Some Rules for Students and Teachers

These rules were compiled by artist, educator and social justice advocate Sister Corita Kent, although they were popularized by composer and music theorist John Cage and Rule No. 10 is directly attributable to him.  They also appear in Sister Corita’s Learning By Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit and were the official rules of the art department at the now closed Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, where Sister Corita taught.   Their relevance transcends the classroom.

 

  1. Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.
  2. General duties of a student — pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.
  3. General duties of a teacher — pull everything out of your students.
  4. Consider everything an experiment.
  5. Be self-disciplined — this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.
  6. Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.
  7. The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.
  8. Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.
  9. Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.
  10. We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” (John Cage)

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything — it might come in handy later.

 

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On Being an Introvert

In 2012, American author Susan Cain published Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  Reviewing the book in The Guardian, Jon Ronson wrote ‘I read much of Susan Cain’s book shaking my head in wonder and thinking: “So that’s why I’m like that!”’ My own reaction was the same.

What’s it like being an introvert?  Many people confuse introversion with shyness.  They are two very different things.  I am not shy.  But because I’m introverted people often confuse it for shyness or, worse still, indifference.  Who likes someone being indifferent towards them? I know I don’t.

Introverts have a preference for lower-stimulation environments.  That is certainly true in my case.  If I have to spend too long in a high-stimulation environment, especially one I’m uncomfortable in, I become edgy.  For me, a high-stimulation environment can be something as straightforward as a crowded restaurant where the tables are too close together.  I start to become distracted and if I’m in company, it starts to look as if I don’t want to be there.  I may very well want to be with the person who I’m spending time with, but the environment is too uncomfortable for me.

A perfect example of a high-stimulation environment is a school.  I was a good student, polite and hard working, but I disliked school, a lot.  It wasn’t that I was disinterested in school or was a moody teenager (although we all had those moments).  No, I actively disliked school – I actively thought, a lot, about how much I disliked school.  At 4 o’clock, I was out the door of that place as fast as I could.  Secondary school was more preferable to primary school because at least there were five to ten minute breaks between classes, where I could gather my thoughts and “regroup” for the next round – a breathing space.  I’m still like that.  At formal occasions, weddings for instance, I will leave the table I’m sat at more often than anybody else, even if it’s for just two minutes at a time.  I am very careful not to appear impolite and I can sit for as long as I need to but I actively plan the little “breathers” that I know I will need throughout the day.  If someone isn’t aware of their own personal dynamic it can become a huge source of frustration to them and I wondered in school why I wasn’t like everyone else (others would wonder too).  Now?  I don’t think I’ve asked myself that question in years.

An interesting aspect of Cain’s book is her section on what is known as Free Trait Theory.  Devised by former Harvard psychology professor Brian Little, Free Trait Theory explains that although we are born with certain personality traits, traits that subsequently get culturally reinforced, we can and do act out of character when we feel the need to do so.   Referring specifically to introverts, the theory states that introverts have the capability to act like extroverts for the sake of work, or people, they consider as being important.  So, I was able, at age 16, to stand in front of a group of people and speak, off the cuff, for 15 minutes because I was asked to do so by someone I respected and because I felt the occasion demanded it.  Was I nervous? Not particularly.   Had I spoken like that in public before? Yes.  Have I spoken like that in public since? Yes.

Cain also references work carried out by research psychologist Richard Lippa into so-called self-monitors: introverts who are especially good at acting as extroverts.  A self-monitor is able to modify their behavior to the social demands of a situation and do so by looking for cues to tell them how they should act – a “when in Rome…” sort of thing.   I would consider myself a high self-monitor.  The unfortunate thing is that high-self monitors have been found to be better at lying then low self-monitors.  For the record, I do not consider myself to be a very good liar.  Brian Little regards self-monitoring as an act of modesty and the person accommodating themselves to the norms of a particular situation because why grind everyone down to take account of your needs and concerns?  I suppose you could call it a fake-it-to-make it strategy.  I would compare it to going into an interview where you will be asked the standard questions, such as ‘what are your weaknesses.’ Can you imagine being asked that question in the course of a normal, everyday conversation?  Because the situation demands it, you adjust yourself to it and you answer the question.

So, self-monitoring can be useful, but only if used judiciously.  You have to accept who you are and if you’re an introvert, there’s no point in accommodating yourself to the extent that you start to deny entire aspects of your personality.

The next time you are at a function or work meeting, or any other social occasion, and the person next to you falls quiet, it isn’t necessarily a lack of will or interest on their part.  They just might be an introvert.

Introversion checklist:

  • You prefer to spend your social energy on those who matter to you the most, preferring a glass of wine with a good friend than going to a party full of people you don’t know
  • You think before speaking and can feel uncomfortable with small talk
  • You thrive on solitude, without necessarily being a loner
  • You experience flow when concentrating deeply on a subject or activity that is of great interest to you
  • You’re a good listener and a highly-skilled observer
  • You are highly empathetic and likely sensitive to lapses in your own behaviour and their consequences (although, many people, extroverts and introverts alike, have empathy)
  • You were probably labeled as being shy as a child and can feel nervous when you think you’re being evaluated – a work review or interview, for example
  • You prefer environments that are not overstimulating and are not great at handling information overload “in the moment,” needing time instead to reflect
  • You can drive alone for hours, even without the radio.

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Prayer

Whatever Happens.  Whatever

what is is is what

I want.  Only that.  But that –

 

Prayer, by Galway Kinnell, from A New Selected Poems (Mariner Books).

 

The first time I read “Prayer” I thought it a rather defeatist poem.  I was wrong.  Kinnell is saying ‘I want only what is given to me but what that is is something I will embrace.’  Dive beneath the lines and there is more to this poem than the mere acceptance seen on a surface reading.  It is a poem filled with hope, with anticipation.  These are not the thoughts of someone in despair, but rather someone excited about the uncertainty in front of them. Deceptively simple, “Prayer” resonates with meaning but as with most poetry, it has to be read aloud so the true meaning becomes clear.

Good art avoids being trite because it does not pretend to know the answers.  It makes us think.  The power of art is never that it is prescriptive but rather that it is suggestive.

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Foster – Claire Keegan

The two greatest living Irish short-story writers are William Trevor and Claire Keegan. Foster won the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009 and was subsequently expanded for publication as a stand-alone story.

In his study of the form, The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor wrote that “the short story has never had a hero” but instead has a “submerged population group,” dreaming always of escape.

The dream of escape in Foster is that of a small girl brought to stay on a farm belonging to her “mother’s people,” away from parents whose attitude to rearing children is avoidance rather than actual neglect. Over the months of her stay, the girl becomes closer to the married couple she’s staying with and learns of a secret that has eaten away at both of their lives.

There is a deep lyricism to Keegan’s writing.  Her stories are delicate and exquisite, with a quietness also.  Such is its preciseness that Keegan’s writing gives the impression that if a word was misplaced or removed the entire story would shatter – a fragility matched by the vulnerability of her characters’ thoughts. Early in Foster, the girl is greeted by “the woman” (she is never referred to by name):

‘The last time I saw you, you were in the pram,’ she says, and stands back, expecting an answer.

‘The pram’s broken.’

‘What happened at all?’

‘My brother used it for a wheelbarrow and the wheel fell off.’

She laughs and licks her thumb and wipes something off my face. I can feel her thumb, softer than my mother’s, wiping whatever it is away. When she looks at my clothes, I see my thin, cotton dress, my dusty sandals through her eyes. There’s a moment when neither one of us knows what to say. A queer, ripe breeze is crossing the yard.

Frank O’Connor was correct when he stated that someone can be a great novelist yet an inferior writer, but that a great storyteller cannot be so.  I would argue that many attempts at the story are mere vignettes – ‘days out’ for the writer – and therefore fail in their intent as stories, although they may be pleasant enough to read. There is a need, nonetheless, to differentiate between deliberate and accidental vignettes.  Margaret Atwood’s vignettes are an accomplished and deliberate example of the form.

What Claire Keegan demonstrates is the ability, as Frank O’Connor described it, to combine exposition and development in a way that overcomes the challenge of time – that challenge being a frame of reference that can never be the totality of a human life but merely a selective point of entry. The difference between a great storyteller and a novelist masquerading as a storyteller is that the storyteller understands that narrative is mere pattern and that the pattern is human life as universally experienced, “nostalgia and disillusionment and a fresh nostalgia sharpened by experience,” in O’Connor’s words.

There can be no fantastical event in the story – no slaying of dragons – because the form won’t permit it.   But neither is the short story restrictive.  Each new generation of storyteller is not so tied to convention as to be prevented from writing afresh. O’Connor argued, correctly, that the story has no essential form, that the point of entry into a life is different each time and that the submerged population of one storyteller – Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, for example – differ vastly from the submerged population of another – Maupassant’s prostitutes, by contrast.

The shorter version of Foster appears on The New Yorker website.  Claire Keegan’s collections of stories are Antarctica and Walk The Blue Fields.   To mark the publication of Foster, Keegan gave an interesting interview to The Guardian.

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That They May Face The Rising Sun – John McGahern

Amongst Women (1991) is broadly considered to be McGahern’s masterpiece, but the quieter That They May Face The Rising Sun, from 2002, is the greater triumph, not least in its ability to depict the passing of time in the absence of traditional narrative. And how is that depiction achieved? Repetition. In McGahern’s hands, the triumph of the ordinary life lies in the ability of repetition to provide meaning. It is this repetition – more than character or narrative, both of which are secondary – that gives the novel its punch. A lesser writer would have been unable to make this work, but McGahern draws on his experience and his inspirations to create something extraordinary.

Writing about McGahern’s book in The Good of the Novel, Ray Ryan suggests that “…what ritual tacitly communicates are the deepest values of all the individuals performing it. Ritual expresses wishes at odds with conscious experience.”

Without rhythm, the conveying of routine would be difficult. As a younger writer, McGahern was influenced by Proust, and the French writer’s nonfiction in particular. Proust wrote of George Sand’s prose that “beneath the everyday incidents, the commonplace thoughts and hackneyed words, I could hear, or overhear, an intonation, a rhythmic utterance fine and strange.”

Favourite books are subjective, of course, and That They May Face the Rising Sun is a favourite of mine not least because it depicts a rural community not unlike the one that my late uncle, Joe, lived in for almost the entirety of his life. John McGahern’s contention that the local is the universal was reflected in Joe’s own belief that why should he travel the world when it would come to him, as it invariably did.

In the book of collected essays, Love of the World, McGahern writes about his native Leitrim and how expansive small areas can become in people’s minds: ‘It is each single, enclosed locality that matters, and everything that happens within it is of passionate interest to those who live there.”

McGahern also tells the story of a young man from Fenagh who on arrival in New York sought out a relative in the NYPD.  He found him patrolling the East River. As a January gale blew off the river, the boy turned his back on the water and remarked to his cousin “Michael, there’s no escaping the wind from Drumshanbo.”

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Sister Wendy Beckett

”If you don’t know about God, art is the only thing that can set you free” – Sister Wendy Beckett, contemplative nun/writer/art historian.

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Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson’s novel reads like something almost outside of time – not so much dog-eared or yellowed but as if written in stone. So it comes as a surprise to realise the story is set in 1957, as revealed by its narrator, Congregationalist pastor the Reverend Jon Ames, a native of the small, fictional Iowa town from which the novel takes its title. Gilead is Ames’ account of his life and those of his father and grandfather (also pastors) for the benefit of his seven-year-old son, to be passed to him after the elderly Ames succumbs to a heart condition.

Ames makes frequent reference to Gilead’s status as a centre for abolitionist agitation – the campaign to end slavery in the U.S. (Congregational churches, independent in governance and spirit, were to the fore in many American social reform movements). But otherwise, Gilead gives the impression of being away from where the real action takes place.  Not that lack of action perturbs Jon Ames, whose enthusiasm for a life lived ordinary nonetheless embraces the rich extraordinariness of the landscape around him:

“I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing.”

The rich lyricism of Robinson’s language is like scripture and Gilead’s narrative seems deliberately separate from time, with an almost eternal quality, firm in its belief in the goodness of human nature uncorrupted by any temporal slips into violence or corruption (sin). There is nothing secular about Robinson or her writing – she is a deeply Christian writer. Yet this is not the Christianity of closed minds or harsh judgment of the other. It is meditative, gentle and humble. In her essay, “Open Thy Hand Wide,” which appears in When I was a Child I Read Books (2012), Robinson asserts her own liberal Christianity and argues for a reinterpretation in particular of Calvinism to remember Calvin’s own assertion that Paul’s message ‘not to be weary in well-doing’ should be embraced as Christian imperative.  Jon Ames is frequently hard on himself throughout Gilead’s narrative but no reader of this book meets a selfish narrator.

Gilead is also a writer’s book. Ames’ vocation and his thoughts about it mirror that of a writer – something that is difficult to fulfil yet cannot be ignored.

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