Category Archives: Survival

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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Jenny

rooney-mara-thomas-whiteside5Another character sketch. Another exercise. This time, I started with this picture of Rooney Mara and then wrote from that. I’m not sure what I’m doing with these yet…

The two hours before dawn passed in half-dreams and worries. A couple of times a voice seemingly outside Jenny’s mind spoke nonsensically—one silly pronouncement, like “It’s too cold for that!”—loud, as if she still shared the room with someone. She took these random pronouncements as signals she’d fall asleep again, but noticing them meant awakening too. Lately inattention required will, effort to elude and escape her thoughts.

Jenny tried not to look ahead to a midday meeting with her boss and instead recalled a high school hayride. One of the boys in her English class, a football player and avowed Christian, asked her out, and, worn down by the many times he’d tried, she agreed. She pictured the truck idling in a scrubby field at twilight. The scene reduced to that openbed truck, and the other couples—they were all couples—huddled under blankets amid hay bales, breathing exhaust. Jenny didn’t know the month exactly, but the chill of winter lay weeks away. During the ride, a sheen of sweat gathered on her legs under the blanket. She remembered that. The boy’s arm over her shoulder felt like wood, like the yoke the oxen wore on the cover of her US history textbook.

Her husband died in spring. At the wake, Jenny’s brothers and sister repeated how mercifully short his illness was. He’d been going to the gym daily before the diagnosis and, even in his final week, his eyes possessed their usual vitality. Up until the end, as frail as his body became, he still seemed young, joking that he’d finally lost those few extra pounds he’d been trying so hard to shed. She laughed because she thought it might make him happy. Just after he’d gone, she left him with his family and went outside to cry, the first light of the pale sky impossible to bear, its ill-timed beauty taunting her.

“You have to be ready,” he’d said the day before.

“I know, but let’s not talk about that.”

“Tell me you’re ready.”

“I am… but don’t want to be.”

This morning, Jenny opened her eyes to light and roused herself. The alarm hadn’t sounded, but an early start meant missing traffic. Her closet seemed spacious since she and his sister cleaned it out. Jenny laid the new blue skirt, a blouse, and her underthings over the rumpled covers of her bed.

She sighed as she turned the shower on. Her work had fallen off—her last review was not nearly as glowing as ones from last year—but her boss would be sympathetic, asking how she was “holding up” before turning to instructions repeated with a pleading expression she’d come to hate. She’d prepared for that day’s meeting until very late the night before, assembling a presentation full of statistics and new marketing plans. She shouldn’t have to bring work home, she knew that, but revising her resume and reaching out to contacts used up hours too. Jenny felt tired of driving, tired of working.

Water met skin like summer rain, tepid and gentle as another day began.

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No Us Without Them (and vice versa)

771px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(detail)_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

–Chinese Proverb

This morning, I bought a French Press coffee maker and wondered at the many tongues of its instructions. Some future alien archeologist might find the guide useful… and not just to make coffee. The Rosetta Stone seems mundane in comparison.

“How far we’ve come!” I’d like to crow—barely a word remains untranslated, and humans have rendered thoughts in scores of languages. I wish I felt as good about understanding, which lags so conspicuously. We trade words in one tongue for another—what was meant, and whether we hear and accept it, are bigger issues.

I’ve read science fiction centered on the impossibility of understanding between earth and extraterrestrials, but I always regarded that as speculation—writers ask, “What if frames of reference were so different as to be irreconcilable?” More and more, however, that what-if seems allegorical, not theoretical.

Consider war and what atrocity might be happening right this instant at the point of a knife sharpened too keenly or a gun loaded and unsafetied, its very existence daring its user to pull a trigger manufactured for that specified purpose, to impose some perceived right.

Humans are awful to one another, too stubborn to admit being one species. Maybe we are capable of just as much love, empathy, and understanding as hate. Maybe I should overlook our appalling cruelties and look for common kindness and common courage.

Sincerely, I’d rather believe in humanity, but resentment seems to matter most these days—along with selfishness, lack of foresight, deliberate denial of alternate perspectives, inexhaustible efforts to preserve self-regard, and the hegemony of our own type. Some say, “I want to change the world,” “I want to love everyone,” and “I want to help.” Meanwhile others live according to “We have ours (or want ours). The rest be damned.”

And, as much as I’d rather not, I participate. The other day, visiting with a like-minded friend, I waded knee-deep in bile and heard myself railing against corporate culture. “They don’t acknowledge anything but profit!” I said, and, “How can they be so focused on abstractions and ignore the real and genuine people—with families—standing right there?”

Luckily, I had no rock, club, or bazooka. I’m not above indulging in antagonism, humanity’s true universal trait. Like everyone else, I’d love to claim the title, “The Good Guy,” but that’d be self-serving.

In our overheated media greenhouse, it’s hard not to be contentious, and crowding has us fighting over resources and territory and—especially—rectitude, the space we want most. We crave reassurance we can’t exist without defeating or denying someone else. Anything considered “A common cause” or “mutually beneficial” drowns in skepticism and laughter.

We cry, “Beneficial to whom?” and too often mean, “How does that benefit me?”

The only solution I see is another science fiction plot—reversing Babel and plunging the planet into amnesia so profound that—even if we can’t overlook visible and audible divisions of language and geography and race and bent—we could reconsider everything that, right now, feels too important to put aside… sometimes seemingly virtually everything. Then we might restart. But I’m not sure how the story would end. Forgetfulness and forgiveness aren’t human gifts.

Idealists—how I wish I were one!—will say love is potent, equally embedded in every human heart. I’m optimist enough to yearn they’re right, but, after our well-recorded and well-noted history of animosities, oppressions, class warfare, bigotry, and grand (plus petty) violence, how do we make today new?

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Danse Russe

“I am lonely, lonely. haring4

I was born to be lonely,

I am best so!”…

 

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

 

William Carlos Williams,

“Danse Russe”

Lately, the philosophical question plaguing me is whether solitude is the natural state of humans… which says something about the state I’m lately in.

It’s July and, as a teacher, I don’t report to work. However, my wife still leaves each morning, my son lives elsewhere, and this summer my daughter has a job in the wilderness of Wisconsin. Between seven am and seven pm, email, Facebook, and the internet generally keep me company. With my sabbatical ahead, I forecast a long stretch of similarly uninterrupted solitude for the next 14 months.

Scientists believe they’ve answered my philosophical question definitively: humans are not solitary, never have been, and, in fact, experience changes in genetic expression in response to social situations. Where scientists once believed you were stuck with the genes you possessed at birth, they now recognize the environment, including the social environment, can turn on certain genes and change traits thought immutable. Research indicates people who live alone develop suppressed immune systems and manifest marked changes in genes linked to depression. Abused children with access to support outside the home, for instance, show–genetically—less sensitivity to stress and trauma. Closeted gay men fall much more rapidly to AIDS than more connected victims. Solitude, science says, is bad for you.

I’m not naturally social. In that great divide between those energized by company and those taxed by it, I’m squarely in the second group. A day of teaching runs upstream against my disposition, and, by the end of the workday, I have no talk left. As most people do, my wife looks forward to parties, guests, and visits. I try to. I remind myself how much fun I’ll have, how good it will be to reconnect with friends, how exciting meeting new people can be. Nonetheless, my apprehension grows. Almost involuntarily, I experience a kind of dread.

I’m no recluse. I love most humans and seem to function well in public. Some people, I’m always surprised to hear, say I’m interesting, even charming. Still, solitude is easier.

There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is a choice. Loneliness implies unfulfilled desire. A solitary person likes quiet, enjoys controlling his or her time, and finds productive and satisfying ways to spend what may appear to others empty hours. In contrast, a lonely person feels lost in a desert of time and wonders where the oasis is, where life-sustaining company might be, right then. Solitude evokes strength, self-sufficiency, autonomy, confidence, and completion. Loneliness stings. It never feels right and elicits resentment, bitterness at the thought of being dismissed or neglected.

I aim for solitude, but its border with loneliness wavers. I consider calling people so we can get together, then I give the idea up as weakness—they have their own lives and could certainly call me if they wished. I shouldn’t impose. I remind myself of my good fortune, the time to read, and study, and think, and write. Then, when I’m not looking, the switch flips. I feel excruciatingly bored and forgotten. The day begins with journal writing, a to-do list, an hour or so of studying a psychology text, and work on my latest creative projects. It ends with Netflix, iPad games, and anything to pass time before my wife (finally) walks in.

If I complain, she says, rightly, “Do something about it.” And I say, “I should.” Yet, the next day, I return to the same strategy of making the most of being alone. Sometime soon, I may scream. In the meantime, I structure my new solitary life like a dike to keep loneliness out. I mean to keep loneliness out.

A researcher named Steve Cole has devoted his career to studying the physical effect of social isolation and has discovered that, even more than stress, “Social isolation is the best-established, most robust social or psychological risk factor for disease out there. Nothing can compete.”

Scientists may have answered the question of whether humans are solitary, but my own experiment continues. My days negotiate self-reliance and desire, fellowship and autonomy, productivity and yearning to hear another voice. Nothing seems so immediate and real as this battle between being myself and being part of something. Even this post is a skirmish, a surrogate for conversation, piled earthwork, more effort to occupy time.

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Hermit

photo 3-29At Kenyon for a literary hybrid workshop, I wrote and created books to contain my work. The story below is around 250 words, and the first two lines come from the 20 “first lines” I submitted before arriving. The book (pictured) was a simple quarto, designed to demonstrate how formats change readers’ experience. In this case, turning one page into eight pages meant the first page inside was right side up and second upside downphoto 2-31photo 1-32. The cover is outside and the two center pages. To read the book, you flip back and forth first to last pages—through the center—then turn over to read the second and fifth pages.

Don’t follow? Exactly. Some happy accidents occurred—the story talks about middles, for instance. However the account makes a little more sense (but only a little) in this version…

“WILL THE CRABS GET US?” she asks.

In any alphabetical list, I’m almost always in the middle—not keen enough for A nor bold enough for Z… and blending in.

You won’t find your way out of any list without meeting others as mild or anxious or lost.

“The crabs will not get us,” I say, “if your hand goes near them they pull into their shellsand they have no claws.”

But they do, narrow as straws and barbless, useful for lifting the sea’s leftovers to mouth.

Appendages as implements.

Shells put you a moment from solitude. Though I’ve seen only shells’ front halls, their walls are shiny eggshell with a blush of azure and iodine.

“I need a smoother, tighter sky,” I might say.

She won’t reach into the tank. The crabs amble into and out of cracks in the rocks. The exhibit burbles with pumps. Everyone else talks, and some grab a crab, call it, coax it to emerge. They name their prey, but, when nothing summons the resident, they drop it into the pool again.

I close my eyes against the splash and picture the crabs as they pendulum against water’s resistance—flat stones, bubbles rising as the last air in their homes escapes.

“They’re ugly anyway.” she says.

We’re no company to each another. The shadows of this space leave us alone, and voices nearby—but not here—pause for laughter. We leave together, neither first nor last, pushed and pulled by the current of another moment ebbing.

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It’s Okay If You’re Not Listening

imagesA fellow blogger once told me, “Don’t expect too much from summer.” She meant visitors, not summer in general.

She’s right about visitors. Something happens in June, and those WordPress bar graphs flatten to foothills. My first two years of blogging, I worried I’d said something so heinous no one liked me anymore. Now the summer lull is a familiar pattern, and, being a grizzled veteran of the sport of blogging, I accept readers’ attention wanes when the weather encourages healthier alternatives to reading angsty, self-doubting prose.

You can hardly look at an overcoat when it’s boiling out. I get that.

In fact, I more than accept the quiet. I relish it as a resort town must sigh through October or the babysitter must claim the whole couch between lights out and parents’ return. It’s not that I relax so much as I don’t worry about relaxing.

Blogging and publishing offer very different companionship. Real writers must imagine readers. In contrast, bloggers can usually guess how crowded the room is and adjust their volume and tempo, maybe even whisper because more intimate speech is okay right now.

Over the last six months or so, I’ve sent some writing away, and all of it has returned with “No thanks.” So perhaps I’m telling myself summer’s drought shouldn’t be ego-killing the way those rejections are. The alternative is believing I have nothing to say. Maybe I have nothing valuable to say sometimes, but I do desire speech. I want to say something.

And a strange relief arises when less is at stake. The less important the end, the more enjoyable the means. Why not be experimental or confessional or meta-conditional or plainspoken?

Writing is like swimming. It’s strange imagining someone inventing a way to cross a river, but someone must have. Conventional strokes—freestyle and breaststroke and butterfly—have well polished efficiencies, and they work. They aren’t the only means to reach another shore, however. Trying other methods might be embarrassing, but you could dream up something if you didn’t worry about looking like a fool. Plenty of brilliant writers master conventional syntax to compose lovely prose, but others revise the rules. Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce all swim oddly.

Probably because they didn’t care and worried little about readers—who readers might be or how they might react to their beautiful fumbling.

Our MFA age is more homogenous, full of MacPoems, MacShort Stories, and MacNovels acceptably well structured, thoughtful, and forgettable. Hell, you might be reading a MacEssay right now. The “focus group” and “workshop” sometimes seem oddly named, as they often center on acceptability instead of vision or idiosyncrasy.

“I don’t mean to be mean,” I hear a classmate criticizing Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, “but aren’t these opening pages just a lot of throat-clearing?”

Fumbling isn’t always beautiful, but it’s more human than self-consciousness generally permits. I realize all my efforts to “get myself out there” and “learn what editors want” may improve my work because I’ll learn to appraise and revise what’s invisible to me now. But solitude—or an intimate gathering of friends—can be helpful too, especially if I can become comfortable with throat-clearing as I learn to sing.

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Going Long: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

o-THE-GOLDFINCH-900Tolstoy and Dickens and Garcia-Marquez, masters of the long novel, have a rival in Donna Tartt, author most recently of The Goldfinch. Reviewing her work, critics call it “Dickensian,” and with good reason. She’s just as ambitious, just as intent on immersing a reader in her narrative.

Finishing a long novel sometimes produces a sort of post-partum depression. If the characters are companionable and the scenery engrossing, the next day may feel a little flat, as if excitement just departed and gray routine took its place. Tartt, however, seems after something a little different.

People say form follows function, but perhaps the opposite is just as true. The effect of a form often arises from that form. Unlike movies, novels (any novel but longer ones particularly) aren’t intended to be consumed in a single sitting, and thus a moving story haunts a reader between encounters. The reason students should write about books in present tense, their teachers explain, is that whatever a reader discusses is still happening, right now, between the book’s covers. The reader my wander off, but the book has its own life. It’s easy to believe fiction continues even when no one watches.

With long novels, form governs a reader’s response even more vividly. Dickens’ painstaking attention to minutiae fills his fiction with shadowy corners and unopened but real rooms. His subtle presentation of even the most minor characters leaves them lingering in a reader’s imagination even when they’re offstage. As different as his worlds are—and they grow more different year by year—they seem actual, complete.

In The Goldfinch, Tartt demonstrates similar ambitions. Theo Decker, narrator of the novel, moves from New York, to Vegas, back to New York, and on to Antwerp, and each place has idiosyncratic light and space, odd smells and colors, distinctive possessions and detritus. Characters, in all senses of the word, populate these peculiar places. Theo Decker may hold the center, but the characters winging in orbit around him are powerful influences too. His friend Boris is particularly well-drawn, as a reader may never really believe he’s gone even though he exits the story, seemingly for good, multiple times.

Yet Tartt’s novel also renovates the form. Where Dickens and Garcia-Marquez, and especially Tolstoy, rely on essayistic passages to abstract the action and address broader concerns, Tartt never really leaves her action for long—at least, until the last few pages. In other authors’ work, these passages are a sort of respite for the reader, and Tartt offers little. She leaves her story in disarray. The burden of each moment’s concerns can create discomfort and enervation, itchiness akin to wearing a cast or sitting trapped in concert with a bad cough.

Dickens infuses characters with sweetness by placing them in dire but nonetheless hopeful contexts. Critics in his own time and since have justifiably accused him of sentimentality and bombast. Tartt seems intent on eluding his influence by denying nearly every character any lasting sweetness. Figures a reader might like—Theo’s unrequited love Pippa and his benefactors Hobie and Mrs. Barfour—are often ineffectual. Or they are victims of Theo’s relentless missteps or colored by cynical judgments. A reader may find it hard to encounter The Goldfinch without wanting to scratch… or come up for air.

Many contemporary authors test the lower limits of exposition, and novels like Gone Girl seem made to antagonize readers as well as attract them, often at the same time. Readers, it turns out, like watching traffic accidents too… the question is only how long. Like Gillian Flynn, Tartt tests readers’ patience, perhaps even their perseverance. Theo screws up on nearly every page and, if Tartt hopes his inherent goodness allies a reader to him—the decency beneath his theft, drug-use, apathy, denial, ignorance, and sometimes obsessive and aggravating grief—she also means to make liking him challenging. At the end of David Copperfield, Great Expectations, or Bleak House, a reader takes big bites to reach a desired destination. By the end of Tartt’s novel a reader may want escape and relief, an end to an all-too-full meal.

For anyone who hasn’t read The Goldfinch, one spoiler is necessary: it will end well. Though developments lift a reader at times, they won’t offer hope as frequently as some readers might like. Tartt makes it quite easy to believe that, any moment now, the pudding can still turn to excrement, and the end is still hundreds of pages away.

Some readers will celebrate her innovation and achievement, but some will want a more comfortable and companionable narrative, a book more like the long novels they regret finishing. The Goldfinch isn’t that sort of long novel.

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