Dichotomous: An Answer in Two Parts
Jesse Kuiken, March 7, 2012
Dr. Jekyll had the problem of Mr. Hyde. I have the problem of The Writer.
I knew The Writer in me from an early age. As far back as I can remember, I have been daydreaming of imaginary people and telling their stories for them. As a child, I kept journals and at the age of ten, I consciously undertook the discipline of writing. I decided I would write every day, for the rest of my life. I have not kept that promise altogether, but I have both a BA and MA with emphasis in creative writing and a few publication credits. The determination to be a writer, remains. If I have written, my whole day generally goes better. My mind is not filled with words, like shrapnel, noisy and sharp, to the point where I have trouble concentrating on other things.
People generally praise the idea of "writer". They think he is some mystical, magical creature, who, divinely inspired, drips honeyed words from his lips and brings wisdom and insight to the human condition. The writer is a figure of redemption; we believe, as a culture, that writers can find answers to the complex problems of life. The Writer -- capitals -- The Writer, who is me, in part and often in whole, cannot do this. He despises answers. The idea of insight makes him shudder and the whole notion of "the human condition" to him is one of folly. In his cynical world view, humans are doomed. He tries to prove it by writing tragic love stories where, more often than not, people destroy themselves. The Writer is tall and lithe, dramatic, condescending, probably more than a little egocentric and wants to believe he knows everything. If he could, if he were allowed, he would shut us both up from the world and we would never be seen again. Writing and writing until the sun of our youth has set and the gray twilight of our years dawned. And then still writing and still locked away from the world. Most of all, the Writer likes control. He cuts ideas up and carves them into words, which he then arranges, meticulously, to his liking.
Just as Mr. Hyde had the problem of Dr. Jekyll, The Writer has the problem -- or, more correctly, the blessing -- of The Teacher.
The Teacher is not tall and not so dramatic, though he does have enthusiasm. Where The Writer throws a fit of epic proportions when something does not go according to plan, The Teacher improvises. If, for instance, he is given a class, after their original teacher has abandoned them, he takes it in stride. If, two weeks before the term, a local community college asks him if he wants to teach basic composition, The Teacher smiles and takes what is given him. The Writer would baulk and go on about lack of preparation time. The photocopier breaks; The Writer panics and The Teacher remains calm. The Teacher's mental class notes are written and re-written often, sometimes as he walks through the classroom door before class. Sometimes in the middle of class, when things are not going as well as they could. The Teacher is not only suited to chaos and ambiguity, but seems to have been born in them. He is suited to it more so than The Writer, who wants to believe he likes chaos and ambiguity, but needs the concreteness of words, their sharpness and definition, to give him meaning.
The Teacher believes, very firmly, he does not have all the answers and nor should he. He wants to be a student his whole life, in service to both learning and growth -- both his own an others. He considers this a high cause indeed and it humbles him, grounds him, terrifies him. Unlike the Writer, who is full of bravado, The Teacher is a little terrified every day he enters the classroom. Terrified because he holds the minds of his students in his hands and they look to him for guidance. To be patient, to be gentle, to explain vague, even difficult concepts in ways that are concrete and understandable.
The Writer would take all of these students and dissect them. He would pull them apart and possibly keep their metaphoric eyeteeth in a cup in the bathroom, just because. He is a collector, on some levels, but obviously not of stamps or state quarters.
The Teacher, by contrast, doesn't want to keep things; he wants to give things away. The Writer, who hordes time like a precious commodity (and it is), would not understand how The Teacher spends his lunch hours grading papers, or now he will stay up late into the night putting together lesson plans and ridiculous power-points. The Writer does not understand why The Teacher wants to give and give and give; does not understand that his ability to give is, in some ways, frightening and bottomless.
During my first semester of teaching at college, I have learned many things, both as a writer and a teacher. One evening, I was mulling on the problem of The Writer and The Teacher, the two halves of my whole, my Hyde and Jekyll. One of my students, a fan of UFC fighting, had been talking excitedly about it in class. Bemusedly, I wondered: if The Writer and The Teacher were to fight one another, UFC style, no holds barred, who would win?
Before this semester, the answer would have been: The Writer. He is vicious, cunning, and doesn't mind cheating. And for better or for worse, he has defined most of my life up to this point.
But that evening, the answer came quickly, immediately and without hesitation: The Teacher. I smiled to myself and have enjoyed the warm, pleasant knowledge of this ever since. But I've hoarded it, indulging The Writer part, rather than giving it away.
The Writer, never in the background, is still relentless and still drives me. But now he is balanced by The Teacher, whose influence gentles him, curbs him. The Teacher in me helps The Writer understand that the whole world cannot be control; concrete answers cannot be cut out of words just as they cannot be cut out of minds. Answers, like many things, must be teased out, contemplated, enjoyed for their complexities and then -- given away.