Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Discrete Ways We Measure the Continuous, Part 1: Jenga Towers and Rationalizing Wonderland

        I mentioned in my last post about this being my busiest summer to date; this, in turn, has also made it one of the most thought-provoking.  Along with working as orientation staff for Ball State and my internship as assistant to literary agent Amanda Luedeke, two dear friends of mine asked me to be in their weddings this past June.  This kicked off the start of summer with quite a bang, considering that their weddings happened to occur in the same weekend.  Nonetheless, both celebrations went marvelously well, and I somehow managed to go from wearing one bridesmaid dress in Indiana at 12 am to the next bridesmaid dress in Illinois ten hours later, while still able to maintain sanity (and even enjoy the honor immensely).  Needless to say, this experience led me to ponder the idea of matrimony, more deeply and intimately than I had ever done in the past.

        A good friend of mine and I have often argued about the tradition of marriage, and whether it is a necessary or even useful external display of an internal commitment to another person.  After all, beyond tax-discounts, what use is there in spending thousands of dollars to get "married," when one ought to have this level of commitment without any piece of paper or formal title declaring it to anyone beyond the two involved?  While it may seem that this is an overly scientific and utilitarian way to look at marital union, in my experience an objective approach to a cultural norm often gets to the heart of the matter: finding what is truly fundamental to a certain idea by poking and prodding away at what is simply associated with it. I call this Jenga-blocking.

Objectivity is not an opposing force to sentimentality, but rather is an investigative eye towards discovering the true foundations of what we treasure as humans.  Rational thought is a tool which may serve us well, as long as we do not allow ourselves to become a servant to it, instead.  (That can lead us to some pretty silly conclusions, like eliminating world hunger through cannibalism, cooking up the hungriest people in order to feed the hungry people.  A brain working without a heart can be pretty stupid.)  With an objective eye wielded correctly, however, we can see well enough to prod at the structure of an idea, step-by-step separating what is associated with a cultural norm from what is truly fundamental to it.

        Along the way of thinking about marriage, I began to investigate relationships, dating, and that strange "in-between" phase that no one quite knows what to do with.  I was under the impression that I had never been in a relationship before, until another friend pointed out to me that most of the labels we assign to a particular person we interact with doesn't actually define our relationship to that person.
        "Every relationship of any sort is continuous," he said, using a mathematical term for a line which has no gaps or sharp steps.  A slide is continuous, an elevator is continuous; a staircase is not, because you must take separate (discrete) steps.
        "Except for marriage, there is no title or label that has any inherent meaning, more than what we pretend to attribute to it.  Marriage is the only discrete step that really counts for anything."
        From this perspective, maybe I've been in multiple relationships and only failed to recognize or label them.  I began to ask myself, what is it about marriage that makes it so different, so distinct from any other relationship?  What is it about the act of marriage, the promise made publicly, that is so important?  No single physical, emotional, or intellectual element seemed to point to the true foundation of what makes a couple "married" to one another, beyond the public statement itself.  For every thing I could think of that might be thought of as the true core of what makes a couple "married," I could think of examples of married couples who did not have that element and yet were still considered to be married.  Yet, when I have asked people who are married what marriage is, they are not able to explain it.  (This, of course, does not bother them.  They can go on being married without knowing what that means just fine, the same way I am ignorant of how this laptop works, but that does not prevent me from continuing to use it, and considering it a marvelous invention.)

        From there, like Alice, I've tunneled even further down the rabbit-hole, and as I sift through all of the information I've accrued from the last year, with the constant trickle of more, I begin to wonder why we have such a need for definitions and distinctions for the abstract and undefinable.  We use words like measuring sticks, but the non-Euclidean reality we experience never seems to match up -- this is an inequality writers know all too well.  The best we can do is design our measuring sticks, our words, according to the thing we are attempting to measure: we make metaphors, those longitudes and latitudes we use to draw parallels that converge.

        I'm slowly discovering that the desire to measure is the desire to communicate, but will wait to elaborate on that for an upcoming post.  Feel free to comment your thoughts in the meantime, and stay tuned for "Part 2: Commas, Marriage, and Ear-marked pages."

Friday, June 21, 2013

Freshman Orientation

Baby's First 9-to-5

        I'm working my first "big-girl job" this summer, as freshman orientation staff for my university's honors college.  This, along with my internship for Midwest Writer's Workshop, as assistant to literary agent Amanda Luedeke, makes this the busiest summer I've ever had.  Yet, I can pose no complaints; without a doubt, this is also the best job I have ever had.  Every day, I sit in a beautiful white house, the previous residence of Ed and Virginia Ball, talking with incoming students and their parents about what "honors" education is, and why they should be glad they decided to be a part of it.  (As Dean Ruebel often says, "Honors doesn't mean 'harder,' it means... 'different.'")

        It occurs to me now, as I look out the window towards campus, that many of the huge decisions we make are made on scant bits of information that may or may not mean anything.  When I ask, "What drew you to Ball State?" many students hardly have an answer.  I was one of them; I had never even heard of BSU in high school, but, hey, the pamphlet looked cool.  When I filled out an application, I didn't even bother applying to the honors college, for reasons that were backed by well-thought-out, deep convictions: it was an extra piece of paper to fill out, and I wasn't sure if I would get accepted.  I thank God for whoever it was who called me up and told me that I should reconsider applying for honors, and to make an appointment with someone at the house to show me around and talk to me about what I now tell the incoming freshmen I meet with: honors students aren't all clean-pressed academic robots.  We're just curious people who haven't finished learning yet.

Why All Planning Is Poor Planning

        I will never know the name of the person who called me up and told me to reconsider applying to honors, and yet I owe to them the entire beautiful, painful, serendipitous adventure that has been my educational journey.  We tend to imagine that our lives are full of intelligent decisions, and that the opportunities that we experience or miss are a direct result of good or poor planning and forethought.  In my own experience at least, life looks something a bit more like this.  We enter blindly into arenas we might have been too timid to engage in, if we knew in advance what we were getting ourselves into, if we hadn't wandered into things bigger than we can imagine with simple, gradual steps.  Right foot in front of left foot, a domino's distance at a time, a freshman sheepishly walks up to the front desk and asks me how to get to "Studebaker East" from here.  It takes me a moment to answer, because any landmark I am tempted to give would mean nothing to him.  When I look out the window, I don't just see a street and a few ambiguous buildings mostly obscured by trees.  I see three-dimensionally.  In my mind, I can see inside the buildings, the directions the halls and staircases wind; I know which buildings to snake through on my way to class if it's raining and I forgot my umbrella.  And I can see the memories I've had all around this campus, so I see the past too: four dimensions.  I can still hear echoes of songs I sung in the library stairwell to relieve stress between classes that first year.  When he looks out the window, all he sees is a moving photograph, beyond which nothing exists, to his knowledge.  I search for the words to direct him, but there is no obvious path to somewhere no road directly leads to.  I could give him a map, but that would only do him so much good: he wouldn't even know how orient himself north or east.


        In the same way, newcomers approach this school, this college life, this adult existence, with the same two-dimensional view.  They know nothing but what they can see from where they stand.  They still see Dr. Ruebel as scary, because he's the Dean, and none of them really know what that means.  I see him as personable and goofy, because he's addicted to Oreos, and sticks his tongue out at people when he can't think of anything else to say to them.  I smirk, thinking about how the student asking me for directions will feel when he meets Barb Stedman for the rest time.  He will see an intimidating woman with a quick, birdlike intelligence, eyes prodding him forward to reach his fullest potential, demanding he be willing to go through hell and back to retrieve it.  As director of scholarship opportunities, she will push him to plan out that future potential beyond what he could possibly predict.  He will not know, not immediately, that she herself is a series of wonderful risks and fumbles and adventures, and that she once quit a stable and well-paid job to go teach in Pakistan; a decision made in the matter of an hour and acted upon minutes later.  For all her spoken belief in the "well-planned" life, she admits what I have come to discover one piece at a time: the biggest (and often the best) decisions we make, we make blindly.  The goofiest part of all of this is that we are clueless as to how blind we really are until much, much later.  We think we guide ourselves by evidence; we decide what school to go to, what to major in, who to marry, where to live, what job to take, based on what evidence we have, which is about as informed as predicting a gift given a careful analysis of the cardboard filaments that make up the outside of the box.

Unpredictability: Something Academics and Marriage Have in Common

        The best advice concerning marriage I have ever heard was, "You always marry the 'wrong' person.  They will, without a doubt, not be the person you thought they were, and you will not be the person you thought you were, and the real work/fun of marriage is learning how to care for the stranger to which you find yourself married."  When I see students walking through campus with their parents, carrying those tell-tale red and white plastic BALL STATE bags, I see the fumbling first-steps into a four-year marriage to a university that they know virtually nothing about. Lucky for me, there is no need for me to feign excitement and positive reinforcement about this new union.  When I stand up every day to face the fears of public speaking that still linger in the little girl who first splashed onto this campus, all I have to do is tell the truth of what I have stumbled into these past three years.  As I describe what they can't see beyond the brick walls, the honors classroom beyond the doors they've yet to wander through, I'm only telling my own story as one of many small balls who found themselves on a course they could have never predicted.  Through moments of peril, epiphany, joining the chorus of confusion and discovery with others beside me, I've become a part of a symphony of interdisciplinary learning I never knew existed.

        Meanwhile I've begun to recognize the important of finding, in this goofy, horrible world, my one tiny role in it all, and try to do that role to the very best of my ability.  My advice to new students (and I think we are all new students in this great Universe-ity) is simple: keep doing very small things with all your might, every ounce poured into every step towards the person you want to become, and hope, at the end, that all of it will add up to something.

(Squeezing out a tube of tooth paste, maybe
frying an egg.)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Civilization and its Discontents

Written upon turning his poem sideways.

I look across the skyline
of someone else's words:
smokestack fingers reaching
for something;
Food on the table?

Or are they simply
an extension of self,
unselfish; stretching here
to feel out their length,

I wonder if there
are children in the factories,
their innocence tarnished
in the soot of progress.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Grandma's Getting a Twitter: Thoughts on Citizenship in the 21st Century Literary Community

There's a joke in the math department, "The university loves us because we're cheap dates.  All we need is pencil, paper, and a wastebasket.

Of course, they love the philosophy department even more: all they need is pencil and paper."

This illustrates something I love about both my fields of study (terrible jokes aside): simplicity.  One of the many things writers and mathematicians have in common is the age-old simplicity of their craft.  Pythagoras and Plato and Poe all used the same simple tools, the same tools writers and mathematicians continue to use today.

...Or do they?

After accepting the opportunity to intern for this year's Midwest Writers Workshop, along with ten other Ball State students, I began to realize just how much the writing world has changed and developed, even (and especially) during my lifetime.  Imagine my embarrassment when I was singled out, almost immediately, as the only person on the team without a Twitter account.  I was shocked, embarrassed, and immediately mended this error in my prehistoric ways as soon as I got home.  After mastering the "hashtag" and creating my first few "tweets," I felt no small amount of mental backlash at this rude awakening: the writing world had moved beyond my comfort zone, beyond the simple, pen-and-paper lifestyle that I signed up for when I began my journey as a writer.  To even apply for the internship, not only did I have to have a website with my electronic resume instead of a paper resume, I also had to provide evidence of my active use of social media.

This is entirely contrary to what students have been told for years: Don't get a Facebook.  Don't use social media, because employers search through your pictures and may turn you away as a result.  (Lucky for me, my idea of a wild Saturday night is making three different kinds of buffalo wings and eating them inside a blanket fort with a few friends while watching the Lion King, so I've been pretty comfortable having a social media presence for a number of years.)  Now, we're being told that our savvy in social media networking is what gives us an edge in the job market over our more experienced counterparts from the previous generation.  What used to be a bane to our career potential and a distraction from our studies is now an obligation, and is in fact the substance of the work I currently do for my internship. 

Growing up in the information age is both convenient and exhausting.  The worth of a great story seems to inflate, as more and more links on newsfeeds and tweetdeck lists makes new information so overwhelmingly convenient that it's hard to get, and even harder to keep, a reader's attention.  Can you blame stubborn old fogies like myself for our hesitancy in embracing this brave new world of writing platforms and self-promotion?  Joan Didion doesn't have a Twitter, because she dislikes microblogs (for unstated reasons that nonetheless seem obvious to me).  I have to wonder, are we ushering out a certain style and method of writing, without knowing the effects on the future generation of writers as self-promoters? 

A dear friend of mine is currently using a typewriter for his writing projects, because he feels that the method by which art is created affects the resulting art itself.  I whole-heartedly agree, and yet I wonder if any writers once saw the typewriter as a threatening piece of technology, poised to destroy the "right" or "real" method of writing: a pen to a page.

And taking a step even further back, I wonder if the earliest Greek oral poets stuck their noses up at the thought of their verse inscribed on a page, at the idea of destroying the transient beauty of performance, removing the precious temporality of the spoken word and reducing it to a list of figures that can be read and reread a thousand times.  I wonder if seeing their stories preserved on a scroll horrified them, their words removed so far from their vocal chords, bare and vulnerable to any prying eye to prod and question.  

The act of writing, unto itself, is a technological advancement.  To attempt to ignore the development of the blogging, tweeting, hashtagging literary community simply because of a belief in the superiority of "real" writers like Didion is to fool oneself into believing the world of writing is at all separable from the society it inhabits.

A useless question would be, "Should the writing world change to accommodate the desires of this generation and the methods of information age?"  The fact is, the literary community already has and will continue to change and develop within the society that it both affects and reflects.  A better question would be to ask yourself how to find new ways of connecting to this generation in a way that communicates to your readers while still maintaining the integrity of what you believe to be important as a writer.  I believe in the power of ideas to create change and the beauty of words toward healing and understanding. Stepping into this generation and using their communication tools to reach as many minds and hearts as possible need not have the effect of "selling out," nor does it require you to deny your own passions and reasons for writing.  It can even become your Areopagus, your venue from which you can share those passions more effectively with an audience better able to receive that message and pass it on.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Schrodinger's Pen: The Quantum Life Writers Must Not Neglect

Every pen has to cope with the personality of its wielder.  If our pens could talk, they would be able to tell a great deal about us:  Mine would inform you that I do not have a consistent time when I write, nor do I have a set period for which I write. No word quota, no tally.

I do, however, have a large pile to go through today... tidbits of ideas, things to be edited, things to be elaborated on, and probably plenty of things that should never see the  light of day.  This morning, I found that pile intimidating: the accumulated questions and observations from months of experiences.  Now, I've begun to see them as seeds sown and grown to the right height for harvest.

My pen would tell all sorts of embarrassing stories about me: about how this is the first year I've let strangers critique my poetry, that I was so nervous before my first poetry reading a couple months ago that I practiced casual anecdotes to open with... my pen would be a complete ass about the whole thing.

Yet, there are many things my pen does not yet know about.  There are some experiences I've yet to record, barely touched on, for the same reason I'm on a hiatus from taking photos for the time being.  I realized I was beginning to see the world through a frame, and every scene or sunset was instantly undergoing rectangular surgery in my cookie-cutter mind, before I'd even had time to enjoy it.

Similarly, writing can become a dangerous opponent of itself, especially when guilt sets in for any days we spend neglecting our pens for friends and other ventures.  Just recently, one of my writing cohorts expressed dismay at how much time he was spending in the woods while in Colorado, saying it was not conducive to his writing.  When I asked what this meant, he said that the happiness he felt in just experiencing nature was not immediately turning a word-count-profit.  This, I reminded him, was not evidence of his failings as a writer, but rather an investment we should all be making.  Part of writing should be allowing yourself to live: to enjoy the world without constantly looking for ways to chop it into narrative.

Strangely, I think the best metaphor for why this is true is found in quantum physics: the study of things very very small.  When measuring a particle so small that it no longer obeys the rules of physics that we're familiar with, the act of looking at it changes where it is and where it's going.  At first, this may sound nonsensical, but consider that, in order to "see" anything, a photon (light particle) has to hit that thing and return to your eye.  On the quantum scale, that's like trying to measure the position of a balloon by hitting it with a tennis ball.  You may know where the balloon once was a moment ago, but wherever that was, it's no longer there.  The act of measuring, unto itself, changes the thing you are measuring, not unlike trying to take the temperature of a test tube of warm water with a thermometer.  The relatively cool temperature of the thermometer itself will affect the temperature of the water, causing the water to cool before it can be measured.

Similarly, as David Shields wrote, "The moment you start to arrange the world in words, you alter its nature.  The words themselves suggest patterns and connections that seemed at the time to be absent from the events the words describe."  This abstraction/subjection of the world into words is a necessary framing in order to relay meaning, and though writers know perfectly well the limitations and inaccuracies of words, they are what we have to work with.  Words can be essential toward helping us notice things about moments we would not have otherwise.  Yet, how many moments with friends have been spoiled by my disengagement from conversation as I ponder how I would begin describing the details of the room to give a certain pace to the dialogue?  (The dialogue that is different now, because of my lack of participation.)

And though there are no easy solutions to this issue of balancing our experiences and the words that translate them into meaning, I've come to believe, with a tip-of-the-hat to Ecclesiastes 3,

There is a time to experience, and a time to write.

Striking a balance between embracing life as something to be lived primarily, and something to be written about secondarily, is something I've obviously yet to master.  And, especially in the case of narrative journalism, some scenes must be written about on-the-spot.  I can't say that I recommend that every writer model themselves after my literary lifestyle, or that allowing oneself to wait to write until I they feel it is time would be wise for every writing project. But, I can say with some certainty that there is wisdom in allowing for seasons of sowing and seasons of harvest.  

To neglect letting oneself simply take in life with no looming guilt or expectations now and then is to forget the young writer we started out as: just a kid with a pen who had a lot of things on his mind and no one to talk to about them.  Writing as an extension of self is as important to practice as writerly discipline, and my pen could certainly tell you about how I could use a good dose of BOTH right about now.  

Thank goodness, my pen keeps its secrets until pressed.  

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Boy Born Without the Words

For Cam

Someday you
will have grown too old
to die young.

What will you plan
to do with your life

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Metaphors: The Good, the Bad, and the Brautigan

Note: This blog post is primarily in response to a poem by mid-western writer Travis Campbell, entitled "Good Metaphors."

I recently entered MacGregor Literary's Annual Bad Poetry Contest, and, much to my delight, I am currently holding second place.  It is strange, the amount of pride I have in this fact.

What is it that is so thrilling about purposefully writing your worst?  There is a certain degree of freedom in it, because compliments and criticisms are now one and the same, and the worst anyone can say about your work is, "I think it's too good."

My stab at infamy begins,

I was walking on the streets
bare and rusty, like someone's
half-drank bottle of underwear

ends with

the sky as vivid
as a t.v. show
about vacation places.

and, in between, includes some of the most bizarre and creative imagery I have ever come up with.  Strangely, there were several times that I had to stop myself while writing this poem, because the imagery I was coming up with was becoming too good and I needed to replace some words with weaker ones.  This is a problem I have never run into before, and certainly a problem I would like to have more often.

It causes me to wonder how much is lost in our constant efforts to impress with our words, and how many truly inspired and inventive uses of the English language are squelched beneath the toes of the leviathan expectations we impose upon ourselves: This has to make sense.  This has to seem legitimate.  To be laughed at is unbearable.


I agree with Travis Campbell when he says,

"Good metaphors
don’t need to be explained.
Good metaphors
don’t even need to be
Good metaphors."

Richard Brautigan exemplifies, in a way I'm not sure any other writer can, how good metaphors are sometimes terrible metaphors that don't make the least amount of logical sense.  And yet, those same comparisons can reach so deeply into the heart of how we truly see the world, that somehow, in our maze of synapses, the words connect our irrational selves to the scene in a way that is difficult to understand, with relevancy that is impossible to ignore.

The first time I ever read anything by Brautigan, it was like looking into the eyes of a fish from another planet and seeing myself, upside-down, reflected.

My favorite metaphor of all time can be found in his collection of flash-fiction titled Revenge of the Lawn, in a piece titled "Pacific Radio Fire," about sitting by the Pacific Ocean, listening to the radio with his friend whose wife had left him without warning.

"His eyes were wet wounded rugs.

Like some kind of strange vacuum cleaner I tried to console him."

I understand that rugs cannot feel pain, cannot be wounded, and that vacuum cleaners are machines, which are the opposite of something that can truly console.  And yet, I see his friend's eyes, their baggish wet sadness, and I feel the awkward pain the narrator feels in his inability to do anything about it.  Since happening upon this short, page-and-half story, I've always admired Brautigan's style: he's not really trying to be a good writer.  And, in my mind, that is much of what makes him a great writer.


In Professor Sean Lovelace's "English 409: Writing in the Community" course I took this spring, I supposedly tutored a 7th grader in poetry and nonfiction.  In reality, I ended up learning as much from her as she learned from me.  As I look back on some of the poems I wrote off-the-cuff during our brief, silly writing sessions, I see some of the most creative comparisons I've come up with in years.  I can only assume this is because, in my efforts to free her mind from the expectations of "good" writing, showing her how fun and creative writing can be, I was reminding myself of the same.

Because I was writing for her, and for myself, and no one else, I came up with things like

"His mind was a diseased rat, playing jazz on the roof of Wal-mart..."


"Humpback whales are the only whales
known to sing.  They swell
with notes in their teeth


To summarize the wisdom I have learned over the last semester in one trite piece of advice: write bad poetry.

Return to the homeland of your youth, that untouchable notebook of scribblings so incomprehensible and heartfelt that you could never bear the thought of showing them to anyone.  Dig up one of those early poems and see if you can't see a glimmer of creativity and rare openness; learn from your former self, the writer who was free to say whatever he wanted because no one ever had to see it.

Beginning the process of growing up and moving beyond the hermit-writer you once were, opening the shades and stepping out to become a literary citizen, is not a call to leave behind your vulnerabilities and fragile words of fumbling elegance (and, at times, outright stupidity).  It is the challenge to take those words and have the confidence to step into a community who will either accept them, or not.  Trust your words to be worth your time, and let yourself take ungraceful and arduous steps towards the writer you wish to become.  

I'll be right there, fumbling beside you every step of the way, like a drunk baby bunny trying to capture fireflies in its paws mid-flight.