Last weekend I flew to Portland and took a bus to Corvallis, Oregon, where three friends of mine live. One is Clay, who grew up across the street from me and who I’ve known all my life. I wanted, as the pandemic was loosening its grip on my life, to be with old friends and just spend time with them, and Clay was the oldest who’s the closest, so I flew up there when his quarter was done (he and Elaine, his wife, are math professors at Oregon State) to see him and Elaine and their son, Jack.
We went to a restaurant and a winery and a park, and we ate dinners on their back patio. It was the exact great vacation I needed.
My last day in Corvallis—which is a town in the western, central part of the Willamette Valley, one of the more verdant and fecund parts of the country, which was, Clay told me, and then highway signs confirmed, the end of the Oregon Trail, and so, for some, at a certain point in the violent history of this country, a promised land—I spent with my other two friends in town: Justin St. Germain and Elena Passarello, who teach nonfiction at OSU. They’ve got a podcast called I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead, and on Saturday they let me sit down with them and talk about, among other things, essays about sex.
You can stream the episode here:
Those folks do a good job making a nervous man like me feel relaxed and welcome, though if you listen to the audio you’ll see I can’t help my run some of my words together, in a kind of almost giddy panic. What’s scary about being interviewed is that you can’t compose your thoughts, and you sure as hell can’t revise them, and though I understand this is the thrill of the live-recorded podcast it’s hell for a nervous man like me.
Luckily, I have this blog, which Elena and Justin were kind enough to plug. So I’m going to use it to revise or elaborate an idea I brought up around 41:30, where I talk about my usually feeling turned off or more shut out from most sex writing. The people who have this gift about not being ashamed, or those who assert that readers are sex goddesses, etc. I’m talking about a narrative I’ve read a lot, one that tells the story of overcoming sex shame, which almost always leaves out the middle.
Here’s the middle: “Slowly, eventually, through trial and error and progress and regression, I found a way to understand, and then let go of, the shame I have about sex.”
Is it because the middle is boring? Or is it not much of a story? Perhaps writers who write about being empowered by sex and their bodies, or who write about sex the way they write about walking into a room, all have the same middle: they just one day decided to stop shaming themselves, and there was nobody around to make them doubt that decision, and thus there’s no real dramatic weight to their middle. Or, as I surmise unfairly (and with no amount of insight on her life) about Maggie Nelson, that they were magically raised never to feel ashamed of their bodies or their sex.
A more informed surmising might be this: my favorite writers about sex have spent enough time held close by queer communities that any shame they may have had has long seeped out of them, light a bulb that gets dimmer and dimmer until you forget it was ever really on. And how do you write the experience of something unnoticed running in the background?
I’m reminded of a thing I see on social media a lot (I’ve written about this before), where people get a lot of likes when they give an unhelpful but important-sounding life tip, like this tweet I once screenshotted:
Many versions of that tweet are out there, and the most liked one has 23.1K retweets. People fucking love shit like this, and I’m calling it shit deliberately, because how, motherfucker? How do you propose people go about learning this wisdom you claim to just have?
It’s the teacher in me, perhaps, the educator Elena points to in the podcast. I get largely angry when knowledge is asserted to the uninitiated without any form of instruction or help, and so much sex writing asserts more than it instructs, or if it instructs it begins from what still to me seems like an intermediate/advanced position.
Examples, as usual, are failing me. But anyway: big sincere thanks to Justin and Elena for having me on their great podcast.
I. First, listen to this 6-minute song (you can skip through but I don’t recommend it):
For those of you who skipped it, what you have are 3 chords cycled over and over again: G then A then Bm. It’s a scalar step up that feels like a step down, but the point really is that it goes on and on and on. I’m a devout Bill Callahan fan—or I have been, I no longer am, and what’s changed is what I’m writing this post on forms in artmaking to find out—and this song is my favorite of his, probably, from what’s historically been my favorite of his like 49 records.
When I listen to Knock Knock I’m once again living alone in an attic apartment in Pittsburgh, cooking freezer-aisle pierogies or Wishbone-marinated chicken breasts on the gas stove in the tiny alcove of my kitchen, or I’m washing plastic plates in the wide shallow sink, this record playing across the room on the turntable I keep under my cabinets, next to the microwave my parents bought when I was 7. Callahan’s cycles are cycling, and I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life now that I’m out of school and all of my school friends have left Pittsburgh for bigger places. Those were lonely years, and I was deeply, woefully closeted to myself, but I can look back on them fondly.
The point: what Smog songs did for me was strip art formally bare and still present an enormous lush world rich with emotion. The form is this: put 2 or 3 chords together, repeat that forever, and then either throw a new chord in, briefly, or shift to a one-line refrain that resolves the tension of repetition as surely as a tonic chord resolves a dominant seventh. More than the romance of Bill Callahan’s world—a world of horse textures and river-longing where each of us listeners becomes a quiet traveler alone in our thoughts far outside of towns—my fandom was built on this minimalism.
Bill Callahan is different now. Now he’s rhapsodic:
Rhapsody or collage? The new idea is that there’s this part of the song, and then once it’s established it’s time for a new part of the song. Then let’s do this. Then let’s do this. Let’s end once some effect is achieved.
If “River Guard” is a poem, or a prayer, “Breakfast” is an essay. Why don’t I like it?
II. What I mean by “is an essay” is that one formal characteristic of the essay is that it has no set form. Essays don’t have prosody to break down their wholes to component parts, and they’re unlike narrative which has causal progression and a “beginning, middle, and end.” Essays’ formlessness disturbs basically every student I teach: we all want someone to give us a structure. I try instead to teach the embrace of formlessness. It’s a feature of essays, not a bug. (I’ve written about this before.)
Now watch this video with Callahan pal and labelmate Will Oldham, where he talks to schoolkids about how he learned songwriting practice:
Oldham’s idea is “why try to reinvent the wheel” when the classic form of songwriting “works”. “The only reason it has to be new is you want to claim something for yourself,” he admits, which is true of most artists. But, newnesses are possible within old forms. If you skipped the above video, here’s the song he gives as an example (and then elaborates more on the idea afterward):
I don’t need to spell out all its newnesses. The great big useful point Oldham makes is that once you’ve established a familiar form (in this case by following a verse with a chorus) then you can get away with unfamiliar content. “Anything you want to put into a song can work when you put it into the song.” You can be weird or dark or unusual in what you sing and how you sing it, because the form indicates to wary, unsure listeners that they’re still on steady ground, and something of what’s expected will soon return.
Anymore Bill Callahan keeps his ground unsteady. I don’t think he’s stopped singing about rivers and horses and brambles, but his forms’ songs feel less to me like worlds I’m invited inside and more like landscapes blurring out the window of a train I’m on, one that’s not stopping anytime soon. I was open to this years ago, and maybe I’ll need it again soon, but not this year.
So what does this have to do with essays? And what does it have to do with Hallmark Christmas Movies?
III. Well, everything. I’ve said before that HCMs are like sonnets—or probably I said that they are as formally predictable as sonnets—and lately I’m trying to figure out if I’m an HCM formalist or something else. (One flaw in English is that there’s no adjectival equivalent for “content”. That is, we’ve got nothing good to complete the analogy, form : content :: formal : _____. “Semantic” comes close, but not close enough. “Material” is closer.) Maybe I’m an HCM materialist.
If HCMs have 9 acts, then Act 1 is “Demonstrate the Woman is good at her job.” Last night we watched an HCM where the Woman was Lacey Chabert and told a shopowner in Brooklyn how a judge ruled that the owner of his building can’t legally raise his rent, so he won’t have to close the store that’s been in his family for generations. The Woman is good at her job of Being A Lawyer. Before that, we watched an HCM where the Woman had a hairless cat’s face and told a panicking bride-to-be that red and white roses would make a far better bouquet than the white peonies her flower shop was out of. The Woman is (questionably, for those of us not in the target audience) good at her job of … it wasn’t clear what her role there was but you won’t be surprised to learn she leaves that job by the end of the movie to plan events at an enormous wintry inn.[*]
I’m going to do my best to list every job I recall the Woman having in an HCM:
Cafe/Coffee Shop Owner
Bookstore Owner or just small-scale retail shopowner in general
Reporter/Online Content Producer
Scavenger Hunt Designer
Lawyer (rare as hell)
Teacher (rare as hell)
Violinist (twice this year alone!)
We haven’t watched the one where Holly Robinson Pete plays the titular Christmas Doctor who has a background in the military, but there’s a doctor-soldier for you. My point here is look at that list. If you know anything about HCM formulaicness it won’t surprise you—the oldest joke about HCMs is how baldly aspirational their Womans’ jobs are, how they seem to flatter something the target audience secretly believes about themselves.
That’s the form. Why can’t we all imagine different content to fill it?
Hallmark has done something pretty special these last few years, which is use the textures of yuletide to make a form as formulaic as the romantic comedy far more baroque than it’s ever been[**]. But not too baroque that the rest of us have had any trouble absorbing its nuances. You don’t need to watch this entire 6-minute commercial for a deodorant that wants you to use it on your “private parts — front and back!” but look at how they pack in all the acts:
We watch an HCM as steadily as we hear a verse-chorus-“middle-8” pop song. We always know what will happen next, so why not make what is happening now more interesting?
I’m not getting at a point, I know. What am I saying? More and more I’m watching Hallmark squander the treasure of its form. I think they are extremely insecure about the reasons people watch and what keeps them coming back for more. I think they have a real fear that if the Woman’s job isn’t aspirationally fun or cute or challenging-but-not-too-stressful, then they’d lose viewers/money.
Why, for instance, have I never seen a nurse in an HCM? I’ve seen far too many soldiers, but none of them has been the Woman. I’ve never seen a Woman be a cop (thank God), but this absence has nothing to do with what cops have become in the dominant imagination after 2020’s exposure of their decades of systemic violence and abuse, and everything to do with Hallmark failing in its imagination of what people will readily watch over the holidays, and how the magic of relating to a protagonist works.
N & I are in disagreement on this, and characteristically I probably in my heart believe he’s right. Last night, we watched the Man and Woman walk into a bakery, and there on the floor were big circle-stickers set 6 feet apart from each other, in a line back from the counter, indicating where people should safely stand in a pandemic, and my heart surged and I literally sat up in my chair. I rewound it and verified what I was seeing—evidence. Something real in the fakest of TV worlds. (Never mind that everyone in the packed bakery was maskless, because no pandemics exist in the HCU.)
I repeated to Neal my old complaint that none of this year’s HCMs has even acknowledged the circumstances of this pandemic, and N asked how I think they could do that. How could they do Almost Kiss with masks on? How could actors enunciate their lines and do carol songs during Town Square Christmas Tree Lighting Applause Scene? And obviously they can’t. If the magic of an HCM lies in its content, the HCM falls apart, but I don’t think it does.
So, finally my point, which is Will Oldham’s point: when your form is strong enough your audience will follow you, and don’t conflate your content with your form.
If you demonstrate the Woman is good at her job and then disappear her to a location outside her routine where in time she’ll help a Niece-Daughter with a seasonal creative project, we will watch them do this with masks on, or with unglamorous jobs to have to go back to, or with a skin color that isn’t white and speaking sometimes a language that isn’t English. We will accept aggressively grumpy people or outright horny ones, we will feel less alone. Or I will. I’ll be grateful that Hallmark has in this way said yes to the pain and confusion I feel about being alive right now.
I’m not even getting into the sex-positive HCMs I can imagine, or the HCMs about working-class people living paycheck to paycheck in ever-unaffordable cities. That we don’t have any made-up stories to watch—on Hallmark or any channel—about us living safely together in a pandemic, that we have only the news of this, is one part of why we’re not living safely in this pandemic.
IV. “Once I realized that formalism was on my side,” Oldham says in the above vid, “it made going to work every day a lot easier.” I’m hoping to teach this in the spring, in my Nonfiction Studio course (I’ve abandoned the MFA workshop model, probably for good, a topic for another post). I’m hoping to spend some time thinking very hard about the forms of the essay—and I don’t mean “the braided essay” or the (ugh) “hermit crab essay”.
I mean essay forms that all of us know as well as songs and HCMs. Does that mean only the 5-paragraph essay taught in most high schools? Well that’s the big one. The toast is another. The prayer. If all an essay is is the written-out portrayal of a thought process, putting ideas out there and coming to some new understandings, we do this all the time, and I want to see what happens to my and my students’ writing once we sign on to a form and unanxiously honor it. If you don’t have to worry about losing your reader, where might the art you make take them?
The essays of late Bill Callahan are not, turns out, what I go to music for. Without formalism I need dynamism, I want the sonic equivalents of a sex worker being disappeared to a small northern town over Xmas and finding not just clients but love, and Callahan is keeping his voice steady, and guitar picking understated, and what’s left are his incredible lyrics. (“With kisses / sweet as / hospital grapes”). His newer songs sound the way my students’ early drafts read and the way HCMs feel to me now: magical at times, but hopefully on their way to somewhere better.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Probably we’ve watched 5 HCMs since I last live-blogged one, and the only thing I can say about my not writing about any of them is that isolation and not seeing family over Xmas has been hitting me hard, and I’ve had little motivation to do anything, and a side effect of this has been to hourly convince myself of my worth-/use-lessness, so to the five or six of you who seem to be enjoying these writeups I apologize. But I also think you aren’t missing out on anything enjoyable. I might be out of things to say.↵
Though if you watch 1949’s Holiday Affair with Robert Mitchum and Vivien Leigh you’ll be amazed at how many of the HCM acts and tropes they cover, even down to the Woman’s debate between Sensible Man She’s Meant To Marry and Irascible Handsomer Kook She Can’t Stop Thinking About.↵
Somewhere early in the sixth My Struggle, 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)
And by “early” I mean on page 178. (This was a book I abandoned, recall.)↵
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)
“Today, prolonged wakefulness is a widespread phenomenon.” Indeed, NIH.↵
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.↵
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.
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.
Today, I’ve got an essay up at Lithub about the choices I made to become queer, an essayist, and an artist. Its title was taken from a panel at last year’s NonfictioNow Conference, which got me thinking about how these three words were related in my own life. Thanks to editors Tim Denevi and Emily Firetog for shepherding it out into the world.