Parting words for my creative writing students May 2012
As a poet, I earn my living teaching English at Dawson College Cegep in Montreal. Aside from the core courses I give, I also teach the Literature Profile students in our Creative Arts, Literature, and Language program. Students in such arts programs have been consistently “dissed” as they might say for a long time, but especially so in reaction to the student strikes underway in Quebec right now (a strike the Dawson student body voted against joining). A particularly mean-spirited dismissal is Margaret Wente’s commentary in the The Globe and Mail, deliciously demolished by Mike Spry. It was in this context that I had to bring this semester’s creative writing workshop to a resolution. These words are as easily applicable to all the literature students I’ve shepherded through Poetics, Literary Criticism, and Creative Writing, and it is to them they are primarily addressed. I make my little speech public here at their urging. All the reader need know is that the text for our class was Clive Matson’s Let the Crazy Child Write! (New World Library, 1998). What I said went roughly as follows…
We’ve spent this past semester culturing our Negative Capability (the capacity “to live in doubt and uncertainty without an irritable reaching after fact and reason”)—a capacity arts students surely need!—, nurturing and indulging our Crazy Child, what’s creative in each of us, that source of impulse, fantasy, and imagination, a source that’s always at work (or play). Even when the world is too much for us and we retreat into sleep (Freud tells us sleep is an escape from the demands of survival), the Crazy Child is active, dreaming.
The American novelist William Burroughs observed that the Europeans who colonized the Americas conquered the peoples they found here by stealing their dreams. They stole their languages, told them their dreams—their stories, myths, beliefs—were false, and replaced them with their own. Today there is a group of people out to steal your dreams and aspirations and replace them with their vision, their dream (or nightmare). They’ve been at it since 1980, before you were born, but not before I was born. I can remember a different time.
They’ll tell you that what you are studying, what you are doing is useless, worthless, and the excuse they’ll use to cut you off goes by one word these days, ‘austerity’. But I tell you it’s a lie, a myth, a lie made up by a small group of people to serve their interests at the expense of most other people’s. There’s a group of economists in Missouri who have developed an economic theory that pops the hot air austerity balloon and shows it up for the self-serving lie it is. And here in Quebec, there’s money for million dollar golden handshakes for university presidents at Concordia every few years, and money for tax breaks and electricity rebates for corporations that costs the province money for the jobs they’re supposed to create.
They tell you you’re useless, that the engineering and business and science students aren’t the ones striking (another lie). But the corporations are finding out that it’s the graduates from the business schools that are useless, because they’ve learned to do only one thing, and now they’re more and more eager to hire an arts student, because you’re flexible, you’ve learned how to learn, you know how to work together, and you can communicate. And most importantly you’re creative and imaginative.
But at an even more practical level: the great poet William Blake said, “What is real now was once only imagined.” Everything we see around us here was made by somebody, somebody had to come up with the idea of it, develop that idea and make it real. Because everything human beings make and do ultimately springs from the imagination in this way, William Carlos Williams said, “Only the imagination is real.” And because the imagination is what shows us what’s possible, it’s also the source of human freedom; it gives us the power to see how things might be different.
And most seriously: the world is heading into a time when it will need—not people good at sitting in cubicles or good at making numbers on computers into bigger numbers—but people with imagination, creative people to face situations and solve problems that no one has ever had to face before.
So when they tell you that what you’re studying is useless, that you’re worthless, tell them that they’re just plain wrong. They’re the ones who don’t know what’s valuable or worthwhile, because they’re the ones without any imagination! You’re the ones with a future, because you can imagine one!