Surprise! Even on the internet, something defies discovery.
In 1982, visiting a graduate school classmate’s Massachusetts home, I heard a comedy album collecting Vermont humor, a combination he called “a contradiction in terms.” The only joke I remember is…
Farmer, I’ve been on this hill for an hour now, ain’t there no end to it?
Stranger, this ain’t no hill. You’ve just lost your hind wheels.
It wasn’t really funny then, and, muted by time and missing a Vermonter accent, it seems less funny now. Still, it sticks. I hoped the oracle Google might peg its provenance, but she turned up nothing—despite every combination of entreaties.
I’m asking too much, have traveled too much. Who wrote and/or told the joke doesn’t matter. Its persistence does. I’ve climbed many hills since, most of my own making.
When my daughter was young, I learned about “catastrophizers,” people who validate adversity and see struggles as graver than they really are. A broader—probably more personal—definition might include those who endow their lives with meaning according to real or imagined obstacles. It’s a terrible but persistent habit.
Sometimes, my own hill feels endless. The formula says, “Must I always be second?” or “They are all against me,” or “I just can’t catch a break” or “When will my train arrive?” Separating reality from perspective sometimes feels impossible. I subsist on my perspective. Without hind wheels, I climb and climb.
For years, I’ve been looking for anyone who can tell me what hill I’m actually on, but we’re all on hills made steeper by their being ours. I accept friends’ preoccupations because I have so many myself. They have—we all have—our troubles. Still, oddly and irrationally, a voice says, “What about mine?”
It’s selfish to crave recognition in this distracted and overactive time, but I look for moments someone turns to regard my hill and, however politely or secretly insincerely, says, “Yes, I see.”
This week, I retire from teaching after 37 years, but, for all the fond memories that time represents, it’s early—not only because I’m just 60 but also because, aside from missing hind wheels, I still have something to offer. The stereotype of an “Experienced” teacher features shuffling yellowed notes, telling students “Well, that’s your problem,” and meeting each wave of pedagogical innovation with “Not again,” but that’s not me. I still love the people I teach. Caring about their learning has sustained me over so many cycles of September to June. I’m just tired, though ready to travel on.
In my fantasy, the farmer offers help. He backtracks until we find what’s missing. He overlooks my self-absorption. He affixes the old wheels or new ones or a facsimile and sends me off, saying, “Stranger, we need wheels. Let’s hope these are meant for you.”
A college course called “Meaning and Value in Western Thought” was my first exposure to palimpsests, ancient manuscripts washed or scraped to make way for new writing. I don’t remember what specific meaning or value survived well enough for scholars to find it later, but I do remember my professor using the occasion to develop a metaphor that, since then, has become familiar.
The past is a palimpsest and so are we.
Apparently, my grandfather excelled at angry letters. I never knew him, but my father described him sitting at the kitchen table in his underwear, scratching out cutting phrases with a fountain pen and planting the seeds of deadly subtext. My father said he worked and reworked these letters for hours, pausing only long enough to chuckle at his handiwork.
The pre-computer age required much more handwriting, and I enjoyed the negotiation of long-hand. Carets and cross-outs overwhelmed the text. Arrows led to sentences in the margin, and, at the top of the page, I questioned choices, determined to return to them later.
The effort transformed these drafts into holy objects I lacked courage to toss. Even after typing the final composition, I saved them. Some still lurk in my files, their cramped elaborations and digressions winding like varicose veins.
We’re told now to wait before sending sensitive emails. We’re supposed to let them sit, or write them to get our true feelings out. Then, we must delete them. That process should create a more circumspect and neutral message… or a promise “to talk.”
My father, like his father, wrote angry letters, but where my grandfather’s targets were columnists, politicians, and public figures, my father aired gripes about ball-point pens that failed before they expended all the ink in their barrels or coffee filters that weren’t sealed properly and left grounds in his morning cup.
He too delighted in his craft. He also received many unctuous replies and a lot of free shit.
The expense of parchment made of lamb, calf, or goat skin (then known as pergamene) was a big reason palimpsests existed. The page was costly and hard to get, so no surface could be cast off or relegated to an archive. It needed reuse, and reuse required erasure.
Or so they thought. The underwriting or scriptio inferior persisted and could be recovered through various chemical processes—and now ultraviolet light.
What would the authors think? Would it feel like being caught talking to yourself?
I do most of my drafting in my head now, revising and re-revising even as I speak. I mean to say just what I mean and express it just so. Magma-like anger does roil inside me—more than anyone may realize—but the few times it gets out in conversation, it immediately turns to steam amid raining apologies.
Confident people revel in righteous indignation. I ruminate over extenuating factors and my role in every galling slight. I swallow my angry letters.
Or write them to myself.
Once, while I was directing a play in my first teaching job, I had to purchase a hammer before a set construction session. I kept the receipt and filled out a reimbursement complete with—the eighties—three colors and carbon paper between them. I needed the signature of the art department chair, and, hunched over his desk while he was away, affixed a post-it note to the form and scrawled, “I don’t know WHY they don’t trust me, and you have to verify I really bought a hammer, but here…”
My pique passed through every color and the carbons. The next day a smirking note arrived explaining proper procedure.
This weekend, a situation at work required the most consequential form of charged communication. I felt ill-used and thought about retribution. In my imagination, either they would pay or I’d make myself heard, the bile inside voiced. Like colleagues who have real convictions and real gumption.
I wrote several drafts instead.
And—you can tell—I’m confessing nothing about the true subject.
There’s a moment in Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold… and the Boys” I particularly appreciate. Two servants to Apartheid-era Harold have suffered such devastating slights and deliberate stabs from him, ending with Harold spitting in the servant Sam’s face. Sam turns to his co-worker Willie—in Harold’s presence—and asks, “And if he had done it to you, Willie?”
Willie replies, “Me? Spit at me like I was a dog? Ja, then I want to hit him. I want to hit him hard!… But maybe all I do is go cry at the back. He’s little boy, Sam.”
The dissatisfaction of silence hasn’t kept me from tasting it constantly.
In my pretend dialogue with my grandfather I ask if his conscience ever told him to restrain himself and say nothing and, if so—angry letter unsent—did he feel defeated?
I want to ask, “Where do feelings go when they go nowhere at all?
My profession demands infinite alternate explanations. Teaching young writers, I exchange one description for another and turn to what something is like instead of what it is. A research paper is baking a cake, passage analysis is throwing a pebble in the pond, a writer must swing, as Tarzan does, from vines chosen in advance.
I am Mr. Analogy.
I thought about my status when I encountered a post online distinguishing between “reasoning from first principles” and “reasoning by analogy.” The author resorts to an analogy himself in saying that using principles makes you a chef and using analogies makes you a cook. The chef is a scientist who combines ingredients anew. The cook will “look at the way things are already done and… essentially copy it.” The cook might adjust the recipe in a minor way but follows an established approach.
This analogy makes me a cook, and I don’t know how I feel about that.
My first impulse is to extend the comparison. Cooks seek practicality and reliable results. They repeat themselves, sure, but they also hone their approach until every element is just right. If I only have so much to teach about writing—only what I understand and accept—I’d better learn to express it in tried and true ways. My students can take or leave what I have to say. I’m only trying to help.
But I’m defensive. I recognize that, to real writers, each task is a fresh challenge that demands new solutions. They never imitate themselves or settle into a monotonous voice. Maybe my cookery demands compliance instead of genius. Perhaps I should stop saying detail and explanation are like bricks and mortar or that, like a knife, a specific supporting detail can grow dull if it’s used for more than one purpose.
You see I can’t stop. The post I read says, “Your reasoning process can usually be boiled down to fundamentally chef-like or fundamentally cook-like. Creating vs. copying. Originality vs. conformity.” At this stage of my teaching career, I’m too tired to reinvent much. I tell myself what’s worked before is still working. I keep my head down and cook.
Analogies, I figure, demand a specific sort of intelligence, one connecting tasks, appealing to common skills, common patterns of thought and application. The analogy-maker hopes for another avenue of discovery, unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. I want my students to say or feel, “I never thought of it that way.” Of course I have thought of it that way, or I wouldn’t trot out the same exhausted comparisons. I just can’t help it.
The explanation becomes new to me if it’s new to them.
Back 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, I see 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.
When no real or virtual stack of grading awaits me, when no other deadline looms, when I have time to read carefully, annotate thoroughly, and plan thoughtfully and creatively, I love class.
Question and response and further question and further response come to resemble an intricate, entirely improvised dance. There’s inference and implication and irony and laughter. There’s progress toward answers we didn’t know we wanted, and the slightest signal drops discussion into another, more consequential dimension. Even un-staged epiphanies seem meant to be.
Many teachers must feel as I do. Class time is the pounding heart of teaching that sustains the rest. For me, even almost 40 years in classrooms, it’s the only part of the job that makes me feel competent. The rest is ash.
My school has a curious custom. At the end of each period, after students gather up their papers, re-zip their laptop covers, and file everything away in overstuffed backpacks, they—almost all of them—stop to tell their teacher “Thank you.”
I’ve never experienced such widespread and ready thanks in any other school I’ve taught. I’ve asked students new to our school whether that was the convention where they were before, and many say no. We’re an independent school—read: a private school—and admissions people sometimes tout this thanking habit as proof of the special teacher-student relationship here. Everyone, it seems, marvels at this ritual. Most of my colleagues espouse gratitude for this gratitude. They love being thanked.
For some reason, I hate it. I’m reluctant to tell students, but I wish they wouldn’t thank me.
The expression “thank you” looks outward. It includes only one second person singular pronoun “you” and thus appears selfless. It says, “you deserve thanks,” which suggests it’s all about that offering, all about approval, all about appreciation. Yet, if you listen too closely, you hear the understood “I” at the head of the clause, “I thank you.” A gift can begin to sound like a contract—not clear payment for services exactly, but a transaction nonetheless. Heard from that corner, “Thank you” says, “You’ve been paid. I have paid you.”
The Princess Bride begins with the backstory of Buttercup and Westley’s love. She relishes bossing the farm boy around, and he always replies “As you wish.” However, we soon learn his answer is code. The tasks grow simpler and simpler until she asks him to retrieve a pitcher well within her reach. Westley fulfills her desire with “As you wish.” “That day,” the narration reports, “she was amazed to discover when he was saying ‘as you wish,’ what he meant was, ‘I love you’.”
The moment’s indirection is beautiful because it relies on Buttercup hearing Westley say he loves her and not on his saying it. Love is in the reception and not the transmission.
I wonder what I might think if my students didn’t thank me.
People who grow up as I did with the maxim, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” are prone to hear silence as censure.
My emotional memory is deep enough to recall how torturous high school can be. The details of that time might have fled, but the romantic rejections, the relentless assaults on any belief in my academic, athletic, and artistic worth are still with me.
My senior year, I barely dammed tears when I received less than I expected—the score that should have been mine or indifference that, in light of my earnestness, felt like cruelty. Classmates more insulated by ego weren’t so sensitive, but we all rode waves of confirmation and doubt. I remember.
Do my students ride the same waves? I’m not sure, but my interactions with them assume so. If their high school years are like mine, what they need is for their emotions to be accepted and, as well as I can, valued. Who knows if they do feel I value them, but I hope they feel seen.
Even as, the older I get, the less they may see me.
Occasionally, I try to tell my classes that I don’t like being thanked, but there’s no proper way to say so.
If I say, “Don’t thank me, it’s my job,” it sounds like I’m saying teaching is only my job.
If I say “Don’t thank me, it’s unnecessary,” it sounds like I’m diminishing their gratitude, that I don’t appreciate their appreciation enough.
If I say “Don’t thank me, it’s embarrassing,” I risk an unprofessional confession.
If I say, “Don’t thank me, I don’t deserve it,” which too often comes too close to the truth, they think I’m asking them to dispute it.
One deflection is to string together all the forms of “You’re welcome” I know. The more people thank me, the more ridiculous it sounds.
“You’re welcome, any time, my pleasure, it’s nothing, thank you, think nothing of it, a trifle.”
We study vignettes in my senior writing elective, and, after a longer reading of six vignettes, I asked them to pretend they were determining “The Vignies,” an imaginary award for vignettes aligned with the Oscars, Grammys, or Tonys. They were to name winners in categories like “Top Vignette for Creating an Intimate Connection with a Reader” and “Greatest Mystery of What Was NOT Said (and yet WAS said, in a way… sort of).” They needed to write an awards show style speech announcing their selection and how they reached their decision.
It took some coaxing to get them to play along, but they did ultimately buy in, cooperating not just in the over-the-top fiction of those speeches but in the “we was robbed!” responses I insisted they make on behalf of spurned vignettes.
Forty minutes later, the day felt productive. I’d compelled them to scrutinize the reading, to make some thoughtful judgments, and to think about the bigger matter of how vignettes operate. Some of the speeches were funny too.
And, as they exited, several seniors thanked me.
Recently at my school, students have been secretly recording teachers with cameras in their phones then posting the results online. For the faculty, this behavior creates consternation. Some recorders must mean to show how funny or engaging we are, but others are malicious, hoping to show the opposite—how inept or clueless we are.
I’m sure they’ve focused their cameras on me and can only hope that, on balance, I’ve come across well. Made aware of what they’re up to, however, I wonder how many thanked me afterwards.
It occurs to me that, if thanks are transactions, both parties need to believe, the one thanking and the one being thanked.
At this stage of my teaching career, I can’t look for the attention younger colleagues garner. I probably won’t be asked to give another commencement speech. The fellowships and travel grants my school awards will likely land elsewhere, and I can’t fathom what performance might be enough to add my name to the plaque that designates my school’s best teacher each year. Only retiring might convince students to dedicate the yearbook to me.
I’m not insensitive to praise—who could be? And sometimes I’m haunted by the last line of James Wright’s poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”
“I have wasted my life,” it says.
All these thanks and still… perhaps the problem is me.
Desire, the Buddha says, is suffering, but what of half desires? What about all you want and, at the same time, don’t?
In seventh grade, I was in what-I-thought-love with Nita Stroud. She seemed to care about me when I didn’t care much for myself, and my desperation soared to quite unquiet protests of affection. When she broke up by telling me I was “too intense,” I remember feeling confused. Was I relieved, even happy? I’m still not sure.
Desiring nothing means getting everything. By that standard, even a half desire can’t satisfy.
One day one of my students—I’ll call him John—lingered after class. He asked me to write this essay. I was grumbling again over being thanked, how I perhaps should (but didn’t) know what students felt when they said “thank you.” I should write something, I told him, to figure out the source of my ambivalence.
“I’d read that essay,” John said.
These close moments with students are rare. My colleagues tell me I’m “respected” and a student “had a good experience with me.” I don’t know how to read these compliments. What I want is a sure sign I’m reaching someone after all this time. Yet, that’s not something any teacher can expect. I’ve been to many conferences where we teachers receive a pen, some papers, and a command, “Write about a teacher you meant to thank and didn’t.”
I’ve found something to say and someone to say it to. I recognize which teachers made me. At the time though, the hour passed. Another session demanded I move on.
Many days, I walk to school. It’s no mean distance, two miles or so, but it’s a division between home and work. This time of year, it’s dark, and I barely hear anything other than my steps, barely see anything other than threadbare traffic similarly drawn to starting earlier and better.
Teaching has been my singular devotion. I’d label it “a calling,” if I could be so melodramatic. After all this time, I want—too much—for the sacrifice of money and stature to mean something. I’d like to place my worth on another scale. Still I think, “I could have made more. I could have been more.”
During my own schooling and in my current school, smiles pass between students and teachers, a spotlight of kindness illuminating and redeeming shared troubles. In that, somewhere, are thanks. I’m just unsure how to believe it.
This week, I gave myself the assignment of writing a brief story beginning and ending with the same sentence…
“We all live with something,” he said.
But said it only inwardly. When he was tired to the point of surrender, a phrase like that snagged in his brain, and no event or conversation during the day would pull it loose. The empty repetition of the words left them meaningless of course, still he said it—inwardly—and thought about why.
Occasionally he considered telling people—friends, acquaintances, coworkers, even strangers on the train—about how pronouncements possessed him, yet didn’t. Like obsessive ghosts, the words never quite departed and never explained themselves. As a young man, he’d spent mental energy reviewing and accounting for the previous night’s dreams, but he’d exhausted studying himself. Now he mustered no deeper examination than “I wonder…” and a sigh.
At odd moments, his wife caught him whispering. When she asked him to shush, he felt the day’s combination of words stir his life like a fish whisking the air at the surface of a pond. Sometimes she asked, “What’s that about?” and he tried to be honest.
“Something obsessing me today,” he said.
He sensed she might analyze his unconscious with more patience than he could manage. Once in the middle of the night, he’d cried, “It’s all so futile!” and the next morning she interrogated him for half an hour with half a smile that told him she did and didn’t want to know. His silly wisps of remembrance led nowhere. No connection to anything in the waking world seemed well anchored.
Over the last few weeks, some statements had become steady companions. “I’m tired,” and “I just don’t…” called on him regularly, along with “You don’t know” and “I don’t even….” One—“Why pursue?”—faded only until he noticed its absence, and then it clung to him like a radio hit. It seemed (and they all seemed) to open a much longer speech now absent from memory. He didn’t really accept former lives, but he liked that solution and wanted to believe it rather than an echo bouncing in the box of his skull.
When his wife caught him muttering in the bathroom, she told him she was worried about him, and he wasn’t surprised. Quite the contrary, relief swelled like a sudden tide. The voices, he recognized, had long stopped being his own, and if she could capture the spirits possessing him, he might at last be free and happy. If she’d address them, accommodate them, absorb them, explain them.
“Honey,” she said, “Honey!” and he came back to himself.
“Yes,” he answered, and the word reverberated, shaking the air and the earth and his mind with it. That one word was bald reality and every atom vibrating.
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.
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.
In 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.
Like 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?”