Thursday, May 10, 2012

In Apology for my Passion

When I tell people that I have a degree in English--that I love to read--that my artistic output (such as it is) is verbal--I am ridiculed. The following is my apology for my love of the English language:

Few and far between are those who both love and own language. Some cherish a healthy regard for the power of words; some have an innate knack for text-based communication or art. But those who are one with language, emotionally and technically--they are truly rare.

I know both. I know a man who has a deep, heartfelt love for rhythmic poetry, for the pulse and beat and drive of performed verse, agile in technique and meaning. He sits in awe of it: but he can not create it. He is forever an audience member, never a performer on the literary stage.

I know, too, a woman with the opposite credentials. She is one of the most creative souls I have ever met, a quadruple-threat: but she hides her light under a bushel. She creates for herself alone, and she has no desire to join the creative, critical conversation. She could perform on that hypothetical literary stage, but she does not want to.

This is where you, dear reader, expect me to say "I am the total package." I don't know that I am. I do know that I'm passionate about books and stories and chapters and pages and paragraphs and sentences and words, and yes, even letters--

(Time out. Check it: there used to be a letter for the TH-sound, both soft and hard [as in them or thick]. That letter was called the thorn. It looks like this:

It survived the shift from Old English to Middle English, and it's actually the source of that annoying thing where people think that adding ye to a business name makes the business sound authentic, or something. Okay, digression over.)

My point is that I love this bastard language of ours. As far as I can tell, I'm pretty good at using it, too. That's a judgement call, of course, but circumstances seem to indicate that I know a little bit about what I'm doing. And I'm moving ahead, too. I'm actively pursuing opportunities to achieve a closer communion with the English language.

I believe the popular perception of "the English major" is a strange blend of lazy and stupid. I've read the (suspect) scientific studies that "show" that English degrees are easy to earn, academically speaking. I've met the stereotypes who don't know what to major in, so they choose English because they think it gives them some sort of justification for being intellectual slobs. I've heard the gossip, seen the memes.
Okay, that is pretty funny.

The truth is--that's not me.

I am neither stupid nor lazy.

I did not choose English as a major of last resort. I didn't decide to switch to English because I disapproved of the way the School of Business did things and my math grades were too low for engineering and my application to the School of Waste Management was rejected. I chose English as my major because I love it. Because I believe English is my future. Because I believe English is my calling.

Changing one's major is a fact of life. Different schools have different statistics, but from those scattered data points a simple trend is clear: changing one's major is hardly a major event any more. I, on the other hand, went into the Office of the Registrar only twice on field-related business: once to add a German minor, and once to add a Writing minor. I chose English as my field before I enrolled in college, and I stuck with it. Four years, and I was done.

And now, I work at a coffee shop. People ask me for venti cappuccinos all the time. They also ask me how much the bagels are, and is cream cheese extra, and could you clean up my son's vomit from the floor? And I smile, and I nod, and I go home and I add another ten pages to the novel I'm writing. Or I go to a library sale and buy a grocery bag full of used books for $7, and then I eat pizza and read T. H. White's The Once and Future King. Or I text my light-under-a-bushel friend and ask her to read my latest short story, because she liked the last one and honestly, she's a better writer than I am, so I value her input. Or I open the mailbox and find a letter of acceptance to graduate school.

I am not the stereotypical English major--let's call him Hugh. I'm not Hugh. I do some of the things Hugh does--I read books a lot, and I wear glasses, and my fashion sense is pretty atrocious, and yes, I do know my way around a poetry slam. I do share some superficial qualities with Hugh. But I differ from Hugh in one important aspect: my English degree is a means to an end, rather than a halfheartedly-accepted end in itself. My bachelor's degree in English is step one in a four-step process. Step two is a master's degree in English. Step three is a doctorate in English. Step four...

Step four is guardianship.

See, language is more valuable than most people think. Like it or not, our culture is still largely dependent on text for memory. An argument might be made that the importance of visual representation is increasing, but for now, memory is communicated through words. Not music, not dance, not sophisticated patterns of bioluminescence. Words. "Talk is cheap," proclaims the proverb, and that's the truth. Words are accessible, flexible, glorious in their potential for impact. And words are fragile.

I'm not going to lament the preponderance of neologisms, agglutinations, conversions, or the like. Language evolves, and I'm coming to grips with that. My complaint is that our language is taken for granted, to the point that a degree awarded for four years of studying our language has become a punchline. When something is taken for granted, less attention is paid to it--less effort is expended on its upkeep--less interest is taken in its history.

Language needs guardians, champions, people who can say "ya know what? I think it's pretty darn awesome that the word 'set' has 464 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary!" Language needs people who can reinforce that "villain" is spelled "villain", not "villian", as often as is necessary. Language needs people who are willing to take risks, make unsolicited submissions to literary journals, cope with 686 rejection letters, and then finally crack the champagne when some poor overworked editor sends an acceptance.

Language needs its disciples.

I know for a fact that my passion for the English language is ambitious. And maybe--maybe I'm wrong. I could be wrong! I might end up just like our stereotypical friend Hugh, working a job in advertising ten years from now, hating about 55% of it but not minding the other 45%, happily married with 2.5 kids and the half-edited manuscript of ONE NOVEL upstairs in the attic, collecting dust with the other castoffs of my foolish youth.

Or I might attain that goal of mine.

I might squeak through my first year of master's work, do better the second year, earn my MA in English, get into a nationally-known school for my doctoral work, almost have a nervous breakdown, eat a lot of ramen noodles, procrastinate forever on my thesis, eventually get my act together, and earn a Ph.D.

I might be a guardian.

Typing that sentence sends shivers up and down my spine...

I've always hated being pigeonholed. I hate being judged by what group I belong to, rather than who I am and what I accomplish. I am not Hugh, the cardigan-wearing Beats-loving-but-only-because-the-Beats-are-in incomprehensible-and-unnecessarily-offensive-poetry-writing stereotype. I am Ian DeJong, author, audience, teacher, student, passionately in love with all of these words, every one!

And I, Ian DeJong, I will one day be a guardian.

Here ends my apology for my love of the English language.

Long live belly-fires!

1 comment:

livingcrossword said...

Beware, Sir Ian, of those that love it not as you do. If you go on to teach and guard with your doctorate, be careful that your love does not extinguish the small flame another might carry for the language. It's been done before by people with "belly-fires". Be a guardian, but be a careful guardian - one that corrects but encourages as well. You write very strongly, and if you speak as strongly as you write you will cater only to those that love the language as you do. The rest will roll their eyes and exchange looks when your back is turned.

Guard on. And don't apologize for what you are not sorry for! Love what you love, do what you do, and have a humble journey down the path you choose.

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