Justin Hocking–Escapology

First, you slip your arms through the overlong sleeves of a brand new white jacket. That new clothing smell: bleached cotton, crisp canvas. The discovery of curious leather straps and metal buckles, the function of which are yet unclear.

The discovery—stranger still—that the sleeves are sewn shut.

For argument’s sake, let’s say this jacket has a particularly tight fit. Let’s say that, straps cinched and buckles fastened, the snug garment pretzels your arms across your chest, left arm over the right, pressing your thumb-knuckles into your ribs, a tight vertical belt running from your navel to your coccyx.

Imagine, if you will, that you’re literally tied in a knot.

Straitjacketed.

Now, let’s say you’re hanging upside down on the stage of a vaudevillian theatre. Dim chandeliers sprout from the ceiling/floor like ornate stalagmites. Your head beats with blood-thrum; your hair hangs like single, limp wing. Stage lights hot as stove-tops, circles of your own sweat darkening the dusty stage floor.

Picture, now, a live audience—three hundred inverted heads.

You writhe and strain against the restrictive coat, thumping and wriggling, skin burning and chaffing, like a pupae tearing free from its silk casing.

You have sixty seconds.

O—-O

Two years ago I had coffee with an editor of a well-regarded literary journal, known mainly for publishing high-caliber literary fiction. We sat down to talk about an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir that I hoped he’d publish in special-themed edition of the magazine. The excerpt describes the narrator’s emotional descent and increasing self-destructiveness after a break up and a traumatic robbery incident. Each section of the piece is prefaced with an actual surf report, which act as a kind of emotional barometer: as the narrator’s psychological state becomes more dire, the surf grows larger, more life-threatening. But at this editor’s request, I’d stripped the surf reports from the piece, to make it more conventional, more capable of standing alone from the larger book. Because I so wanted the excerpt to appear in the magazine, I was willing to make these changes, to excise the one element that I felt (and still feel) makes the chapter most formally intriguing.

In the small talk before we got down to business, the editor mentioned something about how he likes authors who write with a great deal of restraint.

Only after the magazine rejected the revised piece, a month or so later, did I realize this comment had been likely been aimed, more or less directly, at me. Not only had I wasted my time on a fruitless revision, but I’d also been relegated, apparently, to a category of writers who do not write with a great deal of restraint.

The rejection left me in the dark for a day or two, the embarrassing little Fourth of July sparklers of my own insecurity singeing the thin skin of my inner wrists. The truth is I’m attracted to writers who use restraint, who place themselves willingly in something of a literary straitjacket. I’m thinking of Amy Hempel’s stunning self-control in The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, an essayistic short story in which a flawed young narrator visits her terminally ill friend in the hospital. Cemetery manages to be satisfyingly emotive without a shred of sentimentality or cliché; there is zero tugging at the conventional heartstrings, but it’s also deeply felt and paradoxically generous. It’s rumored to be Hempel’s first published piece—edited by Gordon Lish, that dark emperor of restraint—and it’s as close to a perfect short story as I’ve read.

O—-O

Several months after its release, I was invited to visit a friend’s book club, to discuss my memoir. We had a lively conversation, at the end of which one woman asked me the following question:

How do you know whether or not you’ve given too much of yourself away?

She was a doctor, and struggled with knowing when and how much of her own stories to share with patients. She was interested in discussing larger questions of How much do you reveal about yourself? and When do you to maintain professional boundaries?

I’m afraid, though, that I took her line of inquiry too personally, as a condemnation.

I believe firmly in making oneself vulnerable on the page; I’m a constant proselytizer of this gospel. But having released an emotionally raw memoir, these days part of me feels prone to want to write with more restraint, more camouflaging, more obliqueness.

When does vulnerability become weakness, I find myself constantly wondering—and have I crossed that line?

The answer is, it probably depends on who’s reading your work.

There are times, like when I received an email from a thirty year-old schoolteacher in New Jersey, with the headline “Your Memoir Saved My Life,” that I’m glad I wrote what I did. There are other times—like during the book club Q&A session, or when I read certain online reviews (something I’ve since quit doing, as a strict rule), or when I think of my male in-laws reading my memoir—that I’m not so sure.

O—-O

Restraint and seclusion were often used to control the behavior of people with mental health conditions. However, in recent years, clear consensus has emerged that restraint and seclusion are safety versions of the last resort and that the use of these interventions can and should be reduced significantly.

O—-O

I want to make sure I don’t conflate the concept of restraint with the practice of utilizing literary constraints. As so many of us know, writing with self-imposed constraints can be freeing. In a recent interview with author Steven Church, while discussing an essay in which he limited himself to riffing only about the topics “shoulders” and “crowns,” he said the following: It is a bit paradoxical, I suppose, that putting handcuffs or constraints on my thinking also allowed my thinking and research and essays to expand in fascinating ways while also leading to many moments of discovery. . . I highly recommend it.

O—-O

Lately there’s been quite a lot of dissing of the confessional mode, dissing of memoir, at least in high-literary circles. Having just released a memoir, maybe I’m just overly sensitive to it. In a recent interview, Megan Daum said something to the effect of I don’t confess, that makes it sound like I did something wrong. Shortly afterward, in another interview, Charles D’Ambrosio said something disparaging about writing in a goopy confessional mode. These are both writers who I imagine would eschew the label memoirist in strong favor of the term essayist.

I would argue that 90% of the time we talk about “confessional writing” we’re talking about work that reveals mental dysfunction, addiction, intense emotional states, etc. I’m thinking now of O.G. Confessional Poets like Robert Lowell, who wrote about his struggle with mental illness in Life Studies. The label of “confession” often also extends to admissions of having been raped, or sexually abused, or otherwise victimized. Or, in the case of St. Augustine, of lust and promiscuity. So, one could argue, the railing against “confession” is also a covert stigmatization of these issues, as not ok subjects for polite social or artistic discourse.

But I tend to agree with Megan Daum that confession is maybe not the right word, that it has conservative Catholic undertones that imply “sin” and “guilt.” And as for D’Ambrosio, who is himself a Catholic, I agree that goopy confessions might be best reserved for the privacy of a confession box or a therapist’s office.

Maybe what we’re going for is just plain old expression, a word I do like, with its connotation of pressing emotions away from our bodies, rather than aiming the barrel inward—the opposite of depression.

O—-O

In the comments section of a recent online article about the film version of Wild, a male commenter/troll wrote something to the effect of Cheryl Strayed must be stopped. Stopped, as in restrained. As in: restrained from sharing so many of the details of her life in such a public way. As in: restrained from achieving such stratospheric success for having been emotionally honest, and talented. In a recent radio interview, Strayed said, half-jokingly, that if she’d known so many millions of people were going to read her book (including, presumably, the mostly male trolls who harass her) she never would have revealed so much about herself.

O—-O

I sort of don’t want to tell you something, though I’ve long since let the secret out of the bag.

I’d kind of rather just hang here, knitted up safely in my strappy canvas jacket.

In the section I was hoping the aforementioned literary magazine would publish, I admit to having a very hard time transitioning onto some antidepressant medication in the wake of having a gun shoved in my face. During my conversation with the editor, he mentioned that my revelation re: the meds was maybe a bit too much, too revealing, too vulnerable. Too heavy. I suspect this was part of the reason they ultimately rejected the piece, even after asking me to revise it.

I’m certainly willing to entertain the idea that the piece didn’t work outside the context of the larger memoir, or that the revised version just wasn’t all that good.

But I’m also left with the feeling that these things—e.g. an adult human being actually really needing some help—are not to be discussed. At least not in work that might appear in the pages of a well-regarded literary magazine.

O—-O

Straitjackets were invented in France, of all places—that bastion of libertè and equalitè—by an upholsterer named Guilleret, working on contract for the Bicetre Hospital in 1790. Most historians consider straitjackets a major improvement from the ropes and chains previously used to restrain the mentally disordered. Such implements included handcuffs, which have been around in some form since the Bronze Age.

Across the channel, one hundred and some odd years after the invention of the straitjacket, T.S. Eliot formalized his concept of impersonality in poetry, otherwise known as the objective correlative. His proclamation decreed that a poet’s personal emotions should never be stated directly on the page, that instead the poet must find some object or image suggestive of them—e.g. a patient etherized upon a table—and only then can s/he evoke the same feelings in the reader.

As William Carlos Williams later put it, there should be no ideas except in things.

The objective correlative, one could argue, is a kind of straitjacket designed to keep things from getting too messy, to restrict the writer from revealing too much or embarrassing himself with vague sentiment. T.S. Eliot went so far as to wield it against Shakespeare’s character Hamlet, whom he felt was too unrestrained in his emotional outbursts.

The objective correlative is absolute doctrine in most contemporary university writing departments—this device that was instituted nearly a century ago by a brilliant but repressed man from St. Louis, living in perhaps the most emotionally reserved culture on the planet.

(The etymology of the word reserved traces back to England in the 1650’s, meaning self-imposed restraint on freedom of words or actions; a habit of keeping back the feelings.)

Of course, the objective correlative worked exceptionally well as a device for rendering T.S. Eliot’s period of mental collapse in The Wasteland. Even with all its impenetrable literary facades and intertextuality, Kate Zambreno calls it totally amazingly hysterical and emo.

My question, though (and part of Zambreno’s): is the objective correlative still working for us? All the time?
Is part of the reason so many of us have moved (escaped?) over to creative nonfiction because there’s (sometimes) less demand for elaborate obfuscation, for byzantine references meant to signify emotions and experiences? Because we can employ the objective correlative as an accessory, rather than a muzzle?

Is the whole concept of emotional restraint a white male European thing? Or, more specifically, a British thing? (I’ll admit that almost all of my ancestry is British; I’ll also admit that there’s a strain of Protestant gloom, seriousness, and inexpressiveness that runs in my genes, and that I’m constantly both wielding and working to overcome it.)

Wasn’t British colonization, with its attendant “civilizing” (which Herman Melville referred to as “snivilizing”) a way to restrain the more demonstrative, scantily clad “heathens”?

(Circa 1200, the concept of a “Wild Man” was a “man lacking in self-restraint,” otherwise known as a “primitive, or savage.”)

Was the American colonization of Hawaii—with its subsequent missionary suppressing of native pursuits like surfing and nature-worship and nakedness—itself a form of restraint? Or possibly my comparisons here are strained; perhaps it’s disrespectful and reductive to tether the awful history of colonialism and patriarchy to literary aesthetics.

O—-O

Wearing an institutional straitjacket for long periods of time can be quite painful. Blood tends to pool in the elbows, where swelling may then occur. The hands may become numb from lack of proper circulation, and due to bone and muscle stiffness the upper arms and shoulders may experience excruciating pain. Thrashing around while in a straitjacket is a common, but mostly an ineffective method of attempting to move and stretch the arms.

 

O—-O

I worked briefly with a creative writing student who was not doing well, mentally. His writing was completely unrestrained, nearly incoherent—a kind of unmitigated gut-spilling that was painful to read. More than painful, it was frightening: a scrum of raw emotion and clutter cribbed from an online mental health chat room, mixed with diary-like confessions, but submitted as a short story. I consulted with an expert, who suggested I ask this student to leave class, that it wasn’t a safe environment for him or the other students. I dreaded the conversation, but he agreed. He admitted he wasn’t taking great care of himself, that he wasn’t really in a place to have his written work parsed by others. When he stood up to leave my office, a cigarette butt that had been clinging somehow to his jeans was now stranded on the red fabric of my Ikea chair.

On the other hand, I’m often most enthusiastic about student work that delves into personal darkness, that takes big emotional risks. One of my current MFA students is working on a lyrical, hybrid memoir about receiving electroshock therapy for Bipolar Disorder; she’s braiding this personal narrative with a natural history of lightning; the combination is thrilling, emotionally resonant, and often disarmingly humorous. The writing invites and encourages you to look away at regular intervals; it gives you a chance to breathe. The outward expansion balances the inward diving, the uninhibited self-revelation.

O—-O

Discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack Up, Kate Zambreno writes: At the time Fitzgerald published these essays his fellow male genius contemporaries—Hemingway and Dos Passos and the rest—were like what the fuck are you doing, Scott? This sort of ripped-from-the-heart memoir wasn’t considered real writing, wasn’t manly. Wasn’t manly? Wasn’t LITERARY.

And then there was Zelda Fitzgerald, of course, who was restricted from writing/publishing about her own intimate experiences within the mental health system.

O—-O

The first recorded mention of handcuffs: In Virgil’s telling of the myth of Proteus, the Ancient Greek shape-shifting prophet. Anytime men approached him for answers to their insipid existential questions, he shifted forms and escaped. Until Aristaeus, son of Apollo, used handcuffs to restrain the god, because he needed desperately to learn the secret behind the colony collapse of his bees.

The “Flexible”

The “Snap”

“Nippers”

The “Twister”

La Puocette
La Corde

Menotte Double

The Swing Cuff

Now we have disposable cuffs, first introduced in 1960’s, similar to zip ties. They’ve been described as Great for riots or other situations where officers need to secure lots of people quickly:

wrist ties

riot cuffs

plasticuffs

flexicuffs

flex-cuffs

tri-fold cuffs

zapstraps

zipcuffs

zip-strips

Plastic restraints, though, are believed by many to be more likely to inflict nerve or soft-tissue damage to the wearer than metal handcuffs.

O—-O

In Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine maintains a posture of relative distance and reserve, writing mostly in the second person about the experience of being a black woman in America. But something shifts halfway through the book; there’s a sense of the author slipping surreptitiously and gracefully from her own self-imposed restraints, especially when writing about men in her life—men so often placed in actual physical restraints: The hearts of my/brothers are broken. If I knew/another way to be, I would call up a/brother, I would hear myself saying,/my brother, dear brother, my dearest/brothers, dear heart—

 

O—-O

I don’t think I would have particularly liked Ken Kesey in the 60’s, or any decade, for that matter. The way he treated women, the way the Merry Pranksters fucked the woman they nicknamed “Stark Naked” for 1200 miles in the back of their hippy bus, then abandoned her, wearing nothing but a blanket, in the middle of Texas when her bad LSD trip turned into a psychotic breakdown, when she could no longer deal with being the “star” (read: sex object) of their misguided cinéma vérité. No one stayed with her in Texas to make sure she was ok; no one so much as made a phone call during her brief hospitalization. Perhaps the only truly human moment in the entire history of the Prankster’s dumb-ass bus tour: Stark Naked running off the bus, literally naked, to embrace Larry McMurtry’s child, because she so missed her own toddler back in California. Then there’s the story of another woman—a friend of Neal Cassady’s—gang raped by twenty or more Hell’s Angels at Kesey’s place in the redwoods, with Kesey’s and Cassady’s apparent consent. A knot of rage tightens in my stomach when I think about it, like I want to go ballistic on Kesey and Cassady and the Angels—a wrestling scrum I’d certainly lose, but not without getting a few good shots in.
Sometimes I want to meet macho with macho; sometimes I lose myself.

I don’t always know how, exactly, a man is supposed to behave.

I often find myself fantasizing about times when I was wronged or manipulated (or when someone like Stark Naked was wronged or manipulated), and how I should have responded with fists or elbows or swift takedowns, even if I wasn’t even born yet.

Maybe it’s my own history of exploitation by immature, egocentric men.

Physical restraints are particularly traumatizing to people who have been victims of physical and sexual abuse.

In Barry Lopez’s essay for Harper’s, entitled “Sliver of Sky,” he shares an emotionally candid account of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a cunning sociopath, who also happened to be a pillar of the community. Lopez explains that as a young adult—long after the abuse ceased—he experienced something akin to a blind rage whenever he felt he was being taken advantage of in even the smallest of ways.

In other words, us survivors have a hard time restraining ourselves, and we honestly regret certain instances when we fail to do so, just as I will soon likely regret the previous lines about hippies (who I actually tend to like) and about wanting to punch Ken Kesey (it’s too late for that, and I have no plans to ever actually punch anyone).

And what I’m trying to actually get to is this: despite how much anger he elicits in me, I also can’t help wondering, if Ken Kesey was still alive—if he was sober—what would he say about the idea of restraint? The man who wrote the unhinged novel that helped set in motion the legislation that banned nonconsensual psychiatric hospitalization?

O—-O

1) Each use of restraint or seclusion poses an inherent danger, both physical and psychological, to the individual who is subject to the interventions and, frequently, to the staff who administer them.

2) The decision to use restraint or seclusion nearly always is arbitrary, idiosyncratic, and generally avoidable.

3) Many inexpensive and effective alternatives to restraint and seclusion have been developed and successfully implemented across a broad range of mental health facility types.

O—-O

In 2006, a mentally ill cartoonist and zinester named James Chasse died in the custody of the Portland Police Bureau as a result of being severely beaten and restrained.

After spotting him apparently urinating in public, the 250-pound Officer Chris Humphries tackled the 145-pound Chasse on the pavement, breaking sixteen of his ribs. The blunt force of this trauma was likely the cause of his death, but Chasse very well might have lived had he not been placed in arm and leg restraints—had he not been essentially hog tied—and had the police not delayed medical attention for over two hours.

One uncanny detail from this terrible story: decades before, the seminal Portland punk rock band The Wipers wrote a song about James Chasse, entitled “Alien Boy,” with the following lyrics: they hurt what they don’t understand.

O—-O

Though Gordon Lish was largely responsible for establishing Raymond Carver’s early writing career, the more mature, newly sober Carver grew deeply weary of Lish’s minimalist editorial style, his violence with the red pencil. Carver could no longer abide Lish’s surgical editing of anything human or sentimental from his work; this legendary writer/editor skirmish nearly wrecked Carver’s precarious mental health. Carver eventually worked up the courage to jettison Lish; he re-published his classic short story “The Bath” in the revised (or perhaps more original) form of “A Small Good Thing.” “A Small Good Thing” is the warmer, more human story—the one I’d choose if, say, I had to spend a few days in the hospital. But during my stay, I’m sure I’d notice, for the fifth or sixth time, all the places where “A Small Good Thing” could’ve used more stern editing, as when the doctor calls the female main character little mother, or in the highly charged final scene, when the baker says, Sweet, sweet Jesus. They’re slightly cringe-worthy lines, just as we’ve all probably written many of our own cringe-worthy lines.

O—-O

I run in different circles, as we all do. Sometimes, surrounded by other writers at AWP or elsewhere, I feel like, why do we all have to come up with fancy, aestheticized ways of describing our feelings or experiences? Why do we have to worry about being cliché with every expression? In conversations with other writers, I fear saying something hackneyed, something common. I can’t help but wonder what kind of repression this engenders. But then, say, in a group of non-writers, someone delivers a packaged phrase, and I wish they’d deliberated on a more unique, artful way of expressing it.

I’m stuck somewhere in the middle.

I fear that too often, I just remain silent.

O—-O

Unlike many contemporary writers, (e.g. David Foster Wallace, David Shields), I don’t really know shit about western philosophy. My background is in psychology. Not that I’m particularly proud of this—I mostly hated all my research-focused undergraduate courses in Behavioral Neuroscience. Yet, in ancient Greece, the word psyche was represented symbolically by the emergence of winged creatures from a chrysalis. Psyche, then, connotes the transubstantiation of the soul from one form to another—a process requiring a period of darkness, inversion, restraint, followed by a chewing through of the tight silk camisole.

A chewing through and eventual flight.

I’m interested, then, in philosophical questions about how we think and what we can know, but they rarely feel as exigent to me as the questions how are we transformed by darkness and loss and how do we heal?

O—-O

If you were writing this essay, would you include a section about Eric Garner? About choke holds as a form of restraint? Would you worry that including this—as well as the James Chasse reference—may diminish their importance, or might be seen as self-serving, especially in juxtaposition to a conversation about aesthetics?

As literary writers, we’re supposed to stay clear of overt politicking or didacticism; we don’t employ slogans unless they’re writ large on a protest sign, and even then we often feel embarrassed by their lack of subtlety.

And for God’s sake, under no condition should we rant.

Perhaps all you want to express is the basic human horror at the fact of an asthmatic man being choked to death while essentially begging for his life, but you yourself risk the accusation of an improper use of restraint.

O—-O

Methods for escaping from handcuffs:

  1. slipping hands out when the hands are smaller than the wrist
  2. lock-picking
  3. releasing the pawl with a shim
  4. or simply opening the handcuffs with a duplicate key, often hidden on the body of the performer before the performance.

O—-O

But what if I told you that I camouflaged the gender of the student I mentioned from my writing workshop? Perhaps I’m just as guilty as T.S. Eliot or F. Scott Fitzgerald for “silencing the madwoman,” for restraining creativity in its messiest, most inchoate form. Perhaps I was just scared. To my credit, the mental health expert I consulted was female, and herself a writer. I didn’t force the student out of my class; I just brought up the idea that perhaps focusing first on his/her health was more important than writing, just at that moment. The student agreed.

I invited this student to re-enroll the following semester, but I’ve yet to hear another word, just as I’ve yet to re-submit anything to the literary journal that rejected me.

O—-O

Recently, after a reading by a group of hip young poets, my fiancée said, that wasn’t poetry, that was just vomiting words.

Maybe what we need are occasional intense bursts of unrestrained writing, like in Dennis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a work of semi-autobiographical fiction in which a newly sober narrator says I was a whimpering dog inside, nothing more than that. It’s one of few such bald admissions in the book; maybe that’s why it works so well.

O—-O

I can offer up these manicured little examples about when to exercise restraint in our writing, and when to break free, but the truth is that I don’t really know. I wonder how Whitman would weigh in, or one of the young Ferguson protestors, both of whom might encourage us to break out of the zip strips and run amok through the halls, down the police-lined boulevards, to swarm the streets and reclaim the freeways in the name of the people, of justice.

But I’m equally inspired by another of my current students, who is also writing about mental health and addiction issues (also with a lot of humor), while honoring her literary heroine Sylvia Plath. Unlike Plath, though, she’s working to tell her story without spilling so much blood on the page.

O—-O

In 2013, Sofia Romero, also known as Sof Strait, set the world record by escaping from a straitjacket 49 times in one hour.

O—-O

I guess at the end of our careers and lives, I don’t want us to look back and say, above all, we restrained ourselves. Or perhaps even worse, the passive tense version, we were restrained, implying that someone else has clicked the shackles around our wrists and ankles, removed any slack, and pocketed the key.

Restraint, then, as something we employ constantly, constantly—49 times in an hour—but that we slip out of just as easily—49 times in an hour—and by which we’re never truly rendered helpless, motionless, silent.

O—-O

It’s not actually necessary to dislocate one’s shoulder to escape from a straitjacket. This was a fictitious rumor created by Houdini, to scare off his competitors in the realm of escapology.

The most common way to escape is to hoist your arms over your head and then simply peel the jacket off your torso.

Houdini used to perform the feat behind a curtain, but discovered it’s much better received with the heavy fabric pulled to the either side—spotlights trained on our slick, upside-down brows—allowing the audience to directly witness our struggle.

}{

Works Referenced:

 

Haimowitz, Urff & Huckshorn. “Restraint and Seclusion: A Risk Management Guide” (online PDF). Nasmhpd.org; September, 2006.

 

Hempel, Amy. The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. New York, NY: Scribner (reprint edition), 2007.

Johnson, Dennis. Jesus’ Son. New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1992.

Lindstrom, Brian. Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse. Breaking Glass Pictures, 2013.

Lopez, Barry: “Sliver of Sky: Confronting the Trauma of Sexual Abuse.” Harper’s Magazine, January 2013.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2014.
Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York City, NY: Picador (sixth printing edition), 2008.

Zambreno, Kate. Heroines. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2012.

Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com)

Straitjacket, Houdini, and Sofia Romero histories from Wikipedia’s Straitjacket and Escapology entries. Handcuff history researched on handcuffs.com, Wikipedia and gizmodo.com.

 

Justin Hocking is the author of the memoir The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld (Graywolf, 2014) — a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a finalist for the 2015 Oregon Book Award. He is a Co-Founder of the Wilderness Writing MFA Program at Eastern Oregon University, and the Certificate Program in Creative Writing at the Independent Publishing Resource Center. His work has also appeared in The Normal School, Orion, Poets & Writers and The Rumpus. He is a current Oregon Literary Fellowship recipient, and winner of the Willamette Writers’ 2014 Humanitarian Award for his work in writing, publishing, teaching and literary outreach. More information is available at justinhocking.net.

mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi: an idiot’s mediation on voice–Timston Johnston

Bear with me.

A bucket list item checked off and a high school dream come true, this year, someone dresses as me for Halloween. I’m easy to replicate, but I’m particular, and a few mistakes are noticeable: the hat, too new (a Detroit Tigers ball cap, yes, but not sun-bleached, no sweat stains); the plaid shirt’s squares are too small, and the color, a dull shade between late-autumn tan and dying feather grass, something that goes well with chiropractic waiting room chairs, a shirt that says suburban weekend-warrior at an in-law’s barbecue; the shoes have no red; black socks instead of stretched, holey, and dirty white. The beard, drawn on. The jeans, however, are right: carpenter and just loose enough, an out-of-date, but working, T9 phone in the side pocket. The black hoodie is acceptable, and so is the undershirt, gray with mostly unseen writing, but it has not been given to him by my father as an afterthought with a stack of old mail. Otherwise, notable effort.

With this list, I admit my own life has a style guide, that these are the rules I must follow just to be myself, an odd but completing satisfaction unearthed in high school when I found out others knew me as that guy who wears plaid. This everyday attire had nothing to do with me liking plaid; it had everything to do with me believing plaid is slimming. Since then I’ve maintained a life of consistency. Summers are hot under layers, but I have what every adolescent begs for: an identity. This is Tim: he likes plaid. He likes hats. He likes golf. He’s grumpy. Don’t say anything about thin crust pizza. Avoid topics that could lead to Adam Sandler. Never bring up parallel parking.

During Halloween night, other-me, out of character, says something along the lines of he sees why I do this loose-plaid-and-jeans lifestyle; he’s never been more comfortable, never felt so relaxed. Others disagree, say my style looks fine on me but on him, a man whose everyday clothing is fashionable and snug, is unappealing and borderline wino. This is not when I become agitated. I become agitated when we sit next to each other on the couch, right legs crossed over our left knees. I think of Harpo Marx and Lucille Ball, their speechless mirroring of each other, but this isn’t what bothers me. What bothers me is that we are not speechless. I speak. I point to a rug, the fireplace, the TV, teaching him, You hate that rug. You hate that fireplace. You hate that TV. But I don’t. I’m upsetting myself. I like that rug. And that fireplace. I could do without the TV, but it hasn’t done anything personal to me. He repeats everything, tries to get the tone of my voice just right, I hate that rug. I hate that fireplace. To hell with that TV. The voice is off, a cookie-cutter stoner haze of words. A slow, sleepy monotone. Tom Waits, circa 1989.

He wasn’t close to becoming me. The clothes, the monotone, the expected distain—all a forced exaggeration of me. However (and this is the point I’m ultimately trying to make), I’m already an exaggeration of something that isn’t completely me. This exaggeration of me is a tiny version of myself (say, three percent), the side of me who’s on guard, who’s aware of surroundings, who keeps others at a distance from my true self; my true self, who only makes an appearance when I drive long-distance alone. And that person is nuts. And not monotone. He ranges from bass to quite an impressive alto. Hates novelty mailboxes. Loves red houses and barns and June-high corn fields. He air-banjos. He sings along to The Beatles, Diana Ross, and The Beastie Boys as a second-rate Bob Dylan impersonator. Speaks Spanish and faux-Russian to oncoming traffic, to passers-by.
But that loose psych ward patient (who points and shouts to Ohio drivers as people once projected to lepers: Unclean! Unclean! (Sorry.)) is not my writing voice. This, now, is my writing voice, another nameless being within me who believes that sometimes a series of pretty words can trump the cohesiveness of straight-forward narration. Imagine Chaplin’s Tamp while singing his nonsense song in Modern Times (also allow this comparison so show you just how full of myself I am—Sing!! Never mind the words.). Who I am in reality has nothing to do with this writing-voice you read. Even if I were to read it aloud, my voice would become manipulated, would strain pitches and heartfelt tones in all the right spots, would forget to breathe, would pause for the laughs, would refuse to look up before and after transitions. Add in all the ahs, ums, grunts and jaw clenches you want, it’ll never come close to how I speak normally: unarticulated, lazy emphasis on Ts and Ws, elongated Os, uses four words when eight will do, substitutes noises for most responses requiring yes or no or I don’t know.

I don’t know anybody different, don’t know of anyone who speaks the way they write. Aside from maybe Hunter Thompson. Maybe James Baldwin. Maybe David Mamet. Maybe Truman Capote. Maybe, and hopefully, Bill Watterson. Probably hundreds and thousands of others. I’m okay admitting I’m wrong, but I can’t end every paragraph apologizing for idiocy. Even though I should.
If you choose to believe me, what does this say of the essay? What is the essay (What is tree bark? What are IKEA instructions? What are Kraft American cheese slices?)? Does the voice you use in the essay absolutely have to represent your true self? For me, it’s imperative that it doesn’t, because my fake-esque writing voice is what makes me readable, what turns my boring grocery list of apples; cumin; flour; cereal; pie pan into do not buy the honey crisp, it’s out of season; avoid stickerless avocados and bananas—what’s the point? nod to the produce man, treat him has a human. Could make a difference. He works hard and seems lonely. This is (not the greatest example of) style. An act, a performance, a ruse, a mildly-inaccurate costume worn every time I write, hoping the consistency makes my words true (however false they will always be), something that teases deep within, look at me be you.

I look at the essay as a self-love letter read by strangers; it’s the duty of the writer to lay out the perception of the heart, mind, and soul as accurately as possible, and it falls on the reader to have blind faith, to retain that meaning, flip it around and make sense of it as best as one can with whatever’s offered. Voice is the symmetrical face and steady bank account, silver bows on red boxes. Meaning is the secrets learned in the dark that take away that superficial flavor. Reader and writer must have faith in that voice, trust it, and fall in love with it so deeply that nothing would ever tear it away. Reader and writer must accept, simultaneously, that there is always a chance to be let down hard (consider this very conclusion). If this pain is worthwhile, appreciate what you take and eventually lose, grow and disintegrate with all of it, but know that the essay, and all the baggage that comes with it, is never (and shouldn’t ever be) completely understood. And if you truly do understand it all, listen to me: you hate that rug. You hate that fireplace. You hate that goddamn TV.

 

 

Bio: Timston Johnston received his MFA from Northern Michigan University and is the fiction editor of Passages North and the founding editor of Little Presque Books. His work appears in Midwestern Gothic, Ghost Town, Cartagena, and Cheap Pop. If he’s being completely honest, he only likes the let-the-sunshine-in part of “Aquarius.”

 

 

In Celebration of Hybridity (Part 3)–Erin Stalcup

Irreality Hunger

My students often want to write fantasy and science fiction and crime fiction and horror and that’s fine by me. But I tell them it has to be about this world, too, our reality. It somehow has to reflect back to us, however fantastical it gets. I show them The McSweeney’s Treasury of Thrilling Tales—“genre” fiction by “literary” masters—and stories by Aimee Bender and Manuel Gonzales and Wells Tower and many other writers as examples of what I’m talking about.

They say they want to escape reality through their writing, offer readers an escape, but Flannery O’Connor says, “I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it is very shocking to the system.” We talk about this.

I don’t have a no-genre rule in my classroom, because that would exclude my own writing from my teaching. Louise Erdrich just published science fiction in Granta. The walls are coming down. But I do expect students to transcend the boundaries of whatever genre they’re working in, and not just duplicate formulas.

I’m very interested in the line between the possible and the impossible.

I’m interested in irreality.

In the introduction to Extreme Fiction, Robin Hemley and Michael Martone argue that the “‘traditional’ story with which readers today are most familiar is actually a recent invention,” and carries with it expectations of “realism” and “narrative,” which are not synonymous (1). They then trace the tradition of nontraditional fiction, both fabulist (not realist) and formalist (nonnarrative) (1). They say:

The irreal is a kind of allegory, not so much like the traditional religious allegories of Medieval times but of a more personal nature, in which the representations are perhaps more ambiguous and not necessarily contingent on dogma. The irreal encompasses all we have learned in the past century about the human mind, combined with our belief systems of several millennia. The irreal simply suggests an alternative way of viewing reality, one in which characters and images are meant to stand for something else (something that may itself be ambiguous or open to interpretation). (6)

In Bender’s “The Rememberer,” the speaker’s lover is experiencing reverse evolution, probably because he told her they think too much, and is weirdly getting his wish to think less. In Gonzales’s “Pilot, Copilot, Writer,” a plane has been circling Dallas for twenty years, and the passengers have to decide how to live now. In Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” a Viking who’s not that into it anymore has to keep pillaging. The story ends with him where he wants to be, home with his family, thinking:

I got an understanding of how terrible love can be. You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself. It’s crazy-making, yet you cling to them with everything and close your eyes against the rest of it. But still you wake up late at night and lie there listening for the creak and splash of oars, the clank of steel, the sounds of men rowing toward your home.

I want what hasn’t happened to tell me about what has, what might.

Another Kind of Reality Hunger

Some unconventional fiction is very realistic. Cynthia Reeves has written a manifesto called “Experimental Fiction Is Not Literature! And Other Myths About Nontraditional Fiction” (read the entirety here: http://waxwingmag.org/writing.php?item=168). She writes that some writing

reflects diverse styles and techniques that allow a writer to convey ideas and emotions through nontraditional and usually nonrepresentational means. The word “nonrepresentational” would seem to imply the opposite of realistic; however, the nonrepresentational is not antithetical to realism, especially as it applies to the way we engage in or reflect any number of altered psychological states (e.g., dream, hallucination, mental illness) as well as the way we experience time (largely through its forward arrow, but also by seamlessly parsing the present moment with moments of memory and anticipation). In attempting to depict these and other extraordinary experiences of reality, the nonrepresentational might in fact be more representational of reality than traditional modes of expression.

Narrative and realism are not synonymous.

Reeves asks:

  • Would a different sort of marketing strategy for literary fiction—one that embraces traditional and nontraditional realism—promote a more significant readership of all fiction?
  • Would writers be more willing to explore the boundaries, a process which sometimes results in new forms and new ways of expressing ideas, if readers and editors were more liberal in the application of the term “realism”?
  • Similarly, would writers be more willing to explore the boundaries of realism if writing programs broadened their training to include a larger portion of, and more rigorous training in, modes and techniques of nontraditional realism?
  • Would all of these explorations result in a more vibrant, relevant American literature, literature unafraid of grappling with life’s “true” reality—its complexity and ambiguity, its struggle to achieve something outside of the self, its effort to embrace the “other,” its ability to make the reader feel?

I want more nontraditional reality. I want more irreality. I want it all to tell me more about reality.

Conclusions

There’s fiction in my nonfiction and nonfiction in my fiction and hopefully a bit of poetry in all of it, and some of it’s real and some of it isn’t, but don’t worry too much about that.

Hybridity is alive and well. Writers are transcending binaries as ways of exploring identities and ideas and irrealities that broaden our conception of and compassion for what it means to be alive.

I’ll give the last word to my teacher, and my students.

In an interview with r.kv.r.y literary journal, Kevin “Mc” McIlvoy says:

In the literature of the wisdom tradition, the reader is invited to feel what she/he knows inside the work. Wisdom offers the feeling-knowing response, which is quite different than the knowing-knowing reaction. I also firmly believe that the best experimental literary work (Beckett and Woolf and Nin; Lydia Davis and Steven Millhauser and Jim Crace, for example) consistently originates from the writers who are most radically committed to wisdom. […]

I’m happy there are so many different kinds of work thriving in the contemporary world literary tradition. By my reckoning, the fiction receiving the most attention from American publishers concentrates upon offering completeness: a story with a well-constructed shape or arc; a defined beginning, middle, and end; a crystalline sense of irony (the recognition of human duality); a balanced treatment of dramatic elements; an imaginative regulation of language serving content.

Sadly, in the U.S. we have so many writers with amazing book manuscripts in hand who cannot find publishers only because their books offer fullness instead of completeness: a story with centrifugal force that resists finding a center; a story that is marvelous in its disproportionality; a story that gives irony its due without giving it primacy; a story that allows dynamic balance (unstable terms of engagement) to override balance; a story in which the transformative (sensation-generating, playful, pleasure-making) language is allowed, at certain moments, to overwhelm the transactive (meaning-making, plot-preserving) language.

The literature of completeness confirms for the reader the mind’s recognition of an always-emerging order in human experience. […] The literature of fullness confirms for the reader the always-emerging chaos of human experience. With a great love for the palaces of the literature of completeness, I prefer the ruined palaces of the literature of fullness [….] I find my body responds more fully to the body of the ruined palace: where entry and exit are no longer perfectly clear; where the original purpose for the structure is a compelling riddle, where the large and small structures are only barely evident and, as a result, the body responds to many rooms at once and the mind must relent its will to compartmentalize.

Because of this quote, a student of mine who is a musician is titling his next EP Ruined Palaces.

“I love writing for its ability to capture truth. That doesn’t just mean nonfiction, there is a lot more to truth than just reality.” These are the first two lines of Noah Shute’s fiction portfolio, submitted in my intro class.

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Boderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 3rd edition. San Francisco: Aunt

Lute, 2007. Print.

Bender, Aimee. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. New York: Anchor, 1999. Print.

Booth, Stephen, ed. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The Norton Anthology of History and Criticism. 2nd

  1. Vincent B. Leitch, ed. New York: Norton, 2010. 1942-1959. Print.

DeLillo, Don. Libra. New York: Viking, 1988. Print.

Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York, Riverhead, 2007. Print.

Doody, Noreen. “William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and the Art of Appeal.” Shakespeare and

the Irish Writer, Janet Clare and Stephen O’Neill, eds. Dublin: U College of Dublin P, 2010. 123-135. Print.

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad. New York: Knopf, 2010. Print.

Erdrich, Louise. “Domain.” Granta (2014). 9-24. Print.

Gonzales, Manuel. The Miniature Wife. New York: Riverhead, 2013. Print.

Halpern, Richard. Shakespeare’s Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud,

and Lacan. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002. Print.

Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in

the 1980s.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st ed. Vincent B. Leitch, ed. New York: Norton, 2001. 2269-2299. Print.

Hemley, Robin, and Michael Martone, eds. Introduction. Extreme Fiction: Fabulists and

Formalists. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. 1-12. Print.

Horvath, Tim. Understories. New York: Bellevue, 2012. Print.

Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997. Print.

Lim, Jeehyun. “‘I Was Never at War With My Tongue’: The Third Language and the

Performance of Bilingualism in Richard Rodriguez.” Biography 33.3 (2010): 518-542. ProQuest. Web. 20 Apr. 2012.

McIlvoy, Kevin. “A Conversation with Kevin McIlvoy.” By Mary Akers. r.kv.r.y quarterly

literary journal. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

—. The Complete History of New Mexico. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2005. Print.

Menon, Madhavi, ed. Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

Minor, Kyle. Praying Drunk. Louisville, KY: Sarabande, 2014. Print.

Pequigney, Joseph. Such is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Chicago: U of Chicago

P, 1985. Print.

Reeves, Cynthia. “Experimental Fiction Is Not Literature! And Other Myths About

Nontraditional Fiction.” Waxwing (2014). 15 Oct. 2014. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New

York: Columbia UP, 1985. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Stephen Booth, ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977.

Print.

Shields, David. Reality Hunger. New York: Knopf, 2010. Print.

Singer, Margot and Nicole Walker, eds. Bending Genre. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Print.

Tower, Wells. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. New York: FSG, 2009. Print.

Watkins, Claire Vaye. Battleborn. New York: Riverhead, 2012. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Portrait of Mr. W.H. The Riddle of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New York: Basic

Erin Stalcup’s short stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Sun, PANK, H_NGM_N, Hinchas de Poesía, Novembre(Swiss), and elsewhere, and she has creative nonfiction forthcoming in The Laurel Review. Erin received her MFA from Warren Wilson College’s Program for Writers, and later served as the Joan Beebe Fellow at Warren Wilson. After a decade of teaching in community colleges, universities, and prisons in New York City, North Carolina, and Texas, she recently returned to her hometown of Flagstaff, where she has joined the creative writing faculty at her alma mater, Northern Arizona University.

Books, Inc., 1962. 163-255. Print.

Yanique, Tiphanie. How To Escape from a Leper Colony. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2010.

Print.

In Celebration of Hybridity (Part 2) –Erin Stalcup

Transcendence of Binaries

Postcolonial critic Declan Kiberd applies Frantz Fanon’s three stages of decolonization—occupation, nationalism, liberation—to the Irish context, and writes, “But nationalism, as Fanon warned, is not liberation, since it still persists in defining itself in categories imposed by the colonizer. A revolution couched in such terms is taken away from a people even as they perform it: it is only in breaking out of the binaries, through to a third point of transcendence, that freedom can be won” (184).

Binaries I want to transcend:
Academic versus personal writing.
Public versus private writing.
Political versus personal writing.
Realism versus irrealism.
Genre versus literary fiction.
Fiction versus nonfiction.
Prose versus poetry.
Narrative versus poetics.

Gloria Anzaldúa celebrates nepantla, “a Nahuatl word for the space between two bodies of water, the space between two worlds.” (237). Hélène Cixous celebrates naphtha, a liquid explosive, which “will spread, throughout the world” (1947).

In Bending Genre, Kazim Ali asserts that writing is “part eros, part riot” (34). And he writes:

There are two political realities tied to truth to which the essay as a form is obligated to respond. The first is that authoritative fact, both historically and today, has been used to silence and exclude significant numbers of people, whether forcing immigrants to lie in order to stay alive and safe or perpetuating the idea that transgender people are lying when we assert our own identities and bodies (to give only two examples). The second is that the process of asserting individual truths, of ‘speaking your truth,’ has been a powerful social and political tool in the modern world. These are realities to which the essay is always responding, not by discounting truth, but by acknowledging and embracing the power of truths, and by using the shifting, hidden, exposed, and expansive truths of the margin as collective tools to help us better understand the world, rather than lifting up a blunt instrument meant to convince others that our experience is the right experience. (45)

I believe all the forms of fiction are obligated to respond to these political realities, as well.

 

In Bending Genre, Mary Capello wonders if creative nonfiction is a literary cyborg (67).

In her “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” Donna Haraway writes:

‘[W]omen of color’ might be understood as a cyborg identity, a potent subjectivity synthesized from fusions of outsider identities. […] Writing has a special significance for all colonized groups. […] The poetry and stories of U.S. women of color are repeatedly about writing, about access to the power to signify; but this time that power must be neither phallic nor innocent. Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man. Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other. (2293)

 

Haraway offers her cyborg imagery as “a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia” (2299). Heteroglossia is an apt synonym for any kind of hybrid writing.

Richard Rodriguez argues: “You cannot speak more than one language at a time. There’s no such thing. It’s like being bisexual; you just can’t do it. You can perform architecturally. You can perform, but you can’t be truly bisexual, you can’t be bilingual. There’s no such thing” (qtd. in Lim 533).

Hybrid texts help us get out of binary thinking.

Mary Capello writes, “Hybrid: the new form made possible when areas of thought and experience sequestered in life are allowed to share a space in art” (67).

Hybrid writing is genre-queer, so can make space for genderqueer, bisexual, biracial, bilingual, pomo and poco texts.

If you read this and decide I’m genderqueer, bisexual, biracial, bilingual, you’d be wrong. If you read this and decide I care about those ideas and identities, you’d be right.

I see through postmodern and postcolonial eyes, yes.

 

Against Reading Art for Autobiography: A Case Study

Genre-queer and genderqueer writing has been around for a very long time.

William Shakespeare’s book of sonnets is dedicated “To Mr. W.H.” The first 126 are addressed to a young man, while 127-152 are addressed to a dark lady. Critics have been trying to decipher what this tells us about William Shakespeare’s life since the book was published in 1609. I argue that Oscar Wilde’s book of fiction, The Portrait of Mr. W.H., offer the best critical lens through which to view the poems: looking for evidence about Shakespeare himself in his art will lead to madness and death.[1]

The truest moment in Wilde’s text is this: “Art, even art of the fullest scope and widest vision, can never really show us the external world. All that it shows us is our own soul, the one world of which we have any real cognizance. […] It is Art, and Art only, that reveals us to ourselves” (242). I do not know if Oscar Wilde believed this—that art should be read for what it tells us about us, not what it tells us about its maker (all art, fiction or poetry or nonfiction)—but I know that I do, and many critics unfortunately do not.

According to Noreen Doody, critics have “expressed frustration that Wilde does not clearly indicate whether or not he believes in his own erudite theory of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (132), even though it is not Wilde’s theory, it is his fictional characters’ theory. Richard Halpern writes, “[T]he logic of the story insists that Wilde can convince others of the theory only if he does not believe in the theory himself” (43). But in The Portrait of Mr. W.H., the characters are not synonymous with Wilde. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes, “Oscar Wilde feels free to extend his authoritative insight into the speaker” (36). But, of course, Oscar Wilde does not do this within the book of fiction he wrote, his invented narrator does.

Oscar Wilde’s next novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, led to doubts about his own sexuality, then criminal trials, then his imprisonment.

People have done the same with Shakespeare.

Joseph Pequigney argues that there is homosexual sex in the sonnets, then applies his argument about the sonnets to Shakespeare’s life. He begins tentatively: “If he ever wrote autobiographically, he did so here” (5). Since Pequigney is not certain the sonnets are autobiography, he says he will refer to the “speaker, persona, or poet, rather than Shakespeare” (5), then loses track of his own method and writes that “Shakespeare is in love with the young man” (65). He argues W.S. is bisexual, and W.H. is homosexual (154), and ends his study by insisting that “the treatment of erotic experience […] most likely reflects that of the author, the persona being created in his image and likeness” (224).[2]

Pequigney argues that both Shakespeare and Freud agree that homosexuality is “nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation or illness” (100). While I wholeheartedly agree, those thoughts cannot be attributed to Shakespeare in 1609—Pequigney never addresses the fact that Shakespeare would not have had Freudian understandings of desire, and he did not have access to terms or even concepts like bisexuality and homosexuality. A 2011 anthology punnily entitled Shakesqueer seeks to remedy the anachronism of using current concepts of sexuality to understand writings from an era that had no such conceptions. Madhavi Menon argues that “Shakespeare is queer even though neither he nor a single one of his characters is historically homosexual” (12); Shakespeare “never came out as gay—or, rather, we cannot tell, and that is what makes him so queer” (Menon 4). Menon’s academic anthology “showcases varied ideas on queerness, engaging not just sexual identities, but also race, temporality, performance, adaptations, and psychoanalysis” (25). For her, Shakespeare’s texts are queer, not queered—meaning we do not have to do it to them, they are already doing it themselves.

Yes, all writing is autobiography. But reading for autobiography is the least interesting this to read for.

Another way of saying this: I don’t care how much time James Frey spent in prison, or whatever that debate was about.

Wilde and Shakepeare’s texts are both genre-queer. The sonnets are not genre-queer because they’re both autobiography and poetry, as far as I’m concerned, but because they are doing new things within a genre. Shakespeare didn’t create the sonnet, but he used the constraints with such flexibility and grace and humor and wildness that the form became named for him. Wilde’s text transcends genre: his fiction about another author’s actual poems is the best academic writing out there. Walter Benjamin in Shields: “All great works of literature dissolve a genre or invent one.”

Aside from telling us anything about the author’s queerness, both texts are genderqueer.

Wilde first: Cyril Graham believed “it was better to be good-looking than to be good”

(170), and his good looks are rare: he was “somewhat effeminate” (167), but talented at masculine things like fencing and riding. Erskine found him “handsome, not merely pretty,” as well as “splendid,” “fascinating,” “willful,” and “petulant” (170). Cyril played all the girl’s roles in Shakespeare’s plays, and Erskine says, “Cyril Graham was the only perfect Rosalind I have ever seen” (171). “[A]mbiguity of the sexes” is fascinating to Wilde’s characters, and they admire the ways the stage “suggested a new and delightful type of girlhood or womanhood” (218). Cyril is very much like the Mr. W.H. imagined in Wilde’s text, the boy-actor who plays the girl’s roles, worthy of devotion and even obsession. This Mr. W.H.—whether actual boy-actor or no—is celebrated in the sonnets for similar reasons. Sonnet 20 is the strangest, most erotic poem in the text. Here is what it says:

A woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted,

Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion—

A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted

With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;

An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,

Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;

A man in hue all hues in his controlling,

Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.

And for a women wert thou first created,

Til nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated,

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,

Mine by thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

Here’s what it means: The addressee—a man—has a woman’s face and a woman’s heart. “Hue” has two straightforward meanings, color and complexion, but it can also mean shape or appearance, so a “man in hue,” means the addressee has the color and complexion of a man, and also appears to be a man in form, but all hues are “in his controlling,” which implies he can control his own form and appearance, as well as that of others—he can make himself and others appear to be more or less male. “Control” has a second Renaissance meaning—to challenge or find fault. Therefore, this man also challenges the form and appearance of others, and while “hue” is not a specifically gendered word, given the context of the lines thus far this addressee can be read as someone who challenges the overly strict binary of gendered forms. Line 8 confirms this suspicion—the addressee “steals men’s eyes” and amazes “women’s souls,” confirming his power over both genders (“amaze” meant “infatuate” in Renaissance times, which implies that women do not simply admire this man; they desire him deep in their souls, alongside the men who stare when he walks by).

This womanly man is “the master mistress of [the speaker’s] passion.” This phrase not only conflates gender into one person, it also indicates mastery, so that the person being addressed is the most powerful of all the mistresses of the speaker’s passion, the most powerful of all the powerful females—which is in addition to, not to the exclusion of, being both a male master and a female master.

The next two sentences fully activate the sexuality that has been latent thus far. Line 9 claims that this addressee was first created “for a woman,” which can also be read that he was first made “to be a woman” (Booth 164). Yet, as nature “wrought” this creature in line 10, she so dotes on her that in line 11 she adds something that “defeat[s]” the speaker: “By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.” “Thing” was a Renaissance euphemism for both penis and vulva, and while “nothing” specifically meant vulva (as well as “no thing”), when line 13 asserts that nature “pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,” it becomes certain what the addition was—“prick” as a verb meant to mark something as different from the rest, and as a noun it already was slang for penis in 1609.

Here, a woman with a penis is a wonderful thing, not abhorred by nature or humans. And this dote-worthy creature is pricked out not just for the pleasure of one woman, but for multiple women. Delight and desire are everywhere in this poem, and shock is registered nowhere in it. The existence of this person who is made of both genders is a very good, powerful thing, exclusively posited in the positive. Themes that run throughout the sonnets—the singular obsession of desire, the dichotomies that exist both in ideas and in people in relationships, and the complications that arise from triangulation—all get unique treatment here, unique not only in the sonnets themselves, but in Renaissance poetry, and poetry since.

Don’t read to find out what I am. Read to find out what I care about, and how I think.

 

__________

[1] The theory in the novel is that the sonnets were written for William Hughes, the boy-actor who played the female roles in Shakespeare’s drama. To prove this, the characters quote eighty-five different sections of the sonnets throughout the novella. The originator, Cyril Graham, says his theory “evolved […] purely from the sonnets themselves, and depend[ed] for its acceptance not so much on demonstrable proof or formal evidence, but on a kind of spiritual and artistic sense” (177). Others besides Cyril need physical proof that Willie Hughes actually existed in order to believe, so Cyril has a portrait forged of Mr. W.H. This evidence convinces his dear friend, Erskine. When Erskine discovers the forgery, Cyril commits suicide. The unnamed narrator further develops Cyril’s theory, produces more internal evidence, convinces himself it is true, re-convinces Erskine it is true, then mysteriously stops believing it himself, leading Erskine to say he is going to commit suicide to prove his belief in the theory, but the narrator learns he in fact died of consumption.

[2] I prefer Richard Halpern’s treatment in his deliciously titled text, Shakespeare’s Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud, and Lacan, where he insists that there are repeated references to same-sex “practices” in the sonnets, and if modern readers ignore this they are “guilty of both homophobia and simple inaccuracy” (12), but the practices described in the sonnets tell us nothing about Shakespeare’s own sexuality. Stephen Booth makes the best argument for what the sonnets reveal: “William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter” (548).

 

[More evidence on the matter will appear in Erin Stalcup’s last section–forthcoming Monday, January 5, 2015).

Erin Stalcup’s short stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Sun, PANK, H_NGM_N, Hinchas de Poesía, Novembre(Swiss), and elsewhere, and she has creative nonfiction forthcoming in The Laurel Review. Erin received her MFA from Warren Wilson College’s Program for Writers, and later served as the Joan Beebe Fellow at Warren Wilson. After a decade of teaching in community colleges, universities, and prisons in New York City, North Carolina, and Texas, she recently returned to her hometown of Flagstaff, where she has joined the creative writing faculty at her alma mater, Northern Arizona University.

 

In Celebration of Hybridity–Erin Stalcup

I am bitextual.

I write fiction and nonfiction. But mostly fiction. So I enter into Bending Genre wondering how to apply its lessons and conundrums to my own writing, how my fiction can get bent.

There are lots of facts in my fiction. Did you know that Einstein had a daughter? He never saw her after she was two years old, and none of us know what happened to her. So I speculate. Did you know that Isaac Newton didn’t only name gravity (I claim you can’t discover what is already there, and yes I apply that logic to the continent I live on), he also invented calculus? Did you know Isaac Newton believed counterfeiters should be hanged?

You might not learn these facts from my fiction because they’re a bit buried, and it’s so obvious I’m making so much up that you might not read for accuracy anywhere in there. In other stories I imagine what would happen if gravity stopped. A character invents the “Patrician Portion,” the percentage of tax dollars acquired through luxury purchases which is allocated to the military, a calculation that doesn’t exist in the so-called real world. I imagine real things—keening women, sky burial—happening in the United States, a place where they don’t. One character ghostwrites suicide notes. One of my stories is made up entirely of Missed Connection entries; most of them are written by me, some were cut and pasted from Craigslist. In one story a teenager and her father go on a road trip together and she sees someone commit suicide, and tells her father this, but doesn’t tell him about the much older man she’s been having sex with; when the story was published I told my mom that yes, I went on a road trip with my dad when I was a teenager but I wasn’t having sex and I didn’t see someone commit suicide and she said, “I know. If those things happened you would have told me by now.” In my fiction I imagine Galileo during his actual house arrest, as if a female physicist is reading his diaries, which, as far as we know, were never written. In the story someone says to her what was said to me when I studied physics: “How does it feel to be a female physicist? So rare?”

I quit physics to be a writer.

In my novella, a character discusses taking a class while he was in prison. His teacher brought pizza on the last day, and when she realizes she could have brought a lot more and the men would have eaten it, when she sees how politely they all make sure they get the same amount—six slices each, ¾ of a pie, each, but they would have eaten much, much more—she nearly cries. He’s since been released, and remembers that he wanted to walk out of the classroom, or maybe slap her, when she reacted that way. When she nearly cries for not bringing them enough food, eight pies for twelve men not enough, he both likes and despises her. That teacher is me. I do not know how my students felt about me when that happened.

Speculative fiction usually means irrealistic. Speculative nonfiction just means essay.

One way to view my novel-in-progress is to see it as a speculative essay that considers how we as a collective might respond to climate change, once we all admit it’s really happening. I’d like to believe I invented a genre: pre-apocalypse.

In the novel, a filmmaker makes a zombie movie about pigeons. In the speech before the premiere, he names all of his influences—and since the novel is set 20 years in the future, I got to make some up. He says we don’t need climatologists anymore, we need artists to respond to the beginning of the end of the world. I think we need both—more science, more art.

In the novel, I write from the point of view of a woman who grew up on the land I grew up on, but who isn’t me. Her land burned, mine hasn’t yet. I write from the perspective of characters unlike me: biracial, bisexual, bilingual, homeless, animal. I observe characters unlike myself: genderqueer, non-American, indigenous. Every character is a way of thinking about myself.

 

A Response to Reality Hunger

Bending Genre begins with David Shields’ Reality Hunger.

He writes: “Nonfiction writers imagine. Fiction writers invent. These are fundamentally different acts, performed to different ends” (60). I fundamentally disagree.

The only genre distinctions I ever make: something labeled nonfiction means the author wants you to think it really happened, and something labeled fiction means the author wants you to read without worrying about whether or not this really happened. Neither label claims anything about the actuality of the events, just the expected perceptions.

David Shields writes, “Some of the best fiction is now being written as nonfiction” (26). I hope some of the best nonfiction is being written as fiction, also.

David Shields writes, “The novel is dead” (115).

David Shields goes on to say, “Long live the antinovel, built from scraps” (115), but I don’t know why that has to be called an antinovel. He writes, “The novel isn’t dead”; it just isn’t as “central to the culture” as it once was (22). He says that the convention novel “ignor[es] the culture around” it (87). Maybe that’s why it’s not so central anymore.

 

I believe, deeply, that the best fiction and the best nonfiction today deal with the real world, but make art out of it.

David Shields looks at the evidence, and is frustrated:

I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. […] It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that’s focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels. Collage works are nearly always ‘about what they’re about’—which may sound a tad tautological—but when I read a book that I really love, I’m excited because I can feel the writer’s excitement that in every paragraph he’s manifestly exploring his subject. (118)

And: “[S]ome seek with all their might to keep the novel fettered” to conventional plot (17). And: “In most novels I read, the narrative completely overwhelms whatever it was the writer supposedly set out to explore in the first place” (176).

I don’t know if we’re just reading different books, but I look at the evidence and conclude that hybridity is alive and thriving.

Reality Hunger ends up being a memoir about a really smart man bored by most fiction. I’m excited by how much good writing there is in the world.

 

The first time I read Reality Hunger, I wrote in the margins: “I desperately want to write a book David Shields will fall in love with.”

David Shields says some things I really disagree with. “Nonfiction, qua label, is nothing more than a very flexible (easily breakable) frame that allows you to pull the thing away from narrative and toward contemplation, which is all I’ve ever wanted” (124). But fiction can do this too!

“Essayists are a species of metaphysician […] Novelists go about the strenuous business of marrying and burying their people” (133). But I love metaphysics as much as I love physics!

“Someone once said to me, quoting someone or other, ‘Discursive thought is not fiction’s most effective tool; the interaction of characters is everything.’ This is when I knew I wasn’t a fiction writer, because discursive thought is what I read and write for” (145). You’ve been talking to the wrong person about fiction writing!

David Shields says some things I really agree with. “‘Fiction’/‘nonfiction’ is an utterly useless distinction” (63). “There’s no longer any such thing as fiction or nonfiction; there’s only narrative. (Is there even narrative?)” (110). “Maybe the essay is just a conditional form of literature—less a genre in its own right than an attitude that’s assumed amid another genre, or the means by which other genres speak to one another” (139). “[A]ll writing is autobiography” (152). “It’s all about you and yet somehow it’s not about you at all” (160).

 

Reality Hunger came out the same year as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, which has a (fake) Powerpoint presentation as a chapter; and as Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape From a Leper Colony, which, in part, imagines a false history of a real place. Since then, Kyle Minor published Praying Drunk, a book of “stories” that does not distinguish between fiction and nonfiction within the same cover; and Tim Horvath published Understories, which includes nonnarrative studies of cities that don’t exist and a novella about the friendship between an invented person and Heidegger; and Claire Vaye Watkins published Battleborn, where the first story is about a character named Claire Watkins whose father was a part of the Manson gang and whose mother committed suicide—both true facts from the author’s life—who is visited by her half-sister, Razor Blade Baby, whose birth was assisted by Charles Manson’s use of a razorblade (the reality or not of which I have not looked up). Before Reality Hunger, Junot Díaz published The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel with footnotes about Dominican history, and a lot of inaccurate references to videogames; and Kevin McIlvoy published a novella that is three revisions of an essay supposedly written by a fifth-grader, his teacher’s notes included; and Don DeLillo published Libra with this author’s note:

This is a work of imagination. While drawing from the historical record, I’ve made no attempt to furnish factual answers to any questions raised by the assassination [of John F. Kennedy].

Any novel about a major unresolved event would aspire to fill some of the blank spaces in the known record. To do this, I’ve altered and embellished reality, extended real people into imagined space and time, invented incidents, dialogues, and characters. Among these invented characters are all officers of intelligence agencies and all organized crime figures, except for those who are part of the book’s background.

In a case in which rumors, facts, suspicions, official subterfuge, conflicting sets of evidence, and a dozen labyrinthine theories all mingle, sometimes indistinguishably, it may seem to some that a work of fiction is one more gloom in a chronicle of unknowing.

But because this book makes no claim to literal truth, because it is only itself, apart and complete, readers may find refuge here—a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years. (458)

I’m not sure if these examples enhance David Shields’ argument, or not. They definitely strengthen mine: hybridity is alive and thriving, within the genre we typically refer to as fiction.

I am trying very hard to do in my fiction the things David Shields is looking for, and typically finds in nonfiction, because that’s the kind of writing I want to read.

But many (most?) people don’t want to read fiction like that.

Recent rejection letters I’ve gotten: “[Your story] offers a fascinating glimpse into an unusual profession, but the plot could use more work/development.” “Your writing is beautiful and the line you tread between reality and not-quite reality is very interesting. The end of the story, however, lacks the same grace and ease of storytelling.” “Readers generally admired this story for the writing—as well as the conceptual nature of the piece. However, we worried about thematic coherence and a narrative through line.”

 

[Speaking of narrative through-line, Stalcup’s essay will be posted in three sections. This section is the first.]

Erin Stalcup’s short stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Sun, PANK, H_NGM_N, Hinchas de Poesía, Novembre(Swiss), and elsewhere, and she has creative nonfiction forthcoming in The Laurel Review. Erin received her MFA from Warren Wilson College’s Program for Writers, and later served as the Joan Beebe Fellow at Warren Wilson. After a decade of teaching in community colleges, universities, and prisons in New York City, North Carolina, and Texas, she recently returned to her hometown of Flagstaff, where she has joined the creative writing faculty at her alma mater, Northern Arizona University.

The Importance of Exercise–Silas Hansen

We’re reaching the end of the semester here in central Indiana—what I like to call the revision portion of the class. We finished workshop last week and now I am talking to my students about how they can revise—“fix,” they say—their essays before they turn in their final portfolios in early December. For the past four years, I’ve taught this section of the course by talking to my students about my own revision process.

In graduate school, I would write an essay—a first draft—all the way through, without self-editing or censoring. (Okay—I can hear my MFA thesis advisor scoff from 200 miles away—without self-editing or censoring as much as I could have.) I didn’t think very much about what the essay was going to be “about” until I was done. I just wrote.

When I was finished, I’d print a copy of my 15-25 page draft, read it once all the way through, and then, upon my second read, I’d re-write things. I’d move things around. I didn’t fix my commas or run-on sentences or take out the extraneous semi-colons (my favorite form of punctuation from ages 20-25) or make the sentences sound pretty yet. Instead, I was, as we say, killing my darlings. I drew X’s through entire paragraphs. I chopped off a section on page 4 and stuck it in the middle of page 12—sometimes I even got out a pair of scissors and some tape and literally chopped and stuck. I re-wrote sections in the present tense, or changed things to the second person, just to see what would happen.

Then, when I knew what the essay was going to look like, I set it aside. I never threw it away, but I didn’t let myself look at it. Instead, I opened up a blank Word document and started typing my second draft, entirely from scratch. Perhaps this was not exactly the most efficient way to do things. I probably would have finished much more quickly if I’d edited the original document instead. But then I would have looked at the document—so pretty, so finished, I’d think—and I wouldn’t have wanted to chop it up. It would have been harder to make a mess of the first draft. It would have hurt.

By forcing myself to start over again, I got past the mental block we often have when we try to make our essays better. I tell my students all the time that second drafts are often messier than firsts, but that this mess is absolutely necessary for a good third draft. The first draft is how you figure out what you’re writing about, I tell them; the second is when you bring that subject to the surface. The third (or maybe the tenth, depending on the essay) is when you can make it look pretty. Start over, I tell them. Read everyone’s comments, and then start over.

*

This isn’t really a blog post about revision. It’s about exercising.

I end almost every class I teach with a writing exercise, as do most creative writing teachers I’ve ever met. Write about the earliest memory you have, I told my students last week. Make a list of choices you’ve had to make and then write about one of them. Make a list of all of your identities, and then write about how two of them are in conflict with each other. Spend ten minutes drawing a detailed picture of a room you’ve spent a great deal of time in, then put it aside and start writing about something that happened there.

When they’re done, sometimes I have them start over: Write the same scene in the second person instead of first person. Write it in present tense instead of past tense. Write it from someone else’s point of view.

Virtually every time I give one of these exercises, a student asks, “Are we going to turn this in?” Often, they do. I sometimes have my students work on them outside of class and turn them in for a grade, or else I collect them that day just to make sure they can do whatever it is we just talked about—write a scene, describe themselves as a character, provide reflection.

But I’m always careful not to call these essays. They’re not essays; they’re exercises. They’re practice. My students are writing—exercising—not because it’s going to lead to a perfect essay they can turn in for workshop or maybe even publish; they’re writing because this exercise will make them stronger writers for when they do write an essay.

One of my favorite exercises to give them is what Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paolo called the “hermit crab essay” in Tell It Slant, or what David Shields and Matthew Vollmer call a fraudulent artifact in their recent anthology, Fakes.

If you haven’t heard of this form before, the quick definition is a piece of writing that looks like something else on the page—a syllabus, an outline, a letter, a how-to guide, etc. Some great examples are Lorrie Moore’s short story “How to Become a Writer,” Brenda Miller’s essay “Table of Figures,” Ander Monson’s “Outline Toward a Theory of the Mind vs. the Mine and the Harvard Outline,” and Michael Martone by Michael Martone—a book of contributor’s notes.

I love teaching this form, and giving my students the exercise of writing one for themselves, for two big reasons:

1) This form can sometimes trick the writer into saying something they wouldn’t normally allow themselves to say; they can get to more complicated and complex subject matter, and darker and more difficult topics because they are often too busy thinking about how best to utilize the form to worry about saying too much. There’s less self-censorship.

2) These forms create new possibilities for their essays. Students often default to narrative memoir because it’s familiar to them. Many of them haven’t read much nonfiction before they come to my class, but they understand how stories work because they’ve read them all their lives. This structure feels safe. This is why we get so many essays that are written like short stories about (insert important life event here: the death of a grandparent, going away to college, traveling outside the United States for the first time). But when they decide to write in the form of a Facebook profile, they’re forced to think more carefully about their subject. It’s no longer about a life-altering moment, but about something bigger than that. It’s not an essay about how sad they were when their grandmother died, but an essay about how we grieve—particularly in the public sphere. They ask bigger and better questions about their own experiences—questions that move the work from anecdote to essay.

But back to my original point, which is that making a mess and exercising for the sake of exercising is good for us. This writing exercise is exactly that—a messy, wonderful exercise.

In the end, very few of my students end up leaving their pieces in the form they originally chose. Some start over with new forms—a syllabus instead of a Facebook profile, a Twitter feed instead of an outline—or with new subject matter, once they’ve figured out, thanks to their first draft, what they have to say. Some take away the shell or artifact entirely and write a more traditional essay—maybe narrative, maybe lyric, maybe something in between. Many abandon the project entirely by the time they have to focus on one essay for workshop. But across the board, their work is better for having tried it.

So what’s the point?

Exercise. Forcing yourself to think critically about the choices you’re making in your essays instead of choosing what’s easiest, or least risky. Getting to subject matter and questions you wouldn’t have written about in a different form. And, sometimes, if you’re lucky, you discover a better way to write your essay.

*

I have been thinking about the importance of exercising recently because I think it’s something we all forget—or, at least, it’s something that I recently forgot. Most of us start in that mindset where we are too attached to our first drafts and original ideas, but we eventually break out of it and became better writers for having experimented with new ideas, made mistakes, and learned from them. Eventually, though, many of us forget it, or stop prioritizing it. We give these exercises to our students, but we don’t do them ourselves. We don’t have time, we say; we’re too busy.

Remember what I said about how I revised in graduate school? When I’d write a draft, read it, and then start over from scratch? I don’t do that anymore.

I finished graduate school a couple of years ago, spent a year working two jobs and adjuncting, and am now—luckily, thankfully—thirteen weeks into my first year as an assistant professor. I found the time to write last year, and still do, but it feels like the stakes are higher now. When I was in graduate school, the point was to experiment and make mistakes and grow and get better. Now, the point is to finish work and publish it.

When I find time between department meetings and planning for three classes and filling out the paperwork that comes along with a job in academia to finish a first draft, I don’t want to think about starting over from scratch. I don’t have the time to waste, I tell myself, and so I try to skip that messy second draft and jump right to the cleaned up, perfectly revised final draft. I treat everything I write as if it’s going to be an essay—a perfect, publishable essay.

But those cleaned up, revised drafts aren’t nearly as good as the would be if I treated each first draft as an exercise and let myself, or maybe even forced myself to make more messes.

How do I know whether or not the essay could be better in present tense, or second person, or in something other than clear chronological order, unless I try writing it that way? What if I could discover or notice something new through the exercise of rewriting it?

We tell our students this all the time—to try something new, even if they already like their essays the way they are, because we know it might make their work better, and the exercise will definitely make them stronger writers.

Perhaps I (and maybe you, too) need to take our own advice and keep exercising for the same reasons.

 

 

Silas Hansen earned his MFA in creative writing from The Ohio State University and is currently an assistant professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. His essays have appeared in Slate, Colorado Review, The Normal School, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere.

Today’s Goldbarth Challenge¹–Craig Reinbold

VH1
Loofah
Roberto Benigni
Simmons Bedding Company
Shit

*

Adolf Hitler’s interior designer once said of her erstwhile employer, “He preferred smooth, but not shiny, textures to rough ones”; “He was not fond of brown.” In response to the question, “Did you fear Hitler?” she replied, “No. I had no reason to fear him.” Several of the other Nazi nationals interviewed echoed: “No,” “No, never,” “Never,” “Never! There was no reason to fear him.” The German sculptor Arno Breker responded, “Respect, yes—but never fear.” Only the Reich architect Albert Speer, the infamous “Nazi who said sorry” at the Nuremburg trials and who served twenty years at Spandau Prison, broke the mold, saying, “No, but I knew he could be dangerous.”

*

Inspired by Chuck Klosterman, who once watched VH1 for 24 hours and got paid to write about it for SPIN, I used to have my CNF students do a Stunt Essay—an assignment that led a number of less-imaginative undergrads to binge on their own TV of choice, led a few others to get stoned at work, and prompted one very large male student to skinny dip in his apartment complex pool one oven-baked Tucson afternoon. Others were more adventurous: a student wrote about going for a Philippe Petit in the mountains, slack-lining between two high rock formations. Another, a young woman, walked from one end of south Tucson to the other in the middle of the night, chronicling the taunts and catcalls. Another told her parents she no longer believed in Jesus. For one essay—the one I’m really thinking about—a student set out to join the Century Club, drinking 100 shots of beer in 100 minutes.

This student was taking my class during a summer session, his last three credits before graduation. He was finishing school with an accounting degree—accounting, boring but practical—because his deadbeat dad had disappeared twenty years earlier and he was looking to support his mom. His essay’s frisson came from the fact that he set out on this party-game quest alone in his apartment, from the fact of alcoholism in his family, and from the awkward canoodling of youthful whimsy and oncoming adult responsibility. He made it to 80 shots, then lost his frozen-pizza dinner in the sink.

I really remember this essay, and him, because later in that class another guy was questioning whether people actually cry during movies and I responded that just the other day my wife and I had watched Life is Beautiful for the first time, and right near the end, just as Roberto Benigni puts on a brave, smiling face and goosesteps (a jokester to the last) past his hiding son, and is led behind a nearby wall and casually killed by a random Nazi stooge just a minute before the end of the war, I myself started crying—nothing like a bawl but enough to qualify. Without missing a beat, this student, the accountant, told us that Life is Beautiful happened to be his favorite film, and he always cries at the end too.

For me, it was the pointlessness that did it. It’s not just that this nameless Nazi asshole killed Benigni’s character so ignobly, no. It’s that he didn’t have to kill him at all. He could have just as easily let him live. But he didn’t. I know it’s just a movie. But c’mon, it’s not just a movie. How arbitrary killing and death can be! Life is beautiful? Fuck. Life is terrible.

The accountant knew this too.

*

A martial artist friend once told me it only takes 15 pounds per square inch to crack a human skull, and I’m not sure I believe this, or at least there must be a lot of variables in such an equation, but his point was: it is remarkably easy, at least on a how to level, to kill someone. With that in mind, I think too of how easy it would have been not to kill Benigni’s character in Life is Beautiful. At least the action itself I mean—to shoot or not to shoot—seems so simple. His death was called for, why? Out of spite? This wasn’t combat. The war was winding down. Easy enough to spare the man. Why not let him live, the SS-commander—or whoever was in charge—none the wiser?

The task falls to you. Why not just say no?

A young Marine I once interviewed admitted that in preparation for the 2003 invasion of Baghdad they were instructed, explicitly, to kill everyone they saw—the elderly, women, children—and that he and everyone he knows did just that. This was off the record though. He’d asked that I switch off my recorder. So take that admission for what you will. Personally, I have little doubt the order was given. And most, I imagine, did what they were told.

There’s something about being ordered, maybe. There’s the training, yes, and maybe a lack of empathy, or a general lack of thought. Thinking gets you killed, after all, is a soldier’s mantra. There’s the easy absolution the public doles out in wartime. We—most of us, most of the time—would probably do the same, would succumb to the social pressure, would do what we are told to do. Wouldn’t we? There are so many justifications. Unless the noose is around our neck it’s easy enough to turn a blind eye, to pretend it’s not as bad as all that. We miss so much, let so much go, we’re so distracted by the ins’n’outs of everyday living, by life’s inevitable minutiae.

So I hesitate to condemn this young Marine—or anyone—now. I hesitate, and to be honest, my toddler son just threw his yogurt on the floor, and the dog’s whining to go out, and dinner’s not going to stir-fry itself. There’s so much more pressing shit to think about.

Minutiae as blinders.

*

Here I think of that interior designer—Hitler’s interior designer, who forty years after the fact relayed the banal: “He preferred smooth, but not shiny, textures to rough ones,” and “He was not fond of brown.” That always kills me—you know, in the funny way. Not fond of brown. How dainty, how refined this designer must have thought herself. Imagine the way she wisped to and fro in his palatial home, ordering around armchairs and end tables and giant mahogany desks and velour-upholstered couches. Imagine her wielding a palette book the size of a window shade, splashing color after color on the wall of Adolf’s office, Adolf nodding politely, but ultimately uninterested, until, finally, he pounds a fist and shaking his head violently side to side bellows, “Not that one! I will not have these walls painted the color of shit!”

Her dignity un-besmirched—in fact reinforced—by the interspersing years, she relays to her interviewer, “No, he was not fond of brown.”

“And did you fear Hitler?”

“No,” she replies, affecting a sip of her post-lunch digestif, peach schnapps served in delicate crystal—glassware smuggled from the Reich palace to her own snug landhaus at the end of the war maybe. Spoils of war spoiling her now. “No, I had no reason to fear him.”

And she probably didn’t.

Her job was to prettify, to color within the prescribed lines, though not in brown, never in brown—and why should she have thought beyond her afternoon adornings of the Führer’s palace? Who can see beyond the pretty colors and the way the sun comes out after lunch, and the five o’clock whistle and five-thirty tipple? We can’t be blamed, can we, as distracted as we are by the ins’n’outs of everyday living? We can’t be blamed for missing the big picture, can we?

But what else was happening in that palace—in that city, that country, on that continent—while she was obsessing about where to put a sofa?

Minutiae as negligence.

*

Five years into our marriage my wife and I finally admitted there was a canyon growing between us. We’d bought our bed—frame, box spring, queen-size mattress—off Craigslist for $200, and though it had served us well, we couldn’t lay down any more without immediately rolling to center, which may have been fine when we were newlyweds, but these days we need sleep. Sleep requires comfort. And comfort, after the first year or two of marriage, seems to require space.

So one Saturday last July found us in a Mattress Firm showroom, lazing on our backs on a spanking new Simmons Beautyrest Black Alexia Extra Firm number that was like laying on St. Peter’s pillow, an elegant construction of Energy FoamTM and Dynamic Memory FoamTM, with a support system featuring 800 advanced pocket coils individually wrapped to adjust to a person’s unique body contour. With no price listed, Erik, the kindly youth who assured us he was not working on commission, had to look up what the damage would be: $2,689—though he could float a deal, say 20% off, so, a very reasonable $2,150.

We were prepared for this and proceeded on to last year’s model on the less well-lit side of the showroom. This castoff was $599. And it was just then, as I realized we were actually going to spend more than a week’s wages on a mattress, that the previous day’s New York Times cover photo flashed to mind—a picture of a beach all sand and shimmer, and a Palestinian boy in the foreground, mangled by a stray mortar. It was a stunning photo, brutal, but also distant, removed, as if the camera was a mile away barely seeing what it was seeing—a fine metaphor for the actual war in Gaza last summer, as I was updated every morning, listening to the news via headphones while I ran the daily Excel reports at work, and when the death toll was given and the political commentary over I switched to a Stephen King novel I was listening to on CD, Under the Dome, which was kind of great, and though similarly maudlin, had the benefit of being fiction.

How could we be mattress shopping while people were dying in Gaza? This was the obvious question, but I kept that crazy guiltiness to myself, and we bought the mattress and our sleep has never been better. And in any case, aren’t we morally obligated, in a way, to take advantage of our particular privilege? What happiness would be added to the world, what suffering alleviated, if we had deferred to the obscure needs of the distant many and out of some strained sense of solidarity not invested in this simple, if expensive, creature comfort? Sleeping now, so peacefully, have we not added to the sum total of the world’s well-being just a little? Is that not kind of noble, in a way? Doing what small things one can?

We bounced out of the store around noon and since Chipotle was next door decided to grab a burrito for lunch. Normally reserved for special occasions—like dinners-in-the-car as we drive up north on a Friday after work—this was a treat, but what the hell. You can’t spend 600 bucks on a mattress, of all things, and then begrudge yourself a $6 burrito. What the fuck is $6? Nothing. Or at least, you know, it’s all relative. Anyway, the burrito was delicious. Life is always lighter with a full belly.

Minutiae as refuge.

*

The Sunday after September 11, 2001, just moments before all that patriotic warmongering was set in motion, in an uncharacteristic display of insight and calm, my local paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, published on the front page of the Arts section a poem that began:

Reality demands
that we also mention this:
Life goes on.

and ended with an image that has stuck with me since:

On tragic mountain passes
the wind rips hats from unwitting heads
and we can’t help
laughing at that.

with a bunch of other stuff in-between. I was really moved by this poem, and I saved that newspaper. For years it was rolled up behind a row of books on the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom. I wanted to save it, but I suppose I didn’t want it too close to me. Not when I had so much else to think about.

Awhile later I discovered Wisława Szymborska. It was spring break and I was shacked up at a friend’s grandma’s house in a retirement-town in Florida. (She made us pasta—spaghetti, ravioli, lasagna—every night.) Sunned-out, I went thrifting for books. Being an English/Philosophy major, I was into buying random books of poetry back then, and was immediately attracted to View with a Grain of Sand’s plenty sexy cover. And what a sexy name, Szymborska! I had no idea who she was but I bought those collected 100 poems, for 25 cents, a steal really. Eventually I found my way to “Reality Demands”, page 184, originally published in The End and the Beginning (1993). The closing image

On tragic mountain passes
the wind rips hats from unwitting heads
and we can’t help
laughing at that.

reminded me of something, from somewhere, but what? Later, in the shower, all wet and lathered and going to town with a loofah: epiphany. The next time I was at my parents’ I dug out that old 9/11-themed newspaper and there she was, my crush, Szymborska, a Nobel Prize winner apparently.

Her poetry—actually all the 20th-century Polish poetry I know—offers this: life is very, very serious, and very, very funny. This a principle so real, so true, it can be elegantly illustrated with the most banal, everyday image of a gust of wind, air moving from high pressure to low, as it does every second of every day, all the world round, knocking a hat off a head, once more showing us who’s boss. Funny, but totally serious. Trifling, but somehow profound.

Reality demands
that we also mention this:
Life goes on.

Think of those t-shirts that everyone and everyone in my 6th-grade class wore under their uniform polos, when we were just dying for the bell to signal it safe to strip off that Catholic school conformity and reveal the true nature of our unique selves to the world: Basketball is Life. Soccer is Life. Volleyball is Life. Hockey is Life. Fresh Prince re-runs are Life. Theatre is Life. Music is Life. Reading is life. Nike is Life. Chess is Life. Mountain Dew is Life. Giving blood is Life. Super Mario Bros. is Life. Mint Chocolate Chip is Life. is Life. is Life. is Life.

Minutiae is Life.

How right we were that everything and everything could be summed up so easily.

 

_____________________________________

[1] For years, I’ve been spreading a rumor that Alert Goldbarth’s genius is at least partially the product of a less-than-elaborate system of collection involving thousands and thousands of many-colored notecards. Imagine his closet, full of shoeboxes, every shoebox filled with notecard upon notecard upon notecard, and recorded on each notecard an observation, a word, a quote, a thought, a name, whatever random thing caught his curiosity long enough for him to find a pencil. And whenever he’s stuck on the page, on say, a clammy Wednesday afternoon, confronted by the typewriter, his writing passing lamely from Thing A to Idea B to Experience C to Epiphany D, when everything he writes is too predictable to live, in those moments, he need only go to an old shoebox—maybe the box that brought home is first pair of Onitsuka Tigers back in 1978—and randomly pull out a handful of notecards upon which he finds the recorded curiosities:

“Hoofdman!”
“The Flea”
A bosom made buttocky / amberthatched snickerdoodle
View of Delft
Plague

And from there it’s merely a matter of stitching together, of figuring out how to get from this weird hallo, “Hoofdman!” to some talk of the plague, with a bosom made buttocky in-between. It’s about making connections between the seemingly random—and suddenly Goldbarth’s writing displays that trademark chaotic intelligence we love. He pulls shit out of the box and somehow puzzles it together. E.g., this is how we get from the city of Delft circa 1700, to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the “father of Microbiology”, to fleas to flea genitalia and flerotica, to 20-year-old Goldbarth’s afternoon romps in his girlfriend’s topiary-esque “central garden patch”, to Vermeer and Vermeer’s View of Delft, to Daniel Defoe, to the plague, to the compassionate humanistic morality that I find so comforting—some astounding associative leaps. And yet as he shows us, these leaps are actually quite small. The connections are there for any essayist to see, except that not just any essayist can see them. He’s got a unique brain, that Goldbarth. A brain like fly-paper. A brain like an atom-smasher.

At some point in the semester I assign students “The Goldbarth Challenge”:

  • Five whatevers are written on the board. Say, for example:

Padded-ass bicycle shorts
Felicity Aston
Amur tigers
Guinea worm
Ketamine

  • Pick at least two
  • Make some meaningful connections
  • This may involve research
  • You have one week to write this essay
  • This is not an exercise in making an essay out of nothing so much as an exercise in learning to make an essay out of anything
  • In that, it’s just like life.

 

 

Craig Reinbold’s work appears in recent issues of the Gettysburg Review, Mud Season Review, Gulf Coast, Guernica, The Rumpus, Brevity, and a number of other more or less literary places. He also helps curate the Essay Daily, a blog-cum-conversation about all things essay.