Wednesday, June 24, 2015

When Conventional Wisdom Becomes Unconvincing

You once had a student at graduate level who, in addition to being of African American descent, was third generation on the job as a police officer.  She'd achieved much of her rank and position through her assignment to that one aspect of police work most career cops have come to detest, Internal Affairs, the guardians of standards within the department.  

The student thus had three things working against her, her race, her gender, and her department affiliation.  These things working against her were not enough to obviate a shrewdness and depth of intellect nor an ability to manage to inspire an obvious respect for her professional abilities, regardless of any covert resentment because of race, gender, or assignment to Internal Affairs.

Nevertheless, the upper echelons were pushing her toward entering a Ph. D. program, which would then allow the department to make her a poster child.  By the time you 'd come into contact with her, you'd had a significant share of experience with the inner workings of the upper levels of academia, the absolute least of which was you, because of your background in publishing, voted the rank of adjunct professor by the Academic Senate.

In the simplest of terms, your police officer student was earning about three times the salary you earned from teaching.  You were told the fact of being voted professor by the academic senate put you on track to "someday enjoy" such benefits as insurance and retirement, by which was meant the university would match five percent of your contributions to your retirement fund, when and if you were, in fact, approved to "enjoy these benefits."  

There was never a question of tenure nor senate-related activities.  On the other hand, there was a faculty discount at the book store; your salary would be paid in the event of you being called to jury duty. and you were entitled to first call for season tickets to USC athletic events.

Here's how you converged as student and teacher.  Even though, by the time you and the student crossed paths, you'd served three terms as various officers of the Southern California branch of Mystery Writers of America, had been editor of a short-lived mystery magazine, and written two or three mystery novels, in addition to favoring mystery fiction, you were in perfect sympathy with the cop/student who had no interest in writing either a police procedural from the inside novel, a mystery, or a thriller.  To add to the equation, most of the rest of the faculty wanted her to write a police procedural.

You were more interested in what the student wanted to write because you saw her as someone who had a daytime job, wishing, as another cop, this time an LAPD sergeant named Wambaugh, wished to be a writer rather than a cop.  Even though Wambaugh had been told by the then editor of The Atlantic Monthly, "You can be a good cop and a good writer, but you cannot be excellent at both, and will have to decide soon which way you will proceed."

This is the long way around to grappling with the meme of write only about what you know, one of the bits of conventional wisdom presented to fledgling writers, most of the time in great sincerity and with no slight hint of cynicism or political agenda.

Perhaps this is because you have taught first sessions of two writing classes today, one a memoir-writing class, the other fiction, with you assumption, later validated, that all present in the fiction class had it in mind to write novels.  No short stories or novellas for them.  Writing means novel.

Not long ago, you had a client who confessed her priorities to be writing eloquently and with passion holding trump ranking over telling story or pursuing essay content.  Even though she told you how you were her last resort, you found that a bit rhetorical and inflated when she began giving curses to the meme of killing your darlings.  By this, she meant she'd been told that nothing in fiction trumps story, nothing outranks idea in nonfiction.  "You will find a way,"  you said, "but you will have to put up with 'Kill your darlings' every time you embark on a rhetorical flight of fancy."

You did not intend cynicism or sarcasm although both are well-used implements in your own tool kit.  True enough, your years as various sorts of adjuncts or instructors or, in one remarkable place, given a supply of business cards with the University seal embossed in gold, describing you as a "Part-time, non-senate, Temporary Instructor, gave you things to write about.  Even truer, you were more forthcoming with these things to write about than you were with the business cards.

Experience gives you attitude.  Attitude allows you to see various characters, scattered in degrees of temperament about the equivalent of a compass rose, wherein they become agenda.  Antipathy means recognizing things you dislike.  Those three A's, attitude, agenda, and antipathy allow you a form of dialectic whereupon you can construct story.  What you do not know from direct experience can be intuited and/or looked up On Line or in reference books.

You write for readers who gravitate toward emotion-based responses and payoffs.  These latter items, payoffs, often include your visions of irony.  How well known it is that irony, it given an extra nudge or two, lapses into sarcasm before it can catch its breath.

Although you have some experiences with caution and being careful, you grow increasingly fearful that you do not have enough experience with caution and care to write about them with any measure of control.  As a consequence, your payoffs, your parting emotions left in evocation on the faces, psyches, and postures of your characters, suggest bittersweetness and the comedic results that are not of alls well that ends well but rather that even attempts to define and standardize such concepts as beauty and happiness will leave the characters as contestants, battling away in the manner of the epic fight scenes in John Ford-directed motion pictures.

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