Masterworks

October 29, 2013

Tags: Armory Show

Is there any artist, writer or performer who does not want to create a masterwork? Who does not hope that sometime in our lifetime, such a masterwork will emerge, Medusa-like, from the painstaking disciplined years of artistic toil? Will any of our efforts remain in print, become part of a canon, be remembered even slightly as a good read, a fine landscape, a well-crafted performance? Chances are slim for most of us. Yet, in the struggle, the artist finds joy and purpose most of the time.

Such were my thoughts at the reconstruction of the 1913 Armory Show at the NY Historical Society. There were a few highlights—Matisse, Redon, Duchamp, John Sloan and Robert Henri, a Whistler—artists whose reputations have survived the decades. But for the rest: flawed and unimpressive work.

This realization-- that the Armory Show today would be no big deal-- made me self-conscious about my own work. How good is it? How will it be judged fifty, one-hundred years from now, assuming that it would be judged or enjoyed at all?

I don’t often suffer from such self-doubts; no matter what is going on in my personal and professional life, I keep writing. Day after day, I journal, devise new projects, revise old ones, teach and encourage.

I have a big birthday approaching, perhaps that is why I am having a meltdown today. How much time do I have left to improve? To get it right? How much time do any of us have?

“Stories,” Richard Ford has said, “should point toward what’s important in life.” For a serious artist, no matter how famous or infamous, “time spent on earth is not wasted.”

The Promise of Education: Luis

October 21, 2013

Tags: illegal immigrants, migrant workers, ESL

Luis works in a laundry in my neighborhood, a laundry where the machines work well and there are comfortable chairs to sit on. Short, with long hair, caramel skin and a ready smile, Luis saw me reading my students’ papers one day and, in his elementary English, tried to start a conversation. Was I a teacher?

“Yes,” I said, “I teach writing at a university.”
“I would like a book,” he said.
“What kind of book?”
“To help my English,” he said.

Luis is forty-four and once had been a good student with ambitions to become a teacher himself, but there was no money in his large Mexican family to continue his schooling. He married, had two children, and migrated to America to earn money for his family. I didn’t dare ask when he last saw them. If he is illegal, he can’t leave the US and get back in. So many complications.

“This is my life,” he said, sadly.

Then I returned to his request for a book. Had he ever taken ESL classes? Yes. Would he consider trying to improve his English as a first step to more education? Yes. And I told him about other immigrants and refugees I knew who had to restart their lives late in their lives. It’s difficult, but not impossible. “Go back to the ESL class,” I said. “Study hard. Make effort.”

Luis smiled. Then Elena, his co-worker, came over and smiled. And we cooked up a plan. I would talk to them and correct their English every time I came to do my laundry and, in the interim, Luis would be a teacher of English, correcting Elena, using his dictionary, and talking to customers whenever possible—in English. No Spanish language soap operas on the TV as they folded laundry. Only English language soap operas. Okay? They agreed.

I found this encounter very touching. The impulse to learn, to improve, to study, is universal, even among migrant workers. To deliver some hope—that made my day.


Virtual Discrimination

October 8, 2013

A student—I shall call her L here—arrived about forty-five minutes late to my first Wednesday NYU class. She hadn’t received my emails with attached documents and went to the wrong building, a good mile away from where we were meeting. I had left text and voice messages for everyone on my roster telling them to check their emails, but there were blank spaces next to L’s name, and all my efforts to track her down before class had failed. Now here she was, our mystery guest I was already calling her, exhausted, frustrated, and embarrassed. When we talked during the break she told me that she had only recently bought a computer and a cell phone. “I know I am far behind,” she said. “But I want to write so badly.” She had bought an Apple laptop and an iPhone and was taking every class offered at the Apple store, but she was still learning how to negotiate email and the internet. Oh dear, I thought, I don’t hand out anything, I’ve gone completely virtual. And then the thought: If a student is not electronically connected, are we discriminating?

I believe the answer is yes. After all, if a student enrolls, it is our job to make sure that the class works for them even if that means printing out materials to hand them in class. Which is what I offered to do. I called my student at home over the weekend to reassure her again but, unfortunately, and to my great dismay, she had already withdrawn. Then another student wrote to ask if I could start a class Facebook page so that work could be posted and shared with ease. Most assuredly, the answer to that question is no, for all the discriminatory reasons stated above.

As a mentor, I have to protect and serve every member of my workshop, to make them and their writing efforts welcome and valued, whether they have gone virtual, or not. In the past, I have had students submit manuscripts etched in longhand on lined paper and then photocopied for everyone to read. It didn’t matter. Only the writing matters.

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