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Thursday, April 29, 2010

"I hate money" (Jo March)

This week, life is feeling surprisingly expensive.

Graduation fee ... $25
Gown/hood rental fee ... $96
Uploading-of-thesis fee ... $55
Sudden parking ticket for parking where I've parked frequently for a year ... $25
Overnight postage of apartment lease application ... $18
Security deposit ... (um, a lot)

A very large bottle of strawberry beer to make it all better? $7. And some chocolate cake.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Amusements.

Thanks to the talents of Joe and also Rachel, the MFA's esteemed organizer/planner/designer, this poster is currently gracing the hallways of Hoyt, announcing what promises to be an interesting evening of readings and Q&A next Friday (April 30).

The event is free and open to public. And apparently there will be treats.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dream on, worldmag

As someone who genuinely grappled with the Emerging Church (ECM) and, in doing so, found helpful stepping stones and a kind of refuge in books like A New Kind of Christian (Brian McLaren), I found this sweeping article from World to be pretty obnoxious.

"The theological lines have been drawn and are settled," writes Anthony Bradley, a theology professor at King's College in New York City. "We have all moved on. We know who fits into evangelicalism, post-liberalism, Anabaptism, Calvinism, and so on." The only reason to consider the ECM any longer, Bradley says, is as a "recent historical one" that has died.

Ultimately the ECM has not proved to be a tradition with which I can sufficiently identify (I'm still too much of a recovering modernist, I think, to be willing to term my fairly agnostic disposition a "new kind" of Christianity). But the questions ECMers have asked and are asking are the same kinds of questions I've been compelled to ask, especially concerning religious exclusivity (Jesus as the "only way"). And those questions are not even close to going away.

Of course Bradley and others who see the open-ended ECM as primarily negative are anxious to dismiss its spiritual impacts. And of course they will interpret the cited Rob Bell apology (that his church congregation has ended up "a big institution that wounded people in similar ways" to more typical Christian groups) as a sign of the movement's demise rather than evidence rather to the contrary. They won't want to consider that that kind of institutional self-reflection is distinctive and rare in Christianity. They'll just try to brush it off as a moment of yay-we-win.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Nonfiction squabbles (Part One?)

Steven Colbert's interview with author David Shields earlier this week has spurred me to do some more thinking about how I understand the nonfiction genre and how my practice of it compares to the kinds of things Shields and John D'Agata are after in their respective efforts to carve out for the essay form an equal (or even superior, in Shields' view?) place within contemporary literature.

Colbert (whose ability to marry humor with the utterly troubling and serious continues to compel me) certainly didn't take it easy on Shields in his questions about Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Shields' treatise that praises the potentials of essays while putting down both novels and memoirs as past their meaningful prime. Colbert focused the interview on Shields' decision to fill his book with the words of other writers without acknowledging those words to be the words of others. While citations do appear in the back of the book because of the publisher's insistence, Shields told Colbert that he hopes readers will cut out those final nine pages of notes so that Reality Hunger is read "the way that I want it to be read."

Whether Colbert's playful yet hard-hitting questions about plagiarism and "sampling" were primarily sincere or in some way mocking the criticism Shields' volume has already encountered, Shields looked less than heartened by Colbert's singular attention to this aspect of the book.

"Are you the Vanilla Ice of novels?" Colbert asked.

"Precisely," Shields said. "Why can music get away with these exciting moves, why can the visual arts do it, why can you do it? Why is writing weirdly [bound] to nineteenth-century novelistic forms?"

"Why are you bound by the nineteenth-century convention of book?" Colbert went on to ask. "Why didn't you just put this on a Web site, or like Xerox it, and like pass it out on street corners wearing a trash bag for a dress?"

Shields seemed visibly frustrated, defensive, and even sad. And I kind of felt for him. But what I've read of his ideas in interviews and excerpts from Reality Hunger has left me less than convinced of his perspective.

On one level, I really relate to Shields' (and, I think, D'Agata's) desire for "a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation," one that ties stories to "an idea, a philosophical description." After all, I've described my own thesis project (a book-length essay) as a combination of philosophical musings, exegesis, literary criticism, reportage and memoir. And I've written it in first-person, uninterested in somehow disguising or distancing author and speaker and voice. These characteristics to some extent, I think, align my work with the sort of stuff that the Shields camp purports to hunger for.

Shields writes in the 599th numbered paragraph of his manifesto, "I want the veil of 'let's pretend' out. I don't like to be carried into purely fanciful circumstances. The never-never lands of the imagination don't interest me that much. Beckett decided that everything was false to him, almost, in art, with its designs and formulae. He wanted art, but he wanted it right from life. He didn't like, finally, that Joycean voice that was too abundant, too Irish, endlessly lyrical, endlessly allusive ... He wanted to directly address desperate individual existence, which bores many readers. I find him a joyous writer, though; his work reads like prayer. You don't have to think about literary allusions but experience itself. That's what I want from the voice. I want it to transcend artifice."

His terms there at the end--"to transcend artifice"--are terms I'll have to think about for a while. To transcend artifice seems like a wise and interesting idea, but I'm not sure that the forms and novelists (e.g., Jonathan Franzen) that Shields dismisses in Reality Hunger are not doing this sort of thing too. Are most successful literary novels really embodying Shields' simplistic description of them in one interview as tomes that go on and on "in unending chapters" detailing this or that breakup, this or that catastrophe?

"A novel," Shields says in the same interview, "is basically a story-telling mechanism that exists to hold the reader riveted ... it's there to sell a book." Is that truly what a "story" boils down to? Entertainment for those of us more easily enraptured and amused?

"We need to write compressed stories that produce a tone of thought rather than elaborate stories that produce none," Shields goes on to say in the same interview. I guess I just don't see the product, or meaning, of a lot of stories and novels out there in the same dissatisfied way. I've found that many novels do manage in some way to "directly address individual desparate experience" as a human even as they excel at absorbing my imagination and attention as a reader.

Having just finished D'Agata's About a Mountain, I'm still processing what's most promising in these recent nonfiction works. Both D'Agata and Shields cross unexpected lines, whether it be deeply ingrained, cultural expectations about appropriation of the work of others or about how closely an account of real events must stay to the facts. The foggier choices the above authors have made with regard to such issues turn me off to otherwise great work on their part. But are those choices in some ways necessary to that work being what it is? I'm not yet sure what I think.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

AWP highlights

I'm just back from the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) 2010 conference in downtown Denver. Roughly 9,000 people attended the event, monopolizing hotels in the 16th Street Mall area for a four-day period.

Pulitzer-winner Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, etc) was the keynote speaker Thursday night, and his talk was definitely one of the best I've ever witnessed. Funny, deep, intelligent and incredibly modest. Among other things, he shared some of the more sophomoric ideas he included years ago as a young 20-something in his (failed) attempt to secure a Stegner Fellowship as well as his first meeting with a well-known professor in his creative writing program. The professor said simply and deliberately (about Chabon's fiction submission), "I don't like it."

Another highlight of my first experience of AWP was a Saturday-morning panel that included Richard Bausch. A prolific short story writer and novelist, Bausch gave really helpful advice to the many would-be novelists (and already novelists but awaiting completion and publication) in the packed room. He talked about the process as one where you are driving in the dark, and you can see as far ahead as the headlights illumine, but no further. Bausch also discussed the role of failure--frequent failure and doubt--in any endeavor that aims for excellence, giving his own early writing as concrete evidence of this.

The panel that left me most fired up (in both good and bad ways, I think) was one on the place of journalism instruction in creative writing programs. Jim Sheeler, author of the Rocky Mountain News features that became the book Final Salute, was one of five panelists (all journalists) urging their audience of the need for more focus on journalistic skills in the creative writing (particularly creative nonfiction) curriculum. The panelists were all convinced that too often young writers only write about themselves and not about other subjects. While I do sympathize to some degree with their concern for not only this trend but also the need for accuracy in giving a "real-life" account of things, they so emphasized these concerns, with no attention to the idea of nonfiction projects as primarily artful as well as made up of real events, people, etc. It would have been interesting to have someone at the opposite end of the spectrum (e.g., John D'Agata, About a Mountain and The Next American Essay) on the panel as well. Plus somebody somewhere in between the two extremes.

More on AWP later, perhaps. It's lunchtime.

The positive flip-flop

Lane Wallace's post on The Atlantic this morning gets at something I've wondered a lot about with regard to the public sphere. Why is it that so few public figures (as well as private leaders of organizations, churches, etc) have a significant "I was wrong" moment? Wallace's analogy comparing this revision of personal and organizational theories and beliefs (or more often, lack of revision/rethinking) to the way in which scientists are continually obliged to admit error and change their minds and methods is a powerful one.

Wallace notes that Stevens, once in favor of the death penalty, eventually changed his position on the controversial topic after forming "an opinion based not in abstract principle but in years of sorrowful observation of how the death penalty was actually being administered."

"That is, of course, what all good scientists are supposed to do," Wallace writes. "We develop theories, and then we test them, or see how they play out in real life. If reality doesn't behave the way the theory predicted, we're supposed to use that information to modify and improve our theories and opinions. What makes that anecdote about Stevens notable is how few public figures -- or even private individuals, for that matter -- manage that kind of measured re-evaluation of their beliefs or positions, despite how often our theories about business, economics, foreign policy or human behavior prove themselves less perfect in practice than they sounded on paper."

There's often an almost automatic sense of scandal when a politician is revealed (usually through an opponent's ad campaign) to have "flip-flopped" on a given legislative issue. Certainly such instances are interesting to highlight, and well worth exploring, but a change of heart or mind is in itself hardly a character flaw.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Dentriloquists and things

The officemate and I have begun a list of "Words to be Reintroduced into the English Language" on our door in Hoyt Hall. They are the best of the best from a flip-calendar Joe's mom gave me:

1) Aftertale (postscript)
2) Friday-face (a grave or gloomy expression of the countenance)
3) Dentriloquist (one who speaks through the teeth)
4) Gelastic (inclined to laughter)
5) Minuend (the number from which another number is to be subtracted)
6) Metromania (a species of insanity in which the patient evinces a rage for reciting poetry)

Aftertale is just lovely, isn't it? So much better than our modern "P.S." shorthand.