Corey Arnold on Kyoto and Doing

Noodle Expert Corey Arnold discusses ways in which American students can learn from Japanese perspectives on history, how he almost failed his first college English course, and an important piece of advice he got from his father.

Noodle Expert Corey Arnold discusses ways in which American students can learn from Japanese perspectives on history, how he almost failed his first college English course, and an important piece of advice he got from his father.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

My great-grandfather, Howard Waite, was an engineer and architect who lived in Northern California through the height of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s. He was a sort of fringe thinker, very left-of-center as far as I can gather, and he and his wife built a community of like-minded artists and intellectuals who lived together in handmade homes he designed and built on the side of a mountain called Vision, in Marin County. He died when I was very young, so most of what I've gathered about his life has come second- or third-hand. I learned recently, for example, that in the 1980s he petitioned the U.N. to build a railway system that began in South Africa and traversed the entire planet, up through Europe and across Russia, over a bridge to the Americas and down into Patagonia. It was his solution to the military-industrial complex. I'd love to spend a year with him, to learn carpentry but also just to ask him how he was able to remain intellectually optimistic and creative so late into life.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

Around the time I graduated from college my dad gave me a little notecard with three pieces of advice on it, the first of which was just the single word “Do.” I can’t remember now what the other two pieces said, but that single imperative — to do — has been an animating force in my life ever since. I’ve interpreted it as encouragement to always favor action over inaction, especially in the realm of writing, where learning how to communicate with your inner editor (the one who says “don’t”) is a huge part of the process. By following the rule of “do” I’ve learned that all the ideas that live and die inside my head never really lead a life at all. I try to remember now that every idea needs a sentence, and sentences need some room to walk around before you learn whether or not they're any good. All that stuff happens on the page, but the process won’t start until you “do.”

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

Definitely Japan, probably Kyoto. I think it's important for young people, especially young Americans, to see a nation with a deep and robust history. We sometimes forget how young America is, at least as a modern nation-state, and it's completely fascinating to encounter a culture that has learned difficult lessons across huge swaths of time. You often see Japanese people reach back into a long and complex cultural history to solve their contemporary problems, and that's just not something Americans tend to do. This kind of thing is most obvious in Kyoto, the ancient capital, because the old and new worlds are so starkly, though not discordantly, juxtaposed in the art and architecture.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I was a high-achieving student in the little film studies program at my university, and one of the professors there convinced me to major in English literature. In my first course with him, British Lit 1, I busted out a paper on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the same cavalier way I was used to writing my film papers. I got a D, a low one, and the professor sat me down straight up and said “try harder or I'll fail you in the course.” I learned then that native talent and latent ability can only take you so far in writing — the rest of it, maybe most of it, involves long hours at the desk, lots of note-taking, and dramatic attempts at revision.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I love reading, I love writing, I love talking. I think that's true of most people in my field, which is why it's so crowded at the moment. I rarely find that coveted “flow” state, where you really sink into a task and time just seems to pass by without your knowledge of it, but when I do it's always because I'm talking with someone about film and literature. As an English teacher, this is a huge part of my job, just talking and listening, and responding to my students. The other half is grading papers, which I didn't expect to be so emotionally exhausting. That's not to say I don't enjoy it, just that it takes a lot out of me, and that's been a surprise.

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