Inspiration or desperation? Or me just doing my job?

Tonight at the bowling alley, I was thinking. Well. Really, there’s no conversing possible, so I decided to let my mind wander. And it wandered almost out of its knowledge (see reference later). Actually, I wandered around in and amongst the ideas that I have been reading about lately–no surprise. And I wandered around in a place where I have been doing a lot of writing, conceiving of a new kind of writing program for professionals, real bona-fide grown-ups, who need writing coaching, not regular composition or even advanced composition, but a brand of coaching for totally-genuine-truly professional adults. AND teaching the coaches how to coach. It’s not a stretch for me: I taught four huge dudes to dance in a melodrama/musical called “Ten Nights in a Bar Room.” (And they rocked the jazz square and the grapevine… eventually.) Okay, it’s not the same thing–coaching dance and coaching writing–but the process of teaching and urging human performance improvement is really similar.

All that thinking led me to musing on how we write, how we communicate, how we teach, and more to the point for this post–what happens when I just show up and do my job? I read, and write, and think, and talk, and research as part of my job. I write here as part of my job. What exactly does that mean though?

Well. It’s almost impossible to describe in any sort of interesting way how I do research in order to think and write and weave information together to come to “new” knowledge, as the process is almost as riveting as a laundry list of things done or experienced. But I want to trace out one learning trajectory I’m been on that all came together at the bowling alley…

I ended up thinking about three things amidst strikes and spares, rants, rages, high fives, chest-bumping, and other whoo-hooing:

  • Martha Woodmansee’s essay: “The Genius and the Copyright: Economic and Legal Conditions of the Emergence of the ‘Author'” (Eighteenth-Century Studies, 1984) (if you have access to JSTOR, you could have this, too–or a kind friend who is willing to share)
  • Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk: “On Nurturing Creativity” (, 2009).
  • Sarah Allen’s chapter in Volume 1 of Writing Spaces: “The Inspired Writer vs. the Real Writer” (2009).

Okay, five things:

I found all of these things because of writing professor friends. (It pays to have brilliant friends.) I started teaching with Gilbert’s video ages ago because writing is not about being a genius, it’s about being open to what’s possible and showing up to do the work. I found Sarah Allen’s essay by being involved with Writing Spaces. A student in my Victorian Poetry and Prose class last fall pulled these two together for me while she was taking a writing class this last spring–in a very inspired way. THEN a friend gave me the Woodmansee article, after he told me about David Bollier’s book, Viral Sprial (that I mentioned in the last post). I read that book, then I wandered around in Bollier’s blog, which led me to Linebaugh’s article. And I could keep going from there, and I will. Research and learning is a journey–yes, just like Luke Skywalker’s quest to become a Jedi Knight.

And what a journey–even thus far–I’m having such a blast. It’s been like getting stuck in a library overnight, with experts guiding me, inspiring me: one voice in the library softly calls: “Pssst, hey, come down this aisle for the best books on 19th century British publishing practices”; and another voice whispers: “Check out some cool works on visual rhetoric, come with me”; and another: “Don’t miss the amazing books on intellectual property and pirates over here–you’ll love this section, avast ye”; yeah, just like that.

The great thing about learning, and learning with frighteningly smart people around me, is that each step forward that I take is another cool color thread I can weave into my tapestry. Making connections between the things I learn is also my job. I’m supposed to be a guide through a process of thinking from encountering to deep evaluation, analysis, and then synthesis. And that’s what I want from my students–synthesis. Making connections to multiple texts, to themselves, to the world around them. Picking up threads here and there that somehow get woven into the tapestry of their own knowledge making.

Connections between these articles, talks, chapters, blog posts:

Enclosure of common land or culture is a powerful metaphor for loss of freedoms, rights, and the future. Those who would enclose common land then and now are as wrong as those now and then who attempt to enclose our culture and reinforce in our minds the concept of genius as something we have, not something we borrow; like land that is solely owned, not something we all borrow only for the length of time we live. All senses of enclosure are short-sighted and damaging. The idea that we are geniuses is like wearing false eyelashes so that we might look like Jersey cows with flirty, ultra long eyelashes, but we are not cows, we do not have long eyelashes, we are borrowing that particular “genius” and with a few splashes of water, we are just who we are, perhaps with only 14 eyelashes that are more blonde than otherwise. Desire for land, desire for beauty, desire to control knowledge… desire. Buddhists try to manage desire by understanding it and then refuting it to some degree or other (an incredibly lame and generalist thing to say here, but I had to keep it short). Our consumerist, market-driven desires lead us to trouble sometimes–we want land, knowledge, beauty. We want to be geniuses. And it’s great when we get everything we desire. No, wait a minute–that’s not so great when it comes at the expense of a lot of other people. (Buddhists also think ignorance is a bad thing, too–yea for us educators–okay, again with the grand simplification, but really, you ought to be getting tired by now of all the asides so I’m trying to make it all tighter. Am I right? A lengthy chat about Buddhsim or Taoist thought–which I like better–might be going too far.)

While the notion of being a genius and having occasional access to genius are not at first glance enclosure issues, Woodmansee makes a powerful claim about the change in concepts of authorship from the craftsman authorship of Pope to the inspired authorship of Wordsworth. In both models, she notes, the author is not solely responsible for his creation; if the author’s text is determined by specific audience need (court or patron) or driven by an inspired moment (a muse, or genius), then that text and the act of writing is “…not any more the writer’s sole doing than are its more routine aspects, but are instead attributable to a higher, external agency–if not to amuse, then to divine dictation” (427). What happens she explains, is this: “‘Inspiration’ came to be explicated in terms of original genius, with the consequence that the inspired work was made peculiarly and distinctively the product–the property–of the writer” (427). “Owning” genius makes it precious and something folks want to hang onto (think Gollum/Smeagol and The Ring in LOTR). Ownership and ideas that ownership is a sacred right can get freaky if taken to the extreme.

And here we come to the point where properties of various kinds intermingle: real estate and intellectual property. Do we own land the same ways we own genius? Yes, we think we do, but we own neither forever–with forever ownership, stunting occurs (if you wear false eyelashes long enough or don any falsity long enough, you go the “Miss Havisham” place–NOT okay). The land does not find its level use if held with clenching, grasping, greedy hands, and might be overused or underused. Copyright law, if misused, can keep knowledge away from those who are most right and ready to re-create, re-envision, revitalize. Strangleholds on culture and land=bad.

As the idea of the “author as genius” rises to implement new copyright law, the Enclosure Act was plodding right along–fences everywhere. But a lot of the fences first built were by publishers holding sway over authorial production… not unlike landed gentry enclosing commons and denying access to commoners. And book pirates were an issue for all involved in the book business, just like poachers on land, enclosed or otherwise.

Woodmansee’s conclusion is this–I’ve skipped over a lot of the argument, so this is an odd insertion–but I will say something after this:

Woodmansee's conclusion (448)

Okay–so my connection between this work and Gilbert’s is that Woodmansee takes her scholarly path to the same place Gilbert goes: being a genius changed our concept of authorship, fundamentally, and also engendered a kind of livelihood/copyright anxiety for authors. Books revealing the “personality of the author” get to be an ownership problem and becomes, it seems to me, at least a partial basis of the modern critical pendulum swinging from biographical readings to New Criticism and all over the theoretical literary critical map.

If a work was original and all about the author’s genius, then it should benefit the author in some way, a protection was needed for the author, from publishers, from the public, from pirates at least for a small period of time (and FOR the publishers, too–who are still extremely powerful, gatekeepers in many ways of our printed culture–though, this is changing). (But it’s gotten out of control just a bit these days, hasn’t it? Go ebooks and digital publishers.) How we still read, a book or art work or film, as a testament to a genius, is an evolution from the 18th century if Woodmansee’s argument is right (and I think she is). So we study writers who have been accorded genius status through a canon. Yuck. I have such trouble with that and try to get away from the canonical whenever possible. Stick it to the man, I say. (Did I really say that? Guess I did; it’s right there. Damn, I surprise myself sometimes. Wonder how I’ll work that into a class devoted to Dickens next spring?)

Sarah Allen’s chapter in Writing Spaces tries to dispel this myth of the inspired writer by talking about what real writers do, much as Gilbert does in her talk. Allen’s work is meant to be for younger writers, as part of the Writing Spaces project, but I just can’t limit myself to that. I see Writing Spaces as a collection of texts that blows apart the ideas of: 1) textual ownership; 2) the author as genius; and 3) only brilliant, gifted people can write (sort of like 2, but not exactly).  Allen’s point is an important concept for any writer or writers, many of whom I have met in my community who are terrified to write because: 1) they keep waiting for the inspiration to come, so they can write it right; 2) they are afraid their stories have already been told–nothing is new or original that they could write; 3) they do not know how to just show up and do the job of writing. Oh, and they think writers are born, not made.  Allen writes that for her writing is “more of an agonistic kind of thing” and that she is “not ‘good’ at writing, if being good at it means that the words, the paragraphs come easily.” She explains further:

I believe that I write because I am driven to do so—driven by a will to write. By ‘will,’ I mean a kind of purposefulness, propensity, diligence, and determination (which, I should mention, does not lead to perfection or ease . . . unfortunately). But, I should qualify this: the will to write is not innate for me, nor is it always readily available. In fact, the common assumption that a will to write must be both innate and stem from an ever-replenishing source never ceases to surprise (and annoy) me. I’ve worked with a lot of enviably brilliant and wonderful writers—teachers, students, scholars, and freelancers. I’ve yet to meet one who believes that she/he is innately and/or always a brilliant writer, nor have I met one who says she/he always wants to write. (35)

Anyone who wants to write but is afraid, needs to read this whole chapter. Sadly, so many of the people I meet in community writing workshops believe the opposite. So they don’t write. They have stories they desperately want to tell, to share, but they have been stopped entirely by the fence set up around and enclosing “genius”; so, they do not even attempt.

Is that our inheritance? Egads. It’s more than wretched and exactly why I love taking Writing Spaces into my community to any and all writers who need some writing love. Real writers need to be made everywhere. Inspiration is great and one needs to know it when it comes, but real writing needs to be done.

What I love about sticking Linebaugh and Bollier in the middle of this thinking is that they both write (could be they have to slog through writing to get ideas on paper/screen, too) about the commons in a most concrete sense–the actual land of the commons in the former case and in the latter (in Bollier’s post anyhow that is about Linebaugh’s article) as Bollier talks about the actual Enclosure Act of the Victorian era. The Victorians are everywhere. Said it before, and I’ll say it again before I’m through.

Linebaugh traces enclosure through the late 20th century using a particular spot outside Oxford, England to make his point–beautifully done, too–a joy to read. Linebaugh tells the story of Otmoor, a small area near Oxford University that was enclosed and fought back. The trouble started in 1801 when the Duke of Marlborough decided to “drain and allot enclosures of over four thousand acres in Otmoor” (20). Over the century, varying degrees of oppression were imposed on the Otmoorians and there were varying degrees of lawlessness undertaken on their part. For instance, many commoners in Otmoor could be found “[a]ssembling by the light of the full moon, blackening their faces, and dressing in women’s clothing”; then they would have “stepped forth to destroy the fences, the hedges, the bridges, the gates–every part of the infrastructure of enclosure” (20). For more than two years, Otmoorians openly rebelled and had to put up with occupation by Coldstream Guards. (I’d love to add in here another aside about the connection between enclosure, body-snatchers, resurrection men, and A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens, but this is already a really long post–another time.)

By the 1920s, Otmoor as a commons, as a set of functional, culturally rich, ancient villages was gone, and Otmoor had become a bombing range. And thus enclosure movement won there.

Bollier’s blog post brought me to Linebaugh’s article; Bollier’s book brought me to his blog post. And hence the journey went on. Like Linebaugh, Bollier, too, writes about commons, all kinds of commons that traverse disciplines and historical periods and borders. All that “connecting” allows me to think about the taking of freedom to live on land that was commonly owned and the taking of freedom to think in response to a work of art by restricting that art, preventing it from being part of a commons, assuming that only geniuses can create works of value, all that enclosing and narrowing damages the future. Or it creates a different future that is less free. And I don’t like anything that isn’t about freedom.

What I’m getting at is perhaps a cattywampus way to think about our relationships to land and/or knowledge and/or textual/artistic production, but I don’t think the notion is new. I think the idea has been around a long time–land and knowledge (text and art) conferring freedom. Land confers freedom to live; knowledge confers freedom to engage with the world in less concrete ways than land, perhaps, but not always–depends on the object. BUT freedom is as freedom does. It feels easy here to conflate the concept of enclosing land with fences and defenses and enclosing knowledge through extensive and unreasonable copyright law. But then, this is a blog I that gives me space to think, not necessarily a place to think where I’m right all the time. (That’s some powerful freedom–to write and feel it’s okay to be on shaky ground or even wrong, but being able to write just the same.)

Copyleft fits with my idea of a freedom I can participate in maintaining. It’s a kind of freedom that is a taking back of knowledge-making for anyone and everyone. I put my genius back in the wall (as if I ever owned any genius), and I quit worrying about whether I was smart enough, inspired enough, or supported enough to do what I do. Instead, I write. And sometimes the genius shows up; sometimes it’s just me peeling back the layers, building the layers anew, slapping text on the screen, taking long breaks for photosynthesis, drawing, taking days or weeks off between writing to watch all the seasons of Farscape and the movie, or read five books for fun and school. And when I get back to this work, maybe there will be a genius in my wall waiting to help me, but I don’t wait around for that anymore. I just sit down and write and that’s it (and revise and revise and revise and revise and edit and edit and edit and then revise again–even revised this post 27 days after first posting because I found some typos).

And that’s why I think giving away the love is so vital to my agenda. I have to create in order to “gift” or I’m driven to “gift” so I create–I don’t create to keep my creations. I will profit from my ability to teach and consult and teach the creative process–not a problem for me to do that–I’m happy to be employed by a knowledge-creating-sharing entity: a university. But the stuff I make? The texts I write, the art I do–I think everyone should have a shot at playing with all that, playing with me on the stage. I never wanted to be a solo artist. I always wanted to be in a band (not the lead singer either, but part of the back up singers who did all the perfect dance moves–I actually did that in a band for a short time…. and yes, it is just like you imagine). I loved being part of the band. And I’m really still in a band, but it’s a commons now. (The hours are so much more conducive to health and good sleep.)

What I’m learning from all of this thinking is that it’s a fine thing that I show up and do my job as a scholar, teacher, program innovator–all the time. Even if I feel like I’m sucking canal water, I show up and do my job. Inspired or desperate? Doesn’t matter.

In the end, doing my job is about both inspiration and desperation: I am desperate, truly, to learn–always have been. I can’t even identify who I might be without the unrelenting desire to learn that keeps me alive. But I totally get that inspiration comes to me, too. I’m open to it. I don’t try to force it to come, but sometimes it happens, when the conditions are right, usually when I’m not pushing it, but when all the knowledge falls into the right places and ideas erupt and inform each other creating a new thing altogether. I LOVE that. Like how we make quilts or weave cloth–I talk about weaving or tapestries a lot when I talk about learning and acquisition of knowledge, then the sharing of that knowledge through the material project. We develop the threads and weave them to see what we have been thinking. My conceptual ability came to me partly from my interest in tapestries of the Middle Ages, sewing class senior year in high school, my love of crocheting, tatting that my grandmother taught me, but also, and so importantly, I’m inspired by a learned professorial friend who is an artist, weaver, writer, and material rhetorician.

Being enclosed somewhat by the world in which we live is inevitable, but when I think of having a genius in my wall, who may occasionally come out to help me along, and when I think of having such brilliant friends to guide me on my path, in my journey, I feel the fences falling away, like I have my own gang of angry commoners who, every night when the moon comes out, they travel my commons tearing down barriers, the sins and signs of enclosure, so that I may wake up each morning free to do my job.

Long live the commoners.


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Filed under Enclosure, Interdisciplinariness, Victorians Everywhere

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