Betrayal Week, Day 2: I was fired for doing my job as a teacher

Advice for creative types everywhere: Grow a thick skin. You're going to need it.



Cary Tennis
February 6, 2007 4:54PM (UTC)

Dear Reader,

Welcome to Day 2 of Betrayal Week. I lay thrashing about in bed this morning before dawn, convinced that Betrayal Week had already gone on too long. I was ready to call it off.

But then I realized that if I did so I would be betraying Betrayal Week and everything it stands for!

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So I will suffer through Betrayal Week as long as I can and I hope you will suffer along with me. I offer only one observation: I know this column works best when it is one voice talking to one person, addressing one set of unique circumstances without regard for any overarching theme. It works best when you write to me with the mysterious and very particular facts of your own life, and I write back, and that's it. The genius of it is in the form: one person, one problem, one letter. We are deviating from the form. I am eager to get back to the form, but I can't betray Betrayal Week!

Humble greetings to my distant unknown friend, standing by the road with his boxes in the hot August sun.

Dear Cary,

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Thoughts on creativity and punishment --

Thomas Kuhn bequeathed to us the concept of paradigm shift in 1962. Kuhn's ideas quickly became boilerplate, but there's an element of his thought that bears on this issue of creativity.

Paradigms are like a set of spectacles that allow information to be sensed (and thus sensible) and thus interpretable. Here's the key point: People standing in the midst of a given paradigm are unable to perceive information that paradigm doesn't explain. The majority of people obey the demands of the paradigm and don't have any problems with that.

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Creative people, in whatever field or context they work, have the gift of being able to glimpse, discern and interpret information outside of the paradigm. This gift will always cause pain because that sense of "vision" allows them to see what others cannot. The gift will always cause pain because it tends to create isolation. Creative people live in worlds that are not sensible to most of those around them. The stable, dominant paradigm obeys the laws of self-preservation and will always seek to repress unknown and destabilizing information (e.g., Galileo).

The practical effect is that creative people are frequent recipients of stout beat-downs from bosses, bureaucracies and buffoons. ("When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." -- Swift)

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I am an award-winning teacher with a file full of student thank-you notes that attest to how profoundly my work has affected their lives. Our new program director, with the full cooperation of our grandmotherly humanities department head, fired me from my assistantship on my first day of classes. I had waited 15 years -- largely because of previous traumas inflicted by school -- to pursue my master's. I had to clean out my desk and stand on the side of the road with my boxes of books and wait for my wife to pick me up in the August heat. The subsequent legal wrangling revealed a Rovian capacity for deception and punishment on the part of right-thinking liberal-arts administrators whose shelves are filled with books by Foucault, Kohlberg and Belenky. Eventually, some other people with the same books on their shelves, but who understood and valued the depth of what I was doing, hired me back and it all worked out.

Creative people, take heart. Restrain your self-pity. You don't have a choice. How else would you live? If you could conform, you already would have. Keep your eyes glistening and your intelligence white-hot (as Rumi advises). Nurture yourself with relations with like minded people, beware the impulse for self-medication, cultivate elders who have cut trail in front of you, mentor those coming behind you, and grow what the Mohawks call "seven thicknesses of skin" because you are going to need it. This is the way it has always been.

Betrayed and Wiser for it

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Dear Betrayed and Wiser for it,

I have little to add, other than gratitude for your letter, and what I do have to add is not exactly germane, but somewhat tangential, as I am pursuing my own thoughts about betrayal.

I would only mention what I realized this morning as I was thinking over various betrayals I have experienced and observed:

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We are vulnerable to betrayal whenever we mistake the nature of a relationship.

For artists, every other artist is a competitor. We are vying for the same prize. This is a material condition whether it feels like it or not. So friendships between artists are fraught with complexity and the potential for deep betrayal.

When we form friendships with other artists, these friendships incubate wishes and expectations that may be deep-rooted and mysterious, invisible to us, entwined with the same mysterious existential wishes that are behind our creative activity itself.

The minute we befriend another artist, we are already in danger. We are out of control already.

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Better to be friends with dentists.

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