Since deciding to be a “real” writer, I’ve kept a low profile. Not wanting people to know I’ve embarked on a low-paying (sometimes no-paying) job, I’ve hidden my true profession behind a façade of graduate student and teacher.
I haven’t been a teacher since May 2011, but until last December, I really was a graduate student, putting the finishing touches on my one-hundred-page master’s thesis. Mostly I was done by October, but I still let my classmates offer condolences for “how hard” the writing must be.
It wasn’t hard, really, because my advisor let me write the way I wanted to write: creatively and personally (with a little academic jargon sprinkled in). I guess this “practical” approach worked because the topic was practical: best practices for teaching writing.
When a few of my fellow students heard about my personal [slash] creative [slash] academic project, they seemed intrigued.
“I’d never have thought of that,” some said.
As they scrambled to turn up sources on the databases, scouring search engines and library shelves, giving themselves ulcers looking for an original angle, I just sat back and wrote. I started from the inside—I knew what I wanted to say, and I didn’t much care about citing the scholarly conversation that had come before me, or that would come after.
I know this sounds sort of pompous, and it wouldn’t work in some of the disciplines where original voice is not prized. But thankfully, English departments operate on this truth: If a voice is engaging enough it doesn’t really matter what it’s saying—people will read it for the good writing.
And that’s the truth in the real world, isn’t it?
People who don’t care a lick about golf will watch Tiger Woods because he excels in his sport. Same for most Olympians and Olympic sports. Who watches bobsledding or curling on a regular basis?
But millions watch the Olympics because it’s fun to watch pros do what they do best.
Funny, then, that I feel I’m still hiding in the wings, waiting for permission to “come out” to do what I do best.
Well, not so funny, I guess. I have no doubt that the hiding is due to the overwhelming personal content of my writing. (It’s not really about the money.)
In order for me to write about the things I write about (mental illness, family dysfunction, deepest fears) and be respected, I feel I have to be either a mental health professional or a pastor, or some other authority who can talk on these things at a close, yet safe, distance. That, or I have to make the writing itself attractive. Because the topics just aren’t.
Still, I am convinced that these topics are worth discussion. Worth a master’s thesis, a doctoral dissertation, and many book series. I am convinced that all this painful self-reflection is what more people ought to be doing, but aren’t. But if it’s so worthwhile, why aren’t more people doing it?
Because: Like graduate students fumbling for research topics, we are afraid of ourselves, and we are afraid of what self-examination might reveal. So we look for other voices to latch onto. Let someone else be the guinea pig—or the “straw man,” to use an academic term. Then, if our life thesis fails, we can partially blame the voices on whom we’ve built our own.
Well, I’ll stand behind my own work. To the thesis examiner who said my work got uncomfortably personal at times, I would remind her that everyone else who read it said it was the most memorable thesis they’d ever seen. She was more comfortable in the theoretical realm, and that’s where she encouraged me to return. Toward the end of the defense, we had a more informal discussion about how we felt about publishing—how we felt about others reading our work—and this professor said she felt terrified thinking others would read her academic writing (not to mention any personal stuff).
Just like she couldn’t understand me being so personal in writing, I couldn’t understand her being so guarded (about dry academic prose). Perhaps she is worried that others will smell a rat—that of inauthenticity. And I guess if I were not being true to myself, I might worry about the same thing.
But after denying myself public expression for so long, I think having to live in hiding is far worse than living exposed. After spending time in a theoretically constipated English department, I think living vulnerable is better than living jealous of writers whose real-world topics you only dare poke with a critical stick.
Perhaps my guarded professor would even agree. At the end of the day, she passed my thesis unconditionally. Call my writing what she will, that day she called me a master.