I. We in San Francisco are into our third week of sheltering in place, officially. Neal and I had already been staying inside for about a week before the order. Other states and cities are finally getting on board. I know: I hate it too.
I’ve said a lot to the friends I text that I can’t wait for things to get back to normal. This usually means going to bars and restaurants and movie theaters. Hugging friends again. And if I think individually, this sheltering in place feels very abnormal. Something is wrong and off, and I feel driven to return to a time I didn’t have those feelings.
Thinking beyond my individual experience makes me see this desire as faulty and dangerous. The circumstances of everyday life were deeply strange and abnormal—funny, in the 2nd definition of the word—before the virus hit. I couldn’t understand why billionaires were allowed to accrue tax-free billions when even owning a home was increasingly out of reach for large swaths of the population. Or while environmental protections were being dropped as our summers get hotter and natural disasters happen every year.
You see it anywhere. The growing tolerance of racism in our political discourse. The reliance not on public services but rather profit-driven companies to provide people with basic needs, despite them being unprofitable. A constitutional right to own a gun but not to a job or a house. Very little of how we operate as a public, or a populace, makes sense or feels normal.
II. You’ve probably heard about the environmental impacts quarantine has had—clearer waters, birds returning, lower emissions—and what I hope everyone is talking about is how necessary large, strong government systems are in getting people what they need to survive and be well. I’m not talking just about the obvious need for single-payer healthcare (clearly affordable if we can just decide to pay for it), but also about the role of public health experts.[*]
In this light, I’m trying to see quarantine as a correction, a stabilization, a re-norming. This concern came from reading Deborah Nelson’s chapter in Tough Enough on the philosopher Simone Weil. Writing about the era in which Weil’s work was published in the U.S. (1940s/1950s), Nelson points to the return to domesticity the country was going through (or what another scholar she cites calls a “bomb shelter mentality”):
The embrace of normalcy—often under coercively normalizing terms—was a post-traumatic effect, the outcome of decades of dislocation, deprivation, and loss during the depression of the 1930s and the mobilization of World War II.
“Coercively normalizing” is key. It’s easy to see how one person’s norm is another person’s nightmare (if you’re happily, fervently monogamous in your marriage, just imagine state-sanctioned polygamy as the social norm to see what I mean).
Once the numbers come down, once a vaccine is available, if what results from this pandemic is a welcomed return to normalcy, whatever norms the country returns to will always only be majoritarian norms—that is, the norms of the wealthy ruling class. (And I think I’m not alone in being heartened by the growing criticisms toward the ultra-wealthy and how they’re spending their luxury quarantines.)
Instead, I’m thinking of this moment as the normal I want, even with all its disruptions and cruelties. For if the time before the virus came was normal, it’s not a normal I want to return to. In this line of thinking, I was very happy to wake up this morning to Peter C Baker’s argument in The Guardian about the opportunity this virus provides us to make a better world:
For years, in mainstream politics the conventional line – on everything from healthcare to basic living expenses such as housing – has been that even if the world has its problems, expansive government intervention is not a feasible solution. Instead, we have been told that what works best are “marketplace” solutions, which give large roles to corporations motivated not by outdated notions like “the public good” but by a desire to make a profit. But then the virus started spreading, governments spent trillions in days – even going so far as to write cheques directly to citizens – and suddenly the question of what was feasible felt different.
From this perspective, the task today is not to fight the virus in order to return to business as usual, because business as usual was already a disaster. The goal, instead, is to fight the virus – and in doing so transform business as usual into something more humane and secure.
When this normal is over, we’ll all be ready for something else. Let’s make it something new. Even if that means dining out at restaurants every night for three weeks, or high-fiving every stranger just to make touch a muscle memory again, it’ll be all of us together, driven by our desires to remake the world the way we need it.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Though I also worry that this administration’s total lack of leadership during the pandemic will lead to people more affirmed that it’s only the free market (and like fucking Elon Musk) that we can rely on to save us.↵
I. Yesterday I helped 4 different Russian women ensure they voted for Trump. Two of them were angry. Listen: angry. I’m talking Wanting To Call The Police angry over the intricacies of our ballots and party preferences and what they perceived, across our language barrier, as a grand injustice. But my job for Super Tuesday was to be a poll worker, and I swore to help everyone cast the vote they wanted to cast, and so I spent a lot of time on the phone with translators, and a lot of careful pointing to our ballots’ intricacies to help these strangers I’ll never see again cast a vote for the worst thing to happen to my country and the people I love in it.
I also helped a man cast a vote for Bloomberg because, as he said, everybody else dropped out, and because, as he said, “that Warren” should drop out because all she does is try to tell men what’s up.
Working polls for a day is the greatest test of your faith
II. I got the job because I read my San Francisco Election Guide, which the city uses its tax revenues to print—in English, Chinese, and Spanish—and mail to every registered voter. The point of the Election Guide is to read statements from every candidate on the ballot, and get detailed analysis on how propositions got on there, and what the fiscal cost of passing them would be, and so on and so on.[*]
Anyway they had an ad asking for poll workers and I’m on sabbatical so I said why not.
I got trained for 3 hours on Monday, was handed a poll worker guide with all steps and procedures, and given a little bit of time to practice setting up and using the machines and devices.
I reported to my assigned polling place just before 6am. Our spot was a community room in a high-rise apartment halfway across town from me; most of my fellow workers, I learned, lived just around the corner from there. We had 60 minutes to set up 5 voting booths, an accessible ballot-marking-device for people with visual or motor impairments, and the ballot scanning machine, which recorded everyone’s paper ballots. Also the welcome table, which had our roster (I counted just over 1000 voters assigned to our polling place) and the box of 30 ballots to distribute.
Why 30 ballots? Six political parties qualified to have elections this primary: the American Independent, Democratic, Libertarian, Green, Peace and Freedom, and Republican parties. Those first 3 allow those not registered in a party to vote for them, but only on “crossover” ballots which do not contain their intra-party officer elections. Finally, there was a no-party ballot that did not include any presidential race on it.
Now print those 10 in English/Chinese, English/Spanish, and English/Tagalog to serve the city’s citizens. Our job was to get everyone the right ballot.
III. Well, not my job. For whatever reason, my job became standing by the ballot scanning machine to tell people how to insert their ballots, interpret any error messages that might have popped up, and help them fix that error. The best part of the job was getting to give them the I Voted!/¡Ya voté!/我投票了！/Bumoto ako! sticker, because everyone loves the sticker.
And everyone gets the sticker. Loving the democratic process, or having faith in it maybe I mean, means that we’re all equal and entitled to the same rights, and we’re all in this together, which is why quickly I came to love the Russian woman who wanted initially to call the police on me for telling her her mother was registered Democrat. I liked looking at the smile on her face when I helped her mother cast her vote,[†] and when I used my phone to show that her own mail-in ballot had been counted. I loved how she said “Thank you, thank you” in English to me, and when I tried a “Spasibo!” back, she pointed at her chest and said “Ukraine” with pride and than that language’s form of thank you.
She’s more of this city than I am, has lived here longer, and my signing up for living here means we’ve got each other, whether we love each other or not.
IV. California is the first place I’ve lived where the people I wanted to get elected for office actually got elected. I moved here when I was 35. And I guess it’s felt a lot like getting assigned to the floor of a dorm where everyone luckily listens to the same bands as you. You feel Among Your People.
The problem there is the problem of social media: the cool-band dorm allows you to socialize only with a false public—false because manufactured from above, and ill-representative of space. Everyone complains (and does little) about how social networks silo users into feedback tunnels, or however the metaphors go. And their pleasures are clear: it feels more juvenilely easier to “live” “among” 400+ people who listen to the same bands as you than to physically live among 400+ people too divergent to make any sense.
But welcome to your neighborhood.
Working a polling place makes you meet the people in your
neighborhood, and tasks you with helping them manifest their dreams of our
future—whether it’s more of this president, or more billionaires in office, or
anyone but a mouthy woman. They do not look the way you may now be assuming
they look, and they do not have the backgrounds you may be picturing.
They don’t always fit into the narrative you maybe picked up from somewhere far away. (New York? D.C.?) This is why all politics is local, or should be. Democracy is all about living more egalitarianly next to the people you live next to. So if the only campaign races you’ve read about, fretted over, and sent money to are this presidential one, you’re not fully doing your part.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
This is a post for another time, but these guides are the answer to the problem of televised debates—which are to democracy what WWE’s “sports entertainment” is to sport, and media moguls thank you for watching both.↵
In California, you can change your party preference at the polls that day just by filling out a form.↵
I. I am trying here to figure out what happens in my body and my mind when I click on Today’s Crossword and see this:
I remember, when it happened, that I gasped lightly, a noised breath-intake, and then I held it. What was that about? Gasping seems to be a reflex of feeding the body oxygen in preparation for a willed temporary paralysis. Like with fear reflexes, turning a corner and coming upon someone who might harm you, or who you really don’t want to know you’re there. You gasp, and you still yourself. In most environments motion catches the eye more than color. Paralysis is a way to hide. Even the rhythms of breathing are too much to risk.
But in arousal or excitement? Do I need to explain it, for those who don’t do crosswords? Every puzzle is beautiful if you love symmetry (I’m ambivalent on the issue), but behold the 6 answers that span the width of the puzzle, all of them 16-letters long, and all fitting together to produce so many new vertical words! Notice also the nooked-out arrangement in the middle, how access to those squares is protected from inroads made vertically from other vectors! It’s not impossible, but the challenge of it is made bare before you’ve even entered a single letter.
What I’m saying is that there’s a promise broadcast instantly by the image of this puzzle, a promise or an invitation, maybe. The puzzle is posing and showing off, and asking me to come in and play around with it a while, knowing it knows how much I’m going to enjoy it.
Compare that image to this one:
Again, I gasped. (Never mind where I found it.)[**] I imagine also my eyelids retracted, or flared, whatever the physiological reaction is called, as though to let in more of the image’s sense data the way we flare our nostrils to gather more of a smell. And I know that in beholding these men in their hot springs, their shapes and arrangement, I felt a very similar promise or invitation as I did with the crossword.
Was it the same promise, is what I’m trying to figure out.
II. Let’s get back to gasping in fear and excitement. From what little I know I think “arousal” is a term biologists or ethologists give to the physiological process of the brain feeding hormones rapidly to the body once it’s arrested from a relaxed or dormant state. Whatever does the arresting—a fearful object, an erotic object, sunlight after sleep—doesn’t change the process.
Arousal, then, can be pleasant or unpleasant, given one’s needs or desires at the time, or given (some theorists say) whether you identify as an extravert or introvert.
The gasping, then, is functional, instinctive, and thus I’m less interested in it (call it a fault), though I do still find it interesting that I had the same bodily reaction to first encountering both images. But the shared feeling of invitation or promise is interesting, because the outcomes they point to seem so different.
III. I imagine I’m not the only person who has kept mind and body separate for most of their lives, and more specifically who has seen intellectual and sexual pursuits as operating in separate spheres. There’s nothing dumber than a hardon, is what I’m saying. But this question of shared promise is blurring lines I’ve probably spent too much time maintaining.
The puzzle makes me want to solve it, and the photo makes me want to touch the men inside it. So those actions—thinking quietly in solitude and filling in letters, being a body amid other bodies—seem very disconnected from one another. What accounts for my equal reaction is something regarding arousal I hadn’t considered before.
It’s like arousal is about the sudden stirring of potential, and because desires are manifold, I can feel as equal a pull toward an amazing crossword as I can an erotic body. What pulls me is promise, potential, newness. Novelty? It seems like this wants to be a post about novelty, and being aroused by hot new (brainy, erotic) things.[††] Except that both of these images still stir the imagination. It’s been long enough that I would happily solve that crossword again. Maybe I don’t gasp anymore, but the arousal is still there.
And the crossword isn’t new, exactly, any more than every crossword is. It presents me not with a novel experience, but another challenging one, which I can tell from the shape of it will be rife with one of the pleasures I go to crosswords seeking out: watching words and phrases materialize and fit unexpectedly together.
Which is not at all far from the pleasure of writing.
IV. I’ll wrap up on the realization I now just got that I feel a similar arousal when a new idea (like the one I just ended the section on) comes to me. That solving crosswords is like writing the way paint-by-numbers is like painting makes a lot of new exciting sense for regarding why I enjoy doing them at the end of a day of writing and reading.
But that’s a post for another time. What’s arousing about a new idea isn’t its newness so much as what I might do with the thing, and so I’m back again to these images’ promise and invitation. If arousal is the state of waking from dormancy or relaxation, I am probably aroused by arousal. I might always find it pleasant. Guy Hocquenghem calls love “the desire to desire and be desired,” so I’ll need to think some more about what to call this. Other than a risky habit.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
And any criticisms (ad hominem, postcolonial, feminist, etc.) that may come my way for posting such an image I’ve already worked through and accepted, discovering that, in these matters, while I can come away unashamed, there’s no coming away unscathed.↵
I’ve seen the studies that aim to show how pornography (and in a world of “food porn” or “house porn” let’s admit this is a post about varied pornographies) instills or increases one’s demand for newness and novelty, and I’ve seen the studies that show skepticism of those studies’ findings.↵
Last week, I learned on my own why older men do that thing, when they sit in chairs or hunker down, where they pluck up the thighs of their pantlegs with their fingertips. I was at home. I think I was cleaning. I don’t remember how I put 2 and 2 together, but I put them together: it keeps your waistband from sliding down your ass.
Now: far be it from me to keep men from showing off some of that ass whenever they bend over. Plus low-rise pants are very 2010, so this may stop being a problem for a while.
I can’t quite figure out the physics of it. I think it’s that the knees pull at the pants when you sit, or maybe the ass does? The thing with plucking up the legs, like this guy here is doing…
…is that it seems to distribute excess hanging-leg fabric toward the groin, so that the waistband stays in place no matter what shape you’re bending into.
I’m 41 years old. For ever, I didn’t understand why older men did this, and at the risk of embarrassing myself, I assumed it had something to do with what I heard often in jokes: older men sometimes sit on their testicles. Is it true? Is it only while wearing boxers? I imagine I’ll learn the hard way someday, and as I’m 41 that day might be sooner than I think.
One effect of plucking up the pant legs is that it tends, almost paradoxically, to tighten up the groin area, or maybe one’s bulge gets tucked in by the pant’s fabric, like a toddler at bedtime. So the move shows off a bit of the goods, for better or for worse, like in this photo of Lord Grantham:
Why I’m even bothering with this post is that nobody ever taught me this trick, neither my father nor the hundreds of issues of men’s magazines I’ve read since I turned 20. (Not that it’s a tool of the patriarchy or anything; I imagine the physics works on all genders’ bodies.) I’ve just been letting my shirt hems come untucked and brand of underwear get broadcasted for decades.
So I thought I’d share the knowledge. And in doing so, I’m reminded of Edward P. Jones’s “A Rich Man”, which my colleague Laleh Khadivi turned me on to some years back. It’s about an older man, a bit of a lothario, and one element of his allure gets rendered early in the story:
“Listen,” he said as she talked about her father, “everything’s gonna work out right for you.” He knew that, at such times in a seduction, the more positive a man was the better things went. It would not have done to tell her to forget her daddy, that she had done the right thing by running out on that fat so-and-so; it was best to focus on tomorrow and tell her that the world would be brighter in the morning. He came over to the couch, and before he sat down on the edge of the coffee table he hiked up his pants just a bit with his fingertips, and seeing him do that reminded her vaguely of something wonderful. The boys in the club sure didn’t do it that way. He took her hand and kissed her palm. “Everything’s gonna work out to the good,” he said.
I knew exactly what that “something wonderful” was the instant I read it. It’s, I imagine, akin to what supporters of the president feel every time he tweets or opens his mouth: daddy’s here and will take care of everything. It is a good feeling that’s not always a good-for-you feeling, like starting in on a third martini.
A better feeling, for me at least, is knowing how and why to do the move, which is to say knowing myself better, my body better, and looking out less for the comforting help of other (older) people.
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.
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)
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.↵
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.
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)
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.↵
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.↵