what they want, but the vast majority of people do not. The reason is simply that it’s work, and nobody likes work (there are people who claim to be workaholics, but they are liars and cannot be trusted). In the middle of all of this, of course, is passion. What a person is passionate about will lead them to be interested in working at it, and, of the range of possible things they could do, that passion will also lead to a particular path. That’s not a calling; that’s putting in the effort and being personally invested.

But perhaps that sounds an awful lot like a calling, so here’s where my real critique lies: the more people who are busy looking for their one purpose in life– their calling– the less interesting the world will be. What we lose there is people who are willing to bounce around a bit and try new things. Maybe there’s an accountant who has always wanted to be a singer, so what’s stopping that person from singing? If it’s that the accountant feels that accounting is a calling, then that is a poor choice, indeed. The idea of having one, singular calling is a strange limit that we put on human potential, and we would probably all be better off without it.

Let’s have one more anecdote to show my point: Franz Kafka. Whether you love or hate his writing, he is still remembered as a great author of the 20th century. His day job was writing insurance reports, and by all accounts, he was actually quite good at it. Think about that for just a second. Imagine what a loss it would be to the literary world if Kafka had decided that his calling was to write insurance reports instead of the surrealist novels he is known for. With that in mind, I would say that we’d be much better off forgetting the entire concept of having a calling along with all of its singular-profession determinism.

-PWC

“To light a candle is to cast a shadow”

AWizardOfEarthsea(1stEd)
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

A few days ago, Ursula K. Le Guin died, as all great writers must eventually, and I was quite saddened by the news. Although I’m decidedly a non-fiction writer, her books and her writing have had quite an influence on me. I read a whole lot of fantasy as a younger man, and despite having read a lot of books, somehow what I’ve read of her work has stuck with me the most. In particular, the Earthsea Cycle is a series of books that, at least mentally, I return to frequently.

Earthseas itself is a place that is particularly interesting due to its balances. Everything in that universe has an opposite, and the overall theme is not so much conflict and fighting as it is bringing opposites into balance. It’s good life advice even if it isn’t particularly easy to accomplish, and in a nation that seems to have gone haywire lately, perhaps balance in opposites is something that more of us should be trying to do.

For my part, I’ve decided to re-read the series this year, and I think you should, too. I had actually decided to do this before Le Guin passed away, but now, it seems even more like the right thing to do. I hope re-reading the series lights a very bright candle, and I hope the shadow it creates isn’t too large: everything in balance.

-PWC

On getting stuck in a writing rut and what I do about it

I managed to get myself stuck in a writing rut over the last week, so of course I did what anyone would in this situation (or so I imagine) and did a Google search for writer’s block. I’m not really certain what I was expecting, but what I got was an incredible display of writing advice. Some of it was good, most of it was bad, and all of it was a little too self-helpy for me, so I thought I would add my own advice to the mix: keep the word count in mind. By this, I don’t mean that all you need is to add extraneous detail to get to a required word count– here’s looking at you, beginning composition students. Instead, I mean that writing sometimes needs a definable, clear goal, or it can become maddening.

My own goal is to write around 500 words per blog post. The number gives me enough space to actually say something interesting, but not so much space that I ramble on and on. That is, of course, in addition to the various other things that I write, but the 500 word minimum has given me a clearly defined goal when it comes to writing. That being said, here’s the advantage, and here’s what setting a word count goal can do for writing.

The main advantage of a word count is that it feels like an accomplishment. This is true even when it really isn’t and all you’ve written is a hot, steaming pile of garbage. We’ve all been there, but at least you made the word count, right? Typically, there’s something in the garbage pile that is worth saving, and it’s easy to write more than the goal. This means that my advice is to set the bar reasonably low when it comes to word counts. One hundred words is probably too low, but if that’s where things start, so be it: revel in the 100 words. The feeling of accomplishment will probably be enough to keep the writing going for at least another 50.

Setting a word count can also provide you with some much needed parameters. Writing is difficult, after all, and writing with no clear ideas can be even more difficult still. It isn’t much, but a short word count can give you a nice box to work in, and it can make a useful jumping off point if something needs to be longer. Again, no one is saying that you can’t write more. The problems only come about when the word count is consistently missed. That can quickly become demoralizing. Meeting the goal not only helps writing, but it can also make you want to write more. If 500 words is too easy, add another hundred and then keep going.

I tell my students every semester that I teach writing that it was a skill that can be practiced. I might argue that getting out of writing ruts and avoiding writer’s block are also fairly easy to practice as well. A quick, 500-word practice is enough to keep me writing, and as it becomes easier and easier to do, it might just be a quick warm-up instead.

-PWC

Getting back to writing

After a few years of teaching writing, I finally asked my students a question I’ve been getting at for quite some time, but never really put into words before: what is a good writer? Now that I’m out of the classroom and will be for a while, I’ve got a chance to reflect a little on what I learned from asking the question. I can’t necessarily share their answers directly because of various policies about student work, but to summarize a lot of the answers, a good writer, to them, was a persistent writer. Someone who just keeps on going and going. I admit that lately, I haven’t done much of that myself. At a certain point, I put down my pen or stopped typing and just never really picked it back up. Habits are like that. You can do the exact same thing for years until one day, you don’t. I was a habitual writer until I wasn’t. There wasn’t any particular reason why; no grand lessons to be learned or anything– I just stopped.

This, then, is my attempt to rectify the situation. I’ve had a knack for writing that I built for quite a while. Quite a long while, in fact. Since I was teaching first year composition at the university level, I went back once to look at my own first year essays. I either had kinder teachers than I am, or the standards were very low where I got my associates degree. My writing was terrible, but I somehow passed my classes. I saw writing, at the time, as a challenge: I knew what I wanted to say, so the question was, how could I get that across clearly to another person? So I kept at it and practiced and learned until I was a fairly good writer. Those skills don’t ever really leave (it’s somewhat like riding a bike), but they can remain dormant for years.

I didn’t completely abandon writing, of course. I went for and completed a master’s degree, but writing for classes– even for graduate school classes– is not exactly the same as writing for the enjoyment of writing. And, now that I’ve finished my graduate work, the path forward is one big question mark. I’ve decided, then, to pick up where I left off, as much as I can anyway, and continue to write. That’s the plan for the time being: no particular aim in mind, no particular agenda, just writing for the sake of writing: writing to get back into the habit of writing. I might add something to my students’ views of what makes a good writer. Persistence, yes. Practice certainly helps as well; however, I would add that the other thing that can make a good writer is the ability to come back to it. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to keep writing again. After all, writing is an active process and it is far easier to be passive; however, that’s just an inclination toward laziness that all of us have. For my part, I’ve decided to use the time I’ve got and this space to keep writing. And maybe that will make me a good writer, too.

-PWC