Believe it or not, from time to time, I cite Kurt Cobain’s incisive assessment of his generation: “Here we are. Now, entertain us.” It’s an expectation that I see growing ever more pervasive, and many university students think it’s a professor’s job to entertain them. It isn’t. And anyway, the issue isn’t strictly attached to generation. Everybody can be bored. But fewer and fewer children are learning how to respond to boredom. The problem isn’t that we should never be bored. The problem is that many don’t know what to do when bored.
In the last few months, I’ve seen in the news a story about a trio of young men who were bored so they killed a passing jogger. I’ve seen in the news a story about a bored young man building pipe bombs. My mother must have dealt early with any suggestion that there was nothing to do. There was plenty to do, and we had to go outside and do it. Or go upstairs and read. How can a person be fully bored when there are books?
There are parents who hand out chores when the kids say they’re bored. Not a bad idea. It’s a way of showing that there is something to do. Show the way, but don’t do it for them. If we are bored, it isn’t because there’s nothing to do. It’s because we enjoy inertia. It has something to do with physics. Once we start doing something–even daydreaming–we can keep doing something. We can read a treasured book or a brand new one. We can write one. We can do word puzzles. If I’m stuck in a fit of inertia, I often will snap out of it or pass the interminable five minutes doing Free Rice. It makes me ashamed of myself that I’m bored at the same time that it makes me feel good to be using my boredom to make a difference.
I should spend more time thinking about getting off my ass and doing the dishes or dusting. My mother always called to us as we headed up the stairs, “Don’t go empty handed.” There was always something sitting on the bottom stairs, folded laundry maybe, that needed to go up. I think more of us could use lessons in how to deal with boredom on our own. Like most other things in life, nobody’s going to do it for us.
Almost always, the titles of our favourite books and movies somehow capture the whole work in a very few words. A title serves as a doorway that we step through into the work, and by the end, we have a clear vision of how the title functions. Maybe most readers don’t think about titles having a function, other than getting a reader to pick the book off the shelf. A title has to have meaning. Think about naming kids. We choose carefully, something with meaning, something symbolic, some kind of statement, a signpost. Pet people do it, too. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but the other name wouldn’t work the same way in a poem.
My first book is called Shattered Fanatics, and the cover image is a rather crushed looking carved figure. I chose the image because it looked to me like a shattered fanatic might look. The phrase comes from a student essay, some terrible kind of typing error, and I immediately could see what such a person might be. A shattered fanatic is someone who has believed absolutely and then realized, standing at the stake, waiting for the fire, that nobody was going to show up for the rescue. The faith is shattered. The poems inside the book are spoken by such people. When I chose the title for Pierce: Six Prairie Lives, I wanted to honour the family name and to acknowledge the importance of the individual family members. I wanted to situate their story clearly in their place, and I did not want a pedestrian title. I wanted something that set them apart from any other family biography in the way that I felt they were demonstrably apart in their lived story. I wanted something with their strength without being prosaic about it.
My current poetry manuscript has a working title drawn from myth, “The Hungry Grass,” an image apt for the story being told. Naming takes thought. I’ve always told my students that essays are like babies: if you can’t name it, you shouldn’t be having it. Or writing it. A title doesn’t have to be labyrinthine, or elaborate, or grand. Think of On the Road. Hamlet. Pride and Prejudice. Jane Eyre. A title just has to fit. Like a glove. Perfectly tailored.
I think I was born knowing how to read. I don’t remember learning. Our house was full of books–mysteries, encyclopedias, anthologies, novels. We were farm kids, and there was plenty of reading time. Where were we going to go? In books, we could go anywhere. I got Maud Montgomery’s Rainbow Valley from a friend for my tenth birthday, and I still have it. I read Gone with the Wind when I was young enough to play it in my imagination and old enough to fall in love with Ashley Wilkes. I have about three hundred hardcover detective novels that belonged to my mother. Reading is one of the great pleasures of life. Having to part with books, when the shelves get too crowded, is hard on my heart. The occasional cull is necessary because I can’t stop acquiring books.
What I’ve learned, over the departure of thousands of books to libraries and charity sales, is what matters most to me. Aside from the delicious compendium Critical Theory Since Plato, all of the academic discussions of literature and film are gone. Those critical ideas in Plato are beautifully fresh, creative things. Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, E.M. Forster, and the Bronte sisters are safe and secure, everything they wrote. I have a complete Chaucer and a complete Shakespeare. I have poems by Pasternak, Ginsberg, Neruda, Sexton, Akhmatova, Nowlan, Cohen, Szymborska. Sometimes, I think about my top ten list, and I hesitate to fill all the spots. The thought makes me nervous because I don’t want to confine myself. Books aren’t like that. I can say that A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Star Called Henry, Chatterton, A Long, Long Way and Rainbow Valley would be on the list. That’s half way. I’ve read and re-read them. They can take it. That’s the secret. Keep books that can stand up to the scrutiny, that offer new things with each reading, that surprise all over with a beautiful phrase.
I’ve been writing all my life–as a child, on walls and on sheet music. When I was twelve, I decided to write a novel about war but was devastated when I got to the end of page one and realized I knew nothing about war. A high school English teacher encouraged the class to enter a writing contest in the local newspaper, and I wrote a poem for the purpose. It won. I still have the cheque. Poetry is my first love, and it was my first book: Shattered Fanatics. The second and third books are both biographies: The Business of Marriage and Medals and Pierce: Six Prairie Lives. Now, I’m working on a third biography and a second poetry manuscript. My work is far more polished now than it was when I wrote that my sister “is a pig girl” on the bathroom door jamb, although that was as sincere as it gets.
But, even though I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of pages, and even though I’ve been writing most of my life, I still find it difficult to be disciplined about it. I’ve never been a write-every-day writer. Sometimes, when I have a writing assignment, I find myself paralyzed, unable to start. But, I have learned enough about my writing process to know when I’m stalling and when I have to wait. It’s important to be honest. Tomorrow, I’ll be at my desk, sorting a mass of research for the bio. Somewhere in all that material, there’s a shape all its own.