Tag Archives: kerouac

American Writers Museum

The American Writers Museum opened this spring in Chicago (as I learned about here) and my wife and I toured it a few weeks ago. It’s on the second floor of the building at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, which is near the Bean and the Pritzker Pavilion in Millenium Park.

My selfie with Kerouac’s scroll! Though On The Road is no longer my favorite book, I read it in college and felt that it broadened my ideas of what literature could be. (Yes, this isn’t the most-flattering picture of me, but I was pretty eager to take this selfie.)

The beginning of Kerouac’s scroll on which he wrote first draft of On The Road. This is a temporary exhibit, there until later this fall. The scroll was under glass, and that blue line in the photo seemed to be another piece of glass holding the scroll flat. Notice too that the names are those of Kerouac’s friends, not yet renamed as characters.

One item on a wall of facts about authors of everything from song lyrics to ad copy.

An interactive thing where you pick from the given categories and the screen displays a writer with these characteristics.

I didn’t know Emily D. was famous for her baking. Or for hangin’ with snails.

Dialogue writer.

My wife creates with a touchscreen version of a Magnetic Poetry-like game.

Several typewriters were set up for people to write their own works. It reminded me of typewriters I learned to use. My wife and I liked this display the most.

These two video clips of my wife and I using these typewriters are here because I just liked hearing the sounds of old machines from my childhood.

There’s a video display of text forming shapes projected on a wall. Here’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote.

A display of books above the lobby and giftshop of the museum.

The Old Man and ‘The Old Man and the Sea’: All stories are bullshit

The book mentioned in the title bugs me. I should probably just let it go, but for some reason it sticks in my head that I ought to write about this, and I’m paying attention to that “ought.”

So, it’s been a while since I read “The Old Man and the Sea” and I don’t really want to read it again. As far as I remember, it’s about, well, an old man and the sea. And he catches a fish, but the sharks eat it, and he returns to his life. And if I were to really do a criticism of this book, I’d have to reread it, but an in-depth criticism isn’t what I want to do, anyway. I’m not sure what I want to do, but I think I want to talk about fiction. (This is the vein of thought that seems the most compelling, anyway.)

So, yeah — the idea came to mind the other day that when we write about a work of fiction, we’re writing nonfiction. For my writing students, I define nonfiction as any writing done when the writer is writing as him/herself (when the narrator is the author), and when the writer is not lying. That’s about as good a definition as I can get.

The common cultural definition of nonfiction, at least when one looks at a typical bookstore, is that nonfiction books are the biographies, memoirs, histories, and how-to books. I guess I’d prefer to call these genres “Informational” books, and by “nonfiction,” I want to focus on a process rather than a product. When I have my creative writers do nonfiction, we start out by going out to a central hallway in our school, sitting down, recording the time, date, and location, and writing down whatever we observe and think while we’re there. Real-time writing. And the texts produced thereby may not be fancy literary stuff, but they are real — they are a record of what came to their minds at that time and place (though of course what gets onto the paper may not be exactly what went through their minds). The students have made texts, have put experiences into words, where words and ideas did not exist before.

So what does this have to do with Hemingway? I don’t know yet. Maybe something will come to me as I write — something usually does. Maybe I mean to contrast the bullshit of fiction to the humble honesty of nonfiction. But that, too, is just another distinction, an easy analysis of minor value.

But it seems weird that we can have nonfiction analyses of fictional works. Maybe this shows the commonality of (and the arbitrary distinction between) fiction and nonfiction — both are just labels on ideas. Works of fiction and nonfiction are both just made of words and ideas, which words and ideas are animated (figuratively) only by human consciousness (that is, if humans disappeared, our books and symbols become just objects and ink stains — though even applying those labels would require a conscious mind).

I don’t want to say Hemingway was doing anything better or worse than any other fiction writer, in any of his books. But why does fiction seem to bother me so? Here is my own bias; I don’t read much fiction these days. I don’t choose to get absorbed into a story. As a kid, I read a lot of fiction, but not so much since my early 20s. I feel a little guilty about this when talking to those who appreciate fiction, but not guilty enough to read it.

Maybe what bugs me is the storytelling machinery, the rules and conventions. I may just have read and watched too many stories, so that for most stories, I can anticipate what’s coming, and that bores me. I’d love to see an action movie where the hero doesn’t win, or maybe the story is told from a character who dies early on. Those aren’t as “emotionally satisfying” as the classic tale of victory and redemption (whatever that is), but I don’t find story-by-numbers very satisfying anyway.

And perhaps I don’t want to characterize — to judge simplistically — my life or the lives of my friends and family. I don’t want to see these real people as simple successes, or as simple failures. My dad died suddenly, with many aspects of his life unsettled — he didn’t get a character “arc,” and he didn’t get to complete his life’s story in a satisfying way. I prefer seeing people and lives as complex, as beyond simple description, and so fiction doesn’t often present a worldview I find useful.

But maybe my issue with fiction is a bit more basic and philosophical — I think it bugs me to have to pay attention to story at all. Stories are interpretations of what happens. Stories skip the boring parts — stories lie to us about how much of our lives should be boring. After reading Kerouac’s “On the Road,” I wanted to have my own road adventures, but I didn’t pick up a hitchhiker I saw one day — it just seemed dumb to do that. And for as much fun as he made hitchhiking seem to be, Kerouac wrote in “Big Sur” (if memory holds, and it might not) that he wouldn’t have hitchhiked at all if he could’ve afforded to take the train. So there.

I was looking today at some comic strips I had saved from a couple years ago — one was a “Peanuts” strip where I cut out the dialog balloons, and one was a “Hagar the Horrible” in which I replaced their modern English speech with Old English lines from “Beowulf.” Looking at these today, I enjoyed the ones where there was no dialogue (or where I couldn’t understand it). I was glad that my attention didn’t have to be bothered with some stupid joke. I loved the idea that there didn’t have to be an idea that I was supposed to get. Nothing had to be communicated — I could just appreciate the drawings instead of merely glancing over those to pay attention to the dialogue.

And maybe that’s what bugs me about fiction. At least nonfiction can admit it doesn’t know what’s going on. (Nonfiction that pretends to have all the answers, like histories and memoirs, also might fit my criticisms of fiction.) Maybe I really like art that doesn’t try to mean anything, that doesn’t try to teach me anything. F. Scott Fitzgerald was just 29 when he wrote “The Great Gatsby” — what the hell did he have to say, in some grand thematic way, about wealth or society? (And why should we readers look at the character Gatsby as some failure, some cautionary tale? Surely a real person who had lived a life like Gatsby wouldn’t have called himself a failure.)

Maybe I’d like “The Old Man and The Sea” better if nothing happened. If it truly WAS just the old man and the sea, and we didn’t have to bring fish and sharks into it.

I mean, I live my life without knowing what things mean most of the time. Maybe later, days or years later, I’ll have an insight into what someone meant by doing or saying X, or whatever, but even those insights I know might be superseded.  I don’t have symbols in my life whose meanings are anything but the meanings I myself have assigned them. No meaning is necessarily attached to any particular object. When I think about how I didn’t enjoy my experiences in 7th grade basketball, I don’t need to draw any bigger theme from that. And frankly, I’m talking about stuff that happened years ago, things that I remember perhaps only because they were so unpleasant.

My journal is nonfiction, and I write down everyday some of the things that happened the day before, and what I’m thinking about that morning, and I also like about blogging that I can write and publish today — nothing I’m saying needs to have any kind of permanence. Maybe that sense of telling a permanent truth is what bugs me the most about fiction. Maybe I’d like fiction more if every story was told from multiple viewpoints so that it was never clear what had actually happened — indeed, so it became clear that nobody knew what actually happened (what “Rashomon,” and that “Magnum P.I.” that stole the “Rashomon” multiple-narrators technique, did).

And since any and every story, fiction or nonfiction, is just an idea, a fabrication — not a lie, but a construction from interpreted experiences — maybe story itself just isn’t enough to hold my attention. Maybe I want reality, or at least an acknowledgment of it.

POSTSCRIPT (the next night after writing the above): I’d like to summarize the insight of the previous post as every narrator is an unreliable narrator.

The narrator of “The Iliad,” which we’re reading in another class I teach, omnisciently depicts what happens to both Hector and Achilles when they are apart, and of course, this too is bullshit. That story is from no particular person’s or character’s perspective, and so that story must be from an impossible, unreal perspective — it must be a fabrication.

Of course, someone may say that fabrication is the essence and beauty of fiction. I get that, and at times I’ve been seduced into believing that life could be as simple and profound as stories set in Troy, in Middle Earth, or in Whoville have presented it. And yet, I’ve felt misled, betrayed, by these stories. It hasn’t felt helpful to me to be presented with ideas of perfect worlds, as if life really could be that simple and powerful and meaningful and etc. For a long time, I wanted my life to seem as thrilling and meaningful as it seemed in some fictions. It took me years to wake up from that idea and learn to accept my life as I found it, in its unedited reality. Attempting to get to that reality has always seemed less depressing than believing in a world that cannot be. Maybe there’s something passive (passively accepting these fictional worlds?) about reading, too, that I had to grow out of — and of course, maybe reading fiction and then growing out of it was a developmental stage that I had to go through. Whether I had to or not, I did read fiction and now I don’t, in general. The fiction that I do read now tends to be short fiction that presents new perspectives, new forms, and new ideas — fiction that seems to be more interested in discovering than in fabricating. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far of  Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme, and David Markson.

So I’ve created a post that followed a feeling to the discovery of an idea, a theory, and now in trying to explain why I like this theory, I’ve come back to a feeling. Perhaps people’s ideas are justified by feelings more often than we like to admit — but, not being omniscient, I don’t know about the mental habits of other people. I’m talking here just about myself, at least, as well as I understand (at this point in time) my mind and how it operates.

The World Is Me-Deprived?

Tonight it was suggested to me, by one of my small band of loyal-but-merry admirers, that I’m depriving the world of my artworks. (This was said by someone who had been reading my blog, and so, you know, the blog is how I’m actually NOT depriving the world, but giving the world more than it necessarily wanted.)

I am pretty brilliant, I’ll admit, but I just don’t know that the world needs my work — or anybody else’s, really.

I mean, in my younger days, I did work  that was necessary, that supported life and/or that people were willing to pay for: I made food as a McEmployee (“made” there being used in its loosest sense), I picked strawberries, etc. I have more recently done work that my bosses were willing to pay me to do: write crop report articles, read soybean futures into a microphone, teach teenagers how to punctuate dependent clauses. These are things I do with the understanding that those who write my paycheck want these things to be done.

But no specific exchange, of course, exists when an artist puts some art out there. Lately I’ve been thinking that maybe nobody pays for ideas (I’m thinking here of artistic or philosophical sorts of ideas — and of course, there is the problem that ideas can’t be copyrighted; only expressions of ideas can be). I mean, I doubt I’d be willing to pay for one particular story or essay or cartoon in The New Yorker magazine. I subscribe, perhaps, not to receive specific articles on specific topics by specific authors, but to feel I’m getting what the magazine’s editors think is worth printing. I’m subscribing not to get particular articles, but rather to feel I’m not missing anything, I’m not being left out.

Lately I’ve been thinking that what an author needs to make money and/or get famous is the attention of lots of people he/she doesn’t know — in other words, anonymous people. It’s nice when my friends and family appreciate my creative writing (although I will also say that there may be less mystique in encountering the work of one’s friends and family, no matter how good the work is).  But if I wanted to publish and make a profit, I’d need thousands more people, more than I know, to buy. But it seems so strange to want people I don’t know and, frankly, don’t personally care about, to do me such a kindness.

And maybe this is the weird emptiness of celebrity: people who don’t know you as a friend are just interested in you as an idea, as an image, as a persona, or maybe as a myth. Gopnik makes the point that

There are certain artists, and some art, that become so popular that everyone peers into them, finding whatever they will, however they will. All the usual tests of sympathy, natural feeling, and do-I-really-respond-to-this? are lost in the gravitational pull of ubiquity. Not surprisingly, the artists who are, briefly, the beneficiaries and thereafter the victims of this kind of attention get totally freaked out by the intensity of it all: not too long after, Bob Dylan, another of the tribe, recorded his notorious “Self Portrait,” just back out in a new version, trying to demonstrate to his admirers the simple truth that he was an American singer, with a broad taste for American songs, not some kind of guru or mystic or oracle, please go away. It didn’t help.

In this condemnation of Jack Kerouac’s poetry, which is being printed in a Library of America edition, Bruce Bawer says it’s unfortunate that other writers who made better poems haven’t received the reward of having their work printed in that “magnificent series designed to preserve for posterity the treasures of our national literature.” Well, duh — and it’s unfortunate that flowers die in the frost.

Printers print and re-print Kerouac’s writings because, well, there are people who want to buy Kerouac’s writings. I have no doubt that the three writers Bawer names — Louis Simpson, Donald Justice, and Frederick Morgan — are also fine writers, but they don’t stir the imagination as Kerouac, for better or worse, did.

I mean, why do we buy any book? Isn’t part of what we want from a book a sense of being transported, of reading words of someone who has lived differently from how we have lived, and hoping that reading these words will show us that life can be lived differently? I was attracted to the sense of possibility that I found when I first read Kerouac, and then I became disenchanted with both Kerouac, and eventually, the idea that others’ lives are somehow more interesting, more vivid, more meaningful, than my own.

Instead, part of what drives me as a thinker and a writer is becoming aware of and dismantling the myths and images that make me think life is better someplace other than where I am.

But I can recognize the power of myths and images to move products — what would advertizing be if it didn’t use the incantatory power of words, the inebriating power of story, the seductive power of image?

I don’t want that to be an indictment of advertizing or of consumers (but maybe I’d be OK indicting words, story, and image?). I don’t want to change the world, at least, not by criticizing others. I don’t need to appeal to all people, as if that were possible. Maybe, more than impressing others, all I really want to do is write what I want to write (something that’s easier said than done!). Maybe all I really wanna deprive myself of is the illusion that I ought to be loved by all.

Link: Visiting places named in books

From The Dish: A website, Placing Literature, gives map locations for places named in books. I’m not big into “literary tourism” myself, but a few years back, I visited the address in Chelsea, Manhattan, where Kerouac reportedly wrote the roll that became “On The Road,” and I was intrigued to find out it overlooks a seminary — a quiet neighborhood in which to manically write a book.

‘The Great Gatsby’ and age: The older I get, the less I don’t know

So, there’s a new movie of Gatsby. This isn’t as newsy now as it would’ve been a few weeks ago, but, you know, the book has been around for, oh, four-score and some years now, and my high school’s students read it in our “American Lit after 1900” class, and I read it in high school and didn’t enjoy it (my memory is of my teacher flat-out telling us “the green light symbolizes money”) and I reread it in recent years and thought it was better than I had remembered it, but that it still wasn’t all that great. I mean, I liked that last line, about boats being ceaselessly  beaten back, etc. etc., but much of the book was not that lyrically beautiful.

And I found a fellow-traveler in  Kathryn Schulz’s critique of this book:

What was Fitzgerald doing instead of figuring out such things about his characters? Precision-engineering his plot, chiefly, and putting in overtime at the symbol factory. Gatsby takes place over a single summer: three months, three acts, three chapters each, with a denouement—the car accident and murder—of near-Greek (but also near-silly) symmetry. Inside that story, almost everything in sight serves a symbolic purpose: the automobiles and ash heaps, the upright Midwest and poisonous East, the white dresses and decadent mansions.

Heavy plot, heavy symbolism, zero ­psychological motivation: Those are the genre conventions of fables and fairy tales. Gatsby has been compared to both, typically to suggest a mythical quality to Fitzgerald’s characters or a moral significance to his tale. But moral significance requires moral engagement: challenge, discomfort, illumination, or transformation. The Great Gatsby offers none of that. In fact, it offers the opposite: aloofness.

When I saw that I wasn’t alone in my lack of enthusiasm, I started wondering why this particular book was taught and continues to be taught so much to high-school literature students. There are many, many other novels published in the last hundred years that could also be taught.

One of my colleagues suggested that the theme of the American dream in “Gatsby” makes it worth reading — and, sure, that’s a valid theme to discuss in a lit. class. But “the American dream” isn’t a theme at all until the author takes a position on that topic — “the American dream is hollow” or “the American dream is worthwhile” — and at that point, why do we need a story at all? Fitzgerald could just have written an op-ed to make that point, and have been done with it.

Instead, there is a long story that’s about as subtle in its condemnation as a fairy tale, as Schulz says above. To take a scenario as complex as Gatsby’s (ill-gotten gains, unrequited-and-then-illicitly-requited love, etc.) and just boil it down to something like “achieving our goals may not make us happy” feels like it deserves a “duh” response from adult readers. Teens may not know this yet, and maybe it’s worthwhile for them to consider it, but I’m not sure adults will take this book all that seriously. Maybe the readers who will most enjoy and appreciate a work are those who are younger than the author was when he/she wrote the work.

According to his Wikipedia page, Fitzgerald wrote most of “Gatsby” in 1924, when he would’ve been (1896 to 1924) 28 years old. Twenty-eight is pretty darn young for someone to comment on the nature of “the American dream.” Of course, chronological age does not always match personal maturity or artistic ability, but when a writer is only 28 years old — has been an adult for only 10 years — he doesn’t really have much authority, other than authority over those who are younger yet than he is.

I’m now almost 40, and I can now look back at my 28-year-old self and see that I strongly held certain beliefs and judgments about which I am now not sure certain. This is not to say that I was wrong, exactly, about the things I said then, nor that I am perfect now, but that I now try to be more humble about my opinions (Humble enough to blog them to the rest of the reading public, of course. Also, the delusions of grandeur endure).

And so I can now look at “The Great Gatsby” and admire some of the writing but I also look at the story and think that there’s not much there for me to learn. I feel like I’m smarter than the characters, and also wiser than the author. With other books and authors, too: I don’t have to agree with Hemingway’s biases towards his characters in “The Sun Also Rises,” written when he was 26, and I don’t have to think that Kerouac’s characters could find satisfaction in their lives “On the Road,” published when Kerouac was 35. I look at some of these books now and wonder why the authors really have to tell me about the condition of being alive that I haven’t already learned on my own.

It’s age-ism to say that I can’t learn anything from writers who are younger than me (or were when they wrote — and of course, I did learn from reading Hemingway and Kerouac when I was a late-teens, early-20s reader). And yet, as I get older, and as I get more familiar with the fuller range of ideas, the range of ways of writing, the range of tones/perspectives, etc. that writers can use, I find myself less thrilled, less enthused, to read the writings of most other writers.

That’s a huge generalization, of course. And I’m not talking about reading things for “escapist” purposes — a writer of any age, presumably, can write a story. But I often read in order to learn something, and the older I get, the less I don’t know.

That sounds terrible — terribly closed-minded, and typical of an old (read: inflexible) person. And not entirely true — I am able to better appreciate some things now — including some of the classic texts — than I was when younger. But when I now read Plato’s “Apology” or the epic poem “Beowulf” (as I read last year for the “World Lit” class I was teaching), I’m more likely to approach these texts as a peer of the writer — I’m less likely to cede authority to that author. I’m gonna question the author’s veracity, legitimacy, purpose, etc. — all that stuff that my college lit. profs. probably wanted me to question when I was 20.

But I’m here now, and some of the magic of the texts is gone, or maybe it was never “magic” — maybe I’m just more clear-eyed and less reverent when I approach texts. Maybe I’m not buying into the Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Kerouac myths that I used to accept — that there was something gloriously important and rapturously tragic (or vice versa) about Being an Author and Writing Novels, etc.

I don’t feel bad about my current approach — and once one is aware of the myths and the magic, one “can never return again.” Not only do I not feel bad about my current mindset, I feel pretty good about it — I feel wiser than I used to be. Where I used to see intellectual limits, I now see boundaries whose lines can be crossed. It feels pretty good.

And one thing I feel good about is not wanting to merely criticize others and their works. I want my fault-finding to lead me into a positive, substantial new direction — and I think for me, this means that I no longer really accept texts as beyond reproach and I no longer accept ideas as unassailable answers (everything is reproachable and/or assailable). But I trust now in the process, in the act of thinking and writing, and in this way, I can continue to discuss and consider even works I disagree with — I can continue to teach my students (and myself), and I can be humble enough to see also that I may also one day find something beyond process that I like even better.

Links: 29 May 2013

1. An interesting way to run a news network: an insider at Fox.

2. Writer Lydia Davis wins Man Booker prize, but causes consternation as to how to classify/categorize her writings. Perhaps categorization is overrated?

3. A reminder of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose style. I’m not sure I’d agree with Kerouac’s idea now as much as I did when I was younger, but I still do like the idea of prioritizing a natural, idiosyncratic flow of an author’s words over the idea that every text should (or could) be perfected.

4. “Why do I teach?” by New York Times blogger Gary Gutting.

5. An overview of many songs created, performed, and/or produced by Nile Rodgers.

6. John McWhorter’s response to David Brooks’ simplistic word-usage-reveals-thinking-and-social-trends column.

7. Ta-Nehisi Coates on race as a social construct — an idea — rather than a reality.

Links: 5 March 2013

1. R. Crumb background.

2. Ginsberg reads “Howl.”

3. Bukowski: “So you want to be a writer” poem. More Bukowski here.

4. Fractal electricity demo in plywood (video). See fractals as metaphor for writing here.

5. Biological reaction to arguing.

6. Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a point about being alienated from those who protested the Iraq War.

7. Wittgenstein’s reputation and the limits of philosophy.

8. Floor plans of TV show settings. I’m not sure the Simpsons’ house plan is correct — where’s Maggie’s room?

9. A flow chart for winning global-warming arguments.

10. An interesting description of the value of diversity: multiple viewpoints and context:

People often fail to understand the importance of diversity. They assume it’s all about quotas and political correction but it is about so much more. Diversity (and we’re talking race, class, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, religion, all of it) is about putting multiple points of view into a conversation. It’s about ensuring that no one is operating in the kind of cultural vacuum where they don’t stop to consider context. It’s why certain people and shows and publications keep running into the same brick wall of public outcry about diversity—because these people consistently demonstrate a callous and willful ignorance of context. They see these lines that shouldn’t be crossed and cross them anyway because they are blissfully unencumbered by context.

11. Beyond boredom, bliss.

12. Barbarity of early U.S. history.

13. Hobbes challenged religion as well as government.

14. Another take on Kerouac.

15. The value of rereading in later life the books one was assigned to read in high school. I had this experience with “The Great Gatsby”: I did not like how my high school teacher wanted to explicate every symbol — “the green light means money!” — but when I read it in my 30s (after first overcoming the resistance to rereading), I could appreciate the value of the book. It still isn’t my favorite, but at least I gave it a real chance. Now that I’m a high school teacher, I try to show my students why certain works are interesting without also turning them off to same.

16. Watching deleted scenes and how that affects one.

17. The first word-processed book.

18. How “big-data” algorithms will affect commercial art (if not exactly killing creativity, as the article is titled).

19. AVClub staffers pick their favorite poems.

20. Why one person left teaching.

21. Syllabi for classes taught by famous writers.

22. A daughter talks about her father’s (Wolfgang Nehring’s) sudden death and his approach to life.

23. A meta-study on sugar’s role in diabetes.

24. Toddlers are fussy because their brains are growing and they’re trying to live in the world.

25. History of the c-word.