“We were young, we were reckless, arrogant, silly, headstrong…and we were right!”
-Abbie Hoffman, in describing himself and other young activists
If I step into my life, I feel a difference between the passionate creation of working on something and the careful discernment of refining it. The first is writing; the second is revising. The first is throwing things into a pan, excited and not quite sure about how the flavors will mix; the second, I imagine, is learning a recipe, though I’ve almost never done that.
When I was younger, the first was a lot easier. Stories happened to me. Ideas grabbed me and carried me, and threw me into rivers to swim. That still happens, but it doesn’t happen as much. As I get older, the second is easier: I can see the cracks in something I’ve started, the contradictions, and I can work away at mending them. Maybe my mind used to feel like a wild orchard, long gone to seed, with unexpected fruits growing on every side. If that’s true, then these days my trees have fewer fruits, but I’m better at tending to them. Maybe the change comes from my habit. Maybe it’s getting older. Maybe there are two different kinds of thinking.
In any case, my high school students almost always seem more inclined to the first than the second. They think in bursts of inspiration; they don’t often want to go back and fill in the holes of a path they’ve already run. I’m often tempted to push them to revise, but reading Abbie Hoffman, I’m not sure if that’s a good idea. If I had known how hard it was to write a novel, I’m not sure I would have started. If I dwelled a little more on how hurt my students are, on how much they’re struggling, I think I would realize that what I can do would never be enough. That’s what I realize on the bad days. On the good days, I look at the person in front of me, and I try. Maybe that’s what Abbie Hoffman did: he was reckless, arrogant, silly, headstrong. He didn’t understand the impossibilities. He was insane enough to think that a few kids could change the world. And they did. There is a place for wild creation, and it’s often by going there that we face the challenges that would otherwise be too much for us.
Of course, there’s also a place for revision, for careful planning, for compromise. Earlier in that speech, Abbie Hoffman said, “We ended the idea that women are second-class citizens.” I don’t think he did that. He tried to: he thought he did. With the passion to fix the world with one great burst, he pushed us toward where we need to go. Perhaps that push must be tempered, continued, directed by minds who revise, who see the roots of our sicknesses, the complications of changing any piece of what we do. These other people will help, and when they get tired, I hope we’ll have another reckless, arrogant, silly, headstrong child to lead with wild inspiration.
I wonder if we can be both. I’d like to think we can.