Monthly Archives: May 2011

Keeping It New

In school, authors’ prose sometimes affected me so much that, when I sat down to write about their work, my sentences slid into their syntax and diction. I sounded like them as I wrote about them. One semester, I studied Hemingway and Faulkner together, and I can only imagine my schizophrenic compositions—genteel and muscular, ornate and brutal, loquacious and guarded, perfumed and earthy. With no style of my own, I didn’t steer by their stars so much as zigzagged between, entering and exiting gravities, trailing cosmic dust from each meeting.

My voice is my own now because, soon enough, every writer’s prose collides with so many authors and teachers that it doesn’t show any one crash too garishly. A practiced writer, we’re told, finds a path between styles and utters a distinctive style, one that’s fluent, idiosyncratic, and accurate as it presents writer and subject.

Arriving at style seems something to celebrate, but I’d like to go back. I hate polish. I wonder if losing my original energy has ruined me.

Over the last couple of weeks, one of my classes has been studying Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Much of the book is direct and plain—the boy and the father gather a lot of wood and take off and put on their clothes many many times. But then McCarthy lapses into lyrical Old Testament riddling equivalent to cured tobacco, twisted in skeins and crying deep, redolent resin. The prose is new, so new it seems language needed inventing to express just what it says.

We mortals don’t write that way. Most of the time I appeal to conventions and apply rules I’ve accumulated. You won’t find many “There is/are” in my writing, and I twist into a pretzel to avoid the passive voice. I don’t make decisions or offer explanations, I decide and explain. No paragraph ever begins with the same word as the last. I budget I’s. I don’t like the word “that.” Sentence variety matters and often turns me back to diagnose the last paragraph for its rhythm and surprise. I will break rules just to break them.

Clearly, something convinces me these fetishes contribute to clear, emphatic prose—and maybe they help—but they prohibit rather than inspire. They keep me on course and out of woods writers like McCarthy love.

“Genius,” Emerson said, “is its own end and draws its means and the style of its architecture from within.” When the architecture of my prose matches my dim and hidden mental architecture, I’m happy. When my end is irretrievably embedded in its means, I’m overjoyed. In my best moments, thoughts and emotions appear untranslated and fresh.

That doesn’t happen enough.

Yet I can draw inspiration from McCarthy. If the artist’s job is self-expression, then anything received is suspect. The truth you obey knows no rules. Even imitating yourself is out. Another artist’s approach could be right. Yesterday’s approach might be right too. But you can’t be yourself without continually asking who you are, what you see and understand right now, and how you might let your original voice out.

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On Deserving

At the end of her memoir Black Ice, Lorene Carey recalls sitting through commencement and awards as one of the first African-American graduates of St. Paul’s and wondering whether she would receive an award, whether she would do any more than simply graduate.

She feels a “greedy girl” roiling inside her and silently asks when she will get her due, when she will receive the credit she’s absolutely certain she deserves.

I applaud her courage because, though I’ve felt exactly what she did during that moment, it’s hard for me to confess it. I tell myself only doing matters. Getting credit is a bonus, but I can never entirely convince myself. At some point, a voice squeaks out, “What about me? What about all I’ve done? Where’s my award?”

I’ve written enough about reconciling ambition and humility and wish I could be done with it. I’d love nothing more than to wake up tomorrow in a Buddha state, done with striving and content with being.

In my fantasy, I picture myself as Spock from Star Trek. Baited by Bones and prodded to argue with being insulted, I say, “You proceed from a false assumption. I have no ego to bruise.”

Humility is my highest value and my cruelest master. When people you like feel no misgivings about arguing for their due, their advantage, their talents and skills, you can’t help wondering if something is wrong with you.

Biologically, an organism seeks not just survival but success. My greedy guy is continual torture. “Stand up for yourself!” the inner voice cries, “don’t be a pushover, don’t let anyone take you for granted!” “I’m deserving!” it screams. I can’t help listening sometimes—I know some people would say I should listen always—but I wish I could have my ego excised in an ego-ectomy.

Once, studying the Italian Renaissance, I encountered a passage making much of artists signing their work. It attributed technical leaps to individualism and the advent of artistic celebrity. It’s true we work hardest for ourselves, and outdoing others must have contributed considerably to the innovative and revolutionary beauty these artists created. Still, I’d rather believe they loved other artists’ work too, celebrated rivals’ efforts, and reveled in painting and sculpting more than in making names for themselves.

Delusional, I know. I wish I could be happy simply creating, doing my job as best I can, trying to be the person I’d like to be…without wanting to be acknowledged, lauded… or thanked even.

I suppose, however, that’s impossible. “One may understand the cosmos,” G. K. Chesterton said, “but never the ego.”

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Furious

A running coach once told me the muscles you use sprinting at the end of a race are different from the ones you’ve relied on before. That’s absurd, of course. But, as the finish line approaches, I summon new belief in the energy I started with.

The end of the school year is challenging. The students—especially the seniors—want to be finished and, really, I understand entirely. I know the achy restlessness that makes you unsure of what you want to do… except that, whatever it is, you’re sure it isn’t this.

But I wish my students could call on other muscles.

I don’t run much anymore. Many former racers probably do what I do: conserve miles instead of spend them. It’s a different way of exhausting your energy, like letting the air out a balloon, slowly, just fast enough, assuring a steady stream, holding back for the last, last, at least somewhat explosive, puff. Husbandry instead of enthusiasm, or enthusiastic self-restraint and control in preparation for the closing moments.

As the school year ends, husbandry grows old. In running, the word for an accelerated finish is a “kick,” and the adjective often used to describe a good kick is “furious.” Neither term makes much sense unless you think of a just-shot cowboy kicking as he expires or imagine him angry at the world and getting in his last blows. I hope I’m far from death, but I understand fury, a feeling that visits you, a passion like beating wings, an alien compulsion.

In Greek and Roman mythology, the Furies were winged, serpentine goddesses devoted to chasing and punishing people who had not properly paid for crimes, and that is exactly the sort of fury I feel these days when, instead of studying for tests or writing papers due the next day, sophomores chase each other down crowded hallways or shriek over a YouTube video just outside a classroom where I’m trying to teach, or duck into my office in a futile attempt to avoid the latest volley in a got-you-last swatting duel.

The trick this time of year is directing fury rather than watching, almost like a stranger, as fury escapes me. I’ve had some angry episodes recently, and each leaves me a little more spent—and a little more resentful—as I try to gather myself to sprint.

As a runner, I felt proud of my kick. In my best races, fury accumulated like air-borne electricity, struck like lightning, and coursed down wires to awaken vivid life in me. I wasn’t the sort to drift across the line or swivel to see who might be near me. While I couldn’t always match the speed of others, I took terrible offense at anyone passing me in the last half-mile. My coaches advised, “Be the hunter, not the hunted,” and I wanted that, to be a hunter bearing down on the unsuspecting.

The trouble is, I’m older now, and lightning is just as likely to fry an innocent woodland creature as fill a battery. Fatigue erodes discipline. In me, it undermines tolerance. Not everyone has this kick in them. I’m making a point of warning everyone around me—beware, fury is near.


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Not Crazy Enough

roethke.jpg “Much madness is divinest sense,” said Emily Dickinson, and Theodore Roethke wrote, “What’s madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?”

We like our artists a little crazy, or, if not crazy, at least conflicted about circumstances that restrain less noble souls. To foil readers’ expectations and deny them complacency, a poet particularly needs to bleed over the borders of ordinary experience. Verlaine and Rimbaud drank to tell us about it. Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton sought a psychological authority no one else could touch. Dylan Thomas was more shaman than stylist, unselfishly devoted to visions impossible without his bottle.

A true poet, the argument goes, can’t be checked. The true poet is, by necessity, an iconoclast. To see everything, he or she must know no boundaries.

However, all this talk of madness makes me a little nervous. Do I have to be self-destructive to be a writer? Is it bad that I don’t want to be crazy? If I have to break rules, which ones can I break without hurting my family, losing people I care for, or ruining my health? Can anyone suggest a good, non-addictive, and harmless drug? Though I’d prefer something that doesn’t last long or permanently foul up my brain, anything that gets me thinking even more strangely than usual might do.

While I accept the artist’s special status—many great artists do seem half-craftsperson, half-witchdoctor—this marriage of art and lunacy seems confusing. I can’t tell which is prerequisite to which. It may take a sort of insanity to reach artistic revelations, but I sometimes wonder if the search for revelatory experience drives artists mad. And the hunger for discovery sometimes becomes its own end, excluding any concern for others. What’s more, coupling excess and art sometimes seems to encourage cruelty and condescension. If, as Blake said, “The path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” some artists come to regard excess as the only path. If you are not on that path, they assume, you’re surely lost.

But maybe I’m being defensive.  Clearly, I’m not crazy enough.

As an undergraduate, I took a summer poetry course with an Irish poet. His work echoed lusty pub songs and bumped along as violently as late night romps. Inventive and absolutely sincere, his poems’ passion sweat from the page. I envied their expertise, and I envied the experience that made them. I wanted to live so vividly.

This Irish poet, however, was a boor. Impatient, intolerant, unable to suffer fools like me, he was surly, nearly always drunk or hung-over, and quick with devastating remarks. I was too nice to make a good poet, or, if a good poet was inside me anywhere, I was damning him by damming my hidden nastiness. The Irish poet took it upon himself to evoke my anger, open my apertures, and draw my demons out—and he was disappointed when all I could muster was some peevishness at the way he treated me.

I’m always being told I’m too restrained, too fastidious, too mannered, and must be hiding something.

Is the artist’s crucial obligation to go beyond every boundary or be sincerely him or herself? When does trying to be unconventional become reverse conformity, control by what you despise? What is the proper commitment—to what you have not yet experienced or to the way you see the world now?

I often feel at odds with circumstances and a little bit mad. I sometimes feel estranged from others and, yes absolutely, I think of dark possibilities, including the possibility I have everything—every atom of it—wrong. For some poets and artists, acting out by acting on those feelings is a profession of faith, the true expression of conviction.

That order of belief seems beyond me.

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The Retiring Type

Earlier this spring, an email popped up in my inbox announcing a retirement party for a former colleague, a long-standing faculty member at a school where I used to teach. My first thought was, “I wish I could be there.” My second thought was, “Already?”

This colleague influenced my own teaching tremendously, and it’s hard to think of him not laboring away with me, figuratively at my shoulder though he’s somewhere far away. After so many years following the rhythmic steps of school years, very little non-teacher remains in me. I envy his milestone, I’m happy for him, but I’m also lost wondering what someone so teacherly will do next. I can only think of him in class.

Teachers are bakers. The improvisational type throws together material in the moment, hoping to get a feel for the idiosyncratic oven and the humidity and atmospheric pressure of the day and create who-really-knows-what. Some days, that creation is a towering lemon soufflé and some days a dark brown loaf of fireproof building material. Many days, the improviser never gets around to opening the oven door… or doesn’t care to.

In contrast, the cookbook type follows recipes down to the gram. A class is planned for execution and the oven is calibrated to function reliably. Everything is listed and scripted and repeats a strict procedure imagined in advance. The clock doesn’t dare disobey, and, if the food sometimes looks better than it tastes, at least it is photogenic and repeatable.

Like most teachers, I gravitate between these types… depending on the number of free periods before my next class. But I lean hard toward the improvisational and, even when I plan carefully, I often chuck the recipe midway in some brink-of-crazy rambling.

I’ve always aspired to be like my former colleague, the third type, the teacher’s teacher. When I worked with him, he didn’t just follow recipes but wrote and revised them. He was perpetually busy studying how planning and improvisation cooperate. He scrutinized the enzymes of classroom chemistry. Even after years of teaching, he continued to innovate and then study the results and adjust his approach. He was always quietly trying things out, often long before they became vogue. He wanted to know what allowed people to learn.

Students don’t appreciate teachers like him enough. They prefer mad scientists like me or line-up to watch someone renowned re-perform tried-and-true routines. In both cases, they’d like a passive experience, nothing as intimidating as being challenged by more work undertaken in new ways. Assuring your own education, testing yourself, and studying for the right reasons aren’t easy to sell to students. Handing the responsibility to your pupils won’t make you popular. My former colleague taught me to distrust popularity, only a small part of which is ever justified.

About a year ago, I received one of those letters in my mailbox that begin, “You won’t remember me but….” A former student wrote to thank me. She credited me with making a difference in her life and gave me multiple examples of our time together in class. I was flattered until I realized that some of those moments weren’t mine. She’d been in my course as a sophomore and in my colleague’s course as a freshman, and she was attributing to me what belonged to him. Maybe she found me “a character” and perhaps that led her to romanticize our time together, but, when she talked about learning, she meant him. He was the teacher, the one who made the biggest difference in her, without her noticing. Thinking back, I remembered that she’d once told me how demanding he was and how troublesome she found him. At the time, I thought “Good.” Now I know, “Good.”

Schools require improvisers and performers and all sorts I haven’t considered, but they may benefit most from the teachers like my former colleague. What’s truly inspiring are those who contribute to students’ education down to their DNA and whose influence grows with time. Teachers benefit from having colleagues so single-mindedly and quietly devoted to putting students, and not their own personality or stature, first.

Knowing my former school and department, I’m confident they will find ways to honor my former colleague as lavishly as he deserves, but I wonder if he can ever be honored as fully as he should be. By putting students first, he put himself second—I hope he knows how he has honored teaching, how important it has been for me to think of him, at least figuratively, at my shoulder.

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Making Grades

Before assigning end-of-the-year grades, I steel myself for cusp numbers—each 76.3 and 89.5 and every other figure landing between A, B, C, and the oh-so-subtle levels of the letters. It’s absurd to think my year-long assessment accurate to the tenth, yet many students—particularly the most ambitious, hard-working, and conscientious ones—care deeply about tenths. I hate grades, but I assign them because it’s a responsibility of my job.

The computer program we use to record grades and comments tracks my average score for each section. These results are “helpful information only” that, as far as I know, no one monitors. I’m not aware of my colleagues’ statistics either, but I still sometimes worry—at a school like ours, where being rigorous is de rigueur, no teacher likes being a pushover.

When I look at that figure, defensiveness kicks in. I tell myself many variables go into my average being above average: Sectioning is never equitable, particularly when the registrar groups students for an honors section in another subject. You also can’t discount the relationship between teacher and students. When the atmosphere is positive and the class active and curious, the grades will be higher. When the students come to believe they can do better—as they often do when you clarify what’s expected and encourage them—their improvement seems inevitable.

But I know the trouble. A class average reflects a teacher’s grading policies, and mine are terrible. I give too many second chances. I drop the lowest score for every five quizzes and give a lot of quizzes. After tests, I often let students earn back three or four points by correcting the questions they missed, or by finding the spot in the reading where answers appeared, or by responding to an essay choice they passed over and practicing their writing. Students can also rewrite out-of-class essays. To encourage them to revise, I grant the grade they ultimately earn. An “A” can wipe out a “C.”

Some colleagues might say I just want to be liked. It’s true I don’t enjoy adversarial relationships, but I’m not naïve. H. L. Mencken said no teacher should expect to be seen as more than a benevolent jailer. One teaching reality is that many students appreciate you only as much as their last grade. In my experience, anything a teacher does exclusively to be nice, backfires. What seems nice often isn’t, and it’s best to be consistent instead. I try to be consistently challenging and create many chances for students to be challenged.

My standards are my standards (and I think they’re high) but students give what they can to reach them. A few have the mental wherewithal, habits, and training to meet my standards easily. The others add effort, particular attention to the skills I’m trying to teach, desire to improve, and intangibles like curiosity, teamwork, organization. The more opportunities I give—and the more varied opportunities I give—the more they do. Many find ways to apply their particular strengths in surprising and resourceful ways.

I could easily bring my grades down by eliminating forgiving policies. I could prevent students from learning from mistakes. I could reduce the number of assessments I offer and render every little misstep more consequential. If I remove chances to work through nagging issues in their writing, I can keep progress and improved scores at bay. Offering less feedback on the quality of their work might actually cause their work to decline.

In the nineteenth century, education was a sorting process, a way of separating scholars from workers, but I like to think we’re more enlightened now. If you don’t learn to ride a bicycle today, we don’t say, “Sorry, you aren’t a bicycle rider.” We offer another chance. At the end of each school year, I’m really saying, “This is where you are now, this year, in this class, with this teacher” and I’d love to be able to do so honestly, without a nagging voice telling me I’m being too generous every time I round a grade up.

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The Museum of Things

I haven’t written anything this odd in a while, but Slow Muse made me think about Thingness, and an hour later I’d written this post. Part fantasy, part allegory, it’s mostly mental play, a game unfolding from two or three rules…

This museum is really an orphanage for objects. No central principle governs its contents, and the rooms create architecture of space instead of purpose. Were the things inside gathered by one person, the museum’s collection might speak one brain’s affections. Were each thing chosen for novelty or beauty or any other consensual attribute, a visiting brain might make its own real sense of them. But this group of things is not actually a group.

Display makes the exhibits visible. Left where they were, these objects would have gone on unregarded and would have eventually broken into their base components and slipped back into earth.

Left alone, over time, things migrate to matter.

Here, time is under arrest, and, if you look closely, you see each thing stares back with the surprised shock of capture. Perhaps it’s that no one no handles the exhibits anymore. Objects are made someone’s by use, and these objects are no one’s. No hands abrade their surfaces. No exercise of parts or disassembly and reassembly wear them down inside or out.

Visitors’ eyes will never erode them. In fact, looking seems to make these things holy in wholly their own ways.

When visitors walk these rooms, they experience the museum’s contents as unpossessed, the dreams of strangers. Someone made most of what’s here, but the makers were themselves subject to dim causes and thus more puppets than puppeteers. Their names are written down like numbers over doors. The doors lead into atavistic mist. Another wing hides in the spaces between objects, dimensions a visitor glimpses in shadow.

And, departing, visitors discover that, while they were inside, the rest of reality became part of the museum. They emerge to a place where each object is its separate self. Days, hours, minutes, and seconds separate.

As visitors shift to take everything in, their gazing eyes move like great suns giving birth to worlds.

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