Category Archives: Philosophy

Freeing myself to write honestly by not publishing now

Cover of a journal, most likely one that contains content that would be unflattering to me.

Cover of a journal, most likely one that contains content that would be unflattering to me.

When I write nonfiction, such as this text I am writing now, I become a character in the text. What the narrator “I” says here in this text are things that Matt Hagemann himself means. What I write and mean takes on a power, a legitimacy, because I, Matt, a living person of (hopefully) respectable reputation, said it.

However, everything I say or write also may change what you, the reader, think of me as a writer and also as a person. If I say outrageous or inflammatory things, you may think poorly of me (and you may even seek to discredit me or get me fired from my job, as has happened to some people).

Fiction writers and poets, by the way, have the “poetic license” to separate their creating selves from their narrating selves. This frees these writers to say terrible things in their characters’ voices and not have this necessarily reflect on the writers themselves, but also, what these characters say does not have the force of a claim made by a real person.

So, when I publish a text that I claim to be nonfiction, I am aware that I’m tying this text to my reputation. So the safest thing would be to say nothing at all. I could be a consummate professional and never say anything controversial.

And, really, I’m starting to think that that’s not all that bad of a way of living. I have written before about how I’m learning to not express my opinions in certain situations. And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how what I have to say, at any particular moment, may not be all that valuable or useful. I have moments of wisdom, but also moments of arrogance, egotism, and worse. The world may be a better place if it wasn’t so easy to express ourselves to, essentially, a world-wide audience via the Interwebs.

And perhaps this is a rather obvious sort of insight, but I’ve long felt that my opinions were valid and useful and interesting to others. (This may be a personality flaw encouraged by my liberal arts education and by my family’s practice of frequent debates, and also by my self-confidence encouraged by my male-privilege!) For a while after college, I thought that the ideal writing job for me would be as a news columnist, where I would get paid to tell others what my opinions were.

Now I’m glad that I didn’t overexpose myself in that way. After all, it’s very easy to say or write things in the present that I would later come to regret. I’ve been noticing in myself lately how, when I read something that questions or criticizes something I believe or value, I’ll react almost instinctively with a self-righteous urge to defend or promote my own views.

But I am holding myself back more lately from actually responding. I’m getting better at seeing criticisms as merely alternate views, views that are not necessarily any more correct than my views, and that my views are not necessarily correct, either. The world may be ultimately unknowable, and so all ideas may be inadequate. Thus, I can let go of conflicts I’d start by opposing others’ ideas.

I remember reading something about the Buddhist idea of “nonattachment to views,” that one did not need to hold onto certain ideas or attitudes, because the holding on made one suffer. But lately I’m also thinking that it’s not just that I’m attaching to views, but that views are attaching to me, and I don’t want to define myself by my views.

So what I’ve realized lately is that I am less interested in expressing my views in public. I still have ideas, opinions, judgments, etc., but by writing them in my journal rather than blogging about them, I am able to keep from attaching these views to me. I would prefer to be seen as someone who doesn’t have strong opinions — I’d prefer to be seen as just a person — rather than being seen as “that liberal” or “the radical teacher” or “that crazy son of a bitch.” (Maybe there is some wisdom in that old Disney line, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”)

But I do still express myself in my journals. And sometimes these journals are interesting. But I don’t want to publish things that I feel strongly about now, because I might not feel strongly about them later. If what I write is valuable in a timeless sense (and I hope it is, because I’m not interested in writing news or news analysis or in being the first person on the Internet to make a certain clever joke), then it’ll still be valuable weeks or years from now, and I can write down my ideas now and edit them later. Letting time lapse is a great way of knowing what it is that I really WANT to publish.

And even if an idea seems interesting to me once the urgency of its newness has passed, I don’t necessarily want to defend or promote the idea. I’m not trying to sell something here. The idea should speak for itself, and so I don’t really want these ideas written by a Then-Me to be associated with Now-Me.

Of course, that’s not fully possible, but one idea I’ve had is that the separation in time between the writing and the editing not only gives me the perspective I need in order to edit, it also creates separation for the reader. What I wrote 20 years ago is clearly not the product of who I am today. This allows me to edit and publish my nonfiction with a little bit of the distance that the fiction writers enjoy. I can treat my old writings as those of the Then-Me character (who doesn’t need to be as suave and wise as I’d like to think I am now!), and those writings don’t directly reflect on Now-Me.

If I were to write and publish as Now-Me (as I’m writing and publishing this post), I would feel a need to present myself as a reasonable, intelligent, well-spoken, professional sort of person. This presentation of self is basically the creation of a persona of me, not the full me. It’s basically impossible to reveal the fullness of my expression, and I’m not sure anyone really wants or needs that (for example, how interesting are most people’s self-presentations on various social-media platforms?). While some artists are praised for revealing themselves, for being “honest” or “raw,” I’m not sure most people can really live like that — I feel that I’d be less honest if I were publishing in real time). If I wrote my daily journals on a blog, I’d be self-censoring to a great extent. I gotta have privacy in order to be free, and then I can later edit my writings for the benefit of my readers — while protecting the professional career I need now to keep myself fed, warm, and writing!

Programming Our Students: Standards-based teaching as dehumanizing

Yesterday I saw a presentation by Anne Weerda about measuring how much students learn while they are enrolled in our classes (“student growth” will soon be part of teacher evaluations in my state). This presentation was thorough and systematic in a way that many presentations I’ve seen about standards-based teaching and testing have not been.

As I engaged with this presentation, I started to see the “big picture” values and assumptions of standards-based teaching, a particular philosophy of and approach to school reform that that has been ascendant during the last 20 years or so of school reform. Standards-based teaching can be summarized as:

1. Telling students in great detail what they should be doing.

2. Seeing if they do it.

Of course, there are more-complicated ways of saying this, such as this from an introduction to the national Common Core standards:

the Common Core State Standards establish clear, consistent guidelines for what every student should know and be able to do in math and English language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade.

And there’s this statement:

Standards-based schools develop clear rubrics that describe what partially meeting a standard looks like, what mostly meeting it looks like, and what actually meeting it (the goal, after all) looks like. Any student should be able to meet that goal with enough time, hard work, and coaching.

A there’s this definition, from this document from Illinois State Board of Education:

It is widely understood today that broad goals, while useful, are not sufficient to define student learning. Clear and specific standards communicate to students, teachers and parents exactly what is expected for students to learn. Specific standards make clear the types of tests and measures that accurately gauge student progress. Data from these tests inform educators and the public about student progress and where improvements are needed.

The epiphany that came to me yesterday is that this is only one system (among others) of teaching, and that this approach requires students to do exactly what, and only what, the teachers ask for. For example, if I want my literature students to read a novel and respond by writing an essay about the theme of that novel, the student must write an essay, and write it according to my specifications. Of course, in reality, there are lots of ways that a student might respond to a novel: she might write a different kind of essay, or she might respond with a poem, or a painting, or she might not feel moved to respond at all. Furthermore, when I teach creative writing, I give not detailed instructions but vague requirements. I don’t want students to give me what I expect — I want them to surprise me.

In work that is truly creative, the whole point is to question assumptions and standards and to go beyond them.

Sure, there are times when I do want my students to be able to do well-defined tasks. In my sophomore English class, we’re currently writing research papers, and this is a fairly rote, mechanical process that students will be expected to do in future classes and in some careers. When I assign students to write projects like this, I give them outlines to fill in and model papers to follow. In other words, producing this kind of work is less like open-ended writing and more like fill-in-the-blank work.

It occurred to me yesterday that I could be giving students even more explicit instructions about what I expect them to do, in the form of a rubric. In attempting to measure student growth, it is desirable for grading of student work to be reliable, meaning repeatable. Ideally, when a rubric is used to assess student work, the teacher using the rubric should apply it the same way over time to every student’s work, and even different teachers using the same rubric should apply it in the same way. This means “rubrics must be created and implemented so that the grader(s) have very specific understandings of what each level of the rubric means.

As I thought about what my “very specific” essay-grading rubric would look like, I realized that it would essentially be an algorithm, which could be written as a computer program. If a rubric is to be independent of the particular teacher using it, then it cannot require any subjective judgments, which means that it would be objective and could thus be computerized. Computers are already grading essays, although there is the problem that computers can’t check for lying, so a human mind may still be needed for language interpreting.

So a computer could be used to grade an essay, as long as the essay fits the particular form the computer expects. (Computers process information quickly, but they need information to be input within a narrow range.) And students will be writing essays to these narrow, particular forms, if we explicitly tell them what to do via our standards.

In other words, when we explicitly define the tasks that students are supposed to do, we are, in essence, writing programs that we expect them to follow. Standards are programs we expect students to run.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that we, as a society, have ended up here. I’m reminded of an idea I heard long ago, that people shape our tools, and then our tools shape us. Once we started programming machines to do work for us, maybe we started thinking that we could program our students in a similar way. If we can break down complex tasks into simple, well-defined tasks, anybody and everybody can do them.

The problem with this as a model for education is that we don’t need to make our students into computers. We already have computers that are much faster and reliable at carrying out well-defined tasks than humans are. Many jobs that can be automated are in danger of being automated, which seems to suggest that we should educate our students to do those things that computers can’t do — create new ideas and things, solve new problems, and, just maybe, see ourselves as beings who are more than what we can contribute economically.

What my insight yesterday reminded me was that there are always other philosophical systems that are alternatives to the currently popular system. While I am required by state law and supervisor directive to run my classroom within the dictates of the standards approach, I can reassure myself by remembering that there are always alternatives. Just because one idea is widely shared doesn’t make it permanent, or even correct. I sometimes feel trapped within the idea of standards, that somehow the only philosophy in education is standards. But then I thought of standards-philosophy as not being the whole world, but merely being a house in which I currently reside, and that I can lift up the curtain and see that there’s a whole world of different philosophies outside.

No philosophy is perfect. One of the problems of standards-based teaching is that of student motivation. Why, exactly, would students care about completing my standards-based assignment-programs? Computers don’t need to be motivated; they have no emotions or desires or biological limits to carrying out programs. People, on the other hand, want to know why they are doing what they are doing. (And here’s at least one place where people can’t be replaced with computers: some people find that having a teacher to answer to in person motivates them better than having a teacher available only online.) The Common Core standards hold out as motivation a promise of adequately guiding students to employment, which is, of course, arrogant bullshit.

What the standards overlook is a fundamental difference between humans and computers — that humans are curious, that we enjoy things, that we can be self-motivated to pursue our interests and passions. These things — curiosity, enjoyment, passion — are things that teachers can inspire in our students, but these are not things that can be standardized or predicted. (Perhaps the standards not only treat the students like computers, but also the teachers as interchangeable machines.)

And, of course, what I love doing (and perhaps was inspired by my teachers to do?) is having new insights, experiencing epiphanies, revealing connections, analogies, and metaphors. This creativity is not something that any set of standards can demand or measure, but this is partly why I’m a teacher, and it’s one of the things I’d hope my students get from me: the ability to think for themselves, to seek their own philosophical understandings, and to realize that they are more than merely computers or employees.

P.S.: I don’t mean to criticize the presentation I saw yesterday. Anne Weerda did a fine job of explicating what, given the assumptions and philosophy of standards-based teaching, the implications and consequences for teaching and testing would be. Seeing this presentation made clear to me some of the assumptions and values of this philosophical approach.

Creative Writing By Creative Reading

MENTAL PICNIC and LIFE VIEWING AREA

MENTAL PICNIC and LIFE VIEWING AREA

To write creatively is to make something new to the world, often by taking the agency to break rules and do what hasn’t been done before.

To read creatively, then, is to also break the rules of how we’re supposed to read, namely, the rule that says we should start in the beginning of a text and decode each word from left to right and then down the page.

Of course, these aren’t really “rules” at all but conventions, expectations that the writer expects us to follow, because a writer’s work is to make things accessible to a reader (well, that’s one definition of a writer’s duty. I don’t mean to bind writers in this post). Writers and readers each follow the conventions, and communication can happen.

But we don’t always need communication. Sometimes readers may not want to passively follow the writer’s instructions, and we readers want to actively create as well.

The key here, I think, is that, as we read, our minds can find patterns and meanings that were never (what the psychologists call pareidolia) intended by a writing mind. We can create meanings stranger, more unique, than what most texts contain.

So, here’s an incomplete list of Ways of Creative Reading:

1. Read columns of words, straight down a page, instead of across. This may not always make for complete sentences, of course, but we’re looking for unfamiliar phrases and constructs that may delight us in their novelty. For instance, so far in this post, I have these words along the left margin:

to agency to namely each of writer to writers communication but passively as the meanings writing texts

Already here I like the idea of “meanings writings texts.”

2. Take a group of words chosen randomly (as with this method) and let your mind suggest an organizing idea from the juxtaposed words and images. It seems as though my mind hates disorder and so it looks to find or make order. For instance, these 10 words picked at random and matched up the number of syllables:

approach remote

mobile matter

darkest coolness

instrument amorous

advances listening

This set of words doesn’t immediately suggest an overall idea to me, but I can organize them into a sentence:

Approaching remote mobile matter, the darkest coolness is an amorous instrument and advances listening.

And as I wrote this sentence, I started getting an image of a space-travel context: darkest coolness, instrument, listening, matter. I’m not saying this method always produces a fascinating idea or sentence, but that’s not the point; the point is the joy in discovering and making meaning, in the engaged mental state of playing with the words.

3. Read multidimensionally by starting in the middle of (or at any random place in) an article in a magazine, say, and reading bits and pieces, jumping around from article to article, from magazine to book. In other words, taking the perspective that the reading a person might do an any given day is not reading among distinct texts but is reading one pastiche (or collage) text made of all this disparate parts.

4. Rearrange or replace words in a found sentence to make a new sentence. This might include wordplay such as Spoonerisms and mondegreens.

5. Intentionally misread words, or substitute other words.

I’m sure these are just a start. Please suggest any other creative reading ideas in the comments below.

Why lit classes should teach bad novels

Looking though a catalog of books for use in English classrooms, I saw many of the old classics. Here are the contents of a bundle of books labeled “Common Core Literature Pack for Grades 9 and 10“:

The Odyssey, The Best of O. Henry, The Metamorphosis, The Grapes of Wrath,  Fahrenheit 451, Things Fall Apart, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Killer Angels, The Joy Luck Club, Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, A Doll’’s House, The Glass Menagerie, Great American Poems, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Great Speeches

This list seems tedious — it’s hard to imagine 14- and 15-year-old humans getting excited about reading Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen, or Tennessee Williams — but this list is certainly full of books that are commonly considered to be worth teaching. These are good books, worthy of the title “literature.”

The tenth graders I’m teaching now are currently reading “Of Mice and Men,” another classic that this catalog company describes as “one of America’s most well-known naturalist stories.” As we read and discuss this book, I guide students in finding “textual evidence” to support their judgments of characters and their interpretations of themes. And Steinbeck’s novel/novella is very tightly structured; as I’m rereading this book this semester, I can see that Steinbeck foreshadows in the first 16 pages almost everything that will happen in the next 91.

The story works in the sense that readers can accept the text’s storytelling logic. Once these strongly defined characters are set together, they act on each other in ways that make sense. Curley starts a fight with Lennie because that’s what Curley likes to do, pick fights, we’re told. And once Lennie fights back and hurts him, Curley seeks revenge. This all makes sense (if maybe perhaps it’s a little too pat, too easy) and we readers are able to suspend our disbelief enough to accept this story as an entity worth discussing.

This isn’t always easy to do, as writers of fiction would acknowledge. It’s not hard to put words down on paper and say that one has written a story, but convincing readers that such a text is actually a story is a different matter. What exists on paper as merely words must build into a kind of (paradoxical) imaginary quasi-reality in a reader’s mind in order for a reader to think that there are “people” behind the words “George” and “Lennie,” and thus, to care about those people. (Perhaps psychologically, we readers think of fictional characters the way we think of our friends and family members who aren’t physically present to us. Maybe “Lennie” is a concept like my Dad, dead now 15 years, is a concept to me — it’s just that I also have a concept that my Dad was once alive, and Lennie never was. But, of course, it’s more complicated than that, because “Lennie” isn’t merely a fictional idea, either, as Steinbeck once said, “The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He’s in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn’t kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman.”)

A text that doesn’t convince readers it is a functioning story isn’t a story at all — it’s the literary equivalent of a set of car parts that can’t drive anybody anywhere. But when those car parts are properly assembled, they produce a machine that works, that functions. The physical objects, acting in consistent ways (we describe these ways as laws of physics), can produce motions that seem useful to us — namely, by moving us. But when a text works in conveying a usefully coherent story to readers, is it acting according to some psychological laws? Some thinkers, including Aristotle, this guy, here and here and here, have tried to discern the laws of making a satisfying story. But if there existed an adequate explanation of how to make stories that are effective and attractive to audiences, certainly book publishers would not make books that don’t sell. Even when a new story may follow the model of an familiar story that works, this may feel too formulaic for readers to really engage with the story. Readers may stay aware of the text as a text, not transmuting into story.

If literature students read only those novels that are good, that are judged to have succeeded, students are studying the effects produced by a text — the story — rather than the text itself. To continue the car analogy, it’s as if students experienced riding in the car but didn’t look at the parts of the car, or how the parts contribute to the car working, except as how the car parts affect the car rider’s experience. Saying “Lennie kills the girl because he likes to pet soft things and he gets carried away” is like saying “I could see out the windshield because the dashboard doesn’t rise too high” — both of these things are explicit to readers and riders (and these things are obvious to a more experienced reader, but maybe not to inexperienced students in schools. On the other hand, maybe part of what literature instruction is trying to do is to get students to make their implicit understandings explicit).

If we really want students to understand how fiction texts work, maybe we should have them read novels that aren’t good, novels that don’t really lead readers to suspend disbelief and fully engage in the story. By reading only good novels, students might see how a writer intends them to interpret the story’s text, but students might not see how the writer constructs and even manipulates the story to produce certain effects in the reader (for example, why did Steinbeck’s novel deviate from the facts of the story of real-life Lennie mentioned above? Is Steinbeck, as author, trying to tell readers what they should think, as opposed to just describing what happened? What is the point of fiction, anyway?) Students  are learning to follow the text’s decoding instructions, but maybe students should also be wondering why these instructions are there, and are the way they are.

As someone who teaches classes both in reading fiction and in writing fiction, I’m often looking at published novels by adopting the perspective of a writer, by which I mean that I want to see how the text was made, how it works. In literature classes, novels are often presented as inherently valuable, as worth the class’s time to study, and thus it’s easy to see why lit students would start to think of writers of these assigned novels as Great Writers, and thus the mythology around these writers builds (into its own story). In becoming a writer myself, however, I had to tear down this mythology and realize that Steinbeck and other writers were my peers, not my unassailable geniuses. And in a literature class, readers often treat the text as being complete, or perfect, as they find it in the published version. It makes sense for readers to approach texts this way, and yet, writers often view texts as imperfect, as infinitely revisable. This is perhaps what Valery meant by “a poem is never finished, only abandoned.” For instance, Whitman published multiple editions of “Leaves of Grass,” in which poems changed significantly between editions. It may give literature students a more realistic view of the novel to see it both as a reader and as a writer.

‘Even transcendent moments can drain you’: Pocket pages week in review

I indulge my obsessive mind sometimes in pursuing an idea. Maybe that’s why my posts (for example, here), my writing, can get a little too dense, some readers have commented.

It’s OK if I don’t have all my ideas and ideals worked out. The tension makes my writing interesting (maybe).

My town's water tower gains a crown during maintenance work this week.

My town’s water tower gains a crown during maintenance work this week.

There’s no need to speak against an artwork (like this example speaks against the movie Dead Poets Society). A person may like or love an artwork’s tone or voice, without caring too much about whether the artwork is particularly realistic or accurate or even philosophically astute.

I got upset about something I read that my alma mater did. I’m reminding myself that I don’t need to get upset about institutional decisions — there will always be ones I don’t agree with. I can disagree with things without actually getting upset about them.

My blog doesn’t need to be as timely as a news site is. I’m writing more “undated” (as the journalists say) pieces that can be read at various times. I’m building an archive, a set of stories, ideas, etc. More a book (like an anthology?) than a newspaper.

Reading in book “Jazz Poems” a poem by Frank Landon Brown that contains the line “a boy … who’d become great before he should have.” This prompts a thought that there are seasons, there’s a paced unfurling, to a life. And it may not help to hurry it. That if we get attention young, we may not be able to handle it, or we may be ignoring /sacrificing some other part of our lives. That even transcendent moments can drain you.

After seeing an ad in American Poetry Review for Bennington College M.F.A. program, an ad that said, in 72-point Helvetica,

read.

write.

be read.

as if readers could be delivered. What if people were actually eager to read writings? What would those writings be like? It doesn’t seem that writers should need all this machinery working toward fame — the small journals, the MFA programs, the poetry contests with entry fees, etc.

I was showing off for my fellow teachers last night, I can now [the next morning after the open house] recognize. I was telling stories in an attempt to entertain.

There’s a narrow range of responses, reactions, a person might have to something (particularly I’m thinking here of reactions to seeing, reading, or hearing something in real life or in media). This range of responses might include agreeing, disagreeing, associating something with it, mocking it, etc. To go beyond these mere responses, you gotta think a little deeper, dive in, engage, not go with your first reactions, which tend to be of that narrow range. Instead, you can use that event as a starting point, not as the whole first half, of an essay.

The midpoint of my commute from home to school (or school to home) is just a concept, the middle of a whole, a unit, a defined distance. But physical things aren’t relative to particular points. There isn’t an obvious relation or comparison between the locations of my home and my school, except that they are locations that matter to me.

I have an obsessive tendency to check a few things, in particular, to check to make sure my stove is off before I leave the house, and to make sure my classroom’s windows are locked before I leave school. I look at each thing, each burner knob, each window, and I say “off” or “locked,” respectively, as I look at its state. I wonder if having this habit is part of what inspired my interest in wondering in a more general sense how much words and perceptions match physical reality. Perhaps I say “off, off, off, off,” to confirm my perception of the stove’s real status, to make sure I am paying attention, forming a memorable idea that it’s really off (that if I say “off” at the same time I’m looking at the burner, I may remember that I said “off” and that it really was off). [My variety of obsessive thought involves being concerned that I am paying attention now to turning off the stove so that if I later wonder if I turned off the stove, I can reassure myself. But actually the goal is to not wonder later at all — it’s better to get busy doing something else. But maybe this habit of mine is partly why I’m philosophically interested in wondering how ideas and words match/reflect reality, as here, for example.]

Writers write in order to find something to say (for explanation). We don’t have things in mind that we need to say, or at least not always do we. When we do, that’s not usually as interesting.

A different way of thinking about places, about physical things: There doesn’t need to be, there is no one way to conceive of nature, including the concept of no-concept.

Weather and other physical world conditions don’t matter in the mental realm — or maybe they do. I mean, we can read and discuss, say, Plato, whether it’s cold or hot outside. We’re inside, climate-controlled — it’s hard to even read outside (it’s too bright, etc.). But if clouds shape (even partially) our mood, and mood shapes ideas … maybe I’m sensitive to my surroundings. I observe lots, and get critical of things, maybe because I feel overwhelmed and feel a need to respond, so I get defensive (and thus critical).

I did no reading online while eating today at lunch (I usually do read online, or watch TV, or even write, while eating).

[End of the school day Thursday:] Feeling too tired today to want to grade student papers. This is what I felt like much of last year, rather than the energetic mood of the last few days when I was keeping up with grading.

“Oh, well, what’s a little memory loss,” laughed one of my colleague teachers to a student.

Every time I go to Walmart, I regret it.

I think that one thing I’m searching for in my writing is some unity of consciousness and place/physical locale. I know I’ll never get to know the truth of the physical world (not talking particle physics here, but what really happened as outside of, apart from, my perception of what happened), but the particular consciousness’s voice matters. The writer’s voice is in, is embedded in, comes from, the consciousness.

In contrast to the individual’s voice, there’s the language we use when people join into groups, organizations, institutions — anonymous, role-based speech. Not unique consciousnesses at all (or the uniqueness is minimized) because the teacher in the classroom, the boss in front of a staff meeting, feels the need to play the role of teacher, of boss.

On Friday afternoon in the parking lot, one male student was telling another male student some plans for afterschool transport options. The second student said, “I think that’s your mother over there.” The first student said, “Oh. Nevermind.”

Living outside of stories, or When does Lennie poop?

There is symbolic value in this photo only if you want there to be symbolic value there.

There is symbolic value in this photo only if you want there to be symbolic value.

Where do literary characters go when they’re not on the page?

When I watch outtakes from a movie, I can see the actors stop being the characters and return to being actors. Of course, they never stopped being the actors; the characters they play are just ideas.

And so are the characters in a fiction or nonfiction narrative. They’re just ideas, which is to say, they aren’t physically real at all. You can’t touch Sherlock Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” you can’t touch Abraham Lincoln in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” and neither you nor I can touch the person who, according to my journal today, got a cavity filled yesterday. Yesterday-me is not who I am now.

When we tell stories, we turn real (nonfiction) or imagined (fiction) experiences into ideas. What one sees as a real person with particular traits (this height, that eye color, a certain laugh, a tone of voice) becomes just “Jim” or “a tall man with blue-green eyes,” etc. We give up particulars, abstracting the experience so we can communicate it. And while we can give in-depth descriptions of particular things, we are at best only specifying an idea, not really conveying the experience itself. To tell a reasonably compact story, we limit our descriptions to just what we think are the most-important things (and, I suggest, choosing what was most-important may not be a conscious, intentional process).

As we tell our own stories and take in others’, we get more efficient at turning experience into stories, so that not only does the process start to seem automatic but we may even start making our stories interesting in themselves, as entertaining abstractions. For instance, if we decide to tell an experience as a comic narrative, we may choose funny words, reveal things in order to create tension or suspense, and even exaggerate certain aspects of the story, all in service of making the story itself into a work of art. Two people who witness the same event may turn it into very different stories.

The broader concept here is that when we turn our experiences into stories (and even as we store our experiences as remembered narratives), we are no longer dealing with physical reality but with ideas. Particularly when we read or listen to others’ stories, we are getting not the experiences that they had but their  interpretations of those experiences into abstractions. This can lead us astray if we take the stories as somehow more real than reality. It has taken me years to learn this.

One issue with making stories is editing — what to leave in and what to crop out. A story is usually organized around around a central theme — say, all the times I went to the E.R. — or around a plot that shows how characters’ actions result in a logical or likely consequence — for instance, in “Of Mice and Men,” how George and Lennie’s choices result in two deaths. The storyteller must include the parts needed to tell a satisfying narrative, and exclude parts would be off-topic or digressive. When information is organized thematically, around a topic or plot, it is not necessarily complete chronologically (or in other ways). (On the other hand, texts that are organized chronologically, like my daily journals, describe all the things in the order they happened (more or less), but these things may not have any connection to each other and may be thematically ordered into several different themes or plots.)

We live chronologically, where a bunch of unrelated stuff happens in one day, but we mostly tell stories thematically, skipping around in time.

When we read a story such as “Of Mice and Men,” which tells about decisions and deaths across three days in the lives of characters George and Lennie in less than 120 pages, chronological time will be skipped. We don’t know what the characters are doing in each moment of the day — for instance, we never see Lennie poop. Not that we need to see Lennie poop — that’s not the organizing theme of the story! But the story we’re told includes only those aspects that lead up to, that contribute to, the murders at the end of the book. It’s a story about murders; it’s a story where the plot is central (more than, say, the characters).

But, back to the original question in this post, where are George and Lennie when they’re not on the page? Perhaps they are occupying entirely different novels, essays, or poems — George’s travel memoir, “Me and Lennie,” Lennie’s Montaigne-style ponderings, “Why I Like to Touch Soft Things,” or Curley’s poem, “Ode to Things I Hate about Guys Bigger Than Me.” And if these characters were real people, they would surely have done things like wiping the sweat off their brows as they did fieldwork, and maybe stopping to appreciate the summer flowers.

In other words, the characters, if they lived like real people, would not have known that they were in a plot at all. They saw things, met people, had various and disparate experiences, and only at what constitutes the end of the story did George decide that he had to kill Lennie. Up until what occupies the last minutes (in story-time) of the book, none of the characters in the book would have had any idea of what the plot was — in our own lives, we can see things like plot (causal relationships) only in retrospect. There’s no such thing as foreshadowing until after the fact (as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20). And in fact, there are no such organizing principles as theme or plot in our lives as we live them. This is to say, theme and plot are aspects only of stories, and not of real life. Of course, if we are interviewed and asked something like, “What was the most important moment in your life,” we may be able to come up with an answer, but of course, this would be an arbitrary choice and an abstraction. One person could write about her own life experiences in many different ways, say, as comedy, as tragedy, etc. — and there’s no one correct story of her life. Perhaps all meaning that is derived from our experiences is exactly that — derived, a result of our interpretation — and there’s no meaning that’s inherent in our experiences.

In a story like “Of Mice and Men,” we see characters on what will probably (hopefully, for their sake) be the worst day of their lives. I feel bad for them — I wouldn’t want to be judged by how I acted on the worst day of my life. I wonder what these characters would’ve been like in other contexts — say, if they were paid for their labor and took the afternoon off to go on a picnic, say. (Or these other possibilities.)

At least, on a picnic, they would’ve been eating not abstractions but particular foods — not “an apple,” but this apple, with its particular shape and spots and taste. I too like to return to particulars, to draw my attention away from the abstractions of words and ideas and toward the particulars around me: this bite of sandwich, this smooth pen, this slanted sidewalk — and all the other things that seem physically real and thus don’t need my (and our) names for them. When my attention is directed toward real, particular, physical things, I am able to live outside of labels and principles and stories myself. I can be undefined, as can everything around me. It’s not a feeling that lasts long, but it’s kinda wonderful to not have to live as if I were a character myself, trapped in some plot, some theme, my life always having to mean something — how tedious that would be!

Let’s consider expiration dates on old writings

Much of the food we buy in grocery stores is stamped with a date to indicate how fresh the food is. When our food gets too old, we throw it out, and we don’t feel guilty about doing so. “I can’t eat that — it’s expired.” So we go back to the store and try something new.

Clearly, food is not writing. Really old food is hard to find, and hardly edible, but really old texts abound. The world’s oldest known work of literature, the epic of Gilgamesh, was written on clay tablets and has since been copied and translated so it’s available to us to read now, over 3,000 years after it was written. And long before stories were written down, they were transmitted orally (for example, these stories from India).

In other words, writings never rot. But maybe they grow stale.

What does stale mean in terms of texts? Again, like food, maybe stale writing is just not tasty, not appealing. Corn chips that are soggy, and yogurt that is crisp, are not foods we’d expect others to eat. But as a culture, we keep publishing the really old texts, and teaching them as if they still have nutritive value for our students.

And I’m not really going to claim here that we should throw out all of the old texts. But I want to suggest that maybe we don’t need to revere the old texts just because they’re old. The reason that the stories in these old texts have survived is because, unlike an egg or a loaf of bread, these stories are ideas, and as such never live and never die. We take in freshly made things to nourish our bodies, and yet some of the ideas we still use to categorize, distinguish, and model our experiences and our world are thousands of years old.

For example, The Epic of Gilgamesh contains (in this translation of Tablet VII) a narrative that includes a character praying to a deity, a character describing a dream of an afterlife, and a character grieving over another character’s death. Many of our stories still have these things, and many contemporary people still do these things. Perhaps these things have lasted so long because they are a part of what could be called human nature. On the other hand, perhaps these are simply old ideas that have yet to be replaced by better ways of understanding reality and human experience.

So I don’t wish to throw these old texts onto the compost pile with the wilted lettuce — I don’t want to say these ideas are actually past their expiration dates. But maybe we could ask whether some of these ideas are past their “Best By” dates, and maybe we should try new ways of looking at and conceiving of the world.

Past-tense, present-tense names

For the verb draw, my dictionary lists the past tense form as drew.

So then, people named Drew, like my neighbor’s son, have a past-tense name. I wonder if having a past-tense name influences how he experiences time — maybe he only senses things that have already happened. Well, I guess we all kinda do that. (For more, see here.)

Maybe if he’d been named Draw instead, he’d be experiencing the world in present-tense? Or if he had a name like Margot, which is presumably the present tense of Mar-went?

M*A*S*H time: Chronological or concurrent?

While writing this post, I commented about the run of the TV show M*A*S*H, which, according to Wikipedia and IMDB, included 256 episodes over 11 seasons.

Of course, the Korean War itself lasted just a few weeks more than 3 years, or about 160 weeks. The fact that the show lasted longer, in real time, than the war in which it was set, is self-evident and not in itself all that interesting. What does interest me though is how time within the show, fictional-time, might possibly be mapped to real time.

So, 256 episodes for 160 weeks would be a simple average of 1.6 episodes per week; 7 days divided by 1.6 episodes is roughly 4.4 days per episode, meaning that most episodes would take a setting-duration of 4.4 days.

There’s a way to figure out approximately how many days each episode requires:  watch all 256 episodes and map out how many days are depicted in each show. I’m not interested in doing this data-collection myself, but it might look like this:

In the fourth season episode “Dear Mildred,” Col. Potter writes his wife a letter. Judging by how the scenes flow together, whether time-jumps are indicated by dialogue, action, or day/night lighting, most of the episode occurs during what seems like one day. Potter starts writing his letter and is interrupted, and the camera follows Radar to Hawkeye and B.J. as they meet a helicopter pilot who mentions a wounded horse. A later scene has Potter writing in the mess tent, and he explains that he left his office to go get a cup of coffee. While he’s there, he has a flashback of Father Mulcahy singing, at some earlier movie evening. Later, Hawkeye, B.J., and Radar capture the horse, which seems to be the same day they learned of its existence (since the horse is still alive and near where the pilot indicated). The next scene shows Potter writing in bed, having returned from Rosie’s bar, and when he looks out the window, there is a light (hite, like moonlight or an artificial lamp) that seems to indicate the night of the first day. There’s a cut to Burns and Houlihan hiring a sculptor to make a bust of Potter, and then a cut to the two doctors and Radar removing shrapnel from the horse. When they go outside to avoid the horse’s kicks, it’s night-dark over their heads. I surmise that all this happened within one fictional-day.

The following day begins with a daylight scene with Hawkeye, B.J., and Radar talking about what to do with the horse. More difficult to ascertain in time is the next scene, a cut to Burns and Houlihan where Burns says the sculptor promised to deliver the bust that morning, and it’s night moments later when the sculptor arrives. I’m guessing here that this scene takes place at least a couple days after the sculpture was commissioned, to allow for sculpting time. That same night, Potter is presented the bust and he is also presented Radar’s horse, and the last scene of the episode shows the Colonel riding the horse during daylight, so at the earliest, the following day.

So, the time-within-the-story for this episode depends on how long the sculptor took to make the bust, which in theory could be as little as two or three days (he was, after all, paid $7.50, above his initial asking price). If so, then the episode could fit within the episode average 4.4 days.

However, some M*A*S*H episodes take much less than this average amount of fictional-time. A famous episode is set in real-time, with a clock in the frame indicating the time that has passed since a soldier’s circulation was cut off. Other episodes, including  “Your Hit Parade” (season six, episode 18), “Hawkeye” (season four, episode 18), and “The Army-Navy Game” (season one, episode 20), take place within hours.

The season two episode “Radar’s Report” takes place very specifically during “17 October — 22 October inclusive 1951,” Radar says in voice-over as he fills in the report that structures the sub-stories of the episode. At the end of the episode, as Col. Henry Blake signs the weekly report, he says, “Well, every week can’t be exciting,” which seems to suggest that the episode contains the only notable events of the week.

But at least one episode, “A War for All Seasons,” showed scenes from the camp across the whole year of fictional-1951. If this episode contained all the interesting story moments from that year, it would leave only about 2 years in which the other 255 episodes take place. But it can’t be the case — using the story’s logic — that nothing else of note happened in 1951, because the episode “Radar’s Report” also is set in 1951. So these two episodes are set, as it were, concurrently, suggesting that M*A*S*H episodes are organized thematically, with particular stories followed across days, as in “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet,” days in which other episodes’ stories are also occurring, but off-screen. “Radar’s Report” wouldn’t likely have taken place during the same time as “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” (because of the all-inclusive nature of the report), but maybe an episode like “The Incubator” was put together from events that were happening on the same fictional days as in “Sometimes ..” The editing of one scene to another allows gaps (what was edited out) into which the events of concurrent episodes could be seen as having happened.

It’s kinda fun to think about which episodes may be concurrent — and if someone wanted to take the time to do this, perhaps it could be figured out which episodes take place on the same days, and this could add information to help explain, say, why a character does things in one episode that may seem puzzling — maybe that character’s behavior is influenced by something that happened earlier that same day in the character’s life but which appears in a different episode. (Of course, to be satisfying, each episode should contain all of its own causes and effects — unless we take the whole series as an interlocking story.)

Clearly, this entire post is looking at the fictional world of the art work (the series as a whole) from within the story (and setting) logic of the work itself. It may be that the story’s whole fictional timeline, were it mapped out as each episode having happened on separate days from every other episode, or whether episodes happened concurrently, doesn’t perfectly fit an actual calendar, and if so, that does not diminish the series itself. We don’t need to demand that every narrative artwork be completely realistic and fill in its “plot holes.” For instance, this page points out a few time issues the series has, such as how the war lasted only during three Christmases, but the show depicts four (unless, again, these could be seen to be overlapping, with four episodes containing stories that happened only during three holiday days).

But what interests me about thinking of M*A*S*H episodes as having taken place concurrently is that it provides a metaphor for understanding how we organize our own life stories. When I write every day in my journal, I write chronologically (as in “Radar’s Report”), including everything I did the day before, even if those events were unrelated to each other. But when I write thematically about my life, say, when I write about teaching a particular unit in my classes, I’m talking about experiences and ideas that occurred to me at moments across several days. Chronological and thematic organizations could be seen as two different dimensions along which experiences could be graphed/grouped. I’m wondering what other dimensions of experience there could be — and what these different groupings would show us about our own lives.

Of course, there’s the larger issue of how we decide what makes up one unitary experience, where to begin and end those experiences, those stories, out of the continuity of one’s life’s duration, and what do we decide to edit out of our life stories, and why. The choices we make about which memories to include or exclude are probably not based in logic either but in something more personal, less conscious, even (see here and here). We probably shouldn’t be too hard then on fictional works with “plot holes” when we may have our own “plot holes” in our own life stories!

 

‘Boyhood’ and Nonfiction Across Time

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts writing in the present

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts written in the present

Last night on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart interviewed Richard Linklater about his new movie “Boyhood,” which was shot over a period of 12 years. Thus, the three-hour film contains footage of all the actors at yearly intervals.

In the interview, this passage caught my attention:

Jon Stewart: “Philosophically, did the act of being observed, for the younger actors, change their behavior? Were they conscious …”

Richard Linklater: “I don’t think so …[but] I guess it [the film] was pretty mind-blowing to them [the younger actors] when they finally saw it.”

JS: “What did they, what was their reaction?”

RL: “I gave a DVD to [actor] Ellar and I said, I suggest you watch this alone. Um, you know, build up some kind of relation with this crazy thing. And I didn’t hear from him for a while , so I was worried, but, ah, yeah, I think they’re still processing.”

JS: “Right. It’s an awful lot to take in.”

RL: “Yeah, yeah.”

JS: “What’s very interesting is, it’s hard not to watch it and process your own life within it, which is how art works that way.”

RL: “Yeah, you have to.”

Some of the movie’s reviewers have also responded to the images-through-time/time compression aspects of this movie. This article at Time concludes with:

We now know that cinema can depict the passage of time convincingly in a way we never thought possible before. Here time is real. We watch it accumulate on the actors’ faces and understand the toll it takes on adults and on mothers specifically.

Of course, this movie is not trying to prove that time is real; what this writer intends, I think, is that watching this movie prompts viewers to think about their own relationships to time.

I have yet to see “Boyhood,” but the method of filming a movie across so much time highlights some aspects of artistic creation that are otherwise easy to overlook. For example, Anthony Lane makes a point about how a plot-driven work can obscure character, which is revealed in

those episodes which seem dim and dull at the time, and only later shine in memory’s cave. A haircut, in short, matters more than a Quidditch match. We happen upon ourselves when nothing much happens to us, and we are transformed in the process

Lane generalizes from the movie’s structure to claim that the meanings we find in our own lives — the stories we tell about what has mattered to us, what has shaped us — depend on “memory’s cave.” Lane also writes, “that twin sense of continuity and interruption—of life itself as tracking shot and jump cut—applies to everyone,” which editing metaphor also implies that our memories may themselves be artistic products.

An individual’s memories, along with most of our culture’s stories (both fictional and non-), are structured as events from the past that are recounted in the (storyteller’s) present. We can’t tell a story — in fact, we may not even have a complete, satisfying story — if we don’t know how it turns out. Even if a writer starts off telling a story that she doesn’t know how to end, it will end before she finishes the book, and she would be able, before publishing the book, to go back and revise the early parts of the story to better fit the ending, once she knows the ending. (Stephen King writes — if my memory is accurate here —  in “On Writing” that it’s after the later drafts of his novels that he plays up the symbols that appear almost unintentionally in the first draft.)

But, of course, Linklater could not have gone back after Year 12 of shooting to film something from Year 2. He could re-edit what he had, yes, but he could not have gone back with the same actors. Even if, say, Linklater could have fabricated — because it IS fiction, and there are options such as stand-ins and CGI — a new Year 2 scene in Year 12, Linklater would himself be a different artist than he was earlier. As a review in The A.V. Club states it,

Because of how it was filmed, in piecemeal from 2002 until 2013, Boyhood exists in a constant present tense, providing a snapshot of recent history as it unfolds. Conversations about Obama and Bush were written and delivered without the hindsight the audience now possesses, as was an unexpectedly funny moment of Mason and his father discussing the possibility of more Star Wars sequels. (Ah, the innocence of 2008.) The movie also functions as a chronicle of its creator’s artistic evolution: The filmmaking becomes more confident and relaxed as Mason gets older, Linklater increasingly letting go of his plot aspirations in favor of a loose, conversational hang-out vibe. He, too, seems to blossom before our eyes, gestating incrementally into the director he is today.

What intrigues me about “Boyhood” is that its “constant present tense” describes how most of my nonfiction writing is done. Rather than telling memoir-type stories about my long-ago experiences, I mostly write journals about previous-day events and present-day impressions, and I write down my real-life observations and my thoughts within moments of having them in mind.

I don’t often tell stories about my past, but I do tell some, and I’ve become skeptical of telling these stories because the versions of these stories that exists in my memory doesn’t always match the versions that I wrote on paper soon after the event. For a few years, I warned my high school senior students not to drink when they go to college because I remembered seeing a person have his stomach pumped outside my dorm on the first Friday night of my freshman year of college. Not too long ago, I found the journal entry where I’d written about this, and it happened on the fourth, not the first, weekend of that year. This new setting doesn’t invalidate the story as an anti-example, but it bothered me that I’d remembered it wrong (and in a way that heightened the student’s foolishness, and thus, the anti-example lesson). It made me less confident in trusting my memory, particularly when I have these texts written more closely in time to the actual experiences.

In fact, I’ve also noticed that some of the things I remember from college didn’t get written down in my journals, and that what’s in the journals, I don’t always remember having lived through. It’s actually sorta disturbing to feel this disconnect between what I wrote (which reflected who I was) in the past, and how I now remember these things (as the person I am now). Maybe this disconnect is part of what Stewart and Linklater were referring to when they said that watching “Boyhood” required the actors to process their experience.

I value having my writings going back 20-plus years now, and I’m not so interested in present-day telling of stories of my past. I mean, sure, I can go back now and re-interpret my remembered experiences of years past, and this can be a diverting pastime, but it doesn’t draw my attention to the current moment, and how to live in the current moment, which seems to me to be the most interesting part of my writing.

I don’t want to overly define myself and my writing, but it’s valuable for me to understand who I am and what I do, and I think that what motivates most of my writing is a drive to understand — to form concepts of who I am, what I should do, how I should act toward others, why others do what they do, how I should think about my job, my writing, etc. These concepts, of course, I am willing to revise over time, which thinking and revising feel like the most interesting, even necessary (in the way that I get out-of-sorts when I don’t have enough time to write) processes of my being alive. Others may have a need to run marathons (maybe they do — it’s hard to understand others except by analogizing their needs to my own) while I feel I need to write, and specifically, to write about myself and my experiences.

So I’ve got these 20 years of texts, mostly journals and notes, and I used to wonder how I’d make these interesting to other readers. I felt that I needed to do that, if I were ever to become a Famous Author, and yet, I didn’t find myself naturally writing things that would appeal to others. What I had were my journal writings, and I thought for a long time about how these writings could be made interesting to others. I still don’t have a final answer, and now I don’t expect to find one, but I have come to think that there’s value in the texts written as they were at the times they were written.

Like Linklater’s movie, these texts present the problem of time: when I wrote about my college years, I was in college. I could write now about about my college times, but that’s 18 years after the events. So at the time of the journal-writing, I had lots of particulars but no distant perspective; now I have perspective, but that it’s the perspective of a 40-year-old.

And this is kind of a basic problem with writing (and it’s the basic problems that interest me the most): Everything one writes must be written from a perspective; writing is a product of a consciousness, and every consciousness is always already situated in time. I’m a better writer now than I was at age 20, but I’m no longer the person I was at age 20. I can see the changes when I read “between the lines,” as it were, in my texts written when I was different ages. I’m a different person. Yet, I’m not an entirely different person, which may be the point Lane was making in his quote above.

So if I want to be honest to the perspective I have now, I could write only about now, with the knowledge that whatever I say now will be superseded by what I write later. Or, maybe not — maybe one’s later nonfiction writings don’t supersede one’s past writings; maybe they’re just completely different and shouldn’t be compared?

That Linklater’s film was filmed over 12 years interests the commenters above because it uses real actors. If the film were made of, say, animated characters rather than human actors, the movie could’ve been made over 12 years without the characters’ appearances changing, as “The Simpsons” characters haven’t changed much over 25 years of TV episodes. (Although the characters were drawn differently in their first appearances on “The Tracy Ullman Show“.) Of course, what Linklater did is maybe not all that different from looking at how the actors of M*A*S*H change over 11 years of the show (which was weird, too, as the show was set during a war that took only 3 years).

And I suppose I could put together a document that contained my writings across the years, like an overview anthology of any author’s work, but then the main impact of such a document might be to show the change in the author’s voice over the years (which might overshadow any thematic concerns of the particular works anthologized). Linklater’s film may show the cinematic equivalent of that, but it also coheres as a single story. I’m still not sure how this would work with nonfiction.

But perhaps this problem requires a format of writing and/or of publishing that’s broader than any one book or other single-themed work.

P.S.: See related thoughts on writing in/through time here.