"Don't Fear The Whale": Why We Fear Our Callings

I never wanted to read Moby Dick. I knew it was one of those books everyone should read, particularly every English major, but I did everything I could to avoid it. Made sure to take classes where it wasn't on the required reading list, or where there was at least a book I could read as an alternative, avoided majoring in English until the very last year of undergraduate. Then I disappeared into creative writing and thought, "aha! I've escaped the whale."

It worked for quite a while. I took classes in women's lit, British lit, Gothic lit, Old English, African American lit, really any other kind of lit, and never had to read it. Even took several early American lit classes and still never had to read it. It was one of those books so firmly entrenched in the canon everyone thought we'd read. But then I neared the end of my Ph.D. coursework, and I had to choose three areas of literary specialization for my comprehensive exams.

As someone who had published a piece in African American literary criticism and constantly wrote about American drama, Hawthorne, and the Puritans, Early American lit seemed the logical candidate. Against my will, I got the list, and scanned the titles of all 70 or 80 entries. The whole list was sumptuous, and in fact, I'd already read almost everything on it--except for Moby Dick.

My avoidance of the whale was ridiculous, and I finally saw it. So I shrugged my shoulders, took a deep breath, and signed up for a doctoral level survey course that would force me to read the book and get it over with already. On the first day of the survey course, we all went around the seminar table introducing ourselves and saying why we were there, and I blurted out "because I'm afraid of Moby Dick." The whole class laughed (I really think some thought I was kidding), and a friend of mine said "Don't fear the whale. It's a really great book!" Then he and another friend snickered about it and drew a whale on the seminar table. "Don't fear the whale, Kathryn Paterson," they wrote (it's probably still there somewhere today). And I dragged myself to Half Price Books and bought a copy.

And--you might have guessed this--promptly fell in love. From that first famous line to that famous and tragic ending, I read. I read it in between classes I was teaching and classes I was taking, read it between tutoring gigs and around the hours of my third job, read it through the night and into the morning, and finally, finally finished it, believing (as I still do), that it truly is one of the greatest books ever written, and (minus the sperm whale minutiae) a rollicking good read.

When it came time to do my dissertation, I faced the same sort of crisis--and had the same sort of problem, except this time it was the long form of the novel I was fearing. I'd written plays, short stories, dabbled very unsuccessfully in poetry, even did half of a decent young adult novel for my bachelor's honors thesis, but I had never managed to finish writing a novel. I'd told myself that meant the long form wasn't for me. I'd told myself it was okay. I'd get this degree, find a teaching job (ha!), and write plays and short stories on the side.

And that could have been enough for me. It really could have. But then that day came, a day in early 2006, when I sat up in bed and had the idea for this novel. And I realized that all along, I had been putting off what I really was supposed to do with my life. I realized I was on track to be an academic, possibly even a successful one, but that really wasn't the life I wanted. Yes, I was well over ten years into graduate school, and I realized I didn't really want to be there.

I wanted to write novels, and what's worse, I wanted to write literary horror novels. Mystery. Suspense. Crime. Something. Just not something entirely literary. There I was at the best PhD program in the entire world for creative writing, and I no longer wanted to be literary. How was I going to explain that?

Turns out, I didn't really have to. Just about that time, UH decided to bring in agents and editors to give us a chance to learn about the business and to practice making a pitch. They told us to submit either a short story or the first few pages of a novel, for a "UH look book" that the program director put together. I had a choice. I could submit a polished short story that had been receiving encouraging rejections from good literary magazines, or submit the first, rough pages of the novel. You can guess what I chose.

In another post, I'll write about the results of that decision, but the point of this post is to ask simply why? Why is it that we fear the things we most should do? Why is it that we so often run away from the hard parts of writing? And I don't mean the grunt work, the hard, long hours of creating, I mean the parts that are emotionally hard. Psychologically hard. Are we afraid that somehow in the midst of chasing our white whales, that we'll be like Ahab and lose ourselves?

Comments

Ann McCutchan said…
I think the answer to your last question is "yes," and I look forward to reading your follow-up!
You've inspired me, Kathryn. I disliked Billy Budd so much, I've avoided Moby Dick. Must amend soon...
Joy said…
Bravo! Your blog was (as I expected) an excellent read! How do you know my thoughts and put them out into your blog??? Bravo! And I haven't read the whale either. I guess it's my turn...
Just realize (and this is probably bad for me, as a lit teacher to advise) that you don't have to read the whole thing. I did, and loved even some of the sperm whale stuff, but it's entirely possible to skip past all that. Strangely, Moby Dick is now one of my favorite books, but it does have to be taken (as all the classics do) as part of its time.

Oh, and Colleen, I read Billy Budd in high school and adored it, so this really may be a sensibility thing. But in my opinion, Moby Dick is better.
Joni Rodgers said…
I loved Billy Budd! I will confess to reading the condensed version of Moby Dick.

Great post, Dr. KatPat.
I think I mostly hated Billy Budd because my junior-year hs English teacher had a way of sucking the joy out of every work of literature he came near. I still recall vividly studying that one until I knew it inside and out and then getting marked down because I couldn't identify one name - a name I knew appeared nowhere in the story. Turned out, this teacher made a ten-point question of the person to whom Billy Budd was dedicated.

I was so mad about it, I've had a grudge against Melville ever since, when I really should've blamed the teacher for playing Trivial Pursuit.

Funny, the petty things that one remembers! :)
You're probably not reading these comments anymore, but I had something similar happen on a lit paper I wrote for a high school English class. I chose to write on Conrad's Heart of Darkness (love, love LOVE Conrad), and wrote what (I thought) was an amazing paper. The teacher gave it back with a grade of A+/F, and said that while the content was excellent and the prose beautiful, I needed to learn what a comma splice was and how to avoid it. I sat and cried the whole class, until she finally asked me what was wrong. She was shocked that it upset me so much, but that paper was my BABY. Sigh.

On the other hand, I can sure spot (and fix) a comma splice. Your teacher just sounds downright petty.
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