A Senior’s Fresh Take on the Arts at Swarthmore

In January of 2012, a month remarkable for little else but the nosehair freezing cold in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, I explored the full archive of author interviews conducted by The Paris Review since its establishment in 1953.

Still a mostly aspiring writer, I was searching fiendishly for the key to unlock the potential I knew to be sealed beneath an enamel of doubt and fear. Jim Harrison, author of my favorite “Returning to Earth” and many other celebrated novels, suggested the act of hoeing corn in the fields day after day as a way to “absorb the spirit of repetition” required to write a novel. His interview prompted a brief Google foray into the agricultural opportunities for the coming summer, but that did not yield any words on the page. Gabriel García Márquez, renowned for his modern epic, “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” likened writing a novel to the carpenter’s task of creating with wood. “Both are very hard work… With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood,” he said.

Coming from a magical realist, a writer accomplished in massaging reality into fanciful worlds of his own creation, this comparison seemed especially wise, and I sent out email inquiries to several local carpenters about a summer in their tutelage. Finally, John Steinbeck’s bleak commentary on the work of the writer left me silent — on the page and off — for more than a day: “In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through — not ever much.”

Each of these novelists and others described how hard or repetitious writing is, how it is not a venture for those seeking quick gratification, and I soon arrived at an impasse: I could no longer read these hopeless and hope-sapping confessions with a good chin, which was timely since I’d exhausted the Review’s half century archive. I decided to devote my time and energy to an assault of the blank page — or screen, in this case — in the form of a blog.

Just a few weeks into my journey to the other side of the planet, I’d navigated the heavily restricted Internet and created a tumblr, and the first several days had been eventful and busy, thus providing the simple fodder of activity. I titled the blog subtly — “Kieran in Kyrgyzstan” — and the first couple posts matched that tone: it was a travel blog, made for recounting experiences to those whom I could not call with ease anymore. I knew I wanted it to be more than that, but I wasn’t yet sure of what shape it would take.

Two things happened over the course of the semester that changed the way I write, the way that I view writing and the flavor of my blog. First, things began to happen to and for me. I secured a job as an ESL teacher for a local non-profit organization and also got into a serious car accident. These two events were unrelated at the time, but both shed light on my life abroad and propelled me onto the elusive blank page.

At the end of January, after just a few weeks living in Bishkek, I witnessed death firsthand. On a provincial road outside of the capital city, a cow made a tentative first step onto the road before committing to crossing, looked back, then continued forward onto the road. Simultaneously, a maroon sedan was headed south, opposite our mini-SUV’s northerly direction, and did not see the cow until they needed to swerve to avoid it, thus sliding across the unlined road and into the front of our vehicle. The driver of the other car died on impact and the passenger was left unconscious. All five occupants of our car were left mostly unharmed, a broken wrist being the most severe injury among us, but stunned. I was driven home in this agitated mental state and I laid on my narrow bed for several hours, idly toiling at the minimal schoolwork I had. I kept going back to the moments immediately following the impact as the local townsfolk emptied out of their houses, noisy with lament and woe — the moments when I thought of Camus.

Though I remember the whole of “L’Étranger” fondly, the last few lines are what came to mind that winter day. Meursault, the novel’s protagonist, lays in prison awaiting his execution by guillotine and comes to terms with his existence. “…For the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the benign indifference of the world.” I do not share the pessimism that Camus demonstrated with the next and final line of the novel, yet I know that I felt the same “benign indifference” he described. No longer was I contained safely within my own world, I was in a place foreign to the controlled familiarity of home; a bubble akin to that of Swarthmore had burst and I felt reality’s touch more acutely than ever before.

As I write this article, eight months after that incident and in the middle of a Phoenix sandwich in a morning-lit Sharples, a tenuous line forms between the car accident and the second takeaway experience of the semester abroad. That post marked the first in a new style, one that I could not name until late April as I neared the end of my stay in Kyrgyzstan. I had read another Paris Review blog post titled, “Flannery O’Connor and the Habit of Art,” in which blogger Kelly Gerald brings to light O’Connor’s early occupation with visual arts and a turn of phrase the famous author culled from French philosopher Jacques Maritain’s writings. Gerald writes that O’Connor “used [Maritain’s] expression to explain the way of seeing that the artist must cultivate, one that does not separate meaning from experience.” This way of seeing, the artist’s eye, proved germane to my blogging project.

Those early negative 20-degree January nights became the backdrop to my very own habit of writing. Usually, I’d start a post with an occurrence or idea that had emerged since my last, and I would describe it in detail. For me, the process of writing elucidated the strands of meaning that tangle through day-to-day life. After reading about O’Connor’s way of seeing specific to the artist, I felt that I had identified what I’d been doing for a few months. I had accidentally fallen into a habit of art and could now appreciate the craft about whose difficulty I’d read, but of whose elegance is only known through the act itself.

The goal of my column is to marry the quotidian realities of Swarthmore — eating at Sharples, walking to class, filling out add/drop forms (these are just examples of mundanities, hopefully not of the sort I’ll write about) — with the rich world of thought and creation that I, and we, encounter on a daily basis here through our various intellectual pursuits. There seems to me to be a frightening interstitial space between these two realities of Swarthmore and I hope to plumb the depths of this gap using my sensory organs, like the eye, “an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it,” and my habits of artistic consumption and creation.

A few words to the why: Swarthmore, observed from the outside, is an incredibly intellectual and exciting place where young adults are actively engaged in becoming the wonderfully interesting people they want to be. And it feels stimulating from the inside, too, sometimes, but it is also a place that lends itself to an insidious dullness by way of routine and overworking. I’d like to call everybody’s — including my own Senior variety — attention to the fleeting beauty that a Swarthmore education brings by way of literature, film, music, art, science and people. This, I think, is better than a collapse beneath the weight of the Sisyphean work of Swarthmore. As Emerson urges, “Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say, `It is in me, and shall out.’”

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