The Cairn Builder

Author: Kerry Temple ’74


The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. “An English major?” I blurted out. “Why would you want to do that? What are you going to do, how would you get a job with a degree in English?” That’s when I stopped, because I heard my father’s voice echoing in my own, because I’d had this conversation already — 30 years ago, except that last time I was on the other side of the table, looking at my dad, trying to explain to him why I wanted to be an English major of all things.

My father, by profession and temperament, was an accountant. He was as pragmatic, steady and methodical as they come. I was 18, and he talked about being a good provider, about security, medical insurance and retirement benefits. He did not understand that I wanted to become an English major merely because I liked reading books and discussing ideas, that I liked pondering the meaning of life, that I had only hazy notions of the reality of that life but liked what literature could do for the human soul and mind. As a teenager writing bad poetry late at night in the corner of my room, I dreamed of being a real writer someday. I would live in some mountain cabin, write books all day and never work in an office as he had done all his life.

So when my father’s words leapt from my mouth, it stunned both me and my 18-year-old son into silence. We were having lunch. He had gone to one of those midsummer freshman orientations with the intent of signing up for journalism; he had come home excited about English literature. He wanted to be a writer. I knew that. That was fine. I know the dream. It’s just that I thought journalism was a practical and deliberate route into the perilous terrain of a writing career.

Once upon a time I had been that English major and, with no internships, no samples of published work, no experience in any student media, I was eminently unemployable upon graduation. So I went on to journalism school to get a master’s as a kind of vocational training. I could pick up a “marketable skill,” as they say, and newspaper work might provide an initial foothold while I dabbled at being a Real Writer.

This strategy prompted my father to ask why my friends, who stayed home and went to the local state schools, could get jobs after graduation and why I, who had gone 1,000 miles away to Notre Dame, could not. What kind of school is it, he asked, that was so selective and charged so much tuition and yet required further education on the part of its graduates in order for them to get jobs?

So I made my pitch to my son about the merits of a journalism degree, but more sensitively, more aware of what it’s like to be 18 and sitting across the table from your father handing out advice. My son is good. He listened and nodded, then said, “You know what I’d really like to be? You know those animal shows on TV? That’s what I’d really like to do.”

“Be a wildlife photographer?” I asked.

“No, that’d be too hard, " he said. “I’d just want to carry their equipment for them.”

“You want to be a roadie for a wildlife photographer?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Or maybe build cairns. That’s what I want to do — be a cairn builder.”

“That’d be fun,” I said, remembering now what it was like to be facing the responsibilities of growing up, wondering where and how you’d fit in, contemplating the dreaded adult stuff, then envisioning the two of us erecting cairns together, out in the mountains setting up those little statues of rocks to mark trails, constructing guideposts, showing fellow pilgrims which way to go.

There is another level of irony to this story. For 25 years I have worked at Notre Dame as a writer and editor. And for 15 years I have also taught writing here and at Saint Mary’s College, pretty much year round, to maybe 700 students. And I have not told them to be cautious, be safe, be practical. I have encouraged the chasing of dreams. I have tried to light fires in them — or at least help them locate their pilot lights.

At the beginning of most semesters I ask these young aspiring authors to write an essay interpreting Henry David Thoreau’s statement: “In literature it is only the wild that attracts us.” It’s always an interesting exercise. It forces students to examine just what it is that appeals to their imagination. Thoreau is right: It is the untamed, the uncertain, the renegade and unexpected, the part we don’t yet know, the road less traveled.

We are not much intrigued by what we already know, the path everyone else is taking. In literature, in storytelling and in life, it is the tension that compels, and often the tension derives from the interplay between what is known and unknown, the surprising and predictable, the individual versus society, the uncertain outcome in the face of expectations. As these dramas play out, we invariably pull for the spirited among us, for the ones who take the dare, go their own way, defy the odds.

College students, I think, are at a place in their lives when they feel their life stories are now their own to write. I want these students to create a life, a character, a narrator who excites them. One thing I really like about teaching is that it gives you entree into those lives being written, and teaching writing gives you access to your students in ways most subjects do not. I do not pose as a guidance counselor but teaching, for good or bad, is more than an information delivery system. Students want role models and they are watching to see if you make good on the things you say.

Through the years I have spent a good deal of time talking with students one on one. We meet over coffee; they drop by my office. We talk about story ideas and development, about their writing, their voice, and the nuts and bolts of committing stories to paper. But we also have ended up talking about their doubts and aspirations, their plans and dreams. I do not tell them what to do. I have tried to give them things to think about, an array of ideas they may bring to bear on decisions they need to make. One of the voices I suggest they listen to is the pull and tug of the heart.

It is one thing to weigh the possibilities, to list the pros and cons, to sort through the trade-offs that arise from choosing the directions we do. It is another to silence the daily static in order to heed the holy, to hear one’s intuition, to listen for God. Of course, the call of the heart is very difficult to hear amid all the competing noises. There is a chorus from every corner beckoning them, and self-doubt and bewilderment and pragmatism, too.

Many students here — goal-oriented, achievement-driven, prodigies with high expectations — are surprisingly practical. Many want to scale the ladder of success, to attain security and a certain income level, the lifestyle to which they are accustomed. Many come from somewhat privileged backgrounds, and they like their standing and their comforts. The world, too, encourages this bottom-line approach to living and uses material goods as measures of accomplishment. But the power of financial reward is also sharpened these days by the cost of higher education. Students, some of whom are tempted by a liberal arts education, by roads less traveled, understandably want their investment to pay off. In particular those facing heavy student loans upon graduation don’t think they can afford to take chances.

It is unfortunate how many students abandon dreams because they fear the financial repercussions or who choose career paths for reasons of wealth, security or status. I feel bad for students buffeted by the turbulence of these influences; I feel worse for those also trying so hard to make their parents happy. I tread very carefully when students tell me of parental pressures pushing them toward law school or an MBA degree, parents who make medical school acceptance a life-and-death issue. It’s not my place to take a stance in familial negotiations. Besides, different rewards bring different people different kinds of happiness and fulfillment.

Many students feel they owe their parents, and they do owe them a great deal. But their sense of duty often urges them toward terrain they would not otherwise consider. And I do wonder how they will feel in 15 years when they are in the middle of a life designed to please parents, a life that unfolded but wasn’t a calling, a life that may bring abundances but not fulfillment. I have had plenty of conversations with people who have harbored a secret desire to write (or paint or teach) but never did and who, now that they are 40 or with kids off to college, want to take it up. How do I do that? they ask.

Too often students ask me about their talent, if they have what it takes. That is an impossible question to answer. So much depends on hard work and discipline and luck. I tell them of gifted writers who are dissatisfied with their lot and of mediocre writers who have done quite well making a living as wordsmiths, have even gained some degree of celebrity. The rewards of any profession are not handed out equitably.

When they ask how to become a writer, I tell them what was told to me: “Go write and, when you get up 10 years later, you might be a writer.” And when they ask if they should become a writer, I tell them: “Writing is a hard way to go. If you can see yourself going through life and not writing, then don’t. If, on the other hand, you can’t not write, then do it.”

Of course, throughout the course of each semester we talk in class about why writers write. I try to get them in touch with the drives and hopes and insecurities of dreamers growing up, with writers whose names they’ve seen on book covers and in textbooks. Will they be scared off by Flaubert, who called writing “a dog’s life,” or by Peter Abelard, who called it “a dangerous and contagious disease.” Or inspired by James Carroll: “The very act of storytelling, of arranging memory and invention according to the structure of the narrative, is by definition holy. We tell stories because we can’t help it. We tell stories because we love to entertain and hope to edify. We tell stories because they fill the silence death imposes. We tell stories because they save us.”

By holding up to the light those motivations, I hope these students will see themselves, will know if they want to join the fraternity. Part of choosing a career, I think, is to know what kind of people you’ll be hanging around with at work. I was always drawn to creative types, to the nonconformity, the informality and the independence of journalists and writerly folks. I like how their minds work. I like the way they dress; there is no uniform.

I try to offer students glimpses into the brains of like-minded people, to see if the character fits the role they want to inhabit. I will quote Harlan Ellison: “Some guys write because they have found a relaxing, nonstrenuous way to beat the hard work system. Others do it because it’s catharsis; these are the gut-spillers. Still others do it because they like to keep eating. Then there are the poor, damned souls who must write, who haven’t any more choice in the matter than whether or not they breathe.”

Perhaps it is the age, but for many students self-expression just comes naturally; they feel compelled to share ideas, beliefs and feelings with others. They take it as a sign that the writer’s life awaits them because they have a knack for pouring words onto paper. They think this impulse to emote on paper is a sign of talent, but it isn’t so. Some indeed are facile with the language, and writing prolifically does what any kind of practice will do. But it is a deception to equate that desire, that aptitude, with having the goods.

Still, I enjoy hearing students talk about this dexterity (it is a good spring from which any writer would do well to operate), although I try to deflate some of their bravado by reading from George Orwell: “All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.”

Of course, these very students are often the ones who say they love to write and that excitement is the ideal reason for choosing any line of work. Loving what you do eases the strains of hard labor (despite what many students think, writing isn’t always about fun) and helps you put up with all the crap that comes with any daily grind. Of course, the act of writing, the surge and bloom of creativity alone brings fulfillment and gratification. As Edward Abbey explained: “Writers write for the pleasure of it. For the sheer ecstasy of the creative moment, the creative act. For that blazing revelation when we think, if only in delusion, that we have finally succeeded in grasping, if only for an hour, the thing that has no name.”

For many writers the craft is about sharing information as clearly and cleanly as possible, about reporting, conveying ideas, painting word pictures, providing information. For many — and students eagerly concur — writing is also cathartic, therapeutic. “If he wrote it, he could get rid of it,” Ernest Hemingway once wrote. “He had gotten rid of many things by writing them.” But it is more than getting things off your chest, expressing deeply felt emotions. Writing becomes a means of working things out, of analyzing, of coming to understand — interior landscapes as well as external ones. “Had I known the answer to any of these questions,” Joan Didion once said, “I would never have needed to write.”

Some writers, young and old, like to hear themselves thinking out loud, so I tell the chronically self-absorbed to avoid exhibitionism and to mine honestly those personal veins of ore and truth and insight in order to tap into the universal, to speak for Everyman, to illuminate the common ground between one life traveler and another. The exuberant essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once advised: “A writer is one who writes about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the universe which runs through himself, and all things.”

Some are driven by ego more than others, but ego is very often there (the appeal of the byline, the lure of fame). Undoubtedly, it requires a certain measure of ego — confidence at least, hubris in some — to think your thoughts, experiences and creations are so important they deserve to be read by others. Similarly, getting stuff in print eases the threat of living with your own insignificance. Your words carry your name, your very being, beyond the little pathways of your existence. You begin to think that your voice matters. Your scribblings are like graffiti, announcing to any who read or look or listen that Kilroy was here. In time you may long to convert that into something far more lasting — you aspire for immortality. “Oh that my words were now written,” Ed Abbey explained. “Oh that they were inscribed in a book! That with an iron pen and lead they were graven in rock forever.”

(Charles de Montesquieu, it should be noted, took another view: “A writer is a fool who, not content with having bored those who have lived with him, insists on boring future generations.”)

Many think the best part of this profession is getting out into the world, meeting people, learning about things, then writing about what’s been discovered. That is the journalist’s motive, to find something worthwhile, then holding it up to the light, turning it round and round to see the facets sparkling, then showing it to others.

I have often told students that writing is like fishing: Each venture is an expedition. You go out to see what you can catch and your aim, of course, is a big one; but all the while it’s just nice out there on the lake, casting, enjoying the scenery and the process, believing your next cast will land that prize. It’s just a great way to go through life, even for those of us still playing in the minor leagues.

That’s the other metaphor. How often have I told my son how I wish I had played minor league baseball, even for a year or two, for the pure enjoyment of the sport. And yet here I am, still playing another grand game mainly for the fun of it, even though the odds are very good I’ll never make the majors. Sometimes that bothers me; most of the time I am deeply grateful.

Students need to hear this. They need to know there is no falling-off point, no black hole that gobbles up aspiring writers. There is quite a range between John Updike and the guy who does newsletters for the local Sierra Club. There are footholds and niches all over the place. Besides, virtually all of us spend a lifetime riding the give-and-take of reality and dreams.

Students also need to know I write for money, that fees get discussed when I take on assignments, that even artists can be mercenaries at times. Despite the romantic pull toward the writer’s life, it would be naive to think that money doesn’t matter — or security, retirement plans and medical benefits. I envy those whose calling can stay separate from the need to generate income, whose vocation can be kept independent from making a living.

There is another reason I write, of course, and it goes back to my adolescent years when I read The Catcher in the Rye. The book touched me in places no one and nothing else had. And I thought how cool it is that someone I would never know could do that, could make the world a better, warmer place for me through words on a page. I wanted to be part of similar transactions. I wanted to put words to paper that got people in touch with the truths inside of them, that brought light to hollows and fields and backyards and darkened rooms. People write to share and touch. People write because it leads to understanding and understanding leads to all things good.

I’m not just talking about writing, though, when I talk with students about where they go from here. I talk about finding that sixth sense that can hear God calling, that shows us what gift is ours to give. I am convinced that people are happiest and most fulfilled when they are not motivated by self-interest or personal gain. The students need to see how they fit into a larger context that gives their efforts meaning, that serves others, that kindles generosity of spirit. People are at their best when they make their life an offering, when they see themselves as an instrument of some higher power.

I’m sure my son understands this. My father did too. He saw his work-life as a means of helping a company he believed in, of supporting a family, providing his children the best education they could have, being the foundation of a whole clan of scouts and dreamers. I also think he loved being an accountant. He loved the details, the precision, making the numbers all add up. So I also tell students, when they ask what major to choose or career path to follow, to listen to their heart, to the whispers and the hidden voices calling. What is it that pulls you? What kinds of books or projects or assignments do you lose yourself in? What lures you most when you’re sifting through the course catalog? What is it you’re doing when your imagination is engaged and time evaporates and you most feel like yourself? That’s the drummer you should listen to.

“Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport,” Thoreau wrote in that famous passage about men leading lives “of quiet desperation” and suggesting instead that they step to the music that they hear. “Through want of enterprise and faith men are where they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs.”

All jobs, all careers, all professions have pressures and problems that come with the territory. But you’re more likely to put up with these if you have chosen rightly to be there. A sense of ownership comes with a decision you’ve made for yourself that gets you through rough waters. You’re also more likely to find fulfillment if you’re working in whatever role in some profession — engineering or art, medicine, business, music or law — that appeals to your essential nature. Find the profession whose dwelling place feels like home.

I remember what it was like on Sunday nights, how I’d cringe at the thought of school the next day. I have never felt that way — on Sunday nights or Monday mornings or on the last night of a vacation — in my entire professional life; but I know people who dread the thought of going to the office tomorrow. “Find that place whose soul you want to inhabit,” I have told some students when I’ve gotten a little carried away, “where the work is good because the work is who you are.”

Students also need to know the decisions they are now making are not the last that they’ll confront. A lifetime is full of crossroads, open doors and indecisions. Maybe what’s best is to learn how to decide, what to factor in, what voices deserve an honest hearing. That’s important for me, my students, my son.

Four years have passed since that conversation with my son. He has now graduated, with a degree in journalism and plenty of published clips, experiences and internships. A career is there for him if he wants it. Right now, though, he is talking about a master’s degree in creative writing perhaps, or maybe some more schooling so he can teach. Either way, I figure, he will get his wish. He will become a cairn-builder, finding his own way and erecting those little statues of rock that serve as trail-markers for those who happen along after him. For now the trajectory of his life is ascendant and the rest of the journey is his.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine and has taught at Notre Dame and at Saint Mary’s College.

Edward Abbey
Ralph Waldo Emerson