I have been AWOL for too long now. My apologies, but the Oxford book is nearing the end of first draft. It will be done by Monday. In celebration, I bring you an interview with my friend and colleague John King, who wrote a guest post for this blog last year. John has stuck with his wonderful Drunken Odyssey podcast more faithfully than I have stuck with Joyous Crybaby these last months, having achieved interviews with Martin Amis, David Sedaris, and Cheryl Strayed, as well as with many local and newbie writers.
Category Archives: Writing
Last month, two graduate students that I work with invited me to speak at a round-table event about blogging later in November. I agreed, enthusiastically, put it on the calendar, and then promptly stopped posting on my blog. The two things, I promise, don’t have anything to do with each other, but their juxtaposition nonetheless has made me more aware of both of them. If I’m going to go and talk about the benefits of blogging, what does it mean that I’ve gone inactive? And does there come a time when it’s better not to blog?
There is nothing worse than those blogs that never quite get off the ground, where the blogger posts promises about blogging and not much else. “I’ll be back soon.” Or, even worse, “I’m back! I’m committed,” and then nothing more. As one stumbles through the blogosphere, one sees many such entries. That’s one reason why I have not even signed on to explain my hiatus.
Yet, I do find that being on break from the blog has been yet another learning experience about blogging.
First, that I do sincerely miss it. I miss the sense of discipline, the accomplishment of writing something every week that’s self-contained and “done,” and the connectedness that comes with all the public and private responses I get. This has given me insight into the junkie nature of attention to one’s writing—I’ve never had much, but I can see easily how that gets to driving some writers, for better and for worse.
I have also learned that as much as I love the blog and feel devoted to it, there are other things that take priority. The main reason I haven’t been blogging is because I have been spending every spare minute I have working on the book with Oxford for which I have a contract. There are other secondary reasons—I’ve had to have a minor surgery, I’ve been out of town, I’ve been formulating a project and soliciting an illustrator for it, I’ve been back in the classroom again and attending to all the prosaic demands of the university bureaucracy—course descriptions, book orders for next term, making benefits decisions during open enrollment, etc. etc.
Frankly, I’ve also been trying not-so-successfully to deal with the stress and anxiety of it all. A couple of weeks ago, my neurologist’s nurse told me that my latest MRI looks “completely normal.” She asked if I’d been having any symptoms, and I reported to her that I seem basically fine but don’t feel like myself. I wondered if my forgetfulness, irritability, inability to get a training response to exercise, and lack of concentration are sequelae to my brain events or just middle age. After asking me a few questions, she came to a different conclusion.
You know how it is when someone tells you something that you already really know, but it just clicks? There’s an aha moment even though the idea is nothing new.
“I think,” the neurology nurse said, “that there’s nothing wrong with your brain. You have the classic symptoms of insomnia and anxiety. You need to get eight hours of sleep at least two or three nights a week.” (I was getting between three and six. Once a month, maybe seven.)
So, last week I discussed this with my endocrinologist. He’s one of the good ones—a doctor who cares, who knows his stuff, and who makes time to really listen. When I was in the hospital after my brain hemorrhage, either he or his nurse came by to see me every day, even though I was not under their care at the time.
Anyway, I came home with a new prescription to help me deal with the insomnia and anxiety, a very minor dosage of a mostly harmless medication. I feel better already. That’s not really the interesting part, though. The interesting part is that Dr. M. spoke to me very personally. I have never, ever had a physician do so before, and it was a red-letter day for me.
When I was telling him about how sometimes I would be in the car driving somewhere and forget how to get there, have to call my friend and ask which exit is the best for her house, he laughed and said, “That sounds just like me. I usually get off at the right exit, but sometimes I don’t remember how I got there.”
When I told him how I feel that the powers that be just make it harder and harder for me to do my job well, and how it seems that my colleagues who take short-cuts or behave selfishly are the ones that are rewarded, he nodded. I told him that I used to love my job and that I thought I always would, but that now I always have to force myself to find the good things in it and that if I won the lottery I would quit tomorrow. He said, “I feel the same way. The adminstrators are always telling us we are only allowed to spend five minutes with a patient, and I am always telling them that’s not enough for a Type 1 with a pump, but they don’t care.”
I told him that the medical appointments—all designed to maximize the amount the doctor can charge the insurance company—have run me ragged. I told him that I had to have a total of eight appointments to have the D&C I had a couple of weeks ago—the initial appointment where all we did was set up other appointments and then appointments for the first lab work, the ultrasound, the tests the doctor performed, the pre-op, the pre-op labwork at the hospital, the procedure itself, and then the post-op. “That’s eight appointments,” I said. “Not including all the procedures themselves and the waiting in offices, that’s eight hours of me just driving around town, a whole day of work just driving around so that the docs can charge more. The number of appointments could certainly have been cut in half. Easily.
He looked chagrined, and we agreed that the tail is wagging the dog. We agreed that these circumstances are designed to promote those who don’t care about the quality of their work, and that it’s a mystery why we all seem to agree to live this way.
“I’m not mentally ill,” I said to him, and he agreed. “I need medication because we have come to find ourselves living in a world that’s intolerable.”
In fact, the percentage of my friends and relatives and their kids and their spouses and their parents that take some kind of psychotropic medication is enormous. At least one in five Americans is now taking at least one such medication, according to the American Psychological Association. And the percentage of people who aren’t taking prescription help often participate widely in the phenomenon known as self-medicating via alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and illegal recreational drugs. (Studies noted by Mental Health America and Health Services Research indicate the severity of this issue.)
The APA notes that the recent rapid increase in the use of these medications indicates “inappropriate prescribing,” and I agree. I have known people whose diagnoses I thought were overblown and who seem to me worse off than before they were medicated. The insurance companies and the medical world have tended to turn away from the hard work of intensive psychotherapy for those with real issues and have turned toward the easy pop-a-pill (or four) mentality.
But there is also a societal change going on that contributes to this in a different way, I believe. I believe that recent years’ move away from concepts of the public good toward more personal greed and supposed “self-reliance” have turned us more and more toward dog-eat-dog. Community is not emphasized, helping out is not emphasized—it’s every man, woman, child, and dog for itself. This leads inevitably to stress.
My father retired when he was 56 years old. He has lived the past twenty years in a secure retirement. He did some consulting work, he helps his wife with her small collectibles business, he got into crime writing workshops and wrote a novel, he plays tennis, he’s taken care of aging and infirm colleagues and relatives. And now he and his wife babysit her grandchildren. He has remained an active and contributing member of society, and he is a classic case of why the middle-class is a great thing.
We are unfortunately losing the middle class. My brother and I—highly educated, hard-working people who had our first jobs by age 16 or 17—have no secure retirement to look forward to. We only hope it will be there, and there’s no way that either of us will be able to retire before we’re nearly 70 years old. The future is even less sanguine for my brother’s daughter and for my students.
These are choices our society has been making and continues to make. There is plenty of money in our society, though it is consolidated in fewer and fewer hands. And there are plenty of us who want to help each other and be parts of a community, not just self-protective egotists. Even those that I encounter in my work life who seem the most selfish, self-promoting, and communally harmful seem to me to really wish for something else. They only feel that they are doing what they have to do to survive. Who can condemn them for that? I myself have turned away from demands I can’t handle, that I have felt might sink me.
Sometimes I marvel over the fact that there’s so much stress involved in being an English professor. I always think, “Hell, it’s not like I’m an ER doctor or an airplane pilot who could take out hundreds of lives with one error.” Not to mention that I don’t live in a war-torn place or one where I’m likely to starve. As the Rolling Stones song points out, though, even cooking dinner can be a trial, and there’s something stressful about the compromises that we make to have our comfortable lives. Vivian Gornick captured the same idle desperation of English departments in her wonderful essay “At the University: Little Murders of the Soul.” There is nothing more deadening than corporate expectations (or perhaps housewifely ones). And corporate expectations have taken over everywhere. My students can’t even have a minimum-wage job nowadays without being constantly harangued about their enthusiasm.
I have a hard time reconciling this high level of psychological distress across society with the idea that we are all living the way we choose to live. If we have all this choice in our lives that the gurus speak of, if we create the world we dream of, if we only have to envision success faithfully in order to get it, could we please envision something more benign, something more cooperative and less manipulative?
I know this is probably not stuff I should discuss in public on a blog with my name on it. That’s probably one more reason why I’ve been hanging back from blogging lately–just too many unspeakables on my mind. But I just have to say that if this is scandalous, then I have to laugh. More likely, of course, it could give an enemy a vulnerability to attack. But one thing I have always liked about myself—among the admittedly many things I’ve longed to change—is that I go ahead and do what I think is right. I go ahead and say what I’m thinking. I try to do this in ways that aren’t designed to hurt others, but I am not afraid to be hurt myself. I’d rather be real than afraid. I’m not invulnerable, but I am brave. I don’t mean to make more of that than it is. There are many things I am not that I would prefer to be. This is no Facebook brag or depiction of my life as peachy and perfect, of me as a hero of all that I survey, a wild success, a best human in the world. Nope, nope, nope. But I do marshal on. Today, a little more calmly.
On my way home yesterday, I heard an interesting little spot on PRI’s The World about some 17th-century treasures being found in the drought-lowered Vistula River in Poland. Large pieces of marble sculptures, even fountains, had been looted and loaded onto barges by Swedish invaders, but not all these transports made it back to Sweden. Historical reports show that at least one, perhaps overloaded and too heavy, sank in the Vistula. It waited close to 400 hundred years at the bottom of the river. (Another article from the Irish Times and video from MSNBC here.)
I’m hard pressed to explain why it is that I find such relics of the past so fascinating, but I do. Even when I’ve spent days meandering along lakeshores in Pennsylvania or scrounging around the edges of strip mines in Tennessee, I have always been moved by the bits of water-worn china and glass and by the fossils of creatures long gone. Whether it was a family trip to Chucalissa, a hike through the abandoned homesteads of Cataloochee, or a school trip to Ft. Loudon, I always marveled at the lives people had once led, at how things had changed and how they had stayed the same.
Today, I think one of the things that I appreciate about the recovery of these lost objects in Poland is the way they tell the story of things that existed without public fanfare for so long. They existed just as much at the bottom of the river for the past 350-plus years as they do now that they are at the surface.
One of my colleagues, Pat Rushin, this week also greeted the news that one of his screenplays, The Zero Theorem, is in pre-production with Terry Gilliam (who also directed the recently discussed Brazil). In a sense, this is another hidden treasure finally rising to the surface. This screenplay was written years ago, and was once previously slated for production, and I like thinking about how it had value all the years that it waited for its current attention, and how it will go on having that value long after it is made as a film and does or doesn’t fade from view.
As artists, we have to believe in our work no matter how much attention it gets in any given moment.
And we shouldn’t let attention that we (or others) may get as determinative of our value, even though that is the only measure that is clear and too often, unfortunately, the only measure by which we are judged. The knowledge does not diminish my happiness for Pat’s success, but I try to remember that time hides beauties, time reveals treasures. They exist either way.
The news reached me over the weekend that Lia Lee has passed away. I responded, as I’m sure many others did, with mixed feelings. Lia Lee had been in a vegetative state since 1986, and the bulk of the tragedy associated with her was in some ways already long over. Yet, as this Sacramento Bee obituary notes, her mother nonetheless wept and expressed sorrow over her absence since her death on August 31.
Lia Lee and her family are best known for forcing a radical re-thinking of the value of severely disabled people’s lives and the need for Western medical personnel to deal better with other cultural beliefs during treatment. Hmong immigrants from Laos, the Lees brought with them to the U.S. different ways of thinking both about the epilepsy that led to Lia’s brain-death and about family responsibilities and love. They considered Lia a full-fledged human being even after Western medicine had pronounced her gone.
If you don’t know about Lia Lee, then right now you should take the steps to get ahold of Anne Fadiman’s wonderful book about her, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. I remember reading it shortly after it was published in 1997, and the amazement with which I turned the pages. Fadiman tells the tale of the Lee family’s desperate flight from Laos, their sense of abandonment by the U.S. government after the Hmong had helped out against the Viet-Cong in the “Secret War” during the 1970s, and their bewilderment at the treatment Lia received for her epilepsy at hospitals in their adopted California.
In fact, one small facet of this book has long affected how I teach creative writing. Early on in the book, Fadiman describes how one of Lia’s older sisters had written in elementary school a chronicle of her family’s escape from Laos—swimming across the Mekong River under attack by the Viet-Cong, even losing the life of one family member, enduring squalid refugee camps before finally managing to reach the U.S.—and the teacher’s comments along the lines of “What an interesting life you have led! Watch for proper comma use.” I decided right then and there that I would never trivialize what my students wrote about—that I would always emphasize that the details of writing are not about correctness in itself but about being able to better express the truth of the story you want to tell. I would always treat them as human beings first and writers second. Even this small lesson has served me well.
But The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down taught so many other important lessons. The impact of Fadiman’s book really cannot be well summarized, even though this New York Times article tries to do so. It’s a book characterized by an unusual depth of research, but also of feeling. There are too few books written with this kind of attention to detail and this kind of sensitivity. Fadiman cared enough to get it right, though even she stands corrected on a few matters. I read a lot of books these days that are superficial or sloppy—and, in spite of some imperfections, Fadiman’s book , even after all these years, puts them all to shame. It is a story that endures even though what it teaches to medical personnel about cultural sensitivity has become close to standard (albeit still too seldom acted on) by now.
May the spirit of Lia Lee live on, and may we remember her as well as her family took care of her.
When I started drafting this post, I included a long list of my recent encounters with the medical and health insurance bureaucracies. I’ve deleted all those specifics—you don’t need them because you have a list of your own. Everyone does because virtually everyone lives embedded in bureaucracy. There are very few walks of life where a person doesn’t have to deal with red tape and forms on a more or less constant basis.
Just stop and think how many forms you have filled out in the past year, and how much of your life that has taken up. Then add on the time you’ve spent on hold or dealing with some low-level “customer service” rep on the phone or instant messaging, and the sad truth of these many wasted hours comes clear.
As a person with a chronic illness that is likely to shorten my expected lifespan, I have always chafed at this set of circumstances. While I understand the need for much of it—the driver’s licenses, the voter registration cards, the building permits, the medical histories—I have always grown very impatient with needless bureaucratic obstacles.
But today while I was thinking about this issue, I happened upon some good news for me: Life expectancy for those with Type 1 diabetes has improved greatly in the past couple of decades and for those of us born between 1965 and 1980 is only about 4 years shorter than those in the general population. When I was diagnosed in 1972, it was a whopping 15 or 20 years lower than average. Maybe I am no longer justified in my impatience.
It would be fascinating if someone would do a study about what diabetics do with those extra years we now get to live. I suspect that a goodly portion of it will be spent waiting in doctor’s offices, hassling with health insurance providers and third-party billing profiteers, shuttling medical records from one doc to another, and filling out paperwork related to treatments and benefits.
What I also fear—for all of us caught up in this increasingly bureaucratized world—is that we will turn more and more to fantasy as the antidote.
Because even the word “bureaucracy” is really boring, right? Who wants to even discuss the issue when every one of us has some version of it in his or her own life. Who needs more?
I have a theory that the rise of genre fiction (and movies and gaming and so on and on) has to do with the concomitant rise of bureaucracy all around us, even through and in us. We are living in ways that it’s truly unacceptable to live—inhuman ways that denigrate us. Not that we are living in squalor—perhaps the trappings of comfort and leisure (the TVs, the cars, the iPads, the flights to Paris) allow those of us in the middle class to ignore these cold wastes of time. After all, desperate living and working conditions, hunger and illiteracy, dysentery and violent repression all continue the world over, and are worse than mere bureaucracy.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that we don’t answer the bureaucratic inhumanity with the rally or the march or the strike. These methods seem to have lost their effectiveness to a great extent anyway—people march and rally and strike, and the powers that be wait them out. Our “first-world” problems don’t seem to deserve that kind of outcry. When it’s attempted—as in Occupy Wall Street, which I greatly respected as an attempt to bring attention to these and related economic issues—the result is moderate and the fun-poking is huge. The reaction of much of the bureaucratized population to the Occupy movement was “Get a job.” No matter how unjust the implications, that tone has been common.
For the middle class, then, the main protest activity seems to be a retreat into fantasy. Fantasy seems to be something that almost everyone can get behind, no matter one’s political party, no matter one’s income level, no matter one’s level of education. Whether it’s interstellar space exploration or misty dragon-filled castles, whether it’s pretend wars where everyone can be a paintball hero or perfumed spas staffed by buff young men who will oil and rub one’s muscles, whether it’s in book or movie or video game or cosplay form—almost everyone seems more interested in an alternate world than the one we actually live in.
Never in my life have I seen a more prescient film than Brazil. It’s a film I will admit that I didn’t enjoy watching—it’s an ugly film and hard to follow. But the world that it presents—where the only escape from the bureaucracy is in a fantasy where the main character takes on armor and the wings of an angel—seems to me more and more like the world I live in now.
And I think that Brazil anticipates the way in which more and more extreme reliance on bureaucratic thinking about fitting in, strange self-fulfilling forms of meaningless success, pursuit of superficial beauty at any price—these things all lead us not to rethink our own world and its possibilities, but to fall back on hope in the magical.
The real horses are starving due to drought. It’s okay, though, because we can pretend that Dobrynya Nikitich and other dragonslayers will ride in on their beautiful steeds and save the day.
This strategy is fine with the powers that be, with those that impose further and further bureaucratic strictures. It is a great opiate. It lets everyone off the hook. It’s the religion without the requisite belief or morality. Win-win, I guess.
I’m sure that if I can only convince myself I have some angel wings somewhere, those waits in doctors’ offices and on hold won’t bug me so much. Until, of course, the end of the fantasy.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about mistakes. What role do mistakes play in being a genuine human being? How do we forgive ourselves for making them, inevitable as they are, without letting ourselves become sloppy or irresponsible?
I make a lot of mistakes, and probably so do you. Fortunately, most of the time these are not earth-shattering. My friend Anna once noted to me that some of our individual anxiety really was silly. “We’re not going to do something so stupid,” she said, “that we’ll ruin our lives.” There are many things that contribute to this state of affairs—“maturity,” education, practical intelligence, family and friends who talk over our major decisions with us. Because I am lucky enough to have all of these things in my life, it’s true that many mistakes that we hear about on the news—playing with a loaded gun, driving while drunk, giving financial information to anyone over the phone—are not mistakes I will make. At least I hope not.
Though in this regard I take Bobby McFerrin’s song at face value and don’t worry–at least not obsessively–I do have some concern about the mistakes I make.
Recently, I heard from a former student of mine who has developed some issues dealing with his own perfectionism. I won’t go into detail about his story, but we had some interesting chats via email about how difficult it is to give up our expectations of being perfect, of striving for it. He was contemplating starting a blog to track his progress in this regard.
One thing that occurred to me is that perfectionism and blogging don’t go very well together. Either you will make mistakes on your blog or you will not be able to keep up the relentless schedule of posting. It’s relentless no matter how often or seldom you post, as long as you do so on a regular and fairly frequent basis. I often think of my boss back when I worked for the Penn Stater magazine, who would say to me, “I don’t need it to be perfect. I need it now.”
In the past several weeks, three blog errors in particular have been brought to my attention.
Error the First
One of these was indeed minor and easily corrected. In my post in response to Marjorie Perloff’s dissing of Rita Dove’s new poetry anthology, I got a guy’s name wrong. This happened out of sheer exhaustion at the end of a long day of work at picking apart Perloff’s article. I just copied the wrong guy’s name in reference to a book title. Although the (I think) significant issues I raised in the post got virtually no comment, someone commented that I had this name wrong. Grateful, I corrected it.
Error the Second
Also, recently, my father sent me an email letting me know that some of the timing and possible motivations I had mentioned about the bitterness between my grandfather and his father-in-law were a bit off in my post about Memorial Day. I had already discovered these errors as I had further researched this very family history for an essay I was writing to submit to a journal, where I am more careful. My father was nice enough to say that he had found the post “well written and touching” and that he didn’t think my inaccuracies negated the theme of the piece. Here, too, I could simply go back and update the post based on new information.
In fact, this raises the issue of how accurate we can and should require ourselves to be when looking into the past. My own memories of what I’d been told in the past betrayed me. I’d recognized my own uncertainty and gone back to my father after this post was written. I’d done a bit of online research. My father had also referred me to his cousin, Pete, and I’d had a long chat with him. Pete had referred me to his sister and to a pastor who once boarded at my great-grandfather’s house. I have not yet called them, though I will.
And so the truth that we understand may grow more and more refined over time. We can’t research forever, and there are some facts (especially about the distant past) that we can never fully know, though we are irresponsible if we don’t try. The creative nonfiction writer lives in this in-between space. We are constantly reminded of what we do and don’t know and of the unknowability of others, even perhaps ourselves.
And the Third Error
More recently, I made a slightly trickier-to-correct error—trickier because this was about the contested world of politics. After I posted about the Obama-Romney character issue, my friend emailed to say, that, oops, he had not actually seen a poster that said, “Vote for Romney. He’s the white guy.” I’m sorry, he said, but that “was my attempt at satire.”
Ah, that satire. I suppose that if a whole host of people believed indeed that the Martians were coming when War of the Worlds was broadcast on the radio in 1938, then it’s no surprise that I would think this poster real.
So, is there anything to be gleaned from how I made this mistake? It had even occurred to me that it wasn’t real. But, for one thing, I couldn’t imagine my friend taking time out of his busy life to create the visual that he had used to accompany it. Also, he frequently does photograph and post strange signs that he sees around town (and beyond) that are also frequently virtually unbelievable. Lastly, I live far from the Villages, and they take on an iconic status like that of the mythical Stepford. Too often, it’s possible for me to imagine the majority of the people who live there as completely alien beings.
And, of course, I was in a hurry, didn’t want to bother my friend with blog fact-checking, and needed to get the doggone post up and done.
I have since corrected this, too, but saying that someone created a satirical poster is not so strong as the possibility of seeing a real one. Sometimes the truth goes underground, and this is largely the case with racism these days. It is hard to catch someone saying something outright racist. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
This error also raised a fundamental question about the internet. I finally decided to just go back and change this entry, but should I have instead left the error and inserted a correction, acknowledging on that very page the original flub? I contemplated this latter option, which creates a public record of errors in our thinking, but decided that even this one didn’t change my overall argument, so could simply stand in its correct state. But what does it mean when the average reader (rather than someone who searches out the way-back, etc.) can’t see the evidence of mistakes?
Anyway, even though this misunderstanding also doesn’t negate my themes, it’s an embarrassing error, especially when I know that the right-wing makes so many of these errors intentionally. I’m supposed to be better than they are.
As I return to the classroom this week, however, and confront students in my creative nonfiction courses who are already asking questions about the roles of truth, embellishment, faulty memory, and differences of opinion in what they write, I am somewhat comforted by my own answer to them.
Context, I say, context is key. There are ways that we can indicate that we are honestly speculating, or that our work is based on perhaps-flawed memory. These things are different from an out-and-out lie, a self-serving misrepresentation, or pure sloppiness, and anyone reading the genre of memoir should understand this.
In fact, the genre of memoir is at least partially about how our memories change and shift, how fabricated they are, much less the written versions of them.
If you are writing about a famous person (as I sort of was with the presidential character issue), the standard is more journalistic. I should have called and asked my friend before I mentioned his poster.
Still, a personal blog is not journalism. I at least give myself that out. When I was contemplating starting this blog, I worried about the untested nature of the work that I would put out there. My brother, a long-term blogger (albeit of a less personal nature) said to me, “Think of it as a rough draft.” There was wisdom in that, and it allowed me to go ahead and get started. Yet blogging is also there for public consumption and is not labeled “rough draft” on every post.
I feel a deep responsibility for what I post. I never post anything intentionally misleading, and if it’s controversial I usually get at least one friend or my husband to read it as a litmus test. They sometimes point out claims they think are too strong or ask me to clarify some point.
And yet, and yet… I have to defy paralysis by going ahead. I step into the void over and over and over again. I ask forgiveness for the times when I inadvertently step instead onto a toe.
For more information on the sculpture of Robert Bryce Muir, including Mea Culpa, see his website.
While Bruce and I were in Berlin, I had planned a few posts that I intended to go up while we were away. Alas, my technical understanding was lacking, and they didn’t get posted. One of them was a follow-up to my piece about squabbling over the arts, which I’d illustrated with two depictions of Orpheus before and after he met his untimely death in spite of the beauty of his art. Today I give you the song that I intended to run that same week—this poignant symphonic poem by Franz Liszt on the subject of Orpheus, Part I above and Part II below.
I had also selected this piece because Liszt wrote it while he was living and working in Germany—Weimar to be exact—and in one of those funny coincidences, Bruce and I, much to our surprise, ended up spending a day and a half in Weimar last week. We drove over from Berlin with Bruce’s old friend Kai, who happened to be slated to play in a tennis tournament there. While he played, we toured the ancient city and walked in the footsteps of Liszt, as well as Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Richard Strauss, Hans Christian Andersen, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Walter Gropius, Oskar Schlemmer, and many other artists, writers, and musicians.
It’s hard to imagine as you walk the cobblestone streets of beautiful Weimar and stroll through the park along the Ilm River to Goethe’s garden house that just eight kilometers away, the Nazis built the Buchenwald concentration camp, or that after the liberation of the concentration camps Allies forced the citizens of Weimar to tour the remains of Buchenwald on foot. Scenes from that episode in Weimar’s history were recorded and can be seen at the end of Billy Wilder’s Death Mills, a 1945 anti-German post-war propagation film, available in its full 20-minute form here at the Holocaust Museum website. (Warning: this film is largely composed of clips of dead and dying concentration camp victims. It is brutal.)
It’s also difficult to imagine Weimar as an East Germany city. It retains its old-world charm because many of its buildings and monuments were spared from bombing during World War II. However, on the outskirts we found numerous of those concrete-slab high-rise apartment buildings, some of them fallen into decrepitude, typical of the cheap, radically modernist efforts of post-war Socialist architects and builders. They seemed particularly odd in the bucolic hills around Weimar.
We did not visit Buchenwald—time was short, and Kai was more eager to get back to his family in Berlin. But one thing that is true in Germany is that history peeks through everywhere. The Topography of Terror memorial site sits on the location of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters, but is also rimmed by a remnant of the Berlin Wall. Even as I enjoyed the quiet, clean, and plentiful trains that made getting around Berlin so easy and pleasant, I couldn’t help but think how this train system was used and perfected in the transportation of humans to their terrible deaths.
Bruce said that as he walked around Berlin he was constantly wondering, “What happened here? In this exact spot?” It’s a good question for any one of us to ask any day and in any spot. You can bet something happened wherever you are, even if it’s been covered over or obliterated by the passage of time. When I take a moment to let that reverberate in my mind and body, I am enlivened and reminded to choose carefully (and to the extent I can) which kind of path toward the future I might participate in.
My apologies, readers: I had scheduled my next three posts to automatically appear while Bruce and I were visiting Germany, but, alas, something went wrong with my understanding of WordPress. I’ll try to catch up over the next few days. Maybe by now you all can bear another long post about clubby creative writing battles. I hope it doesn’t bore my non-writer readers. As this indicates, I am bored too, but my OCD side compels me to speak when readers of the New York Times have devolved into this kind of bickering. Friend Harold made me realize in a comment about last week’s manifesto about not restricting myself to creative writing that I nonetheless often do focus on these narrow issues. I promise to get away from this again soon, but it’s been an artsy month for me.
The New York Times is following in the footsteps of the tabloids, attempting to ratchet up controversy to get readers, at least that’s how it seems in this instance. The Times recently published a collection of articles in its Room for Debate series under the collective heading of “Is Fiction Changing, for Better or Worse?” Six very short articles then assaulted us with their inevitably epigrammatic brevity in attempting to answer the headline question.
The writers of these answers—six men and one woman in the finest discriminatory tradition of the major publications—can’t possibly win. Answering this question in the 300 words each was apparently given is an impossibility. But they try, mostly intelligently with perhaps one or two notable exceptions that I’ll save for last. One or two of them even make interesting points, bless them.
Still, the entire atmosphere around these mini-essays is one of contention and rivalry, with a plethora of nastiness directed all over the place, including at the poor authors themselves. Here’s a sampling of the befuddling attacks and counter-attacks in their mini-essays and mostly in the online comments that follow [with my observations in brackets]:
Comments on Jane Smiley’s “An Exercise in Empathy”
“While the quantity of books has increased there is certainly a decrease in the percentage of great novels being written.” Chris Wilson, Boston [Um, has he read them all? How does he know this with such certainty? Did this comment have anything to do with what Smiley said? Um, no.]
In response to a commentator who noted (albeit incorrectly) the overwhelmingly white and male composition of the panel of writers, this diatribe: “Get over it… no wonder there is racism. Because people like you insert it into every possible situation, whether it belongs or not, which in this case it most certainly does not.” Kafen ebell, Los Angeles [Again, I marvel at this person’s prescience, in this case the ability to know whether or not racism influences this situation. It certainly seems to have influenced this remark.]
“Fiction creates empathy in a way that nonfiction cannot. It places the reader in the head of someone else, feeling their feelings.” Anniken Davenport, Harrisburg [What an odd way to characterize the supposed superiority of fiction—by attacking just the quality that memoir is known for.]
“Truth is, our present-day writers, most of them urban liberals, have effectively repelled the sort of readers who used to admire Steinbeck, Wolfe, Faulkner, Algren, et. al. Really, could anything be more objectionable than, for example, the sort of Manhattan-approved good thinker who confesses that while Iowa might be all right (barely) for children, yet it remains so horribly provincial, don’t you know, for more elevated souls.” Tito Perdue reactionary novelist, ‘Bama [Huh? Talk about a comment that comes not from the article but from a predetermined, always-present agenda. This is prime.]
Comments on Robin Sloan’s “Welcome ‘The Sopranos’ and Twitter”
“I checked out the excerpt from Mr. Sloan’s novel, and it expresses everything one needs to know about the current strain of reductive techno-cheerleading infesting our culture. I highly recommend he stick to ‘inventing media,’ whatever that might mean.” Ilya Leybovich, Brooklyn, NY [While I agree that I was not sucked into Mr. Sloan’s opening page, I’m not sure that Ilya’s position represents anything but some vague resentment at techies, even though he seems to be a news editor for an online PR magazine, hardly the purest or most art-obsessed role in life. Perhaps he is also a frustrated novelist.]
“Today’s ‘novel’ has become the pointless snippets people post of their daily lives on social networking sites.” Evan Lockport, IL [All of them?]
“Such slapdoodle, the very kind of thinking these superficial media encourage.” An Ordinary American, Prague [I don’t disagree with this person, just perhaps with his/her harshness. But I had to include this one because of the use of the wonderful word “slapdoodle” and because of the combination of “an ordinary American” and the location of Prague, where all ordinary Americans no doubt hang out.]
Comments on Matt de la Peña’s “Novels Have Become an Escape”
De la Peña’s piece is an anti-positive psychology note in itself, and was my favorite of the six for that very fact. Perhaps for that reason, he received by far the most commentary on his article. But, of course, the comments became an argument between those who insist life is indeed sad and those who insist it isn’t. Of course, it is both, and some commenters acknowledged that well, but I quote here some of the deniers and other nasties, my point being that discussions on the internet so often devolve into this oppositional absurdity.
“why are multiple posters quoting this same kafka phrase/ did the nytimes include a quote in their assignment? is this high school English class?” j, LIC, NY
“So far, the only living American novelist with anything to say is Corum McCarthy [whoever that is, or, I mean, sic]. The rest is filtered out by the agent-seeking-money people and the bean-counters-seeking-money from the publisher’s financial group headquarters. Most of your commenters sound like they recently got theit [sic] writing MFA which teaches lots about technique to those with not much to relate.” anonymot, CT [Another MFA basher, and I hope he/she does have something to say since there’s no expressed need here to say it well or to even give any evidence for claims. Some people just have to get the MFA-blame into whatever they say.]
“Although I disagree with Mr. de la Peña, I can forgive an intelligent young man who has enough intelligent-young-man arrogance to think his [sic] has enough perspective to judge his own time against what came before.” J, R [Funny, he never really says what he disagrees about per se. Oh, well, a put-down is always effective, right? The condescension blew me away.]
“only in genre fiction can the half-stereotypes we all rely on be explored safely, because lit fiction, which is supposed to be addressing these, is only interested in one side” John, Brooklyn, NY [I’m pretty sure this is not what Mr. de la Peña meant. In other words, John is always looking for an opportunity to say what is already on his mind, no matter what.]
“I think you mistake a few elites for an entire ‘audience.’ Jane Austin [sic] and Shakespeare and Hemingway and Oscar Wilde and others were popular because they were entertaining not because they were literary.” ro, nyc [Etc. etc. with “ro” and “anonymot” dissing the “elite” “decision-makers” who unfortunately promote “serious” writing. Totally incoherent, really, but the readers and writers of junk fiction are always aggrieved, by golly. They get all the money in wide sales, but that’s not enough for them. They want also the literary recognition that they trash so much.]
“A session with current fiction, even an extended one, turning thinly-worded [sic] post-modern pages requires that we reach for the next while the current one is coming to a close. They’re pills in paper back.” mm, albuquerque [Again, I think that the commenter is blaming books that de la Peña doesn’t mean to blame.]
“Life is not sad. It is what you make of it…. Yes, we are all going to die but that is not what is important here. What’s important is living a life that serves each one of us.” Susannah, France [I’m glad she knows what’s important for all of us.]
“People do care. They are not always hiding. I think this is a good thing and invite you into a positive world.” Jack R. Williams, Atlantic Beach, NC [Because, of course, this very successful young writer must be in a bad way just because he points out the contemporary aversion to life’s hard side. This private citizen would like to give him advice about his life. Does that seem fitting to anyone?]
“What a load of waffle.” TV, CT
“Agree that intellectual challenge has downshifted, but strongly disagree regarding sadness and self reflection, the preoccupation with which seems to have become pandemic. Also, the memoir, an exaltation of self if ever there was one, may be supplanting the novel as a popular idyll.” marymary, Washington, DC [OMG, let’s beat up the memoir again. Who cares that the subject here is the novel, some people just have to bash the memoir.]
“as a person who suffers from clinical depression, the idea that bouts of melancholy can be ‘beneficial’ makes me want to throw my laptop through the window. Where does the Times find these people?” gobot90, new york [De la Peña distinguished what he was talking about from clinical depression, but this person just missed it, I guess.]
“The idea that the novel should be ‘serious’ is a 20th century invention, as James Gunn points out. Mr. de la Peña needs to study his literary history.” gobot90, new york [Above, he notes that the Times gets unqualified people to write these, but only after he has here cited one of the other panelists—with far fewer credentials as a writer—as a better expert. In other words, the popular fiction folks are angry again. I can just never figure out why.]
Comments on Thomas Glave’s “Stories and Readers Change Together”
This piece garnered only 3 comments, all rather disconnected from what he wrote.
“A well crafted novel has the potential to tell far more truth than non-fiction and, in an aesthetic manner. Art goes farther than imitating life—it can capture its essence.” David Chowes, New York City [Another hobbyhorse inserted willy-nilly: the superiority of fiction over non-fiction. Boring, boring, boring.]
The next two articles I found in themselves objectionable. As scholar-critics rather than writers, they felt a need to pass judgments that seemed to me ill-founded.
Objectionable quotes from William Deresiewicz’s “New Forms, but People Will Always Read”
* “As for political fiction, Sozhenitsyn and Steinbeck were important figures, but they weren’t necessarily good novelists.” [At least he talks about specific novels, but this is ill-advised in a column where you have no space to define exactly what you mean.]
* “’The Jungle’ may have sparked reform, but I daresay ‘Mrs. Dalloway has changed more people’s lives.” [Unfounded speculation.]
* “Stunted attention spans, Internet cacophony, consolidation and collapse in the publishing industry, the professionalization of the arts and the questionable influence of the writing programs, the long shadow of modernist greats: the novel’s facing headwinds, as it surely always has.” [Deresiewicz is, of course, a former literature professor at Yale and Columbia, now turned essayist, but basically a scholar and critic, so, of course, he has to slip in that the influence of writing programs is “questionable.” The MFA canard again.]
Comments on Deresiewicz
“To suggest that Mrs. Dalloway ‘changed more lives’ than The Jungle is wishful thinking at best. The Jungle resulted in reform that affected millions of people over decades whereas if Mrs. Dalloway was read even by 20,000 people I would be surprised. The market for Lit Fic is miniscule and supported mostly by libraries without which, the ‘genre’ of Lit Fic would collapse. ECW, Forreston, IL [The scholars hate the creative writers, even those of a literary bent, but the popular fiction aficionados hate both the scholars and the literary writers. Go figure.]
“[H]is conclusion is pure evidence-avoiding pollyanna.” Dudley, Saunders [I don’t disagree, but, still, the invective.]
“In the cities, on public transportation, in parks and restaurants, people can read what they really like without the fear of public censure once they abandon the lurid covers of conventional publishing and enjoy the anonymity of e-readers. Unless one is right on top of the e-reader, they can read whatever crap they want without having to suffer the smirk of social critics. On the other hand, it’s hard to attract that special someone on the bus when they can’t see the pretentious tome you are pretending to read.” richard kopperdahl, new york city [This one wins the award for a paranoid sense of aggrievement. I mean, really, since when did people hide their popular fiction? Really, it’s a funny thought.]
Objectionable quotes from James Gunn’s “Look to the Fringes of Fiction”
Another critic, who must pass judgment, but this time it’s a former English professor who no doubt felt that his research on science fiction wasn’t taken seriously enough in the academy. So he founded and directs the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. He has a huge axe to grind. I should just paste his whole little diatribe here, but I will select only a portion.
* “A century ago H. G. Wells had a public debate with Henry James about the uses of the novel. Wells, ever the pragmatist, thought the novel was a device to make an emphatic point about life or society or human nature. James, ever the esthete, maintained that the only purpose of the novel was aesthetic. James prevailed, according to the critics, and the literary novel has been judged ever since on aesthetic grounds…. Wells is still read…; James, not so much.” [Of course, he has to set this up in oppositional fashion, and he has to base his entire argument on something he can’t prove. The greatest novels, of course, both make a point about “life or society or human nature” and also pay attention to aesthetic issues. It’s not as though The Turn of the Screw says nothing about human nature. Yeesh.]
* “[T]he literary novel has never been a place to look for social or political protest, and the writers who dealt in such matters—Dickens, Sinclair, Wells, Stowe, Zola, Orwell—were never considered ‘serious’ writers in their own times.” [Really? And what about Morrison, Baldwin, Ellison, Wright, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Gaskell, etc. etc.?]
* “The most effective social documents these days are genre novels—crime novels, for instance, but particularly science-fiction novels.” [I know the stupid 300-word form creates a tendency for the unsupported generalization, but isn’t this just an example of self-justification? It’s just so easy to trot out numerous counter-examples on every side of this issue—“serious literary” fiction that does take up social issues and science-fiction that doesn’t question the status quo at all. Just another angry devotee of popular fiction, wanting what he ostensibly despises.]
Comments on Gunn
Thus ensued in the comments a debate about the relative merits of Wells and James more than anything else, with the added current of “science-fiction is underappreciated.” Um-hm, yup, that’s why so many people read it and almost all university English departments teach it. Um-hm.
I couldn’t agree more with one commenter on Gunn’s post who referred to the entire endeavor this way:
“So wrongheaded! But what can one expect? These Room for Debate features seem to parade ‘experts’ who have bizarrely random claims to the title—you’d want to say they therefore spoke for an interestingly random sampling of views if they didn’t mostly seem to have some very particular axe to grind. – So this guy was chosen as the pro-sci-fi, non-canonical view? But why should that view be helpful or interesting (especially when he makes such blatantly incorrect factual assertions, as if James has been relegated to the dustheap while Wells has become widely embraced and beloved)? The topics for these Debates are so large, and the response pieces so frustratingly narrow, brief, and thin (based on opinion or assertion rather than fact), that the whole thing just becomes an exercise in head scratching rather than debate.” sd, ct
In fact, I find that these four childish battles are a large part of what’s wrong with writing and reading these days:
* MFA vs. no academic support for writers
* popular and genre fiction vs. literary fiction
* entertainment vs. “serious” fiction
* fiction vs. non-fiction, especially memoir
These are indeed shibboleths and hackneyed distractions, and I am sick of them. I wish we could move our discussions of literature and writing beyond them. Surely, there is something more interesting about what we do than these hobbyhorses that repeat themselves ad infinitum in the press. In spite of the fact that bifurcation is almost never a smart way of thinking, people keep these oppositions alive, perhaps because they are easy and draw “controversy.”
I hereby declare that there is no controversy on these topics. In spite of the continuing echoes of irrationality, the jury is in:
* The MFA does not harm writers. It has its pros and its cons, and it is not all things to all people. But it helps some writers find a way, and it supports many others. This is a good thing. That so many people want to study writing is also our best hope for a continuing culture of reading and writing and our best hope against an illiterate society.
* Neither the genre aficionados nor the literary aficionados should trash the other. There should be room for both in the world. That the publishing industry is shutting off the oxygen to literary writers is true, and I decry this, but other opportunities in small press publishing and inexpensive online literary venues are going to keep the literary alive. The fucking genre people have no complaint, and they need to give up feeling discriminated against. Once upon a time they might have had a legitimate issue, having been subject to the disdain of critics, but they don’t any more, and truly great work in science-fiction and other genres regularly is attended to with literary awe. People read it, too, and its popularity is secure. So, what’s the problem?
* Serious fiction, however, is indeed different from a lot of popular fiction. Some of us are even “entertained” by something more serious than formulaic fare. But there is no hard and fast line between them. We need to get used to this and debate only the merits of individual texts, not entire categories. The categories do not serve writers, and barely serve readers—they are largely enforced by the publishing companies, bookstores, reviewers, and critics, who are all classifiers at heart. Their classifications are convenient for all of us sometimes, but they are not sacrosanct.
* Likewise with the ridiculous claim that fiction is always and necessarily superior to non-fiction and that memoir is a degraded form. This is just patently false and almost always asserted out of self-promotion or some other slightly less obvious self-serving belief. There are bad novels just as there are bad memoirs. And there are good in both genres. If you want to start a tally list and go through all of literature to demonstrate otherwise in any convincing way, then, as my mother used to say, “Go ahead, gourd head.”
Would that the squabblers would hear my song.
Actually, it’s more like 13 months in the blogosphere now, and I’ve been thinking since I passed the one-year anniversary that I should post another reflection on this endeavor. Thinking about it at the six-month mark helped me further define my purposes and bask in an admittedly self-satisfied glow that I had kept it up that long.
In the next few months, I’ll be facing new challenges as a blogger—the end of sabbatical, a return to full-time teaching, and deadlines for a major book project. I remain uncertain of the continuing viability of Joyous Crybaby, even though the reasons are shifting and even though I feel all the more devoted to her. I still feel as though she’s doing me good.
She’s not a work project, though, and I am employed in a demanding field where I’m not supposed to spend much time doing anything but what will further my career. Academia more and more is judged by business models, and this involves an increasing obsession with quantifiable results and quantifiable justifications. Every year, we are required to turn in the dreaded document called a Faculty Annual Report, and each department chair is required to turn in the larger version that supposedly proves quality and intellectual achievement by the number of grant dollars, publications, and “seats in butts” (or student credit hours) that we have produced, collectively and individually. Our departmental budgets and our individual merit raises are determined by such numbers (not that the raises offset the pay cuts we are experiencing via means such as lower retirement contributions). Whether institutions with such a myriad of purposes and such a myriad of considerations is best served by this constant quantification is debatable, of course, but it’s a fact of almost any academic’s life these days. Here’s one great write-up of a blogging academic who kept track of his work time.
Therefore, every week, day, half-day, or hour I spend writing a blog post—and finding supporting resources, references, and appropriate copyright-free illustrations, and then formatting and linking everything on the blog itself—I wonder what the heck I am doing spending so much time on it.
I’ve also had occasion to wonder why I didn’t at least focus my blog on creative writing—my area of professional expertise. There are many academics who do gain some credit for their profession-related blogs and who at least spread the word that they are experts in their fields by narrowly focusing on a professional sensibility in a more or less narrow field. In other words, though they may practice a more general-reader style, their blog personas directly reflect their professorial research. Mostly they are not very personal. There are indeed many such blogs in the world of creative writing—almost all literary magazines these days have a large web presence, many literary magazines are fully online and function as community blogs with selection requirements, and there are dozens if not hundreds of blogs about the writing life, craft, “how I became a writer,” publishing tips and advice at both magazine and book level, finding an agent, various genres and styles of writing, and so on. Some of these blogs and online literary venues are fabulous, and I read a lot of them avidly if not regularly.
Maybe the sheer plethora of existing creative writing blogs made me choose instead a wider focus and one rooted in issues in another field entirely (my starting point of my negative reaction to positive psychology bromides). However, as the year has passed, I’ve had to justify this choice to myself.
There are many reasons I’ve thought about, but perhaps the most important is that I wanted to engage with the wider world.
Another characteristic of a life in academia is a great deal of specialization. You’re not just a chemical engineer, you are a chemical engineer specializing in air pollution modeling and incineration. You’re not just a professor of Italian, but you specialize in Italian travel and immigration literature with a focus on Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, Mario Soldali, and Emilio Cecchi. (Two real examples from the UCF website.)
I have already bucked this trend to a certain degree by working across the creative writing v. scholarly writing divide and by writing in not just one creative genre, but in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. (And my undergraduate degree was in studio art.) This has had its downside, and it may be true that I am a master of none of these forms. So, I understand why my peers in academia often focus much more narrowly than I do in their work. It’s a habit that is rewarded in the system, and it suits some people just fine.
I believe, however, that writers do have a responsibility to respond to the world beyond the confines of narrow specialties. It’s a different point than the one that I criticized Marjorie Perloff for making about academia rendering writers’ work repetitive and mediocre, though it is related. (It’s also a point that I would apply to all those in academia, even more so to many scholars compared to many of the creative writers.)
This all leads me to another influence on my blog choices—that we live in a time when being a “professional” writer often seems to involve more time tending to the business of writing than to writing itself. At six months, I mentioned how I felt a need to get back to my own roots as a writer exploring the world rather than as a writer being an expert. I needed to find my way back to “beginner’s mind,” as the Zen Buddhists call it. As Zen master Shunryu Suzuki is often quoted as saying, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
And I do have to admit some boredom with a lot of creative writing blogs. It’s not because the content isn’t often useful, even insightful. What in a professional sense is no doubt seen as “focus” or “coherence,” however, frequently becomes too self-reflexive and insular for my taste. Even though some creative writing blogs go beyond the purpose of promoting a given writer’s publications, reviews, and lectures to include discussion of issues in the field, they all seem to me cut off from the rest of the world. These blogs remind me of the kind of creative writing workshops where a focus on “craft” does not include any concern with intelligence, personality, or soul (admittedly difficult things to “teach” and touchy to even discuss). Even though I have a passionate interest in many of the issues they raise, I need to embrace a wider horizon.
Is that a strong enough statement to be considered a manifesto? I’m not sure, but I mean it as one. Graduate school for me opened new universes, but over the past few years in the academic grind, I have been engaged in a battle for my own soul and self—to keep from becoming what I consider too narrowed by academia. For a long time, I was losing that battle, shriveling, becoming bitter, obsessing daily about fundamentally trivial things, wearying of it all. Though I had gained tenure and a wonderful husband, I had lost involvement in politics, gardening, cooking, animal rescue, friendships, family relationships, the great outdoors, exercise, and my own health.
Joyous Crybaby has been part of a multi-faceted process that I hope will help me face the next academic year and my return to the classroom with a sense that maybe I can keep my eyes up even as I labor with my fingers in the dirt of the academic field. As an alter ego, she provides me with a reminder that I need: that no profession—and no other person—defines me. All too often, we forget even ourselves beyond the surface judgments, caught up as we are in what others think of us. JC has been a great lesson in character beyond stereotype. It seems to me that this sense of mystery about what comprises human beings is vital to the writing endeavor, not to mention the endeavor of being a decent human being.