Very Good Paragraphs – Self-Critique Edition

This bit from Jon Baskin’s NYRB review of Wesley Yang’s The Souls of Yellow Folk left me looking hard at myself and recognizing finally, in words, something I’d felt creeping up on me but not feeling able to name (emphasis mine):

That the final articles in Souls, as well as some Yang has written for the liberal-centrist Tablet since the book went to press, criticize aspects of these [i.e. neo-socialist, post-Bernie] movements—a development that has disappointed some of his former admirers—may be seen as indicating an underlying consistency: where before he had resisted, from the perspective of the “singular” individual, the flattening out of social life into a series of market-based transactions, today Yang opposes the “politiciz[ation] of everyday life” on similar grounds. But it also suggests a characteristic dilemma for those who came of age when authenticity was experienced predominantly as a personal, rather than a political, possibility. To learn to measure all against the barometer of the “hard and unyielding” self is to come to distrust the demands of unified groups and movements, no matter how well meaning. For every “movement” revolves around a set of orthodoxies that will be unacceptable to one habituated to defiance.

It me, as the kids online say. Being true to thine own self feels less like a virtue in these times of oppression.

Very Good Paragraphs

Came across this one, from one of Kafka’s letters, in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom:

If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.

I love how this starts out as contentious and misanthropic and then swerves to end on something akin to salvation and hope.

I’ve got more to say on Sade’s book, but for a future post. For now this quote’s going on the wall of my office.

Anticipatory Song

I’m reading these days about the history of opera, specifically the fall of the castrati and rise of the soprano, and thus the aria, and I remembered this, which I wrote in 1994:

Score for a 3/4 piano piece in C minor called "Anticipatory Song"

That’s a scan from our high school’s literary magazine. I’m proud of this thing, and I like—playing it for the first time in 25 years via musical typing on Garageband—that I chose C minor, of all keys. I also find it very funny. The dynamics!

Title is probably an homage to Camper Van Beethoven’s “Ambiguity Song”. Anyway, this is what a high school junior does when he’s afraid of drugs and sex.

In Defense of Briefs

I’ve been watching a lot of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee these days, and one thing Jerry Seinfeld likes to ask his male guests is what kind of underwear they wear. Many of them say briefs, and Jerry always goes, “Briefs?!” with that incredulous tone we all know him for.

Then he takes a moment to teach his guest about boxer briefs, and how they are superior, and more adult.

His guests never tell him how he’s wrong.

They always just laugh and aw-shucks themselves onward in the conversation. The reason for this might be that they haven’t formulated the argument. Most briefs wearers might only know briefs. They began in them and then continued. But I began in briefs, got shamed into boxers in gym class locker rooms, discovered boxer briefs while working at Old Navy, and ultimately went back to briefs after coming out.

Because briefs are sexy.

Two things that are true about briefs:

  1. The pouch of briefs wraps fully around the scrotum, which prevents it from sticking damply to the thigh, and so you never have to do that extra wide step thing you see boxer-briefers do to unstick the scrotum from the thigh.
  2. Most men look better in boxer briefs than they do in briefs. But still not great. Most of us aren’t underwear models. But any man who looks good in boxer briefs looks better in briefs.

Briefs.

I mean the word alone…!

The Feelings Cafeteria

I thought to title this “The Feelings Factory”, but social media isn’t a feelings factory, exactly, in that feelings are manufactured in our minds and bodies. Social media is more a place you go to get something you don’t have or can’t make right now. A Feelings Cafeteria? Let’s go with The Feelings Cafeteria.

Here’s where this post is coming from:

The characteristic that best describes the difference between people at various points on the scale[*] is the degree to which they are able to distinguish between the feeling process and the intellectual process. Associated with the capacity to distinguish between feelings and thoughts is the ability to choose between having one’s functioning guided by feelings or by thoughts. The more entangled and intense the emotional atmosphere a person grows up in, the more their life becomes governed by their own and other people’s feeling responses.

It’s from a book on family psychology (Kerr & Bowen’s Family Evaluation) I’ve been reading for research, and the moment I came across it I could only think of Twitter—replacing, that is, one’s family of origin with one’s online “fam”.

The science of it may be wrong and off, in that one is not raised at formative stages over years by one’s Twitter fam, but the comparison feels apt to me. I would call social media an intense emotional atmosphere engineered to get one entangled. And opening Twitter while bored or between life events, I’ve very quickly felt that my life had become governed by other people’s feeling responses.

I’ve felt that people online are usually feeling and not thinking. I didn’t judge them for it. (Or I tried not to but I’m coming off a couple decades where judging others has been the only thing that makes me feel secure.) I saw that one of the gifts of social media, besides its manufacturing the feeling of social connections, is how amid the dull periods of one’s life it can provide some emotional simulation.

That emotion is usually rage or disgust, but it’s still a stimulation.

Like with certain books or activist language, I felt it wasn’t the right place for me to engage in the world—politically or otherwise—because I’m feeling dozens of things about the world already, and I’d like to think through some stuff to help. And while posts might link to places where thinking is happening, wading through the mess of social media to find those links is like looking for a sunny spot to read and heading to a protest rally.

Twitter is a place where I can’t think—where I think thinking is discouraged. I’ve felt this for months, and so what a discovery in my reading yesterday to see some psychology about why this is so.

Is one reason why more and more I can’t be there.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. i.e., the “scale of differentiation”, which is Bowen’s admittedly arbitrary way to measure the degree to which someone has emotionally separated from their family of origin (and therefore become a more distinct self).

“On a Tip” – The Halo Benders

My first intro to this band, on a mixtape a friend made for me 22 years ago. Jesus. It’s 4 chords, plus a lot of E-Maj scale-based noodling I haven’t tabbed out yet. Lyrics are copied from online; I’ve left Calvin’s out for clarity.

INTRO:
E G# C#m A (x3)

E G#

C#m           A
    You would never 

VERSE:
E        G#             
   Do me in and act like
C#m            A          E         G#
   Like you're doing me a favor 
C#m             A             E
   But could it be in all the papers
G#       C#m      A
That you leave in places
E          G#        C#m    A
Worse than floors of gerbil cages 

CHORUS:
E
    To be on 
G#
    On a tip
C#m               A
    That you call in to be on 
E G# C#m A 
    Oooonnnnnn....

BRIDGE (4 bars):
G# -
C#m -
G# -
A -

VERSE 2:
E    G#    C#m       A
Your bad toast is almost home
E    G#    C#m       A
Your bad clothes, or so you boast
E           G#    C#m      A
That's not to say that you don't have
E       G#      C#m     A
Time to do your time everyday

CHORUS:
E
    To be on 
G#
    On a tip
C#m               A         E  G# C#m A
    That you call in to be on 

BRIDGE
VERSE
FADE

There’s a 16-bar breakdown at the end, where Doug squeals on some barre chords. I imagine it’s a lot of G#. It might be the same E-G#-C#m-A pattern, just whammied and distorted. But you get the general idea.

New Mission Statement for Memoir

Some months back I read this bit in a New Yorker profile of Wolfgang Tillmans:

Tillmans seeks out the experience of displacement. In 1990, he enrolled at Bournemouth & Poole College of Art & Design, on the southern coast of England. He described the pedagogic style there as “psychoanalytic.” His tutor Tony Maestri was less interested in looking at the students’ work than in forcing them to ask themselves why they wanted to take pictures. “To express myself” was not an acceptable answer.


Maestri “was really asking, Why on earth do you think the world needs more pictures?,” Tillmans said. “Don’t say, ‘What is successful and I want to be like that,’ because it’s very unlikely that you can get to that point from behind. You have to ask yourself, ‘What is not there? How do I not feel represented in what is being exhibited?’ ” 

I wanted to get my students to ask themselves a similar question, or I think more specifically I wanted to get them believing in the truth of that answer. How do I not feel represented in what is being written? Had I been encouraged to ask myself that question in grad school, rather than taking published books as models of not just how to write but what to write about, I’d’ve maybe saved some time.

As a teacher, I’ve learned not to ask students a question I already have the answer to. Which in my lead-up to the class where we’d have this discussion I saw myself preparing to do. Why do you want to write? NO. WRONG. IT’S TO TELL THE STORIES ONLY YOU CAN TELL. NEXT! Instead, I asked students to think about how they’d finish the following sentences:

  • I want to write a book that _____
  • I don’t want to write a book that _____

The idea was to think about their future books as art objects, or maybe as chemical reactions on the brains of their readers. I wasn’t looking for the content of these books (I want to write a book that tells the story of etc.) but rather the image they had for their books. Or, contrariwise, an image or form of a book they were working against.

It was a new exercise. I put them in the vulnerable position of sitting in chairs in an oval, like in an AA meeting, rather than having tables like forts to sit behind. I imagined they’d ask me to answer, and so I prepared answers.

I want to write a book that is serious about sex without being humorless or taking itself too seriously.

I don’t want to write a book that tells to others a story I’ve been telling myself.

This last was news to me when I came up with it. I hadn’t had that thought before, but it rang like an alarm. Or maybe the bell on a church. A clarity of purpose. Why I’d dismissed memoir—at least as a form I could write in—for so long was that I saw it as this: retelling a story from one’s past. This despite all I’d been teaching about memoir’s purpose.

My workshop syllabus this term as two epigraphs:

We all craft a story we can live with. The one that makes ourselves easier to live with. This is not the one worth writing. To write your story, you must face a truer version of it. You must look at the parts that hurt, that do not flatter or comfort you. That do not spare you the trouble of knowing what made you, and what into.

Melissa Febos

The exercise of writing is a lesson in the art of thinking against the grain of inheritance and illusion … in letting the language of alterity unsettle the sententiousness of the sovereignty of selfhood and nationhood.

Homi K. Babha

Both these writers are talking about how much of the art of writing is found in the transformation—of the subject, the material, the self—that occurs during the process of writing and revising. Every book that comes out exactly the way it seemed going into writing it is a failed book, evidence of a process deflated, like a souffle that never rises.

Vivian Gornick talks about this as testimony. If you simply tell everyone what happened to you, that’s testimony. Memoir asks for a certain ongoing analysis, or rethinking about what happened. Thinking “against the grain of inheritance and illusion,” as Babha says, until you find the new language you need.

Continuing to mull over my “I don’t want to write a book that” sentence, I’ve come up with a new, or at least newly worded, idea of the work I’m trying to do these days. I don’t want to write, “This happened,” but rather, “That this happened tells me something the writing of this book is meant to simultaneously discover and disclose.”

There’s nothing wrong with testimony. If your story has never been heard before, or is apt to be disbelieved, testimony is powerful. It’s news. But these days I’m not writing the news. It’s like a recent joke I tweeted about wanting to petition AWP to change the name of our genre to nonjournalism. But that’s a post for a different time.

How I Spent My Spring Break

In the Richmond airport, I watched an old, bald, overweight man who open-mouth chewed his gum heave himself up from his chair, waddle over to a man standing by the check-in counter, and give him a thumbs up, one he pressed-forward twice, and then, once he’d made eye contact, point up to the red MAGA hat the other guy was wearing.

The guy in the red MAGA hat was also wearing a black hoodie that said NRA on the back and NRA over the left breast. By the time I got on the plane I found this man sitting in the front row of first class, and while waiting to board I surreptitiously snapped a pic of him with my phone. In my head, I composed a Tweet, or maybe an Instagram caption. Glad to be leaving Richmond, I thought. Or maybe just, Richmond, Virginia. I got to my seat. I had Neal to text, and another friend who was updating me on his happenstance stay at the United Club at SFO, where I’d eventually land. I didn’t get a chance to post the pic before the door closed and we started taxiing.

I know you can still use your data plan after the door closes. I know it’s not a barrier.

My routine on flights now is, as we start taxiing toward the runway, to stop whatever music or movie that’s playing in my ears and close my eyes and clasp my hands together and pray to Jesus. What I do is I imagine I’m in the old library in the town I grew up in, the one that was in a two-room building, with old cracked tiles around the fireplaces and a damp, musty smell I’ll never forget. Jesus—a nerd among his peers, a kid who ditched his folks in the big city and spent all his time in the temple just to argue with the older nerds there—sits over by the microfiche machines, and I picture myself walking around the corner and finding him. He stands and says my name. I say, “Hi Jesus,” and we hug, and we stand there holding each other. Then I ask him, in so many words, to watch over everyone on the plane and get us to our destination safely. Jesus says, “I’ve got you, I’ve got you,” and I feel less anxious about the possibility of dying.

Probably somewhere in prayer did it hit me that I didn’t have to hate the men I saw at the gate, even if I felt that I did. And I didn’t have to post the pic. I could post it, and I could spend the next day or do reopening Instagram to see the likes rack up, all 35 of them maybe, reminding myself I’m not alone in what those men made me feel: anger, despair, and a portion of fear. I’m afraid that, as those of us who’ve had power, privileges, and rights kept from us, punishingly, for so long continue to speak up and demand equal treatment, men like those men are not going to share without a fight.

A fight, specifically, with guns. Like, this week, in Christchurch.

I could post, I could get my likes, and then what? I tried, holding on to Jesus, to think about what kind of love it would show. Love for my friends, surely? But even if sharing hate for our shared enemies is a form of love it didn’t seem to be a sort of love that would feel good. Jesus reminded me that I should try to love those men, and I tried to imagine what that would feel like.

It’s the part of Jesus I have the hardest time with: what do I gain from loving men who hate me, other than that Christian brand of smug righteousness that turns me off from being a Christian?

I was flying home from visiting my parents, and I was reminded of my dad, who displays at times a poor imagination for the lives of people unlike him. Which is to say he holds everyone—regardless of their background, upbringing, or social standing—to the same standards he holds himself to. We disagree often about poverty, its causes and effects.

We feel differently about people in poverty but probably exhibit similar forms of condescension. I feel unqualified to decide that a person’s homelessness or poverty is Their Fault. But mostly I walk around feeling that the poor should be Pitied and Helped. I feel a largesse when I buy the Street Sheet, say, or hand over change. I’ve been lucky and you haven’t been, so let me share a little tiny bit of it.

But not too much, of course.

But back to the NRA/MAGA guy, and his fan. I know that pity isn’t love, but the closest thing to love I could muster to feel for them was a pity at how stupid they’ve been allowed to become. Who neglected you so much for so long that you’ve lived this long on the planet and come to believe the stupid things you do? And why aren’t they the ones you’re mad at?

#MAGA people on Twitter like to say that liberalism is a mental disorder, but I’ve yet to meet an intelligent person who believes that the president has done good things for the country. And even though it feels good for a little while, amid this time of so much perpetual stress and fear, to hate-post to my friends, or for them, for the shared likes, I no longer feel it’s any kind of creative act.

This guy exists. You know he does and I know he does. Here’s proof:

He doesn’t deserve your pity, and I don’t imagine he wants it. Scared, stupid men are dangerous, but they are still scared and stupid. I may not yet know how to love these scared, stupid men, but I’m learning how not to be afraid of them, and why not to hate them.

On Failing as a Writing Teacher

I.

I once taught John McPhee’s Oranges to graduate students in a class I called Canon Nonfiction. The idea was to teach myself a ton of books I hadn’t ever read, and also (I hoped) to talk critically about the canon and who got to make it. For each book we read, students had to write 1-page double-spaced response papers, because I didn’t want to read anything longer, and because I found (and continue to find) it a more useful exercise to ask students to make a smart, thoughtful argument in under 300 words than it is to ask them to fill 3 to 5 pages with ideas.

If you haven’t read Oranges, some of the book follows McPhee’s travels in Florida to understand the orange juice industry. He’s vocal throughout about his desire to drink pure orange juice, not from concentrate—this in the mid-1960s, when frozen concentrated orange juice was a somewhat new technology that had so taken over sales in the U.S. that it turned out, in one of the book’s ironies, to be everywhere in Florida, too, even with all those fresh oranges around.

One student (that I remember) hated the book. They took issue in their response with McPhee’s disdain for concentrate. The student had grown up in poverty real enough to make frozen orange juice the only juice their family could afford, and argued that McPhee’s language and attitude toward this style of orange juice betrayed his classism and ignorance, and thus rendered the book a failure.

I think this is what we’re now calling Cancel Culture.

I read their response, and I was very irritated. They had found one small aspect of McPhee’s narrator-self that they disagreed with and refused to engage with anything the book was up to craftwise. This was the basis of my comments on the response paper. I may have even written, in so many words, “In the future, I’d like to see you engage more in a book’s aims or formal design.”

After that, they stopped contributing to our discussions in class. At the end of the term they eviscerated me in their comments: “Dave seems to have old fashioned ideas about nonfiction. Maybe he should stop teaching and get out of the way of the rest of us.”

II.

Recently, I taught a class I titled Nonfiction Theory & Technique. My thinking is that if you’re going to take seminar-style readings courses in creative writing, you only need two of them: History Of Genre and Techniques Of Genre. You need a “What’s come before me?” class and a “How might I go about putting my stuff together?” class. This was the latter.

I taught Didion’s “The White Album” (the essay), which covers what for her is the end of the 1960s and the winds of paranoia and semantic disconnect that blew through it. One section takes Didion to Oakland, where her portrait of Huey Newton shows him to be a soundbyte-spitting robot, given the words from a group of handlers to keep the brand alive.

More than one of the students hated the essay, chiefly for this portrait. It was irresponsible for a white writer to dismiss Newton’s importance to black liberation in this way, to render him as substanceless, all message. Was the word “racist” used? I can’t remember, but in one way or another the point was made that it was racist for Didion to take of Newton what she wanted, and it reeked of enormous privilege for her to insist that her feelings about her end of her 1960s had something to say about The 1960s.

I felt frustrated, finding myself in this conversation. I felt the frustration of other students. I said this, as a way to redirect the discussion, “None of us in this room are going to live Joan Didion’s life and develop a mindset or habits of life that she did. We don’t have the ability to become or avoid becoming her, so what can we learn about writing by talking about her as a person?”

It was a similar message to the Oranges student: Can we please just talk about form and technique?

III.

Here’s where I’ll tell you that, in both of the above situations, the critical students were from marginalized communities—one student in a community I count myself among, the others not. Also: the straight, white folks in both classes didn’t, from what I could tell, share in these criticisms of the straight, white writers at hand.

And here’s where I’ll spell out my failures, if they aren’t already apparent.

In your head right now, or your heart, you might find some counterarguments. Here’s one: Contemporary politics surrounding the affordability of orange juice are too removed in time from the world McPhee is writing about to bear in any way on the text’s construction. Or you might ask what Didion, writing many years after every story about Huey Newton had already been told and retold, was supposed to write that could be worth reading? Or you might argue that if we can’t separate the artist from the art, then MFA Programs need to develop students’ characters as much as they work to develop their technique, and who among us is trained to do that?

Here’s one of my failures: I, too, had counterarguments, and I used my position as Teacher to correct my students’ thinking. Is how I thought of it. Unequipped, or unprepared, to participate in the discussion of these texts, I policed them as out of bounds and steered us back in bounds.

In other words, I shut students down. This was a failure.

It’s not that students are always right. Students are often wrong. Students often assert that the thing about the 2nd person is that it creates a feeling a closeness to the story, even though no one has ever said that the 1st person or the 3rd person makes us feel too distant from the action when we read it. (As though I would’ve identified more as a child with the character of Alice if “You” had fallen down the rabbit hole.)

I’m equipped, though, to have discussions about the effects of POV choices, and more importantly I’m comfortable asking students questions to get them thinking aloud together about POV choices to talk out something of their effects.

I’m not comfortable talking about class or race. Every time I walk into a classroom I know I’m outnumbered and I used to think if I showed any weakness or ignorance I would lose students all together.

Or make them rebel. That was my other failure, thinking that the only way I could help students learn was through the dissemination (I used the word mindfully) of my expertise.

IV.

This post is already too long, but I should mention here that it was originally titled “Adapt or Die” until I heard the neo-liberal techy Darwinism behind it.

In the face of student criticisms about representation, I could decide I Am Right And They Are Wrong, or I could decide This Isn’t Craft And Cannot Help Us Glean Lessons On Writing From This Text. And both of these would be deadly (bear with me) choices to make.

As much as I was able to dismiss my first student’s indictment against me in their evaluation, as good a laugh I got out of it in conversations for years after, it hurts now because I can see how they were right. If I can’t adapt and make room in the classroom for conversations about writing (and representation, and race) that I’m not immediately prepared to sound authoritative in, I’m going to stand in my students’ way. I’ll become not just bad at my job, but useless.

Again, it’s not that students are always right and we now have to just follow their lead on everything. It’s that a student’s rightness or wrongness in this way have very little use in the art classroom. The only wrong thing is not making art. The only wrong thing is not being given room to speak your voice, because I’m not training debaters or (god help me) politicians. I’m training artists, and an artist without a voice is like a dancer without rhythm.

What I should’ve done is ask these students to talk more about representation. I should’ve asked what we expect from an author, and what we can know about that person through the text, and what we learn elsewhere, and what our responsibilities are, then, as artists. I should’ve asked what aspects of their own (author) selves they disclose in their writing, and what they keep in mind when they construct narrators tasked with presenting this self to an imagined reader.

There are all kinds of ways to turn an unexpected comment into a conversation everyone can enter into. I’ve since learned to do this, and so I’m still alive, so to speak.

I’m reminded of something I read once about Wolfgang Tillman’s teacher (which I hope to get to again in a future post): the only reason, he argued, to make art is to put in the world the art you’re not seeing elsewhere, to fill a vacancy, one that makes you mad, with your singular vision.

If I believe that, and I think I increasingly do, how can it help a young writer to tell them, in so many words, that their visions, their stories, their opinions, their views are wrong or misguided or not worth discussion? It’s a deadly way to teach people, because, unless they thrive through a contrarian Fuck You spirit, it runs the risk of killing off a budding artist’s budding.

The Music that Plays in My Mind All the Time

Once, back in Nebraska, I asked my friend Mathias what it was about death metal that he liked so much. I found death metal fascinating as an idea but dull to listen to. It took him a few seconds to think of a response, and his answer astounded me:

“That’s the sound I hear in my head all the time,” he said. “So it’s almost soothing.”

Was he kidding? Possibly yes, probably no, but either way I took it to heart. Left in solitude, and quietude, our brains play a soundtrack of noise and feedback from our lives and the thoughts that careen around in there. Everyone’s soundtrack might be as original as their fingerprint.

And I’ve taken it to heart when I’ve come to understand some of the music I find myself drawn to, and soothed by. If Mathias hears blastbeats and deathgrowls, what I hear is a lot of quickly busy machinations. Or like imagine the nonsynchronous chewings of a hive full of bees—if that’s what bees are doing while they make honey, is chew stuff? 

Some clips, by way of example:

I know 2 people who know of Operation Re-Information, a trio that formed and disbanded during the years I lived in Pittsburgh. This album will forever live in my top 5 of all time, and I don’t have anyone else to share my love for it with, and if you listen to the record all the way through it’s probably clear why: it’s not for everyone. But I hear it like a warm bath.

This is one of my favorite guitar solos ever, and it is to guitar solos what Devo’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is to the Stones’ version: stunted, desexed, neurotic. Do these adjectives reveal my heart to you?

This is perfect music. This is what all classical music should be up to. It’s so busy. It doesn’t stop. It’s hard to write about how this busybusyness stirs emotion in my heart, but it has something to do with the way minimalism (which we’re not at all working with here) works a thing over and over and over to build a foundation for the shift that comes eventually. Bill Callahan does this very well. When you hear one chord for long enough, over and over, the presence of a second chord can floor you, if timed right. It’s like a surprise and a gift but also a cannon or like a beanbag shot at you from riot police. There’s a spatial way you’ve been suddenly pulled from a dark corridor into a room full of light that wins my gratitude every time.

This one’s my favorite. I don’t listen to Sufjan Stevens much these days, usually wanting something less soft and more with an edge, but I’ll always be grateful for these 38 seconds where there’s so much going on for me to hear. Sometimes I like to tune into the clarinets that toot on 3-and-1-and-2, 3-and-1-and-2, and sometimes I like to hear the acoustic guitar whose bass note pattern steadies of 2-beat rhythm amid this 3 cadence.

Those 38 seconds are the music that’s playing in my head at any given moment. If you’re talking to me, that’s the soundtrack I’m tuning out so I can have a conversation.