Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric;
out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.
-William Butler Yeats
With a nod to Mr. Yeats’ observations on quarrels, I’ve seen Jan’s rhetoric lead to a few. Otherwise placid student critiques have occasionally turned into conflagrations within 30 seconds of Jan starting to speak. And yes, his concise opening volleys sometimes have the quality of shock-and-awe. Ones that might get defenses up. But then you realize that intellectual caffeine has arrived. And sometimes it takes a flaming Molotov Cocktail to get your attention.
Jan’s not a gratuitous provocateur. He takes art seriously. But then, he takes many things seriously. Even camera bags and Chinese takeout (and no, he doesn’t share - don’t ask - get your own egg rolls.) But the passion of his conviction is always washed down with the bracing counterpoint of his wit.
I first experienced Jan as an electrical current.
Having just joined the MFA faculty at Maine Media College, I was attending my first retreat. A student presented their latest work. Then the faculty spoke. I saw that a Jan critique of student work leaves the listener feeling like they’ve just touched a third rail. If you aren’t grounded it might electrocute you, but more likely you’ll get the power you need to get to the next station. For an artist, that means an opportunity to shed dead skin, see your work through new eyes. Grow. While he’s as compassionate as anyone I know, the greatest gift he’ll give you is honesty.
Alas, Jan got a Molotov Cocktail thrown at him. A prognosis concerning his health. He’ll fill you in. As I write this, he’s doing well. May that remain the case for a long time. But, while figuring out how much weight to rest in this life, he even turned his illness into creative reflection.
The novelist Richard Ford once said something along the lines of: being a writer means being aware of your reactions to things. Which is just another way of saying that artists have a third eye. Even as they’re experiencing life, joy, pain, there’s a cold eye observing everything that’s happening. Distilling, reflecting. Take this passage that Jan wrote in reaction to the early days of his illness and the ensuing treatment.
The photographers among you might have noticed that the CT scanner was taking an image every 0.6 mm for the length of my chest, then reconstructing that into 3 mm slices. That is one hell of a lot of photos. Somehow my PET scan never got put in the system and I had to take my copy to PenBay Radiology to have them upload it. 600,000 images. Took a while. If I printed them each on 8 x 10” paper and butted them together, I’d need 500,000 feet of wall space for the exhibit. 94 ¾ miles. A one inch border on each side would increase that by about 19 miles. Of white space. 2,400,000 thumb tacks.
A glimpse of the buffet that follows. Meditations on art, life, illness, teaching, tools, process, and yes - camera bags. Even though mine became a writing life, photography was my first love. I found his pages on his art so intoxicating that they got me to pick up a camera again.
When Jan gave me the raw manuscript to read, I was cognizant of the hazard that goes with a friend giving you their pages to read. You might need to find nice things to say. Shame on me. I should have known better. It was one of the best reads of my year. Seriously.
I got into the cycle of reading a chapter a day. First thing in the morning, before getting out of bed. Why? They woke me up. Coffee was redundant. They fired me for the day ahead. Reminded me that I’m living a creative life.
May they do the same for you.
Wayne Beach is a fine screenwriter, a superb teacher, and a valued friend.