Tag Archives: power

In defense of obstinacy

This post continues Week 3 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. Find other posts here and here. I am counting up towards the residency.

tree trunk bearing sign saying "there is a tree behind you and it will not move for you"

CC image “Mission San Miguel: Where the Trees are Obstinate” via J Maughn on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve been thinking about obstinacy. Obstinacy is a word with low approval ratings. Merriam-Webster defines it as the quality or state of being obstinate; stubbornness; the quality or state of being difficult to remedy, relieve, or subdue.

People in my family are obstinate. Sometimes they look like they are engaging in one-upmanship: I can be more obstinate than you! I know a lot about obstinacy on a personal level.

I’m working on acquiring obstinacy on an artistic level.

Obstinacy among artists isn’t always highly prized by their colleagues. Audiences are happy to consume the fruits of creative obstinacy, but that doesn’t make them want to hang out with obstinate artists.

What sets artists apart

According to a Norwegian study, the artistically inclined differentiate themselves from others by being less “sociable” and more emotionally “unstable,” among more virtuous descriptors, such as associative thinking, desiring originality, being inwardly motivated, and ambition (see a short article on this discussion here).

Emotionally unstable? I’d say this is where the legacy of famous “wild” or “tortured” artists has left its mark: Hemingway, Plath, Faulkner, Woolf, Van Gogh, and so on. Look up “tortured artist” and voila! — find lists and discussions of writers, poets, and painters who had known addictions and known or speculated mental illnesses.

Then we have the sociability issue (I’ll excuse you if you read this as anti-social). In fact, what the article defines as low sociability is a tendency to be “inconsiderate” and “obstinate.”

There’s that word again.

Why being obstinate is an advantage

Frankly, I think obstinacy is under-rated. When faced with a long and daunting task (like writing a book, or pursuing any kind of creative career, for example), it pays to be obstinate. When you need to finish a project, it pays to close the door behind you and keep other people out. The opposite of obstinate is “irresolute.” Yeah, that sounds like a bonus! Another word for irresolute is “indecisive.” Definitely my go-to person. Want to accomplish a goal? Talk to someone who’s obstinate.

Other antonyms for “obstinate,” according to thesaurus.com, include: obedient, pliant, soft, submissive, surrendering, and yielding.

Can you imagine a list of more passive adjectives? I have a hard time myself, and I’m an associative thinker (rimshot). None of these adjectives is an agent of their own destiny. They only want to sit around and be loved.

By contrast, synonyms for “obstinate” include: headstrong, steadfast, tenacious, dogged, indomitable, persistent, relentless, self-willed, strong-minded, and unflinching.

Yes, I am cherry-picking: if you look up “obstinate” you will find plenty of unsavory synonyms. My point is that we overlook the valuable aspects of obstinacy in favor of the more socially “acceptable” modes of being. Obstinate people aren’t perfect, but they DO stand a better chance of accomplishing their goals.

They are agents of their own narrative.

Obstinacy and getting past artistic adversity

Think of Stephen King and his spike. How many rejections did he accumulate before ever being published? Now he is a by-word for literary success. He didn’t get there by surrendering and being pliant.

I’ve wanted to do a writer’s residency for years, but I was always afraid to apply because I didn’t think I had the credentials. Here’s a secret, though (and I’m working on grasping its slippery tail every day): you get credentials by going out and getting credentials.

I’m going to finish this project by being obstinate. I might include some of those lovable adjectives in my book. When I’m done, they might even be me. For a while.

Join me — discover your own artistic obstinacy. Feel free to tell me about it. I’ll celebrate you.

My nonfiction is better than your fiction, and other absurdities

girl sitting in a bright room, surrounded by stacks of books

CC image “books” courtesy of Porsche Brosseau on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

How many of you, whether in school now or remembering what it was like to be in school, ever caught yourself scratching your head about some piece of information you were required to learn, memorize, practice, and regurgitate, which you questioned would ever have any use in your future life?

I know I have.

A little while ago, I stumbled across a strange statement that reminded me of that feeling. It was a minimum suggested benchmark for reading: by the 12th grade, so the new wisdom, teenagers should be reading at least 70% nonfiction work.


I’d never seen a number like this before, and yet the topic was thrown out there like a well-known and recognized quantity. Where the hell did they come up with this figure?! And whose recommendation was this, anyway?

I’ve been a bookworm all my life. For as long as I’ve been aware of my reading — people commented often — I’ve also been aware of how people were bemoaning the loss of reading among the young. I’ve been hearing about this, I feel like, forever. Kids are watching too much TV, they’re playing too many video games, et cetera. When I saw the seventy percent figure, my first reaction was of disbelief — wait, someone cares about the proportion of fiction to nonfiction reading? — and the second was: Well, isn’t it great if kids are reading at all??

I had to get to the bottom of this idea — it was so weird. Who cared? Who were these people and where did this recommended minimum come from?

The answer was: the Common Core.

If any of you reading this are teachers or know a teacher personally, you probably got to this answer well ahead of me. The new Common Core standards for education emphasize nonfiction reading from the early ages of grammar school, and recommend proportions of nonfiction to fiction reading for each grade level. They are, as one article I read put it, the reason why educators “are extolling the importance of factual, informational reading” far and wide.

But why would they care about nonfiction reading, as opposed to reading in general? Well, the short answer is: the system.

College, and then the workplace.

In my pursuit to understand the discussion about nonfiction reading goals for students, I read quite a few scholarly articles, by educators and cognitive scientists, specifying what scientific research says with regard to reading, and reading nonfiction in particular. Almost in chorus — 99.9% of what I’ve read and the search results that turn up online — the results focus on getting into college and then parlaying that into the workplace.

Yes friends, once again, this all boils down to a culture in which the value of a proposition rests on how well you can measure it.

Is the only reason to read nonfiction to achieve a certain score on certain tests, and be accepted by certain institutions (that may or may not have anything to do with the material you are reading)? Is the only value and rationale to further my career? Can there be no other reason to want to read nonfiction?

Books — nonfiction books — have no artistic or cultural value?

As a confirmed fiction nut from earliest days, I take issue with this. Nonfiction books are replete with amazing information: also stories! One of my favorite books this year was a nonfiction book: The Wild Trees, by Richard Preston. The discovery of the ecosystems that are redwood trees reads like a thriller, and is full of scientific information as well. If you’re not into trees, check out this article from a college-age student about her discovery of nonfiction texts for other examples of how cool nonfiction can be.

I found one divergent view — an English teacher who advocated for nonfiction reading, who spoke about the resistance of other English teachers to what they saw as an assault on literature and literature education. His point, as I see it, is that we can only develop and make use of skills and information that we are exposed to. I agree; here is a person after my own heart. He’s talking about people, not numbers.

Saying nonfiction is necessary because it prepares us for college is kind of an idiotic justification. We choose what to value at the college level, just as we choose what to value at work. The whole argument is self-referential, because we can change the parameters at any time (and often do). The paradigm advocates standardization and the institutional over the fulfilling and the individual. My eyes are already glazing over.

For me, the value of nonfiction, just as with the value in all reading, lies in critical and independent thinking, analysis, and adaptability, not to mention fun — none of which, I would argue, is embodied in a standardized (hello!) test. Harping on a 70% baseline guarantees none of those skills or the desire to pursue them.

We need a place to start, from which we can go out into the world under our own strength. We need a way to choose and embody individual value. Not a comprehensive way to become a cookie cutter person. And for that, we need to find reading that is interesting and engaging to us… whatever guise it comes in; whether and how much of it can be classified as “nonfiction” or not.


What’s your favorite type of reading?

Words = Power

over life size sculpture of a human face

© AOC. All rights reserved.

For the final two weeks of my voice and speech class, each of us was meant to work with a specific text that we’d chosen. Not more than a few lines. My teacher said this could be dialogue, a presentation, poetry, song lyrics… whatever. The main criterion was the text should be something we knew well… and that each of us was comfortable delivering in class.

I began thinking about the text a couple of weeks ago when my teacher reminded us to have it ready. Almost immediately, I also began to think about how I could avoid the lines that would not stop going through my head. Surely, I thought, I can’t be comfortable with those words…

I’ve been circling this thought for weeks. The words that I can’t shake are a song lyric, beautiful in its phrasing and heavy with emotional freight. They are awful and beautiful at the same time. Awful, because I want with every fiber of my being to be the one who wrote them. Beautiful, because even without music, they sing.

And he was always much more human than he wished to be

Really, the verses pursue me. I’ve tried isolating bits of the lyric from the rest: experimenting with just two lines to use in class. Thinking, if I separate these threads, these veins that bleed into one another, the smaller fragment will be easier to contain. Easier to carry.

My mistake.

So I skulked the stacks in the drama and poetry sections of the library, in search of something memorable — something I could easily remember — which was also easier to carry, and easier to hear.

What I checked out was the following:

  • The Essential Dickenson (Emily)
  • Three plays by David Mamet

So much for happiness and froth. I wonder what this says about me…

All of my selections proved to be difficult at meeting my primary search criterion: text that was lighter than the haunted verses that wouldn’t leave me alone.

Emily is memorable, but her poems have a strength of structure that conspires against me. I’ve always had difficulty reading poetry aloud. I have to fight against being held hostage by the end of the line. Emily’s poetry is cadences of pure tensile strength… How can a little weakling like me begin to play with her text?

Mamet, on the other hand, has easy, flowing dialogue. But it’s nearly impossible to find speech that doesn’t carry dangerous, spiky undercurrents, even in the comedies.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the musculature in Emily’s poetry, I found it relatively easy to remember her verse. I really liked the start of this poem, particularly because I am a writer:

She dealt her pretty words like Blades–
How glittering they shone–
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone–

The power of words! Who wouldn’t love to declaim those lines? Up until the very moment I stood up in class I was convinced those would be the words that passed my lips.

Didn’t happen that way. Instead, I went with a bit from the beginning of Eat, Pray, Love by Liz Gilbert. The book has a wonderful, gentle sense of humor, and I thought I could use that rather than the bare intensity in Emily’s lines. Back to eschewing the heavy stuff.

In the end, I chose the power verses for myself, but kept them secreted from the audience. I was afraid of the strength of those verses — could I contain them, could I embody them… could I handle their impact on the people who would hear me speak?


What about you — can you think of a time when you pulled back from your own power?