100 Dallas Creatives: No. 89 Literary Lion Thea Temple
Courtesy Thea Temple
Mixmaster presents "100 Creatives," in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order. Know an artistic mind who deserves a little bit of blog love? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the whos and whys.
To say that Thea Temple's childhood was typical would be an understatement. Early on she was taught the value of language and creativity, which explains why she's dedicated her life to teaching and advocating for literature. Her mother was extremely creative yet very protective; rather than allowing Temple to play with other kids, Temple would spend time with her mother. She was taught to read - poetry in particular. Most kids are not able to quote "Kubla Khan" by their eleventh birthday. But Temple could. She was also introduced to comic books, reading about heroines such as Wonder Woman and Super Girl.
"It was the only place in the '50s and '60s where a female could be powerful and that was really exciting to me to know that was an option," she says. "In the '60s, you'd see Bewitched and I Dream of Genie, where these ultra-powerful females who had to pretend like they were not powerful."
She even created a superhero named Duplicate Boy, whom she submitted to DC Comics and was actually used.
After a lifetime of learning and teaching, in 1995 Temple and her late husband, Jack Myers, founded the Writer's Garret, a non-profit literary center in Dallas. As the Executive Director, Temple took the Garret from a local writers' group to a nationally recognized literary center reaching 1.75+ million readers and writers. Despite the financial hardships the Garret has faced in recent years, Temple has persevered, much like the superheroes she admired. Her passion for literature and educational outreach has never wavered and neither has positive outlook on the future of reading and writing in the U.S.
What was the inspiration behind the Writer's Garret?
When I was at the NEA one of my first trips was to The Loft Literary Center in St. Paul, MN and The Loft is like the grandaddy of all literary centers. I went there and realized there is an alternative to the academy; you don't have to work at a university. Universities are like looking through the past darkly. You have to go past all this gauze of the years and the ages and all that interpretation. And here is living literature--it's happening now. Instead of trying to interpret what Shakespeare meant, you can ask today's Shakespeares. It was just a revelation for me. Things can term on a dime. At literary centers you can go to your board of directors. It takes years to make a change at a university. It's like the difference between jazz music and Beethoven's Fifth.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Cincinnati but I was a Midwestern brat. I was born in Illinois and before I was five, I lived in Illinois, Arizona, Massachusetts and then Cincinnati. We traveled a lot and I think that's important. As a kid you're try to get fixed on certain ideas of the way things are and then they get broken up and you're someplace else that is culturally very different and your perception is once again shattered until finally you start becoming open-minded.
How did you go from teaching to working for the National Endowment for the Arts?
A friend of mine, looking to network and job search, invited me to join her for the anniversary of Antioch College's "Antioch Review" in Ohio. The conference was filled with panels discussing literature and academia. On one of the panels was the Director of the NEA Literature Program. The other panelists were all lamenting and whining about how there was nothing new going on in literature. They complained that everything was so hackneyed and there was no innovation. And it really ticked me off because it was the first time I'd ever seen that minorities were entering into literature, women were starting to have a voice and not have to change their names. I felt that literature was becoming a very culturally diverse. I got really mad about that and I stood up, got real feisty and said, "How could you say that? There were voices that had never been expressed in print before that are regularly making an appearance now, how can you say that?" As I was getting ready to leave, someone calls out: "Hey you! Hey you!" It was the Director and he was looking for a special assistant up in D.C. and wanted to know if I might be interested in applying for the position. Within three months, I was in D.C. and worked there for two years.
What are the greatest obstacles facing Texas' appreciation and funding for reading and writing programs?
There are two things and I think they are interrelated. Texas is not big on its appreciation of the arts and of reading and writing. It's just not that supportive of it. If you don't take my word for it, take a look at the funding for the institutions, look at the cuts that are happening, look at libraries and how underfunded they are. This is not my interpretation. Texas puts its money where its values are. Let's look at sports. It's really difficult to say look, art is what endures, and that's what people remember. That's what people go to see when they travel; they go to see the art --and architecture and those types of cultural expressions of the human spirit. That's what people are curious about. Nobody goes to see where a bowling match was back fifty years ago. And don't get me wrong, my late husband was a big sports fan so I'm not try to belittle sports. I'm talking about the imbalance of it. I believe in exercising body and mind. I'm frustrated because so much funding goes into the sports in neglect of the arts.
The other problem is making the case of why what we do is valuable. I think of it like water. People always take water for granted until you don't have it. I can see literature as that kind of expression. If it's done well, you don't notice it, you're just hydrated. But the minute they go to a movie where the writing is bad, the say, "Oh, I can't believe I paid $17 for that." Nine times out of 10 it's because the writing is bad. You can have great acting and a terrible vehicle or a terrible vehicle and not even that great production values but writing is what usually holds it together and makes it worth seeing. People just notice when it's not there. We've had such good water in this country that for many, many years people never thought that bottled water would never go over in the U.S. People thought, nobody's going to pay for that but now look at it.
What needs to be done in order to strengthen these issues concerning the arts?
There has to be a paradigm shift so people understand that we are a language-bearing species. Without superior language skills, you cannot be upwardly mobile. You can't be forward thinking. You can't change the world. Even something of artificial construction like government--you always hear these borderline uneducated people talk about our forefathers and all of them were extraordinarily well-read, they wrote beautifully. They valued it. They had more libraries and they read everything they could get their hands on. I heard on a NPR station talking about third-world countries and a lot of third-world countries are putting money into literature and their reading and writing programs because they know that's where the secret of power is.
Where do you think we are heading and is it getting any better?
It is but not intentionally. It's because the Internet is text-based so there's a real opportunity for reading and writing. Yes, we're doing things like "LOL" but that doesn't really matter--it's not about that. It's about the complexity. I don't care how it gets there as long as it gets there. We need to maintain our expediency because things are getting faster and faster and shorter and shorter and also maintain complexity of thought. I think the way it's going to happen is that things are becoming modular just like words were. I think there is an opportunity to have even more complex thought. There are a lot of possibilities. I have 1800 friends on my Facebook and most of them I do know in one way or another but they are all really interesting people. My newsfeed has some of the wisest, most interesting stuff so I've got this custom-made brain factory coming through. Most of them are writers so there's a lot of profundity and great ideas on a regular basis in a way it's never happened before. I always feel my brain growing new cells. Who knows what's going to be out there? It's a whole new horizon. It's very exciting. There's a lot of opportunity but I do think it's going to electronic. We're going to be connected like one big giant nerve system.
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