I’ve gone through life not really minding being told what to do. To be precise, I am a person who aims to please. Erving Goffman identified “other-directed” and “inner-directed” modes of behaviour. I know which one I am. At least, I used to think so.
I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house in my late adolescence. Lots of my cousins did too. My grandmother ran a tight ship. I have only fond memories of her yellow legal pad, laid out on the breakfast table every Saturday, filled with the morning’s chores. Here was the list of things that had to be done before one set out for an afternoon’s entertainment. How satisfying it was then to stroke the chores out one-by-one, putting my initials beside the finished job as the day progressed. If only everyone who would tell me what to do could make such an orderly list of instructions. Bosses and mothers and lovers and others: I want to say, “I want to please you, can you just tell me what that would take?”
It’s fun to act. In plays, I mean. A play is no more than a list–a list of actions to be carried out on the stage, a list of lines to be spoken. Directing? Not for me. And as for writing the script, well, I’ve tried. The problem is plot: the actions I list don’t grab people. Acting is fun. Writing is hard. And that’s it in a nutshell: list-makers are a breed apart.
Almost all disciplines call for list-making. Think about it. Architects lay out lists every time they design something. The design is not the thing, it’s only the instructions for the thing to be built. The demands of architecture are myriad. Designing takes dedication and fortitude and assertiveness. Like other kinds of list-making, it also demands compromise and ego-lessness and letting go.
Like architects, poets make lists. Lists are the pith of poetry. They name the events, the stuff of life. Making a list is laying out a path, not describing the path taken. Fiction writing is easier than poetry, although equally hard to do well, because the poem at the heart of every story is fleshed out, generously curved, meandered through at leisure. In prose the list is disguised, but it better be there or there’s no story.
What about teaching? That old saw, “those who can, do…” slags teachers with the notion that teachers are incapable. Many others have rebutted the put-down but there’s a kernel of truth to it. The “doing” of teaching is teaching. I teach design. That’s easy for me. Designing, that’s hard. What do teachers do? The good ones are list-makers. They lay out the day’s work for their students and check off the homework as it’s handed in. Teachers run the classroom. Their act is to direct.
Still, at the end of the day teachers get their marching orders from their directors and deans, and lots of teachers get lazy and teach the same “list” over and over again. Or, if they inherit another teacher’s course outline, teachers become actors in a script written by someone else. I like teaching for the same reason I like acting: it’s a performance, within guidelines: the list is the script. The list is a course outline. As a teacher, I try to rise above the outline–all the more when I am the writer of it.
But most of us listen to others rather than our own hearts. Is it that we are not “disciplined?” We may call it listening to our heads, but our heads are so stuffed with what we read in the paper, or what someone we respect says to us, or what we think will impress someone else, or what we “ought” to do (because it’s the right thing, or because it’s “common sense”) that the list we listen to is often someone else’s, not our own. Our head is our super-ego, it’s not who we really are. Our heart is who we really are. Most of us really need to try hard to hear what our hearts are saying.
Most of us go through life not heeding our hearts. And that’s okay, too, most of the time. Most of the time, as Bob Dylan famously said, “I never think of her at all.” Most of the time, we can motor along on auto-pilot, meeting someone else’s requirements. Following someone else’s orders. Eating the food someone thinks we’ll like, rather than the stuff we really want for ourselves. If only we could be bothered to think about it.
But I’m beginning to think a time must come when I make my own list. It’s scary because I’ve done it so rarely. I’m afraid to get it wrong. Getting it wrong is going to hurt. There’s no delete button on the kind of list I’m talking about. The list predicts your future.
But I’m going to try, because making a list is really about writing your own story. I’m actually the only one who can do that. My heart (I hear it even above the roar in my brain) tells me so.