Note: I borrowed the title for this blog post from the song, “No Light, No Light,” from Florence + The Machine’s album, Ceremonials. I use this in hot anticipation of her coming album, High as Hope. Get excited: I definitely am! Starting to listen to her music was one of the few good decisions I made while in seventh grade.
Less than one week remains of my time in Amsterdam, and about a month remains until 2018 is halfway over. With this in mind,I’ve been considering the relationship I have to [my] New Year’s Resolutions*, and, on a larger scale, my relationship with the future goals I have set for myself.
This blog post was most specifically inspired by a delightful conversation I had a couple days ago with my friend Claire, my beloved disabled comrade, student, activist, and frequent Snapchat-correspondent. She briefly visited Amsterdam from her own study abroad location, Scotland. As our conversation led to a discussion of summer plans and internship excitement, I informed her of a goal of mine that’s become more serious in the last several weeks, especially as I’ve found more time and energy to devote to writing creatively. I hadn’t before told others about this, and have scarcely told myself yet!
I would like to have a book –– a chapbook, a short novel, a little something that is probably “experimental” in form –– at least in the publishing process by the time I graduate from Mount Holyoke. A lofty goal. Goals are meaningless if they’re easy to accomplish.
I am also holding space for the possibility that my current ideas around theming and content may change completely between now and the book’s hypothetical publication; that’s simply how writing works. I’m not going to speak more on this right now (I say as I touch the nazar necklace I got in Morocco, purchased from a vendor who also sold me a beautiful postcard featuring goats in a tree). Worries about tempting fate by publicly discussing this goal aside, many who know me know I want to release my voice into the world. Although that desire will (hopefully, fingers crossed) help me toward publishing a book someday, it also fuels a separate academic struggle I’ve long experienced, and have recently begun trying to overcome.
In the fall of 2017, I found myself putting my foot in my mouth even more than usual, especially during classes. I was speaking aloud the half-formed thoughts I should have internally processed first. I also found myself having immediate emotional reactions to topics of class discussion (fine), which I would then verbalize (only occasionally fine). These were poor substitutes for legitimate, constructive instances of class participation. These “contributions” benefitted no one but myself, and even I was tiring of hearing my own voice. Between these ill-timed outbursts and the standard, academic contributions I make during class, some of which are not entirely necessary to class discussion. I have lived under the false impression that speaking more often was inherently better than not speaking, and that speaking was the only valid contribution I could make within a classroom. What’s more, I felt no need to moderate what I said and how, when, and why I said it; I presumed that if I spoke as I pleased, others could and would do the same, uninhibited by other factors. This is patently false, and to believe that every person enters a classroom –– or any discussion, for that matter –– with identical abilities, amounts of social capital, and language with which to discuss a certain topic is nonsense.
My persistent internalization of the “equal, unmoderated classroom” in which I could speak uninhibited is the result of a wider cultural problem. It is influenced by the foolish “marketplace of ideas” rhetoric that some of the libertarian right-wing are so fond of spouting. Unfortunately, it is easy to internalize such notions in a social-academic climate that implicitly and explicitly glorifies free-market capitalism. I was assigning my spoken thoughts the same arbitrary value that the capitalist assigns to paper money: paper is paper, whether it “says” one or one-thousand dollars. The exchange value of paper money is wildly different from its use value: I can buy a lot with a thousand dollars, but the 1,000-dollar bill can’t really do anything by itself. Similarly, those who view academia as a mere marketplace might support the exchanging of any idea, regardless of how malformed and misinformed might be. It might be assigned a higher value because it was spoken (in my case) by a white, American, English-speaking person who is generally successful in academic settings. However, this has no bearing on how useful my (or anyone else’s) class contribution actually is.
Does this help people? I now try to ask myself before I speak up. Is my statement fueled by compassion, or do I merely want to be correct? Do I want to clarify some point for myself and others, or just hear myself speak? If the latter is true, why don’t I just write down my thought instead of uselessly sharing it? Are people listening to me because I’ve amassed a degree of social capital that forces them to, or because what I say is genuinely useful in this setting?
Are people listening to me because I’ve amassed a degree of social capital that forces them to, or because what I say is genuinely useful in this setting?
Writing more often has already helped me tremendously in learning when and how not to speak. However, I still find myself thinking actively about the aforementioned questions; silence is not second-nature to me. Last semester, in a Feminist Disability Studies class, our professor told us something that remains with me to this day: participation is not limited to speaking in class, and indeed, sometimes participation is precisely the act of letting someone else speak, especially someone who does not do so often. This idea has informed the way I have behaved in my courses while here in Amsterdam, too. I don’t have to speak.** I can listen, and if I have something to say, I can write it down. Sometimes, a point I wanted to make several minutes prior ends up being addressed; sometimes a question I hope to ask ends up answered before I have the chance to ask it. In many ways, knowing that I can –– and often should –– listen and not speak has been freeing, although it’s an immense challenge as well.
[S]ometimes participation is precisely the act of letting someone else speak, especially someone who does not do so often.
Twinning this “real life” challenge is a recently-discovered writing goal, one that’s made itself especially apparent to me in the last several weeks. Now that I’ve published some work on outside platforms, I have found myself feeling an internal pressure to make everything I write somehow publishable. It feels like that capitalistic impulse to commodify every aspect of myself has infiltrated my relationship to words: I am unsatisfied leaving a poem in my notebook, even though I know writing for its own sake is a valuable pursuit. Along with pursuing the aforementioned goal of publishing a chapbook (or something) within the next several years, I have also committed myself to writing something everyday, something which will likely remain unpublished and unpublishable. I’ll never return to the way I wrote a decade ago, “untainted” by paying markets and calls for submissions. It’d be ludicrous to pretend as though those things didn’t exist, especially given that I am still engaging with them as a writer. But there is no way for me to understand the importance of silent listening without being able to “talk” to a blank document as much as I want; there’s no way for me to remain disciplined in my commitment to a chapbook theme unless I can release errant creative energies elsewhere.
My goals require a degree of dual consciousness in order to pursue at the same time: writing and marketing something for publication, while also consciously returning to the reason that writing is something I love and not merely something that I do. I must simultaneously cultivate my ability to listen to others and hear my own silence, but also prove to some outside source that my voice is worthy of being released to the public. In placing these goals together, I hope to somewhat detach my personal growth from my growth as a “professional.” Although the concept of “work-life balance” is a false one, it is unrealistic for me to frame each verse or sentence I write as publishable work or each word I say as worthy of flinging into an creative-academic arena. The differences between “flingable” and “unflingable” thoughts are clear.
If I were to unify all of my goals into one, perhaps it would be: my goal is to weaponize my voice without wholly commodifying it. I need to work to survive, but I also need something to live for. To an extent, the notion of turning my voice into something that can be sold is part of my present and future. But my ideas also exist absent some market, and it is possible –– even liberatory! –– to sit and be contained, to allow someone else the so-called glory of being the one to broach an idea or write an important story. To return briefly to my extended metaphor about capitalism: any perceived scarcity in stories to be written, ideas to be shared and explored, and contributions to be made…these scarcities are artificial.
At the risk of sounding clichéd*** there is absolutely no limit to the ideas that can be imagined and shared. Thus, sharing them is not and should not be a competition. I am working to divorce my goal to “publish a something” (“publish a book” is still a scary phrase to say!) from the imperative to write something that is worth a dollar amount. I will publish a something that I am proud to share, because it’s something that hasn’t been said before in quite the way I’m saying it, because I want to contribute to the canon occupied by [redacted creators who will for now remain nameless so I don’t give too much away], and because I want to reveal a possibility to readers that I can’t fully explore in the realm of academia. It will be good to be compensated; to be validated by the “Industry”. But it is my hope that learning to listen at the same time as I learn to speak my ideas into a…um…book will allow me both personal and professional growth.
* is that a proper noun? Who knows.
** I still talk a lot. Sometimes I say useful things, and some things may have been better unsaid. It’s a work in progress.
*** I think I’ve used that phrase enough on this blog that the phrase itself has become clichéd. Whoa!