Posted by: Miguel Clark Mallet | 4 April 2011

Intelligent Design

More than 20 years ago, while working on a master’s in creative writing and starting to consider teaching, I interviewed a professor in the art department. I had heard that she was a good teacher, and I had seen and admired her artwork, so I wanted to know how she balanced her creative life with teaching. How did she get them to fit? She told me that, basically, she didn’t. She kept them in separate compartments. I found her response thoroughly unsatisfying, but during the past couple of decades, I’ve often experienced that same split. Looking back, I can understand her answer, but I’m still dissatisfied with it. The various parts of my life too often feel like separate gears that I can’t get to mesh. One gear runs smoothly, but another is stuck or grinding or spinning out of control. I’ve seen plenty or people—maybe even most people—willing to accept the lack of integration, the spinning and lurching, jerking back and forth. I suppose it’s a sign of my stubbornness that I haven’t.

I’m beginning to think it’s all about design. The American Heritage tells me that design can be lots of things, but two definitions explain what I have in mind: “the purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details” and “a basic scheme or pattern that affects and controls function or development.” That’s what I want: a design for what my life is about. I want a something to help me arrange these far-flung parts and show me how they fit together. I want to bring some order to this chaos.

Now I know that this doesn’t just happen. It involves taking time to make some conscious choices; some of those choices will be hard, involving competing values. And after all, one of my objectives is bringing a deeper, more open sense of play to my life. Design sounds like it would be the opposite of that. But I’ve come to realize that one thing play needs—at least when it comes to me—is structure. Despite what some of my students over the years have thought, creative writing isn’t writing without rules; it’s writing that plays with and against the rules. A poem isn’t any old string of words; it’s a string of words arranged in a certain way. I’ve also realized that no one is going to make that structure for me. I’ve got to figure out how to build it myself, for myself, and not try to make anyone else live in it.

I know, I know. A more mature, self-actualized person would have done this a long time ago. But let’s quit whining about past lapses and see if I can get to some basic principles.



  1. I love this post. I think you’re expressing something that’s pretty common. It’s funny, though. It always seems, at least to me, that everyone around me has it all figured out except for me. I’ve tried many times to try and get my professional/personal/familial selves merged into one coherent whole, but more often than not I feel like I fail at it. Maybe if we just realized that this was more common that we thought, and just accepted or somewhat schizophrenic existence, we would be better off. Of not better at least feeling less guilty.

  2. Kris,
    Thanks for your comment. Looking back now (since I wrote this nearly a year ago), I would come at it a bit differently. I’m feeling less a need to *build* a design and more a need to *recognize* what I now believe to be a design that already exists. That is, I think there *is* a coherence. It just doesn’t look the way I expect coherence to look. So I’m wondering now if it’s a matter of letting the coherence *emerge.*

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