For Christmas a year ago, my friend Jenna gave me a copy of Julie Andrews’ wonderful autobiography Home: A Memoir of My Early Years. Of course I immediately looked for the chapter about starring with Richard Burton in Camelot!
But then I sat down to read the whole book. Today I’m going to talk about one point that I keep thinking about. Andrews was starring in the long-running musical My Fair Lady. She had some concerns about doing the same play again and again, eight times a week. A friend told her to view it as a learning experience: actors learn more from doing one role repeatedly than from appearing in a variety of roles and plays.
I have thought about that advice a hundred times. It doesn’t make sense to me, but I’ll have to take Julie Andrews’ word for it. After all, she thought it was worth putting into her book.
As I write this, I’m at a comparative drama conference, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that question of which is better: focusing on one thing, or having a variety of experiences.
Breaking out of my regular routine often stimulates me to take a step back to think about the way I live my life and the choices I’ve made – and that’s certainly been true these past few days. I did a presentation about Shaw that went well and stimulated a lively discussion. Last night I had a delightful (at times uproarious!) dinner with three special Shavian friends.
I am really grateful for the twists and turns in my life that caused me to be here this week. (What if I’d never signed up for that Shaw seminar way back when I was in graduate school? I shudder to think about it.)
But this conference also has reminded about what I’ve missed along the way. I spent most of my career teaching developmental writing in a community college. I had a heavy teaching load, and my evenings were spent on student papers, leaving little time for reading. At this conference I keep hearing excited conversations about plays and books I’ve never read. Often I’ve never even heard of them.
I have some chops as a Shaw scholar – an advanced degree and some publications and presentations. But what else could I have learned if I’d had more time?
And so I wonder…was it really wise to teach all those writing classes? Common sense would suggest that after – say – 20 years, I had learned whatever was out there to learn about writing. From that point on it’s just the same thing over and over. So – wouldn’t it have been better to vary my teaching load and include more literature courses?
The answer, of course, is that there is no answer. I will never have an opportunity to travel the Road Not Taken to see what awaited me there.
But I have a strong hunch that my choices were good ones and – common sense notwithstanding – I was still learning even after many years of thinking about the same topic.
For example, I had to take a long, hard, and honest look at what I was trying to accomplish. Along the way I discarded many widespread beliefs about traditional grammar (“It’s helpful to circle adverbial clauses in a workbook”), students (“They’re hopeless, and it gets worse every year”) and the act of writing itself (“Use as many big words as you can, and make every sentence as long as possible”).
My students and I focused on drafting and revising. We spent many hours correcting errors and rewriting sentences to make them stronger and more interesting. We took jumbled paragraphs apart and put them back together so they made more sense. Often my students suggested wonderful changes I hadn’t thought of.
I just thought – absurdly – about Henry David Thoreau, who declared that he “was determined to know beans.” I was “determined to know writing.” And then I thought of something else. Thoreau was sort of saying the same thing that Julie Andrews was told: You can learn a lot by focusing on one thing for a long time.
I made a good choice.