Category Archives: Memory

Your Familiar

blog_spring_shadowsAnother pseudo-story, based on a common literary motif. I’d call it a 20-minute story, but it took a little (read: a lot) longer to sort out. I’m beginning to wonder how people can be so good at writing those things… because I have longer sneezing fits.

Only in a dream could such a strange meeting take place, and that’s where this encounter between you and future-you occurred.

The sun sat at an odd angle that grazed the tabletop, its thick light hard to distinguish as morning or evening when you didn’t know where the window was. Somehow future-you seemed similar to the table’s shadows, pulled like taffy and attenuated but full and dark too. Naturally you expected future-you to be wise. You had so many questions.

Instead, for some time you and future-you communed, listlessly shifting and turning glasses, plates, and bowls as if they were pieces in a board game of subtle spaces and moves. The sun dimmed appreciably. Your eyes and future-you’s eyes marked its shrinking influence.

Future-you cleared his throat and you nearly jumped, but he had nothing to say and may have been prompting you. You locked stares, and you guessed his meaning—he envied you and wondered when this wisdom you expected left him or whether he left it on the lips of the last woman he kissed or in the swoop of letters never finished, or in everything granted, sold, given away, and lost. His doleful expression said so. He expected comforting. You didn’t anticipate that.

So you advanced your hand toward future-you’s. He drew back, then nodded.

You spoke first. Nothing you might say could be new, you figured, and so your speech rolled out in bursts like beach breakers. You can’t remember any of what you said, just that you recalled you were dreaming. Mostly you paused for interruption and hoped future-you might answer your noise with a greater and graver future voice. That would be enough.

Instead he appeared tickled, pleased to hear you fumble so. You would have mistaken his response for condescension except—of course!—future-you would react so, charmed by everything still fresh in you and spoiling in him. You matched his laughter with your own before catching a whiff of his breath and the unwelcome hints in its smell. You knew and didn’t know future-you, and he, you believed, knew you entirely.

His tears welled slowly at first and just glimmered in failing light. When you recognized his weeping, part of you wanted to console him. The other part desired more—how could you become so leaky, so riddled with age-spots, water stains, and patches of rust? How could all you wanted come to no more?

Perhaps future-you sensed confusion. He scooted his chair back and stood. You couldn’t miss his struggle. He hadn’t seemed old before, and his stoop loomed like death in the room’s near-darkness. He wasn’t angry. He held his dignity up as all he could say about you and him. And he meant to tell you he loved you. Whatever disappointment dwelt in him didn’t reach you.

Seeing that, he left and you woke.

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Filed under Aging, Allegory, Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Dreaming, Empathy, Experiments, Father's Day, Fiction, Fiction writing, Grief, Identity, Kafka, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Parables, Parenting, Play, Silence, Thoughts, Time

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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Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Ambition, American Sentences, Art, Desire, Education, Essays, Grammar, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Rationalizations, Revision, Teaching, Thoughts, Voice, Work

Mr. Non Sequitur

nonsequiturMy father called my sister’s old boyfriend Charlie, Henry, and Scotty before he relearned his real name again. The boy’s name was Joey. Corrected, Dad used the right name for the next hour or so, then reverted to other names ending in “y.”

Some years later he told my sister, “I never cared for Joey,” and when my sister asked how he could recall Joey’s name after 15 years and not for more than an hour at the time, Dad answered, “Oh, I knew it. I just didn’t like him much.”

My father possessed a sneaky sense of humor. He could be silent a whole evening and then tell a joke that involved putting a napkin on his head. He could render statements meaningless by substituting whistling sounds for words he wished to hint—apparently most of them. He could hit you, as with a roundhouse punch, by giving the least likely answer to bland questions.

From him, I learned to consider the wrong response to every innocent query—a bad habit. When my children asked me what the stuffing was in one of their balls, I answered, “Human hair.” When they asked what I was eating so loudly, I covered my mouth and paused only long enough to mumble, “Pig molars.” Once, when they were curious about what might be making the odd noise outside, I said, with appropriate authority, “I believe that must be lovemaking weasels.”

These remarks aren’t funny—more troubling, really—and I hope I haven’t passed my father’s way of thinking on to my own children. A person with this ailment can look quite ordinary and yet live estranged. Aside from my incessant doodling, I’m sure I seem quite serious in faculty meetings, yet every question elicits dissonance first. “Torture,” “Borscht” and “Custom Toupees,” are answers that occur to me often. When it comes time to propose names, I’m always on the edge of nominating “Larry Storch, former star of F-Troop.”

Then, “Any other comments?” and the first thought passing through my mind is, “There’s a very loud amusement park across from my present dwelling.”

And I bite my tongue.

My daughter, who went to the school where I teach, used to say—sweetly—that I could never embarrass her, and I began to fantasize about announcements during assembly. In one I’d stand on stage with a plastic bag in my hand and say, “I’m looking for a partner to start a synchronized diving team.” Then I’d hold up the bag, “I already have the speedos!”

Perhaps it’s a terrible sign my daughter egged me on to enact every potentially embarrassing announcement I conceived.

When the situation calls for it, I maintain appropriate gravitas, and that other voice quiets down. I’m nothing if not serious—if you read this blog regularly, you know this—so I don’t compare an especially intractable problem to “wrestling a hippo in custard” or consider goat noises as the best way to quiet a class. Those thoughts only lurk. Still, knowing what not to say or do seems as easy as considering the proper course. Both often seem equally absurd.

Walter Mitty had his internal screenplays of grandeur, and I have my amusement park calliope music. With concentration, I reach past the wrong response to the right one. Yet sometimes I worry I see my future, the fury of not-at-all-funny (except to me) lunacy awaiting. You’ll find me on the street, shouting lines from Die Hard into a dead cellphone or miming the dance of a storm-soaked butterfly. Or clogging.

My father died 20 years ago, so I can’t ask him what to do. That may be all for the best, as I’m unsure he’d give a straight answer anyway.

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Filed under Doubt, Epiphany, Essays, Humor, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Play, Rationalizations, Recollection, Revision, Teaching, Thoughts, Voice, Words, Work, Worry, Writing

Irene

20140410-18043552Today’s post is sort of character sketch for a story I’ve been mulling over…

Irene awoke from dozing, the book in her lap finally registering as weight and heat. Soon she’d make dinner, and somewhere in the preparations, her thoughts would light on her husband, how his sigh or grunt signaled his feelings about the meal she’d planned. He was dead ten years now, and she was free from that. But Irene heard him nonetheless. It wasn’t that she missed him, just that he echoed, especially in this solitary space.

Her daughter called earlier to report trouble at work, a new boss who didn’t think much of women, and Irene listened as she always did, with more concern than interest. Her days stretched out, not as her cat did—as if trying to release something locked—but, desperately, as toward the finish, its desire dawning as it reached completion. From the instant she roused, Irene thought of ends. She worried she’d taken too good care of herself and might last forever… or that she might at least outlast her money, which might be worse.

Her daughter often talked of her marriage, but, as her mother, Irene couldn’t really know her son-in-law. She never had much to add. She appreciated he fixed things and paid stiff deference to her age. She liked his laugh and valued his efforts to make her life easier but felt too tired for affection. Commitment like that was beyond her. Irene found no room for warmth. That stage passed.

Instead, Irene wandered in books. They were better than the babbling TV, and sometimes their emotions affected her. They transported her a bit, lifting her to moments she remembered but never discussed. She hadn’t always been old, after all, and couldn’t help returning to images of intimacies that might horrify her children. She didn’t dwell on men who never worked out, but the romance novels she read could recall their hands and the way her own heart rose to meet theirs. Once, her stakes climbed in arousal. Sometimes she still wished for risks younger women take in riding to the brink of release.

She counted three weeks since her son’s last call. Like his father, work possessed him, and, when he did call, his mind seemed absent. “Uh huh,” he said, until the sound became an empty rhythm. As a boy, he’d always been distracted, his eyes focused on places and people far from here and now. He was always excusing himself from the table to do something important. She might have known his future entirely then but hoped for more. “A son never loves his mother enough,” Irene’s mother said, and Irene tried to believe it.

Shadows lengthened across the carpet. Irene’s husband would have said, “The drinking lamp is lit.” Glancing at her watch, she wondered if she might have another bout of sleep before pulling herself from this chair to make dinner. Her husband never allowed such lassitude. He wanted every destination clear and another meal in the offing.

Irene closed her eyes, purple afterimages blooming and fading like bruises.

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Filed under Aging, Depression, Desire, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Meditations, Memory, Play, Reading, Thoughts, Time, Voice, Writing

School, The Place

Amanda-Fire-Alarms-768x1024As I’m on sabbatical this year, I’ll be missing the opening day of school for the first time since 1962 when I was three and not yet old enough.

Because I’ve been through 32 school starts as a teacher, I know what will happen. Students will lope down auditorium steps, dressed in new clothes to fit their continually new bodies. They will talk excitedly without being obvious… or at least only to the point of being properly obvious. Some will look left and right for the safety of faces that will beam back recognition, then wave.

Teachers, they’ll largely ignore. Teachers will line up somewhere seen, maybe along the sides, or will shepherd students as they’ve been instructed and pretend to be unbothered by another year of conspicuous invisibility.

The hubbub will resist a few attempts at quiet, but the initial syllable of the initial solitary voice will assert that all these minds and hearts and hands and bodies are actually one school. Every opening day is a new start and reunion. At some point, the gears will catch and the machine will seem to have been in constant operation, but, for a few minutes, possibility reigns.

School is a strange place, a part of the world and also apart from it. Even the most unconventional school follows basic conventions. There are teachers—however overtly or covertly they’re involved in educating students—and classrooms—whether they take recognizable form or not. There are some students who want each teacher’s knowledge and can’t contain or hide the pleasure of learning, and some students who, though at the center of it all, watch the clock, and the whole process, with impotence, confusion, and fear.

Though school starts and ends and is only in session so long, the regular schoolhouse rhythm of hour, day, term, season, and year—no matter how it’s divided—takes over as if it were reality itself.

Doing any job for a long time defines you, but a school’s structure can become a second skeleton. When each year superimposes over the last, you see ghosts as well as human beings in your classroom. Those who once occupied this space are gone—you hear news they’ve grown up to study and work in faraway places—but they’re in the building too, in the hopes and horrors of the ones arriving… who are never so different. It’s easy for a teacher to begin believing school is the world or, at least, a concentrated version of it.

Of course it isn’t. School is also a rare enclave where people still trust unlikely outcomes and bet on personal and intellectual progress. That’s the excitement—a new year and a new day and a new class can really be new. Each year begins with hope. Though sometimes the wider world undermines and discourages teachers—telling them they’re lazy part-timers or cast-offs stupider than those they’re hired to teach or misguided dinosaurs hiding from real life behind yellowed notecards—no teacher without faith lasts long. I still have faith.

My experience tells me the first day will be exhausting. My colleagues will go home feeling as if they’ve survived a prizefight, but they’ll be restless as well, already attending to the next day. I won’t miss the relentless pace of my school, the snow of papers falling from September to December, January to June, or the constant news from outside that teachers aren’t good enough.

Clearly, I need a rest, but I’ll miss the aspirational DNA of school, the ambition that is mortar to the bricks. My uncrowded life will certainly be quieter and less frantic, which is quite okay, but maybe lonely too. I’m over the idea I’m affecting eternity, but I’ll miss students who, amid the hubbub, hope their teachers will have something important to say.

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Filed under Aging, America, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, Identity, life, Meditations, Memory, Place, Sabbaticals, Solitude, Teaching, Thoughts, Time, Uncategorized, Work

On Will

spockWhen I first watched Star Trek, Spock affected me most. Captain Kirk was bolder, Scotty more resourceful, Bones more lovable, but Spock’s cool calm made him enviable. At the time, his logic was my ideal, and he sticks with me still.

In one episode, “Amok Time,” Spock experiences all adolescence in a fortnight—pon farr, a rage of hormones so intense that it floods him with lethal levels of adrenaline. The episode opens with Spock throwing Nurse Chapell’s offering of soup against a hallway wall. He composes himself long enough to request a leave of absence to visit Vulcan but can’t say why. Kirk agrees, then, when diplomacy moves Starfleet to divert the ship to another planet, Spock must admit his problem is “biology,” a need to mate as powerful as a salmon’s swim upstream. He says “biology” with such shame it’s clear he wants nothing to do with inconvenient bodily processes, emotion, or expressions of personal desire.

The first time I saw the episode, that’s what I wanted too, complete control over longing, the power to suppress every impulse. Spock tells Kirk that pon farr, “Stips our minds from us, brings a madness which rips away our veneer of civilization.” My veneer has never been glued down especially well and, back then, it kept getting ripped away by innocent teasing, by precipitous attachments to girls who never liked me enough, by thundering anger and sudden unaccountable tears. Even in pon farr ‘s throes, Spock remains articulate and controlled, exactly the sort of adolescence I sought.

That yearning for self-regulation has hardly left me. Even now, I engage in daily staring contests with acts that require self-discipline—willing myself to work out, to count calories, to write in my journal and sketch, to work on my next blog post, to create a to-do list each morning I’ll pursue all day. None of it will abide looking away. Spock never blinks, and if I do, some lazy, inconvenient, momentary urge wins over will. And, being less than what I want to be, I lose.

In “Amok Time,” Spock hopes to be spared his biology but, in real life, who can truly avoid feeling? My negotiations with emotion seem melodramatic, but the issue can’t be uncommon. I’ve learned, as Spock does, “The ancient drives are too strong. Eventually they catch up with us. We are driven by forces we cannot control.”

“It would be illogical to protest against our natures,” he tells Nurse Chapell.

I know that—and know how ridiculous it is to look to Star Trek for adolescent survival strategies—but, at that time, everything in my family felt like a contest to me. If you idly balanced a yardstick on your index finger, someone could do it longer. Someone could hide in a smaller space for more minutes or think of another name that began with B or present some trivia you didn’t know or ride a bike around the block faster. I obsessed over being or doing just one thing better than my siblings.

As I was a volatile child, the contests involving self-regulation had the greatest stakes—who could finish an ice cream cone last or win a game of “The next one to speak is a monkey for a week.” When an advertisement for Lays Potato Chips claimed no one could eat just one, I watched my family consume the whole bag before I crowed victory, my uneaten chip in my palm under the table. I counted licks of a Tootsie Pop without biting it… many times. I meant never to indicate anger or disappointment. Inevitably, I failed. So I tried harder.

My days repeat (and repeat) the age-old contest between stoicism and hedonism, debates over whether life’s purpose is nobility or pleasure. Most people let pleasure win, which goads me on. No one will regard me as lax or accuse me of choosing the easy way by going with the crowd, giving in, or giving up

Something won’t surrender—I’m determined, productive, diligent, ruminative, and not particularly happy. It hasn’t made me particularly any emotion. Most days I just tire and can’t push my sled anymore. It’s quite heavy and lacks dogs, nice slippery spots, and hills to coast down. It’s a blocking sled, really.

Instead I worry time has spent my inner Spock. My handwriting shows its age. The arches of n, h, and m have melted, the loops of o, p, e, d, and b are closed to daylight, and the lifts between letters drag, tripping at each attempt to leap another height. Once I took pride in writing neatly, fluently, and legibly. Penmanship was like any art—any activity—and required practice of the right sort, the kind that includes consistent effort and willful vigilance, commitment to do more than good-enough.

Though I like to believe I’ve abandoned Spock, scanning my handwriting reveals haste and capitulation to fatigue and utility. I can make-out what I’ve written—it hasn’t come to that yet!—but I can’t stand to look. “I used to try harder,” I say, “where has my discipline gone?”

The conclusion of “Amok Time” seems laughable now, typically Star Trek, with its philosophical overtones drowned by gaudy sets, Dutch angles, transparent stunt-double combat, loud soundtrack music, and a deus ex machina. Spock survives his pon farr, forms another tie with Kirk, and gets a smile out of it. The madness of Spock’s amok time, Bones says, may be “The price [Vulcans] pay for having no emotions the rest of the time.” While that certainly makes sense, the melodrama seems staged. Deadened feelings, numb routines, amplified editing and denial are just as likely costs as explosive outbursts.

My experience tells me so. Even now, Spock is at my shoulder whispering to buck up, toughen up, and shut up and, this late in the series, who could exorcise him?

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Depression, Desire, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Rationalizations, Spock, Star Trek, Thoughts, Time, Tributes, Worry

Knowing Where I Am

080823-N-9818V-375Dean Reese’s tight smile conveyed success—yes, I could drop Macroeconomic Theory though drop-add had long passed. No, it wouldn’t appear on my transcript. Yet his smile spoke. “All of us have weaknesses,” he said, “it makes us humble.” The scolding followed.

He said he wouldn’t rescue me again because I was meant to learn from experience. You expect trouble. You try harder. You compensate. And if none of that works, you accept failure and move on, wiser about what’s reasonable to demand from yourself. You can’t always escape from the trouble you find.

I thought I knew that.

The year before, I’d enrolled in calculus, and despite endless hours doing and redoing practice problems and a deep determination to prove I could learn anything, I failed the first two tests. Any math class would have satisfied my requirement, but I wanted to learn calculus and believed no subject could be beyond me if I tried harder than anyone else ever had before.

My calculus teacher, a stuttering graduate student from Scotland, knew his subject well and worked hard to help me, but my eyes danced over every page of numbers and variables. They would no more land there than my feet would settle on hotplates. I resigned myself to blotting my academic record and decided to study hard enough to eke out a “Gentleman’s C.”

You discover who you are by failing, I told myself. It’s unfortunate, but bumping against the ceiling of your abilities or unveiling how wrong you were or seeing the familiar transformed by a new understanding or blushing with deep embarrassment and error and realizing, “I’m not what I seem”—that’s what matters ultimately.

In calculus, finally free from anxiety and my overblown drive, I caught up with the algebra everyone else already knew, relaxed, and started doing well. Then amazingly well. Maybe my professor gave me a gift, but I received a B at the end of the term. It felt like escape—a triumphant one—and I learned nothing.

So I landed in Macroeconomic theory the next year, doomed to trip into the same situation again, again, and again.

Dean Reese’s message never sticks for long, which some would say is good, but not really.

When I was running and racing a lot, I’d stand in the crowd at the starting line reviewing my training, reassuring myself I’d done all I needed to prepare. “The money is in the bank,” I’d say. Yet, looking around, the runners in my area looked equally fit, and some—I could tell just by assessing their physiques and demeanor—would run much faster that day. They were what I’d like to be and more blessed with lung capacity plus slow and fast twitch fiber I’d never possess no matter how I trained. It was liberating to admire them, and I’m not sure why, but seeing how much more limited I was comforted me as much as patting myself on the back for working hard.

The challenge of balancing ambition and acceptance seems endless. I want so much and want to know how much I can reasonably want. It’s good to strive. We’ve told so from birth. But wouldn’t it be nice to know where striving ends and living with your actual self begins?

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15 Fairly Fractured Tales

annotated-brothers-grimm-bicentennial-editionWhen my children were portable and saw me as a funnel for the world, my favorite duty was telling bedtime stories. I’m not a brilliant storyteller, but credulity inspires improvisation. I painted myself into corners to see how I might get out.

Rather than write a full post, I’m exercising those atrophied muscles in 15 single sentences from stories—beginnings, middles, and ends. Only a few are really suitable for children, but I aimed to find fanciful and promising ideas ripe for plot, not sleep:

1. The other alchemists thought it silly to try to turn gold into food.

2. What you’ve heard is true—dogs are humans’ best friends—but there was one dog whose only friends were cats.

3. At first just household objects reappeared as papier-mâché but soon whole buildings, the town, and finally its citizens became immobile and lumpy from someone’s bungled construction.

4. He dreamed the sun was a plow and so did she—when they kissed for the first time, they decided to make the dream so.

5. The soothsayer kept the bear caged but told everyone the bars marked the limits of their world and not the bear’s.

6. The tools, unwilling to touch anyone who might use their talents poorly, fled from the people who meant to wield them.

7. “Be careful,” her grandmother told her, “or you’ll end up like your father, lost in his own bedroom.”

8. Once a king decided to possess everything and soon owned all of the planet except himself.

9. Before, she had visited the priest, but that morning she decided to write her confessions on cards and hand them to strangers in the town square in front of the cathedral.

10. Another day, another habit, and soon the animals were very different from the humans, who never learned the knack of making one day echo another.

11. All his life he worked on his map—drawing landmarks guiding him out of his house, through streets, into countryside, over mountains, and into another house with another map just like the first, only dark.

12. Most people don’t know that sleep’s twin is jealous of his sister’s influence.

13. A tree shot straight out from the face of the cliff, and every year or so a villager came along to build a house in it, but the tree and the wind knew what to do and shook them off like flies.

14. “This seat,” he said, “is the judgment seat, and, if you want to know what to think about anything at all, you just need to sit down and close your eyes.”

15. Each of the library’s books contained a song, and opening their covers released the music forever.

 

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Filed under Allegory, Dreaming, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Identity, life, Memory, Parenting, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

Radical Revision of a Story, “Room”

r_gal0207-520x477Today, not a post so much as a process…

At a workshop I attended recently, the teachers took us through various stages of revision, each designed to unveil shrouded intentions in prose. For each stage below, I’ve created instructions along the lines of my teachers’ suggestions and offered a response to those instructions. It’s an odd but fruitful practice. The numbers after each passage are word counts.

1. Original: Write something narrative and evocative in 250 words or less. Don’t overlook events but think about tone as well—what are you saying about setting, character, perspective? Look for ways to make those elements clear.

Landmarks of travels return unmoored—clock faces without towers or fountains flowing into unnamed, unremembered squares. The unbordered public spaces contain a room where detail persists down to scrolled brows of an armoire, badly beveled baseboard corners, one window perpetually fogged, but the city beyond is pure space, a vacuum without memory.

Which makes him wish only for here, the objects and weather about him now. He collects his hat, a walking stick, and sack and opens the door. He knows the throat of the hallway, the stairs, the lobby of mailboxes and chance half-smiles. Outside, the sun is strange. It glares like someone caught in a crime, and no shade or hat brim or hand spares him its resentment. Streams of the similarly stunned flow against him, but they have the conviction of their purpose. They jostle each other and him because they can’t pass on narrow sidewalks. He weaved through such crowds as a younger man. Now his steps go and stop, granting no wished movement of his own.

At the corner, he hears his name used like a club. He knows the object of the blow is someone who shares his name—he knows no one anymore— but can’t help feeling the word’s weight. Inside, he could almost forget he has a name. On the street, everyone is someone else, and everyone breathes someone else’s air.

If it weren’t for food, he’d leave the town to them. He wishes his room might be food enough. 249

2. Erasure: Now print the original and black out words, sometimes making the language more efficient but also collapsing one moment into another. Eliminate at least one-third. Be sure to look for conversation between separate sentences.

Travels unmoored—clock faces, fountains flowing into unremembered squares. His room persists down to scrolled brows, badly beveled corners, one window fogged. The city beyond is pure space, a vacuum without memory.

Which makes him wish only for the objects and weather about him. He collects a hat, walking stick, and sack. He knows the throat of the hallway, stairs, the lobby of half-smiles. Outside, the sun is like someone caught in a crime. No shade, hat brim, or hand spares resentment. Similarly stunned flow against him. The conviction of their purposes jostle on narrow sidewalks. He weaved as a younger man. Now steps go and stop, no movement of his own.

At the corner, he hears his name used like a club. The object is someone who shares his name but he feels the weight. He could forget he has a name. On the street, everyone breathes someone else’s air.

If it weren’t for food, he’d leave the town to them, his room food enough. 167

3. Further Erasure: Abandon the original sense entirely to discover tone in diction and syntax. Look for hidden surrealism. Attempt to reduce by half.

Clock faces flowing into unremembered squares, a room down to beveled corners, the city pure space, a vacuum.

He collects hat, walking stick, and sack. He knows the lobby of half-smiles. Outside, the sun is caught in a crime. No hand spares resentment. The conviction of purpose jostles on narrows. He goes and stops, no movement his own.

He hears his name used like a club against someone but he feels the weight. He could forget his name. Everyone breathes someone else’s air.

If not for food, he’d leave town to them. 94

4. Derangement: Reverse the last version of the original passage, if not by word by word then by phrase. Where possible, erase more.

He’d leave town to them if not for food, forget his name used like a club. No movement is his own. Purpose jostles on narrows. No hand spares resentment. The sun, caught in crime, half smiles at his sack, walking stick, and hat, the unremembered squares flowing into clock faces. 50

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Or What’s an Education For?

1425522-LOnce during a parent conference I found myself pulled into a dispute over an advisee’s mark in a freshman art class.

“I don’t think it’s fair they grade subjects that rely on talent,” the parent said.

Teachers know it’s unwise to contradict parents—understandably, they expect you to acknowledge their feelings, not challenge them. Still, foolishly maybe, I answered, “Every school subject calls for talent. Sometimes you’re developing skills you don’t have yet. Why should art be different?”

The parent answered, “It’s different because it’s not as important as other things.” I swallowed hard. I suggested that, since art was challenging for the student, she should spend more time working with her teacher.

The parent replied, “But it’s a waste of time… that’s just my point. She doesn’t like art, and she’ll never be good at it.”

This exchange sticks with me partly because I spent the next week developing counter-arguments:

  • People may regard art as “extra,” but the ability to think visually grows more and more essential in a post-literate world. Exposure to art seems especially relevant whether you’re good at it or not, and those who can “do some art,” have a serious leg-up in the working world.
  • What’s more, if we appreciate, value, and admire art, sustaining it relies on taking it seriously, ratifying its importance to assure its continuance. Whatever your tastes, who wants to live in a world without art?
  • Yes, receiving a high grade in art acknowledges special talent, but someone good at art deserves affirmation. Do you want to tell a student who makes an “A” in art that it doesn’t matter? Talent should count.
  • Even if art doesn’t count to everyone, students rarely like every topic they meet in school and learn even by struggling… perhaps particularly then.
  • Is the problem grades in general? What’s really in dispute is the mark. Without letter grades, students might argue less, worry less, and explore subjects that are not strengths and, hence, learn more.

If you follow this blog, you know which argument is most compelling to me. However, I have another reason for rehashing this exchange, a bigger lament, one encompassing our increasingly narrow sense of what education is for.

This spring, while trying to praise training programs in Wisconsin, President Obama joined my problematic parent in dissing art, specifically art history:

I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.  Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree—I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.

The President’s immediate backpedaling and subsequent apology acknowledged, his vision of what’s needed from education and what’s not is ubiquitous, as is his position on education’s exclusively extrinsic purpose. He assumes all schooling must lead to “a really good living” and “a great career.” Every college degree must contribute to the economy, or else it is a failure. Lost is how education adds, intrinsically, to enjoying life and appreciating others’ talents.

As it happens, art students have transferable skills and typically find gainful employment even when they leave art behind. Supposing they didn’t, however, they still receive more than a positive feeling about their contributions to the GNP. Indeed, they may find more pleasure in creativity and aesthetic appreciation than those with really good livings and great careers and money.

Perhaps I should have said to my advisee’s parent, “If for just a moment you can put aside the mark and your resentment (which may be poisoning your daughter’s encounter with art and artists… but I wouldn’t say that) has she benefited? Can this one freshman class contribute to her larger sense of how diverse and variable learning is?”

I suspect I know the answer—you can’t convince people how to feel, after all—but I’d remember myself better if I’d been true to my own thinking.

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