Sublimation Games

During the week of final exams I re-reread Stephen King’s On Writing, which I’ll be teaching in the spring.  The book is a good’un on both technical and practical levels, but what caught my attention this time around were the paragraphs in King’s “CV” section, in which he talks about a number of formative experiences with his characteristic candor.  The segment includes what for me is a heartening reassurance:  that for some people (like King and myself) the past is a half-remembered landscape, not a long, linear list of perfect recollections.  Some are more perfect than others, of course–King describes the lancing of his eardrum as a boy with unflinching clarity–but many of the sights can only be seen through a fog. With all that said, King perceives in his writing some meditative, expressive, and perhaps restorative work.  Without getting too gruesome, I’ll meditate myself on that topic today.

I received a couple of kindly missives from readers about my post from a little while back, the one in which I reference my unwillingness to attend weddings.  Their supposition was that I was perpetrating foolery–surely I’d relent if invited to one.  Au contraire, mes frères et soeurs.  By way of explanation, let me offer you a glimpse of my Shamescape.

Imagine for a moment a giant, awkward bald man attending his first adult wedding as a best man.  He is asked to deliver the best man’s toast and, since he has no understanding of the genre (only of toasts in principle), he fucks it up.  Flash forward several years, when he attends the wedding of two sweet-natured, well-to-do friends.  Living on student loans, he attends in the finest clothes he owns, which are the shabbiest of all at the church in the ballroom, a conspicuous fact of which he becomes increasingly conscious as the evening wears on.  Let’s slide forward a few more years to another wedding, one at which he was asked to read a passage.  Though he leaves with plenty of time on the clock, and though he is only a passenger, not the driver, he arrives quite late, fouling what should have been a flawless day for the bride and the groom.  I’m offering only glimpses here, as you might imagine; I could give you 10,000 words on the toast, the clothes, and the tardiness without breaking a sweat.

Do I have any fond memories of such affairs? One or two, I think, and perhaps I’ll dredge them up some other time.  But the moral of the story is that, given such experience, I associate weddings primarily with shame and humiliation, a keen awareness of my many deficiencies as a social creature.  Are these feelings entirely rational?  Nope, but they sure as hell are real.

What we do with such feelings is a complicated bit of business; much depends on the viability of the choices we might make and the sophistication of our processing.  Let’s make another quick trip to Shameville.  I recall receiving an “Unsatisfactory” on my very first report card and, keener that I was, I essayed to address it.  I can recall with unusual vividness a painstaking effort to outline an apple with a red rim so thick that I couldn’t possibly color outside the lines.  This prompted my impatient father (God rest his surly soul) to snap at me.  “You’d best get inlining,” he snarled.  The consequence of those events?  I’ve forsaken artistic endeavor altogether–I don’t draw, I don’t paint, I don’t even doodle.  Those gates are barred to me, though I’m the one who barred them.

Were I a visual artist, I might be able to transform all the ugly stuff into something lovely.  I work with words, however, and that work involves a kind of peripheral processing that King describes very well with all the benefit of retrospect.  Misery, for example, is an outgrowth of and response to of his drug use.  It’s not a personification, dramatization, or anything quite so simple.  It’s a transformation and articulation, a creative act rather than an adaptive or allegorical one.  We can visit sites on the Shamescape at different times, in different lights, with different eyes and refurbish or repurpose whatever we find–whatever we’re willing and able to claim.  It’s pretty heady stuff when you think about it.

And with writing we get the chance to come back again and again until we get the words we want in the spots they belong.  Some things, unlike sites on the Shamescape, we can change.

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The Pleasures of the Test

Yes, it’s 5:45am.  Yes, I’m riffing on Roland Barthes.  No, I’m not going to eat that danish.  Please, help yourself.

We’re in the thick of exam week, which accounts in part for the static on the radio.  By Friday I’ll remember the last two weeks as a caffeinated blur during which final essays were evaluated and exams were written, administered, and graded, but I quite like the exam week feeling on the whole.  Instead of fretting about mid-March, I’m fretting about the next hour or the next ten minutes.  It can be a pleasant reprieve from the self.

The week also brings out some of my vestigial humanity, and it’s nice to see that critter from time to time.  It’s a stressful stretch, doubly tricksy when students are overloaded.  Some will pull double shifts the night before and trudge into their exams bleary-eyed; some are trying to meet grad school application deadlines and cramming for exams at the same time.  A little extra kindness is called for, and I try to be kind when I can.

There are horror stories, too, but those probably call for a post of their own somewhere down the road.  Since I’ve got exams to grade, I should perhaps zero in on the point of this one.

From a writerly standpoint, what always delights me most about exam week is discovering how students have been reading over the past sixteen weeks.  One gets glimmerings in class discussions, but the good stuff always appears in response to essay questions.  I’ll see the work of a student who really wanted to know what happened to Dido’s husband and accordingly hunted down more information on Sychaeus and Pygmalion on his own; I’ll see the thoughts of a student who really, really didn’t like Northanger Abbey and who, in outlining the reasons for her distaste, has more or less intuitively recognized free indirect discourse.  Most often, however, I’ll see really novel and intriguing examples, connections, applications, syntheses, and cross-references, students revealing what they saw (and not what I suggested they might see) as they worked through The Odyssey, The Old English Baron, or “The Call of Cthulhu” on their own.  Those insights and impressions are powerful proofs of intellectual engagement, and they’re also reminders that a readership is a many-headed beastie, one that brings countless eyes and myriad minds to bear on the provocations of prose and poetry.

Those insights and impressions are also a strong corrective to that authorial attitude that frets about reception, that hopes to control what readers will take away from the page.  I’m sometimes the rider (or pilot) of that particular dinghy, and any reminder that all one can do is commit the best words one commands to the page and trust the rudder to the reader is pretty darned life-affirming.

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Above the Fray

I thought I’d title the day’s post with an outright lie:  there is, of course, no above the fray.  For those inclined to literary theory, a translation:  Il n’y a pas de hors-fray.

Remaining above the fray is, at bottom, an artificial consolation and at times an artful one.  We are, however, all in the fray; we are the fray.  We are not, however, The Fray.  I hope that last goes without saying.

Part of me wants to comment on the events that have occurred/are occurring at Ferguson, but my avowed intentions for this space (in terms of both content and tone, which I would like to keep relaxed and casual) and my sense that anything I might offer in passing would only distract from the complex, needful, emergent critiques of those events prevents me from delving too deeply.  I tend to think of matters in narrative, rhetorical, and linguistic terms, and better writers than I are already untangling those threads.

What I might profitably mull over, however–if only for my own sake–is the principle of selectivity and subjectivity that appears to characterize many responses, particularly as it bears on the art of expression.  The two strategies I’ve seen most often in the past week are none too surprising.  Commentators have been arguing piecemeal, picking out the bits of evidence aligned with their views or disputing individual claims made by their opponents while leaving other claims untouched (a tactic that is exceedingly conspicuous in a listicle-driven culture).  They’ve also as a rule taken great pains to detail where they are coming from, using their specific subject positions, affiliations, and anecdotes to establish their motives for speaking and their authority to speak.  These gestures are, in essence, super- charged amplifications of the stance I’m taking today:  I’ve announced that I’m just some writer, one who has no real role in the ongoing conversation, self-evidently as a means of excusing myself from wrestling with serious subject matter; and I’ve cherry-picked (and then depicted in sidelong, abstract terms) two discursive phenomena for analysis, when the discursive machinery involved is far too complicated to admit of such reduction.  I am, at bottom, posturing, opting out to forestall criticism of my perspective while at the same time opting in, taking on the guise of a disinterested, pseudo-objective commentator, one who is outside the fray rather than implicated in that fray in numberless uncomfortable and accountable ways.

The results, I hope, are as unsatisfying to you as they are to me.  Such efforts to limit responsibility and thereby mitigate risk are shows without substance–they look and sometimes even feel like engagement, but they’re mostly exercises in self-justifying, self-indulgent, self-inflicted prose.

The fray deserves better.

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On Convenient Characters: A Critical Quickie

This morning, much to the surprise of America, I encountered antisocial behavior on the Internet.  A friend had posted a story on her Facebook page, and an avalanche of censure (some lighthearted, some grim-fisted) followed.  I fear I do not possess the superpowers necessary to correct or even address unkindness on the web, so I’ll zero in on the source of the offense instead.  It presents an interesting issue in its own right, one that comes a little close to my belletristic bailiwick.

Perhaps you’ve seen variations on the story before, but it goes (in brief) a little something like this.  Tyrannical philosophy professor denies the existence of God vehemently all semester long, double-dog daring his students to repudiate the claim.  The students are all suitably and conveniently cowed until the last day of the term, when one bold individual, unconvinced by the proofs the professor has offered, acknowledges that his faith in God persists despite the philosopher’s efforts to erode it.  The indignant professor accordingly issues a challenge to omnipotence:  if there were a God, he should possess power enough to prevent a piece of chalk–the piece he is about to drop–from shattering when it hits the ground.  When he drops the chalk, however, it slips from his hand and, after a series of tumbles, winds up on the floor unbroken.  Broken himself by the experience, the professor runs from the room, leaving the student to expand on the lessons thereby learned.

I won’t dwell on the story itself much, since it was the poster’s own conviction–that the story must be true–that invited censure. (Snopes implies that it’s an older bit of weblore, and it certainly reads like a parable.)  Sans snopesing, and without any real reference to issues of faith, however, the respondents all mocked the story on narrative grounds.  The earliest respondents, some of whom agreed with the original poster concerning the story’s truth, were grateful that they had never encountered a professor like that–his tyranny, to their thinking, was simply unreal.  Subsequent respondents riffed on that theme, noting how convenient (and unlikely) it was from a storytelling standpoint that the professor would yield the field to his foe rather than remarking on probability, physics, and the like.  Still later respondents refused to accept what struck them as the least likely element of the tale: that an entire class would give another student its rapt attention instead of bolting for the malt shop the moment the professor left.  The narrative, in their collective estimation, did not pass muster.

A quick scan of my own media feed this morning suggests that such mistrust is common, that many well-intentioned articles are rejected out of hand because they are founded on anecdotes that do not ring true.  They depend on a mode of just-so storytelling, in which the auxiliary characters act in precisely the fashion necessary to drive a message home.  The bad customer is publicly shamed and goes away mortified (and the shamer is, for her part, applauded); the inept parent is chastened and amended by a timely admonition in the grocery store or omni-mart; a host of surly rush-hour commuters heads home a little wiser after witnessing the kindness of a child–but not before making a point of pulling the proud parent aside and promising they will pay that kindness forward.  As a matter of policy I tend to avoid the anonymous comments appended to such stories, since wallowing in sewage is not a thing I normally like to do on weekends with even-numbered Sundays, but in such cases I seldom need to read more than two or three responses to see that the readers aren’t buying what the teller is selling.  The incidents themselves might well be authentic, but the ways in which they have been packaged–ways that yield the pleasures of unequivocal clarity and closure–lack the complexity and contrariness of lived experience.

The life lesson here, I think, is a call to caution when it comes to characterization.  One can get away with quite a bit of facile functionalism in the shortest of stories, but the longer a critter lives on the page, the more likely she is to behave in unexpected ways.  There is certainly a virtue in driving a moral home, in delivering a sentiment cleanly to readers, but readers conventionally reject messages if they doubt the integrity of the messengers. These days it seems to me better to run the risk of losing what I meant to send than to have my emissaries turned away at the door.

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The Wandlessinian Mysteries

(Today’s title may allude to the Eleusinian mysteries, the Dionysian mysteries, both, or neither.  Please consult your local Wandlessian exegete for clarification.)

Like many humanoids (and other underachieving species), I sometimes struggle to do what I should be doing.  I can handle all the requisite business of living, of course, and I fulfill my obligations to others to the best of my ability, but the other stuff–the stuff that properly belongs to The Way of the Wandlessi–occasionally gets back-burnered, tabled, or bekitchened in related ways.  Last week, for example, following the conclusion of my ultra-regimented Bald Man Action Plan (a three-month sprint to reach a fitness goal ere winter sets in here in Michigan), I lapsed into lassitude.  I ate a great deal of pizza and Halloween candy, played round after round of mindless mah jongg, and–while I managed to square away a book review due in December–made precious little progress on my many pending projects.  It was a very fine week in the doing, but of the kind one rues in retrospect.  It was a simpler time; it was a lawless time.

It did serve to remind me, however, of a Wandlessian necessity:  diminished contingency.  To get stuff done, I need to cordon off the possible.

For proffolks, the classic formulation of this phenomenon is The Grading Way, though you can see the same dynamic emerge when most folks are confronted with Something That Must Be Done but an open framework in which to complete The Doing.  An instructor will start in on a pile of ungraded essays, but suddenly she remembers she forgot to water her houseplants; suddenly the need for paprika (or cumin, or allspice) is urgent; suddenly he must winterize his waffle maker.  Of a sudden, all the little things we have put off become appealing, if not pressing, and we tackle those tasks rather than attend to the stuff that’s topmost on our dockets.  Few can escape the siren song of laundry when the alternative is tucking in to some daunting, significant project.

In my case, the only way to confront the will to dither is to delimit the very possibility of dithering.  Last week, for example, I found much of my scaffolding lost.  My Action Plan shaped and structured my days, obliging me to sleep, rise, and head to campus at (more or less) fixed intervals.  With those parameters in place, I found that the hours of every day distributed themselves in self-evident ways–I had optimal times to eat, to plan for class, to attend meetings, to research, and to write.  When my self-imposed program ended, I found myself waking later, eating more, and working on my own projects less often.  There was mah jongg to be played, after all.  I needed a new framework of daily expectations, one that would leave me with fewer opportunities for dawdlesome deferrals.

Alas, we all have to live with contingency, and the inventive can always find diversions to turn them away from the stuff they ought to do.  Too much structure, of course, can also be oppressive, but in many cases just a few fixed boundaries will prevent the diversions from distracting us from those Somethings That Must Be Done.  This winter I’m trying out a few preemptive measures to keep me from plunging into the Abyss of Underachievement.  Last year I concluded an Action Plan right around Halloween, but I thought I could continue going to the gym in a less regimented way and perhaps relax my dietary strictures a bit as well.  And lo! winter happened, and by the time spring arrived I had undone much of the prior year’s progress.  This year I revised my idea of structure to include that carnivalesque week of candy and catnaps, but I also scripted a fitness plan to follow its heels, a plan that (unlike last year’s frigid gym-going) is not subject to the vagaries of Michigan weather.  I’m convinced that structuring the days to come well in advance will safeguard me from lapses that might otherwise sidetrack me from biggish ambitions.  And if I’m wrong, at the very least Bill Wandless of the Future will have one less idiocyncrasy to rethink.

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On Hallowe’en I concluded a three-month long fitness plan, and for the past few days I’ve allowed myself to drift contentedly on the seas of self-indulgence.  Today there will be pie; oh yes, there will be pie.  Yesterday, however, I began to do a little transitional planning in good earnest.  While I could assuredly eat my bodyweight in Häagen-Dazs between now and Thanksgiving, I’d really rather not put that sort of stress on my carcass.

In anticipation of a little more winter walking, I started out by looking into skull-flattering tuques.  As you might imagine, this is why I’m about to purchase a rowing machine.

Wait.  I might have missed a step.

This is, alas, how my mind tends to work, and I do not think I am especially special in that regard.  Unless I am totally absorbed in a task, in some bit of work at hand, my thought process involves madcap concatenations of intuitions, ideas, and imagery.  Yesterday as I proctored a peer review session in class, for example, I started out reading an interview with George Saunders in The Writer’s Chronicle.  At some point, however, I realized that I had been staring at the same word in the same paragraph for nearly ten minutes, my eyes out of focus and my mind elsewhere, my thoughts veering from eighteenth-century conduct books to Cyrenaic hedonism to vespers to tattoos.  The whole sequence yielded a line of a poem I’ve been working on intermittently, because why wouldn’t it?  My brain has stuff to do, and it can read that interview any old time.

The trick, at least for me, is trying to translate this mode of thinking into writing.  When I’m working on verse, an associative, telegraphic thought process can be just the thing.  I’ll come across surprising modifiers, striking images, zesty metaphors, and trippy transitions that give the lines some unexpected energy.  When I’m writing prose, however, or when it comes time to revise, those glimpses and impressions prove more problematic.  In the case of a poem, the intuitive leap that makes perfect sense to me, given the thought process that gave rise to it, may be be too idiosyncratic for a reader to follow.  I need to strike a balance between trusting the reader and trusting my own sense of progress and logic, which can be tough to reconcile.  In terms of prose, particularly short fiction, non-linear thinking tends to be a blessing and a curse.  Linking odd elements together helps me to generate some genuinely surprising ideas, but the composition of the story itself tends to suffer if I let concatenation reign.  Were I writing cream-of-consciousness fiction, of course, following associations would be fair game, but plotting genre fiction obliges me to produce clear and inevitable connections (Why is Eleanor going into the basement, what with the howling and the curse and the six-year-old marmalade?) and to whittle away those eccentric gestures that do not contribute to the story in some purposeful, meaningful way.  It can be terribly slow going.

I am, in general, an advocate of abiding by habits of mind, the processing and patterning each of our brains is prone to do.  On some Friday mornings, however, it can be awfully disorienting to stand at my destination and find myself unable to puzzle out how I arrived.

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For Your Consideration

If you’ve got the hankering for some All Hallow’s Day scares, hop on over to the Supernatural Tales blog and consider picking up #28–or better yet, consider subscribing! –when November rolls around.  You’ll find a piece from me in there, as well as fiction from E. Michael Lewis, Michael Chislett, Sam Dawson, Gillian Bennett, Tim Foley, Jacob Felsen, and William I.I. Read.  Delicious fiction to pair with your haul of fun-sized Twixes and Kit Kats–what could be better?

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