Notes on Persistence and Ego (Patrick Rothfuss Edition)

August 29, 2009

The recession’s impact on higher education has been far and wide.  As state budgets crumble and personal savings are threatened, the funding for universities and colleges have been hit alongside a reorientation of student and faculty resources.  Like many of my fellow aspiring academics, job options have become fewer and further between while class-sizes and professional development funds have withered.  And so I find myself with a strong C.V. and only marginal employment.  I’ve gone from a comfortable non-tenure track position in an exciting department to working part-time in an equally exciting program.  While I couldn’t be happier with my teaching, I am frustrated by my professional station.  This frustration has been complicated as I’ve watched close friends and colleagues move on to greener pastures in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Texas.  It’s been challenging to tread water while cheering on those who swim away.  Or get in a boat and paddle away.  No, speed away.  In a rocket-shaped motor boat.  Made of gold.  Am I mixing metaphors?

Regretting Patrick Rothfuss

Watching my good friends’ recent successes pales in comparison to admiration and confusion that has marked rediscovering a friend with whom I had lost touch.  In the Spring I reconnected with Pat Rothfuss, a fellow I met in 2000 when we both entered the MA in Literature program in the English Department at Washington State University.  Pat came to the Palouse from central Wisconsin and was a site to behold.  A solid man of remarkable posture with a beard that was perpetually stuck between close-shaven and wizardly, Pat had spent years as an undergrad studying anything and everything that struck his fancy.  To be completely frank, I found him a bit puzzling and rather, well, geeky.  He was happy delving into the minutiae of the fantastical and the fey and in our first semester was enthused by a course on Alchemical and Hermetic traditions in Renaissance literature.  He saw no reason we couldn’t discuss Tolkien and other fantasist writers in our other seminars and I remember well a seminar in Early American Lit. and his excitement to talk about narratives of first contact through the fantastic.  And I, well I had come to grad school to study Hawthorne or John Barth, high on cultural theory and the power of the past.  Frankly, I was a little puffed up and failed to see that my own condescension to Pat’s interests masked my own arrogance.

There was also this: Pat brewed mead.  He didn’t drink, not that ever saw.  He wasn’t a teetotaler; I believe he just didn’t care much for alcohol.  But he certainly brewed mead and would happily fill empty wine bottles with his concoctions.  He gave me a bottle and I took it home to Virginia to share with my brother over the Christmas holidays.  It was rather good and I enjoyed drinking it.  I’d like to have a bottle now, in fact.  But I had never know a sober person who brewed their own alcohol, especially alcohol as archaic and Teutonic as mead.

There was also this: Pat wrote fantasty novels.  When we started grad school he proudly shared that he was working on a huge novel which he might break into a trilogy.  Of course, most of the folks in our graduate program had some creative aspirations.  I read awful poetry at open mic nights and toyed with an idea for a farcical historical novel.  But only Pat openly and confidently described himself as a novelist and only Pat comfortably embraced genre fiction.  Pat asked if I’d like to read his novel in progress and, in a decision that I have come to regret for its arrogance, meanness, and confidence, I told him no.  I did not think it would be worth my time because, after all, it was a fantasy novel.

This is not to say Pat and I were not friends.  In hindsight, he was one of the kindest people I knew in Pullman and I have many fond memories associated with him.  But we were not particularly close and we parted ways after graduation, when I returned to Virginia to teach and apply to Ph.D. programs and Pat went back to Wisconsin to teach and write. 

When we parted ways Pat he told me that a short excerpt from his novel had won a prize through the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest.  This minor detail popped into my head when we reconnected on Facebook this past Spring.  That prize had opened doors and Pat found an agent and a publisher.  And, upon checking out his Facebook page, I learned that the first volume in his trilogy, The Name of the Wind had made the New York Times best-seller list and had been praised by Ursula K. Le Guin, among others. 

I was, to be quite frank, flummoxed and confused.  “How the hell did Pat get on the Times best-seller list?” I asked myself.  “How did he get fancy blurbs and great reviews and legions of fans who come out to see him give readings?  And not just in the midwest, but across the nation and in Europe!?”  To be quite clear, I was and am very happy for Pat.  He is a kind, intellegent and funny man.  His success, though, was frustrating. 

I convinced myself that Pat had only done so well because he worked in genre fiction.  His book might be a great fantasy novel, but it surely isn’t that great. 

This summer I found myself in a book store and decided to buy a copy of The Name of the Wind.  As I was in the midst of another, longer book and couldn’t tackle it right away I passed it on to my wife.  She devoured it in four days and hectored me to read it as soon as possible.  I opened it on a Friday afternoon and by Sunday evening had finished.  And my lord, is it a good book.  It’s a finely told story with a rich sense of the traditions of heroic literature.  The narrative devices, the comedic and romantic devices, and the richly detailed and fully realized universe of the narrative reminded me books I have long loved, especially The Sot-Weed Factor and some of John Fowles novels, particularly The Magus and A Maggot.  I know little about fantasy or speculative fiction (outside of a childhood love of Star Wars) and so I cannot comment upon its place within those genres.  But it is easily one of the most enjoyable books I have read in years.

My respect for and pride in Pat’s accomplishments mask the discomfort and chagrin that have haunted me since I read his novel.  When we studied together I had discounted Pat’s ambitions.  While I had never openly mocked him I am sure that my disregard for his work was evident.  And, surely, his aspirations had been dismissed or mocked by countless friends, teachers, colleagues and acquanitances.  “How did Pat do it,” I asked myself.

Well, I can only assume he did it–that he continues doing it–through a combination of persistence and ego.  I recall now an autobiographical essay in which John Barth describes his years fresh out of grad school when he taught composition at Penn State and struggled to feed his growing family.  In those years he was surrounded by aspiring novelists, friends from Johns Hopkins and colleagues at Penn State, the majority of whom never made it as writers.  In accounting for his success and their failure Barth observes that he wasn’t better, smarter or more talented.  He simply wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote so more.  He kept at it and the persistence paid off.  [I ought to have a citation here, but I haven’t one.  If memoery serves, the essay is in either The Friday Book or Further Fridays.  Barth may make this observation in one of his later, autobigraphically-inclined novels.]

Pat wrote.  While most of our cohort, myself included, spent our weekends and some weeknights at the local tavern, Pat was at home writing.  And, I presume, he had the same steady work ethic before he came to the Palouse and when he returned to Wisconsin.  He was persistent.

And Pat had, and presumably still has, an ego.  I do not mean to say he is arrogant.  He is kind and convivial and forthcoming.  What I mean is that he had a clear sense of himself and his abilities.  When I dismissed his work I presume he shrugged it off.  He had faith in himself and his abilities and he persisted in his task.  My personal fondness for Pat and his novel have become shaded with a deep respect for his persistence and his ego.  I regret not getting to know him better and not reading early drafts of his novel when I had the chance.  I might have learned something about persistence and ego.  And, who knows, he might have named a wool merchant after me.

Complicating Persistence and Ego

I am lucky to have other models of persistence and ego, many within my own family.  My maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother both overcame childhood poverty through strong work-ethics and great faith in themselves.  My grandfather was one of six children born to an uneducated Irish-American bricklayer in Washington, D.C.  He went on to have a long career in the State Department and the U.S. Navy.  His brothers had equally succesful careers as members of the Jesuit order and and in the Foreign Service.  My grandmother was born in rural South Carolina and at a young age moved to North Carolina to work in a cotton mill.  She was a single-mother who raised six children, among them my father who left their mill house and became a respected administrator at D.C. are prep schools.  My grandfather and my grandmother had a firm sense of themselves, a strong ego, and were persistent in improving their lives.  My material comfort and my education are possible because of their persistence.

But, as they both raedily admit, my grandfather and grandmother did not simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  My grandfather had a supportive, caring family and a loving wife.  And, as he often pointed out to me, his education would have been impossible without the religious order that ran his parochial school or the encouragement and financial support of the Jesuits at Gonzaga High School and Georgetown University and its law school.  And, as a long-serving member of the Naval reserve, my grandfather had access to services and benefits given to veterans of the armed services.  Similarly, my grandmother has always pointed to the support offered by the owners of the mill at which she worked; the company provided affordable housing and offered support children of  millworkers who went on to college.  More importantly, my grandmother credits the spiritual and material supported offered to her by the Baptist church.  And although I never heard them acknowledge it, my grandparents benefitted from the historical and economic privileges of whiteness. 

Frank Brew was a persistent man with a strong, healthy ego.  At ninety years, Flossie Barbee is as strong-willed and proud as she was when she had to scrape together spare change to feed her children.  But those strong personal qualities were formed through social support.  They were products of their community.  And, from what I can gather from his novel and his website, Pat is earnest in his praise for all those who helped him in his path.

Persistence and Ego in the Composition Classroom

I have been thinking a lot about persistence and ego and their value within academia.  And while much of this consideration has focused on their impact on my own academic career, I would here like to offer a few thoughts on their place within the composition classroom. 

I am fortunate enough to work at a school where the students seem to be hard-working and curious.  In the first week of classes I was impressed with my students willingness to take on difficult tasks, to ask hard and toughtful questions, and their general good cheer throughout.  In this, I am fortunate.

While the primary mission of my class is to teach students the fundamental practices and processes of academic writing, I hope that I can infuse this work with a commitment to raising students’ senses of persistence and ego.  Why do these values matter?  In the immediate spaces of academic writing, it is important to teach students to persevere, to work through the challenges of writing and to employ constructively the criticism offered by me and their classmates.  The writing process is nothing more than persistence in the face of a composition.  Additionally, a healthy ego is important.  To become strong writers students must have faith in themselves and their skills.  And, they need to know their own weaknesses and learn how to work through them.

But outside the basic tasks of the writing, it strikes me that composition classrooms can be a space in which to form healthy work habits which will translate to persistence and ego in students personal and civic existences.  If my students learn to fail and then struggle onward with their essays, they can translate those skills to their lives and, hopefully, their communities.  And in developing a sense of their writerly egos they may develop a better sense of how the self operates within society and how crucial it can be for citizens to know themselves and have faith in themselves as citizens.

It is in this last point that the lessons of American and Ethnic Studies comes to bear on my composition classroom.  In addition to teaching students about the diversity of social and cultural experiences within and without the U.S., American and Ethnic Studies also teaches them to see how our existences are socially constructed.  American and Ethnic Studies (and, I ought to add, Women’s/Gender Studies) take seriously the elucidation of social location as central to individual experience.  While the composition classroom cannot focus on the histories and present states of justice and injustice, they can take the ethos of A/E/W/G studies and apply them to the way we teach writing.  By teaching students to see writing as part of larger processes and to teach students to work collectively, we may be able to help students have persistence and healthy egos, which can make them stronger citizens committed to building their communities.

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