Pomp and circumspection
I experienced a strange sensation as the month of May approached. No, it wasn’t the throw-uppy feeling I had as I counted down the days until the New York City debut of my one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother, which I booked in January. Throughout the winter and into spring people asked, “Aren’t you nervous?” “Bah,” I said. “Piece of cake” — that is, until that piece of cake started hurtling, frosting flying, toward May 8, and the prospect of bright lights, big-city empty seats loomed. That was a sensation, to be sure, but there was nothing strange about it — except, perhaps, that I had entirely brought it upon myself.
Speaking of bringing things upon myself, it also wasn’t the fact I was facing a solid month of travel, starting with my first proper vacation in two years: a trip to visit my friend and collaborator, the Maine landscape painter Marguerite Robichaux, in her native Baton Rouge, where we planned to travel on to High Island, Texas, to watch migrating songbirds make their North American landfall from their winter habitats. (Bollard editor Chris Busby still cannot believe I favor binoculars over beer bottles, but he fails to understand that you don’t have to choose.) Upon my return, I would have one week at home and then spend four days waaaay Down East, teaching at the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance spring writing retreat at Grand Lake Stream. After two days back in Portland, I’m off to New York, maybe extending my stay to visit a friend in Cape May, New Jersey. For a brief, mad minute, I actually tried to book a show at the St. Lawrence Arts center, on Munjoy Hill, in between Baton Rouge and Grand Lake Stream. Fortunately, there was nothing available.
What I experienced at the end of April was actually more a lack of sensation. It was the absence of blocked-out days, mountains of paperwork, and the rollercoaster bobsled ride screeching through a tunnel of concentration into the wide-open, unending light — otherwise known as the end of the semester and the academic year.
Readers of this column might remember a mention or two I made about losing my public-speaking class at USM after 20 years due to budget cuts in December of 2013. (OK, constant kvetching and carping for months on end is probably closer to the truth.) The two following semesters, I was like an amputee with an itch. The class was gone, but I still found myself reaching for my coat when I heard the theme music for the NPR program The World at 3:30. I became agitated at 4:10 every Tuesday (when my class met), thinking I had forgotten an appointment. That first May, I had end-of-school-year envy, remembering how cathartic is was to dump a year’s worth of files into the recycling and delete an entire e-mail inbox, “spring 13.” At the end of August, I found myself wanting to clean my office and sharpen my pencils. I was still on the school clock.
More recently, the class has seemed like an episode from a distant life. That annoying old adage about doors swinging open (or hitting you in the arse on your way out) proved true. Removing that one class from my worklife opened up so many possibilities. Travel is no longer tied to breaks and holidays. I can take to the woods for two weeks at a time to work on my book. The loss forced me to think of new ways to use my teaching skills. I now conduct workshops with seniors, high school kids, and sometimes seniors and high school kids together. I’ve expanded my editing and public-speaking coaching businesses. And I don’t have to ride the rollercoaster that is the ongoing USM budget/curriculum drama.
Still, I miss the formal classroom and the challenge of spending four months with a diverse group of students who, for the most part, would rather be strapped in a dentist’s chair than sit in my classroom. I enjoyed drawing out the shy kids, tamping down the troublemakers and celebrating each little victory along the way. But mostly, because I am something of a drama queen, what I really miss is saying goodbye.
The last class of any semester was always a milestone, but I especially loved the end-of-year sendoff. It gave me a chance to address that handful of graduating seniors who had avoided taking public speaking their entire college careers (or who had tried and failed or quit), but needed it to graduate. They didn’t always like the process, or even me for that matter, but those who met me at least halfway always prevailed. I have to confess I got a little Dead Poets Society on them some years, hoping that maybe what they’d learned was going to impact more than the way they addressed an audience. I wanted them to think about how they interacted with the world and to be a force in it. If I had to climb atop a desk to make my point — well then, there you have it.
So I was delighted when, a couple years ago, my friend Becki Smith, the former producer of WCSH’s 207, on which I had been a frequent guest, asked me to contribute an essay for her book, Starting Out: Life Lessons For Graduates, which came out last spring. She collected letters and essays from politicians, musicians, artists, authors, entrepreneurs — people she had encountered during her colorful career. Some of the responses are conventional and predictable (“Build your network”); others are unexpectedly practical (“No cologne”). Mine befits its source. Here’s what I shared…
As someone who’s been working on a memoir entitled All The Right Mistakes for the past 10 years, I am usually the last person to give kids advice. In fact, I’m a little shocked to be asked. But, I’m going to go ahead and write this letter. Just remember I’m not necessarily advocating any of these things; your outcomes might differ. With that said, here goes:
- Work at a crappy job.
I probably don’t need to tell you this one. I imagine you’ve already been there. But as a writer, I’ve culled a great deal of material from all the bad jobs I’ve had over the years, from hat-check girl to night watchman. People who haven’t suffered sufficiently are boring to me. And while working a crappy job doesn’t exactly constitute suffering, it usually makes one nicer to waiters.
- But not for too long.
Character building is one thing. Soul crushing is another.
- Get some bad advice.
I recently taught a writing workshop to a group of high school students, and during the Q&A one girl asked what was the best advice I’d ever received. Without thinking, I said it was from the head of my high school English department when I was applying to college. He told me that I had neither the talent nor the discipline to be a writer, and that I should plan to major in something else, like occupational therapy. Grudges can fuel an entire career.
- Get your heart broken early, and get it over with.
Actually, the only thing that can fuel a career better than a grudge is a heartache. The first one is always a lulu, so do it early while there’s still plenty of spring in your rebound.
- When the time comes, marry someone with a real job and insurance.
I’m kidding here, but only a little. Yes, the bohemian life is romantic — that is, until you break a bone or need dental work.
As Samuel Becket said: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
When all seems lost, quit your crappy job, lose your rebound fling, load up your car and get out of Dodge. (See “last person to give kids advice” above.) Bad jobs, broken hearts, trials, failures, rejections, dejections and refusals all look better in a rearview mirror. Just don’t forget to fasten your seatbelt, eat lots of green vegetables and call home regularly.
- Dream big.
The one thing that has always carried me through my crappy jobs, bad boyfriends, rejection slips, wrong turns and empty checking accounts was the fact that it all felt like it was for a reason.
- Align yourself with good people.
One of the greatest pleasures my writing life has afforded me has been getting to know people I would probably not otherwise meet — that is, unless I was waiting on them.
[There had originally been 10 points, but one got edited out because it was an inside joke between Becki and me. So I will add one final thought here.]
- Do things that give you a throw-uppy feeling every once in a while. It’s good for you.
My Mother’s Clothes returns to St. Lawrence Arts on June 6, and travels to Stonington Opera House on June 10. Visit elizabethpeavey.com for details. FMI on Starting Out: Life Lessons For Graduates, go to islandportpress.com.