August 15 – November 19, 2019

fly SFO to IAD
car to Centreville, Virginia
stay at friend’s, 2 nights
car to Fairfax, Virginia
stay at sister’s, 1 night
subway to Washington, D.C.
car to Fairfax
stay at sister’s, 1 night
train to Williamsburg, Virginia
stay at folks’, 3 nights
train to New York, New York
subway to Brooklyn
stay with friend, 1 night
subway to Manhattan
train to Rutherford, New Jersey
stay with friend, 2 nights
car to Manhattan
subway to Brooklyn
stay with friend, 1 night
car to Brooklyn
stay with friend, 2 nights
car to Brooklyn
stay with friend, 2 nights
car to Manhattan
train to Essex Junction, Vermont
car to Burlington, Vermont
stay with friend, 2 nights
car to Johnson, Vermont
stay at Vermont Studio Center, 26 nights
shuttle van to Burlington
stay with friend, 1 night
car to Essex Junction
train to New York
subway to Brooklyn
stay with friend, 2 nights
car to JFK
JFK to KEF
KEF to HEL
train to Helsinki, Finland
stay at Seurahuone Hotel, 1 night
bus to Sysmä, Finland
stay at Villa Sarkia, 10 nights
bus to Helsinki
stay at Hotel F6, 1 night
ferry to Tallinn, Estonia
ferry to Helsinki
stay at F6 Hotel, 1 night
train to St. Petersburg, Russia
stay at Four Seasons Hotel, 2 nights
car to Pushkin, Russia
car to St. Petersburg
stay at Four Seasons Hotel, 1 night
train to Helsinki
stay at Marski Hotel, 1 night
bus to Sysmä
stay at Villa Sarkia, 7 nights
bus to Helsinki
train to HEL
HEL to KEF
HEF to BOS
stay at Hilton Boston Logan, 1 night
shuttle van to Logan Airport
bus to Portland, Maine
bus to Bangor, Maine
shuttle van to Monson, Maine
stay at Monson Arts, 7 nights
walk to Appalachian Trail
walk to Monson
stay at Monson Arts, 5 nights
car to Québec, Canada
stay at Chateau Frontenac, 1 night
car to Monson
stay at Monson Arts, 10 nights
shuttle van to Bangor
bus to BOS
BOS to SFO
car home

Places in bold I saw for the first time. If you count the U.S. and my layovers in Iceland, that’s six different countries I traveled to in three months. Jeers to the suspicious dicks at the border into Canada for not stamping our passports. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the U.S. is so much more chill about letting people cross its borders than every other country in North America.

Very glad to be back home, for now.

Very Good Paragraphs – Horny Film Crit Edition

Unlike so many movie stars, Robert Ryan was able to portray a real heterosexual. But Barbara Stanwyck in Clash by Night (1952), seen on Channel 11 at 2 a.m. March 30, 1983, is not impressed. It is very, very, very hard to impress Barbara Stanwyck. She is authentically blue collar in this picture, utterly credible when she says she used to sell sheet music in a dime store, and able to make us forget that she is a glamorous millionaire movie star. She drinks what she calls a “slug” of whiskey out of a shot glass with no chaser and holds a cigarette in her teeth when she lights it. The picture would not be the same without cigarettes; the climax for me occurred not when the director intended it but earlier in the picture when Ryan, fairly tough himself but of course no match for Stanwyck, lit two cigarettes and handed one to her. She accepted it but looked at it with an easy, graceful scorn for just a fraction of a second and tossed it over her shoulder. I was so shocked I didn’t notice what Ryan did. I believe he did nothing; what could he do?

This is Boyd McDonald’s review for Clash by Night in its entirety. It does two things I love, which every movie review McDonald wrote for Christopher Street and other gay pubs does:

1. It asserts the viewer’s right to shape a movie, deciding not just what does and doesn’t have value, but when its climaxes and low moments fall.

2. It takes the actor’s body as the lone source of all movie art.

Most of McDonald’s task is to write from his hardon—he is consistently leering over (or dismissing) the asses and bulges of male actors throughout the golden years of Hollywood. But this approach to criticism finds its way to a kind of radical rethinking of what movies can do, who they are for, and what they can do for the people they’re for.

Take, for example, this bit from his review of Fireball 500: “it is especially calming to watch a[n Annette] Funicello picture after being overexposed to such excessively gifted players as Liza Minelli, who relentlessly ram their talent up the viewer’s ass.” Or when he dismisses Katherine Hepburn’s “scenery-chewing” performance in Adam’s Rib as not worth watching.

Instead, McDonald is gaga over Hope Emerson, the 225lb 6’2″ character actress whose unconventional (i.e. “unfuckable”) body makes every (male) director in Hollywood overlook her magnetism and understated talents.

One of the joys of criticism is feeling yourself able to elucidate the presence and textures of talent better than the average person can. (I’m kind of doing this right now.) Critics then, love stars and the abundantly skilled, and they love to play to our similar enthusiasms. If you go to movies to be allowed closer to the more ideal versions of us, conventional film criticism is for you.

If you feel that beauty is cheap and you’re more interested in real human faces,[*] buy McDonald’s book. His eye is so honed to the real that slips through a film’s worth of sheeny inauthenticity, and his variant (deviant/perverted) tastes open movies up as documents to a kind of U.S. viewership unreported by critics reading movies as auteur narratives.

What I love about the above paragraph-review is how succinctly he gets at those moments of the real, and how confidently he shuts out whatever gets in their way. As a “movie review” aimed at telling you what the thing is about and whether you should spent money on it, McDonald’s blurb provides no service, which is what lets it hang out as art.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. No surprise I count myself among you. My favorite film performance of the year is Louise Latham in Hitchcock’s Marnie (which I just saw last month in Finland so it counts). Go see it and watch what her face is capable of.

On Amanda Goldblatt’s Hard Mouth

A gal with a sick dad and a lab assistant job leaves both to live (and possibly die) alone in the sort of off-grid cabin you need to be flown to. That’s the quickest summary I can give you of this book I loved a lot. It is not really an adventure book, and not at all a testament to the human spirit like you might expect from Wild or Into the Wild or Where the Wild Things Are. (Well, maybe that last one actually.) It’s a character study of somebody who sees her life wrong and feels (or pretends to feel) mostly untroubled by that.

The book’s big selling point is its sentences. I should say Amanda’s a good friend. I saw her read from this in Brooklyn when I was there seventeen years ago on this endless trip I’ve been on for seventeen years, and since August I’ve carried the book to Vermont and to Finland, and now here in Maine, where I just finished it. I kept emailing her about sentences I loved.

Flipping through at random, here’s an exemplary couple:

While walking I did idly wonder what animals I would find in the cabin, what disarray. It would be good, I thought, to confront the entropy. To embrace the surprise, to discover, to not know till.

Denise (our protag) is lyrically hypererudite, batting language about the way a cat does a mouse. That might be inaccurate. I just flipped through and saw “My temples hurt from squint,” and it’s probably more exemplary of her voice than the above. Note: not squinting. There’s like this pruning or honing that goes on throughout the book toward the kinds of constructions we all use casually, as though everyday language were shabby and unkempt and Denise wants to better capture her life and viewpoint not by dolling or gussying that language up, but by stripping and even malforming it into a way that makes us look more queerly as what we say and why.

It’s a pose and a mask, too. Language helps Denise focus on the how of her speech when the what of it might be too difficult.

Like I said, she exits her life for the woods. Perhaps the biggest gift Amanda’s novel gave me was getting to spent a lot of time with a woman on her own. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a novel where a woman departs on her own for the woods, and when I think about Women In The Woods, I feel like they traditionally fall into madonna-whore dichotomies of like a Linda-Hamiltonian Take-No-Shit prepper type on the one hand or a hubristic, silly trespassing horrorfilm victim on the other.

Denise, instead, is just a gal who commits to a stupid but important idea. She does her research on how to survive and does her best. She is strong and weak, shrewd and dumb, compassionate and cold. In her unreal voice she appears very real.

Plus there’s like these satisfying wisdoms she can voice in ways that make the unknown ring out as eternally true. Here’s a great ¶ that comes when she’s saying goodbye to the man who flew her to the cabin:

“Do you have headlights on that thing?” I asked. He laughed and said yes, that he’d get off and back fine, long as he didn’t have to land in the water, which he didn’t. What if I undid his overalls, I thought, though I didn’t move. We exist with sets of stories or lists: the ways we must feel during loss or solitude, the ways we must present the self to others, the ways we must act. But there are other and scarier ways to be.

One of my favorite things about Denise is how she’s horny, like a person is. Not horny like a frat dude or like a nymphomaniac (whatever that is). Her horniness is neither a comical trait nor a conflictual one. She just lets herself want sex and sometimes enjoy it and sometimes regret it. Like a person.

A nonpathological erotic mind is a pet concern these days, given what I’m writing about. Sex in non-pornographic art is more often terrible than good, and by “good” I mean It Helps Us See Sex For What It Is And Not What We’ve Been Told To Make It.

So chalk that up as the other great gift of Amanda’s book.

At any rate, you should buy this novel if you want an adventure story that’s always more human than an adventure story. Oh and it finds just the perfect image to end on. Really a treasure. Find it here.

Why Not to Write a Statement of Purpose for MFA School

Some years back, I wrote a post full of guidelines and personal observations about the MFA application’s Statement of Purpose that was aimed to help people write better ones. But now I’m on sabbatical. And I’m no longer sure how much I believe in the SOP as a valuable part of a student’s application.

At least, not in the way they’re currently designed. The best SOPs say, “I am ready to work hard at your school and here’s my plan.” And when I read that sentence I feel very weary. It’s a tired, tamped down, dried-out place to hold a writer in before they’ve even begun working toward their becoming. I see an army of Type-A Tracy Flicks, getting all the good fellowships, again, because gumption and work-ethics are very legible to those of us in the institutional awarding game.

More and more what I learn about artmaking is how much I Don’t Know about the thing I’m making, and when I Totally Know about it, the thing I make is flat and dead.

The thing I do have to Know Totally About, though, is myself and my practices, my bad habits and my good ones, my positions with respect to my subject and myself, my desires, my lusts. None of these were in place before grad school, and any that may have been developed there have long since changed.

So what use is it asking applicants to speak with confidence or certainty about what they want to do and what their writing is up to?[*]

My dream SOP might be what a writer I once worked with at a summer conference told me, when I asked her how she wrote the stories she did. They were so unlike any I’d been taught to write. Here’s a paraphrase:

I don’t know how to write a short story. I don’t know how to create a plot. I don’t know what a character is or how to develop a character. I don’t know scenes. What I do know is that I can write a good sentence. Not every time, but when I write I only try to write a sentence that I like. And then I have to let that sentence guide me to the next one.

If there’s any good reason to go to an MFA Program, it’s to learn how to get comfortable with your ignorances and your doubts. How to hug them close, even, until they become your friends and then your talents.

If you must write an SOP (because a school requires it of applicants), just be honest. I’ll say it again: just please be honest. At every moment. After 9 years of reading SOPs, we’ve had so much smoke blown up our asses we fart clouds. (This bad joke I couldn’t resist, and surely my colleagues won’t appreciate the image, so let’s just leave it with me, and my own ass, farting those um, “clouds”.)

I think the posturing and fake language (e.g., “I am thrilled by the opportunity to work with your outstanding, award-winning faculty and become a dynamic and giving member of your generous community of writers!”) comes from an anxiety of not knowing What We Want To Hear, those of us who get to say yes or no to your future.

So let me try to be clear about this: there is no content I want to see in an SOP. No language. I’m not looking for anything other than you. What does your real picture look like? Not your LinkedIn profile, or your Instagram.

What are your doubts? And what are your loves? If you have any passions in the world, real ones of your own, let’s hear them.[†]

Now, as per the last time I wrote about SOPs, I’ll give you the caveat that I’m just one person with strong opinions. (Strong opinions that clearly waver and change within a fairly short timespan.) If you were to write an SOP that’s all the things you don’t know—including why you’re going to an MFA program, and why this MFA program of all the hundreds in the U.S., etc.—you may well turn off some people who think you’re unserious or unready.

But are those the people you’ll want to work with toward your becoming?

I direct the MFA Program (when not on sabbatical) at the University of San Francisco. I, at least, will welcome any applicant who doesn’t know anything or doesn’t pretend to. Give me one page (who needs more?) of all the things you don’t know, and all I’ll want to do is work with you to not know these things together.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. It’s also a bad idea to ask applicants to write about why they want to come to our program instead of any of the others. What business is it of ours? Maybe we’re your dream school or your safety school. Maybe you’re queer in a small town and still believe in San Francisco as a heaven for people like you. Maybe you have no idea. Whether you dreamed of studying with us or have settled for us, begrudgingly paying enormous amounts of rent and hoping it’s all worth it—I’m still going to teach you the same as everyone.
  2. This doesn’t necessarily mean a list of writers you’re inspired by, carefully curated to show a range of styles and schools and backgrounds.

Boy-Lesque

This is a still from Griffin Dunne’s Joan Didion documentary I finally got around to watching, here in Sysmä, Finland, where I’m eating and drinking very little and trying to work very hard on the next book. It’s from Vegas, I imagine, from the part of the movie where they talk about John Gregory Dunne’s Vegas memoir, which I hope to read as soon as I’m back in a place where I can readily find English language books.

I love this image for its fonts and camp lushness. The Didion doc was inspiring, of course, the long story of a writer so strong in her commitment to seeing through images like this one, or past them, or—later in her career—toward more sobering and weighty subjects, but I’ve just come off a month in Vermont with very queer people, writers and artists, who in response to my antics and my writing—which is seeking out what’s funny the way a drowning man seeks air—didn’t look away or roll their eyes. With my shaky ideas that moving art can begin from a place of stupidity and silliness, my very queer friends all seemed to Get It.

I’ve loved Didion for so long. She made me want to be a writer, or at least a better one. But tonight I’m trying to remind myself of a feeling I had the second day I got here, doubting that I had anything of value to write again: What if all we had in the world was Joan Didion, like a remote part of the country where you can tune in only one radio station?

I would hate to live in that place. So thank you, Griffin Dunne, for including the above image in the movie about your elderly aunt.

Being Against the Grid Plan

On the 56 Vermonter train out of New York, I put on a movie because everyone in the Quiet Car wanted to deny the fact of their having chosen the Quiet Car, and I chose The Cruise. Perhaps my favorite documentary, it’s about Timothy “Speed” Levitch, who in the 1990s was a rhapsodic, erudite, and literary bus tour narrator in New York City.

About midway through the movie, the crew follows him around town, and he points out a white comforter bundled over a sleeping person in a dark nook on a quiet street, and he speaks, extemporaneously, this monologue:

The image makes me think of a conversation with this woman the other day. She was a fastidious, Judaic-type woman, in very sexual slacks, and we were talking about the Grid Plan. I made the comment about how the Grid Plan emanates from our weaknesses. This layout of avenues and streets in New York City, this system of 90-degree angles. To me, the Grid Plan is puritan. It’s homogenizing in a city where there is no homogenization available. There is only total existence, total cacophony. A total flowing of human ethnicities and tribes and beings and gradations of consciousness and awareness and cruising. And this woman turns to me, and she goes, “I never even thought of that.” She goes, “I can’t imagine it. Everyone likes the Grid Plan.” [Here, Levitch makes a dubious face.] And of course the question is like Who is Everyone? I mean it’s just like I said, and whoever that is under the white comforter, cuddled up with 34th Street and Broadway, existing on the concrete of this city, hungry and disheveled, struggling to crawl their way onto this island with all their machinated rages and hellishness and self-orchestrated purgatories—I mean what does that person think about the Grid Plan? Probably much more on my plane of thinking, my gradation of being, which is: Let’s just blow up the Grid Plan and rewrite the streets to be much more self-portraiture of our personal struggles, rather than some real estate broker’s wet dream from 1807. We’re forced to walk in these right angles. I mean doesn’t she find it infuriating? By being so completely allegiant to the Grid Plan, I think most noteworthy is this idiom, I can’t even imagine changing the Grid Plan. She’s really aligning herself with this civilization. It’s like saying, “Oh I can’t imagine altering this civilization. I can’t imagine altering this meek and lying morality that rules our lives, can’t imagine standing up on a chair in the middle of the room to change perspective, can’t imagine changing my mind on anything, and in the end, can’t imagine having my own identity that contradicts other identities.” When she says to me, after my statement, “Everyone likes the Grid Plan,” isn’t she automatically excluding myself from Everyone? How could you not like the Grid Plan! So functional! Take a right turn and a right turn and a right turn, and this is a red light and a green light and a yellow light! It’s so symmetrical! By saying that everyone likes the Grid Plan, you’re saying: I’m going to relive all the mistakes my parents made. I’m going to identify and relive all the sorrows my mother ever lived through. I will propagate and create dysfunctional children in the same dysfunctional way that I was raised. I will spread neurosis throughout the landscape and do my best to recreate myself and the damages of my life for the next generation.

I was struck most by isn’t she automatically excluding me from Everyone? It’s a familiar feeling, but what made me want to pause the movie and type the monologue out was the greater feeling I got that here, as I start the first of three 4-week writing retreats, is an excellent artist’s statement.

It’s a perfect image of the artist’s job of going against the grain of accepted norms, and it’s also the perfect example of the essayist’s job of taking an encounter from your past and making something more of it. You may think Levitch is Making Too Much Of Things when he claims that believing in the Grid Plan is like promising to be complicit in the Boomer-Republican project of leaving the world a worse and less inspiring place, but the beauty of the idea as an idea is that it is indefensible, unproveable, and it sticks in your mind like a song you can’t tell is good or bad. It puts two things together I have never myself put together, and even if I decide he’s wrong those things won’t soon unstick, and loving essays the way I do, I love Levitch for essaying me to that place.

I have been for two weeks in New York City, home of the Grid Plan, and many of the people I have seen and spent time with stood somewhere on the plane of Levitch’s thinking, and some of the people aligned themselves, in some way or another, with the Grid Plan. Not Everyone, but some. I’m knowing myself more and more as not among them, and that used to make me feel so terrible and lonely.

Anti-Gay Police Sting Ops in 2019

My feelings on this

…are rage and sadness. I’m furious that the police in my hometown[*] are posing as men cruising for sex, only to arrest the men they pick up for “Simple Assault (sexual)”. And I’m sad for these innocent men, whose sex lives some people still find criminal, and whose lives might be ruined now just for being human.

But what are my thoughts on it? I find them untetherable from my feelings. I see the argument in front of me that gay sex is not public sex, and that the crime here, and what is being policed, involves using public space—in this instance Meridian Hill Park, a longstanding cruising spot in what’s been a swiftly gentrifying part of DC—for private acts. I see the argument, and I don’t care about it.

If you need them, I’m confident that I could find studies and stats that show gay public sex is far more criminalized than straight public sex. Maybe this is because gay men have way more sex in parks than straight people do and, you might argue, it’s more of a numbers game than targeted harassment.

But I’ll never buy it, because I know my history, and my people’s history, and as much as I’d like to think we’re past that history, we’re not. They gave us the right to marry like straight couples, if we want to be straight couples, but there’s still something essential about the sex we have that disgusts people.

Some data, in case you haven’t yet read the story. One: those arrested have said that the cops making the arrests were not in uniform, and were posing as other cruising men. (The police have neither confirmed nor denied this.) To spell that out, they haven’t come across men fucking in the park and arrested them, they have created the criminal encounter (or all but its follow-through) themselves.

Two: “the arrests were prompted by complaints from the public about ‘lewd acts’ in the park.” My feelings about this override my thoughts such that I want the names and addresses of these people so I can find them and make their lives fucking miserable.

More data: some gay men still need to stay in the closet in 2019 for a host of reasons involving careers, personal safety, family ties, etc. And though phone apps and the Internet[†] some closeted gay men need cruising spaces to have sex, as they have for as long as sex and public spaces have been in existence.

Trust me (I’ve read a lot on the subject) that gay men fucking in public are in as much hiding as the world out there allows. They’re not looking to get seen, or caught. They’re not fucking in the open. They’re not fucking in daylight, even, usually. And they’re certainly, without question, not fucking with kids and families around. Not just because kids and families are total boner-killers, but because they’re too dangerous. They’re the ones threatened—how? in what way?—enough to call the cops.

The 26 men arrested in Meridian Hill have lawyers, and none of these lawyers would talk to the Washington Blade about their cases, citing not only attorney-client privilege but the fact that many of these clients are closeted. For straight people to get caught fucking in a park becomes a story you tell your closer friends over drinks one rowdy night. For gay people, it gets you on a sex offender registry and ends your career, if not your life.

Is that true? I find it so difficult to think straight (forgive the term) about this because of how central sexual desire is to my life and the self I’ve constructed. I refuse to let the sex we gay men have get scrubbed from our identity, and the sex we have, gay sex, is more than anatomical. It’s social, it’s historical, and if you’re not gay it’s never, ever going to hurt you.

And fuck you if you ever call it assault.

These arrested men are my brothers, and this morning, back in the DC area for the first time in months, I’m furious and sad for them.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. ish
  2. No longer Craigslist, though, which shut down its personals section last year after both parties in Congress bought the lie that consensual sex work and anonymous hookups = human trafficking and handily passed FOSTA/SESTA.

On True Stories

Somewhere early in the sixth My Struggle[1], the narrator asks, “How can reality be represented without adding something it doesn’t have? What does it ‘have’ and what does it ‘not have’?” I read it while visiting my friend Adam, and I asked him, “Do you value a story more when you hear that the story is true?”

“Probably less, to be honest,” he said.

I feel that’s true. “True stories” cleave more to history than story, and history was my least favorite subject in school.

Lorrie Moore had things to say in a similar vein, Jesus 8 years ago now. Her argument is that nonfiction’s strengths and power come elsewhere from telling a story, and the novel will always be for readers a better storytelling delivery system than the memoir. Stories require a suspension in some mediated place, and fiction’s invented narrator fosters such a space’s creation better than nonfiction’s author-narrator. Where nonfiction beats the novel is being able to move in and out of storytelling modes to encompass research, history, essay, etc., and so when memoirs don’t do this Moore feels the form isn’t working to its full potential.

I buy the argument for the most part, but I go back to Knausgaard’s question a lot, especially as I embark on a book that will be telling a lot of true stories. I’ve been seeing this process as a reduction or a distillation: whenever I write about a person in my life I’ve taken something from them and left the bulk behind. The bulk is what’s true. The whole of a person.

But it’s worth considering what is added to reality when it’s represented. Mimesis is what we call the representation of reality in art, and all art requires a point of view. What reality does not have is a single perspective, and so presenting reality from one person’s point of view adds that primacy or privilege to reality. One way we talk about this is by saying There’s Two Sides To Every Story, but of course that’s also wrong. Usually there are more sides than we can count.

Being a writer, I know a lot of other writers. And being a nonfiction writer, I read a number of things that are about people I know. I try to tell myself that I’m not getting a story about this person I know, but rather a portrait, a caricature. I’m getting one person’s perspective on the person I know from a different perspective.

Which perspective is right or truer? The one written down for others, or the one I’ve been working on myself?

But all that aside, why do some people prefer True Stories to made-up ones? What pleasures or value does their trueness add to the general pleasures of reading a story? I have no idea, but my best guess goes to another concern of mimesis: verisimilitude. If mimesis is the realm of representation, verisimilitude is its scale. How true does this feel?

I’ve been reading Stanislavsky, and about 80% of his system is about the actor convincing themselves that what is happening on stage is real. Convincing seems the key term. There’s an anxiety about whether a story will feel true, or sound true, or whether the actors or characters will appear convincing.

The work of verisimilitude is the work of the artist, but the task of assessing verisimilitude falls on the audience. A True Story insists on its verisimilitude from the get-go, letting the audience of the hook, or at least one of their hooks. It must be some kind of relief.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. And by “early” I mean on page 178. (This was a book I abandoned, recall.)

On Calls to Action

I.
I posted this to Instagram last week, with a caption: “But woke people never dream.” It got minimal likes.

My point is clear, but I’ll also add that studies show[*] sleep deprivation has adverse impacts on memory and cognition. So: bad advice. “STAY WOKE” is bad advice.

There’s also the problem of Wokeness itself. Merriam-Webster tells me its origins came from an Erykah Badu song and then shifted, as language does:

The word woke became entwined with the Black Lives Matter movement; instead of just being a word that signaled awareness of injustice or racial tension, it became a word of action. Activists were woke and called on others to stay woke.

That’s not the problem, those origins. Those origins are noble and good. The problem is that things with “woke” have continued to shift. Being woke indicates little about the content of the woke person’s thoughts or beliefs. You can now be woke about chemtrails, or the “Jew-run media”, or how men have a harder time of it nowadays than women etc etc.

Being is one thing; it’s the staying that bothers me. The condition of being on all the time, permanently at watch. The image “STAY WOKE” brings to mind is the paranoiac with foil on their head. Or better: all the fearful kids in Nightmare on Elm Street, trying hard to never sleep. I don’t think anybody’s life is improved—I don’t think society is improved—by their living in watchful, waking fear.

So: if I were to make a sign in my window with postits, what would it say?

“DON’T STAY WOKE”?

“LET YOURSELF SLEEP”?

“GET INFORMED BUT DON’T, Y’KNOW, LET IT MAKE YOU CRAZY”?

The problem with nuanced arguments is that their language is always so fucking feeble.

II.
I’ve written before about my uneasy relationship with activist language, and maybe I’m picking up that discussion here. But when I thought about how I wanted to write a blog post about this pic and my general argument, I hit a wall, and the paper on that wall read: YOU ARE PATHETIC.

First: I wasn’t calling to any action so much as writing against someone’s call to action. If my argument was for anything, it was for moderation, and when I saw this I felt like any of the centrist Democratic presidential candidates I have zero interest in getting to vote for next year.

Second: When I thought about this as a writer, I saw the connection between the position you take and the power of your words. Any argument I had might be itself be strong, but the language or form of it would be weak. Certainly weaker than “STAY WOKE”. And what effect does weak and feeble language have on its audience?

In other words, I could (once again) have a strong rhetorical position that had no effect on my readers. And if a tree falls in the forest etc etc.

III.
There’s another connection here to the Call To Action in an essay, which comes up from time to time in NF workshops, usually when a student writes a non-narrative essay, something with an argument or lamentation. Examples are failing me, but more than once students (or I, most of the time) wonder in discussion what solutions or new ways of being the writer might imagine in the piece. What can we do, we ask, given the case you’re making? What would you like us to think or feel instead?

A common refrain from the student is, “I didn’t want to end with a call to action.” What I’ve always taken this to mean is that the writer wanted mostly to explore what they’ve been observing or thinking. They didn’t want to feel forced into the role of problem-solver.[†]

But now I think something different. The Call To Action does something to language, or asks for a certain kind of language, and this something feels at odds to the nuances of complicated and sustained thinking—an essay being a written record of complicated and sustained thinking.

In other words, just as my feeble “Let’s Be Reasonable About How Woke We Are All The Time” would fall on bored ears, so would a Call To Action in an essay make the lofted cloud of a complex thought process fall like so much fog.

An even longer post for next time: bless the activists their language gifts, like the poets, and the advertising copywriters. I’m not of them, but I’m not against them.

(Well, maybe the copywriters.)



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. “Today, prolonged wakefulness is a widespread phenomenon.” Indeed, NIH.
  2. I see every situation, and most people, as a problem to solve. A puzzle. Ask my partner about how well this proclivity serves me outside the classroom.