Monthly Archives: March 2009

Showing and Telling Redux

Up the block, the L passes over our street and, if you’re talking when the train arrives, noise obliterates any conversation.  In my family, whoever is speaking gets to supply a concluding statement when the roar evaporates…

… and that’s why lettuce makes a poor undergarment.

… so Grandmother didn’t even need to swallow one goldfish, much less twenty.

… the moral of the story is, don’t let infants paint.

… then I decided “Chuckles” wasn’t a good wrestling name, after all.

My daughter says we could turn these statements into real fiction, but, as stories go, they seem flawed—all telling (no showing) and too easy because the teller never has to do the work of reaching that moment.

These endings, however, do spur me to think. What transforms observations or moments into a story? What makes a narrative?

The difference between narrative and lyrical poems seems helpful here.  A lyrical poem is emotional. As the term suggests, its underlying tone—its music, if you like—organizes its contents.  In contrast, while narrative poems have tone, sequence controls them.  Put simply, one event leads to the next.

But the difference seems more complicated. What’s an event?  What do you do with information like description or dialogue?  If you think of reading psychologically, every sort of information spurs the mind to search, looking for connections or leading to conjectures about anything that may prove important. Where is the narrative then, in the writing or in the reader’s mind?

As demonstration, consider this lyrical poem by William Carlos Williams, “Nantucket”:

Flowers through the window
lavender and yellow

changed by white curtains—
Smell of cleanliness—

Sunshine of late afternoon—
On the glass tray

a glass pitcher, the tumbler
turned down, by which

a key is lying— And the
immaculate white bed

The poem sidesteps events altogether, appearing to be pure description. It contains no real verbs, only participles functioning as adjectives—the flowers can be described as “changed” by the curtain, the tumbler can be described as “turned down,” and the key can be described as “lying” next to the bed, but they don’t do anything. Initially, the objects don’t even seem particularly interesting.  Flowers, curtains, a clean smell, a glass try and pitcher, some glasses turned over, and a key beside a bed. A pretty still life, but still.

Yet my mind makes these details into a story.  Nothing in the poem directly tells me so, but the key, the flowers, and the glasses turned over suggest a Nantucket hotel room.  I think of Nantucket as a place for visiting rather than residing, and those usually familiar flowers are “changed” here along with everything else.  These simple things cry for explanation.  I know the poet has used “glass” twice, but why substitute “tumbler” for an object containing liquid—why not “goblet”?  And what should I do with the secondary meaning of words like “tumbler,” which is also someone who performs athletic leaps, rolls, and somersaults… or the workings of a lock?  What about “immaculate,” which is not only absolutely clean but also Mary’s sexless conception?  Out of context, the word “lying” suggests something false or misleading.  Is that important?

And there’s also Williams’ characteristic voyeurism.  Is he outside the room or inside it?  If he is outside looking through those curtains, how does he smell cleanliness or see any detail beyond the flowers?  Which is imagined—how someone outside the room might envision it or how someone in the room might see all the particulars described?

I have a way to answer these questions—this poem is about an affair.  The room is a getaway.  The key is phallic.  That immaculate white bed awaits tumbling.  And though no one outside that window could imagine the lie, what happens when afternoon wanes changes everything, unlocking an entirely new life.

So I’m left with a big question—does the poem tell this story or do I?

Visiting Bloglily this week, I encountered her questions about flash fiction, stories that use 500 words or less, and I began to think how few words a story might require.  With the right words and an active imagination, could three words be a story—could one word?  I’m not suggesting we replace art galleries with index cards reading, “A man on a horse in the Alps” or “A block of blue in a field of black,” but what’s more important, the thing or our mind’s reading of it?

Put another way, what are we doing when we listen to music, hearing the notes or making the connections between them?

My family’s silly statements in the wake of the L are only stories if listeners supply what’s missing. Authors deserve credit for coming up with evocative detail—that’s their art—but perhaps they deserve more credit for what they omit.

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Filed under Chicago, CTA, Essays, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Home Life, Showing and Telling, Thoughts, William Carlos Williams, Writing

Later

Right now, I should be doing something else—the something else someone intends for me or the something else I meant to do some time ago and pushed off and back and over and under and out of sight.

Everything feels like procrastination. I could be philosophical and ask, “Isn’t life procrastinating—living to avoid the alternative?”  But that’s exactly what we procrastinators do, dwell in abstractions to wiggle out from under anything pressing.

In another context, any task can be diversionary… or essential:

  • Continue working on a painting when I ought to help clean the house, procrastinating.
  • Clean the house to avoid opening e-mail, procrastinating.
  • Answer e-mail to avoid writing my blog post, procrastinating.
  • Write a post on procrastination to avoid the stack of papers pulsing in my satchel…

If I’m too weary to go on, that’s procrastination too. Once I overcome the inertia to begin, just short of the finish line, I stop to wonder what pen this cap might fit and go looking. I stack fruit into a tower. I remove “that” from my prose or take notes on not procrastinating.

Ambition is procrastination of the worst sort. I can rehearse jigsaw solutions down to the last piece or devise Rube Goldberg solutions that turn every step into seventeen.  Each task takes hours because I know everything about work but nothing about the pleasure of completing.  I believe any insane excuse before I believe finishing will feel good.

I’m hypersensitive when, with growing  insistence, people illuminate how little I’ve accomplished.  How easy, non-procrastinators say, to stop thinking and begin doing.  “If you put in half the energy you do into grumbling,” the well-adjusted begin…

All true. I have no believable defense.  Psychological reasons for procrastination—perfectionism, fear of failure or success, thrill-seeking, passive aggression—all neurotic. Try to come up with reasons—”pressure motivates me” and “never leap without looking”—and the well-prepared sense your talent at delusion.

My defenses can’t be trusted.  I’m the boy who cried, “Later.”

You recognize my guilt.  I’d like to celebrate not doing, but can’t. Those pleasurable respites—the cups of coffee, the movie I’ve seen, the leisurely floats in the jetsam of the web—are never as deserved and enjoyable as I mean them to be.  They might be, if I could be happy with now, giving myself wholeheartedly to the present with no pesky, shadowy obligations lurking.

Impossible. I might always give myself to what I’m avoiding, seek pleasure in those tasks, in that present. If I could enjoy what’s required, I’d be cured.  I ‘d deserve dessert at last.

I mean to. I mean to see time as a field for cultivation, not an infinite jungle.

But my procrastination is unreasonable and unreasoned, a faith in time’s plenty, an unshakable belief that odious tasks will always be waiting… no matter what I shouldn’t be doing right now.

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Chapter One

During time off this week, I’ve been reading some science fiction in preparation for a course I may help teach next year, and the experience has made me think about a science fiction novel I’d dreamed up quite some time ago.  This morning, I sat down to write the opening of the book I imagined.

I have no gift for fiction, generally speaking, but the books I’ve read this week lead me to believe I would not be the only sci-fi writer with that issue.  All the front-loading necessary to create an alternative reality seems to make the openings of these books particularly challenging.  They are sometimes pure exposition—you have to find a way to say you aren’t here and where you are exactly—and that creates some clumsy, often un-evocative writing.  I thought it might be fun to try to overcome some of those issues…without having to write the whole novel!

It might also be fun to write the whole book, but even this much is tough for a writer so unattuned to fiction…

Ash and milk.

The words float up in Kip’s mind as he drops another three flats of cans onto one of the growing towers in the house.  Once in the light again and headed back to the truck, he looks at his wrist, still expecting to find the time there, though he sold his watch—his last possession—a week ago.

He glances up to find the sun and guess the time, but the sky is overcast, ash and milk.

Judging by the stacks he’s made, he thinks lunch might be soon.  He is at it alone today, repeating the seventeen-step journey from the driveway to the house solo. Yesterday, he had help, a Mexican with little English who laughed mirthlessly at every awkward hand-off of cans between them.  Kip missed him.  He was an improvement over the day before when his co-worker proffered bits of conversation at each exchange, a long speech in too many pieces about how, in his former life, he’d been “King Sell.”  But that was a different suburban house in a different suburban ghost town and best forgotten.

Once, this might have been warehouse work and forklift work, but Kip, and whatever companion found for him, were cheaper.  During the moment he pauses before climbing into the truck again, a forklift parks in Kip’s imagination.  Does everyone remember them?  Kip feels another wincing moment  of nostalgia.  How had inefficient brute labor like this become sensible again?

He mutters to no one present, “It isn’t worth thinking about” and pulls his fingers from between the flats as he half-lifts and half-scoots another tower closer to the mouth of the truck.  He monitors the tightness developing in his lower back.  To be paid, he has to reach the end of the day, and Kip swallows welling despair when he considers the hour, the ash and milk sky, the surging heat of late afternoon, and working alone.

Lunch is no kindness.  He has little to eat and knows the hour off is really reason to pay him less.  He will hear again how lucky he is, how many aren’t.  Then he will have to find a place to eat and sleep.

This job might not be so bad if he could stop his idling mind, if he could follow what his body is doing as a spectator might.  Yet Kip rarely finds that state and is always running in place mentally. No one, he knows, was raised for this, and he curses for the millionth time the ambition bred in him. His parents meant well but did what every parent does, poisoned him with dreams.

The sun burns though clouds a high wind teases apart.  Then the sun disappears.  Kip sees his shadow as in the slow flash of a camera, moving with a burden he doesn’t recognize as any part of himself.


In the novel I’ve imagined, Kip becomes a subject for research into virtual reality, eventually “commuting” between what the world has become and a utopian—but somewhat sinister—alternative. Lots of other stuff happens too, but I may write this book yet…

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Call me David

The teacher-student relationship isn’t marriage, isn’t friendship, isn’t work or client or family.  I’m not sure what it is.

When you consider how different individual connections can be, it appears teachers and students negotiate their ties moment to moment.  Though a student and I have mutual goals, we aren’t married to one another because we aren’t equals and know divorce comes at the end of every term. Though students might sometimes consider me the boss of them, I see myself as part manager part employee.  My  job is to fulfill their and their parents’ expectations. Even though students and teachers spend a lot of time together, affection—if it develops at all—is invariably conditional, familial only during rare and brief moments.

Does the teacher-student relationship ever rise to the standard of “love”?  Not in my experience.

I recently joined the world of facebook, and when one of my real-world friends talked to me about it, she told me my former students would find me.  I didn’t know if she meant to tout facebook or to warn me.  Some students I’d be happy to talk to again, and others not.  Even among the welcome reconnections, however, I confess many arouse pure curiosity over how he or she has grown up.

Not all though.

Since I’m not growing up anymore, I can see why they would not want to get in touch with me.  Wherever they have gone, it’s out of my nest—to some changing place unlike the world we shared. When students come back to visit, I sometimes feel as though I live in Brigadoon, the musical mythical village that ages one day for every 100 years in the real world.

Many teachers don’t want anything else—they like being mythical. Some of my colleagues, however, have managed to transform teacher-student relationships into real friendships.  They introduce companions as a former students, and that’s all you know about that.  You feel no awkwardness between them.  They’re pals.

In contrast, my former students struggle to use my first name.  I get e-mails or letters from them from time to time.  Some have found me on facebook—and I’ve found others—but most treat me with sweet deference. I’m flattered they remember me fondly. I’m grateful when they bother to tell me so. I’m sure they think they pay me the greatest respect by persisting in my surname.  But respect isn’t affection. Our reunions seem odd—I wish we could talk the way real people do.  I’d like to be friends.

From my side, I think we could, but they may imagine me in a snowglobe smiling in front a blackboard, pointer in hand, my half-glasses pushed down my nose indulgently. Perhaps they’re still worried about disappointing me or are unready to risk their grade.

It would be a risk.  It would mean toppling the hierarchy we occupied before.  It would require seeing me as a mortal with doubts and flaws and disappointments and dreams and objections and affections and regrets and a vivid real life.

It would entail needing a friend.

Some years ago, a headmaster I know asked me if I’d ever consider becoming a headmaster.  In a moment of uncharacteristic tactlessness, I said “No way.”  “Being the head of a school,” I said, “means never knowing who cares about you.”

I wonder if teaching means the same thing.

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Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

When Mr. Lockwood taught me the word “iconoclast” in ninth grade, I thought, “That’s me—I’m a rebel, a questioner, a nonconformist.”

Time has taught me otherwise—I simply resist being included.

I don’t understand pep rallies, celebrations of institutional landmarks like the one-millionth widget or one-billionth customer served.  I don’t understand the devotion of a Chicago Cubs fan.  I cannot drink the kool-aid.

Groucho Marx famously said that he would never be part of any club that would have him as a member, but that’s not my problem. I’m flattered by being wanted and would love to contribute wholeheartedly, devotedly, and unquestionably to some of the greater causes that would have me—that do have me—but something in me fights.

Corinthians, my favorite book of the Bible, says “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).  Intellectually, that sounds nice. Yet, while I can submit to submerge myself for a time, it doesn’t last.

George Bernard Shaw said the true joy in life was

…being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as I live it is my privilege – my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

If he believed that, I envy him.  I try not to be that “clod of ailments and grievances” and don’t resent the world for not making me happy.  That’s unbecoming… and dumb.  However, the portion of my brain that might derive such pleasure from belonging is Teflon. I rarely feel part of institutions’ success or failure.  I’m sure I had little to do with the former and never accept sole responsibility for the latter.

If you are looking for a way to forgive me, you might want to make me a member of the loyal opposition, someone who supports an organization by pointing out its mistakes.  Sometimes I fulfill that role… but only accidentally. Dissent can be an engine for change, but it can also be peevish and petty.  As much as I’d like to think my recognition of flaws has a higher purpose, honesty won’t allow me to say I’m always thinking of others.  I want to be right…

…and resent definition by anything larger than myself… and like being aloof.

Maybe my self-consciousness—being stuck in the “on” position—prevents me from membership. I don’t mean to bite feeding hands but I can’t lick them without knowing I’m doing so either.

Thoreau believed the public never equals it best member and instead sinks to the standards of the lowest, but what could be more defeatist than to believe every collection of souls so doomed to diminishment? I wonder if Thoreau, like me, simply couldn’t convince himself to belong and developed elaborate means to excuse it.

A world of people like me would be a ruin.  At times we must give up our own points of view and collect our efforts.  Sometimes we have to go along.  Why is that so hard for me?  Some crowds shout with open and joyous hearts.  Every cheer sticks in my throat.

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Not His Real Name

My favorite track teammate ever was Guy Morse.  Sometimes track seems an individual sport disguised as a team sport—you’re only truly a team on relays—and Guy was middle distance, so he didn’t run relays often.  Plus, to run distance, you must be a loner.  Nonetheless, he felt like my teammate. He knew what I was running that meet or that day of practice and made it a point to give me a few words. If he could be, he was at the finish line urging us on, shouting our names.  He knew every one, was the soul of our squad and my captain.

Though Guy wasn’t the best student at our school, he studied hard in anticipation of an athletic scholarship. His reticence measured his character rather than his intelligence.  The most sincere person I’ve ever met, Guy needed few words to encourage you.  You knew how much he wanted you to succeed—what was good for you was good for all of us.

Guy could do as many one-armed pull-ups as three of his teammates combined and did them with a grin.  He had less to lift—he was wafer thin—but he also knew no panic and went up and down like an Adam’s apple swallowing.  He ran the same way.  You could identify his lope from half a mile, and the fury of his finishes seemed only a quickening metronome. My junior year, his senior year, he was one of the best in the country, his numbers among the top ten in Track and Field News all season long.

The school’s Anatomy teacher, our cross country coach, once took him out to the track in the middle of the day to be a lab for his class.  Guy ran repeat 400s, and after each, they waited to see how long it took for his heart rate to come down to some resting figure, and then he ran again.  And again. And again.  Without complaint, without words of any kind, without expression, until the time ran out. At lunch that day, a lot of sentences ended in shaking heads, as if they’d just seen a miracle scheduled during third period.

Yet, without those demonstrations, you might never know how good Guy was.  A quiet Christian who gave all credit to God, Guy never bragged or strutted.  Had he proffered his faith, we teenagers well practiced in punching holes might have sneered at his belief, but how could you?  Making fun of Guy would be slashing a masterpiece. You couldn’t make anything as beautiful, and, besides, you loved the artist.

Once Guy and I were on a distance medley relay together, and I remember seeing him  come around the turn toward me with the baton and a ten yard lead.  I’m not particularly religious, yet I prayed.  “Oh please, Lord,” I said inwardly, “don’t let me foul up.”

Well, those weren’t my exact words.

I’ve never been on the end of perfect fly pattern, never snagged a ground ball and turned deftly to first base, never lofted a ball so a teammate might head it into the goal or slam it through the rim.  I don’t do balls at all.  As a runner, I’ve competed mostly for myself.  When Guy handed me the baton, all that evaporated.  I was running for him and, because he was running for all of us and God, so was I.  I don’t remember the outcome, only that feeling. The moment both our hands touched the baton embodies everything I know about the word “team.”

Throughout his senior year Guy had the same girlfriend, and he treated her as his greatest good fortune.  He wouldn’t abide our complaining about our own girlfriends, making his objections clear by accelerating away from us or telling us that, with comments like that, we were lucky to have girlfriends. Ungainly and goofy-looking, Guy made no one’s yearbook list for “best looking,” and he must have felt lucky.  He viewed every couple holiday at school—homecoming, seasonal dances, Valentine’s Day fundraisers—as a chance to speak with action.  We knew the flowers he bought, the suit he’d wear, the card he’d found and, even our hard-bitten hearts stirred.  Guy didn’t care about being thought corny or naïve.  At seventeen, I saw that as something to envy.

Guy got his scholarship and went off to a college in state, hoping to keep his ties to this girl he loved as much as running.  I saw her on facebook the other day with her husband, so I know she and Guy are no longer together, but I don’t know what happened to him.  I tried to keep up with his running career but have long lost him.

Except that I haven’t really. Like most of the important people in our lives, his influence dwarfs his memory, encoded in hand-offs and exhortations, relationships, my son’s stride.  I rarely think of Guy… but haven’t forgotten him.

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Busy with Business

I’m so busy people sometimes accuse me of being organized. They assume doing as much as I do requires an ordered life, when really I might accomplish more if only I knew what should happen next…and why what’s happening now…is.

The secret of my productivity is the American secret—working all the time. In my job, few moments are immune from work’s intrusion, and I’m always worrying about how many minutes I have to accomplish a necessary task, what I meant to accomplish and haven’t yet, and what I might have forgotten but must accomplish right away.

I can’t find time to be organized. Often, rushing to the next obligation means throwing material on my desk like costumes shed after the latest scene in some chaotic, psychotic, and endless pageant.

I’ll find time for filing later, I tell myself, because, right now, I have to figure out where the hell I put that you-name-it, and immediately.

Many of my coworkers share my state, and some blame our workplace for giving us too much to do. Maybe they have too much to do, but that’s not my problem.

My habits are faulty. If something needs doing, I stay up later or get up earlier or eat lunch at my desk or get to work earlier or get home from work a little later or find some other way to create time. Added time allows me to do more yet also necessitates more added time. As fatigue overcomes me, I get less and less done, and I’m more prone to feel put-upon and resistant to new demands. I whine. I sigh. I talk to my neighbors. I get distracted by what I think I’d rather be doing—only it turns out isn’t what I’d rather be doing—and I procrastinate.

Every day, I resolve to get off this treadmill but never find the time… or I put it off in favor of fitful sleep.

Immanuel Kant said “Wisdom is organized life,” and he was right. Granted, he was also an 18th century philosopher whose life was legendarily circumscribed. He’d get up at 5:00, awakened by a loyal servant ordered not to let him linger in bed. Then he’d drink his two cups of watery tea and smoke his one pipe. Until 7am, he’d work on ongoing projects (his books) or prepare upcoming lectures. He’d lecture from 7 to 11 and then return to writing until lunch. After lunch, he took a walk—the people of Königsberg set their watches by his walks—and visited with a friend. Then, returning home, he’d read and jot down thoughts for the next day’s work.

He never traveled more than 100 miles from Königsberg. He didn’t watch television, catch movies reviewed at the water-cooler, follow sports, or answer e-mail. He did not have hobbies, pets, a family, or a facebook page.

Sometimes, I envy him.

Lamenting the evolution of work in his own age, Thoreau described humanity as having St. Vitus’ Dance, our heads palsied by the call of obligations and necessities we only imagined. “Men say that a stitch in time saves nine,” he said in the second chapter of Walden, “and so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow.”

I make regular plans to limit my stitches, to organize my life, to keep binders for each class I teach, to use iCal regularly, to compile lists I can cross out with confident accomplishment, and to establish my own finite inventory of Kantian invariables.

Those items, however, stay at the bottom of my to-dos. I mean to reach them but don’t because what’s absent in my life isn’t Kant’s ordered life or Thoreau’s good sense or even their industry or self-discipline. What’s missing is their purposefulness.

They had direction. I have compulsion to get things done. The poet John Ashbery wrote:

One idea is enough to organize a life and project it
Into unusual but viable forms, but many ideas merely
Lead one thither into a morass of their own good intentions.

The modern mind is diffuse, and mine suffers all its myriad delusions:

  • more is more, and we can still add a little something
  • standing still is tantamount to death
  • there will be time later
  • every act needs a record
  • every request deserves a response
  • progress and relentless growth are sustainable
  • we can never return to once was
  • time unspent is wasted
  • keeping busy keeps us happy
  • every invention saves time
  • sooner is always better than later
  • life means seizing every moment’s throat and throttling it until the last gasp.

What I’d like is Ashbery’s idea. The most organic means of organization—the most compelling means—is knowing what you are trying to accomplish and caring how.

I’m tired of thinking about what’s next… uh, when I actually KNOW what’s next.

To Nietzche, the Übermensch was someone who, “Has organized the chaos of his passions, given style to his character, and become creative.” In his view, a truly purposeful person, “Aware of life’s terrors… affirms life without resentment.”

In contrast, my coworkers and I love to grouse about all we have to do. We seem to see our burdens as emblems of self-worth. We certainly don’t affirm life or accept its terrors. Too often, we examine ourselves according to how much we are obliged to do, and not often enough according to what we want to do or love doing.

And who has time to ask why?

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