Category Archives: Aesthetics

I No Longer Say I’m a Writer

47cdbc1e7d2aa37dac054a2258d6a939Back when Big Chief tablets reigned, I only had to make my pencil rise and fall between the blue horizontal lines to call myself a writer, and what letters described hardly mattered—a boy, a girl, a dog, a hat, some short verbs. Words were unsure of themselves. They carried little inherent meaning. They sat slack-jawed, evidential.

At each stage of education, however, I burdened words more and more. When they started to disappear beneath their loads of thoughts, my teachers called me a “writer.” At first, the label must have been aspirational, designed to puff up my ambition and flatter my “potential.” But what passed for thought was still often evidential, the mental equivalent of “See?”

There’s no defining what happened next because some of it—like the poetry and hand-wringing prose of middle and high school “journals”—happened during. Along the way, words asserted themselves again, insisting on their beauty, crying to be arranged. I began to call myself a writer, and thoughts became my thoughts, which only the right words could describe. Compositions meant to evidence the voice and mind behind them. Foolishly or selfishly or both, I needed to write and, intermittently, believed the world needed to read me.

You write, writers are told, because you can’t not. It’s a compulsion to be heard, and you go on shouting, speaking, or whispering because you must. You wouldn’t be yourself without something auxiliary to yourself, an outrigger of words built just so. The siren of art calls you onto the rocks, and you give yourself to a doom worth embracing. You get an MFA.

But I wonder lately if I’m over that vision of writing. Like walking or breathing, writing is something we do, and, like walking and breathing, the quality of the act appears only at extremes. For writers like me who reside between failure and success, as much energy goes into convincing ourselves we’re special as goes into craft. Reading others’ work, some craft is clearly virtuous, is clearly real. And some writers’ faith is redeemed whether the craft is real or not. Outside those two states, though, writers endure. My endurance has run down.

John Berryman famously said no writer will ever know if he or she is any good or not. It’s true you’ll never be certain because you occupy only your own mind, but not-knowing seems more critical now than good or bad. Ambitious writers cling to hope, dreaming of wordless poems or a finally ideal expression of personal truths. “Who knows?” they think.

Not-knowing is a talent I’ve never possessed for long. Because, most of the time now, whether I’m accurate or not, I think I do know. At least, I’ve read enough great writing that pausing between conception and execution usually assures execution never occurs. Generally, I’m okay with that. I’m working on not-caring. Let others want to be authors.

The urge remains—I’m here now, after all—but it’s an urge, not a compulsion. The reason I write, when I write at all, is that I like to. I’m more at peace with putting my pencil down.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Ambition, Art, Desire, Education, Ego, Essays, Fame, Identity, life, Memory, MFA, Rationalizations, Resolutions, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

New Haiku

pigeonsCetologists identify whales by the scars and general wear of their flukes, their idiosyncratic calling cards slipping into the deep again, marking years by disappearance and reappearance. When we moved in May, I thought I’d do the same with pigeons.

They must be as distinctive, I figured, and I meant to know my new neighborhood by its non-human citizens. For a time, on every walk exploring the new streets around us, I scrutinized each bird that lingered on the sidewalk. I meant to memorize a few, sure I’d meet some familiarity eventually.

Of course, I failed. The proliferation of pigeon colors and patterns can’t be captured by one mind, at least not one as small as mine. Even if I thought I remembered their odd, mixed variations of gray and white and brown, who could be sure? Was this pigeon a friend?

Over the last eight months, since abandoning my blog, I’ve written little, only haiku, and part of me discounts those seventeen (or so) syllables as frivolity, too easy to matter for much. They’re pigeons, perhaps beautiful if you’re prone to scrutinize but likely just another square of a sea’s surface or a patch of sky… more of the same.

Ezra Pound, a great lover of haiku, said, “The image itself is speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.” If so, I wonder what those images add up to and how a person might turn so many disparate moments into anything comprehensive or consoling.

In May of 2015, I wrote a haiku,

eventually

enough raindrops will

wet this field

Maybe. If nothing else, belief intends sense. Each haiku promises content, however fleeting. My pigeon friends gather en masse in a parking lot near where I live. A step in their direction sends them wheeling into the air, and every distinction between them vanishes in shuddering wings and new perspectives of their flight. They’re no longer verifiably separate.

If haiku accomplish so much, perhaps that’s enough. When I was four, I remember scooting along the curb after a storm, my feet driving a wave of rainwater ahead of me. That instant persists because I seldom feel such power now. I’d like to write something substantial—a novel, a poem worthy of public attention, a collection of essays or short stories—and instead settle for the fitful awareness in haiku—they might add up, or, at the other extreme, one will be the apparition of faces in a crowd, petals plastered against a background making them visible at last.

One of Basho’s loveliest haiku reads,

winter solitude—

in a world of one color

the sound of the wind

Aren’t we always hoping for that, connectedness and singularity, belonging and the strange joy of feeling so?

I saw a pigeon recently I was sure I’d recall. It was ginger rather than gray, and one wing feather was a white vee, the other not. Turning to me as if it knew me, its strut faced my direction. I thought it spoke, issuing a challenge to be known and understood.

No haiku occurred to me, but I knew then what haiku is.

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Fiction in Truth: serialpodcast.org

SONY DSCIn analyzing stories, “verisimilitude” refers to likelihood. But what of reality and “the facts”—does verisimilitude still apply?

I’ve been listening to the podcast called “Serial” and mulling over that question.

If you haven’t tuned in, host Sarah Koenig is investigating the 1999 trial of Adnan Syed, in prison for the murder of Hae Min Lee, his high school classmate and former girlfriend. Each week, Koenig reveals what she’s discovered and examines holes in the case and pursues leads. More, we learn her process, how her thinking evolves toward knowing Syed’s guilt or innocence.

That is, we’re led to believe we may ultimately know. Koenig says we encounter the story as she does, that her search is ongoing, not packaging conclusions she’s reached and won’t share. The website posted a photo of her producing the next episode to assure us she’s in middle of it, not finished.

Withholding information is key to suspense. Being coy appeals to readers (and listeners) because unsatisfied needs are enticing. This podcast owes much to the serialization of novels by Dickens and others. Americans stood at the docks for the next installment of Dickens’ latest opus. They couldn’t wait to discover what was next. Each episode of Serial includes a “cliffhanger” of sorts too. I’m always anxious to learn more.

If I’m honest, however, the cliffhangers irk me a little. Being an able storyteller and effective guide, Dickens knew where he was going. What Dickens’ eager readers called “discoveries” were really “inventions,” integral and vital to his narrative. His suspense was designed, and his readers trusted he’d manage information to enhance enjoyment. The answer would out, delightfully.

I’m enjoying Serial (very much), yet I’m also bothered. Verisimilitude explains why. My misgivings aren’t simply Syed being actually wrongly or rightly accused. I’m well past squeamishness over using fictional technique to present fact. Every history selects and emphasizes information to create coherence, perspective, and drama. Yes, Syed is fodder, and maybe it’s not nice to say so, but I know I’m being entertained and accept it.

My misgivings arise from Koenig, whom I like (very much) but—I’m sorry—distrust as I don’t Dickens. The subtlest form of verisimilitude resides in a narrative’s construction. Obvious technique announces, “Hey, this is artifice” and ruins the story. The difference between artfulness and manipulation is intention. Once a tale becomes purely a tale, the teller’s sincerity appears unlikely, and the narrative’s style supplants its substance.

At times, I feel there’s something exploitive about presenting Koenig’s story as it goes along. Suddenly I focus on her rumination about Syed’s guilt rather than facts. If she were Dickens, Koenig would finish her investigation then masterfully cut it into digestible and suspenseful parts. Instead, she deliberately and repeatedly says, “I just don’t know if he did it or not” even as doubt amasses. She re-stirs and re-stirs troublesome evidence that, if not settled entirely, has been addressed exhaustively. When a team of expert retrial lawyers unanimously question Syed’s guilt, Koenig persists, “I don’t know.”

I guess she must. Her “big fat problems” can’t go away. She relies on them to create theater and emphasize her role as director. Regretfully (because I love the idea of this podcast) her indecision causes me to question what’s foremost, a satisfying conclusion—in this case, Truth—or engineering pathos.

I doubt her more than Syed.

At the end of the sixth episode, she recalls Syed asking why she was interested in “Doing all this.” Her answer, that she thinks he’s a really nice guy convicted of murder, produces an odd moment perfect for radio. We hear Syed pause and say, “Yeah. Oh, but you don’t really know me.” To Koenig, it’s confusing and chilling, as if he’s confessing something. To me, it reveals skepticism matching my own. He explains he’d prefer someone open to disputing the facts, and I guess that’s what I want too—more faith she’s truly on the case.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Charles Dickens, Criticism, Doubt, Essays, Fiction, Fiction writing, Meditations, Modern Life, Persuasion, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

And by “You” I mean “I” (or “Me”)

round1To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Personal essays require believing you’re a valuable subject. The principle justification for writing about yourself comes from the granddaddy of personal essayists, Michel de Montaigne, who said individual experience is never purely individual. He believed, “Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition.” And—if you accept his premise—the particular, paradoxically, illuminates the universal.

Philip Lopate goes further in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay by urging confession. Confession garners trust because, “The spectacle of baring the naked soul,” he says, “is meant to awaken the sympathy of the reader, who is apt to forgive the essayist’s self-absorption in return for the warmth of his or her candor.” In indicting yourself, the thinking goes, you must be honest.

If you’re sincere, your “indictment” might include confusion and the hopelessness of ever deciding anything definitively. Admitting you don’t (and maybe can’t) understand could be part of every essay, especially if you undertake issues or questions hoping to resolve them. Montaigne said, “Anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgment this whirring about and this discordancy.” He also says, “There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture.” Yet confusion will likely frustrate your reader as much as you. Sympathy has limits. You’re supposed to say something worthy or why write? Expressing your finite intelligence isn’t helpful or winning or impressive.

What is? You can’t be sure. Personal essays involve inventing a tolerant audience willing to sympathize with tortuous, circular, and equivocal ruminations, fellow feeling that maybe might occur if your thoughts are new, relevant, incisive, clever, amusing. You could be the worst judge though, and not know it. Just as the tone deaf are least qualified to assess the quality of their own voices, you may sing on, missing cues signaling how discordant or flat you are. And any response, even the most muted and mixed, could produce disproportionate effects. Someone smiles or smirks, and you think, “Ah. I’ve said something. I’m communicating. An ear is listening at the other end of this line, after all.”

The high-wire risk of personal essays is faith. You pray you’re perching on insight. Keep going, write enough, and you’re sure to… you think. Life is finite, you think. One life may be different, you think, but, if you try hard enough or long enough, you’ll reach some truth, minor and irrelevant as it might be. Sure, quantity can be the enemy of impact, yet—you think—you’re an exception.

So you tread on. You reach your foot forward praying for something like solid ground or a great uplift of wind to keep you from falling.

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A Journey of a Thousand Sentences

3D team standing togetherIn my first decade of teaching I created thousands of sentences. English—it was “Language Arts” then—required a mechanical mind. To stay ahead of students, I needed to deconstruct rules of usage I’d previously only sensed, and each quiz called for advanced mimicry of the battery of sentences in the grammar text.

“Clam digging is a blast,” Don said to Larry, “if you’re an amateur.”

Making sentences was fun, and not just because of the new vocabulary to describe parts of speech, agreement, punctuation, conjugation, and phrases and clauses (relative, subordinate, and independent). Students expected so little of my sentences—the content was so clearly secondary as to be invisible—I devoted myself to writing little stories, evocative, ironic, whimsical, mysterious.

In a moment of particular exhilaration, Veronica threw her hands in the air and cried, “Who would have thought fish sticks had so many other uses?”

Sentence-making still haunts me, but, as an English teacher, I’ve moved on. The hothouse approach to writing instruction is passé. We no longer believe you write well by putting your commas in the right place, and, rather than invent imaginary problems and drill, drill, drill, we teach usage by exploiting students’ own sentences. Meta-language has all but disappeared. The word “appositive” means nothing to most seniors, and if I say, “You need ‘which’ here because the subsequent phrase is nonrestrictive,” their faces sag. Discussing edits requires more resourcefulness. We employ plain speech and organic responses suited to the real world, not dusty Latinate taxonomy.

He began to believe the general outlook—that so many suffered for so few—and decided not to contribute to cruelties designed to appease the elite.

Most of my students haven’t been trained to think about writing as I do. Some recognize the shape and feel of a well-constructed sentence, but most form big pictures and regard smaller components like sentences as necessary… and incidental. Though they seem pleased when I note a deft and elegant expression of an idea, they also seem surprised. Later they may manipulate language more, but, right now, success arises from serendipity more than polish.

At first I overachieved even at overachieving, but then I learned: the more open-ended my expectations, the more liberated I felt.

I’m not judging. Quite the contrary. My devotion to parts isn’t better. Once the lessons of diagramming sentences became muscle memory to me, clarity and impact seemed to spring entirely from syntax. Writing well only required varying structure and rhythm. I began to swing between sentences like Tarzan choosing vines—the next told me where next to go. While my students think of the whole, my habit is to unroll the whole, sentence by sentence.

She took her parents, teachers, and bosses seriously when they said she just had to do her best. Turns out, she had to do what others considered her best.

Knowing where you are now doesn’t always get you somewhere. A new active verb, a turn toward quirky diction, ringing parallelism, surprising inversion, and exhaustive items in a series won’t rescue banality. They may relieve the tedium of reading but rely on accretion adding up. Sometimes, that hope fails. At each gap after a period—one space or two doesn’t matter—you start again. Composition morphs into a one step process, over and over.

You hope abstraction distills truth but may extract poison instead.

A friend who frequently reads my work commented that my sentences take me to the brink of trouble—they reach impossible places—and then find another step. He’s too kind, but he describes perfectly what my writing feels like, which is paving a road one stone at a time. When it doesn’t work, I have no aim besides labor. When it does, I travel by imagining another footfall.

Beneath an open window, computer keys sound like the empty vocalizations of a chattering monkey.

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Knowing

manifoil_rear_exposedEDLike most of my recent Tuesdays, fiction… of a sort anyway.

Once Vernon lived the same random existence you do. He woke with the day’s scheduled events ahead of him and, though he had hopes, he didn’t know how that budget presentation or routine dentist appointment might go. He thought surprises could intrude—good and bad moments he could not anticipate—as we all do. But he never accepted it.

You probably still believe as he once did, that life is fundamentally unpredictable. Vernon made science of his life. Mentally recording each variable and each outcome, he linked cause and effect clearly and closely until he brought them together in intimate embrace. He discovered simple connections—which foods gave him indigestion in what situations—and murky ones—what weather, timing, and posture would lead his co-worker to confess irrepressible affection and devoted passion…  despite (and beyond) all reason.

Mind you, saying he discovered causes isn’t saying he could make them so. Try as he might to align actions and results, some piddling thing often fell out of place. The difference between you and Vernon is that he always saw which one and grasped exactly and immediately what must change to create outcomes that, obvious to Vernon if not to you, must be.

This co-worker he thought about: Over the last month, a haircut on the wrong day, the sudden startle of lightning, an improperly intoned “good morning,” a splash in the washroom… all delayed the natural and inevitable effect of their meeting. A miffed expression and the puff of air stirred by flight alerted him when a destined moment passed. You might give up. Vernon regarded each squint and swallowed word as encouragement. They sent him looking for confluences that, properly managed, would yield fate.

Perhaps you’ve glimpsed Vernon’s great order, sensed a lock’s tumblers sliding toward their perfect relation and release, but Vernon’s perch near perfection was more than that. Locks are mechanical. Vernon’s conscious manipulation of every variable comprised the business of his every wakeful instant. The necessary elements and steps appeared as on a blackboard, a charted course of loops, arrows, and chains of boxes parading as to the edge of a cliff.

Occasionally Vernon considered speaking. At times, he ached to step in and express desire directly, but every operation he conceived depended on mystery. Fabric knows nothing of its weaver. The sun makes no deviations in its plans and entertains none. His co-worker’s guessing his aims would only interfere. Though his secrets were burdensome, they allowed belief in an organic end.

So you won’t be shocked to hear of the afternoon when autumn light slanted from golden leaves to Vernon’s face and the breeze tipped to the southwest to offer up fall’s bourbon decay and the temperature dropped by just more than a degree and an unseen dog’s plaintive yelp echoed through the office block’s canyons. Vernon’s words reached just the right tenor of elusiveness.

With one-eighth of a smile, his co-worker asked, “Okay if we stop for coffee?”

You will guess what happened next.

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Critiquing the Critic

MTE5NTU2MzE1ODYyNjMxOTQ3I value critics, but some take the job—and themselves—so seriously they go beyond illuminating their subject. Instead, they hint at their superior understanding. They assume awareness greater than those they criticize. They sound smug or condescending or dismissive and thus elicit criticism themselves.

In these publicity-hungry, hot-headed times, we’re accustomed to vehement critics. How valuable can a half-hearted viewpoint be, after all? Yet egotism often poisons criticism. Confidence helps, but self-assurance without self-awareness reveals ignorance akin to the cluelessness it denounces. Instead of discernment, the critic’s motives come first. Yet fighting over rectitude rarely convinces anyone. It rarely exposes something hidden and important. I wish all our social critics were a little less vociferous, but I prefer Jon Stewart’s dissections to Sean Hannity, Bill Mahr and Bill O’Reilly’s rants.

Printers’ Row, the book supplement associated with The Chicago Tribune, recently started a new feature called “Time Machine” offering old Tribune reviews of famous books. The first entry was H. L. Mencken’s response to The Great Gatsby, which I encountered with some skepticism. I mostly admire Fitzgerald and the novel, and the little I’ve read from and about Mencken fills me with ambivalence. Sometimes he’s witty, incisive, and unstinting. Sometimes he’s sarcastic, biting, and petty. And this review evoked both reactions—demonstrating, for me, when criticism does and doesn’t work.

In this case, I should say, “Doesn’t and does,” for Mencken swings his sword wildly in his opening before calming down to say something valuable. He calls the novel “No more than a glorified anecdote,” and writes off Gatsby as “a clown” and the other characters as “marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.” In the end, he says, “The immense house of the Great Gatsby stands idle, its bedrooms given over to the bat and the owl, its cocktail shakers dry. The curtain lurches down.”

Maybe Mencken wanted to launch with a blast of his characteristic vitriol, but he seems so self-satisfied. As muscular as Mencken’s prose is and as much as I get his perspective, he speaks to those who enjoy (as Warren Buffet put it), “Interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

Granted, that’s most humans, but you either revel in his savagery or put the review aside immediately. If you’ve read the novel and agree, fine. If you haven’t, the critic’s snark is all you get. Illustrating broad proclamations is tricky, nigh impossible. Yet, if proof is impractical and explanation superfluous, only empty assertions remain.

Many of our pundits, politicians, and television personalities operate similarly. No longer inhabiting a three or four network world, we all have our shows. Whether to the left or right side of blue or red, you need never challenge prior conclusions. You can luxuriate in the affirmation of your disgust. Meanwhile, thought and self- examination suffer. Mencken described the U.S. as a “boobocracy,”  ruled by the uninformed. We’re no longer quite that (because it’s hard to be uninformed in a nation saturated with media), but we can bask in the sneering certainty of the critics we accept, which may be worse.

Mencken’s appraisal of Fitzgerald improves after his initial salvo, not because he begins to give the book some credit—Mencken continues to assert rather than demonstrate or prove—but because he uses the book to address the practice of writing, a subject bigger than the author, the novel, and the critic.

At first, Fitzgerald chiefly receives faint praise for improvement. According to Mencken, Fitzgerald’s earlier writing was “Slipshod—at times almost illiterate” and “devoid of any feeling for the color and savor of words.” Then, however, Mencken stops punching Fitzgerald, whose progress is, to Mencken, “Of an order not witnessed in American writers; and seldom, indeed, in those who start out with popular success.” Mencken’s point also stops being personal. It tackles artistry and success, how the latter blunts the ambition of the former. The popular author who has “Struck the bull’s-eye once” may stop learning new techniques, Mencken says, and undergo, “a gradual degeneration of whatever talent he had at the beginning. He begins to imitate himself. He peters out.”

Which seems, to me, wise and well-put. Mencken is no longer talking about Fitzgerald at all, but about the temptations and pitfalls of popular fiction. Fitzgerald is the opposite of Mencken’s scenario, a talentless author who achieves success and then labors to improve. He is the exception to a rule. Having dropped insults, Mencken also abandons dismissing The Great Gatsby and turns to what’s in it. He notes Fitzgerald’s interest in the elite’s “Idiotic pursuit of sensation, their almost incredible stupidity and triviality.” Mencken’s statement that “These are the things that go into his [Fitzgerald’s] notebook,” marks a shift toward description and criticism’s real power, its capacity for careful observation and valuable distinctions.

I wish all criticism were so thoughtful as those last few paragraphs and that all critics might leave off hollering to speak in more audible tones. I know that’s less entertaining, and maybe it’s our nature to slip into ad hominem. Yet, to me, criticism seems most effective when it’s respectful. Critics don’t have to love everything—that’d be a different evil—but it’d be nice if they made their work about their subject and not about self-righteousness.

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