Accountability

Changing focus on the subject here a little today. I’ve started an art practice-based PhD program, officially as of last week, and this week I’ve been trying to be a little more deliberate in how I organize my work (meaning research work and wage work). I was so high coming off last week, then took the weekend off and woke up bright and early on Monday, ready to get to work. I both expected furiously productive hours spent producing things of great value, and also knew that it would not happen like that. Monday, yesterday, and the early part of this morning were spent largely on smashing my cranium in order to fit into the narrow entryway of a dense bit of reading that I feel is absolutely essential to me understanding everything. This was not really working.

This morning, when I realized it was not working, I got up and took a shower because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re stuck, and while showering I thought about something someone had mentioned in one of the session last week, about oblique strategies. (Stay with me.) You can read more about those here, but in short it’s a method for creative work that uses a card deck with random and sometimes mysterious phrases on them that are supposed to get you to think laterally. You shuffle the deck, pick a card, and have to do or think about what’s on the card. It sounds like a tech company workplace strategy, but it’s made specifically for people doing the things I do and so, whatever, I thought I’d give it a try because I found an online version.

I wrote a bunch of them on cards and cut the deck, which bestowed upon me the following words of wisdom: “the most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten.”

Deep. What does it all mean? For me the answer (I thought) came pretty quickly — storytelling. I got interested in the things I write about here because I was first interested in how people tell their life stories, what they emphasize, what they leave out, and why, and how they define their place in the world. That brought me to think about how we see career success, which got me thinking about skills that I had and did not have, and how those skills are deemed useful or not in the world I live in. I was thinking about this, but at the same time I was still thinking about storytelling, which led me to read Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller.” This was when I was doing my master’s, and that essay was hugely influential in how I constructed my way of doing research at the time (which I won’t go into now, but I’ll probably write about it another time).

Back to pondering the thing most easily forgotten. I got up and pulled out my research archive from when I did my master’s and started flipping through it. In a plastic sheath somewhere in the middle of the binder there was nothing but a single orange notecard on which I’d written a quote that is now something I recognize as one of those inspirational quotes people put in Pintrest images. It read:

“I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.” — William Stafford

I know why I wrote down that quote and why it wound up being included in my archive. I identified with it because I felt like that is something I had done (or started doing) in my master’s research. Maybe it’s a little corny, but I don’t really care. However, I realized that although I knew William Stafford was a poet, I had never actually read anything by him. So I did what we all do, read Wikipedia, and then looked for his poems online. I picked the first one that came up, which was “Accountability.” I liked it, and I heard obvious echos of my research interests in it, and so there you go. But then I started thinking about back when I was doing my master’s, what doing my research felt like then. I had been out of school for nearly a decade, those years spent working behind a computer doing not very interesting things, and then suddenly there I was becoming a student again, and an art student no less! Party time! I was working on the side of course, but only part time and with fairly little responsibility (my old boss would not be happy to read that) and therefore I could afford to devote most of my mental energy to my research. And how did it feel? It felt like … I’m only coming up with an image here so let me just describe a mental gif for you, of me leaping into somewhere with my fist raised and a da-da-daaaa! orchestral sound in the background and then immediately leaping from there to somewhere else (da-da-daaaa!). I was on a mission, a mission sent from God, as my Dad says, a line that he stole from the Blues Brothers movie. Only not from God, from the universe really, though I suppose some people’s conception of their higher power is the universe, or math. I had no fear. The degree wasn’t important to me per se, but the space to think was. Did that sound obnoxious? Apologies if it did, but it’s the truth. We had no grades, only qualitative evaulations, and it was a not-quite-independent study program that was encouraging and open to students doing their thing their way (so long as there were explanations to back it up).

And so I had fun. I read and did plenty of things that wound up having nothing to do with what I was doing, but that left me open to finding other things that opened up new ideas for me. What I definitely didn’t do was make the process a labor of pain.

Not to say that my research now is a labor of pain — just that I feel as though I’m struggling to push myself ahead like a donkey cart in the mud, and in that simile I’m not sure if I’m the donkey, the cart, or the person doing the pushing from behind.

Thinking about this, and then going back to “Accountability,” I thought about how I’d used “The Storyteller” as a lens through which to look at my research, to organize it. I’ve done the same with a Henry David Thoreau essay (“Walking”) in a little side research project on walking in my area. With both of those texts, I read them as though they contained a codified message telling me how to structure my research, how to create my methodology, what were possible missing elements that I needed to consider, etc. Or else I just took them literally and did what they said to do, or what they said not to do. That’s what I think I’m going to do with “Accountability,” examine it for suggestions at least for what to do with the rest of the time I’ve blocked out today to do my research.

Going back to my oblique strategies directive, I’ve realized that the most important thing that is most easily forgotten is to have fun when I’m doing my research. (By have fun I mean be excited about it and experiment, don’t feel like I need to slog all the time.) I think I do better work that way, and most of all I enjoy the time I spend working, which is the point.