Creator Q&A - Matt Cardin
The academic and fiction author shares some insights with our readers
Today I’m very pleased to share a Q&A with academic, college administrator and fiction author Matt Cardin. Combining high school teaching experience with college professor and college vice-president experience, Dr. Cardin has a PhD in leadership studies and a Master’s degree in religious studies. In addition to writing and publishing several books (fiction and non-fiction) and editing several others, Matt is also a classically trained pianist.
By the way, this interview can be considered part of the Generation Lens project that I’ve been working on in the background for a few months, whereby I ask people about their perceptions on some of the generational cohorts, from the Boomers to the Zs and those in-between. Like myself, Matt belongs to Generation X so it was interesting for me to read Matt’s answers.
When you were a teenager, what did you want to become when you grew up?
As a teen I wanted to be both a writer and a filmmaker. On the writing front, I had been reading voraciously and writing my own stories since grade school. In my teens I began to devour fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and also books on writing and authorship. I ended up writing a complete first draft of an original fantasy novel at age 15, aided by ideas on plot development and character creation that I had gained from Dick Perry's excellent book One Way to Write Your Novel. Today I have the notes for that novel but not the manuscript itself. I also wrote a complete novelization of the cult classic swords and sorcery movie Hawk the Slayer, which I taped on VHS from late-night television and watched repeatedly until I had it memorized scene for scene and word for word.
On the filmmaking front, I was equally obsessed with movies, especially fantasy, horror, and martial arts, and I engaged my friends and my sister in making short video productions with a VHS video camera. (This was the 1980s.) We used to record epic martial arts fights in my front yard. At age 18 I left home for the University of Missouri to major in film studies. I ended up being among the very last student cohort at the university to shoot projects on actual film, which we then cut and edited by hand. During my sophomore year, right when I was supposed to be looking ahead to launching fully into my major courses in filmmaking, the university announced that they were shutting down that program. I was seriously bummed. I ended up taking an alternative path by majoring in communication with an emphasis in radio and television production. Not exactly what I had wanted, but it gave me a degree, plus an initial career after college when I did video production work for the music shows in Branson, Missouri.
Why do you think some people are attracted to things that frighten them? Is it really fear or more like a morbid fascination?
Pardon me while I give an answer that's entirely predicated on the nondual understanding of things that has come to be the central factor in my life: People are attracted to things that frighten them because fear emphasizes the boundary between their perceived sense of identity and the wider realm of reality. Where do you start and end, and where does the world of otherness begin? There would be no such thing as fear if there were no contraction into a position of self-perceived subjectivity that then perceives and conceives of a world of otherness, of "not me," that can threaten the comfort, safety, and even basic integrity of this separate self. So all fear is a fear that one's self, the sanctity of one's individual identity, whether body, mind, spirit, or all of the above, will be damaged or breached or otherwise violated. Fear also of course extends to caring for the safety and comfort of other people with whom one feels a strong bond. That's just an extension of your own individual sense of identity, something that happens when that sense extends to encompass others so that your self-concern includes them as well.
My point is that fear is either the explicit or implicit fear of being undone, of being wounded or even annihilated when that boundary, however wide it extends, is punctured. And yet in the wider and deeper scheme of things, that separate, independent self with its physical boundary of skin and its psychological boundary of egoic perimeter is not real. It's a projection, a temporary role, a dream. As Bernardo Kastrup might put it, the individual self is like a whirlpool in a river. It's just a formation of the river itself. It's nothing separate or really existent on its own. Or you can use the classic metaphor of the wave on the surface of the ocean, which makes the same point. However you want to describe it, the fact is that identifying as an independent self automatically creates a fundamental longing to escape from that self, to return to or remember the absolute unity and lack of otherness, the unassailable peace, that is your real identity as the Absolute within which this relative dream of separation arises and into which it will eventually, inevitably disappear. Most of us metaphorize this longing by displacing it into individual longings for different things in our life experiences. But it's the one great longing for reawakening to who and what we really are beyond name and form that underlies them all. And though there are nominally pleasant and nurturing ways of cultivating the potential for this self-realization, there are also nominally unpleasant and negative ways. Fear is one of them. Horror is one of them. So fear and horror actually represent an inextricably intertwined DNA double helix that's one part fear and loathing and one part longing for release from this dream of an identity that has the capacity to be horrified and harmed because it has imagined itself to be a separate subjectivity in a world of objective otherness.
In addition to your PhD you have a graduate degree in religious studies. Did you ever intend to follow that up with a pastoral or religious role?
Yes, I have felt drawn to formal pastoral or religious work from time to time. I grew up in an evangelical Christian environment, and when it became evident in my childhood that I had a facility with words and a real drawing toward spiritual matters instead of just a perfunctory church-going attitude, that possibility came up. As an adult I have attended various Protestant churches, and at one point I was ordained as a deacon in a Southern Baptist Church. At another point I was trained and certified as a lay speaker in the United Methodist Church. I have also been the pianist at many churches and, in a couple of cases, the choir director. At a couple of points in my twenties and thirties, the possibility of an actual full-time pastoral career came up. But in truth, my path in regard to spiritual and religious matters is far more conventionally independent than institutional. So it's a good thing those previous possibilities didn't come to fruition.
Do you have a preference between typing vs writing with pen and paper?
My dad loved Hemingway, and as I was growing up he told me several times about Hemingway's assertion in A. E. Hotchner's memoir Papa Hemingway that he liked to write description and narration by hand but then switch to the typewriter for writing dialogue because it was faster, "because people speak like a typewriter works." Although I don't use the same approach, I think my subconscious memory of Hemingway's idea has influenced me. My earliest-written stories, including "Teeth," "An Abhorrence to Flesh," "Notes of a Mad Copyist," and "The Basement Theater," all started out as handwritten drafts which I then typed. (For "Teeth," when I say I typed it, I mean I did it on an actual typewriter, back in 1994.) A little later, I started creating entirely typewritten drafts using a word processor. But I retained the habit of starting out with copious handwritten notes that often turned themselves spontaneously into an opening paragraph or scene, at which point I would switch to the typewriter. So an organic relationship between typing and handwriting has been an important component of my creative and authorial career.
I might also mention that I have kept a journal for 30 years, and except for a few brief forays into typing it, I have conducted that self-directed writing practice in paper notebooks. Two volumes of my journal entries have now been published, one last year and the second this past spring. It was a bracing experience to revisit those stacks upon stacks of notebooks, and decipher my old handwriting, and see it take shape on the computer screen in a form it had never known before as I was creating the manuscripts. These days I still journal by hand while heading to the computer keyboard for most other kinds of writing. But I still have projects that feel better when they start in handwritten form. I think there's a certain intimacy in writing by hand, a closeness between the writer and the words, that's just not there when you use a typewriter.
This is quite a chestnut but what the heck: where do you get your ideas?
My ideas come from a combination of meditation (actual seated meditation practice), focused ideation, deliberate incubation, periods of total indolence, and voluminous, sometimes careless and omnivorous reading. I follow the energy waves of my daemon muse while also engaging in periods if disciplined, scheduled work. Sometimes there are no ideas at all. In my adult life I have disappeared several times into weeks and months of total inner silence as far as ideas for writing go. Then, for reasons unknown (those energy waves from my daemon muse again), the inner idea factory starts producing again.
Lately, after launching my Substack newsletter a year ago and also upping my Twitter/X presence with more frequent and focused posting, I have taken more and more to just sitting down and beginning to write with not much idea of what's going to come out. I liken this to William Stafford's wonderful description, in his necessary essay "A Way of Writing," of just getting words on paper and trusting that the coherence of your self will result in something meaningful, including discernible patterns over time. Honestly, I think that's what I have always done, from the time I was writing that fantasy novel in my teens to more recently when I have carried on an actual career as a published author. I have simply gotten words on paper and created discernible thematic patterns in the wake of that activity. Only I didn't know it. I thought I was going about things in a more deliberate way. Learning to surf the waves of whatever wants to come through my pen or keyboard in real-time has just been a clarification of how it always really worked without my noticing it.
I gather that you have been a full time academic for a number of years but you are now in an administrative role as a university (or college) Vice President. How has taking on the administrative duties changed your academic work?
I was previously a community college English professor teaching composition and literature courses, and also a course in world religions. Alongside that, I worked for several years in a college writing center and several additional years as a student academic advisor. So this all had me working for years right on the front lines, in a personal and grounded way, with students and with academic subject matters. Then after a year or two of having my duties shifted somewhat toward administration while still being faculty, I was catapulted definitively in that direction, all at once, by a mandate from above.
My role since then has been a combination of academic administration and managing institutional accreditation. Right now I'm a vice president of academic affairs. This means I'm my college's chief academic officer. Instead of teaching classes, leading student discussions, delivering lectures, developing curricula, grading papers, screening movies and videos, and spearheading an annual horror film festival — something I did for a total of nine years at two different colleges — I now attend cabinet meetings and board meetings, lead institution-wide strategic planning, serve as a liaison to both regional/federal and state higher ed governing bodies, manage a large operating budget, manage a set of deans and directors and associated offices under my organizational jurisdiction, lead my college's twice-annual convocation of all employees, put out various fires, and behind it all participate in never-ending executive-level discussions to track and ensure fiscal viability and responsibility. About the only thing that remains the same between the faculty role and the administrative one is that I'm on lots of committees. But now I'm the chair of most of them.
You may ask: Is it easy for me to look back with nostalgia on my former days of being a mere faculty member? And I may answer: Oh, yeah. That said, I've been surprised to find that my new roles in administration — well, they were new five years ago, anyway — have drawn on strengths I didn't fully know I had.
What's something about being a college/university administrator that most people don't know about or understand?
Until you've crossed over into administration, and until you've spent some time relating to people from that side, you simply can't understand what it's like, what a stark discontinuity it represents from what you did before. Did you ever see the movie My Fellow Americans, starring James Garner and Jack Lemmon as two ex-US presidents? At one point Lemmon says something that all administrators can relate to. Somebody tells him that he and Garner had ignored the voice of the people when they were presidents. And he responds hotly, "Oh, the 'voice of the people'? There is no such thing! You've got 240 million voices all yelling for something different. The only thing you all seem to agree on is you don't want higher taxes. 'The voice of the people' my fanny!"
When you become an executive administrator, suddenly everybody is coming to you and looking to you to have the answers, solve the problems, and be a simultaneous figurehead and barometer of the institution's current health. You're negotiating a multitude of competing requests and perspectives, and you're trying to find the best answer and course of action that will somehow be "right." Often this means trying to meet in the middle, where no requests are completely fulfilled and nobody's totally happy. Before, you were just one of the crowd. Now you're singled out, and all of your virtues and shortcomings are subtly magnified in people's perceptions. Yes, everybody "knows" this, theoretically. But I can tell you it's quite different when it's your real, everyday reality.
I sometimes compare the perspective shift for administrators to the epiphany that comes to new teachers when they enter the profession, which is a transition that I likewise know about from personal experience. Virtually all teachers get into that line of work because they want to devote their lives to a certain subject matter, and/or because they want to help and inspire other people in the same way they felt helped and inspired when they were students. They go into teaching with the mistaken but unconscious expectation that it will somehow be an extension of the good parts of what they felt and experienced in their own student journey. But once they get on that other side of the desk, they suddenly realize that it's all different. Now they’re responsible for the entire classroom. All of the students. Not just the ones who are like them. When you were a student, you had a one-to-one relationship with the teacher. You knew how you, and you alone, related to that person at the front of the classroom. Many teachers were good students. They may have rosy memories of their student days and their own teachers. But the relationship between teacher and student is asymmetrical. The teacher is responsible for teaching everyone, all those individual people in the class with their varying levels of ability, preparation, and motivation, and their different personalities. It feels completely different and quickly puts to rest any idealistic notions of being Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.
This is also what it feels like to go from being a faculty member to being an administrator. Are there perks? Sure. And if you're called to it, then you should do it. But it's just also one of those great power and great responsibility situations that Peter Parker talked about.
During your academic career have you seen many changes in the student cohorts that have gone through the academic system? Specifically, do the students you've seen through the systems fall into the generational cohorts (X, Y, Z, Boomer and demonstrating the "typical" traits of each generation) and do the newer generations seem to be significantly different than their predecessors?
There are two categories of difference among the generations. One is that Boomers and X-ers -- and I fall into the latter group myself -- are older than the other generational groups, so just by virtue of having a more extended life experience and all that goes with it, they're more serious and capable students, sometimes (though not always) academically, but very frequently in the area of basic life skills, cognitive maturity, personal maturity, and so on. This is just a human reality, partly based on neurological facts — the brain is still in adolescent developmental flux all the way through people's early twenties, to the end of the traditional age for graduating from college — and partly based on social factors. So in that way, older generations have always been different from younger ones.
But on the more specific subject of the different personality traits that are stereotypically associated with Boomers, X, Y/millennials, and Z, I can say that, yes, the younger generations do seem to be distinctly different from their elders. It seems like there's an extension of childhood going on, a lingering period of immaturity along the lines of personality development, at least according to the standards of previous generations. Or maybe that's not the right way to put it. It definitely has something to do with societal changes and technological changes. The whole environment in which people are brought up and enculturated is vastly different here in early twenty-first century America from anything we've ever known before. The pace of cultural and technological change has accelerated. Toffler's "future shock" has become, as Douglas Rushkoff cogently pointed out a few years ago, present shock, with no time even to get acclimated to what things are like at this very moment. This is a known fact and a standard story, but it's no less real for being so. Compared to some past generations, there's a new kind of lostness. And of course the youngest generations have grown up as the first in history to have known the Internet since birth. They're also growing up in a heightened period of ideological warfare, much of it enabled and insanely amplified by the Internet itself. This has an effect.
I used to be quite ready to assign a pessimistic value judgment to the whole thing. But in recent years I'm more inclined just to view it as part of the endless flux of what is. Young people are people, just like you and me, just like all of us. It really helps nobody to fall into the mindset of "Oh, the kids these days," which has been a trap since the dawn of human history. And besides, have you looked at adults lately and the collective reality we're co-creating? We don't have any real room to pat ourselves on the back. Today's younger generations are actually doing remarkably well considering the conditions we've left for them. Noticing this fills me not with pessimism but with an optimism that would have surprised a former version of me.
What is your prime time (if there is one) for writing fiction?
My prime time for writing fiction used to be late at night. I also found it stimulating for my creativity to write when I was stealing time from something else I should have been doing. But I haven't written fiction for awhile now, so I can't really say what my best time would be anymore.
Pretend you wake up one morning and you find out that the Internet has been destroyed. What's the first thing that you do?
I wake up one morning to find that the Internet is no more. I stand there silently in the early morning twilight, taking in the knowledge. Then I sit down and meditate like I do on most mornings. Then I drink coffee and engage in spiritual reading, like I do every morning. Only I do it with a greatly amplified sense of temporal slowness and the softness of the air around me. I feel a spinning top that has been whirling within me since my twenties, since 30 years ago, begin to slow down for the first time. I notice the sounds around me and the sensation of my feet on the floor. I inhabit the present moment and feel like I have just waked up from a long and terribly strange dream.
Thanks to Matt Cardin for his great answers! You can learn more about Matt here:
His TwitterX posts
How About This is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.