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In the vast capitalist assault that is the United States of America, there is a class of professions that are mostly self-declared. In order to appear reasonable as a dietary expert, it would seem, you only have to have struggled with your own weight at some point (Oprah Winfrey, Valerie Bertinelli, Monica Lewinsky, et al.). And in order to be a fitness expert, you have only to allege that you are fit, and, maybe, take off your shirt once in a while. Many splinter groups of doctrinally obscure contemporary Christianity have preachers who never served a day in seminary, but who simply have been through their own spiritual crises. And so on.
I love that our nation permits these self-declared professions, in order the most rhetorically gifted blowhard can try to make a fortune, just like a used car dealer or a real estate agent would. And I always wanted to have one of these professions, in the event that my two not-terribly-remunerative professions—novel writing and adjunct professorship—somehow dried up on me. My mother, who was never terribly sanguine about my prospects as a novelist back when I was young, always urged me to have a “backup plan,” in case it didn’t work out. Therefore, in 2009, about the time that I first made a website for myself, I decided to declare myself a Life Coach.
This happened in part because I was in an office building in downtown New York about the same time in the course of which I beheld a buzzer marked “Mark Dollar, Life Coach.” And this sequence of words seemed to say everything I wanted to say about life myself. I wanted to be Mark Dollar, Life Coach. If Mark Dollar, Life Coach, could do it, I reasoned, why couldn’t I? After all, life-coaching is not significantly different from fiction writing. Many of the same skills are applied in each case, cunning, compassion, shrewdness, word choice.
Upon hanging out my shingle, however, I did find that I suddenly had certain feelings about my craft, once I was practicing it, feelings that listed dangerously in the direction of the earnest. In this way, I suppose, I was like Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts character, who begins in unreconstructed cynicism, only to become more and more sympathetic to his correspondents as he works. Turns out, in fact, that I like being Rick Moody, Life Coach, and if I were any good at marketing myself, which I’m not, I might actually continue down this path to see what good I could do for my needy friends in the long run.
For example: one time a therapist (friend of a friend) from lower Manhattan asked me, in my guise as Life Coach, if I had any advice for her about practicing her artistic craft while being a therapist. She even offered to pay me for this advice! (I am happy to report that my Life Coach skills can only be practiced for free, which makes me a very bad capitalist.) Resolving her dilemma was almost instantaneous, which means she didn’t need me much, except to support where she was already going, in the direction of her artwork. I think she has been in a bunch of shows since then, and I often delight in her photographs, now, when I see them online. What a feeling of satisfaction I got from this exchange!
As a Life Coach, I often urge people to look for where the spiritual announces itself in daily life, and to follow inclinations along this axis. This may seem both obvious and ridiculous, and yet it there can be no conclusion but that my somewhat crass, conceptually clever, but otherwise silly self-declaration as a Life Coach has had just the very shape and form that I often suggest to my advisees: I have found in this avocation great comfort, and self-esteem, for having given something away for free that I have an abundance of: reasonably good listening skills. I’d be happy to help you, too, if you have a problem, therefore. My specialties are: creative blockages, creativity, writing, compulsivity, mental illness, eating disorders, alcoholism and drug addiction, love and romance. Come unto me, you huddled masses yearning to be free.
You too can receive life coaching from Rick Moody: email rickmoodythelifecoach@gmail.
Dear Mr. Moody,
Why do people, and by people I mean co-workers and students, erupt every once in a while with absolute crazy? How should I react?
I believe we are both laborers in the academic world of writing instruction. I will confine my experiences to this world, about which, like you, I do know a thing or two. This I say simply so that other readers of the Rick Moody, Life Coach, column can appreciate where you and I are coming from.
The semester is just over here in my neck of the woods. In fact, I write you just days after the end of the semester. And this semester definitely had its moments of the wobbly sanity. I could go on at some length, but I do not want the mentally ill or post-traumatic to feel unduly judged by me. I love all my students even when they are unsteady. I always feel their aches and pains.
Your questions are, 1) why? and 2) what to do about it?
The obvious answer to question #1, why why why?, is simply that a generous portion of writers suffer with symptoms of mental illness. I remember seeing a study when I was in writing school that argued that the profession with the highest portion of mental illness of all (and this may perhaps have included soldiering and lighthouse operation) was in fact the profession of “poet.” Somehow I felt slightly disappointed for being a prose writer, perhaps because I erroneously associated mental illness (I was 24 years old at the time) with heightened creativity. At any rate, it may be that the romance of writing (and its tendency toward madness), and the dark truths to be found there on occasion, attract some unstable personalities, encouraging them, in academic settings, to act poorly. And it may be that the academic life tends to be stressful and to drive people toward ends of the semesters in ways that are counterproductive to good mental hygiene. The workshop itself, moreover, is a highly stressful setting, in which supportive and helpful criticism is sometimes set aside and replaced with vituperations or highly competitive maneuvering between writers.
This would perhaps account for why the students are often crazy. But what about our colleagues? Why are they so capricious and enraged and bitter? This is a question I have asked of myself, over the years, many times. Why must academic politics, departmental politics, be so fractious and sociopathic? My working assumption has always been that the piece of pie is so small (one tiny endowed chair, one tenure track job), and the people competing for it are so ill-equipped to do anything else, that they imagine they have no recourse but to fight to the death. That would be a reasonable explanation of the phenomenon in part. Except for this: the bigger, better-funded departments, engineering or law, are just as riven with dispute. If you consider that academic life has its origins in monastic study, you would think we could all do better. The monks didn’t need to hound one another to death. This secular monasticism, this monasticism with an excess of holier-than-thou should be so much better than it is, but maybe when you strip the God out of the guilds of study what you get is all the bad and none of the good. (Not that Christian education is much better! Maybe Christian education is more like secular education than ever before!) Perhaps I simply cannot answer this particular WHY, but I can, in my capacity as life coach, affirm your observations. Your observations are entirely accurate.
So, 2) what to do about it? I think you already know the answer here, Dinty, because I believe you have been at it even longer than I (and I am closing on my 25th year of teaching). The answer is to do as little as possible about the madness. This semester I had a bit of a stalking situation, a stalking-lite situation, which I had done nothing to encourage, but it embarrassed me to a great degree. I tried to do nothing for as long as possible, to stick to a bland and non-engaged kindness, such as I would offer any student, or anyone who expressed interest in my class. When this was no longer practicable, I did in fact solicit the department chair, to tell the student in question that I just wished to teach my class without incident and then to go home. Because that in fact is all I want to do. I love the actual subject matter of my classes—writing and literature—and I feel honored to teach anyone about them. Everything that is not about the dissemination of the actual material, between myself and student, is noise to me. I don’t care about committees, I don’t care about the institutions of higher learning, I don’t care about my university, I don’t care who’s better or who’s more attractive among the students, or anything else. At all. I care about the ideas, and the passing them on. So what I do, and I’m sure you do it, too, is tune out, or calve off, anything that is not the actual material of my class. I make myself as unavailable as possible for all the rest of it. In class, you get 100 percent of my attention, and out of class, you get as close to 0% of my attention as I can get while still maintaining control of my teaching project. This preserves the organism so that he can teach again another day, and also so that he may, on occasion, write.
Have a good summer vacation,
Rick Moody, Life Coach.