Category Archives: Revision

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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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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So Creative…

Manage-Stress-Get-Creative-C1In a writing workshop, one of my classmates called my poem “creative,” and my teacher held up his hands and shrugged.

“What’s creative,” he asked, “what does that word even mean?”

My answer finds trouble at each turn:

1. To be creative is to, well, make something, but making something new isn’t enough. If creativity and novelty were perfect synonyms, art would be easy. Recombining letters and words—or notes or pigments or movements or gestures—would suffice. But artists seek a different sort of novelty mixing the strange and familiar to find truth. Sometimes we call “creative” what we should have noticed or known but didn’t. “Creative” isn’t the same as “odd”… though that could be what my classmate meant.

2. And can something be creative only once? Is a cliché a cliché only if you’ve heard it? Which standard of freshness shall we apply—the absolute or personal? What’s more stultifying than absolute? What’s more finite than personal?

3. New and right to me may not be, and no assay or measure will establish what “creative” means definitively and universally. Its elusiveness is welcome magic.

4. For the artist, creativity consumes itself. Art loses heat the instant of completion. The object signals creation’s (and imagination’s) end. Though audiences warm their minds on the ashes, they examine artifacts of an artist’s experience and thus reassemble. Interpretations add perspective. Yet, from the artist’s outlook, they stir spent coals.

5. Creativity is more pursuit than achievement, never accomplished finally or entirely. Its only purpose may be prompting more of itself.

6. Some creativity arrives only when exhaustion looms and nothing remains. What once appeared creative proves an earlier stage.

7. Genes, circumstance, sensory equipment, or disposition fence artists. Makers want to leave themselves and be creative but find an unexamined patch of their own yard instead.

8. Maybe some artists are demi-gods, just naturally original, endowed with genius and a special touch, but, if so, their attributes won’t sustain them. Exercising your voice until it’s worn out isn’t creative. Art requires subverting, rejecting, and redefining all you think you know, continually.

Which is what I’m guessing my teacher was trying to say. His patience ran out. He wanted us to stop talking about what was or wasn’t creative and get to work.

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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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No True Past

reality%20show-thumbThis spring, when my history students asked how I felt about the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, I stretched to reach my earlier self. Like a fly in an expansive room, however, the past is there, but it’s never where you look. Who can answer, “How did you feel?” when the question requires re-knowing, and re-knowing is revision of what you might have felt?

Scientists say we remember the last time we remembered something and, after the first retrieval, never return to the true moment. You can only recall reading the previous sentence once. Then you are simply recalling remembering it. Each moment, like the one arriving and departing right now, is absolutely elusive.

I read an article by George Musser in the September 2011 edition of Scientific American complicating this dilemma. It suggests we construct time instead of perceiving it. We live 80 milliseconds behind so that each piece of sensory data has already passed. 80 milliseconds doesn’t seem much to me, but delay allows the brain time to work. According to physics, someone 30 meters away can clap hands and the sound will be late. Yet, at that distance, though two hands meeting and their sound shouldn’t be simultaneous, we sense they are. Take one step out of that zone and we exceed the brain’s capacity to mend discontinuity. Motion and sound no longer coincide.

A better example, perhaps: you may have watched something where a speaker’s lips don’t quite match the words. Experiments indicate that, as long as the delay is under 80 milliseconds, we won’t notice. After that, we do.

The article describes other clever experiments exposing narratives our brains create. When you touch your nose and your toe at the same time, the sensory data arrives at the same time though the route from nose to brain is appreciably shorter. David Eagleman, a neurologist studying time, rigged up a light that, when you press a button, blinks after a slight delay. After 10 or so tries, the subjects’ brains align the button and the light—they appear consonant. Then when the lag decreases, subjects think the light blinks before they press.

This microcosmic failing is relevant to my macrocosmic memory of 1968. We’re hard-wired to construct reality from signs, to fix memory with prejudice. Another of Eagleman’s flashing light experiments asks observers to assess the duration a light stays on. The first occurrence or one that broke a pattern seems to last longer. Our narratives are sensitive to novelty, they gather impressions with significant bias, and we gain confidence when we’re sure we’ve experienced something distinctive.

It’s easy to remember Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. I was 10 and lived in coastal Texas. It was early in my summer vacation. When I got up, the television was on, and my mother told me RFK had been shot and would likely die. The heat had already come, and, when I went outside, I felt—for maybe the first time—frightened by the world I occupied. Only part of it was the day’s news or Martin Luther King’s assassination two months before. Sitting on the curb, I thought about why Texas had to be so hot and whether the earth could ever be too hot to leave my house.

I may be inventing this scene. Neurologists say thoughts of past and future illuminate the same parts of our brains. Looking forward requires fabrication and so does looking back.

Malcolm MacIver, another scientist mentioned in the article, speculates evolution favors animals whose sensory volume (how far they can see, hear, smell, etc.) exceeds their motor volume (how well they move in the space they occupy). Consciousness itself, he argues, springs from knowing where we are according to where we’ve been and a plan to take advantage of what’s ahead. It’s all one big survival game relying on surmise.

My sensory volume is huge, doubled by my creative volume. Those most desperate for narratives are most susceptible to delusion. I seek comfort, and, if circumstances are uncomfortable, I at least think I know the trouble. I can’t answer my students’ questions about the ugly history I experienced, but I like thinking I can. Picture a 10 year-old sitting on the curb, sun baking him before noon, and perhaps that feels true to you.

He may not be me.

Memory is complicated to the point of deception. I see the world as through a telescope or periscope or microscope. My brain—our brains—make sense of observations we sometimes call “history.” We try to straighten out the past before we write it into books but never revisit the thing itself. We can’t.

We are time travelers only in our imaginations.

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Another Tempest 8-15

prospero-and-arielThe second part of a long lyric essay on Prospero of The Tempest. The first part appeared last Tuesday.

8.

The epilogue to The Tempest shifts strangely from triumph to resignation, even to self-abnegation. In possession of his dukedom again and pardoning everyone, Prospero asks for mercy from the audience. “Release me from my bands,” he begs, “With the help of your good hands.” The footnote tells readers “hands” means applause, but it doesn’t have to—Prospero could as easily be seeking succor, intimacy someone of his power and intimidation may be denied.

In the epilogue he says his mission has been “to please,” which is not revenge, not justice, and not his new-old job in Milan. Having given up everything to stand where he does, he says his end will be “Despair, / Unless I be relieved by prayer.” Early on, Prospero aimed for vindication but finishes with a petition for mercy that “frees all faults.” Rather than crowing over his successful tricks and traps, he asks, “As you from your crimes would pardon’d be, / Let your indulgence set me free.”

His supplication sounds nothing like victory.

9.

Who sets us free from our own feelings? Who convinces us that we’re in the right spot now, that this new balance of gains and losses is better and that we’re ourselves at last?

 10.

Writers like Jean Anouilh link tragedy and discovery, suggesting tragic figures reach self-knowledge only the hopeless can. When escape and delusion become meaningless, when alternatives whittle to one, tragic figures see themselves more honestly than other mortals might. There’s no squirming, no final evasions, subterfuge, or denial.

But Prospero is no tragic hero—he achieves his desires and undergoes no downfall. Does he share a tragic hero’s awareness?

Attaining his previous position shatters his understanding of himself and his place. His return to Duke of Milan may be the proper resolution of events, but he lost the job originally because it bored him. And his successful retribution, instead of filling him with confidence and power, illuminates his misunderstanding of himself, a new desperation, and an awareness—albeit a dim one—of his own crimes and need for mercy. He sees his own flaws in trying to make others pay for wronging him.

But he isn’t dead yet, and, I wonder—as his every third thought of death arrives—if he still has a tragic hero’s desire for relief.

11.

It’s cliché to say Shakespeare changes as you age, but I identified with Caliban the first time I read The Tempest. Caliban is acted upon, unappreciated, and distressed. As Prospero’s plaything, he relies on the fuel of resentment. He is in every way compelled, denied choices and given no proper spot on the island or anywhere else. He isn’t pretty or nice, but he burns in ways Prospero doesn’t. In comparison, Prospero’s battles seem willful, fitful, and arbitrary.

Prospero is the master and what right does he have to be unhappy?

12.

Some readers may say the epilogue of The Tempest completes Propero’s arc from anger to humility. He hasn’t enjoyed winning as much as he thought and seeks universal amnesty and calm instead.

If that’s so, he will make a lousy duke to Milan. His brother the usurper has greater initiative and confidence. His brother wants the job and looks to no one for relief.

 13.

You can grow tired of wanting, particularly when you’re unsure why you want, whether an ambition you distrust can be real, which uncertain alternative can bring joy.

14.

If, as many believe, Prospero is a surrogate for the retiring Shakespeare, the play’s grace note feels like an exhausted surrender. Prospero appears to want nothing more than to drop his instrument and walk from the orchestra unnoticed.

He is not the same person we met. The vehicle of his transformation is not killing others or harming others as a tragic hero’s might be, but he does kill—willingly—a part of himself. Maybe, in casting off his slaves, his magic, his daughter, his autonomy, and his desire for revenge, he hopes to see his raw self, the self he will be when he slips into that last powerless sleep.

I wonder if he does.

15.

Compared to Prospero, many more thoughts intervene between my thoughts of death. But I understand more now. When ambition achieved, unachieved, formed, or abandoned fails to satisfy, when ambition seems itself positively punishing, it’s natural to desire rest.

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