If your childhood experience has anything in common with mine, you probably spent your elementary school art classes drawing pictures of your shoes, painting watercolor flowers, and desperately searching for ways to make a self-portrait resemble any trace of yourself. That art class was my first appointment as a creator—a dismal one, I admit. The meaning of the word “art” –a universe of multiple media and modes of expression—was reduced to a drawing of my shoe. When the shoe drawings looked more like twice-baked potatoes, I coped by telling myself that art wasn’t for me. I treated art class as an opportunity to goof around. It was my break from “real” work.
Much to my own relief, my understanding of the scope of art has dramatically expanded beyond shoe drawings. I would even venture to label myself a kind of artist, but creating never really felt like anything more than a side project.
In high school, I discovered poetry. I recognized the art in what I was reading and writing, but it felt more like a hobby than a lifestyle and it seemed like less than what was expected of me. So I kept the poems in my journal, and after I graduated, I left home to study environmental science here at Simpson. The final grade I received in freshman biology determined that a future in science would NOT be my reality, and I spent my second year of college kicking around some kind of plan for my future. I didn’t have a whole lot of momentum in any direction, but I knew I loved to read and write. I’m a firm believer in gut instinct, coffee shops, weird music, and goodwill sweaters, so declaring an English major at the end of my sophomore year surprised nobody but me.
I have learned a few things since then, but my most recent discovery is the importance of creating. As a student majoring in English, an interdisciplinary field by nature, I am lucky enough to experience creative opportunities more than others. Becoming a better English student requires transcending our own expectations and innovating our educational experiences. We try to understand our own abilities as thinkers, writers, and artists so we can build on them and better understand our peers. We ditch our egos and expend all of our energy on a paper…only to lead it to the slaughter of class-wide critique. We challenge one another’s ways of thinking and ask the questions everyone else is scared to address. 2016 has been a tumultuous year and the nature of discourse in this country is polarizing. Nobody is better equipped to take this on than the creators; our area of choice is gray for a reason. We don’t claim to have the right answers, but we have the means to express ideas uniquely and communicate in a way a greater number of people can understand. Toni Morrison’s statement in her essay titled, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” rings true 12 years later: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work.”
That is what college should be about: finding a community, collecting the necessary resources to engage with that community, and eventually improving the world as a result of our contribution to it, regardless of the challenges we may face as a result of that pursuit. My favorite poet, W.H. Auden, is quoted saying, “Art is born of humiliation.”
Next semester will be my last as an undergraduate student at Simpson College. Like all seniors, I’ll be charged with the task of completing a senior project. I’ve already decided to take on a creative project for which I will immerse myself in the consumption and creation of poetry. At the end of the semester I hope to be left with a meaningful series I can submit for publication.
I want to take my place among the creators. The idea of creative writing makes a lot of English majors squirm, but I have never felt more liberated. For the first time, I’ll be held academically responsible for my favorite hobby. What once felt like a break from real work, a guilty indulgence, will be the culmination of my undergraduate career.
Too many students in my generation view their college experience as a means to an end—a necessary and sometimes inconvenient period of time we have to endure in order to one day secure a decent job to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. My poetry may not solve major world problems, and I certainly don’t anticipate receiving any large checks with my name on it when I leave here, but the experience of creating something original gives me an opportunity to connect with myself and influence minds the way many writers have influenced mine.
In October, Bob Dylan became the first musician ever to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1978, when asked what was real to him, Dylan responded, “Art is the perpetual motion of illusion. The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?”
Real work doesn’t have to be the work that you hate. I’m setting out to create something I never thought I could and I hope I leave the world a little better for it.
--Ethan Zierke, '17