There’s this thing that happens a lot in writing workshops I’ve noticed after a decade or so of teaching them. For those outside MFAland: in a writing workshop, everyone but the writer of the manuscript talks about that MS at hand, discussing their reading experience and suggesting things for revision.
Now: suggestions can be useless. “You might have a scene where your protagonist goes to Frankfurt. It might be neat to see them in a European airplane hub, since they keep talking about customs and beer….” But some are useful: “The narrator speaking in this essay seems unhappy with her upbringing, but I can’t understand why. We might get some flashbacks of seminal moments from her childhood, portraits of her parents, etc.”
One true thing about workshops is that some writers will take certain suggestions to help a MS as some kind of personal affront. Like an argument against the kind of writing they feel driven to champion. What happens in this instance is that such a writer says this: I don’t think this piece needs some long-winded memory about how her mom was mean to her, or some belabored history of her mother’s upbringing. It’s not about her!
This sort of thing drives me crazy. It drives me up a fucking wall.
Imagine, if you will, a wedding that folks are planning. Probably they’re related, or will soon be. They are standing in the banquet hall where the reception will be held, trying to figure out some ways to make it not look hopelessly generic. The sister of the groom points to two empty corners. What if we get some sprays of roses to put there? Maybe on pedestals? That might look nice….
The sister of the other groom looks at those corners and frowns. I don’t want these wilted, weeks-old roses drenched in birdshit at the reception! I mean: who wants to look at that?
What we hope to teach CW students is to access and then be led by the force of their imaginations. At home, that imagination is tasked to make new things we haven’t seen before. In the classroom, that imagination is tasked with envisioning a better MS than what they have before them. Some folks, when you suggest a thing, can only imagine its worst incarnation. Or maybe it’s this: they hate the suggestion so much they reductio it ad its most absurdem, and suddenly the talk becomes less about the possibilities for the work at hand and more about What Writing Is and Should Do.
Once a workshop becomes an argument about What Writing Is and Should Do (as opposed to How This Piece At Hand Might Better Achieve Its Aims), that workshop has been voided by its hubris. You’d be right to stand up and walk out of the room.
I came out to my parents just months after I came out to myself, and on the whole it went as well as I could expect. We hugged at the end of the conversation, etc. One of the few things my dad said to me was that he was worried that my life was going to get a lot harder now.
(This despite the fact that I was a PhD student in a humanities department, which is like one rung below Bathhouse Custodian on the ladder of Easy, Accepting Places For Gay Folks.)
I’ve heard variations on the phrase in the coming-out stories of many friends and students. And I wanted to write a little PSA about the idea, because it’s got some very tricky problems.
I imagine the idea comes from love. Your child has just presented themselves as different in a fundamental way, as identifying differently not just from you, the straight person who raised them, but from the majority of the culture you had up to now numbered your kid among. It is easier to be part of the majority than it is to be part of the minority, because the majority has all kinds of perks built-in to the culture (the culture they got to build) that make things easier for them. The lack of a tradition of beating and sometimes killing men and women for holding hands in public, say. We decided as a culture not to do that, so straight people have a fundamentally easier time in many places being who they are.
I am now worried that the world is going to hurt you, physically or otherwise. This is not a good thing for a newly gay kid to hear at this very scary and vulnerable moment. First, they have for sure thought this a million times. It has in fact been a chief obstacle keeping them in the closet as long as they have been. That your kid is coming out to you now means that they have overcome this obstacle, or have found a way to fight it, or have refused to let it beat them. Your worry, though real, is an untimely reminder of what they already know and feel.
Also, it’s wrong. Life does not become more difficult for the newly out, it becomes easier. Nine million times easier. Take my word for it: the burden of the closet is painful, heavy. Sickening in an ill-making way. I probably shouldn’t speak for whole swaths of people here, but I can say that lying to myself and others about who I wanted to sleep with so that people would accept me was so much harder than being honest with everyone and handling whatever grief I might get for it.
An out person is a person made stronger by self-acceptance and self-knowing. That strength makes up so much of what they’ll need to handle whatever life throws at them now.
So reconsider your worry. It is real and comes from a good place, but it sends a message that we’ve made some sort of mistake here, or some poor choice with bad consequences, when the opposite is always, always true.
It’s a debut memoir by Mike Scalise (full disclosure: a friend who is right now as I type this on a plane to San Francisco to come read at USF as part of our Emerging Writers’ Festival) that tells the story of his illness and diagnosis. Illness: brain tumor on his pituitary gland. Diagnosis: acromegaly. (André the Giant had it, most famously.) Then the tumor ruptures, destroying his pituitary gland’s hormone-producing functions (illness). Diagnosis: hypopituitarism. None of this is a spoiler alert, because all of this happens and is explained in the book’s prologue, before Chapter 1 even begins.
How, I thought, was Mike going to make the rest of this interesting?
It’s an immediate and smart signal that this book isn’t a usual illness memoir, where symptoms either are mysteries, or they form the texture of the character’s central struggle until diagnosis and treatment enter in as a kind of climax/revelation. Mike’s character isn’t in serious danger during the book. I mean, the ruptured tumor could’ve killed him, he nearly drowns in the bottom of a pool, and he passes out during a wedding. But the dramatic tension is more complicated (and thus interesting) than “Will he survive?” It’s: To what extent should he identify as an acromegalic? As a man with hypopituitarism? Or: How can he sustain the life he wants to when his body can’t physically generate the hormones he needs to do so?
Also, to what extent is his illness realer or stranger or more serious or worrisome than his mother’s, who over the course of the memoir has maybe three different heart surgeries? What I loved the most about BNC is how it (or Mike, or Mike’s character) wants to both identify as A Sick Person and be critical about that idea, and the self-absorption of it. Two-thirds of the way into the book comes a chapter titled “Game”, where Mike pauses in the developing action to talk about the times he would see other people in New York with enlarged hands or jawlines, sunken temples. The signs of a fellow acromegalic? Shouldn’t he, his wife would ask, say something to them? What if they didn’t know they had a brain tumor?
“What do I say?” … [W]hat if by strange chance they had been diagnosed already, I told her, and here I was, some guy, approaching them in public, around people with eyes, not just telling them what they’ve already known and have been taking pills or getting shots to combat, but worse: confirming for that person … that, above all, they looked diagnosable. I understood too much about that complicated fear to confirm it for anyone else.
That’s what I told Loren, and it sounded noble, chip-shouldered, and respectful leaving my lips. I thought so when I said it, like I’d won something. The Insight Awards. But what I didn’t say, probably because I couldn’t say it to myself yet, was, plus: If I told all those people, I wouldn’t get to have the condition all to myself.
It’s maybe the scariest or most anxious moment in the book. The triumph at the end of the memoir is Mike’s vanquishing not just illness’s effects on his body but also, if you will, on his spirit. This makes it a much more difficult story to tell, because such a narrative’s landscape is chiefly internal, where all good memoirs’ landscapes lie.
Also: it’s funny. And: it’s set much of the time in Pittsburgh, where we could use more books set, please.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Am I straw-manning here? I’m thinking of Lauren Slater’s Lying, and a number of addiction memoirs (e.g., Dry, Lit), which are illness memoirs of a sort, since they tend to subscribe to the idea of addiction as a treatable disease.↵
If, when you read the word hormones, you think chiefly about changes in teen bodies, then Brand New Catastrophe is the book for you. There’s some real drama and excitement in the endocrine system that Mike captures just enough of to interest a nerd like me without bogging the book down in too much non-narrative data.↵
This thing was inspired by March Fadness, where Megan Campbell and Ander Monson rank 64 one-hit wonders of the 1990s in bracket form and let them square off against each other. You can join in the voting, if you’d like. A song I happen to love somewhat irrationally is up against an indomitable favorite, and with it running through my head all day I came up with some thoughts on why I had to vote for it.
The greats are often tiresome. There’s a certain sterility to them that comes from realizing you were born too late to take part in any interesting conversations to be had about the topic at hand. The Mona Lisa. Anything of Mozart’s. Even the Beatles: whatever joy I felt listening to those greats felt reduced solely by nature of the late 90s air I was breathing.
So often I find myself with a joke to add to a conversation but not the means or the timing to add it when it counts, and so I chew on it and wait and modify it as the time passes and the conversation morphs, say, from brains to minds. To like “You Get What You Give” is to be that person, spitting out a joke well after anyone’s eager to hear it. To hear “You Get What You Give” is to feel the way you do when the joke first hits you, when everything in your world is potential and you feel so good for being smart and ready.
There is no way in 2017 that I can convince you that the New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” is anything but a pop music footnote. I don’t, simply, have the talent to impart in you the joy I feel every time it plays on a jukebox. What happens in my heart on the opening countoff—the one, the two, the one two three four—can’t be put into useful words, and if I believe in the essay as a form I shouldn’t sleep until I found a way to do it. Instead, I can point to what my body does when the chorus happens. The two, the three-and and the four-and. The compounded syncopation of Gregg Alexander’s vocals is a secret cord tied tight to the root of me. I’m always pulled up dancing like a puppet.
“I’m sick of meaning, I just want to hold you.” This is a line from a newer song that’ll never be a wonder, but it comes to mind now, thinking about what I want to do, which is play “You Get What You Give” for a room of people and raise all of them out of their seats. Some songs are usefully dumb. When I feel bullied by my brain, pop songs are a braver friend, standing up to that monster so that I might feel like other people.
Escapism might be God’s way of righting ourselves. I want to be dumbed by some songs. I put on the New Radicals, and look at the way my teeth bite my lip! Look at what work my hips can accomplish!
In 2007, I was freshly out and Congress was considering whether to add gender identity to the list of categories protected under the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. I was against it. Mostly, if I recall, because I read and was convinced by Aravosis’s argument: what do we gay and bisexual people have in common with trans people, when our identity is formed by sexual orientation and theirs is formed by gender? These are different, but for some reason we’ve been lumped into the same dumb acronym together. Trans people, I felt, were hopping onto our fight, and if they wanted the same rights we were about to get, they needed to fight their own fight for them.
These were ideas I carried around for nearly a decade. We weren’t comrades, us gays and them trans folk. All we had in common was that we weren’t cis-straight people.
The other night, we had friends over to watch the Oscars, and a strange thing happened. It’s not the strange thing everyone’s talking about, the strange thing at the end where the wrong movie was named Best Picture. The one I’m talking about happened about halfway through. Host Jimmy Kimmel had a bit where he led unsuspecting tourists through the room (they thought they were going to tour a studio or something). Everyone had a phone out. Celebs were kind of enough to take selfies. Kimmel made Aniston give her sunglasses away. Etc. He asked one woman her name, and she said “Yulree. It rhymes with ‘jewelry’.” Kimmel scoffed at this, and when he met her husband Patrick, he said, “That’s a name.”
El, my friend who just came out as trans last month, was livid at how blatantly Kimmel shamed Yulree for her difference. Our friend, Andy, objected that it had less to do with her ethnicity and more to do with having a strange name, as his white sister does. Furthermore, he felt that overall the left had to calm down these days with the “political correctness.” It led, usefully, to an argument.
My contribution: “political correctness” is itself a conservative idea. We leftists ought to call it what it really is: egalitarianism. Or courtesy. Sympathy. Egalitarianism, though, is too hard a word to soundbyte. “Political correctness” as a term takes one good thing and turns it into what are for a large number of people on Both Sides Of The Aisle two bad things: politics and correcting others.
When we see the act of granting others equal treatment as “being politically correct” we turn empathy into a kind of test to fail. (This is why “check your privilege” is such a lousy clarion call, turning egalitarianism into a shaming competition.) Complaining about “political correctness” means complaining about giving people equal treatment in our discourse. It means we ought not call people what they ask to be called but what we choose to call them. And once you decide not to grant people equal treatment in our discourse, it’s easy not to grant them equal treatment in the workplace or the courtroom.
“Political correctness” favors having an opinion over having an imagination, and how I came to change my mind about trans people was that I stopped having an opinion and started having an imagination.
It happened, in all places, at a writers’ conference. I met a trans person for the first time. In fact, I met two. I had admittedly probing, personal, othering questions they were patient in answering. But the big shift in my thinking happened while sharing a cigarette with my friend, Clutch, after one of the keynote speeches. The conference overall had been short on new ideas. A lot of old dead writers trotted out as models. Clutch blamed this on the utter whiteness of the panelists and attendees and speakers. “Wait a second,” I said. “It’s not like the only new ideas are about race or gender.” That wasn’t their point, they said. Their point was that diversity isn’t just a feelgood move of including people for its own sake. Diversity is what’s needed for the airing and dissemination of new ideas. When everyone in the room looks the same and comes from the same background, you end up with a lot of reminiscing and endorsing old ideas that have worked only for the people in the room.
Trans people, I saw, weren’t different from me so much as different like me. It took me much longer than it should have, but that was the night the LGBT(QIAA) acronym looked small for the first time. Suddenly, I wanted more of us in the room together.
One debate happening right now is over letting more people into bathrooms together. The president doesn’t want trans people in bathrooms with cis people. I try to imagine where this idea comes from, this fear, or maybe it’s just a concern. It’s easy to see it as coming from transphobia, because we’ve been given no evidence to the contrary. It comes from a fear of change, I imagine. A fear of lost ways. What is a bathroom but a place where for so long men and women have retreated from each other? Maybe retreating from one another is the old way we ought to lose, and all bathrooms should become like the egalitarian shared one on Ally McBeal. There are few things more egalitarian than the human body we all live with; maybe when men hear the sounds of women shitting they might realize they deserve equal pay.
Pissing wherever you want to is a freedom. And people with freedoms others don’t have are historically grumpy about sharing. If you have uneasiness about a trans person sitting in the stall next to yours, that’s understandable, because new things make many of us uneasy. But imagine being a trans person. Use your imagination. If that itself is difficult, then talk to a trans person. Ask them what they need and why. Whatever opinion you’re holding onto will change, and I promise you’ll be better for it.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
You’ll find a great summary and commentary on the weirdness of this bit here. In short: despite everyone’s phone, the bit was a Vonnegutian nightmare, turning us middle-class people into zoo animals some untouchable alien elite got to gawk at. Or, here:
Hollywood has never prided itself on being in touch with the working class, even when the movies were sometimes about poverty. Hollywood was always supposed to be a thing people wanted. The money, the fame, the power: The Oscars are where we got to see the people from the movies, playing characters based on themselves. We’re supposed to want to be them, or have sex with them. So when a smart writer like John Robb tweets that the ceremony was an “amazing example of ultra-orthodox cultural neoliberalism” that was “pure jet fuel for #trumpism?” I think he’s saying that to the millions of people who voted against the pop-cultural elite alliances they saw in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the Oscars aren’t aspirational. They’re an insult.
Haven’t done one of these in a while. This one’s from Gary Greenberg’s stunning review of Charles Foster’s Being a Beast and other recent learning-from-animals books in the Jan 2017 Harper’s (cutting the first sentence as it’s mostly gluework from the prior ¶):
…As civilization fails to provide sufficient balm against our loss, as its costs become unbearable for more and more of us, the world’s stink begins, by comparison, to smell like fresh air, and devolution begins to seem attractive—or at least attractive enough to inspire three books on the subject in the same publishing season, which, it is hard not to notice, was also an election season, one in which Americans cast off reason in favor of passion. In its terrifying aftermath, the yearning at the heart of these books for a return to instinct takes on a meaning, and an intensity, their authors could not have intended. Some people will step off the evolutionary ladder into a realm where they can ramble with dogs or goats or badgers, and claim that they’ve become more human in the bargain. But some may land where wild instincts rule. A dog, lest we forget, will gleefully rip your pet cat in two, a billy goat will fuck whatever doe he can get his hooves on, and a fox will eat all your chickens in a heartbeat and call it a perfect day. They will be remorseless for the pain they cause. But at least they can’t be accused of giving up on themselves or one another.
This is some expert-level criticism, not only capable of finding ties among three books (on admittedly related subjects) but to set these books’ concerns amid our own, those arising out of the times we’re finding ourselves confused by. It #resists, in today’s parlance, by looking past the partisan narratives we see retweeted every day in favor of its own reasoned understanding of who and where we are.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a comedy show before like the one I saw at Doc’s Lab last night. Typically, standup showcases are hosted by one guy (usually), himself a comic, who does 5 or 10 before bringing out the first comic, and then maybe a joke or two in between. The host is an emcee, which is where the standup comic started, back in the postwar Catskills.
Kiss My Ass is hosted by Josh Fadem and Dicker Troy, a studio driver who grew up on a charcoal farm in Bakersfield. The latter wears a ballcap and dark glasses inside a nightclub and has a braided rattail about as long as a Slim Jim.[*] Dicker is an amateur DJ and sits at a table with a laptop and sound FX machine, which modifies his already low voice into weird echoes and flangerings between his cueing up such hits as “Red Red Wine” and “Plush.” While he does this, Josh talks to the crowd and gets people excited to see a show. There are no bits—no rehearsed ones at least. It’s all extemperaneous and chaotic.
That chaos and unpredictability is what makes Kiss My Ass such a joy. Dicker is a sharp and quick-witted one-linerman, like a less-precious Mitch Hedberg crossed with Sam Elliott ready for a barfight. Josh rolls with every punch thrown at him, and he knows how to turn the discomfort he himself has instilled in the audience (“I like losing a crowd!” he admitted at one point last night) into a source for more laughs. They’re two comics expert at “being themselves”[**] on stage.
Which is made all the more apparent when the local comics come up (i.e. when the showcase starts). Chad Opitz begins a joke about Sex on the Beach (the drink) that contrasts it with a drink of his own invention: a Rimjob on the Bus, “which is a PBR where the rim of the can has been licked by a guy with a cold sore.” It’s a fine joke, and comes to us with a fine joke’s standard rhythm and timing. Very few of us in the audience laugh. “See you shoulda played ‘Red Red Wine’ at the punchline,” Opitz tells Dicker.
“Do it again,” Dicker says, working his laptop, and Opitz sets up the joke again. He gets to the punchline, says “cold sore”, and silence. Another beat of silence. Then the drumbeat and “Red Red Wiiiiiine”, and that’s when the room finally laughs.
The old saw that comedy is all about timing might always be true, but Kiss My Ass shows how even this is subjective. Opitz’s act was timed to the second through practice and rehearsal. (Later he had a bit about Robocopera, which was a Robocop opera, which he sung word for word from a thing he’d written and memorized.) On its own, it works fine. On the stage that Dicker and Josh have set, though, it all fell apart. So did DJ Real, the next comic, whose bits involve pre-recorded music and sounds he responds to in perfect time on stage. Dicker’s timing in the “Red Red Wine” moment was traditionally poor timing. Josh often stood and looked at us in silence, patiently waiting for the next idea to come to him.
Their bad timings made the good timings less funny, because too worked.
With the showcased comics, the material is what had been practiced and worked toward perfection. Whereas Dicker and Josh had no material. Came with no material (well, Josh brought a watermelon-sized ball of yarn, but in bringing it on stage he admitted he had no ideas on how to make it funny). And yet they were the funniest people in the room because what they had practiced and worked toward perfection was their selves. Their personas. They spoke from the experience of having thrown themselves at chaos. It’s not quite improv, but it was definitely improv-adjacent. It was trickstery, looser, and I ate it up.
I should say it was also funny. It was so funny I hurt from laughing. Kiss My Ass is off to Portland and Vancouver and Seattle, and if you live anywhere near those places you should go see them.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Dicker Troy is a character of Johnny Pemberton’s, whom you might know from Fox’s new semi-animated show Son of Zorn that’s pretty funny. Because Kiss My Ass works better when you see Dicker Troy as a real person this post will do the same.↵
Quotes here because neither of these guys is actually being himself. Pemberton is doing a whole character and Fadem off-stage is a much more subdued version of himself. But every comic has a stage persona, and my point here is that these guys are experts at being comfortable on stage as their personas.↵
Public U.S. life now has become one of resistance to the federal government’s continually terrible and dangerous policies, and the most convenient and quickly satisfying arena in which to work out this resistance is social media.
Social media is a lousy and terrible arena for activism and argument. This is for at least two reasons:
Posts tend toward brevity (esp. on Twitter or in the 600×600 pixel box of Instagram) and few issues regarding national politics benefit from being discussed in brief, which is what cable news taught those of us who were paying attention.
Posts come engineered with the possibility of like- and share-rewards, which reward us not on the content of the post so much as the feeling it rustles up in the post’s viewer, and as such we learn to write posts less with our messy thoughts and feelings in mind and more in terms of how the post will play out to our followers.
I get enough information on what is happening and how to resist from the news I read, and I haven’t been convinced that I need this information sooner or more rapidly than I want it.
But I miss it. I miss the Twitter I came to love in Obama’s second term. I miss irrelevant Twitter, and I miss having a place where irrelevance could be given free rein. I get that times are different now, but I reject, I think, the idea that different times call for unilaterally different behavior.
I, too, am worried and insecure about the future, and about the future’s total unforeseeability. I acknowledge that I am the source of these feelings, that they’re mine. Therefore, I’m in charge of deciding whether and how to act on them. The worry I’ve had is that by being irrelevant and silly on social media I would appear irresponsible and ignorant, a kind of head-in-the-sand apologist/Pollyanna. But I’m not in charge of how I’m read, I’m in charge of how I am.
In short: if now’s not the time for jokes then when ever is?
I’m leaving MacDowell soon after four weeks here, and one of the many generous things they offer you is a photo shoot. During mine, the photographer had me pretend to be working. Here is what I typed:
New project. She’s taking my picture. I keep laughing. Can’t imagine I’m looking good. Telling bad stories. My waddle must be shitty, too. Never know wheter to close my mouth or not. Or keep it open. So I don’t know what else to do much here alos. My eyes, too. Stern brow? Gentle look of curiosity? Look right at the camera? Or here at my laptop screen? I guess here and not at her. Here. How’s my posture? Hopefully it’s beeter this way. Proud chest
Did my semiannual review of my students’ course evaluations this morning, which at my school are complex and quantitative and—if you’re the sort of person who sees your score and then sees your school’s average score and maniacally compares them free of any context, even if the thing scored doesn’t apply in any way to your subject—unhelpful. Sometimes, but rarely, do students write in qualitative comments. For one course, one student did. Here’s part of what they said:
His feedback is so helpful for students needing to make revisions to their written work. In rare instances when perhaps the dialogue exchange isn’t helpful, he hears himself not being helpful and fixes it.
Reading that was one of the proudest moments I’ve had as a teacher.
One of the last things people who know or are partnered/related to me would commend me for is my communication skills, but early on in my teaching — especially when I started teaching nonfiction — I realized that listening to what students want to do with their writing is more important than what I think they should do. Being clear about the difference, being clear about how what I think they should try to do stems from what I hear they want to do, is always a challenge. It’s one of the hardest parts of teaching artists how to grow.
So here I am bragging about my teaching, but with the greater point of pointing out something all writing teachers should be working toward.