By Amy Hollingsworth, special arrangement with US Daily Review.
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION
It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom.
Everyone called her Smelly Nelly, which was mean, if not apt.
When she used idioms like “in two shakes of a lamb’s tail” and was met with uproarious laughter, she never suspected our insincerity. Instead she would laugh too, and her head would bob up and down causing dentures to clack, and her eyes would survey the room, surprised at her wit’s uniform appeal. Before the laughter could die down, someone would start a new wave (as a time waster), and Nelly, who often sat on the edge of her desk, would rear back for a more generous laugh, and her legs, already parted to accommodate a more generous midsection, would open wider so that her garters were easily visible, prompting the next wave of laughter.
Perhaps this stunt was revenge for having denied the holy grail to decades of high school freshmen who enrolled in her honors English classes. However Dickensian in character, Nell Davenport was a good teacher, and a tough one; in her longstanding career she had never given an A to a freshman in her honors English class. The least she could do was let her students have a little fun at her expense.
The first essay I turned in to her came back bloodied. Her red pen sliced down the right side of my loose-leaf paper to show where my margins should have been. Instead I had filled in each line to the very end with my too big handwriting, my too eager thoughts. My words, precariously close to the edge, were in danger of falling off the page, and Mrs. Davenport was there to rescue them, in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
None of the previous teachers at my small Catholic school had cared about my margins. What they saw in me was a budding writer, a prolific poet. I was like Einstein’s delicate little plant, given freedom to create. None of my poems had to rhyme. Of course I had been well schooled in spelling and grammar; parochial schools are sticklers for those kinds of things, and one teacher, a nun, heaved chalk at us for semantical transgressions. But what was more important to my teachers than what novelist John Steinbeck called a preoccupation with “every nasty little comma in its place and preening of itself” was that my words created something substantial. “There are millions of people who are good stenographers,” John Steinbeck wrote in a letter to a fellow writer who had challenged his grammatical skills, “but there aren’t so many thousands who can make as nice sounds as I can.” Like Steinbeck, my nice sounds made up for my stray margins.
But I was in a public high school now, no longer the poet in residence at my small private school. Mrs. Davenport didn’t know about my past, only that my previous teachers had recommended me for her class. And in her class, poems rhymed, commas preened, and words never overstepped their boundaries.
Words first took hold of me when I was in the second grade. My teacher then was Mrs. Biller. Young and pretty and childless, Mrs. Biller had no nickname. She did sometimes have mood swings, inexplicable to an eight-year-old, which would cause her to be very angry at me one minute and then hug me too tightly the next. But despite her idiosyncrasies I had Mrs. Biller to thank for my love of words – Mrs. Biller and a dirt poor school. The school couldn’t afford individual textbooks for our second-grade class, and so the whole of our education was dispensed by oral tradition (which meant Mrs. Biller telling us what was in the book she held in her hands). There was something soothing and womblike about those hot afternoons (the school couldn’t afford air conditioning either), when Mrs. Biller would direct us to lay our heads on our desks, turn off the fluorescent lights above, and read to us. That my ears not my eyes were the main vehicles of learning back then was especially fitting when it came time for our first poetry lesson. “I put my words down for a matter of memory,” John Steinbeck continued in the same letter to his colleague. “They are more made to be spoken than to be read. I have the instincts of a minstrel rather than those of a scrivener.” My own instincts as a minstrel came to life that day in Mrs. Biller’s darkened classroom; I don’t even remember what poem she read to us, only that the words were altogether different from those that taught us about dinosaurs or subtraction or catechism. I raised my head from my desk to better catch the words as they dipped and rose, shilly-shallied for an instant, and then began to rise and fall again. I knew nothing about rhythm, meter, or flow, only that these words traveled in waves, making their way around the classroom like a troubadour whose instrument played loudest at my desk. Those who view the young mind as a blank canvas would say I received an important brushstroke that day. But it wasn’t like that at all. Something inside of me said, “Yes, that’s it!” and caught hold of the thing I didn’t know I was looking for.
I couldn’t wait to get off the bus that afternoon so that I could start writing. Nothing else mattered to me but getting alone with pencil and paper. My first poems were hideous concoctions, like Frankenstein’s monster with badly matched limbs. I used whatever I could dig up, insipid rhymes like math and bath, ABC’s and 1, 2, 3’s. They would now be long forgotten had not my father, who had the instincts of a scrivener, typed them out and framed them for our family room wall. Despite shaky first attempts, I kept writing. By fourth grade two of my poems had been published in a city magazine.
My writing continued to be nurtured by sensitive teachers through eighth grade, at which point my delicate little plant was handed over to Mrs. Davenport. Mrs. Davenport had one ironclad rule in her classroom: any assignment that contained either a misspelled word or a run-on sentence would receive an immediate F. You could dangle participles and mix metaphors till the cows came home to roost, but misspelled words and run-on sentences were beyond redemption.
Thirty years later, I still think it’s arguable. My essay sentence read something like: The subject did something or other, however, no one took notice. The grammatical error in that sentence is the missed semi-colon before however; however, Mrs. Davenport took note of something more. The missed semi-colon made the sentence run on, in her estimation, and with red pen she sealed my fate with a giant F.
Math and bath, and now an F. (My father did not frame that essay.)
I had never been given an F before; I rarely even made B’s. I would have gladly accepted the missed points for bad punctuation, but I didn’t deserve an F for what was in essence my failure to dot a comma. Still, the rule was ironclad, and the bestowal of a scarlet F became for me as defining a moment as when the troubadour loitered at my desk in second grade. I reacted with equal passion. From that moment on, I vowed, my writing would be less about making nice sounds and more about technical perfection; I would become one of Steinbeck’s dreaded stenographers.
By the end of the semester, despite the F, I became the first student in freshman honors English to ever receive an A from Smelly Nelly. I still hold the record.
It was poetic injustice. I got my A, and Mrs. Davenport got what was left of my holy curiosity.
ROUSING FROM SLEEP
Many years later I was the one sitting on the edge of the desk (sans garters and generous midsection) before a classroom full of students. I wasn’t a high school English teacher, but a college psychology professor. And I was teaching a class on creativity.
Perhaps I wasn’t the best person to teach on the topic when my muse had been so easily crushed, bartered for an A and a place in Mrs. Davenport’s record book. And it’s true that I stayed disconnected from my own creative stirrings for a long time. The result was the same achieved by my adolescent starvation diets; after a while the hunger pangs stop bothering, dejected from their failed attempts to get my attention.
Sometimes I ask my students to guess when I reclaimed my spirit of creativity. Most think it was a twist of fate after I finished graduate school with a psychology degree. While searching for a full-time job in psychology, I took on an in-between job as a writer (since I also had a degree in English). The in-between job lasted eight years. That’s when I began to love writing again, they guess.
Part of the class is discussing the different ways creativity is defined. My favorite definition is this: For creativity to happen, something within you must be brought to life in something outside of you. It sounds like childbirth, and for me, that was the real trigger, not the serendipitous writing job.
Writers and painters and artists of every kind have for centuries likened the creative process to childbirth and their creations to children. The examples go back to the very beginning of life; an art historian calls the red full-flowing drapery that surrounds God as he famously animates Adam atop the Sistine Chapel a “uterine mantle.”
But for me it was something different; it was not the likening of the two experiences but my response to the birth of my first child that began to loose the stranglehold. In trying to express what I felt at my son’s birth I returned for the first time since Mrs. Davenport’s class to poetry, to the sounds of the minstrel. There was no other way to even attempt to convey what I was feeling. Suddenly there was something inside me that refused to be restrained by my vow to technical perfection; there was a depth of emotion so intense that to express it required taking risks and pushing boundaries, letting words topple off the page and spill onto the floor.
If a single poem had first awakened my muse, then a single poem was now rousing it from the sleep of death I had lulled it into. Seizing the opportunity, it breached Mrs. Davenport’s invisible borders and took back my delicate little plant.
MY HIDDEN ROOM
I’d like to say that’s all it took, one dramatic epiphany, one long overdue rescue, and my creative energy flows freely until the end of time. But there is a catch: the newborn who inspires me to be creative also requires what’s left of my energy. When he is followed by a sister (whose birth also elicits poetry) two years later, there is little time to create. But eventually we settle into a routine, and I begin to write again. As the kids get older, I also begin to teach psychology as an adjunct at a local university. In my classes I am careful not to douse the holy curiosity of inquiry; I work hard to encourage the students to express themselves creatively, and I try to be as innovative as possible in my approach to teaching. The department chair notices and asks me to teach a senior-level course on creativity. An entire course, just on the creative process – all because when something within me had been brought to life in something outside of me, I took the risk to capture that moment, by bringing something else to life.
The department chair also invites me to be a speaker at a leadership colloquium, my first professional seminar. I am to be their expert on creativity. But a few days before the speaking engagement, I have a dream.
In the dream I am hanging my son’s artwork on the wall – just as my father hung my first poems – when I see a door in our home I’ve never noticed before. I open it to find a hidden room, fully furnished and completely neglected. Somehow (because this is a dream) I come to realize the room belongs to me, and I have the vague notion that it has been there all along. There is a layer of dust covering beautiful antique furniture, a stately portrait hung on the wall, and an oddly placed crystal ladle, sitting lonely on the mantle. Beautiful draperies framing the large windows are musty and worn. I don’t feel bad about the dust (the rest of the house has had its moments too), but I do feel a twinge of guilt when I notice movement in the room – and discover there are animals living there. Two Persian cats, left on their own, have ripped and discolored the rug (fittingly a Persian too), centered on the hardwood floor. Then a chocolate-colored dog approaches me to tell me in a gruff voice that they – he and the cats – have not been fed while I was away. The room and its inhabitants were my responsibility, but I had been too busy getting the rest of the house in order to tend to them, to even notice them.
But now, the dog was insisting, it was time to open the room, clear the dust, feed the animals.
By the end of the dream I have recovered a bit from the reproof and have a hopeful thought, that the lonesome crystal ladle on the mantle would make a lovely home for fresh flowers or a floating plant, now that I’ve discovered the room. It’s one of those nonsensical, dream-state thoughts, but also proof of the whimsicality of the room, where dogs can talk and ladles for scooping now serve as vases.
Wanting to add a living thing to the room may have been my first step toward contrition. It was forgivable to neglect inanimate objects like furniture, but now I knew my hidden room contained living beings that couldn’t survive without my attention. Neglect had led to havoc, and worse. Living things need to be fed.
I have the image of my hidden room in mind a few days later when I walk into another room, this one filled with professionals waiting for me to dispense my knowledge. I am there because I’m supposed to know something, but the chocolate-colored dog with the gruff voice begs to differ.
I had missed something elemental. There was more to expressing myself creatively than my background of understanding – both academically as a psychology professor and experientially as a writer – had informed me. The creative spirit was not a luxury I dispatch and return to at will. I didn’t have the right to barter it, vow it away, or let it sit until my schedule cleared. I didn’t have the right to only scratch at its surface. It was a responsibility, a living, breathing responsibility, and a gift, as the coin in the parable – literally, a talent – not to be buried in the ground or stored away in a hidden room.
I had been teaching the intellectual and emotional facets of creativity, but I had missed its spiritual roots, its core. The thing that gave it life, made it move, trebled its voice. I had disconnected creativity from its source, missed the holy in holy curiosity. (Even Einstein, a man of science, had the sense to get it right.)
But now a dream was offering its help. I knew that my hidden room, like most dream imagery, was symbolic, and like most symbols it pointed back to something else. What had cast it as its shadow?
Answering that question, I soon discovered, would do more than unravel my dream; it would rescue my delicate little plant for good. Having been freed from Smelly Nelly’s grasp, it was now withering from my own lack of understanding.
I knew just the place for it.
Amy Hollingsworth is also the author of The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor, based on her nine-year friendship with television’s Fred Rogers. She taught as an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where she lives with her husband, Jeff, and their children, Jonathan and Emily. She has written for various magazines, including ParentLife, and was a writer for eight years for a national television program. She was named one of USA Today entertainment blog’s Top 100 People of 2010 for her influence on pop culture and featured in the documentary by MTV News VP/producer Benjamin Wagner titled “Mister Rogers & Me.” Contact Amy at www.amyhollingsworth.com. Amy’s new book, HOLY CURIOSITY, is available on Amazon.
This quote and the two that follow are from a letter to A. Grove Day, in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, ed. Elaine Steinbeck, (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), 19.
I wrestled for an entire afternoon with the words to best describe the recognition I felt when I first heard poetry. Only after writing out and approving this sentence did I discover Robert Frost’s observation about poetry: “[It] makes you remember what you didn’t know you knew.”
Daniel Goleman, Paul Kaufman, and Michael Ray, The Creative Spirit (New York: Plume, 1993), 8.
Adrian Stokes, Michelangelo (New York: Routledge Classics, 2002), 94.