Creative writers know that physical description is among the most essential tools for establishing a character. How a person walks and talks; the clothing they wear; their hairstyle; how they chew and fidget and fuss, or sit stoically; the way they smile, frown, or stare blankly. These can provide terrific insights into our characters. However, merely listing the gestures often isn’t enough.
In workshop stories, I often see exchanges like this one (which I invented):
“I’m really happy you could meet me today,” he said. He gave her a small smile.
She looked up at him. “I love this restaurant,” she answered.
In this brief moment, we have two gestures – a “small smile” and a “look.” That’s a fine place to begin, but as written, these are simply stage directions. It’s as if the writer is merely puppeteering the characters, giving us a visual. The actions aren’t telling us anything about the characters, about the situation, about the emotional register of this moment. Is this guy actually happy? Is she happy? Or are they sad? Worried? Are they flirting? Are they ex-spouses who haven’t spoken in months, with a history of conflict between them? Is there resentment, love, nervous excitement? What are these gestures telling us?
Students often express hesitance about “slowing down” the action of the story in order to give backstory about the characters. They say they don’t want to bog down the piece with paragraphs of explication about who these people are and what brought them to this moment.
My answer is this: You don’t have to slow down the action. Weave the backstory into the action. Make it part of the scene. Connect the gestures to the characters’ backstory. Every gesture should reveal something: the character’s personality, psychology, desires, conflicts. Make the gestures work for you.
Here’s a passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar:
Mr. Willard eyed me kindly. Then he cleared his throat and brushed a few last crumbs from his lap. I could tell he was going to say something serious, because he was very shy, and I’d heard him clear his throat in that same way before giving an important economics lecture.
Notice that Mr. Willard doesn’t simply “eye” the narrator. That might be misconstrued as creepy. Instead, he eyes her “kindly.” That’s helpful to the reader; it gives us something about the mood, the tone. Next, he clears his throat and brushes crumbs from his lap. Is he nervous? Is he about to say something? People tend to clear their throats when they want to say something. Sure enough, Plath makes it clear with the next sentence.
But most importantly, she adds another line that connects Mr. Willard’s throat-clearing to the characters’ shared history. We learn that he is shy (therefore, they know each other). We learn that he was a teacher, specifically an economics teacher, and she must have been his student. The gestures aren’t only stage direction; they forward the plot and deepen our understanding of the characters. And they haven’t slowed down the scene.
Sometimes simply choosing a compelling verb can do wonders for establishing character. Here’s an example from James Joyce’s Ulysses:
Then, suddenly overclouding all his features, he scowled in a hoarsened rasping voice as he hewed again vigorously at the loaf:
‘For old Mary Ann
She doesn’t care a damn
But hising up her petticoats…’
He crammed his mouth with a fry and munched and droned.
Notice how much work Joyce’s verbs are doing. “Overclouding all his features” makes me think this guy is in a bad mood. And then he “scowled” and “hewed . . . vigorously the loaf.” He’s eating, but he’s not just eating: he’s eating violently, piggishly. He sings a dirty little ditty, and then he “crammed his mouth with a fry.” There’s aggression in that verb. He’s literally stuffing his face.
From those six words, I know quite a bit about what kind of dude this is. And I’d rather eat over here, thank you.
Flannery O’Connor is among the best at giving gestures with meaning. She often uses an “as if” structure, and it’s a technique you can easily apply to your own writing. Quite simply, she describes a gesture or expression, but then she adds one – or two, even three – similes that start with “as if,” similes that develop the character and the conflict.
From The Violent Bear It Away:
Rayber continued to speak, his voice detached, as if he had no particular interest in the matter, and his were merely the voice of truth, as impersonal as air.
As a writer I would be tempted to quit after “his voice detached,” which gives us something important. But O’Connor keeps pushing it. In what way is his voice detached? The first clause tells us Rayber is talking as if he doesn’t care about the topic. Then the second part really elevates the simile: he has “no particular interest” because his “voice of truth” is absolute. He has no need to argue passionately.
And finally, still not satisfied, O’Connor pushes it once more: “as impersonal as air.”
To me, this last clause makes the whole gesture. In his own mind, Rayber’s logic is like an invisible, ubiquitous, and necessary force. No person can live without air; it is all around us at all times. And now the reader truly sees the full extent of the character’s ego.
The most important habit a writer can develop is to read like a writer. So the next time you’re reading, pay special attention to the ways the author uses gesture and detail to build character, to bring us closer to their conflicts. And then, as always, don’t hesitate to rush to the keyboard (or pen and paper) and use their techniques in your own writing.
Another tiresome story in the news this morning about a mother who let her child play out in the family’s backyard and was subsequently reported to both the local police and to Child Protective Services. For those of you not on the parenting circuit, this is an extreme example of a now-common phenomenon—the expectation that children ought to be treated much like the tiny priceless bell your grandmother brought over from the Old Country, kept close to the nest and dusted off for company. The danger of a child accidentally strangling themselves with dental floss in the bathroom seems more present than the worry they will skin a knee or break a leg. For those of you currently embroiled in the household care of small charges, be forewarned—your greatest enemy may not be the random kidnapper (accounting for, incidentally, about 100 children a year, half of whom come home, compared to a whopping 1,100 children a year killed in motor vehicle accidents, usually when you, the parent, are driving) but the proverbial Monsters on Maple Street who police your every move, making sure you haul your kid in the aforementioned car six blocks to soccer practice rather than let them hike it on their own. So the current prevailing parenting wisdom is this: Do not let your little tadpole out of arm’s reach until they are old enough to rent a car.
Much has been written about the generation of helicopter parents and children of late, centered often around the importance of play, even exposure to nature—several very wonderful books and a few recent articles on Aeon’s website have attested to the value of doing less, of play, the significance of the outdoors, even the importance of boredom. But these ideas, a reaction to the stubborn impulse to shelter children beyond all experience, remain largely on the fringe for the time being. There is little discussion in parenting literature about the value of solitude. We love, as a society, to lament the nation’s youth as a veritable wasteland of social media, but we provide little in the way of experiential lone-someness. Solitude, if anything, seems an enemy, something to be avoided, if possible, a harbinger of anxiety and depression.
What does this have to do with writing?
Solitude—the good kind, borne of the quiet pleasantry of one’s own company, not the painful variety, borne of sheer loneliness—seems endangered, a victim of the digital age and the culture of fear. As does silence, which, Galway Kinnell writes, is the mother of poetry. This is of particular interest to me both as a writer and as a college teacher. Hailed as supreme in the classroom, collaborative work, so often at the heartbeat of current pedagogy, has its limitations in scope. The intimacies of writing, the intricate sound of one’s own rhythm, one’s pulse, one’s story, is hard to hear unless you invest in quiet. For the last decade or so, I have been experimenting with assigning solitude as homework for writing students. At first the assignment rotated around a social justice curriculum I taught for Academic Writing. We read, among other works, Atul Gawande’s sharp and timely article called “Hellhole” about the harrowing reality of solitary confinement. He opens the article by talking about Harry Harlow’s famous experiment with the cloth monkeys, and progresses into a discussion of hostages and the current prison system, in which a staggering 80,000 + people are held in solitary confinement in the United States alone. It seemed like an interesting idea to have students write essays responding to questions of social justice while experiencing for 1.5 hours a self-imposed version of the confines of quiet, set up in a “cell” of sorts, usually a bathroom, meant to approximate the size of the enclosure of the modern inmate. The conversations afterward—and the writing—were more intense and more engaged than at any other time during the semester. “The mind,” wrote one student, “is much, much darker when you are alone.”
To provide a counterpoint to this experience, we talk a bit about epiphany, about catharsis. I can remember my own first experiences with great immediacy; walking to school alone, three miles each way, listening to Cat Stevens on my Walkman, the engine of the universe stopping me to look at new lupine, at the thunderous sky. I can remember reading James Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in eleventh grade and feeling a deep desire—something like hunger—to experience a fragment of life as Stephen Dedalus did, for the caught glimpse of an ankle at the seaside to be a portal to an entirely different world. While some students are familiar with the experience of awe, many—by their own admission—have been kept so busy for so much of their lives that they have had little time to experience the shock of the self. Again, the links between epiphany and solitude—a connection with the most ragged, most divine experiences—seems limited, haunted by the preferential treatment of safety, of the known. As part of this segment of the semester, we read Bill McKibben’s gorgeous introduction to Thoreau’s Walden. Here is an excerpt of the part I love most:
The idea that we know what we want is palpably false. We’ve been suckled since birth on an endless elaboration of consumer fantasies, so that it is nearly hopeless for us to figure out what is our and what is the enchanter’s suggestion. And we keep that spell alive every time we turn on the radio or the television or the net. Because when someone is whispering in your ear, there’s no way to think your own thoughts or feel your own responses. The signals that your heart sends you are constant, perhaps, but they’re also low and rumbling and easily jammed by the noise and static of the civilization we’ve lately built.
McKibben goes on to say,
Without silence, solitude, darkness, how can we come to any sense of our true size, our actual relationship with the rest of the world?…What nature provides is scale and context, ways to figure out who and how big we are and what we want. It provides silence, solitude, darkness: the rarest commodities we know.
To this end, students would spend a (yes, I’ll confess to it, mandated) two hours in the outdoors. Alone. We are lucky, I realize, to live in rural Northern California, where a rather safe municipal park, much of it wild, stretches from campus fourteen miles into the foothills of the Sierra. I cannot substantiate whether or not individuals in fact took their phones or traveled in packs or pairs, but I take it on good faith that, for the time, they were sufficiently intrigued by the prospect of epiphany that most were willing to at least attempt this. Again, an excerpt:
It was the squirrels and the trees that seemed, for the time being, to be my friends. I was able to forget my planner, the constant updates of my friends and enjoy the peace of being myself. I felt entirely free.
I do not know, for certain, if these moments in the outdoors, alone, hold for longer than a day, or a week, the time it takes to finish a semester—or if they intrigued the recipient of solitude sufficiently to invite more. I do not know if the small joys of silence can ultimately transcend the fear of quiet, if attempting to learn, as McKibben says, a sense of our own true size, will ever be anything but intensely intimidating. I do know that while not every bit of writing, not each poem, must itself contain an epiphany, the experience of composition is about hearing one’s own thoughts above the din, trying to make sense, and even noise of them.
I start out wanting to write a Blog Post for Superstition Review. I want to make it funny. Knowledgeable. Relate-able. The reader should laugh and think “I would like to talk with this writer.” All great writing is getting people to think they know you, that they would want to talk with you.
But I have no idea what to write about. I just graduated from college and that is about as boring and overdone a topic as any. I might as well write about golfing, or about the time I played flag football at a local park and discovered I am not the sort of person who should be playing flag football at a local park.
I like to write, but have written nothing of tremendous value. That isn’t fishing for compliments, just speaking objectively. Therefore I can’t offer advice to writers, though I have in the past done this very thing and, to this day, I still feel guilty about it. My writing is not terrible and has made some money in academic contests but I know, what everyone knows, but no one likes to say, that undergrad academic contests aren’t worth anything except the prize money. So I can’t write about being a professional writer, because I am not a professional writer.
I’ve had great experiences through my time as a Blogger/Non-Fiction Editor/Student Editor in Chief at Superstition Review, but others, in ways I cannot top, have written about those very experiences for this very Blog. Others, in ways I have yet to mimic, have taken those experiences and grown because of them. I have been to a writing conference but already have, in a previous post, beaten that horse to death with a very small club. I have been to AWP but spent more time touring the city than touring the Book Fair (shameful, I know, but who could have guessed I was to fall in love with cold beautiful grey Minneapolis?).
Bloggers tell you to write what you know, to relate to your audience through what you know. Good with dogs? Write about dogs. Write about how finishing a short story is similar to teaching a new puppy how to piss outside. It’s all about consistency. Go on a lot of hikes? Write something about the writing process and compare it to hiking a new trail, a harder trail than usual. It’s all about persistence. But my dog still sometimes pees on the living room rug, and the last trail I hiked ended with a whimper, not a bang. I thought maybe I could write about how to make the world’s best macaroni and cheese, but then I remembered, halfway through that ill fated blog post, that the best mac and cheese I ever had was made by a girl named Beth one drunken night six years ago at a friend’s house where we were all drinking wine out of plastic red cups and that recipe, like my connection to Beth, was completely lost after that night.
Telling me to write about what I know has always been a sort of cruel task; because I want to write about what I don’t know, and about that which makes me question my sense of authority. I am reminded of a writing professor who, in a soft rant against ‘trigger warnings’, asked our small workshop circle “Isn’t getting triggered the point?” For me, it goes like this: isn’t admitting you don’t know the point?
Here’s what I don’t know: the value of writing and whether or not I am a writer. I have loved books from a young age and can point to moments in my life that were shaped directly by the works of Salinger (specifically his collection of short stories revolving around the Glass family), to Tolstoy’s War and Peace (one of the first books that genuinely made me want to be a better person) to Dubliners by James Joyce which made me first think about becoming a writer. There are more recent examples, as well. In Matt Bell’s Scrapper there is a scene, where our protagonist finds a stolen boy and the snow is falling overhead, and where I, the reader, was so completely transported into that scene that my heart skipped a beat. But the more I work on Social Media for my job, the more I interact with other readers, with other writers, the more new books and new styles of writing I read, the more the doubt inside me grows. As valuable as stories have been to me, how can we properly value them? There have been blog posts in the past about how writers should be paid, for their stories, their poems, and that magazines shouldn’t expect writers to be content with just getting published. But can we really make that case? I would argue the opposite. That now in this sea of media, where everyone, through so many mediums, has the ability to share their voice, the value in stories is dropping or, at the very least, leveling off in an over saturated market.
This makes me doubt my writing. Do I really just want to be another voice in the market? Is there anything I can say that someone couldn’t say better? I honestly don’t know. That’s why I wanted to write this blog post, because I have no idea. What I see, through Social Media, are countless writers celebrating the fact that they are just writing. And this gets me a little depressed. It isn’t enough that we are just writing. It isn’t enough that we can take photos of our notebooks next to coffee cups and filter the image to look antique and post it. Perhaps this is the result of working in a book store and seeing just how many books get published and how few new writers actually get read. It isn’t enough that you have a story to tell. But now I am giving advice to writers, which is something I already said I wasn’t going to do. So let me stop while I am ahead.
Here’s where the title of my blog comes from: I saw Ira Glass perform at the Mesa Arts Center a few years ago in the show “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host.” It was one of my favorite things I have ever seen and in that performance, Ira Glass quoted a friend who said “when we choose to be with one person for the rest of our lives, we are choosing the person we will spend the rest of our lives falling in and out of love with.”
I think it’s safe to say I’ve fallen out of love with writing. Like any great relationship, falling out of love makes me think of our earliest moments. I remember the first real Creative Writing class I had, where the teacher wrote the words “blue boot” on the whiteboard and asked us, rhetorically, what we were thinking of in that moment. Of course the answer was: a blue boot. Wow, the teacher said quietly, isn’t that amazing? Just by putting two words together, an image was created in our mind. What if, instead of a boot, we did that with a town? Instead a town, a world? Instead of a world, an emotion? What if, through words, we could create the idea of love, of loss, of fear, inside our reader? Wow, all of us students quietly said to ourselves.
This is all to say I still love reading good work. There were two writers I met at Bread Loaf whose writing I loved. One of them had already published a book and I read it in a matter of days. The other one hadn’t published a novel yet, but was certainly almost finished with their first draft. I look up their names every now and then in the usual places. Linkedin. Twitter. Instagram. They aren’t there. They don’t exist on Social Media and this makes me so goddamn happy. Now I can tell myself that, wherever they are, they are focusing on their work. Nothing else. And that one day soon their next book, their next story, their next finished product is going to be put out into the world, and whatever they have created with their words will be stirred within me.
A young man in colonial Salem, Massachusetts leaves his house, kisses goodbye his young wife, and heads into the dark and menacing woods to make a mysterious appointment. Along the way, he is briefly kept company by a conservative and neighborly man who, it turns out, is Satan.
The young man (Young Goodman Brown) protests that the meeting to which they’re both headed would be seen as an abomination by his father and grandfather; on the contrary: Satan informs Brown that he, the Prince of Darkness himself, “brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village” and “helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem[.]”
Disheartened, Brown falls away from the path, and while lingering in the woods, he observes a procession of Salem’s moral majority–the woman who taught him his catechism, the town minister, the deacon: all on their way to this same strange meeting, the one Brown dreaded, but felt he could not avoid.
He arrives at the meeting and is stunned to find his own sweet wife (Faith) there too. Everyone is there–the good and the bad of Salem:
“[H]e recognized a score of the church members of Salem village famous for their especial sanctity. Good old Deacon Gookin had arrived, and waited at the skirts of that venerable saint, his revered pastor. But, irreverently consorting with these grave, reputable, and pious people, these elders of the church, these chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes.
Turns out that all of them, the high and the low, the prim and the skanky, have gathered here in the woods to celebrate the reception of new “converts” into the church of Satan. There’s an uncurtaining being committed here, a drawing aside of the drapes. The mystery into which young Goodman Brown and Faith his wife are being inducted is not the Christian one of faith and redemption through grace. Instead, Satan describes a communion of hypocrisy.
This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds: how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widows’ weeds, has given her husband a drink at bedtime and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers’ wealth; and how fair damsels–blush not, sweet ones–have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest to an infant’s funeral.
Satan describes a church organized not around virtue, but around sympathy and honesty. His new converts “shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot.” He calls Brown and Faith forward–they’ve been married for three months, their matrimony ordained in the church of God, but now they stand in front of a different altar, and the homily is much altered. “Depending on one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream,” Satan says. “Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.”
Brown and Faith move forward, toward a basin filled with–“water, reddened by the lurid light? or was it blood? or, perchance, a liquid flame?” And just before the Devil can complete this anointment, this counterbaptism, Brown looks at Faith, and Faith looks at him.
“Faith! Faith!” Brown cries. “Look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one!”
Brown never learns what happens next. He suddenly finds himself “amid calm light and solitude.” One might think he’s saved himself, and his soul, at the last possible minute. He walks out of the woods the next morning, and we’re allowed to believe that maybe the whole night was a dream. (But then what was he doing in the woods?)
The old minister is taking a walk before church and blesses young Goodman Brown. The deacon is praying through an open window. The woman who taught Brown his catechism is catechizing a little girl “who had brought her a pint of morning’s milk.”
He sees Faith. She is overjoyed at the sight of him, and skips down the street to plant a kiss on her husband, in sight of the whole town. “But Goodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting.”
Brown is never happy again after that night. He has looked upon the mysteries but refused to take the Devil’s offered comfort. He hears “an anthem of sin” inside each holy psalm. He imagines the roof caving in every time the minister preaches. He scowls and mutters whenever Faith and his children gather to pray.
After his death, “they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.”
2. No Way Out
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” had a strong effect on me when I read it my senior year of college. It was a study group assignment, and in the seminar afterward, I asked a troubled and sincere and probably kind of dumb question: “Is this story . . . immoral?”
What I meant was that I could find nothing firm inside the world of “Young Goodman Brown,” no conviction, no ground on which I could stand. Brown refuses the Devil’s offer, but still he dies unhappy. Why? Why? The story’s mood jibes with all the best intuitions of moral correctness: evil is characterized as evil, good as good. The hero, in his moment of crisis, makes the right decision. But his life forever afterward looks like a punishment. He is damned for resisting damnation. “Young Goodman Brown” is not like a Flannery O’Connor story, where one can always sense a future redemption rippling underneath the present venalities. If O’Connor had written “Young Goodman Brown,” then the finger of God would have reached out through that Black Mass in the woods and flicked the hero in the direction of grace.
There’s nothing like that at all here. The story might work as an indictment of Hawthorne’s culture, both on the charge of hypocrisy (those “hoary-bearded” churchmen and their maids) and also on the charge of political inhumanity (the genocide of the Indians, the intolerance of the Quakers). So maybe Hawthorne is trying to show a continuum of immorality between what is actually vicious but not publicly acknowledged as such (like the inhumanities of Puritan Massachusetts) and those secret, smaller, but recognized and officially approbated vices, of lechery, murderous greed, and post-term abortion?
Maybe. But isn’t there something righteous in the Devil’s argument that everyone should just be open and transparent about all this? Still, then, bizarrely, the Devil and his congregants are only willing to be honest about this fact in secret. But then it’s a secret they all share? Who are they hiding it from? Reading between the lines, it looks like the difference is age and marital status: Brown and Faith are only called as converts once they’re old enough to wed. I guess this is a secret that must be kept from children and the young? Why? Why preserve innocence only to corrupt it?
If the Devil is right, then maybe Brown’s gloomy death is the result of his own failure to “grow up,” to accept the hideous compromise between virtue and vice that allows Puritanism and colonialism to flourish. But if the Devil is wrong–which, I mean, you’d kind of assume would have to be the case? He is the Devil–then where is Brown’s salvation? Why is everybody back in Salem happy but him?
There’s an irony here that’s too subtle for me, at least, to understand. It reminds me of Huck Finn’s “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” or Tim O’Brien’s “I was a coward. I went to the war.” But I can only half-grasp that connection. I’m not able to see the paradox that gives the irony its sense.
“Young Goodman Brown” is a labyrinth, but I can’t trap the monster, and I can’t save the princess, and I can’t find the way out.
3. True Detective and Serial
2014 began with one pop-culture freakout, and it’s ending with another: in the early months, we were all obsessed with True Detective; now, we’re all obsessed with Serial. It seems important to ask why this might be.
There are plenty of obvious differences between the two programs. One was a prestige drama on “paid” cable, the other is a free nonfiction podcast put out by public radio. The two could not be more different in tone: True Detective was grim and gothic, while Serial possesses a lightness of touch, almost a cheerfulness, in spite of its dark material.
Perhaps the most strikingly oppositional difference lies in the way these two stories address the question of personality. At the heart of True Detective lay an argument against the very concept of human identity. In his monologues, Rust Cohle cross-examined the belief that a person is anything but a self-deluded puppet–that is, a puppet who is deluded to think itself aself, coherent and free-willed, rather than simply so much horny gristle, a marionette carved out of water and blood and skin, with strings made of neurochemicals and old Chuck Darwin working the paddle.
On the other hand there’s Serial, which has this animating theory personified by Sarah Koenig’s earnest-to-the-point-of-pollyanaish faith in the idea that personalitiesmatter–that a person’s behavior, their manners and forms of address, the way they carry themselves, the impressions other people take of them, the jibs they cut–that these are not appearances merely, but rather tokens of the true being beneath. The plot of Serial is driven by a binary set of mutually exclusive possibilities: Is Adnan telling the truth about his innocence, or is Jay telling the truth about Adnan’s guilt? The problem Koenig and her listeners keep bumping into is that both these guys seem like good, normal, non-psychopathic, non-pathologically-lying human beings. Koenig uses the word “nice” to describe Adnan, “sweet” to describe Jay–fully knowing that one of these guys might be a murderer, while the other is an admitted murder-accomplice. Whereas True Detective argued that a pre-human, amoral darkness resides inside everyone, Serial trusts that a semblance of love and decency and fellow-feeling isn’t merely a mask–it’s a clue.
That’s a little of what separates True Detective and Serial, but let’s look at what they have in common. There’s the young dead woman; the separation in time between the pivotal events and the present-day investigation–and then there’s something else, something that’s harder to articulate. It’s the way each of these shows contains an assortment of stray facts or images, seemingly disconnected from the main thread, but thrumming with moody significance. I’m thinking of the Neighbor Boy in Serial, and the gang-rape tableau of Barbie figures in True Detective. Each of these programs is a mystery, but mystery is more than a question without an answer. It’s a mood.
Then, underneath these shared characteristics, there’s something more essential to each program, something that I think accounts for their success, and it’s the labyrinthine nature of these stories.
4. The Dancing Floor
The labyrinth is a touchstone of human culture, both historically and developmentally. One finds labyrinths all over literature and history going back to the Greek myths; and before a child starts reading, her brain finds exercise by working a penciltip through a maze.
The writer nearest to us in time who best understood the importance of the labyrinth to human art was the late Guy Davenport. Here he is, in an essay on James Joyce called “Ariadne’s Dancing Floor” (you’ll find it in Every Force Evolves A Form):
The archaic Greek mind ascribed all things cunningly wrought, whether a belt with a busy design, the rigging of a ship, or an extensive palace, to the art of the craftsman Daedalus, whose name first appears in the Iliad. Homer, describing the shield Hephaistos makes for Akhilleus, says that the dancing floor depicted on it was as elaborate as that which Daedalus designed for Ariadne in Crete. This dancing floor is perhaps what Homer understood the Labyrinth to be. Joyce did, for the ground on which he places all his figures is clearly meant to be a labyrinth. Such floors, usually in mosaic, persist through history, spread by Graeco-Roman culture, and can be found in cathedrals (Bayeux and Chartres, for example), villas, city plans, squares, and formal gardens. They all display an interlacing of lines in a pattern that doubles back on itself in a “commodus vicus of recirculation” as a cicerone’s voice says in the opening paragraph of Finnegans Wake, which is a small model of a labyrinth containing other Joycean images of the kind of mazes he will elaborate on (and has elaborated on in all his previous books): rivers, time as shaped by history and myth, and choice environs (a word that derives from the Latin for the twistings and turnings of streets in a city). (my emphases).
There’s a tiny history of the world contained in those lines; I could stare at them and stare at them and never quite exhaust all their meaning. But one thing I’ve learned, from reading Davenport’s essays (the ones in EFEAF, and in the larger collection, The Geography of the Imagination), is that the labyrinth is both a puzzle and a solution to puzzles. Look up, at Davenport’s definition of the labyrinth, as “an interlacing of lines in a pattern that doubles back on itself[.]”
Find the labyrinth–find the materials that make up the lines, find the pattern, find the point where that pattern doubles back–and you’ll have gone a long way toward understanding what you’re looking at. Here’s are three cases in point:
5. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: Time as Shaped by History and Myth
A literal labyrinth would be really boring as an actual plot: following some guy past high walls, down dead-ends, into the center and out. No one wants that.
Yet literal labyrinths appear all the time in works of narrative art, and can usually be taken as a clue that a subtler labyrinth is at work somewhere.
Take Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, where a literal labyrinth stands right outside the Overlook’s front door–the hedge maze. Remember that moment, where Wendy and Danny are playing in it, while Jack is procrastinating from his play? Jack comes across a model of that hedge maze, and there’s this disorienting moment, where we think we’re still inside Jack’s POV, but actually, we’re looking down from a God’s-eye-view on Wendy and Danny. We see them moving around in the maze, like insects.
Let’s wonder about that, though. Maybe we’re not meant to move entirely away from Jack’s perspective. If Jack sees his wife and son as figures inside the maze, what does that mean to Jack, as a man, and with a man’s consciousness (shaped, like everyone’s consciousness, by history and myth)? What would Jack see if he saw his wife and his son inside that maze? What would that mean to him, since the mythological meaning of the labyrinth is a place where monsters must be faced, and killed?
One of the more terrifying symptoms of alcoholism is the way it can take people whom the addict would otherwise love and transform them, in the sight of the addict, into villains. Maybe that’s what’s happening when Jack looks down at the maze. In Jack, the Overlook has found a man whose craving for alcohol is a weapon that can be turned on the people he loves. Because here’s a man who would, on some basement level, willingly surrender to any theory that re-configured his family as the bad guys in his life. He quit drinking for them. But if they’re the villains, why does he need to stay away from the bottle? That’s the pattern of Jack’s alcoholism: seeing the bottle, not as a murderer, but as a savior; and seeing one’s family, not as loved ones trying to help you, but as monsters trying to take away the one thing that makes you happy.
If seeing Wendy and Jack as monsters in the maze is a literal rendition of the labyrinth, then the figurative walls down which Jack passes, the dead-ends in which he gets stuck, take their shape from the patterns of alcoholic rage, fused with and emboldened by the entitlements of patriarchal authority. Jack berates Wendy for not getting it–not getting that he’s signedacontract. He abuses her for distracting him from his “work.” His guilt over Danny’s broken arm–first repressed, then sublimated–is excused by the harm Danny innocently dealt to Jack’s play. Jack is drawn into the labyrinth by these arguments, these justifications for his own growing monstrosity. He joins the side of the real monsters, the ghosts inhabiting the Overlook, by re-casting his wife and little boy as the true bad guys of the play. He becomes trapped in a maze of aggression, self-pity, and hopelessness. He drank because of his own pain; he quit drinking because of the pain he caused Danny; quitting caused the pain of recovery–and then, when Danny gets hurt in Room 237 and Wendy accuses him of causing their son’s injuries, the pattern doubles back on itself, and Jack goes straight for the bottle, forgetting (on purpose) that the bottle is exactly where all of this started.
Almost immediately, this personal, psychological labyrinth fuses with the greater, supernatural labyrinth inhabiting the hotel. This supernatural labyrinth is built out of a strange combination of memory loss, ghosts, and time travel. Jack meets a waiter who’s supposed to be dead and doesn’t remember that he killed his family–but Jack does. Jack (who’s also supposed to be dead, or at least very old, considering the movie’s final image) doesn’t remember that he’s “always been the caretaker”–but the waiter does. Each man remembers the other, forgetting himself.
And here the pattern of time as shaped by history and myth doubles back. The needs of Jack’s alcoholism, and his own sense of male entitlement, fuse with the pattern of the Hotel’s hauntedness. Jack doesn’t see the Hotel as a murderous force, but as a thing to be saved (like his own craving for a drink); and Jack doesn’t see the Hotel as a threat to his family, he sees his family as a threat to the Hotel. His contract gives him a mandate to eliminate these threats, and so he re-configures his wife and son’s good intentions into a labyrinth in which he must avoid becoming trapped (he doesn’t avoid this, at first; he gets dead-ended in the freezer). Meanwhile, the labyrinth he’s trying to escape is the one where his family isn’t murdered, where the history of the Hotel (Ullman’s chopped up wife and girls) isn’t re-created. By seeking escape from this labyrinth, he draws his family inside the other one. Delusionally, he perceives himself as Theseus, his family as the Minotaur, and the Hotel as an Ariadne to be saved.
Return to that moment of disorientation, where we think, for an instant, that we’re inside Jack’s head, but really we’re looking down on Wendy and Danny in the maze–but really, we are, in fact, inside Jack’s head.
6. Christopher Nolan’s Inception: Choice Environs
Mazes, maze-making, and the myth of the labyrinth are all over Inception (one of the characters is named Ariadne). But the function of the labyrinth deployed by the characters to pull off this heist is the same as the one deployed by Nolan, and it’s what every serious artist tries to offer the audience: catharsis. The manufactured cityscapes, landscapes, and interiors are used by Inception‘s characters to draw their mark into an emotional labyrinth, which takes its shape from the complexities of the bond he has with his father.
Notice here how something as mundanely, even generically fraught as a father-son relationship can look like a labyrinth. A father loves his son, a son loves his father. The son is infantilely uncomplicated and reaches for the father’s love. The father has been hardened by the strictures of masculinity and fails to requite this love, however much he might want to. This transforms the son into a man like his father and the first pattern of the labyrinth is complete: the simple, straight-line path of father-son love has been twisted around and disrupted by the interference of an outside code. Now the son is grown, he is hardened, and the father, weakening in middle age, or softening as approaching death triggers a reevaluation of priorities, reaches out for his son’s love. The son doesn’t give it. He can’t. The labyrinth has doubled back on itself.
I mean, this is like 98% of all father-son relationships, isn’t it? Some form of this drama seems to play out almost uniformly across the entire father-and-son portion of the human race. In this particular iteration I’ve given, the labyrinth is a metaphor for a certain kind of relationship, but it also illuminates the labyrinth’s broader strategy, in every iteration. The labyrinth takes what should otherwise be a simple transaction and confounds the human desires at the heart of it with an overlay of complexity, diverting what’s straighforward into twists and turns, dead-ends. Fathers and sons want to love each other; but masculinity confounds (and masculinity, as a code of manners, takes its content from the field of history and myth; so cf. The Shining).
The heist in Inception introduces another layer of complexity, by introducing the problem of capital wealth. Fischer, the mark, has a typically strained relationship with his father, but this is complicated even further by the insane amount of money at stake. And here, another interesting strategy of the labyrinth appears: only when people are trapped can they experience the release of escape. So the literal labyrinths into which the inceptors draw Fischer mirror the figurative labyrinths in which he’s lived all his life. The dreams reenforce his own anxieties and fears, they throw into relief the emotional pain he feels toward his father–all so he can be fooled into achieving a resolution.
The labyrinth doubles back on itself, but here, the labyrinth, in the hands of the inceptors, has pulled off a trick I can only describe as keyser-sozean: Fischer is trapped forever precisely because he is convinced he has escaped.
7. David Fincher’s Zodiac: Rivers
My dayjob is criminal defense, and one thing it shares with my work as a freelance nonfiction writer is this: you have to make do with the facts as they are.
It’s the same way with police work, and that’s why the particular species of labyrinth at work in Zodiac is like a river. A river twists and turns and winds around and runs on and on, but the pattern is readymade, prefabricated, prehuman. It’s a given.
The first pattern of Zodiac came to life long before the movie starts, and it’s the pattern of the murders themselves. Serial murder, unlike most murders, doesn’t begin with emotion–serial murders aren’t “crimes of passion”. Of course, not being a serial killer, and not being able to see inside the heads of serial killer, I could be wrong about this, but serial murder seems to begin with imagination. There’s an overlap between serial killing and art, which is both perverse, and perhaps also helps account for why serial killers make such fascinating subjects.
But already we’re running into problems, because of the ingenious way Zodiac is constructed. Zodiac plays like it’s beginning with the first murder, because after the killing, the newspapers and police departments receive the letters with the ciphers. But in fact, as we find out later, Zodiac has already killed. We also think this first killing we see, like most serial killings, is somewhat impersonal. In a non-serial murder, the motive is usually inherent to the victim: those killings are what we would call “personal”; but the motives of a serial killer aren’t personal, they’re artistic, proceeding from a superstructure of the killer’s own interests and desires and fascinations. The approach to catching a serial killer, then, is something like the approach to understanding a work of art. The cop becomes a critic of the killer.
Accordingly, the investigation prompted by this first killing involves a search for patterns: why does Zodiac kill near water? Why does he kill on lovers’ lanes? Why does he attack couples, kill the woman, but leave the man alive? But then right away, Zodiac breaks the pattern. He kills a random cab driver. And then, farther on in the movie, almost near the end, we learn that the first killing we saw (actually Zodiac’s second killing) wasn’t entirely impersonal. Zodiac knew the female victim.
With this kind of labyrinth, you’re never at the beginning. You’re always farther downstream. And the pattern which began in the killer’s head is expressed only imperfectly through the medium of his murders. This resembles artistic failure, of course, but the practical effect on the investigation is an inability to see how the facts make any sense. Things don’t fit together. And so you get two patterns–the idea behind the killings, contained in the killer’s mind, and the theory for what that idea might be, pieced together by the cops from the facts left in the wake of the killer’s actions.
The place where these patterns merge and form a labyrinth, and the point where the labyrinth doubles back on itself, is one and the same: human error. Human error prevents the killer from perfectly expressing the image in his head–which is lucky for him, because the more clearly he expresses that image, the easier it becomes for the cops to catch him, to “get inside his head” and crack his pattern and trace that pattern back to its source.
Human error compounds the problem, on the cops’ side. Information isn’t shared, leads aren’t followed up on. A false report that the cabdriver was killed by a black man causes two beat cops to completely ignore a large white guy lumbering away from the crime scene. Facts that we think have been fully established are overturned: at a crucial moment, the police handwriting expert excludes the cops’ best suspect; then later, that expert’s judgment is called into question. Everyone is simply carried along–the killer by his deadly impulses, the cops by their hobbled facts–like bodies caught up in a current.
Epilogue. 9/11 Was An Inside Job Pulled Off by the Wizard of Oz
Someone on the Internet–I wish I could remember who, so I could cite them–gave an interesting argument for why people are drawn to conspiracy theories, about the Illuminati, or the “false flag” operation that brought down the twin towers, or the LBJ-led cabal of Russians and gangsters and mafiosi and Cubans and Cuban refugees and spies and John Birchers who assassinated John Kennedy. Perhaps the reason people cling to these theories, the argument goes, is because they’re afraid that life really is as randomly chaotically terrifying as it seems. But if there’s a man behind the curtain, putting on the show, isn’t that easier on the psyche? If modern life is a labyrinth, doesn’t that mean there has to be a way out?
Perhaps that’s the reason we go so pop-culture gaga over works of art like the ones I’ve discussed here. We crave a vision of the world as a puzzle to be solved.
If you are considering attending a writing conference sometime in the future, I hope this finds you well. Maybe you have heard of Bread Loaf. Maybe not. I hadn’t heard of it until one day, two fall semesters ago, when my Creative Writing teacher at Mesa Community College told me, in that way he always expressed his opinion, as if he were open to hearing your objections, not because they were valid, but because he believed there was value in standing up for yourself, that if I wanted to be a serious writer then I should attend a writing conference and if I was going to attend a writing conference, it might as well be Bread Loaf.
The name, which stands out in that vaguely preppy sense, of something old and prestigious and yet quite silly, comes from Bread Loaf Mountain, named because it was shaped like a loaf of bread. It is 89 years old and an off-shoot of the ridiculously small (my high school had just as many students) Middlebury College in Vermont.
I had reservations about attending. First, and sadly foremost, I have never felt comfortable around other writers. I find myself secretly hating them and wishing, when they talk of things like theme and the occasion of telling, that they would shut up or, at the very least, change the topic to something less troubling like religion or politics. Second, though a very close second, attending Bread Loaf, as I was invited to attend, sans fellowship, would clear out my savings and leave me broke. Third, going would mean stepping down from my Middle Management position at the company where I’ve worked for the past 5 years, because, of course, Bread Loaf dates coincided with blacked out days on the store manager’s calendar, meaning no time-off allowed.
I am telling you this up front, so, as you read my mixed thoughts, you will still believe me when I say that, if you love to write, then you should do whatever it is you can do to attend a writing conference like Bread Loaf.
Let’s go over the facts: To attend Bread Loaf it will costs around $3000 and that will include just room and board and your tuition through Middlebury College. That’s for your workshop, whether it be in Fiction, Poetry or Nonfiction, and for your shared room up on the Mountain in one of the Houses. You can, as I did, choose to stay off campus at a nearby Inn (there are two of them, one about 8 miles away and another about 16 miles away) or even look up cabins that are listed at a discount rate for Bread Loafers. If I had inquired a little sooner, I would have been able to stay in a four bedroom house with a full kitchen for only one hundred dollars a night.
To get to Bread Loaf, I drove North out of Burlington for a little over an hour and then passed through Middlebury, almost without realizing it, then drove up to Ripton, a town with one white Lutheran Church (that hosted a play based off of Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth while I was there), an old country store that sold turkey sandwiches wrapped in plastic wrap and worms for fishing, and The Chipmann Inn, where I stayed. After Ripton, you have to just go a little further up the Mountain, past the Homer Noble Farm where Robert Frost stayed before leaving with Homer Nobel’s wife. Then you are there, where the road plateaus and the view opens up.
Every other day you go to Workshop. When you are not at Workshop, you can attend craft classes, which cover things such as The Art of the Paragraph and Using Autobiographical Elements in Your Fiction. Every morning you pick up your copy of The Crumb, the Bread Loaf Newsletter, and it tells you what readings and talks are going on that day and who is coming to the Mountain and who is leaving. I got to listen to the editors of the New England Review talk about what they most looked for when accepting a piece of writing (they have to love it). And the preferences of the publishers of the small press Graywolf (they have to love it, and it has to be something they can see other people loving). And I heard from one wise editor, from an organization whose name I unfortunately can’t remember, speak about how he is finding more and more writers who are worrying about their social media presence, their Twitter followers, the way their book cover will be designed, but not worrying half that much about the quality of their work. The work, he said repeatedly, comes first.
If you do go to a conference and there is off-conference housing, I do recommend taking that option. I think I would have gone crazy spending 10 days up on the Mountain, surrounded by people like me. I escaped every night with my girlfriend to Middlebury, to one of its two bars that was open past 10. Sometimes I would skip out of Bread Loaf in the middle of the day, growing tired of readings and talks by editors, and we would shop around Middlebury and walk through Middlebury College. You have to leave writing eventually, I think, in order to keep finding things to write about.
After my story was Workshopped, and it was a good Workshop, I got, like everyone else, a one-on-one with my Workshop Leaders.
I met my first Workshop Leader, a woman with long black hair and a hard face, in the Bread Loaf Barn, where the dances were held and the Bar was open every night till 10ish. Because it was cold this summer, there was always a fire in the fireplace, and the night before I had almost fallen asleep there in front of it.
She and I talked about my story briefly. I didn’t have many questions. Then we talked about MFA programs and writers I should read. This was her sixth time teaching at Bread Loaf. She looked around the barn and talked about the stories she had heard in the earlier years of its existence. There was more drinking and sleeping around. A lot of older men writers invited up younger women. She said her favorite story was about Richard Yates, who got drunk or high or both and climbed one of the buildings and had a prophetic vision which ended with him shouting out that he was God.
She smiled and said that for a long time, people joked that it should be called “Bed Loaf.”
My next Workshop Leader was less comfortable talking. He had been that way in Workshop, too. He had good things to say and he would often lead the discussion, but it took him time to find the words and then even more time to find what order to place the words in.
We met out on the front porch of the main office and enjoyed the view, sitting on an old bench that creaked beneath us.
When he spoke, his hands were out in front of his chest and his fingers were tense, as if grasping at some machine with knobs and wires.
He had held a craft class on James Joyce’s use of epiphany in Dubliners; a craft class I had very much wanted to attend, but the time didn’t fit with the rest of my schedule. I have always felt like the epiphanies of my stories are never realized, that my characters are dancing around this great realization that would shatter the lives they had been trying so hard to live. But nothing ever resolved. It was the biggest critique of my story, that I didn’t allow my characters to grow and I should allow them to do more.
He spoke to me about taking time off in between undergrad programs and grad programs, about working a little, traveling a little. The next day was the end of Bread Loaf and I’d fly out with my girlfriend around four in the afternoon. He asked if I had any questions about my story and when I said no, he said “Good. You know what you need, you just need to. . . .” and he went quiet and scrunched up his face and held his hands out in front of his chest and contorted them into something like claws.
It took me nearly an hour to rearrange my luggage to include the books I bought/was given and my carry-on bag was replaced with a broken portable typewriter I bought from a small antique shop in Middlebury. It is still waiting for me to save the sixty dollars it is going to cost to fix it.
“The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds.”
—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
“What a tension of childhoods there must be, held in reserve at the bottom our being, for a poet’s image to make us suddenly relive our memories, reimagining our images by starting from well assembled words.”
—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie
I went camping recently in the Mokulumne Wilderness, 8200 feet up in a remote region of Northern California. I had last been there with my three daughters and a boy who was fond of the eldest. He was the first of his kind, the first boy, to be invited on a family trip. His name was Magellan, which elicited no end to the commentary from friends and acquaintances. You let a boy named Magellan near your girls? But Sophie and Magellan were twelve, going steady, so to speak, banned by his parents from even the small gesture of hand-holding, and he was sweet with her, not-holding her hand as she climbed granite boulders six feet high and roasting marshmallows expressly for her as she lazed about in a camp chair by the trickle of late July snowmelt.
As the night grew frosty beneath the stars he began to tell us stories about growing up in Alaska. His father had taken him backpacking several times in the Alaskan wilds. His earliest memory of this was when he was about seven years old. “We didn’t take blankets, so when we got cold, we lay on the ground and covered ourselves really deep with leaves” he told us, with a mixture of apology and pride and embarrassment. He went on to say that he and his father also took very little food, eating what they found for sustenance. What they ate, exactly, he left vague and unspecific. “Sometimes we ate berries if the bears hadn’t gotten there first,” he said. This wasn’t a romanticized account; he was clearly grateful to be in the presence of such amenities as a campfire and not-dogs, to be “roughing it” with four girls who were more suited to the comforts of home.
I spent a good deal of that night imagining his seven-year-old self Christopher McCandlessing his way through the tundra, plucking berries of unknown origin, and I fed him the fare of a farmhand for the rest of the trip, trying to fatten him, I suppose, like a little Hansel. I’ve revisited his stories a number of times since, trying to crawl into his childhood for a while to see how it must have worked. What was the wilderness like to him, in that small body of his? How did its skies look from the spot where only his eyes showed through the autumn foliage, lying awake next to a father who was philosophically opposed to comfort, curled up in a pile of dry leaves? It is not unimaginable, of course; his experience was neither more memorable nor more terrible than the childhoods of Frank McCourt, or Jeanette Winterson, or the countless other orphans and refugees and neglected offspring who have given us their narratives as testimony to the infinitude of ways children can be both deeply vulnerable and deeply resilient. Even poetry seems to have developed a preference for the ‘true,’ the factual—the eyewitness testimony, the documentary footage—in place of the imagined. It is interesting to think about the impulses behind the ascendance of memoir in both prose and poetry, the prevalence of attempts to climb into someone else’s childhood, or back into one’s own, perhaps as a way of learning empathy, especially in an era that simultaneously whines about a lack of such emotion and demands it with a fervor that borders on militancy. Depicting childhood as a largely terrifying enterprise is common. The impulse seems to be to create empathy, and perhaps change, out of the recognition of suffering and grief.
But the imaginative landscape of the non-terrifying childhood, the sort of childhood that is shaped more by curiosity and exploration than by the kind of trauma and abuse that forces one to adopt a defensive posture, is also worth dwelling in. “Childhood is the well of being,” writes Bachelard, in his confounding, intriguing book The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. Richard Linklater’s film “Boyhood” does this amazingly well, and watching it with a large audience recently I was intrigued by the reactions to some of the scenes. We are so inured to injury and emergency, both as narrative devices and as existential certainties, that we forget, or else cannot believe, that most of the time life eases on without fanfare or tragedy. At one point in the film the girlfriend of the main character, Mason, passes him the cell phone while he is driving. She wants to show him a photo of a cute furry animal. Everyone in the theatre audibly sucked in their breath; a few people even murmured, “Oh God!” We were prepared for the Accident Narrative, the sudden swerve from the road, the sound of next scene’s ventilator capturing their breath. Earlier in the film Mason’s (second) stepfather, with a can of beer in his hand, volleys with him when he is late for curfew, and we brace ourselves for the Abuse Narrative. Indeed, we have already seen the child at the mercy of one beastly stepfather—it isn’t as if the film pretends such things don’t happen— so it is all too natural to expect more. We wait for the sound of his head to be knocked on the doorframe, and when we don’t hear it, the audible sound of breathing begins again in the theatre. As an audience, we seem most comfortable with the grand mess, the traumatic, than with the ordinary, with actual life.
Much contemporary writing about childhood takes the form of memoir, and sadly, much of it feels like instructions for disaster, apocryphal childhoods that give us the bleakest views of the most painful experiences imaginable. This affords many of us perspective; the toils and griefs we face (my students refer to some of these as “first-world problems,” an expression that seems surprisingly apt) so often pale in comparison to the significant maelstroms known intimately by so many on a daily basis. I grew up in a home and during an era where the barometer of perspective for one’s ailments and sufferings was The Train—the one Train that stood in for what was really many trains, the trains that carried Jews from their homes and lives to the concentration camps. Like many Jewish children of the post-war era, I was instructed in Holocaust studies at a very young age, and learned that nearly any amount of suffering could be endured so long as you were not on the train. (My therapist since tells me that this isn’t a very effective strategy for rearing the young). It’s an interesting way to create endurance and self-reliance in a human being, though. On the other hand it can also be, and often is, a false crust whose main function is to disqualify any sorrow or grief that cannot measure up to the death camps.
When I was taking courses in Waldorf Education, our teacher training taught us to do “child study,” where we would envision a child in their natural “habitat” at night before sleeping, to try to understand their struggles in the classroom in the context of their lives. For a traditional Waldorf teacher, this involves lighting a candle and imagining the child surrounded by light in their home, as they are sleeping, and holding them in your thoughts for a few moments each night. Despite some of the more religious connotations of such experiences (Waldorf schools are founded on anthroposophy, and anthroposophy is described as the study of the soul) it is an amazing way to hear a child, to see a child, to go back into your own childhood, even, into the imagined and lived experiences of the self. I have even taken to doing this on occasion for my college students, whom I learn far less about than third-graders. The practice of noticing them, of being in their worlds, feels critical to the possibility of teaching them anything of magnitude.
Understanding someone’s childhood truly is entering a sort of portal to the lived experience, the locket of individuality. Poetry and film and literature do this for us. We get depth and perspective about our own lives and origins, transcending nostalgia with a kind of inherited memory. But so often we privilege the discourse of anxiety and awfulness over that of pleasure and hope and imagination, memorializing terror and trauma rather than imagining the inverse. This is a sensible reflection of our times in many ways, but privileging what is “true” over what can be imagined may be a miscalculation with grave implications for the poetic imagination. If we cannot envision anything other than what we have, it may seem we have no choice but to accept it, and as a result we actually can become inured to the pain of others. “We must admit there will be music despite everything,” Jack Gilbert tells us in his poem “A Brief for the Defense,”a beautiful piece that demands that the reader hear laughter even “in the terrible streets of Calcutta.” It makes me think of the moment in My Dinner with Andre where theater director Andre Gregory says to the playwright Wallace Shawn,
How does it affect them (an audience) to see a play that shows that our world is full of nothing but shocking sexual events and violence and terror? Does that help to wake up a sleeping audience? You see, I don’t think so, because I think it’s very likely that the picture of the world you are showing them in a play is exactly the picture of the world that they have already…so the play simply tells them that their impression of the world is correct, that there’s absolutely no way out, there’s nothing they can do. They end up feeling passive and impotent.
This is an argument I never quite stop having with myself, as a writer who works with, writes about, and sometimes writes for children. I do think that it is critical that contemporary writing stretch beyond the lived experience of memoir, and even beyond the ordinary experience of “Boyhood.” It is, for example, through the poetic prose of Joyce that his ordinary childhood is exalted in Portrait of the Artist. And often, the imagined lives of children are both instructive and important for writers and readers. Some of the most memorable childhoods are literary childhoods, lived by imagined children who live at the whims of their creators, imparting experiences and sensitivities that exalt childhood itself. Characters like Fern, in Charlotte’s Web, invoke a child’s ability to spend day after day in a farmyard, depicting the child’s relationship to a world that adults can’t often manage to see. Similarly, the worlds of slightly older books such as The Cricket in Times Square, with a cast of Manhattanite mammals living adjacent to a family’s newsstand, the young Mario privy to their world in ways that can potentially invite even the most cynical residents of New York (myself included, in the days when I used to live there) to revisit the crannies and alcoves of the tunnels with both curiosity and a kind of modest wonder, the sort of wonder that tells us that sometimes our impression of the world is potentially alterable. Many narratives describe the oddly seductive lives of orphans, who move through the world without the wisdom or love of parents and who, thrown thusly back on their own resources, often seem to find treasures the universe hides from others. Some are truly orphaned (the orphans of Narnia, to take one obvious example). Some are self-imagined orphans (for example, in E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler). Some are more ambiguously orphaned: think of Pippi Longstocking, in Astrid Lindgren’s stories, whose father exists, but as a pirate in the South Seas, king of a cannibal tribe. The orphans instruct us in worldliness, resourcefulness, thrift, thievery, and lonesomeness: qualities essential for both children and writers living lives scalloped by fear or promise and who are forced to inhabit the terrain in between.
Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom depicts both a true orphan (Sam) and a self-imagined one (Suzy). Sam has lived much of his life in foster homes, while Suzy at least in part aims to evade the bleakness that keeps Bill Murray and Frances McDermott awake at night in their separate beds, idealizing life without a family. “I love you, but you don’t know what you are talking about,” Sam tells Suzy, when she romanticizes his parentless life. He’s right, but so is Suzy: there is something magical about the idea of a childhood uncontaminated by the presence of adult surveillance, a surveillance that so often seems mostly intended to quell their (our) anxieties and to force the spontaneities of innocence into their (our) more rigid conceptual schemes. Some have argued against Anderson’s contrivances, against the almost candied atmosphere of the film. But do we have less to learn about the reverie of childhood from Moonrise Kingdom than from sober and strictly factual accounts? In many ways I believe Anderson has touched the essence of childhood. It is an imagined childhood that is in some ways privileged and idealized, with its lush settings, loving adults, art, music, and the overall sense of a trustworthy, benign universe—but I am unconvinced it is less worthy of attention or any less serious than less idealized accounts that insist on placing children in the underbelly of reality.
“I just imagined that I was a sleeping prince,” Magellan told us by the campfire, as he spoke of his sleeps in the wilderness. “Or someone who had to pretend that they were dead, because the bones of dead people are usually really cold.” Only a child thinks like that, in images that are both wholly metaphoric and entirely literal all at once. “It seems we only languish during maturity in order to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they vanish from our memory before we were able to learn their language,” writes Thoreau. Writing about childhood is trying to learn that language before it vanishes altogether from the conscious ear. It is the revelation of a tender and secret universe, one that teaches a child how to be a child, and reminds a reader how to hear and to see it, wearing those fresh and stinging eyes to look out at these strange lands.
Superstition Review would like to welcome faculty advisor Betsy Schneider. She will be advising the art editors starting this fall. As an introduction to the staff and readers, we interviewed Betsy and we are very glad to share the interview with you.
Betsy Schneider is a photo-based artist and educator. Her artistic concerns range from trying to understand time, decay and the body, to exploring childhood, culture, and relationships and looking very closely at strange visceral things such as candy, placentas and the mouth. She uses a variety of photographic tools including APS, digital, medium format and view cameras and digital and computer generated video. Her work manifests itself through exhibitions of rectangles on the wall, video installations and books.
Her work is in several private and public collections including that of actor Jamie Lee Curtis, Museet for Fotokunst in Denmark, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. She has taught and lectured across the US, Scandinavia and the UK. She is a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow and an Associate Professor in the School of Art at Arizona State University.
Superstition Review: What is it about the medium of photography that first drew you to it?
Betsy Schneider: My mother always encouraged me and my sisters to express ourselves through art. My birth interrupted her PhD program in psychology focusing on children’s art. So I had a crayon or a pencil in my hand from as early as I could hold it. But I was a very active child and didn’t have the focus to be good at drawing. I was a cartooner—a doodler. My notes from school are covered with intense little doodles—even now at faculty meetings I can’t stop making these little drawings. But they don’t go anywhere.
So when I was about 11 I was picked to be a yearbook photographer—and I loved it. At the time I didn’t really see it connected to art—but it seemed like something I did well and enjoyed. But even photography took patience and I didn’t have enough through high school. So throughout high school I kind of forgot about photography and art—thinking I would be a lawyer and later a writer (yeah—that doesn’t take any patience at all).
While I was trying to write I realized that my ideas flowed so much more well, so much more fluidly through photography. This was at the end of college—and I thought –this is it. That was when I was about 21—and to waaay oversimplify it—I’ve been here making photos ever since.
SR: What are some of your influences and favorite artists?
BS: Why is this always the most difficult question? But it’s a good and important question. I tend to be influenced in waves and by a huge variety of things. First the people in my life (and I’ll get to that in the later question). But also wider cultural influences like politics and history and cultural history. I don’t watch that much TV but when I do I can’t stop talking about it. I tend to be totally overwhelmed by my life experiences and I flow with them.
But specifically—literature—I majored in English at Michigan. William Blake, William Faulkner, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, Maurice Sendak,–but also TV shows from my childhood, like MASH and MAD magazine.
Photographers and artists—Emmet Gowin, of course Sally Mann, Nicholas Nixon, Michael Apted’s 7 Up Series. I could go on and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Ask me tomorrow and I’ll have a new list.
SR: How long have you been with ASU, and what are some of the classes you teach?
BS: I have been teaching at ASU since 2002—and I teach the range of photo classes from basic photo black and white to the graduate seminar in photography. A few of my specialized classes are Portraiture—which focuses on the meaning and purpose of making pictures of people and a class in Digital Culture which addresses the ways in which digital technology does and doesn’t change the meaning and function of photographs. Some of my areas of concentration are time and the relationship between the still and the moving image, childhood and family, relationships, but also the visceral. I’m interested in why we make pictures and what the result of making pictures is.
SR: What do you enjoy most about teaching in your field?
BS: The energy and ideas from the students and the feedback between what I do, my life, their ideas, their work and my own. I love that I teach something that connects so closely to life and I love that I form strong bonds with the students and that I think I make a difference in their lives; they certainly make a difference in my life.
SR: It seems that much of your subject matter is very personal and very simple, like for example, your children playing. Would you say that your art is a part of your lifestyle?
BS: Yes—its essential. The fluidity between my everyday life and my work is essential to who I am as both a person, a parent, an educator, and an artist. They are all intricately connected. I thrive on connections.
SR: Your Guggenheim project is now drawing to a close. What can you tell us about the experience?
BS: That’s a subject for a long interview. Intense and moving. I’m exhausted right now. Will be finished with taking the photos and interviewing 250 13-year-olds by the end of October. I am exhausted and thrilled and ready to give birth to this work.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature this vodcast by Gregory Castle.
Gregory Castle teaches Irish Literature at Arizona State University. He has published books and essays on Irish writers, including Joyce, Wilde and Yeats. He has published poems in Jacaranda Review, Merge, Boyne Berries, Revival and Superstition Review. In 2010, he won 2nd prize in the 12th Francis Ledwidge International Poetry Award (Dublin, IRE).
Jamie Acevedo is an Interview Editor at Superstition Review, and a senior in his final semester working towards a bachelors degree in English focused on Literature with a minor in Religious Studies. After graduation he aspires to attend an MFA program in a new part of the country, maybe the southeast or west coast, and work on his goal becoming an accomplished writer of fiction.
Jamie moved to Tempe from New York to attend Arizona State University to pursue his goal of studying literature and has found life in the southwest to be an enlightening experience. Originally focused on critical theory and literary criticism he discovered a passion for writing short stories in his freshman year and has recently started working on creative nonfiction and biographies. He loves reading literary magazines, which he was introduced to after taking a course on pursuing publication taught by Superstition Review‘s founding editor Patricia Colleen Murphy. This internship has provided him with an opportunity as an Interview Editor to work with authors he has been reading and studying in creative writing classes and really admires.
His personal definition of art is that it is a tool that allows human beings to communicate abstract concepts and complicated emotions with each other. The writers who have had the biggest influence on him are those who seem to have made unique insights into the human condition. These include the short stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, Flannery O’ Connor, Stephen Crane and James Joyce and the novels of Robert Stone and Thomas Pynchon. He also enjoys novels that tackle religious and ideological themes like those of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and George Orwell. In addition to works of fiction he also enjoys reading essays on literary criticism, especially those on postcolonialism and reader response criticism.
Outside of literature and writing Jamie enjoys sports, hiking, cycling and travel. After this semester he plans to spend time in Puerto Rico to visit family.
Haley Coles is a junior English major with a Creative Writing concentration.
Superstition Review: What is your position with Superstition Review and what are your responsibilities?
Haley Coles: I am one of two poetry editors. I review submitted poetry for consideration in Superstition Review. At the beginning of the semester I created a list of 20 previously published poets from whom to solicit work from. It is my job to decide which poems, solicited and not, will be published in the journal.
SR: How did you hear about Superstition Review and what made you decide to get involved?
HC: I received an e-mail from one of the English advisors about the internship. For the past few years I have had a desire to work on a literary journal, and once the opportunity came I jumped on it!
SR: What are you hoping to take away from your Superstition Review experience?
HC: I’d like to leave SR with two new awareness. The first is, as a poet, to understand how work is selected for publication in journals so I might be more conscious about how I format my own submitted work. With the huge amount of submissions I am reading as an editor, I have more empathy for editors of larger journals and know that the rejections sent are truly not about the poet as a person. Secondly, I hope that my experience with SR will qualify me for future work in other journals. And I suppose I have a third expectation: reading a TON of poetry!!
SR: Describe one of your favorite literary or artistic works.
HC: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce has been one of the most influential works I’ve read in my literary career. I read it for a British Literature class last semester, and it completely changed my artistic life. The book helped me to make the transformation from a woman who is good at writing and enjoys doing so to living my life as a committed poet. Though I don’t have much in common with early-twentieth century Irish Stephen Daedalus, I found myself enraptured by his complex yet persistent desire to freely create and live in his art. I have been truly inspired by his journey.
SR: What are you currently reading?
HC: I just finished House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. I’m about to start on either Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke or The Plague by Albert Camus.
SR: Who would be the Superstition Review contributor of your dreams?
HC: Sylvia Plath–nobody said they had to be alive! Sylvia Plath was the first poet whose work moved me, and as a result inspired me to be a poet. In almost every poem I write there is a nod to her extraordinary language.
SR: Do you prefer reading literary magazines online or in print?
HC: I definitely prefer reading journals in print. There is something substantial and comforting about being able to hold a journal in my hands, to rest it on my chest while I lay on the couch, to circle passages that intrigue me, and to fold down pages to return to.
SR: Do you write or create art? What are you currently working on?
HC: I write poetry. I am taking a forms class, so I’m consistently writing for that class. Right now, today, I am working on reading rather than writing. I just finished a poem that exhausted me and am giving it a week or so to come back to it for a revision. So until then, I am rebuilding my aesthetic by reading submissions coming into Superstition Review and various other literary journals, particularly MAR and Rattle.
SR: Besides interning for Superstition Review, how do you spend your time?
HC: I attend ASU full time. When I’m not in class or studying (which is a huge chunk of my life), I like to cook, read, play Risk, ride bikes, and make fun of my cats.
SR: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
HC: In 10 years I will be 30. By this time I will have my MFA in Poetry and could be working on or have already received my PhD. I will be teaching either high school Literature or college Poetry. I will have a part in a vegan community-oriented restaurant cooperative. I will be gardening and writing a lot and will have at least one book of poems published. I might be in Berlin or on the East Coast.