A Zen December

The Petroglyphs at Kohala, Hawai'i

by cheri block

I had a zen December this past year.

It came about because of a stinging comment my professor made to me while we were in conference.

She told me that there was “too much me” in everything I wrote for her and in my presentation.

Too much me?


Having taught smart high school students all my life, I (luckily) had on my bulletproof vest.

I’ll take that under consideration, was my reply and I walked out, wheeling my little briefcase full of books on medieval warhorses, Viking ships, and the Norman Conquest.

I trundled three blocks to CoHo, the coffee house on the university campus. I ordered tea with lemon. The spoon stirred around in the tea. Maybe there is too much of me in everything I do and write, I thought.

That night, when I arrived home, I dusted off all of my books on Zen Buddhism and began reading again, after a twenty-year hiatus.

Receding from ego has had tremendous spiritual rewards.

Detaching from wants and needs and instead, focusing on a bigger picture, is calming and clarifying.

The self does stamp her feet, every now and then. But that’s OK.

My professor and I met last week to go over my research paper. She asked me how I was doing and I replied, I’m beat.

Can I make you a cup of tea? she asked.

Then, she returned my paper to me.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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43 Responses to A Zen December

  1. Well, Cheri, I like the you in your essays. You make me laugh and know you better.

    And, when you have a second, could you tell me more about this bulletproof vest? I think I need to find one that would fit over my big fat head. Maybe I could look around on Amazon for one.

    • Cheri says:

      🙂 Always love it when you stop by my blog, MJ.

      The bullet proof vest fits over the head when you put it on, so when you locate one (somewhere under your couch in your office), just wrap it around your head as we women do when we wash our hair.

  2. Was she referring to your academic writing or your creative writing? Not sure how you can have too much me in either of them–your ideas, emotions, interpretations, etc.

    Nevertheless, it’s never a bad idea to embrace Zen thinking in general living.

    AND. What did she think of the paper?

  3. I once had a teacher, a psycholgist of repute, who thought that there was too much me in my papers and not enough HER.

  4. sablock says:

    In its purist form, living “the way” of Zen can be boring to those around us (certainly less risky and perhaps healthier, but…) while humility and the focus of our thoughts inward are important, lets face it, some people are more interesting than others. Boring people who don’t have anything to say often criticise those who are open, transparent and have something interesting to offer.

    The logical extension of your professor’s criticism, would leave no room for first person narratives; the autobiography would cease to exist; the substance of novels would be no more than the boring pablum fed to the masses.

    I say, if you’re interesting and have something to say, then say it.

    • Cheri says:

      Excellent observations about first person and narrative writing.
      I agree, Steve, but the ego by its very nature, usually thinks it’s fascinating…

  5. Philippe says:

    By saying there is too much “you” in what you write for her, your professor was implying that it would be alright if there is at least some of “you” in what you write for her. Did she specify how much of “you” that she would find acceptable?

    Given that what any of us (including professors) say or write has “us” in it, so that all of what we say or write says at least as much about “us” as about the content of what we say or write, what did your professor’s remark say about her?

    • Cheri says:

      I was so insulted, I forgot to ask her how much “me” was acceptable in academic writing.

      Well, I have my theories, but in the name of professionalism, I’ll refrain from sharing them.

  6. Richard says:

    Too much you? Never! 🙂

  7. Cyberquill says:

    I sympathize with your professor, for I have the same problem with your blog. All I want is the facts. Instead, I counted exactly 14 (fourteen!) instances of the word I in this short post alone (excluding your professor’s I in “Can I make you a cup of tea?), and I didn’t even bother counting your me‘s.

    Speaking of me, if you carved lines into me, I’d be a petroglyph, too.

  8. ana terán says:

    Disagree with your teacher!!!!! Zen is all right. But. You is what makes me read you, you is what, for me and most of your readers, makes the difference. If looking for an academic, dull, boring, humorless and heartless blog look somewhere else, there’s more than plenty to choose from. I’ cheri-sh your notes. They almost always put a smile on my face. ❤

  9. Cheri says:

    I will take your thoughts into consideration Ana.
    Thank you.

    • Cheri says:

      Just noticed the cheri-ish…


      Gracias, my amiga.

    • Geraldine says:

      I second Ana. And, I’m glad you have special blog Knights to rally around you when it hurts. What’s it like?

      ps. I truly enjoy the ‘you’ in your writing on this blog.

      • Cheri says:


        Not quite sure what your question is.

        What’s it like to have Knights rally around? Is that it? If so, then what woman (Jenny will kill me for this statement and my friend Heather) doesn’t appreciate Knights willing to come to her defense? I’m old-fashioned enough to enjoy chivalry.

        Those who remember my posts on the Wife of Bath will remember that I also enjoyed her independence, though.

        I have my own Knight here at home. Instead of a hauberk and destrier, he wears a robe and drives a John Deere tractor.
        Odd combination for sure.

  10. Well, as I see it, three fantastic results came out of that comment by your teacher:

    1) You hit the Zen books again, which is always a good idea.

    2) You became aware of EGO, which I, for example, must reacquaint myself with every single day, because by the end of the day mine has reared its head again. It never helps in writing, at least not in the long term.

    3) You’ve bulletproofed yourself and are now ready to contemplate the meaning of “too much me” and “just enough me” and so forth in your writing. That’s another thing I have to do every single day. Never a bad discipline.

    I would say your teacher was trying to say something helpful (always assume first that others are trying to help, not hurt, until you know otherwise), and was leaving it up to you to contemplate.

    On my blog, I’ve been writing under this under the tags “tone” and “voice”. As you might recall, I struggled to find my voice when writing my book. What I discovered is that my writing in The Economist, on my blog, in my book, in emails, in letters etc etc requires different voices, bespoke voices, appropriate voices. I think that’s what your teacher might have been trying to say….

    • Cheri says:

      Hello Andreas,

      1) Absolutely, and I find reading Zen wholly centering and “perpectivizing”.

      2) My professor did mean well. ( It was the way she delivered this abrupt statement that floored me.) Wrestling with my ego during the months of December and January has been most therapeutic.

      I have followed your tags on voice and tone throughout the years and encourage other readers to do the same.

      In my paper on William the Conqueror, I experimented with my ego by allowing some phrases in. Surprisingly, the professor did not strike those. What she did object to (which was fair comment) was my “assumption” that the Bayeux Tapestry not only portrays the water crossing accurately, but also suggests accuracy in the events that led up to the Battle of Hastings. For that, ink spilled all over the early pages of the paper.

      Lastly, I agree wholeheartedly (as one who has doled out to my students much criticism, both academically and socially,) that criticism is usually meant for the good. As I remind Judge Blah every now and then, “It’s how you say it, not what you say.”

      • Aha. That gets more interesting. Since I was privileged to read that particular paper, I know what we’re talking about.

        By the sound of it, her feedback had nothing whatsoever to do with “too much you” (by which I understand personal anecdotes, idiosyncratic turns of phrase, casual humor etc).

        Instead, she implied you should have expressed more scepticism about your primary sources.

        As it happens, a pedant could easily (and almost certainly will) accuse me of the same thing once my book comes out.

        I base the historical parts on Polybius and Livy and Plutarch, and make no attempt to “edit” or second-guess them at all. I want them to disappear into the background so that the book reads like a novel.

        You were probably trying to achieve that same effect (with success, I add) in your paper. And she got all academic on you. Basically: It read too well. When writing academese, you must interrupt yourself with definitions, cite things and square brackets, and insinuate that everybody else …. has no clue.

  11. wkkortas says:

    I think one of the most difficult things to deal with when you write something, be it fiction or an academic paper, is to divorce yourself from the work–and especially criticism of the writing. Even if you have been on the other side of the desk and are able to understand what the professor/critic is trying to say, I cannot imagine that any of us can be so detached or dispassionate about our writing that we can be unaffected when someone finds fault in our writing.

    • Cheri says:

      Hi wk,
      It is a difficult but necessary practice in some academic writing.
      Last year, my professors had more “fun” in them and allowed me to sneak in and out in my commentary, sometimes even suggesting that my essays were “fun to read.”
      This particular professor, and I might add the chairwoman of the department, did not see it that way.

  12. Cheri says:

    You are absolutely right. In her one page assessment of the paper, she indicated that the healthy skepticism she had seen in my class participation had left me while writing the paper.

    In other papers written for her, she asked me to excise my modern references and clever wordplay. Boo hoo!

    For example, in calling Cassandra a “crazy lady”, the professor indicated I should have said “mad”. I tend to agree with her.

    She also said my writing was elliptical. I’m still not sure what she meant but it wasn’t a compliment.

    I will wait to read the reviews when your book comes out. 🙂 It’s all very exciting as you prepare for a flurrious fall.

  13. Steve says:

    I read her grading comments and thought they were thorough and thoughtful. She honored you paper by actually reading it and taking the time to carefully convey her observations. I thought that was flattering.

    I largely agree with Andreas.

    • Cheri says:

      You have been my history sounding board since I began this program. Your point of view, I cherish. You know what it is like to score long boring legal papers, full of Latin verbs/nouns strung together like boxcars…so, your observations are important to me. (God, wasn’t I a drama queen last quarter?)

  14. Please, Cheri, you know what it’s all about. Your courage and perceptiveness are huge. You can easily accommodate your teacher’s point of view, including the delivery. SGCx

  15. Cheri says:

    Yes, SGX, and I did (and do).
    This post was about a number of issues.

    Primarily, I had hoped it to be a statement about ego. How the “I” becomes more centered, compassionate, and creative (to segue into Andreas’ latest post about Mendel and peas), when we step way back. My December was a giant and concerted step back from my self.

    Secondly, the post was about writing, which as Philippe observes, is a reflection of self. How much self is the trick. You are correct in reminding me (sometimes I can be sensitive like an Arabian horse) to put on my hauberk, ride on in to the conference, and just plain listen with that armor on. Thanks for that.

    Lastly, I was trying to show that even the harshest criticism can (if we agree with ourselves to reflect) make us better people and in this case, better writers.

    This professor has given me a big gift.

  16. Sorry, sister, I’m not buying it. You’re still making what happened mean something about you.

    You’ve collapsed “what happened” (your teacher said there’s too much you in your writing and that it’s elliptical) with the story you’re telling yourself about what happened: “I’m too much”.

    • Cheri says:

      What happened at the preliminary conference in November–to discuss my prospectus and evaluate my oral presentation on Richard Rhodes’ book about the making of the A-bomb–was life-altering. At the time, I took parts of the meeting personally and felt “hurt”.

      But I am not one (at this stage of my life) to let another define me or my writing.
      However, once we stop considering the content of harsh criticism and what hidden insights it may have for us, then our growth stops and begins to atrophy.

      That’s all I was trying to show. Personal hurt, reconsideration, enlightenment, change of behavior (in some ways)

      I will still continue to tell personal stories on this blog!

  17. zeusiswatching says:

    She has opened another door for you. Something like this happened to me too. I think it was very helpful.

    My applied research project, diagnosing and offering solutions to the management issues at a local deli, had too much of my personal feelings in it to please my professor. It was well received by my client, the deli owner.

    Academia has important rules. The client (yes, I mixed work and school perfectly) was well pleased, but I understand that others would want something closer to what the University wanted. It was still an “A” but I now can produce a range of “A” work.

    • Cheri says:

      Excellent example, much more tangible than the one I provide, of personal growth.

      Thanks for sharing this Zeus. As a small business owner, I am interested in what specific changes you offered to the deli owner.

      • zeusiswatching says:

        Well, she eventually started a new business enterprise and closed this one down. However, the recommendations specific to this business were to delegate more work to staff, and not to “micro-manage” staff while they worked. These things were taking away a lot of time that she needed for other things. “Micro-manage” is a phrase that wasn’t used in the document I produced, but it is a catch-all that included a number of things she was doing.

        Sometimes, in circumstances like this blog, the audience wants you, the person. We want your feelings, bound up with your thoughts in a bias that we value and welcome. In the case of my client the deli owner, that just happened to be what she wanted, but that is not what every potential client, or reader wants. I admit, I only got it right by chance, in the future I know another way to write and work that is less about chance and more about careful decision making.

        Your prof. like mine, has given you the tools to actually be more flexible, and responsive to your target audience. Constructive criticism is harder in some ways because it is actually a call to improve or correct something that probably does need work. Regular criticism is something we can just ignore if we choose.

  18. bogard says:

    Very intriguing discussion about how our personal style/personality gets infused in writing, making us vulnerable. Manuscripts for scientific journals are always supposed to be “objective.” However, peer review, i.e. criticism, is rarely received in that manner. The process has taught me a clear lesson: Don’t take criticism personally. Admittedly, hard to do. My students must engage in some level of feedback with their fellow students in some courses and I, as their instructor, must provide feedback to them in the form of grades, and at times, assess their personal/professional behavior. The most difficult part is getting them to buy into the “it’s not personal” component. They equate their perfomance with their person, as we all do at times. Our own work is personal by nature, and it is extremely difficult to divorce our personality, our being, from the work, no matter how objective the material. It takes practice and reflection to be able to put aside the ego and embrace the process. In the end we hope to become more enlightened about self as-well-as better writers. Those who provide the criticism are never free of bias or ego, either. Thanks, Cheri, for instigating this very interesting discussion.

    • Cheri says:

      Thank you bogard, for this addition to the conversation.You lend another perspective here, that of a professor’s.

      I’d echo your wise line “…it takes practice and reflection to be able to put aside the ego and embrace the process…”

      Isn’t this true for conversations on any sensitive topic be it religious, political, sexual, or other?

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