When I was a senior in collge, I walked out of my bathroom one day having just shaved off a beard. One of my roommates--a wizened, mid-20s, perennial student/non-student type who was supposedly a history major but didn't take classes --gave me a scrutinizing stare and said, "You're working on a paper, aren't you?" Indeed I was and told him so. How did he know? "I can't tell you how many beards I lost to papers in my career." He then went on to explain to me his theory: Growing or removing a beard was not a mere matter of altering one's "look" but represented a reaction to some external stress; more specifically, a decision to address that stress with concrete action. In other words, it represented a change in your inner person; perhaps even your outlook.
I thought of my roommate this week as I removed a beard I've owned since December of 2008, a record length for my beard keeping. In my life, I've grown and removed perhaps a half-dozen beards, keeping them for little more than a few months, always reverting to a bare face. This one lasted nearly a year, and shows up in several identification pictures: my driver's license, my international driver's license, my university ID, the "Profile" section of this blog, the back of my novel Burnt Norway, and the web site of the UCA Writing Department, where I work. Though I've been bare faced for probably 90% of my adult life, in every significant official record I am presently identified as bearded.
Blame it on Van Gogh. I did not grow my beard with him in mind, but as I composed the Paris scenes last spring (the section I wrote last), began significant revisions on the entire book last May while I stayed near Arles, and continued those revisions last summer and this fall in Arkansas while on sabbatical, the idea of shaving off the beard occurred to me several times. "Usually, it would be gone by now," I said to myself over and over. And yet I resisted shaving it off. I didn't want to, and it had nothing to do with how I looked. I just wanted to have it. Recently, I reached a point with the novel where I don't think anything more of substance needs to be added, I have removed as much as I feel comfortable removing, and I've line edited the entire manuscript. In other words, I might actually be done. At the very least I am at a major pause point in which I now need to wait for feedback from my wife and others before I can move forward into the next stage of revision--whatever that is. Having reached this point, however, I suddenly became comfortable with the idea of removing my beard. I thought of doing so one morning, and it was gone that afternoon. No fretting, no debating, no hesitating.
Only after shaving it off did I fully realize my reason for keeping the beard all these months. Being so involved with Van Gogh and his life, I think I counted it as a psychological aid to wear a short, clipped beard like he did. While my beard was salt and pepper and his was reddish brown it felt to me, especially as the months drew out, as an immediate and intimate way of drawing close to him. I didn't want to sever that bond, out of an almost superstitious fear for what it might do to my novel in progress. But the novel, as I said, may be done or has at least reached a significant point in the history of its making. While I wait for feedback, I've actually started writing other things! I finished a 20 page short story yesterday morning and began another story yesterday afternoon. I can't tell you how long it's been since I wrote a shortstory--or anything that had nothing to do with Vincent Van Gogh. I can now safely begin to put space between myself and my manuscript and Vincent. I've made the decision. And, just as my old roommate would have predicted, I finally did something about that beard.
(Above: Me with and me without, as photographed by my son. No, I never did look like Van Gogh. But that wasn't really the point.)