Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Where do you fit in the equation?

A question you ask your students and yourself with some regularity is:  How do you see things?  With enough footnotes and descriptions, you imply how far your question is meant to extend beyond such unprofitable tropes as Is the glass half-empty or half full?  Are people basically honest or, perhaps dishonest, or let's say cheerful or--another perhaps--even borderline pessimist?

This question is as relevant for the newcomer to writing as it is for you, who still considers himself on the learning curve, not at all complacent.  Coiled within the bowels of the answer, like an underfed tapeworm, waits all the elements of attitude and signals of response, waiting to spring forth with some patriotic message.  You say patriotic because the response is, after all, faithful to the host country, the individual and his or her aggregate responses to the worlds, both real and apparent.

Used to be, the story had some hidden device, like those incredible party poppers that appear at your dinner plate each Christmas Eve at Afghan's, whence comes the pop of a cap being detonated, a fortune or homily of some sort, and a toy, packed into a burrito-shaped roll of holiday festivity.  Now the story has an agenda of its own, reflecting and perhaps even refracting the zeitgeist of the culture in which you live and against which you rebel, for which you swear fealty, about which,depending on the tenor of the current majority party, you produce razzing or cheer sounds.  Story has moved some degrees since the days of Chekhov and Joyce, simultaneously marking time in the same place, reflecting among other things the acid-etched fears and distrust of the liberal and conservative factions for one another.  On most levels of society, life has become fraught, multifarious, textured, Balkanized, and other descriptors denoting and connoting dialectic and schism.

You not only have to know where you are, you have to know where you stand and what you stand for.  Then you have to discover ways of dramatizing--which is to say bringing to vivid life--the issues and constructs of your time and culture in ways showing at once your appreciation for it as the best that can be done at the moment and your awareness that neither we as a race nor you as a person are where each of us wants to be.  The work needs to be done with proficiency and graceful movement and yet not appearing to represent the choral voice of a MFA writing program, analogous to music composers from a certain time in Vienna tended to sound like Mozart who, in great eclat tended not to sound like anyone but himself.

Writing can be taught.  Story can be taught.  Individuality can be taught.  But unless students are willing to listen and absorb, neither writing, story, nor individuality can be learned.

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