Monday, March 23, 2015


I feel as though I should write something. It’s almost like a pressure in search of relief, an escape, someplace to go so that something else isn’t forced to adapt to the presence of whatever it is. If that path is not too twisted, not too restricted, the words will flow out almost – or seemingly – effortlessly. If the path is too direct, however, they will explode forth with little rhyme or reason. Anyone who writes with any regularity, with any experience, with some acumen, knows both extremes. Likewise, anyone who reads enough can usually feel when writers are in the zone. This so-called “zone” is certainly not unique to writers or even other artists. And it is more than just confidence, more than just acquired skill, more than just comfort with one’s craft. It can be elusive, but it can also be a place we find ourselves for longer periods of time. It is, in the simplest of terms, the perfect pathway for controlled release.

Benjamin Zander, the conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, touches on this idea in a 2008 TED talk about the power of classical music. While the overall point of his presentation is not about getting into a zone, in his introduction he presents a narrative of the progression of a student pianist. At first the student’s musicianship is labored, choppy and viscous. Later, as lessons, practice and time elapse, the student becomes more fluid, smoother and more comfortable with the keys. Zander shows how the student moves from placing an impulse on every note to one on every other note to every fourth, and then every eighth note as time moves on. Finally, Zander portrays the student placing just one impulse on the entire passage at which point the music actually “pushes” him over - into a zone, if you will - that he calls, “one-buttock playing.” I get that. There are times when I am writing that the piece seems to just write itself; I am simply a conduit that gets the already arranged words out of my head and onto paper. There is no “composing,” the piece comes already assembled.

In fact, there are times that I can’t get the words out fast enough. The words are actually pushing me over – I am “one-buttock” writing. And as I think back, I might mean that literally. I would go so far as to say, and I think Zander would agree, that this zone, while always elusive to a certain extent, is there and available. And there is no question that the more I attempt to get there (translation: the more I actually write), the easier it is to find. That is no guarantee that it will always be at my fingertips, but the more I write, the more I find myself at the edge of my seat, hanging on as the words crash over me. I would not say that these words are that, I don’t feel I am so inspired, but I am dancing on the edge and that is at least a necessary point of departure.

It seems that there are some people who, when doing what they do, are always in a zone. I’m thinking of sports superstars or popular musicians or other artists – maybe particularly in-tune investment bankers who, it seems, never guess wrong. But I think that even though that’s what we might perceive, the reality would reveal much more miss than hit. The simple truth is that rising to an occasion still requires an occasion and some of us possess honed skills that are typically on display in public. Obviously, there is a whole lot of non-zonal stuff that goes on in private. But for most of us, it’s not a public thing. It’s all in private or, at least, not public. If we are performing on just one buttock, no one else knows it, they only see the results. For all they know, it might not be one-buttock at all… it might be half-assed. One can scroll through my archives and find plenty of that, too. And then there are those groups of words that found no clear path, those that read as semi-disjointed ideas linked in a hodgepodge of gibberish, those that read half-assed but are really much closer to the zone than they appear. Words like these...

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Truth

I was inspired to write today. I want to say that I haven’t been inspired like that in a long time, that the reason why my dissertation is in limbo, the reason why I haven’t written anything substantive in some time is due to the fact that I have not been sufficiently inspired. I’ve been burnt out. I have not been able to find the right words. I can’t get what’s inside my head onto paper. It has been suggested that I am suffering from “writer’s block,” though I am not sure those suggesting it know what it is anymore than I do. I have even denied that it is writer’s block, saying that it must be something else holding me back from writing what I am ultimately here at school to write. I rationalize, “But I can write other stuff.” And that is partially true. I’ve written some letters of recommendation, I’ve written some commemorations, I’ve engaged in rational debate and I’ve even used my powers to flame a cyber-bully who needed to be taught a lesson. But that writing is like this writing – it comes more or less naturally to me. When it comes to really serious writing the likes of which I cannot seem for the life of me to do right now, I am lost. I have writer’s block, whatever the fuck that is.

So diagnosed, what do I do about it? The kind of writing that I cannot seem to do is the kind that takes organization. It must, in the end, be neat and orderly. It must make sense. It has to be perfect, not just pretty. This “stream of consciousness” stuff is, for me, fairly easy to write. Also, judging from the feedback I get, it is interesting to others (maybe because they can relate - I know this sort of introspection, when written well, interests me). I am no stranger to balking in the face of daunting tasks – it is a battle I have fought my entire life. It’s not so much lazy as it is a specialized kind of lazy and at the root of it is fear. It, whatever it is, is the sort of thing that has to be perfect. This might not be an external requirement – indeed, it rarely is – but my head has me hesitating if I cannot see my way through to perfection. And it happened today.

The Communication Studies Department at LSU hosts an annual lecture that commemorates the late Giles Wilkeson Gray, professor emeritus of the Department of Speech (what would become Communication Studies) at LSU. It is an honor to be invited to deliver the lecture and since the series’ inception in 1984, numerous leading scholars in the field of communication studies have come to LSU to discuss their research. This year, Dr. Carole Blair with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was our distinguished lecturer. Dr. Blair is also the current president of the National Communication Association. Her lecture, “World War I and the Expatriation of American Memory” was held Thursday, but, for reasons that aren’t important, I missed it. However, on Friday our department held a colloquy with Dr. Blair and, also for reasons that are not important, I did make it to that. At the end of the colloquy, I was inspired to write something really important. I resolved to go home and do just that.

The colloquy took the form of a question and answer session with Dr. Blair.  Our department faculty and grad students were given the opportunity to pick the brain of not only a preeminent scholar in my field, but also the president of our national organization. I listened intently, but the most interesting question and answer came right at the end of the session. While I don’t remember the question exactly, it had to do with the health of our discipline both within the humanities and in more general terms. It is no secret that public university funding nationwide is getting cut at an alarming rate. Tuition and other fees for public universities are skyrocketing as fast as the administrators’ salaries are. Tenure-track professorships are few and far between and the hardest hit areas always seem to be within the humanities and social sciences. Communication studies, like some other disciplines, can fall within the humanities or the social sciences. According to Dr. Blair, within the larger academic division of “the humanities,” communication studies is among the strongest. This is nice to know, even encouraging, but it must be tempered with the fact that humanities generally are not considered “career path” majors unless one wants to go into teaching, research or other jobs not known for making a lot of money.

The idea that those with communication studies degrees, or other degrees within the humanities, are people that can do a multitude of jobs is one that is again gaining some traction. These “well rounded” college experiences (otherwise known as a “liberal education,” but the term, "liberal," has such an negative connotation with so many I hesitate to use it – but suffice it to say that it doesn’t mean what they think it does) are what good citizens are made of. This is why those “general education” courses that so many view as a waste of time and money are required. And thankfully they still are, but although the world still needs scientists and engineers and chemists and physicist and all of the other disciplines that fall within the hard sciences, we also need those well versed in the classical knowledge of the ages. The histories, the philosophies, the cultures and all that has been learned that got us where we are today – all of it – is still fucking important.

Those of us sitting in that room and countless others like it all know that. The question was how do we get that information to those outside the walls of academia. How do we interest kids in majoring in areas where they might not achieve the “new” American Dream of striking it rich (because simply owning a home, providing for our families and saving for retirement is no longer a big enough carrot). One place that was suggested – and I don’t remember by whom – is the parents. We need to sell parents on the value of raising good citizens who are well versed in history, in philosophy, in ethics, all components of critical thinking. Successful democracies have always depended on educated demos – a citizenry that is capable of thinking critically. I don’t know what has caused all the polarization in the last 20-30 or more years (it’s not as new as some would like to think), but it seems that part of it is this willingness to swallow whatever is thrown out there.

And before I forget, I need to say something about this so-called “liberal indoctrination” of your children when they get to college. While it is true that college faculties tend to lean towards the left, it is not a universal truth, it is irrelevant in some fields and it doesn’t matter anyway. Your kids had 18 years of your influence before they ever got into my class. There is very little I can do to undo the influence you have had, even if I wanted to. Are there some professors who try to push their views on their students? Sure. But they are not the norm and again, it doesn’t matter. And if your kid comes home with a “radical” thought he or she learned in school, hopefully it is an opportunity to enter a discussion rather than a war. Maybe your kid – who is smart enough to get into college - gave this radical thought some serious consideration. Maybe you should respect that and maybe you can shed some light - though an intelligent, rational conversation - that your kid’s professor might have missed. You kids are not robots and we cannot program them. We can, however, give them the tools to think clearly for themselves. And you can help, if that’s what you want for them.

So that’s what I was inspired to write about today. But it wasn’t going to be like this. I thought that I would try to use my command over the written word to present some good reasons why education should be more highly valued, more robustly supported. I personally think that a public college education should be free – call me a radical, but I think an educated population is good for everyone and as such, everyone should pay for it.

But that’s not what this is all about anyway. This was supposed to be in the form of an op-ed piece and I was going to submit it to the New York Times. I read their Opinionator, I read the other editorials, and I know I can write as well as some of those commentators, and I know I can write better than some, too. But that kind of writing is precise, it has to be closer to perfect than my level of confidence would allow me to get. I balked after just two lousy paragraphs. I would not be able to just sit down and whip it that out no matter how inspired I was. Never mind that one does not just “write for the New York Times” (even at 52 years old, I have a childish naïveté that is probably no longer cute). I am beginning to think there is much more to this “writer’s block” than meets the eye. And despite the 1,500-plus words I just puked out, I am still balking at the daunting tasks in my life. I do know this: This is not good enough for what I was inspired to write. And that is the truth.