ave you wondered about what forces in your past encouraged you to pursue particular interests? Are you a photographer? Did any experiences in school encourage you to take up photography? Are you a scientist? Nurse? Mechanic? Piano teacher? Whale expert? Talk show host? Chemical engineer? Editor? Did any experiences in school encourage you to pursue your line of work? I am a poet and a fiction writer, and I wondered about what, if any, experiences in school encouraged me to take up creative writing as a past-time and as a profession. I have discovered several in my mindscape, several that stand like great trees on a somewhat barren landscape.
I'll begin with an experience from primary school. I clearly remember my grade three teacher asking us students to read a story that showed me how much fun and how interesting my looking at the world from a different perspective could be. In the story, the farmer-husband and the housekeeper-wife each complained about his or her lot in life and work load. Each decided the other had life easy, very easy, and so each traded places. The husband became the housekeeper, and the wife became the farmer. The result was hilarious because each was hopelessly incompetent. That farm and the home became a kind of bedlam filled with burnt food and mooing, unmilked cows. I looked at housekeeping through the eyes of the farmer, and I looked at farming through the eyes of the wife. I became hysterical.
From the day of my reading that story, I have never forgotten how much I enjoy looking at the world from different, unusual perspectives. I believe that story has encouraged me to dream up bizarre people in fantastic circumstances. I refer to some of my characters--Hooper Quirk, Booger Jimm, Professor Hamburger, Dr. Dewknob, and Miss Snapdragon--in the time travel adventure of my Quibils and Quirks.
Now I'll step into grade four: I vividly recall an experience that introduced me to the joy of creative thought. I wrote the experience up as "Chapter Seven: How Big is the Universe?" in The Master Teacher: A Collection. Here is an excerpt from that chapter:
The school year: 1962/63. I was in grade four, attending Sir Wilfred Grenfell Elementary School in East-side Vancouver, BC [Canada]. That formal-sounding name perfectly juxtaposed the formalistic schooling I had already experienced there for over three years. I relate perfectly to Neil Sutherland in his "The Triumph of 'Formalism': Elementary Schooling in Vancouver from the 1920s to the 1960s." On school days, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., I lived in a world of precision, of upper case versus lower case, of names of capitals and provinces, of reading comprehension questions, of phonics reviews, of math drills, of multiplication facts, and of fact-based quizzes, quizzes, quizzes. Sutherland says, "Teachers would lead the class in chanting a 'drill' for the spelling, or the times table, or the number facts, or the capitals of provinces" (1995, p. 107). And what made a good teacher? "If a teacher, so parents believed, 'drills incessantly on the formal parts of grammar and arithmetic or the facts of history and geography, he is...a good teacher'" (p. 101).
This opportunity for creative thought, this total acceptance of my ideas by my teacher: The experience made me feel drunk with joy.
So did my playing the guitar for my grade five class. We had been studying about the lives of master composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, and about the musical instruments of their day. I told my teacher I played the guitar, and she asked me to bring it to school the next day to perform for the class. The exhilaration that next day of entertaining those students was almost more than I could stand. "We'll have to call you Elvis," one boy teasingly said afterwards.
To do something creative, to present ideas that are appreciated, to entertain others: A pattern of what I liked was welling up inside of me.
In grade six our teacher took us to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver to hear the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra play fully-orchestrated pieces. I could feel the music vibrate right down to the bones of my skinny body. I said to myself, "The people who compose this kind of music are deep thinkers." To my pattern of what I liked I added to do something that requires lots of concentration.
Although I had no focussed direction of creative pursuit, I continued to discover what made me feel passionate. In grade seven our teacher read aloud A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The first page remains alive in my mind. The atmosphere of death Dickens created by referring to Scrooge's dead friend Marley intrigued me and filled me with wonder:
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
I remember saying to myself, "I don't know who this Dickens guy is, but he sure knows what he's doing." I wanted to know how one goes about using the printed word to make others feel emotion. The wonder of that grew inside me through junior high school. Teachers, and students who were good readers, read aloud The Red Pony and The Pearl by John Steinbeck, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway, and The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. We students silently read Animal Farm by George Orwell, Moonfleet by John Meade Faulkner, and Hiroshima by John Hersey. I recall how words in all those books seemed to hang like clouds in the air, clouds coloured by emotions like grief, despair, helplessness, terror, heartache, horror, fear, sadness, confusion, joy, excitement. I wanted to know how one writes words that make people feel, that make people feel so deeply that they cannot forget the stories.
The wonder of how to do that remained passionately alive in my blood, but not until grade twelve, in English 12, did I realize I wanted to write, to be a writer, to be someone who writes creatively, to be someone whose works are appreciated, to be someone who entertains others, to be someone who thinks hard, and to be someone who thinks and sees through other perspectives, other points of view. Our teacher asked us to do something novel, like my grade four teacher who asked us how big the universe might be. He asked us to write a poem about absolutely anything that we wished to write about. A poem of our choice! I wrote all right. And he read it.
He looked at me after he had finished reading the poem and smiled. He smiled! "I don't know what it means," he said, "but it's interesting."
As I looked up at him leaning over my desk, I was spellbound by his interest. I had actually written something that although my teacher found it confusing, he nevertheless found it interesting! I wanted to be a writer from that day forward.
That desire grew even stronger when I, as a student creative writer, received, from a successful writer, regular, personal attention in Fiction 497 at the University of British Columbia:
I'd handed in my first short story for the tutorial course, in which Professor Harlow met privately with me for about an hour each week to discuss my latest efforts.
That personal attention burned a tattoo in my psyche: I want to be a writer.
These experiences define highlights in my education. Through my use of "free imaginative variation" (van Manen, 1990, p. 107), which has helped me root out incidental themes which I won't bother to relate, I express those highlights in terms of one essential, broad theme: Events in school that promoted my looking at the world through "different" eyes; that promoted the wonder of creativity; that promoted the joy of my thoughts being appreciated; that promoted the excitement of entertaining, or emotionally moving, others; that promoted the excitement of focussed thinking; and that promoted the joy of understanding how to write have encouraged me to become an adult creative writer.
What about you?--the photographer, scientist, nurse, mechanic, piano teacher, whale expert, talk show host, chemical engineer, editor, etc. Are you scanning your own mindscape for experiences that encouraged you to to enter your field of work? This journey of mine back through school has felt good. I've juxtaposed past experiences with what I do now, and the emotional result seems to be that I feel more whole, although I can't really explain why. I hope your journey through your mindscape, if you choose to take it, makes you feel good and more whole too.
Dickens, C. (2000). A Christmas carol. Retrieved January 25, 2002, from the Stormfax Web site: http://www.stormfax.com/dickens1.htm (Original work published 1843)
Faulkner, J. M. (1951). Moonfleet. London, England: Little Brown. (Original work published 1896).
Hemmingway, E. (1999). The old man and the sea. New York, New York, USA: Scribner. (Original work published 1952)
Hersey, J. (1989). Hiroshima. New York, New York, USA: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1946)
Lukiv, D. (1997, 1998, 1999). Quibils and Quirks. The Cariboo Observer, serialized over 108 issues from March 1, 1997 to August 31, 1999.
Lukiv, D. (2001a). The master teacher: A collection. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: y press & BCTF Lesson Aids.
Lukiv, D. (2001b, August). Those gyze in the English department. The English Teachers'Online Network of South Africa
Orwell, G. (1996). Animal farm. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, USA: Prentice Hall. (Original work published 1945)
Steinbeck, J. (1993). The red pony. New York, New York, USA: Penguin. (Original work published 1945)
Steinbeck, J. (2000). The pearl. New York, New York, USA: Penguin. (Original work published 1947)
Sutherland, N. (1995). The triumph of "formalism": Elementary schooling in Vancouver from the 1920s to the 1960s. In J. Barman, N. Sutherland, & J. D. Wilson (Eds.), Children, teachers, & schools: In the history of British Columbia (pp. 101- 124 ). Calgary, Alberta, Canada: Detselig Enterprises.
van Manen, M. (1990). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. Albany, New York, USA: State University of New York Press.
Wyndham, J. (2001). The chrysalids. New York, New York, USA: Carroll and Graf (Original work published in 1955)
Dan Lukiv is a writer, educator, and frequent contributor to canadian content.
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