A professor of 38 years time, Joseph Campbell, who had a master’s degree and did not finish his PhD, may have been one of the most influential thinkers from the 20th century. His 1948 book, A Hero with a Thousand Faces, changed how we are entertained, how we view heroic endeavors. George Lucas, Disney, Steven Spielberg, and so many more have used his theories to share heroic stories–writers, poets, novelists–they all tap into this myth of the hero. It’s been called a monomyth because it doesn’t work for everything in every situation, but it’s really useful in seeing the connections across cultures in story construction and the nearly universal need for the heroic all over the world. (I simplify, but if you’re interested, people can spend their lives exploring this comparative mythology business and how it connects to writing, literature, etc.) See the graphics below. The first is Campbell’s; the next are adaptations. Please take a minute and look through these, read, think, process, and be thinking about how they connect to a writer’s journey, to the writing process, to the 8 habits of mind.
Campbell might be most famous (among Campbellites, anyhow) for this phrase: Follow your bliss. It means, do the thing you were meant to do–don’t do what others think you should do, but think about what you need to do, figure out a way to do it, then do it. I’ve lived my life since 15 years old by this phrase, and it was extremely distressing for many people in my life. And occasionally, it caused me stress, but it’s worked most of the time. It’s not about selfishness, by the way, it’s about self-awareness and self-fulfillment–and I found that through my following my bliss, I could also help others. I see my teaching life as the embodiment of doing this right. I followed my bliss all over hell and gone; it turned out okay.
I’ve been following my bliss as a writer, too. My first publication in 1984, was the result of jotting down a poem on a cocktail napkin and showing it to a friend who said, “That’s fun; you should send that into __________.” So I did. It got published. I thought, “That’s not very hard. I should do that more.” So I did. And I learned to write bigger, better, faster, stronger, and kept publishing.
I’ve now been writing and publishing as a professional since 1986/87. Sometimes I’ve worked as an editor, and I’ve been teaching many, many years, but a good portion of these last 30 or so years, my life has been about writing. AND I LOVE IT.
In 1987, I started collecting writing books. Books by writers, by editors, and so on. Strunk and White was an easy get. But as new books were published or I found others, I had to have them. I read about writing like a lexicographer reads dictionary entries–for fun. I love to see how people think about writing, how they think writing should be approached or completed. (There’s even a book titled I Hate Strunk and White, hee-hee, but I lost my copy in my many moves.) Every book helped me a little bit. In order to win a race that is running, you must run, but you also need teachers to tell you how to do it most efficiently and without injuring yourself. In order to be a professional writer, you must write, but you also need teachers to do the same, and in lieu of teachers, I gathered books about writing.
I had mentors, yes, but I didn’t have them all the time or even access to them regularly. They got me started, but my books on writing kept me going. And it did take a bit of hubris to declare “I’m a professional writer” when I was in my 20s with a measly BA in English and not a lot of experience. But you know what they say about the bold and winning. Still I had back up.
And I wrote everything I could. The subjects have changed as have the genres. Subjects: aviation, higher education, business concerns, writing (its own self!), literature, golf, libraries, and more. Genres: academic essay/article, poetry, short story, scripts (play and film–all local to me), and so much more, including extensive blogging for many years.
I was paid to produce much of it, some of it I produced first and then got paid. Sometimes I was paid in cash; sometimes in gift certificates; sometimes in lunch. I never honestly cared. Any opportunity I had to write, I took it. I loved it (eventually–started out hating it–we’ll get to that later).
I still love it. The part I love the most is finding my way through the habits of mind identified by The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. If you read the descriptions of the habits carefully and in some kind of order so that metacognition comes last, then you have the intellectual process for many great accomplishments.
If you want a successful life as a professional writer–know those habits. I’d been practicing something very close to these habits and this process most of my life thanks to some early mentors. I was so happy when the Framework was published. It gave language to what I always knew worked to intellectually strive.
A graduate student recently asked me when a blog post got too long. Never. That was my answer. Never. Think it out through writing. We must write and make connections and synthesize: be curious and then think about the thinking you did to satisfy that curiosity and keep that as part of your journey.
You should be approaching this class in such a fashion: yes, you have assigned reading and writing, but it’s about thinking and running through those 8 habits as you process what you’ve read, what it means to you, in connection to other texts, in relation to your world (as a writer, as a teacher, as a human). If you are working that process hard, you may write more than the assigned bit, you’ll wander, you’ll wonder, you’ll go over the limit, you’ll splish-splash in a sea of words, and ride a wave back to the beach when you reach that metacognitive moment when it all comes together.
One of the things I’ve found as a professor (and a professional writer) is that sometimes grad students rush to completion. Here’s the task and you’re off———————–DONE! Y’all have jobs, kids, other classes, relationships, family, pets. And sometimes it feels as if you need to hurry through everything.You can do that. You can survive that way. You’ll finish with that kind of energy. It’s not the worst. But…
But here’s the thing: it’s better for you if you can think about what you’re learning on the back burner all the time. You’re cooking something up and it needs to simmer. Keep the intellectual soup/stew going, stir it, add a bit of this, a pinch of that, check it every few hours. If you turn up the heat, your dish might be finished sooner, but it’s not nuanced, it’s mostly just one flavor. To get the rich layers of taste, you need more time. You must find that time somehow. And this: if you try to hurry, sometimes you might burn the thing you’re working on creating. Totatlly bogus journey.
Here’s how I do it. I take loads of notes, as I’m reading, I’m jotting down how something explicitly connects to another thing. And it’s not just “this is generally similar to that,” but “3rd paragraph on p. 63 of ____________ says exactly the same thing as p. 123 of ____________.” I draw graphics, I use mind maps, I use Venn diagrams, but most important, I use paper.
And when I’m onto something smartish, I leave myself a trail of bread crumbs so I don’t have to jump back into the thing, cold, after work, after I pick up kids or make dinner or walk the dog. I leave myself a note about where I left on thinking or about what I wanted to write next or read next or connect next.
Think of these learning notes as keeping that sauce going all day. It needs the constant low heat; it needs periodic attention. Do not take it off the burner and shove it in the fridge. Take your notes with you as you wait for soccer practice to finish–read them again, and take more. Take them to the grocery store and when you have a long line, whip out that notebook and stir the pot a bit.
When you make your intellectual existence the primary concern of your life, you funnel energy to that all the time. It’s low energy sometimes, but that’s okay. It’s the long game here that you’re playing. It’s the Sunday sauce that must be on the stove for at least 8 hours. But you cannot walk away and expect to jump right back in and get the same results.
You lose the thread. YOU LOSE THE FLAVOR. Happens every time you shut your learning out of your mind and take up someone else’s urgency or worries or fears. It’s very hard to do: commit to always thinking in the back of your mind about learning, but we are disposed to do it.
Think of the first person you had a crush on–how did that person occupy your mind? See? You’re already trained as a professional writer. Take that crush energy and apply it to reading, thinking, writing. That is success.
Can a blog be too long if you’re thinking in your blog, going from curious through the 8 habits to metacognition? Never.
Cook, surf, crush.