Tag Archives: Writing

Scriptio Inferior

Master-Harold-for-Blog-post-1024x7201.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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.”

5.

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.

6.

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?

7.

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.

8.

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.

9.

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.

10.

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.”

11.

The dissatisfaction of silence hasn’t kept me from tasting it constantly.

12.

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?

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Where You May Find Me (in 12 parts)

The Artist at Work

self-portrait: the artist at work

1.

Growing up, my older brother collected butterflies. I remember little more than the lurid details—final flutters in the killing jar, paper strips and pins to assure rigor mortis set just right, and the second generation of smaller insects invading his collection’s abdomens.

2.

At my age, memory dotters about the inessential, humming and speaking to and for itself. I struggle to find energy to record it.

3.

The book I’m reading contains prose that makes me want to write. The urge has mostly passed otherwise. Somehow the mellifluence of language—yes, I just used the word “mellifluence”—withstands waves of failure and futility like the desperation to string notes that, to anyone else, are not music and certainly don’t suggest wisdom or weight.

Having nothing to say, it seems, can’t hold me back.

4.

On the L this afternoon, as I unstacked my pile of stored podcasts, another passenger prattled about matters I couldn’t hear and only understood through the discreet upturned glances of other travelers.

5.

Here’s another story:

Most of the lies I told in school cast me as dangerous. I told Dennis Fewell I’d tried mushrooms and, a week later, one of his friends, half-laughing and high-smirking, asked if I’d like to try again. I declined, burning as though I’d been caught, pants down, looking at what I ought not.

6.

The stories I tell are so many layers of phyllo. The key, TV tells me, is the butter and dough folded over and over into thinner and thinner layers. The key, so TV says, is kneading for division—subtle and distinct.

7.

One morning, surveying my unfulfilled potential, I hit upon something new—I’ve never learned to express my true self.

What followed was a twisty trip through various meanings and permutations of “true” and “self,” then the general miasma rising after another night spent skimming sleep.

8.

Among my many envies, the strongest remains uplift. Its Pavlovian impact springs from desperate desire and salivation… or desire for salvation.

9.

Oddly, a kind of humor comes from hopelessness. Ice and banana peels rely on finding no traction. Without the bite of true contact between surfaces, we’re free to disassociate, to dream the serious isn’t that serious. “Consequential,” after all, is a big word.

10.

My last anecdote for now:

Sitting in my seventh-floor unit in West Lakeview Chicago, I watched, with some bemusement, a dog walker untangling her pet from four successive poles. What struck me, from my vantage, was how deftly she navigated absurdity, how unconsciously.

11.

Knowing few readers have made it this far allows me to say I’m sorry for my staining, straining theme—the self-disgust accompanying me through every sentence, phrase, and word. I try to hide, I do.

I hope someone notes how hard I prod misery to sing.

12.

I wake at 4 am. Who knows why, but the hour I spend before nearly anyone matters to me. It’s time no eyes are upon me. It feels weightless. I appreciate buoyancy typically denied.

Wind blow as it will, I float.

 

 

 

 

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The Not Chair

DislineatedIn a drawing class a few years ago, a teacher asked us to draw a chair by depicting all the spaces around it. Drawing the not-chair, he told us, restarts the mind, tricks it into bypassing the brain’s assumptions about how a chair should look. The exercise does, as he promised, force you to scrutinize the scene afresh.

Figuratively speaking, I’ve been drawing the not-chair a lot recently.

With my 60th birthday approaching Paperclipsand after 36 years of teaching, I’m working part-time this year, meaning I have not only fewer classes but also fewer responsibilities as advisor, club sponsor, or coach. My schedule is largely open. I arrive a little before I teach. I leave a little after I finish. This new regimen is only a couple of weeks old but feels mostly like not-teaching. Assumptions about my life’s purpose have changed.

Like probably most people, furniture fills my day. Usual tasks take up its room: exercising, making a bag lunch for work, commuting, visiting Starbucks, and engaging in various other regular activities you may know as well as I do. And most of that furniture—until this fall—surrounded work. I had little time left over after planning for class, grading papers, meeting with colleagues, and answering student emails.

Now I look for ways to occupy my newly expansive day. I already have one other sort of furniture—writing a daily haiku for my haiku blog—and, in June, I added another by creating Instagram account (@davidb.marshall) for a daily doodle. “Doodle,” though, may not be the right term for what I post there, some of which take hours to complete. Perhaps because it’s easier to draw patterns than it is to think about what I really need to do, I spend a lot of time brainlessly coloring in shapes or painting pages in preparation for making shapes to color in. Maybe as long as I have the time to doodle there’s no harm in it, but I’m never sure whether I’m using time or filling it in. I believe in any endeavor that I can regard as practice—that’s what I tell myself, anyway—but how does one become a more skilled doodler?

Devil's TableclothSo I also work on work more than necessary—planning, grading, and planning some more. My son correctly predicted I’d have trouble kicking workahol, and he was right. I’m still waking at 4 am to reread what I’m teaching and put the finest of finishing touches on lesson plans. I’ve discovered you never need run out of work if you can think of more work to do. I’ve concluded everything takes exactly as long as you have to do it.

Plus, what I want to do stands little chance against what others want from me.fuzzy A life of fulfilling expectations, keeping appointments, and meeting deadlines hasn’t prepared me for initiative. For a workaholic, a fine line divides idleness and guilt. Relaxation seems out of the question. I read the back pages of the paper, listen to podcasts as soon as they appear in my feed, and try to do those household chores I too often neglect. I’m embarrassed to admit how often I check Instagram. Yet I wonder about where I’m going,  who I am now that I’m only part time me.

So far, I’ve found time for everything but redefinition. Where does identity come from—circumstance or choice? Once you remove the chair, how do you draw the not-chair?

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Consistency is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds… So What?

growing-your-sales-with-consistency-55882514-1024x682My 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.

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Artist’s Statement II

IMG_1995-1Though unpracticed at improv, I think I understand the principle—place faith in skills you’ve developed and, when the moment comes to invent, you will respond. The same feelings apply to every art form. There are hours of experience… and right now.

For about twenty years, I’ve been painting abstracts. Most of that time, I’ve sought only to play with marks, colors, and shapes to please myself. Every stage alternates pattern and variation, processes I commit to and then violate. Each layer superimposes on the last until the final picture emerges as something unexpected. I know artists who express frustration when their final product doesn’t match their visions, but I rarely feel that. Surprise satisfies me most. If the end point is unanticipated, that’s enough. I await serendipity.

Or failure. At some stage, I hate the painting emerging from blank space. I worry about sophistication most, whether what I’m creating is complex or interesting enough to reward scrutiny and whether it possesses enough skill to seem virtuous. Of course, I can’t see my art as others do—like a grown child, each stage remains visible to me in the final product. But all art, I suppose, rests on faith. If you like it, you think, someone else may possibly (hopefully) like it too.

IMG_0711-1And, anyway, only a fool expects people to appreciate abstract art generally. When I show my work, most people profess to like the colors or specific interesting shapes. They ask, “What did you have in mind—what were you thinking about?” I have answers—a cracked sidewalk, a koi pond viewed from overhead, roots laid bare by erosion, failing paint beneath leaf shadows—but we’re both being polite. Most of the time, my making supplanted my thinking. Referents appear only in retrospect.

Jackson Pollock described his work as “Energy and motion made visible—memories arrested in space.” Abstraction, Robert Motherwell said, is “nakedness, an art stripped bare.”

I try not to care whether I’m any good or not. I mean only to open a conduit to my unconscious and what I’ve seen and absorbed and can offer back—however mixed up—without excessive interference from impulses that might organize or otherwise impose.

IMG_2050Writing, the other great creative venture of my life, is different. In discussing visual art, I feel the danger of explanation. Writing essays like this one, I think explanation might be everything. Gerhard Richter once compared abstract art to fiction. Abstract paintings, he said, “make visible a reality we can neither see nor describe, but whose existence we can postulate.”

A closer comparison  might be poetry, an effort to represent the most elusive elements of experience. After so many years of trying to say exactly what I mean, Richter’s “postulation” has much to recommend it—regardless of what, in the end, it says.

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About Pursuit

57a101e3c724f.imageEvery year, in each of my classes, I try at least one of the assignments I give. My post today is my attempt at a “Hybrid Essay,” an essay I assigned to my American literature class that mixes critical and personal attention to a text, in this case Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.

Though I’m slightly over the word count (300-600 words), I wanted to accomplish what I ask of my students, that they make their own encounter with the text the central and explicit subject. I’m asking them what the book makes them think about.

I’ve made some adjustments for a more general audience, and the page numbers refer to the hardback edition.

Midway through Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the main character, the runaway slave Cora, asks about the word “ravening.” She encounters it in a North Carolina attic, in the Bible loaned her to practice reading while she awaits a chance to escape again. Martin Wells, her savior and captor, can’t define the word at first, but a few pages later, as Cora urges action, Martin reports, seemingly out of the blue, “Ravening—I think it means very hungry” (178). It means more. Its full definition refers to animals’ ferocious hunger as they seek prey. In the context of the moment, Martin recalls “ravening” as he thinks about Night Raiders, Whitehead’s version of the KKK. “The boys,” he says, “will be hungry for a souvenir” (178). In the context of the novel—and in the context of the issue of slavery and in the context of American life—“ravening” may be a key to our character.

I use “our” deliberately. Dress it up as we will, all Americans seem touched by desperate ambition. Our ravening curiosity brought us to the moon, and our ravening desire created global business and industry. Our ravening idealism believed we might create a utopia where all people are endowed with an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness—and life, and liberty.

The trouble begins with pursuit. In Underground Railroad, the slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway’s fascination with the “American Imperative” puts pursuit at the center of American life. He defines it as “the divine thread connecting all human behavior—if you can keep it, it is yours” (80). Something in us, some hunting impulse, believes in ambition even when its object is dubiously valuable and dubiously just.

Americans aren’t unique in their ambitions, but they may be the most conspicuously unapologetic about them. Ridgeway can’t resist bringing God into the American Imperative. The spirit that carried us to the new continent, he says, called us “to conquer and build and civilize,” and also “destroy what needs to be destroyed” (221). Charitably, he includes the will to “lift up the lesser races,” but adds “If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate” (222). All this ravening is, he suggests, “Our destiny by divine prescription” (222).

Ridgeway is a villain, and Whitehead can’t mean him to be an American Everyman. Yet his dark version of American ambition needs to be heard and understood as an inalienable American value. Ridgeway dies extolling his rectitude. “The American imperative is a splendid thing,” he sputters, “a shining beacon… born of necessity and virtue” (303). That label “beacon” sees the American Imperative as a signal aim—up on that City on the Hill—a virtue worth pursuing unquestioningly. Like many Americans, Ridgeway’s “greed is good” mentality places the side effect of progress ahead of primary effects like subjugation and destruction.

Alexis De Tocqueville believed Americans ought to amend “self-interest” with “rightly understood,” the comprehension that desires shouldn’t trammel or prevent others’ desires. Most of us know our aspirations are common. Whitehead goes further to create characters who sacrifice their desires. Cora lists them as “People she had loved, people who had helped her”: the Hob women, Lovey, Martin and Ethel, Fletcher (215). They seek to control what others are controlled by.

Trouble, Whitehead knows, comes from regarding documents like the Declaration of Independence as good and only good or bad and only bad. We must remember the Declaration did nothing to curb belief in slavery as natural or divinely ordained. Though we aren’t slavers anymore, the impulse to rationalize—and to fabricate—in order to justify personal advantage remains. We want to call ambition “the American Dream,” but Whitehead suggests we need to wake up and see its context. “The Declaration is like a map,” his Indiana teacher Georgina says, “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it for yourself” (240). We can’t become so ravenous we don’t continually test our map’s accuracy and limits.

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A City of Selves

blade-runner-2049_u4chAs you grow older, you change enough to think your memories might belong to someone else.

Updating my resume, I see responsibilities I’ve shed, positions I’ve forgotten, expertise I’ve come to distrust, and degrees that ought to have expired by now. Items come with a memory or two—choosing art for my office as a college counselor and the face of the actor who played Emily in a production of Our Town I once directed. I recall arriving 45 minutes early to learn the drills I’d have to teach third grade soccer players, though I never played soccer.

Each moment seems foreign now, not just in the haze of distance but in their storage as discrete things. They are blocky buildings far away, a city of separate selves.

In 2004, a cultural studies theorist named Alison Landsberg wrote a book called Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. Brooke Gladstone recently interviewed her for the podcast On the Media, where Landsberg described memory as a means “to narrate ourselves.” “We call on the past to open up trajectories for us to become the kind of people that we want to be,” she said, just as “societies or nation states select particular aspects or events of the past that justify who they are in the present.”

For Landsberg, those memories don’t have to be real. Discussing the recent Blade Runner 2049, its 1982 predecessor, and other sci-fi like Total Recall and HBO’s Westworld, she said, “These films end up arguing quite powerfully that authenticity is not the most important criteria for memory.” More important, she said, is “how it is that we use those memories in our daily life.”

If I’m using my memories, they operate subconsciously. I rarely scare them to the surface, and they sometimes seem no more a part of me than episodes in books I’ve read or movies and TV I’ve seen. My first classroom, its glass door to the narrow and dark hall and opposing wall of windows, is now a set. Specific students are silent slides in a Kodak carousel.

In the original Blade Runner, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkell) considers memory a means of controlling the artificially human replicants. He tells Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), “If we gift them a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions and, consequently, we can control them better.”

Perhaps my memories create similar constraint. They delineate borders. They whisper when I fulfill my sense of self and when I leave the reservation. They warn.

During On the Media, Gladstone plays a clip from Westworld when the maker Ford (Anthony Hopkins) tells the host Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), “Every host needs a backstory, Bernard. You know that. The self is a kind of fiction, for hosts and humans alike. It’s a story we tell ourselves.”

So, as I’m maker and host, what I’ve done matters little, except as characterization.

That revelation may sound depressing, but—like many revelations—it’s also promising. If I’m not the person who sang and danced as Linus in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, or the person who hosted a talent show in a banana yellow tux, I’m the author who thought them within the range of my characterization. I’m editor too, deciding what episodes—good or bad—seem characteristic and uncharacteristic. As I’ve never liked myself much, it is also some consolation to be a maker who can forestall the desperate desire to add new episodes and honors that I, as a host, always think will redeem my sorry history at last… and don’t.

Deckard’s memory of a unicorn is one of the ways viewers identify him—a blade runner who decommissions errant replicants—as a replicant himself. Unicorns aren’t real, which marks that memory as implanted. Alison Landsberg points out, however, “There’s a way in which all of our memories are implanted.” Our parents’ stories implant some, photographs implant others, and books, film, and television implant too. “But it’s what use we make of these memories, real or not, that’s most important,” Landsberg says. She reminds me that people are defined by actions. “Whether those actions are made possible by prosthetic memories or memories based on lived experience,” she says, “makes little difference.”

Though I’m not ashamed of the items on my resume, I might enjoy being the sort of replicant who more consciously engineers his own identity.

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