Follow Your Bliss, I Tell Them

I am rebooting my long dormant blog this year and focusing on the positive.

Too long have many blogs, including my own at times, focused either on how GREAT MY LIFE IS or how much MY LIFE SUCKS. Truth is: neither is really true. Life is both–the good with the bad, the bad with the okay, the good with the great, the awful with the amazing, the bad with the bad. You get the idea. But since I have begun my tenure teaching upper level writing courses at the University of Maryland College Park, while hard at work on my own creative projects, it has become clear to me there just isn’t enough positivity out there. Be it online, on campus, in the writing field. It’s mostly pessimism and doubt.

I sit at my desk as I write this somewhere at the north end of campus as bleary-eyed, influenza-infected, anxiety-ridden college students shuffle in-and-out of my office for their midterm conferences. Each brings with them a hearty amount of emotional baggage as to how lost or stressed-out they are. (Good thing next week Spring break, I say.) A few have cried. Many laugh their way through our meeting. Some question their grades. One student stood through the bulk of his conference, unable to bring themselves to a seated position, twitching from anxiety. Another didn’t even make it in the office, but instead acknowledged that we had a scheduled meeting, but that he was “all good” and didn’t need any help. There was something refreshing about his confidence.

But confidence is hard to find in my classes.

The students tell me what they hate. They hate writing, which is tough because it’s a writing class. They hate the assignments, abhor the reading, fear my grading, loathe peer review and workshop. I remember thinking these same things at a certain point in my life too, so I get it. But they don’t realize that I am offering them a padded and soft-touch version of what they can expect to find in a year or two when they graduate.

And still, and yet they struggle.

They can’t see past their own self.

Our conferences are where I often find out about these feelings. Never in class though, no matter how many times I ask for their thoughts and feelings on a topic or even just at litmus test for the moment, especially if I feel the energy shift in the room from warm to freezing cold. (I believe I have even heard the air get sucked out of the room a few times. It sounds like you would expect–silent and awful.) They would never open up and discuss their feelings in a group setting. Never to be a lone wolf, for fear of speaking out of turn, for fear of my academic wrath, for fear of being alone.

It is during these conferences, however, that the truth of their life emerges and comes into focus, when it moves into the light, even if for a brief time, like the sun cutting through a grey sky. I don’t accept what they are saying to be truth. College students are too wrapped up in a million things to be able to understand the root cause of their own anxiety.

The problem isn’t me, at least I don’t think. The problem isn’t the class. The problem isn’t the assignments. The problem is confidence, self-confidence, embracing their identity, owning their origins. In every emeotionally-charged conference, I can usually drill down through all of their protective barriers to the root problem: themselves. They flee from writing about important topics that are relatable to them. Instead, they choose the wrong topic, the wrong content, focus their attention away from that which brings them a sense of joy. Even if that joy is wrapped in fear. I push them to crack the shell they have locked their true selves inside and encourage them to free that part of themselves. Often, it is some aspect of self that they, for whatever reason, are embarrassed to share. They lack to confidence to own the very things that make them unique and interesting young people.

Follow your bliss, I tell them.

Many subscribe to the thought of needing to write towards the grade or write with an eye toward what a professor is seeking, rather than wrapping themselves up in a topic that excites them, invigorates them, thrills them, connects to them, is understandable, relatable, meaningful to them.

This is when I begin to pepper them with questions about themselves. What they like and dislike. If they are in a fraternity or sorority. If they belong to any other organizations on campus. If they belong to a church group. If they volunteer in the area. What they like to do for fun, if they didn’t have to worry about school work. Tell me who their biggest critic is and what this critic has to say about them as people or about their work. Who is their best friend. Why? What do they do together? Favorite movie. Favorite book. Favorite TV show. Favorite music. Favorite hobby. If they collect comic books or love to get lost in a video game. If they ride bicycles or horses or motorcycles. The goal: to find the thing that makes them smile. In case you haven’t seen a college student lately, they almost NEVER smile.

Inevitably, the most interesting facts surface from these questions and, for a moment, I see a fully-formed person in front of me. I see past their fears and anxieties. I see past their sleepiness and their disheveled demeanor. I see past the slow shuffle of awkward feet and wrinkled clothes. I see past the blood-shot eyes and the heavy veil of self-deprecation. And I truly see them as a complete person for a moment, if only just a moment. Together, we land on a topic that excites them and they have a history with and suddenly everything is easy again. Life is uncomplicated. My class is awesome. The writing is hard, but manageable. The reading is heavy, but easy to maneuver. And while this lasts fleetingly, it surfaces long enough for us both to acknowledge that another way exists for them to function in the world.

This then brings me to Fernand Leger, the famous French artists, known most for his influence on the pop art and cubism world.

Considered by many to be a leading founder of the modern pop art culture, Leger did as such: he followed his bliss. Before he went to war, his art was bright and brilliant with perfect early cubism features. When he returned from war, he technique and approach changed due to the atrocities he encountered and witnessed during his time in the French military. His output focused on the mechanics of labor and the darkness of life–his images less clean and portrayed with an icy edge. And he obsessed over people, places and things. Notably, he became obsessed with the poet Arthur Rimbaud and painted a series of portraits of him, each one slightly different, containing different colors, different lines and contours, different features and different perspectives. Each day he perceived his subject in a different light and painted what he saw. Ultimately, he painted what he carried in his soul on the canvas–good, bad, indifferent. Despite what the art world wanted form him, his intent was to follow his bliss and paint Rimbaud. (See a collection of them above.)

Fernand Leger isn’t the greatest role model of how to use your talents as weapons against your fears, but his work is a great example. Also, he is my favorite painter and one I have been obsessed with since college. My mother, an art expert in my eyes, introduced me to his work and I have been worshiping his work ever since. So in thinking about my students and focusing on the positive, I think about Leger and Rimbaud and the joy I experience looking at his work. On the worst of days, I can lose myself in his landscapes or portraits and experience a joy that is always present. All I have to do is remember to tap into it.

So I say: write towards the lightness. Follow your bliss. Embrace yourself. So long as no one is getting hurt in the process, chase the hell out of it.

There is too much darkness in the world for any of us to ignore the light at your heels every day.

About J. R. Angelella

J. R. Angelella is the author of the popular debut novel ZOMBIE: A NOVEL (Soho Press) and a contributing author to the murder-mystery anthology WHO DONE IT? (Soho Teen), benefiting the nonprofit organization 826NYC. His short fiction has appeared in numerous journals, including Sou’wester, JMWW, The Collagist, Literary Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal and The Nervous Breakdown. His short story “Sauce” won the 2012 Short Story Contest held by The Coachella Review. He received a BA in English Literature from Ithaca College and an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College. He taught creative writing at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City and currently teaches professional writing at the University of Maryland at College Park. He lives in Baltimore with his wife, the writer Kate Angelella.
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