Monthly Archives: November 2012

No NaNoWriMo For Me

As November ends, NaNoWriMo-ers approach their 50,000th word… or they stash their just started, half-finished, or chaotic manuscripts. Whatever they produce, they deserve admiration. I couldn’t begin to write a novel in one month. As a fiction writer, I compose only sketchy parables, puny vignettes, elaborated anecdotes. At this stage, I don’t expect to write fiction well.

Though occasionally I try. Virginia Woolf compared fiction to a spider’s web attached to reality at four corners—delicately, maybe invisibly. Sometimes, walking in the city, I encounter an image that unwinds as the opening to a story. I compose a sentence:

Books crowded a table outside. Stacked as on a shelf, on their backs, or with spines turned up, they wanted his attention, and he passed them by, turning to the busy street instead.

Then I wonder where the story would go—perhaps he’s just broken up with a girl who may, at that moment, be cheerfully asking a customer if he found everything he wanted. Or perhaps the bookstore was once his, lost now because he allowed his partner to buy him out, and he doesn’t want to see inventory he once purchased.

For a true fiction writer, reality hides truth. Those books on the table outside don’t need invention. Someone who could really see into the situation would spy the story. To him or her, every place would be a condition, and every situation an emblem of a life.

I write:

At the corner of the block, the bridge appeared, all its surfaces illuminated by early sun. In the street’s shadows, it seemed a separate reality.

Then I wonder if I’m being too obvious—the bridge is a clear symbol, and illumination must represent hope quite out of the protagonist’s reach. The word “protagonist” itself is deadly and yet a regular part of my thinking. David Foster Wallace said, “Fiction is about what it is like to be a human being,” and I’m a human being who teaches English, one doomed to construct.

The students I teach often write what I’d call “Secondary fictions,” stories based not on their lives but on other depictions of life they’ve seen on television or in movies and bad books. Though I urge them to turn from stories they’ve encountered, my opportunity to start a story at the board begins:

Home late, she found her husband curled on the couch, so she covered him with a blanket, switched off the lights, and went to bed. The next day, the coroner said that, by that time, he must already have been dead.

Or

At the memorial, everyone called Ash a saint, and Sofia nodded politely. When they said his death was a surprise, she agreed. That was safe.

What do I know about Sofia’s peculiar grief? I can guess what sudden death does to her and maybe construct something clever to reveal later in the story—perhaps the night Ash died, she went to an office party and lingered with a coworker she’d fantasized seducing. But will the spark to raise this story from dead convention come from my guesses? I’m not sure I know where stories come from. “The deepest failures of any fiction writer,” Richard Russo says, “are failures of not quite comprehending the truth of the story he or she is telling.”

My fiction often wanes before it begins, and, though I can teach young writers about creating narrative, I could use their self-assurance, their confidence they will move Sofia in lifelike ways through the next hours, days, weeks, or years. I leave her just where she is, confused and glancing around for direction.

Here’s the start of another fiction from the moleskin I carry in my back pocket:

She screamed at him, but bar noise washed it away. He smiled at her moving lips, and, as long as she smiled back, he was doing the best he could.

I recognize I’m “him.” I once went to bars and practiced lip-reading, and the sentence aspires to empathize with my awkward desperation. Yet he isn’t me, or, rather, he shouldn’t purely be me. Fiction is a sort of magic where objects fly, where inert words sprout wings and dart into the distance, a reader’s imagination pursuing. Having read so much great fiction, I’m doomed to recognize what happens when stories pull you along. And don’t.

One more sentence from my moleskin:

Each Monday, a steady machine chug began at 7:45 and continued for 45 minutes. A number of times David craned his neck at the window but could never see a source.

I could write this story. David’s ignorance is a grander ignorance. Though he might so easily discover the source of that sound, he stands at the window instead, pressing his forehead to the glass and seeing only the opposite building, a flat angle on the wall of the building he occupies, and nothing of the alley hidden from his view. Why he can’t see—or doesn’t move to see more—is a mystery. He might not really want to know. He might not have the will to go far enough. He may not believe in the noise enough.

“Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all,” Raymond Chandler said, “in the end he knows the tricks and has nothing to say.”

Congratulations to all you NaNoWriMo-ers. I envy you.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Fiction writing, Laments, life, NaNoWriMo, Resolutions, Thoughts, Writing

Moods, Enumerated

This week, seven prose poems…

1. Anhedonia

A broken barometer sits on the wall, mute on what’s passed, what’s passing, what will pass. It speaks to no one or, more truthfully, speaks only to itself, conducting ambient temperature and pressure as any matter would—gas, liquid, or solid. Its glass face reflects the room around it with the gelid gleam of a fish eye, and the needle, still for some unspecified time now, moves only in imagination. The scores that ring its edges calibrate absent possibilities.

2. Despair

The street is all umbrellas, every soul—excepting yours—under one. Awnings, weakened by age and ravished by wind, wave like pointed serpent tongues. Whatever happened ended, and people emerge in hopes of light cracking along the skyline, dwindling pools in the street, swept pavement, and the restoration of ordered and domesticated realities. Only you still feel the weight of water falling, and whether it is memory or prophecy matters little. It is, and that’s all you need to know. All time shares one weather.

3. Melancholia

He sits in the back of the café, well away from any window, and, by the time you arrive, empty glasses crowd the table. He’s alone and may have been all along, but each time fresh glasses arrived. Ringing the bottom of many are circles of black, and the same dark rings his mouth— ink from the look of it—deeper than creosote, bitter even to sight. He isn’t smiling, but the pride of his poison is unmistakable, a mark no rubbing erases. The last light to penetrate so deep is gray, the same color as smudged panes or wash water that won’t ever come clean.

4. Joy

Someone keeps a bed of impatiens fed with manure, and so the flowers froth in vividly mixed pink, white, orange, lilac, red, and magenta. Over the summer months, the blossoms mound in the sun, rising like yeasty dough. They watch the sky with faces eager for rain or for someone to shower them with water. They do not care which and expect too much. When the flowers begin to fade, it will be from the inside out, their springy stems bowing and browning in shadows they created themselves.

5. Desire

Hungers feed by doubling, as if they want more of themselves and would delay satisfaction forever.  The present unfolds infinitely, fabric streaming like water gushing from a new-pierced well. It issues from somewhere deep and unseen, and, unlike water, nothing breaks its weave. This hunger serves no one. Rename it as something else if you can, but you won’t make it what you wish. You can’t reach it to rein it or ride it. It’s never yours entirely, though it seems only yours.

6. Rage

No witness remains to explain when or how flames started. Heat breathed first at your ankles, and then, red from the periphery circled you with news of a coming storm. You made this storm, but no escape remains by the time you notice, and soon even the distant sky pulses orange as from a flickering candle. There is no candle, or perhaps it’s all the candles burning to spend themselves. From so far away you can’t hear voices or see bubbling surfaces erupt in contagious flame. You can’t hear even yourself shouting into the air rushing to feed the destruction.

7. Relief

The typical gusts die away, and, though the air isn’t still, it embraces what it touches without carrying it. The sun balances against any breeze. Temperature becomes invisible. You don’t have to move—because the planet moves for you—but, if you do, every still lingers. Watch the horizon, and you won’t see the edge of the world transmuted as you usually do—it will be just the same, just different moment to moment. So much of what you know you can count upon, including counting upon knowing always, a story you mean to examine tomorrow.

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Filed under Allegory, Art, Depression, Doubt, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Metaphor, Parables, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Voice

Thanks, Really

I’m not one for baseball analogies, but here’s one—lately I’ve been fouling everything off. I’m standing in the batter’s box and taking pitch after pitch—sometimes it seems more than one hurler is standing on the mound—and I’m two strikes down, still hoping to connect or at least catch a thread of the ball so it goes foul and calls forth another throw.

That’s why I’m so grateful to have this break of a few days.

When I was in graduate school, my building had a primitive video game similar to the last scene of Star Wars. You flew along a groove, and alien spacecraft popped up over the horizon, firing at you. The idea was to kill them first, but you also received some points for time, for just staying alive. After wasting quarter after quarter, it occurred to me that I could play the game as a pacifist, not shooting at all until the target appeared. I became a master dodger, playing forever, scoring almost nothing, but surviving.

Lately life has been like that too.

On Thursday, my family—all of us—will be home for the first time in a long time, and no one will already have plans, and we will talk and laugh. Okay, maybe someone will spend a little time online or video-chat or watch television or plug into an iPod, but at least we will really be together and not standing in the batting box or gliding between opposing spacecraft, hanging on. We have a chance to live squarely, relatively undistractedly, head-on.

You can apportion your effort so many times everything seems a slivered percentage. The definition of relief becomes thinking about one thing, precious because, most of the time, nothing gets full attention or, if it does, only momentarily.

I play to survive.

Blame modern life, the perpetual over-stimulation that should get better this time of year and sometimes gets worse, but really it isn’t the movies or the games or the music or the television or the advertising or the compulsion to shop. And it isn’t preparing for class or blogging or grading papers or dealing with all the usual raining crap either. Any one of those parts could be manageable, pleasurable even, if they didn’t share one overheated brain.

“You’re too busy,” one of my friends says, “to enjoy anything.” Maybe the real trouble is thinking busy is better. Why do any of us believe that? Why do we need a Thursday in November as an excuse to rest?

I’m so tired of dodging, staying out of trouble’s way, making do with the slow accumulation of points.

Okay, some satisfaction comes of hanging on grimly and holding off the shameful walk to the dugout, but wouldn’t it be nice to really swing away, to feel the ball full-flush on the bat, see the sphere’s compression and the recoiling, shocked spring that sends it out of gravity’s influence? Then I could trot around the bases with nowhere else to go.

I’m so looking forward to relaxing and thinking about changed ways.

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Filed under Ambition, Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Resolutions, Survival, Thoughts, Work

Getting Exercised

Sometimes I think I might skip the gym if self-flagellation weren’t so frowned upon. My athletic ambitions collapsed long ago, and the only reasons I’m out the door at 5 am are a.) it’s easier to work out than face the guilt of not working out, b.) my wife won’t make it without me and vice versa, and c.) I need to compensate for drinking the caloric sort of beer on weekends, the type that tastes like more than water.

Mostly though, the inactivity of the other 23 hours deserves punishment. Apparently I’m not alone. One of my morning gymmates hangs weights from his belt and then does infinite pull-ups. Another keeps one leg on a bench as she steps off with the other to the left, to the right, to the left, until her thigh visibly twitches like a generator shorting out. No lazy people work out so early, and the other day, in the class that begins at 5:30, the participants ran the length of the gym on all fours, hands and feet like the attacking gorillas in Planet of the Apes. Then they pushed a giant wheel of a weight on a towel, and their shirts gathered around their shoulders as they wiped the hardwood classmates dripped on.

My gymmates’ definitions of fitness look a lot like medieval torture to me. I watch my morning companions from my elliptical or treadmill and—as I’m one of only people in the place not wearing earbuds—try not to notice their involuntary grunts and squeaks. But I shouldn’t judge. The machines I operate, which are actually relatively mild, feel to me like modern iron maidens, and I sometimes sigh in exasperation. How many miles have I traveled without going anywhere? I tell myself my gym visits are a cost of modern living, something to be borne, like flossing… only for 20-30 minutes at 70% of my maximum heart-rate four to six days a week. Still, I wonder, would Thoreau join a gym?

Once my motives were greater than vanity.  I exercised outside, played games, and competed against people who weren’t myself. As a runner, my weekly mileage grew and grew as I prepared for road races at the end of this month or the end of next month or in the spring. In those days, exercise felt like devotion and assured time out in real weather. Some part of some day guaranteed meditation. Seventh mile thoughts untangled confusion from years before. The first breath after stopping made oxygen feel like a new wonder.

Now I watch ESPN on a screen flashing in my face, hoping to hang on long enough to catch the top ten plays for the day, which I will forget altogether when ten new plays replace them the next day. The swinging bats, fast breaks, deft shots, and controlled collisions are what true athletes do. In comparison, I spin a figurative hamster wheel, generating kilowatts powering nothing but early morning angst. I never score.

Two years ago, when my family hosted a Vietnamese exchange student, she seemed shocked to discover how relentlessly some Americans exercise. Maybe she’d expected the anonymous, tightly-framed distended guts and tabletop haunches routinely paraded by news outlets. Maybe she’d believed accounts of Americans bustling so much we only have time for fast-food or microwaved gluttony.

However, it didn’t take her long to see something almost as strange, fast exercisers who bypass the regular exertion of walking, climbing stairs, sweeping the house, or bicycling to work in favor of an hour of neat, tidy, and well-contained penance.

And I’m one of them. My fitness comes in fits. Single hours of frenzy accumulate like bricks of good works, and I calmly add them to the four walls I sit inside.

When I tell my wife I envy people whose work is bodily work, she tells me, “Be careful what you wish for,” and I know she’s right. Yet I wouldn’t mind giving up my daily absolution. I’d love to have no need for absolution in the first place.

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, America, Doubt, Essays, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry

On Sophistication

Some days I find myself returning to the same word as if I meant to stay near home base in a game of tag. I use “daunting” for the fourth time since 8 am or wander once more toward “necessity” or “bankrupt” or “vehement” or “flummoxed.”

Lately, my favorite word is “sophisticated.” My teaching life includes a number of repetitive tasks—marking papers, writing grade reports, talking with students about an assignment, and meeting with parents on conference day—and in each of those settings, the word “sophisticated” has been floating up like an indomitable buoy. I’ll call a student writer’s point of view “unsophisticated” instead of “superficial” or “reductive,” and I use “sophisticated” as a synonym for complex, focused, refined, subtle, discerning, nuanced, observant, and insightful. I use the word too much.

What is sophisticated anyway? Some listeners must hear the word as elitist or effete, and saying students should aim for sophistication presumes some state I know and they do not. Truth is, I only know it when I see it and can offer little help on how to attain it except to say, “You need to be more subtle, discerning, nuanced, observant, etc.”

Dictionaries may equate “sophisticated” with “cultured,” but my definition doesn’t rely on convention or history but on a sense of the work being beyond what’s usual or expected. A sophisticated work of art promises another vision of a reality we thought we knew. It evinces an outlook more abundant than our own, one that, even if we were to revisit it endlessly, would still promise dimension and depth.

Of course, when I urge sophistication on my students, I’m not aiming so high. I just want them to account for contradictions and complexities and acknowledge and accommodate deviation and variety. I want them to incorporate odd moments and address troubling or confusing elements. The students want to be decisive, authoritative, persuasive, and right, but I want them to explore more, appreciate questions, revel a little in mystery.

Our desires sometimes put us at odds, and students will sometimes say to me, in effect, “Don’t you want to know what it all means?” and “Wouldn’t it be more manageable just to explain my opinion?” My answer isn’t altogether honest but the best I can do when the convention is to have a point, not to make inquiry the point. I say, “Yes, but to find out what it means or support your opinion, you can’t ignore contradiction—you have to account for a piece of literature collectively as well as narrowly.

You can imagine how poorly these instructions go over. Many of my colleagues think I’m foolish to ask so much of high schoolers, and most English teachers, sensibly probably, prefer papers that resemble legal briefs with “arguments” and “evidence” and “proof.” Students will write more sophisticated essays later, they say. Maybe, but when will they get the practice necessary to do so?

Perhaps self-preservation makes me ask for something else. I’m not sure I’ll survive another “analysis” demanding that I capitulate to the true meaning of the green light in Gatsby or that I forsake all others in accepting the writer’s answer for Macbeth’s tragic flaw. After thirty plus years of rereading and reappraising literary works, I’m no longer amenable to arguments asserting I’ve had it wrong all along.

In contrast, I want to cry with joy when a student appreciates the way an artist creates a problem or balances multiple possibilities one against the other. Here is a sophisticated writer, I think, someone who truly loves this work, sees it as somehow beyond complete understanding and wants to explain its complexity instead of some myopic avowal of its meaning. Here is a writer with a lover’s inexhaustible attention to quirks and charms, someone who might someday want to join art’s conversation and create something just as worthy of scrutiny.

Okay, so I’m being quixotic again—because it’s my wont and hope never dies in me. I became an English teacher because I love books, stories, poems (and also, music, dance, and every other form of art). I would be proud to attain half the understanding and insight expressed by artists I admire. I want to see the world in as many colors, to hear more tones, to smell more, taste more, feel more. And I think, wouldn’t it be tremendous to help students experience art rather than reduce it to thesis-sized claims? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to help them perceive everything around them—the sophisticated and the simply beautiful—so richly?

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My Sentences

Some teachers say the sentence is the building block of all writing and believe that, if you can help students learn to form all the varieties of effective sentences, you can teach them how to write. The rest of composition, they say, builds from those variously shaped but geometric blocks.

I’m not sure I agree—you need something you care to write about—but I like creating sentences.

Recently, I’ve been reading Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, a long prose poem comprised of tenuously connected sentences. Broken into unnumbered units, each poem contains clues to the life at its center, but no entry ever compromises the whole’s collective mystery. I’m not sure I’ll ever really know what the book is about, but it’s beautiful, as mercurial and tidal as thought. And it’s inspiring. I’ve found myself composing sentences without thinking about what lies beyond their shady edges. They have no next.

Because I’m busy, I’m offering 15 of the sentences from this week. They aren’t stories or poems or little essays, and maybe they are only valuable to me. But they’re all I have this Saturday…

1. Before dawn, I saw something else in the bush, as if its berries were bulbs about to come on.

2. If I gaze at maps long enough, I see them as places themselves.

3. She awoke from her early evening nap saying she’d had a slew of dreams, but I thought she said “stew” and almost smelled its aroma leaving through open windows.

4. At the moment of the accident, I felt the physical intrusion of another reality—just after, I considered all the paths leading in other directions.

5. Some affection grows so thick it becomes impossible to see or breathe.

6. Every time I saw him, something replaced an event we’d shared, as if the past were a body renewed fresh cell by fresh cell.

7. The way my father painted shadows they carried colors that, up to the last moment, looked impossible.

8. Now, when I hope to sleep, I find myself begging madness to govern my thoughts, but it stands outside, stubborn.

9. Cinematographers have a way of filming the moon and sun to make them loom, and sometimes I imagine them on opposite horizons, each staring at each.

10. What if the world periodically fell into time-lapse, everything suddenly slipping into its future unchecked?

11. Most flowers look like props to me.

12. You wonder which history will tell what just happened, so you speak your version out loud knowing your hope will be obvious.

13. The strangest music is an argument in another language.

14. Under a streetlamp, enjoying the day’s last breezes, I watched shadows of leaves teeming like gray moths.

15. My mind returns to memories of itself drawing, forming shapes or filling them in or covering them up to make room for another layer of new images.

See you Wednesday…

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Moving Stone

Another parable…. see my comment afterward.

They dream of actions, strong and subtle, that might move the boulder. Young boys and girls picture themselves gripping it, putting their shoulder or back to it, rocking it, or shoving it. At the proper time, their fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, and cousins have all tried, some with the visible strain of effort and some in ceremonial deference. Each reveals how much the boulder insinuates it way into the imagination. A strange intimacy appears from the moment they touch it. In thousands of years it has shifted barely at all, perhaps two hands’ widths, but perfect circles ripple out from its place in the center of the village. Every ring marks distant, nameless aspiration.

Naturally, everyone tells stories about how it traveled even this far. One villager found a hidden surface vulnerable to the right sort of toil. Another, choosing two points, made it teeter as if on the edge of a cliff. Sometimes the boulder seemed to welcome a particular touch and moved as if in affection. All of these famous villagers have names, but all are long dead and are now mostly names, myths. In this lifetime, some of the people who have tried to move it say they have felt it respond. A few knotted hands point to its base, asking companions to stand here or there in the sun’s slanted light to see just what they accomplished. It’s polite to nod, but such affirmation relies on belief, not proof.

Occasionally someone will try to put the boulder back, and spectators close their eyes in regret or resignation. But perhaps the crowd misunderstands. It’s too hard to tell what is happening, and no one speaks during an attempt. Many watch the hopeful’s expression rather than its object. They say the truth is there. At least their commitment is apparent—they guess what each person wants from it, what each person thinks comes next.

Strangers travel to see the boulder. Villagers notice their eyes feeling every surface with desire, ready to make their own attempt. Some visitors have approached it, but the guards keep them away. It isn’t for them to come near it, and touching it would be desecrating what’s most holy. Some visitors sense its place, and villagers recognize fellowship in them. They see the glimmers of possibility still guttering in a deep caves, reflected light that bounces between so many walls and flickers so faintly it might be imaginary.

Someone might still move it. Fewer and fewer people believe so, but the ceremony hasn’t disappeared. They gather as they always have, and, though for some the gathering is an excuse for revelry, silence is part of participating. Everyone forms a ring awaiting the next aspirant, and, as each fails and returns to the crowd, the villagers accept him or her as part of a common humanity. And each disappointment sparks more desire in the eyes of youth too innocent to believe they can fail.

And futility eludes them still.

x

 

I’m sorry. A couple of people who have read my book tell me they dislike these little stories. They’re too recondite, they say, and leave them unsatisfied.  Yet, composing them doesn’t feel like hiding to me. Quite the contrary, they communicate what I can’t seem to say any other way, offering in universal terms what otherwise seems diffused in so many manifestations. They’re about what’s behind their particulars–not any one-one-one correspondence of meaning or symbolism—and their particulars really matter little… if at all.

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