Photo credit: Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
I was raised in the '80s by a feminist. When I was a young child, Mum and my little brother and I often drove long distances together. Driving late into the night, we played our favorite songs over and over on the wonky little tape player at the front of our split-screen VW camper van
. I loved to sing along.
Sometimes as we drove, Mum would talk to me about the songs, pointing out the messages they were sending, explaining why some of those messages weren’t OK. She got me thinking about why
Charlene is so keen to persuade a “discontented mother and a regimented wife” not to run away and explore what else life might have to offer. (And what, for that matter, she might mean by “things that a woman ain’t supposed to see.”) She made me wonder why Eric Clapton thinks being a “wonderful” woman is all about looking good, being paraded around by him at a party, and then putting him to bed when he’s too drunk to get himself home. And why Tammy Wynette is so intent on telling you to “stand by your man” and that “if you love him, you’ll forgive him.” (…For what? Anything?)
To use a phrase coined much later by Feminist Frequency, Mum was teaching me to be critical of the media I love
. She taught me it’s OK to love something and still say what is wrong with it. Now I can do it myself: I can enjoy singing along to “Single Ladies” and still ask what kind of message it is sending when Beyoncé stresses over and over that “if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it.” (Is there something wrong
with unmarried couples?)
I was incredibly lucky to be raised this way. Critical thinking is your only armor in a world of intentional and accidental bullshit, propaganda, untruths, and bad guesswork. You are vulnerable, naked without it.
I was also lucky to find myself, as soon as I started going to school, in a series of environments where creative skills were taught and celebrated right alongside academic work. In my primary school in rural Wales, a six-year-old could study harp, and at my secondary school in Monmouth, teenagers were encouraged to write poetry for Eisteddfods. Because of this, I had the impression that creative practices were for everyone, and creative skills were something anyone could work to excel in. It wasn't some recherché world inhabited by a select few “natural geniuses.”
Given the encouragement I had to think critically as soon as I could think at all, and the power of those early invitations to creativity, perhaps it’s not surprising that I ended up as a philosopher-writer. Sometimes people ask me how these two parts of my work fit together: whether it’s really possible to balance academic writing and creative writing. I think this is an important question. I actually stopped
writing creatively for a big chunk of my life, at the time when I was most focused on learning to write academic journal articles and books (my graduate student days, and the early years of my academic career). Anecdotally, some other philosophers have told me that they’ve found their creative writing gets “shut down” by their academic writing.
In my own case, the issue had more to do with competition for time and energy than with intrinsic incompatibility. Writing a philosophy PhD, and feeling one’s way through the process of publishing one’s first journal articles or a first academic monograph, are incredibly
time- and energy-consuming activities. I didn’t have a lot of head space for other things. In the early stages of a research career, there is a lot of pressure to demonstrate that one can perform well at publishing in academic journals. Less conventional approaches are less likely to be rewarded with stable job prospects. (And there’s another whole conversation we could have!)
With academic credentials on the table, I have been able to move towards integrating my philosophical and creative writing. I’ve started to write more of my philosophy for a general audience, working to make the ideas accessible to anyone who is interested in them. Alongside traditional academic journal articles, I now also write op-eds, magazine articles, and essays; I do media interviews; I’ve pitched for funding to support collaborative projects that bring together philosophers and creative writers to think and write about love, and (in another stroke of luck) my pitches have found sympathetic ears.
When I say I am working to make my ideas accessible, I mean it. It is
work: I am developing a very different skill set from the one I learned in graduate school. To write something that can speak to a general audience, that can grab public attention long enough to explain some abstract ideas and convey a serious message, is nothing like writing a journal article that will probably only be read by 10 or so philosophers in your field who’ve been studying related material for years and were already interested in the topic anyway! It’s a bit like learning a new language. I have compared it to finding a new voice.
As I was writing What Love Is and What It Could Be
, I was guided in finding this new voice by my patient and diligent editor at Basic Books, Quynh Do, and I learned a lot by talking to my writer friends. I got help from my partners, too — one of them is a philosopher, and the other has taught creative writing for years. (Again, color me lucky.) Even with all this support, my first few steps into this new world showed me how much more there is to learn. So this year I became a student again: I’m now working part-time towards a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, in addition to my day job as a philosophy professor. It’s hard work, for sure, but more and more over time I find my two skill sets are pulling me together rather than apart.
One of the figures inspiring me in this process is Bertrand Russell
, known to philosophy undergraduates everywhere for his interest in whether or not the King of France is bald, and better known to everyone else as a public intellectual and activist who led resistance to nuclear armaments, sexual puritanism, anti-gay laws, uncritical thinking, and many other things. Russell wrote some mind-blowingly good academic philosophy that still takes pride of place on philosophy syllabi today, but he also won a Nobel prize for literature on the strength of his public-facing writings. He showed me by example that a successful academic can also be a successful writer: he didn’t see any problem with this and neither do I. Russell and I went to the same school.
I don’t mean that as a figure of speech; I mean literally. Trinity College, Cambridge, is both of our alma maters. Coincidentally (or perhaps not so coincidentally), Trinity is also the college of philosophers Wittgenstein
and G. E. Moore
, the poet Byron
, and (one of my personal favorites) A. A. Milne
, creator of Winnie the Pooh. The college where I was being encouraged to do great philosophy was simultaneously filling my head with the idea that I could also be a poet or write stories about adorable bears. (I don’t know how much luck one person can rack up in a lifetime, but I do know that nobody’s achievements emerge from a vacuum.) When I was up at Trinity, the college ran poetry prizes, and one year I entered and won. I don’t think very many people must have entered, as the angsty teen poetry I was writing at the time was fairly dire. But on the strength of this, I was invited to attend a small masterclass workshop run by Sophie Hannah, then Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at the college. This was shortly before I stopped writing creatively in order to focus on my academic career. Now that I look back on it, it’s incredible how well I was being supported on the off chance
that I might want to be a writer later.
There is a point to this story: it’s not just that I got lucky. It’s the way
I got lucky. The biggest breaks I got in my life were about having people around to convince me of possibilities. That I could think for myself. That I could love something and still critique it. That I could be a philosopher. That I could be a writer. That I could be both. I had all kinds of possibilities handed to me.
But nobody told me I could have a love life that didn’t look like the monogamous norm. Mum never told me it was OK to be in love with two people. Not once in all the education I got from my wonderful schools and universities was that so much as hinted at. Bertrand Russell actually did write about this subject, but those
books were never on my syllabi. I had to find that possibility for myself. It took me 30 years to realize I might even want to.
What Love Is and What It Could Be
is a book about possibility. What love could be matters as much to me as what it is — perhaps even more. Possibility is a form of power, and often a form of privilege. It is also a gift that can be given: paid back or paid forward, as the universe allows.
÷ ÷ ÷
Carrie S. I. Jenkins
is Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and a nationally elected Canada Research Chair. Jenkins received her BA, MPhil, and PhD degrees from Trinity College, Cambridge. She previously held academic posts at the University of St. Andrews, the Australian National University, and the University of Michigan. What Love Is and What It Could Be
is her first book.