Everything I Don’t Know About Swords: On Teaching Creative Writing

1. One evening in grad school, half-drunk and Googling my own name, I found a blog run by one of my fiction students. I shouldn’t have read it, but of course I read it. “I already hate this class,” she wrote. “My teacher is a stuck-up snob who won’t even let us write the things we want to write.” She wanted to be a romance novelist, but my syllabus had forbidden a long list of plots and genres: romance, detective stories, space adventures, dying grandparents, breakups, and so on. Why even enroll in a creative writing course if you didn’t want to make great art? 2. When I started teaching creative writing in 2005, my syllabus assigned almost exclusively white male authors of realist short fiction. I had no theories on what fiction should look like and had never even heard the term “pedagogy” before. I was 23 and in grad school and just trying to survive. I was not a serious reader as a college student, and so most of my reading was either assigned to me, or randomly pulled from anthologies. My college courses were heavily focused on dead American men like Ernest Hemingway, Nathanael West, and Raymond Carver, with perhaps a single story by Jhumpa Lahiri or an excerpt from Beloved. A few professors pushed me outside this zone, but mostly I was reading a narrow slice of “the canon” and nothing else. In my class, the only acceptable genre was the one I had learned to associate with so-called serious fiction: sad middle-aged men trying to reclaim their youthful glory, preferably while drunk on cheap whiskey. Maybe include a scene where he’s digging a ditch, or thinking about when he was good at baseball. Everything is subtext and nobody ever says what they mean. These were not the kinds of stories I was writing or even identified with, but I was in the business of creating Literature. 3. Before they walk into your classroom, many undergraduates have never written fiction seriously before. Some have dabbled, and occasionally you meet a preternaturally driven young person, but the average student brings some talents to the room with little idea of how to shape them into something meaningful. You will very likely be the only creative writing teacher they ever have. Running a passable fiction workshop is pretty easy. You assign some short stories for the first month, and after that everyone writes two stories of their own. The assigned readings don’t have to relate in any way to the student stories; they’re just there as exemplars of what good fiction might look like. When you workshop the students’ pieces, you can follow a script: Name one thing you loved about the story and one thing you would change Which characters or moments would you like to know more about? Did anything in here confuse you? Evaluate the dialogue. Any sentences you loved? Any you want to edit? What did you think of the ending? During discussion, drop the names of a couple authors they probably haven’t read. End by offering your own critique, and include a writing aphorism, something that sounds very wise but you also know to be not totally true, something like: the choices a character makes must always be tied to a mistake in his past. People will write this down. They will have had a few laughs. When they leave, they will have learned almost nothing. You’ll get great student evaluations at the end of the semester. Most stories turned in for workshop are bad. As a novice teacher, I took these bad stories personally, as if the students had written them just to spite me. My syllabi resulted in scattershot work and a sense among the students that no choices really mattered. Nobody was writing anything good. Even the obviously talented students were flailing. The best you could hope for, most times, were glimmers of great ideas. Novice writers tend to imitate what they see, rather than being driven by some innate idea of great art, so a poorly-conceived syllabus will lead to poorly-conceived stories. 4. I’m not saying you can’t teach creative writing; I’m saying I couldn’t teach creative writing. I survived for a few years on the strength of my enthusiasm and my ability to make undergrads laugh. Syllabi like the one I used when I started have become the default approach for many professors, though they’re so limited in their effectiveness that any good work you get is an accident. It’s both prescriptive and not; it sets rigid boundaries but with no clear rationale. It reinforces the traditional notion that white male American realism is the only valuable kind of writing, and then passively says, “Just write me some stories like this,” with no other guidelines. [millions_ad] Syllabi like mine have become the default for novice creative writing professors. I think this development is partly a product of the growth of MFA programs. Increasingly, English departments are assigning intro Creative Writing courses to grad students, who receive minimal training and may be required to use a standard syllabus. The standard syllabi are designed to be simple, so that anybody can be plugged in to the class at the last minute and run it smoothly. They’re designed by a well-intentioned person in the department who needs to endure several rounds of approvals from higher-ranking faculty, at least some of whom don’t believe Creative Writing is a serious academic pursuit. A system like this is bound to produce stale, myopic syllabi that offer as limited a view of what it means to be a writer as possible. 5. Five years ago, I was teaching a course called Creative Acts, which is a basic intro to creative writing, and is open to all majors. A lot of students take this class because they assume it will be an easy elective. The quality of the work I had been receiving was poor, and nobody in the room cared. After we workshopped one student’s story and everyone handed her their critiques, she pointedly stood, walked to the front of the room, and dropped them all in the trash can next to my desk. In the next class period, we were discussing yet another student story about a college kid who wants to get drunk and does, eventually, get drunk, and I was despairing as I tried to drag us into some conversation besides whether or not people found the main character “relatable.” An alarm sounded on a phone in the back room, and suddenly half the class stood and started doing the Macarena. You don’t realize how long a single minute can last until you endure a spectacle like this, realizing nobody in the room respects you or your work, and further realizing you’ve given them no reason to do so. When they finished, I ended class, announcing that I needed some time to reevaluate all of my life choices. It was too late to salvage that course, but before the next semester, I trashed my syllabus and rewrote it from scratch. I borrowed heavily from my friend Matthew Vollmer, a professor at Virginia Tech, and designed a course that required the completion of eight specific short exercises written within various formal and content-based constraints: a story in the collective first person, one about a monster, one in the form of instructions, one driven by a single magical element, and so on. Each assignment was paired with published stories that modeled these techniques, which forced me to open my reading list to a much broader range of authors and genres. With specific tasks to accomplish, the students turned in dramatically better work. They hated some of the assignments, but there wasn’t as much pressure on each one to be perfect, because there was something new to do every week. It made writing fun, but it also gave us some grounding principles to discuss, besides, “did you like this story?” And it implicitly opened up the idea of writing itself, of what it could contain and who could make it. The best thing I read that semester was a story titled, “The Anxious Boy’s Guide to Piecing Your Mother Back Together.” It was written in the form of a manual, complete with Table of Contents and Index, and it told the heartbreaking, clearly autobiographical, story of a gay, Latinx college student trying to survive college while also caring for his chronically ill mother. He read parts of it aloud in class and a few people cried. It wasn’t a perfect story, by any means, but it was the realest, most exciting work I’d ever gotten in a creative writing course. And then it kept happening: every week, they turned in stories like this, with students putting themselves on the line and investing themselves emotionally in the work in a way they never had before. On a course evaluation, one student wrote, “This class changed everything I ever thought about writing.” 6. Last November, close to midnight, I sat in the dark staring at my laptop. I was well into my second hour of watching sword fights on YouTube. I switched between samurai movies, anime, medieval battle scenes, and pirate duels. Two of my students just kept writing about sword fights, and I was trying to be a better teacher. If I was going to critique the battle scenes in their novels-in-progress, I needed to understand what made a good sword fight. When I spoke to one of these students, I discussed the usual things—characterization, precision, pacing—and he nodded and listened and took notes. Then he said, “But what about the battles? Were they exciting?” And I wasn’t sure. So I had to do my homework. For two consecutive nights, I watched the videos. I even read the comments. The next day, I used the term “saber,” and a student immediately corrected me: “It’s actually a claymore,” he said. “There’s a pretty big difference.” We discussed katana, cutlasses, and something they called, “a horse-killing sword,” a thing that, I assure you, actually exists. Somehow this lead to an anime discussion, in which I vaguely recognized the names of some Yu-Gi-Oh! characters and somebody named Goku. There is so much I don’t know and my students do. I was drowning in this conversation, but I think we made some progress. It was one of the best teaching days of my life. 7. This past fall, I taught the Capstone, the final course our fiction students take in the major. I wanted it to feel like something important and difficult. At this point, I was working with experienced, smart, and driven students who had a sense of what they wanted to write. They designed their own final project, in consultation, and I didn’t restrict them in any way. Instead of conducting short formal experiments, we split our time between reading criticism (about genre, aesthetics, cultural appropriation, and gender issues in publishing) and short stories that helped to illustrate or inform these debates (some authors we read: Ken Liu, Danielle Evans, J. Robert Lennon, Cristina Henríquez, Paul Beatty, Aimee Bender, Lesley Nneka Arimah). The constraint imposed on them was a philosophical one: they were forced to think about the way their work would interact with the world outside our classroom. I encouraged them to go wild with their stories, as long as they could explain themselves. Which meant I read: sword fights, an epic novel-in-progress featuring no fewer than 10 fantasy races, a collection of erotica stories, a chapbook of stories in experimental forms, some batches of conventionally literary stories, one historical novel that involved a lesbian ghost, and more than a few interdimensional travel stories. There was also a series of realist literary stories in which every now and then a monster or a talking lizard would appear. I do not enjoy all of these. I’ve learned that I find sword fights, even the very best of them, boring. I was often struggling to keep up in our discussions, no matter how much time I spent on Tumblr reading about the differences between goblins and orcs. And yet: I never enjoyed a semester more. I know it was the best teaching I’ve ever done. It was the rising energy of the students putting something new and weird and daring into the world, and me straining to connect with it and help them find a shape for it—that's when I felt most like I was doing a job that mattered. My job is not to define literature for them, but to give them the vocabulary and tools—and the inspiration—to define it for themselves. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

On Invisible Beauty

 Beauty spins and the mind moves. To catch beauty would be to understand how that impertinent stability in vertigo is possible. But no, delight need not reach so far. To be running breathlessly, but not yet arrived, is itself delightful, a suspended moment of living hope. —Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet 1. I discovered boys at the height of my reading years. I was 12, in Copenhagen, and I read on the train to school, walking home from the station, on family holidays driving across Europe, at night in bed while my parents entertained guests around the dinner table on the other side of my bedroom wall. We had left Turkey for my father’s work when I was in third grade. My parents worried that our language would deteriorate during our time abroad and strictly required that my brother and I read in Turkish. I did not care what language I read in, as long as the story was exciting. I read my parents’ childhood copies of Jules Verne; I read the books our grandparents sent us about children resolving blood feuds in Aegean villages; I read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books that my American best friend, Theresa, gave me; I went through entire bookshelves at the school library on Egyptians, Vikings, paranormal activity, and exploration. I even read a book I had accidentally checked out about Mikhail Gorbachev and have had a strange friendship with the word glasnost ever since, as if it belonged to that golden Danish autumn when I first encountered it. That year I won the school library contest having identified the most fictional characters and lines from books. It was Robert Louis Stevenson who established my victory against Theresa in the last round: “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest/yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.” (Theresa had won the bookmark contest some months earlier with her drawing of a man immersed in his book, sitting on top of Salvador Dali’s melting clock. The caption said: Read the Time Away.) Even though my eyes and imagination were content to embark on whatever book came my way, I also read repetitively, going back to my friends Anne from Green Gables, Jo from Little Women, Lucy from Narnia, a villager girl Halime, and one German Gundula with a fiery temper. I followed them again and again into their worlds of boyishness and adventure, at a time when grandparents, uncles, and aunts were telling me that I was already a “young lady.” When I walked our dog, Dost, in the forest, I cast myself in the role of my heroines, pretending that I lived another, carefree and adventurous life, far from the Copenhagen suburbs. Sometimes I thought of myself as an explorer walking for hours in the forest, familiar with every tree, bird, and flower, my schoolbag transformed to a satchel of tools and maps, my loyal dog following at my heel. (In truth, I was afraid to let Dost off the leash, because he would dart off immediately and I would have to search for him for hours.) Even though I insisted that I was still a child, I secretly knew I was no longer so innocent. I made an effort to look disheveled, hid any evidence of breasts with oversized t-shirts, and tried my best to ignore my interest in boys beyond games of rounders and tag. That was the year I fell in love with David—a blond, freckled Italian who wore white polo shirts and was the star football player of our class. What I mean by falling in love is that I slowed my step when I saw David in my peripheral vision, memorized the names of Danish and Italian football players, and even allowed myself, several times, to write out his full name in my notebook, before hurriedly erasing it. Beyond this, I did not really interact with him, except for one memorable walk from the train station to school when I asked if he would be watching the Juventus game that evening. I thought, then, that I saw a glimmer of recognition in his eyes. I had encountered David’s types in books, too. His free-spirited boyishness was not too different from Gilbert Blythe’s in Anne of Green Gables. His delicate, handsome features were just like Laurie’s in Little Women. He had dimples and talent for sport like the eldest brother Peter in The Chronicles of Narnia. But I was not in love with David’s fictional counterparts. Instead, in my fifth, sixth, 1oth readings of these books, I would jump ahead to the scenes with Anne’s bashful adoptive uncle Matthew; the sloppy and clumsy Professor Bhaer; the soft-pawed lion Aslan. I thought that all girls who read Narnia were in love with Aslan, until a friend recently burst out laughing at what she thought was a strange confession. “You were in love with the lion?” she said. “Sure, we all loved him, but like…a teddy bear, someone you’d like to hug.” Of course, I was not really in love with the furry creature, nor with the farmer Matthew who was my grandfather’s age. It was what they represented—kindness, unconditional love, nobility—that made them superior to the handsome boys still battling with their temper and pride. Beneath their bodily disguises, my heroes embodied the perfect person whom I had never seen but felt certain was there, just out of sight. And even though I liked to attribute noble traits to David that were not visible to the eye—imagining, for example, when I saw him walking with his little sister that he would fight a battle for—I was old enough to know that the real world and its inhabitants would always be a bit disappointing compared to those of books. During my younger years of reading, I believed like most children that the worlds of stories really existed. They were there—somewhere—even if I did not always see them, just like my grandparents’ yellow house which I only saw in the summers, but which continued to stand quietly behind the mulberry tree even when we were back in the city. I particularly loved the worlds within worlds of The Secret Garden, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or Enid Blyton’s adventure series, when I would first enter the lethargic lives of the characters (which were exciting to me nonetheless in their English quaintness) before embarking on an adventure. After spending several lazy afternoons in old relatives’ houses, the characters and I would all step into the magic kingdoms. I was proud to think that I had come the longest way of all, traversing not just one, but two worlds to enter the garden hidden behind a wall of ivy, jump aboard the Dawn Treader inside the painting, or discover the secret passage that led to the mines. When I became aware that these places did not exist, I was neither disappointed nor disillusioned. I simply shifted my admiration from the characters and their hidden kingdoms to the very essence of their existence—to the minds that imagined them. 2. Anyone who knows me has heard that I am in love with Orhan Pamuk. I’ve allowed this one infatuation to become a joke—as ridiculous as falling in love with a lion—so that I may preserve my other authors in their sacred light. Even though I have never met him, I’ve written letters to Pamuk (which I’ve never sent) as well as stories where I go on walks with him around Istanbul. On these walks I call him Orhan Abi, Brother Orhan, as I would a Turkish elder. Of course, there is preemptive protection in this familial address, turning my admiration to sibling love, so that we are on more equal footing and I expect nothing in return for my affection. On some walks, Orhan Abi is engaged in the conversation, on others he is lost in thought and restless to go back to his desk. Though I certainly dramatize my love for this man (whose Istanbul has so infiltrated my imagination that I find it impossible to write about the city without his shadow), I’m always surprised when friends bring me news of the real Orhan Pamuk. “Did you hear who he’s dating now?” “The Nobel Prize brought out the arrogance in him!” I hear in their voices a determination to cure me of my obsession before I have my heart broken, because, they are telling me, Orhan Pamuk won’t make a worthy boyfriend. My Orhan Pamuk is a man of my own making, fashioned from novels, imagining the type of person who would write them. While his tangible double gives lectures, has love affairs, signs books, and goes to airports, Orhan Abi is immersed in a Russian novel. He watches the Bosphorus from his desk and hopes in agony for a glimpse of a beautiful woman walking past his window each evening. It is neither the lion with a furry mane, nor the sullen, spectacled man that I fell in love with. I am enchanted by words in the literal sense—I enter into chant, not by the tangible objects that words point to, but by the rhythms and harmonies arising from their spell. Perhaps I did not learn my lesson when I realized that books were the constructions of authors, because authors for me are just as much a construct of my imagination. [millions_ad] But if the worlds of books are separate from our own, it should also be said that they intersect with ours in mysterious ways. For me, the joy of reading is partly for the thrill of becoming aware of these collisions of worlds even if I don’t always know how to interpret them. 3. There is no clearer parallel to the sights of literature emerging in life than falling in love. Then, too, every street sign, shop front, and overheard conversation becomes part of a conspiracy. And just like love, which tunes the senses to invisible harmonies (otherwise called coincidence), literature reveals patterns that connect us to multiple worlds. “What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps, and coincidences?” W.G. Sebald asks in his essay on Robert Walser, tracing the real and fictional paths they have both walked at different times. “Are they rebuses of memory, delusions of the self and of the senses, or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension?” I can think of no truer way to express affection for a writer who has shaped our world than by simply listing the trivial encounters of our fates. “I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time,” Sebald continues. “Walser’s long walks with my own travels, dates of birth with dates of death, happiness with misfortune [...] On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion. I only need to look up for a moment in my daily work to see him standing somewhere a little apart, the unmistakable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings.” But I wonder if Sebald would have noticed Walser’s footsteps if he had really set off on a walk with him. Do our crossings with these companions not depend on their invisibility? Do the signs of a beloved not surround us only in his absence? “The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos,” says Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse. “I cannot classify the other, for the other is precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire. The other is the figure of my truth, and cannot be imprisoned in any stereotype.” I wonder if admiration does not build itself in the unique space of imagination, unencumbered by reality. I wonder this because I once had the misfortune of going on a real walk with one of my imagined writers. I thought of this man as my writer, undiscovered by anyone else despite his fame. It does not matter who he is. There are many stories about him, just as there are about Orhan Pamuk that have nothing to do with my walking companion Orhan Abi. During our walk, around a small town in Mexico, the writer observed many details that were invisible to me—the strange animals carved on a church door, the gaudy, imitation relics of saints inside the church that reminded him of his native parish, the lines of myth and history connecting the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Brigid, and Diana of Ephesus. Afterwards, we sat on the terrace of a monastery with our backs to the fading fresco of Dominican monks holding a map of the monastery (like a book within a book). In front of us, a vertiginous valley was reddening in the afternoon light. I asked the writer what aspect of the monastery and landscape he found inspiring. He shrugged and said that all that surrounded us was built in vain, in the name of a god that didn’t exist. (“Quite frequently,” Barthes writes, “it is by language that the other is altered; the other speaks a different word, and I hear rumbling menacingly a whole other world, which is the world of the other.”) After I returned from Mexico, I sent the writer an essay I’d written about our walk. I also sent him a present to thank him. He did not respond. The same friends who told me to get over Orhan Pamuk also told me that I could not expect such a famous author to write back. Some friends said I should be grateful that he came on the walk in the first place; others said he sounded awful. In reality, the writer was not to blame for my disappointment. He was not the person whom I’d known years prior to our meeting and I wonder if he could have acted in any way that resembled the writer of my own making. My heartbreak is akin to encountering a lion in a zoo, and waiting for him to walk up to me and offer the kind of guidance I’d expect from Aslan. A few months later, I ran into the writer on the street during a visit to New York— another thread of chance without visible meaning. He was disheveled, out of breath, walking his dog. He did not mention the essay or my present. We chatted for a while about Mexico. “Well then,” the writer said after a few minutes, “you take care.” “I suddenly see the other,” Barthes says, “abiding by, respecting, yielding to worldly rites […] For the bad Image is not a wicked image; it is a paltry image: it shows me the other caught up in the platitude of the social world—common place.” But I don’t quite believe that my imaginary companions and their tangible counterparts are entirely separate. I’m sure that the sullen Orhan Pamuk whom I’ve never met is acquainted with my dreamy friend watching the street from his window, and that the dismissive writer is not entirely numb to the seductions of landscape. After all, both pairs of men take equal claim for the words committed to paper. Part of my heartbreak, then, was trying too hard to see the familiar person residing in the writer, of probing him for a glimpse of the poetic and mysterious. When I encounter beauty, I have an urge to possess it, to take it apart and discover something within. In my naïve effort to see the writer’s imagination, I am reminded of coming upon a bird’s nest, no bigger than my palm, one afternoon when I was walking Dost in the forest. Dost spotted it first, prodding his nose inside a mound of leaves to drag out a concentrated mass. I could not immediately make out what it was, and even felt frightened by the intricate chaos. But once my sight adjusted to its shape, I was so amazed by the beauty and compactness of its architecture that I took a stick and poked at it, hoping to find something hidden inside that would explain its lovely, cupped sight. I poked deeper with my stick until the nest came apart in twigs, feathers, and mud, leaving me utterly disappointed. Beauty avoids our grasp because it’s made of the same, ephemeral texture as imagination. It suggests that it is holding something we cannot see, like the evocative sight of a nest or seashell, like light faintly emanating from a lion’s skin. Like love, beauty tempts our imagination to walk down its path with the promise of revealing its golden forest, but turn after turn it spares us the sight, so splendid it would blind us if ever we were to see it. Image Credit: Pixabay.

The Unforgotten: On Michael W. Twitty’s ‘The Cooking Gene’

When the first recipe appears on page 24 of The Cooking Gene, it arrives as a kind of unmerited gift, a gratuitous offering to us, the community of readers. It’s a simple recipe for “Kitchen Pepper,” but it is as if Michael W. Twitty is giving away something into which an entire history has been condensed. It immediately follows the question, “How exactly did I get here?” and so does not arrive simply as a try-this-at-home kind of recipe, but as an invitation. Twitty is inviting us not so much to theorize about cultural foodways and to sample the flavors of ancient cultures, as to do. This simple recipe for Kitchen Pepper comes with an implicit interrogative force: are you just going to sit there, an armchair culinary historian, or are you going to cook—and not just for yourself but for your neighbors? And while you do, ask yourself too: how exactly did you get here? To publish a recipe can be—especially in the world of rock-star chefs, cooking-themed reality television, and the general atmosphere of cooking as a variety of warfare—an act of self-conscious display of culinary erudition or imagination. It can have the effect of dangling before the reader the lure of the possibility of participating, however briefly, in the ex nihilo genius of a famous chef who somehow thought of putting ingredients together in a way designed to wow and astonish our dinner guests. There is another way in which a recipe can be written, however, and more importantly, received. It can be written as an invitation into a reality that you did not recognize was possible before, an invitation into a kind of fellowship or communion. A recipe can be the transmission of a tradition, and to cook from such a recipe is not to “try this at home” but to enact a performance of that tradition, and thereby to participate in it in a mysterious and unrepeatable way. This is the way that recipes operate in Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. This is partly because The Cooking Gene is not a cookbook. It contains recipes, but those recipes come freighted with the weight of American and Twitty’s own personal histories. They arrive in the context of a sprawling account of inveterate American racism, history, and the quasi-sacramental nature of food. The Cooking Gene is far more than a cookbook. It is a personal memoir, travel narrative, socio-culinary history, diatribe against the food industry, occasional gastronomic rhapsody, and quest narrative. Its moods are as varied as the fragments that compose it: it is by fairly swift turns witty and somber, indulgent and biting, ponderous and winsome. The Cooking Gene moves from historical excursus to culinary memoir to travelogue in often breathtakingly sharp turns. It is constantly looping back on itself, and sometimes leaving discussions feeling stranded in the way an oxbow lake is left isolated by the changing course of the River. These fragments are made of the same stuff as the river, but do not flow with it. This can be perplexing for the reader, but is in a way entirely consistent with the logic of the book, which is that the quest for personal identity is almost never straightforward but is instead sinuous, and results in bits of personal history that are at a slight distance from but never superfluous to the main thread of the story, if such a main thread can be found. It is illustrative of the cost of such a search, that finding oneself in the stories of one’s ancestors is never cut-and-dried or without anecdotal cul-de-sacs that can stand alone but have become unmoored and adrift from the general flux of personal history, whatever that turns out to be. It is also, in Twitty’s case, intentional: My aim has been to give a sense of the bric-a-brac mosaic that is the average African-American’s experience when he or she attempts to look back to recapture our cultural and culinary identities obscured by the consequences of racial chattel slavery. If it were possible to give a linear, orderly, soup to nuts version of my story of any of my family’s without resorting to genre gymnastics, I would have considered it. Instead, I am pleased with the journey as it has revealed itself to me. “The journey as it has revealed itself” to Twitty amounts to a sort of record of discovery, not unlike the formation of potlikker. It is not the stuff that sinks to the bottom that is important, but the gloss on the surface, the greasy, flavorful sheen that “winks back at you.” The Cooking Gene is the sum of the surprising accretions of ancient history that rise to the top that reveal who its author is. In this book, Twitty seeks his own reflection in potlikker—from the time it was mixed with cornbread to make his first solid food to when it was smeared on the bodies of enslaved men and women on the auction block to make them appear “shiny, a little fat, and machine lubricated.” But what makes The Cooking Gene more than simply a personal memoir is its attempt to reconstruct this personal and cultural history through food. The book is a literary extension of Twitty’s work as a chef and historical interpreter of antebellum culinary habits among enslaved peoples, developed initially through Twitty and his then-partner’s “Southern Discomfort Tour.” Twitty’s goal on the tour from 2011 onwards was to “travel the South looking for sites of cultural and culinary memory while researching the food culture of the region as it stood in the early twenty-first century.” Along the way, Twitty cooked the way enslaved people cooked, and in using their ingredients, their methods, and their tools, found more than just historical curiosities: “I lost arm hair and eyebrows, a little blood here and there; I was scalded and branded, burned and seared. These are the marks of my tribe” One might expect such a tour to have left Twitty jaded and cynical. But for Twitty: the result of the “Discomfort” experience is a hopeful, capacious vision of Southernness and its promise for the American future: I dare to believe that all Southerners are a family. We are not merely Native, European, and African. We are Middle Eastern and South Asian and East Asian and Latin American, now. We are a dysfunctional family, but we are a family. We are unwitting inheritors of a story with many sins that bears the fruit of the possibility of ten times the redemption. One way is through reconnection with the culinary culture of the enslaved, our common ancestors, and restoring their names on the roots of the Southern tree and the table those roots support. White families in America often have the privilege of a recorded history. Their deeds are frequently a matter of public memory. Domestic mythology may often trace a white family’s history back to a romanticized utopia, a green and pleasant land from which one’s forbears valiantly “chose” to sail to the New World. Or they may hang up family crests which may or may not be authentic—they help to shape a sort of familial sense of self, of belonging to a particular tribe with a particular past, however factitious or fabulous. In any case, white families may often be able to trace their lineage back several hundred years with impunity, without ever noticing what a privilege such a record can be. But in such cases what counts as material evidence in a family history (or mythology) does not include a bill of sale for a human person. Twitty uncovers one such document late in The Cooking Gene, related to his ancestor Harry Townsend. It is a salutary lesson about what “white privilege” really means: it means, in part, not having to reconstruct your family’s history from receipts. It is different for the descendants of enslaved peoples: We know so much, but know so little, and the fine details keep shifting, but unlike any other American ethnic group those details are always hotly debated. We are not allowed the peace of mind of our own self-rumination. Every aspect of our history becomes a contested article on social media, a gospel truth to be disproved by experts at conferences, and a groupthink to be contained. Our cultural myths we design ourselves around are not sacred like other people’s myths; our anchors are constantly being pulled up to make white people feel as it they’re in control, and because of this we have struggled to come up with a cohesive and empowering narrative of our own. At the heart of The Cooking Gene is the reality that a material record is not available to the descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought here against their will for 250 years. The lives of the enslaved were often anonymous, their deaths not recorded by name, their bodies not marked with hand-carved headstones. Their history is often inscrutable and at best conjectural. Slavery is, in part, the condition of being deprived of a genealogy, a “heritage denied.” Michael Twitty’s family history is vivid and detailed, but his recorded history only goes back so far. In The Cooking Gene, he sets out to reconstruct—by his own family’s oral history, by documentary research, and by DNA testing—his own genetic composition, to find some semblance of a story of himself that crosses the vast ocean of oblivion separating America from Africa, that traverses the boundary that divides before and after slavery. The Cooking Gene is itself a kind of literary descendant of Alex Haley’s Roots—which was not just a literary but a pan-cultural event when the television adaptation aired when Twitty was a small child in 1976. Roots inspired a generation of African-Americans to “connect to a place and a people,” and to ask “Who would we become once we confronted the Africa we longed for?” The series inspired African-Americans to identify their own “furthest back person,” their “Kunta Kinte.” In many ways The Cooking Gene is about the liberative power of being able to give your own past a name. As a stylist, Twitty has a distinct fondness for the inventory. Whole paragraphs sometimes consist of little more than lists of names—of things, people, places. Chapter Twelve, “Chesapeake Gold,” is a paradigmatic example. When Twitty cites Letitia Burwell, Frederick Douglass, Frederick Law Olmsted, and George Bagby in this chapter, he often gives us their lists of foods. He recites activities on tobacco plantations with a certain relish in the poetry of the sound of it all, and a wonder at the often forgotten diversity of African American foodways. These lists are evidence for Twitty of a world that “seemed to burst at the seams with a diverse variety of crops.” The book begins with an account of building a fire for a presentation on a plantation in a way that gives the flavor of Twitty’s style: The hardwoods are like friends, and each one has a different conversation with your food—the smell-the burn, the colas, the heat, the smoke—the hot intensity of white oak; the savor of hickory; the mellowness or pecan, the red oak, ash, apple, and maples. Sometimes you have to split the big logs up so that you can stack them like a chimney. When that happens, the day begins with the brooding energy of iron and all of its accompanying West African spirits—Ogun, Ta Yao, Ndomayiri. A youthful fascination with words nourished by the civil rights movement and the 1976 national bicentennial, Sesame Street and Yan Can Cook, inspired Twitty with a curiosity about his own origins, which he would later find the words for: Familiensinn: German, the feeling and sense of family connection. I longed for it. I cultivated it despite the pain it has often caused me—family is not easy to seek or create. Toska: Russian. According to Nabokov’s translation of the Afro-Russian writer Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, it is “a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause…a longing with nothing to long for.” Fernweh. Back to German, “a longing and homesickness for a place you have never been.” One possible response to this is simply to be overwhelmed and maybe a little glazed over by the seemingly endless array of foods that flourished at the hands of enslaved people. And this is, it seems, precisely the point of Twitty’s fondness for the list: when recorded by Frederick Douglass, the repertory of the dishes served at the Big House in Maryland is an instance of reportage from personal experience; so too is Olmsted’s recollection, but from a seat at the table and not as a servant. Both accounts are suffused with wonder—at the sheer variety of meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains that constituted a single meal in the antebellum South. But only one side—the enslaved people who prepared these meals—could have known the ingenuity and the back-breaking labor that went into the preparation of such feasts, and the cultivation of each ingredient. Every crowder pea and sweet potato is a kind of living memento of the suffering and creativity that brought it to table, every rasher of bacon and hot-buttered roll an unspoken secret of the toil and torture endured by the people who raised, slaughtered, and dressed hogs; planted, cultivated, and picked wheat or corn; and transformed, by some mystical alchemy only they knew, the raw products of the Tidewater farm into the quasi-sacramental matter of the feast. Except the feast was for other people. In Douglass’s words, all the richness of the plantation table “conspir[ed] to swell the tide of high life, where pride and indolence lounged in magnificence and satiety.” The effect of the inventory, in Twitty’s hands, is to disorient the reader, to disturb and overturn the received perception about enslaved life. The latter was far from monocultural; it was often unimaginably diverse agriculturally as well as culturally; its foodways proved incredibly inventive and subtle, adapting itself to new circumstances and supply. The list as a form is, for Twitty, a kind of act of restoration: it restores to memory the names of things and people we should never have forgotten. These lists are Twitty’s litany of saints, gifts of the good earth, and it is as important that we remember the names of forgotten foods as the names of those who grew and prepared them, who bequeathed Southern foodways to future generations. They serve to destabilize preconceptions of African American foodways, to show that they—and therefore the world and its history—are far more complex, varied, sophisticated, and original than the hitherto dominant narratives of history might imply. They are also signposts of order, in marked contrast to the sometimes confusing and often obscure genealogy of Twitty’s family, which it is his task in The Cooking Gene to uncover and retrace. [millions_ad] But there are darker inventories too, which are not so much reminders of the immeasurable bounty of the earth but of the equally immeasurable, instrumentalizing savagery of human beings. In Chapter 18, “The King’s Cuisine,” Twitty tries to reconstruct, from fragmentary evidence provided by agricultural census and slave schedules, the life of his maternal great-great-great-grandfather, Harry Townsend. He lists five such lists from farms and plantations from Alabama and South Carolina where he has identified his own ancestors. Their names and relations appear only as the result of painstaking research. Otherwise, they are included in a roll-call of the anonymous, indistinguishable from mules, oxen, or bales of cotton. “This,” Twitty writes, “is what America looked like for over four million people in the decade before the Civil War. They were numbers, human machines with a measurable output. They almost completely disappeared into history after building this country and creating their own unique American civilization.” The Cooking Gene is perhaps the most significant contribution to the growing field of “foodways” literature. But it stands at least one remove from the farm-to-table, artisanal, small-batch, craft-style frenzies of recent years. His work involves “a return to the sources,” as it were, of Southern—and therefore African—cooking, but in a way that is both more personal and culturally load-bearing. More is at stake for Twitty than simply a resistance to corporate, mass-produced food: “It is not enough,” he writes, “to know the past of the people you interpret. You must know your own past.” The Cooking Gene is Twitty’s attempt to uncover not just lost methods and recipes, but a self occluded and dismembered by both a relentless schedule and the weight of a uniquely American kind of oblivion of its own past: “crumbling kitchens, rotting auction blocks, graveyards iced in asphalt. With each deterioration, I was becoming someone fading from who I was and where I came from, just in time for the world to catch amnesia with me.” The recovery mode of contemporary artisanal chic has something in common with Twitty’s project, in terms of a shared awareness of the social, political, and racial implications of the way we eat. Yet the “contemporary reclamation of barbecue, offal, hoecakes, wild foods, black-eyed pea cakes, and other plebian fare by white chefs with the capital to promote and polarize these foods is one of the cornerstone issues of culinary justice.” But Twitty wants to go further still: the way we eat (and the way our ancestors before us fed themselves and others) makes us who we are. So all our eating—whether we recognize it or not—is the work of anamnesis: “My entire cooking life has been about memory. It’s my most indispensable ingredient, so wherever I find it, I hoard it. I tell stories about people using food, I swap memories with people and create out of that conversation mnemonic feasts with this fallible, subjective mental evidence.” So the goal is not recovery simpliciter, but something stronger: “In memory there is resurrection, and thus the end goal of my cooking is just that—resurrection.” Human fellowship is still possible, though, in the unlikeliest of places, and it is the common vocabulary of food, the shared stock of folk culinary knowledge, that provides the occasion for mutual recognition. In one episode, Twitty recalls cooking for a group of Confederate reenactors (“never really easy for a black guy”). In this instance, it is Twitty’s persimmon beer that starts as a conversation topic but becomes an almost magical object, with the sacral power to effect a sort of qualified understanding between apparent enemies: Trading facts and figures and avoiding all other subjects, I had never felt so close to a group of white Southern men with guns who outnumbered me in my entire life. As I traveled more, I noticed kinship with strangers based on knowledge of the old plants. Sour faces turned to smiles at the mere mention of a pawpaw or discussion of techniques for breaking black walnuts and the like. I felt as if I was among a family of people keeping a flame alive—a university of volumes written in the understory and canopy and marsh and streamside that could not be relinquished, but desired, and for our survival’s sake, to be savored. I took a picture with those reenactors that day, for in a small way, we made peace. The final section of the book has Twitty dreaming about a return to the source of both food and being, to Africa, but is also a kind of hymn to cooperative memory: the work of restoration as a common human task. The payoff, for Twitty, is the discovery that “the world is a marketplace full of tasty things,” that “there are many good things to eat, but the rest of the world marketplace doesn’t know it yet.” At the core of The Cooking Gene is a profoundly religious vision, a wonder at the beauty of this world of gifts, a kind of relentless hopefulness in the possibilities of human communion, and the fervent desire to give names back to those we have scratched out, to revivify the unforgotten.

David Foster Wallace and the Horror of Neuroscience

1. Despite never writing about it directly, explicitly—the way he wrote about cruise ships or Roger Federer or the eating of lobsters—David Foster Wallace had a keen and lifelong interest in the brain. There was an obvious personal reason for this: on most of the days of his life, he consumed brain-altering chemicals as a way to stave off suicidal depression. His first published short story is essentially an extended musing on the connections between chemicals, the brain, and subjective wellbeing. These interests continue to animate his early works; both The Broom of the System (1987) and Girl with Curious Hair (1989) are peppered with offhand but learned references to neuroanatomy. Paul D. MacLean’s once-popular triune brain theory appears in Infinite Jest, and there are also quieter references to Gilbert Ryle and Julian Jaynes—two other well-known theorists of the relations between neurology and the mind. As Wallace scholar Stephen J. Burn has put it, analyzing The Pale King (2011), Wallace nurtured a “career-long fascination with consciousness.” His 2004 short-story collection Oblivion has always been a somewhat confusing book: dense, obtuse, cold, fragmented, a little cruel. However, while penning a PhD thesis on the intersections between neuroscience, theories of consciousness, and modern Anglo-American literature—a Wallacian labyrinth of thought if ever there was one—I think I have come to understand Oblivion for what it really is: A work of horror fiction, whose unique brand of horror is rooted in Wallace's reading about the brain. In the eight years between Infinite Jest and Oblivion, Wallace's reading in neuroscience and consciousness studies intensified. His essay “Consider the Lobster,” published almost in tandem with Oblivion, displays a sophistication of engagement with neuroscience that outstrips any of his previous work, referencing nociceptors and prostaglandins and endorphins and enkephalins. The more precise direction of Wallace's reading is indicated by two books found in his personal library (preserved today at the Harry Ransom Centre at UT in Austin): the Danish popular science writer Tor Nørretranders’s The User Illusion, and Timothy D. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. Wallace read both of these works of popular consciousness studies closely, and what he took from them is revealed by his annotations. In Nørretranders's The User Illusion, Wallace has heavily underlined a section where Nørretranders writes “Consciousness is a fraud.” On another page Nørretranders has written “Most of what we experience, we can never tell each other about—we can share the experience that through language we are unable to share most of what we experience.” In his copy, Wallace has underlined this paragraph, and written, at the top of the page, “Loneliness—Can't Talk About It.” In Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves, alongside Wilson's remark that “Freud's vision of the unconscious was far too limited,” Wallace's scribbled note reads “omniscient not on conscious thought but on unconscious drives” [sic]. Most of what we think of as self-directed behavior, explains Wilson, may well be actually “non-conscious intention.” These quotes give you a sense of these two books, both of which build on what Alan Richardson calls “one of the great lessons of the cognitive revolution”: “just how much of mental life remains closed to introspection.” As a brief summation, the unified thesis of Nørretranders's and Wilson's works looks something like this: We are not really in control. Not only are we not in control, but we are not even aware of the things of which we are not in control. Our ability to judge anything with any accuracy is a lie, as is our ability to perceive these lies as lies. Consciousness masquerades as awareness and agency, but the sense of self it conjures is an illusion. We are stranded in the great opaque secret of our biology, and what we call subjectivity is a powerless epiphenomenon, sort of like a helpless rider on the back of a galloping horse—the view is great, but pulling on the reins does nothing. If this description of reality feels familiar to you, it's because such a neuroscientifically inspired pessimism is a quiet but powerful strain of modern thinking. It lurks in the shadows of the breezy materialism professed by science popularizers such as Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson—who tend to shroud the meaninglessness behind a smokescreen of excitable awe. Raymond Tallis calls the worldview conjured by works such as Nørretranders's and Wilson's “biologic pessimism.” In its broad strokes, the shadow of biologic pessimism is what dismayed a young William James. Today, it informs the work of the philosopher John Gray, and has found its most popular advocate in the character of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, in HBO's True Detective. When Cohle explains to Woody Harrelson’s character that he thinks “human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” and that “we are things that labor under the illusion of having a self,” what sounds like poseurish gloom is actually an entirely rational, reasonable interpretation of the modern scientific paradigm. As Wallace himself put it elsewhere, in his not-so-compact history of infinity, what science tells us is that “our love for our children is evolutionarily preprogrammed” and “our thoughts and feelings are really just chemical transfers in 2.8 pounds of electrified pâté.” The character of Rust Cohle in True Detective links nearly back to Wallace's Oblivion by virtue of the fact that the character of Rust Cohle was based to an almost plagiaristic degree on the nonfictional musings of another American fiction author: Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti, probably the finest living American horror writer, has built a whole fictional style upon the same pessimistic interpretation of the brain sciences that Wallace himself appears to have arrived at independently. And though Wallace, unlike Ligotti, is not known first and foremost as a horror author, he was in fact a lifelong fan of the genre. His teaching syllabi included Stephen King, he adored the work of Thomas Harris (particularly Red Dragon), and he praised Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as “probably the most horrifying book of this century.” Wallace was also a “fanatical” David Lynch fan, and wrote a long piece praising his work for being “not about monsters...but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force.” For Lynch, Wallace wrote, “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not 'lurking below' or 'lying in wait' or 'hovering on the horizon': evil is here, right now.” As it turns out, Wallace's assessment of the special atmosphere of Lynch's horror (published in 1996) functions as an uncannily accurate description of his own Oblivion (published in 2004). Oblivion was a strange collection that quietly baffled many readers, both when it was first published and to this day. But when you understand that the whole collection is about the horror of consciousness, what first appears as a fragmented piece of work achieves cohesion. With Oblivion, these two deep-set interests—the brain, and dispiriting interpretations of its nature and relationship to our subjective lives; and horror—collide. [millions_ad] “Mr. Squishy,” Oblivion’s opening piece, is infused with an air of subjectivity as helpless, capricious, and buffeted by winds of influence over which it has no control. The pitiable protagonist, Terry Schmidt, is tortured by his lust for a co-worker, and is driven to masturbation “without feeling as if he could help himself.” In his imaginings he cuts a pathetic figure, and he is troubled by “his apparent inability to enforce his preferences even in fantasy.” The state of affairs, we learn, “made Schmidt wonder if he even had what convention called a Free Will, deep down.” (Readers may know of Benjamin Libet’s famous experiments, often taken as strong neuroscientific evidence of the non-existence of free will.) Schmidt has “had several years of psychotherapy,” but remains helpless. So total is his isolation of self, that Schmidt is on the verge of “making a dark difference with a hypo and eight cc's of castor bean distillate”—that is, committing mass murder via mass-poisoned commercial confectionary. In “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” a ranging recollection of a day in the childhood of an unnamed adult narrator, filters through the claustrophobia of an anxious mind a pitch of ascending dread and doom, the presence of violent insanity, and a lethal culmination. Evoking directly Wallace's neuroscientific reading, the narrator muses that “that the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives are often those that occur at the periphery of our awareness.” The big cruel joke of “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” is that the narrator's consciousness is so capricious and fickle that it has missed absorbing “the most dramatic and exciting event I would ever be involved in in my life.” The entire story is the narrator's attempt to learn about an event that he rather ludicrously has no real first hand knowledge of because of his inadequate brain. The flash fictional “Incarnations of Burned Children” seems to darkly riff upon this chronic mind-scatteredness which blights so many of Oblivion’s cast, by having the awful events of the story render the father's “mind empty of everything but purpose”—a state the narrators of the rest of the collection could never hope to achieve. Only under such awful extreme duress, it suggests, might consciousness reach something like an unfiltered, directional tone. “Another Pioneer” has at its heart the horror of (brain-based) self-consciousness: Within the nested story, doom for the jungle village follows the moment when the child messiah's “cognitive powers [bent] back in on themselves and transformed him from messianic to monstrous,” powers “whose lethal involution resonates with malignant self-consciousness”—a self-consciousness that was a constant theme of Wallace's work, and which the story declares can be found “in everything from Genesis 3:7 to the self-devouring Kirttimukha of the Skanda Purana to the Medousa’s reflective demise to Gödelian metalogic.” This crushing weight of self-consciousness is at the heart of Oblivion’s most famous story, “Good Old Neon,” which n+1 called the collection's “one indisputable masterpiece.” The pseudo-narrator of “Good Old Neon," Neal, has spent his life tortured by “the fraudulence paradox”: “the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside—you were a fraud.” The pressure eventually becomes so great that Neal kills himself. The crucial point is that all of Neal's extensive and extensively described suffering can be located in the makeup and character of the human brain, not society or culture. By the end of the story the strong impression is that Neal's condition is but a particularly acute version of a basic human predicament. As he puts it, it's “not as if this is an incredibly rare or obscure type of personality.” In the modern neuroscientific paradigm, Neal's suspicion that “in reality I actually seemed to have no true inner self” is absolutely correct. There is really nothing outlandish about Neal's fears; within Oblivion’s neuropessimism, they are simple truisms. We do experience time poorly; language is in many ways a weak tool. The same goes for his fear that he is “unable to love:” from a hard Darwinian viewpoint, we are all unable to love, really—or more accurately, what we think we are doing when we love is actually not loving at all as we understand that word. Neal recognizes this himself: “we are all basically just instruments or expressions of our evolutionary drives, which are themselves the expressions of forces that are infinitely larger and more important than we are.” In the title story, “Oblivion,” the protagonist and his wife are so incapable of accurately telling perception from reality that one or both of them can't tell when they are awake and when they are asleep. The narrator's “seven months of severe sleep disturbance” have made for a “neural protest” of symptoms that underpin the story's oppressive, nervous atmosphere. This atmosphere achieves full bloom in Oblivion’s closing novella, “The Suffering Channel,” which features the story's eponymous production company and their “registered motto” “CONSCIOUSNESS IS NATURE'S NIGHTMARE.” (A quotation from the famous pessimist philosopher Emil Cioran, who wrote books with such cheery titles as The Trouble with Being Born.) “The Suffering Channel” features various lonely people failing to connect via their “tiny keyholes” of self. The story's focus on defecating is really an extended metaphor for the interior, the private–that which is common to all, but which is very rarely (to contaminate the metaphor) pushed through the keyhole. Our inability or social aversion to share with one another the deepest workings of our large intestines mirrors our inability to share the deepest workings of our minds. What we have is scatological representation of what philosophers call the Hard Problem. All of the characters of “The Suffering Channel” labor under “the conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance”—in and of itself the overarching tragedy of the whole of Oblivion. 2. Ultimately, just as Wallace wrote that David Lynch's movies were about “not about monsters...but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force;” that for Lynch “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not 'lurking below' or 'lying in wait' or 'hovering on the horizon': evil is here, right now”–Oblivion is a collection about horror as the basic state of existence. The darkness and dread and horror of Oblivion is not in monsters or evil people; it is in the environment, in all of us, in our neurology and fraught consciousness and ill-evolved minds. Ligotti has written that all real horror writing, from Ann Radcliffe through to H.P. Lovecraft, is motivated by the specter of “the universe itself as centerless and our species as only a smudge of organic materials at the mercy of forces that know us not.” By these standards, Wallace, driven by his voluminous reading in the brain sciences, joins the club. In my thesis—academia being a world where the coining of neologisms is a mark of one's stunningly original thinking—I refer to this style of existential horror, rooted in an interpretation of modern neuroscience, as neurohorror. If there is a chink of philosophical sunlight, it is that Wallace may not have totally believed in the worldview of biologic pessimism. Oblivion and Wallace's final, tortuously produced, unfinished novel The Pale King were heavily intertwined. Wallace used the same notebooks for each, and funneled sections of one into the other as he went. Many critics think that the unrelenting misery of Oblivion was supposed to find its relief and counterpoint in its novelistic partner. As Wallace's biographer D.T. Max puts it, “while Oblivion was descriptive, The Pale King was supposed to be prescriptive. It had to convince the reader that there was a way out of the bind. It had to have a commitment to a solution that Oblivion lacked.” The neurohorror of Oblivion may have represented a flexing of Wallace's pessimist muscles, in advance of an attempt to overpower them. As Wallace himself said in an interview, “any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” I mentioned that the biologic pessimism that caught Wallace's attention mirrored that which preoccupied William James a century prior. Wallace's potential solution or counterargument also mirrored James's. Indeed, in the very same books that inspired Wallace's neuropessimism, we find him searching for a more sanguine and more Jamesian reading. On page 129 of Nørretranders, Wallace underlined “You can direct your attention where you like.” On 133, he has underlined “the headiness of attaining high, clear awareness,” and under a section explaining the cortex he wrote “change in attention cause activity change in cortex” (sic). The brain might be the problem, but it appears that within these books Wallace was searching for a way for the brain to also become part of the solution. Underneath a quoted passage from William James, he wrote “Able to Choose Focus of Attention.” This would become the backbone to the hard-won optimism of “This is Water.”As David H. Evans has written, James put “activity rather than passivity at the core of our relation to the world” by affirming the subjective power of “the possibility of choice”–choice in terms of, to quote “This is Water,” “some control over how and what you think” over “what you pay attention to...how you construct meaning from experience.” This basic stance can also be observed in other thought systems Wallace was drawn to during his life, notably Buddhism. The most pessimistic reading of all, though, must draw attention to the biographical elephant in the room: Wallace's suicide. In the end, it was his brain—suffering with terrible withdrawal after years of being awash in the chemical mix of Nardil—that killed him. He couldn't think his way out, couldn't “construct meaning from experience” in a way that made something other than suicide the best option. It's possible to see this as a cruel and tragic vindication of the neuro-determinism which colors Oblivion. He completed Oblivion, but wasn't able to finish its optimistic companion The Pale King, despite years of trying—there is a sort of horrible literary mirror of Wallace's own inner life there. Unlike in fiction—where, despite it all, at the end of HBO's True Detective, Rust Cohle is able to remark hopefully that “the light’s winning”—we don't choose our endings. Wallace dug deeply and unflinchingly into the real challenges of modern existence; he made us “face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” It remains with the rest of us to figure out how to live with it. Image Credit: Pixabay.

Tuesday New Release Day: Tillman; Hollinghurst; Tamirat; Lukas; Sarvas; Ortberg

Out this week: Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman; The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst; The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat; The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas; Memento Park by Mark Sarvas; and The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg. Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.

Who Gets to Change? Representation in ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’

The crowd erupted Oscar night when Frances McDormand took the stage for Best Actress and announced, “I’m hyperventilating a little bit so pick me up if I fall over because I’ve got some things to say.” It was classic McDormand for those who’ve followed her since her other Oscar performance in Fargo: A little 30’s screwball comedy, wide eyes and manic gestures, that can drop into a tell-it-to-you-straight tone. She went on to call out the industry and asked actors to consider an inclusion rider, a contract clause that would pressure a movie to hire more diverse casts and crews. Her new film, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, nominated for Best Picture, also aspires to tell you something straight, the rage of a small-town mother. Mildred Hayes’s teenage daughter was raped and killed; in response, she rents three billboards that call out the sheriff for failing to solve the case. Reviews have been overwhelmingly favorable. Rotten Tomatoes’s “top critics” gave it a 94 percent "fresh" rating. One, Alexandra MacAaron of Women's Voices for Change, said, “The movie is one of the angriest films in recent memory. Yet it has moments of unlikely (yet hilarious) comedy and sincere tenderness, along with acts of nearly unwatchable violence.” It’s the violence off stage that drives the rage. When the movie opens, McDormand’s daughter is already dead. Now, we have the freshness of a woman in a role usually reserved for grieving, vengeful fathers like Liam Neeson (there’ve been so many men in the role there’s a listicle). Unlike them, McDormand doesn’t have a clear target for revenge, since the killer may’ve been a drifter passing through. She does have the police to bother, comically portrayed by two likable actors, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. In fact, much of the movie is shot in a darkly comic tone that differs from the dread of classic revenge-flicks like Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. It’s this tone that characterizes all of director Martin McDonagh’s movies. It worked to brilliant effect in his first, In Bruges, where the comic tenor is shattered by bouts of intense violence. Three Billboards so successfully combines that keep-you-off-balance tone with a great cast (indie favorite John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage) that it seems to have masked its racial problems to the critics. Nineteen years ago, another Oscar contender, The Green Mile (also starring Rockwell as a racist redneck), was critically praised despite its plot reliance on the Magical Negro trope. (Michael Clarke Duncan was nominated for his portrayal).  Three Billboards doesn’t feature a valiant black character whose role is to teach the white protagonist—in fact, there are disturbingly no black characters featured for a movie focusing on racism. We see McDormand interacting with her black co-worker, played by Amanda Warren, in a way that suggests friendship. But we aren’t shown what that looks like beyond one scene that establishes she has the proverbial “black friend,” another trope, and assures us McDormand is cool and, for all her crass talk, humane. Soon, she hears that Rockwell’s character has thrown her friend in jail for McDormand starting trouble. Like Mitch McConnell, he doesn’t realize that she will persist. We don’t see Amanda Warren’s character again until the end when she is released and back hugging McDormand. The other black characters also play limited roles: Darrell Britt-Gibson is Jerome, the young billboard-hanger yelled at by Rockwell’s character to make sure we know he’s the racist cop. Britt-Gibson returns to knock at McDormand’s door after the billboards are later torched. He, too, is around to show McDormand is loved by black people: He happens to have more posters they can all put back up together. Two other black characters in non-speaking roles pop in and out, Eleanor T. Threatt as a nurse and Wallace Sexton as an uncredited paramedic. It’s never clear how McDormand has earned the love of all the people of color in town. Some “fat Mexican guy” gives the ad man’s girlfriend $5,000 to keep the billboards up. Again, this happens offstage. We never meet the man or learn why he is so generous. The suggestion is that McDormand is a surrogate for whatever implied injustices have been done to the brown people of the community, casting her as a white savior. The great Clarke Peters (The Wire) is wasted in the final half as the new Chief of Police. In his few minutes on screen, he does his role: He fires the racist deputy. The right thing has been done and now Rockwell’s character can face redemption. Humanity. Justice. These are the roles, the symbols, the black characters play. Had Martin McDonagh attended a VONA writing workshop (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation), or the other too-few spaces that center the experience of writers of color, he couldn’t have avoided basic authorial questions like: What characters have plot arcs? That is, who gets to change? That is the heart of storytelling, the essence of humanity. To deny characters this degrades their role to functionality. In many cases, that’s fine; that’s what secondary characters do. Watson is there to tell Sherlock Holmes’s story. But even Watson was respected with a backstory and screen time. [millions_ad] So who gets to change? The two white people, like the ones English director Martin McDonagh saw from a bus window over 30 years ago. The angry white, the poor and racist. While touring America, McDonagh passed through Vidor, Texas, and saw three rough, handwritten signs erected by James Fulton: “Vidor police botched up the case;” “Waiting for confession;” “The could happen to you!” In 1991, Fulton’s daughter was found strangled in what was made to look like a car accident. Fulton, now 86, still believes her husband is the killer and that the Vidor police didn’t do their job. So, he put up the signs. "It was this raging, painful message calling out the cops about a crime," McDonagh said. "The title came from the concept and the concept came from that image, which stayed in my mind for years. What kind of pain would lead someone to do that? It takes a lot of guts—and anger." If McDonagh had stopped and talked to the people of Vidor he would’ve discovered the guts it took to live there. The majority of lives that have been changed in Vidor are black, not white. Located in southeast Texas, the area has long been known as Klan territory. As recently as 2006, a white resident felt comfortable telling a reporter he wished blacks and whites were still separated. Another said, “"I don't mind being friends with them, talking and stuff like that, but as far as mingling and eating with them, all that kind of stuff, that's where I draw the line." So many black families have left that the city has put up its own billboard with the close-up of a little black girl in hopes of showing tolerance and bringing people back. Just up the road in Jasper, 49-year-old James Byrd was notoriously murdered in 1998 after being dragged behind a truck by Lawrence Brewer, a former “Exalted Cyclops.” The incident led to the passage of a 2009 hate bill. Brewer was not nearly as congenial as Sam Rockwell, whose character’s history of beating a black prisoner, again, takes place offstage and is never explored. Would we feel the same way at his redemption if we’d viewed him committing the act? Or if his pistol whipping of the ad man was a person of color and not a whiny white teenager? As NPR journalist Gene Demby tweeted, “you can say that it’s not supposed to be about the black characters, which: okay, but McDonagh also didn’t have to write the cop as a racist. He could’ve just wrote him as a generic asshole. But since he did write him that way, then we should talk about how he treated that idea.” Three Billboards does suggest that education and love, as we see between McDormand and Rockwell at its conclusion, is the redemptive key. Scholars like Prof. Ibram X. Kendi suggest otherwise: Self-interest drives racist thought and racist thought grows out of discriminatory policies and structures. Despite Rockwell’s torturing of a black man, we see his gosh-shucks police chief tell him in a letter that he’s a decent person, and that he has the makings of a detective if he can get out of his own way. Who wouldn’t agree with the comic-wisdom of Woody Harrelson’s folksy voiceover? Critic Francine Prose did in The New York Review of Books, calling the character “a profoundly decent, intelligent, hard-working, and conscientious man.” Only the ignorant, poor, and angry--like Rockwell’s character--can be racist, not his middle-class boss caught up in the legal system. There are echoes here of how pundits explained the presidential election as white working-class anger despite evidence that the white and wealthy overwhelming gave the victory to Donald Trump. The heart of the problem lies in McDonagh's directorial choices. The few critics, predominantly people of color, who found his movie manipulative (here, here, and here) and historically tone deaf agree this is our generation’s Crash: where white characters learn a lesson on the backs of black people. The sexual violence, the rape of McDormand’s daughter, is equally problematic, though not mentioned even in passing in The New York Times review. After all, who could question a grieving mother? But as The Independent’s Amrou Al-Kadhi asks, “Why is it that even when telling the stories of women, conflict is centered round the white male struggle?” The use of rape as a plot point joins a growing trend that has hit a fevered pitch, with Game of Thrones the main culprit. “In 2017, rape on screen almost feels passé: it’s the suggestion that comes up when you’re stuck for a story arc on a slow afternoon in the writers’ room,” The Guardian’s Zoe Williams writes. It’s obvious McDonagh wants you squirming in your seat—and in In Bruges it worked. (Though it’s interesting to note that not all critics agreed, including the ones who felt he used Irish characters, and Irish state funding, to his own purpose.) But crossing the ocean has been problematic for the English-born director. He is also a playwright, and in his first American play he employed the same shock value he used on his working-class Irish characters in previous plays. In A Behanding in Spokane, Christopher Walken plays a man who’s surreally lost his hand and has searched for it for 27 years. When he finds one, it’s not his but the black actor Anthony Mackie’s, whose character of “Toby” is “played like a character that would be ripped to shreds on social media if he graced a film or television screen in this day and age.” The effect on the reviewer-of-color: “It nauseated me.” Rape, gender, race–McDonagh’s thrown it all in. He even added a literary touch. Look closely when McDormand’s character is buying the billboards; the ad man is reading Flannery O’Connor. Clearly this is an homage, and we should expect violence to lead to an emotional lesson, maybe grace. McDonagh brings his many talents to the film–making someone laugh at violence is a difficult thing to do–and was helped along by strong performances, most notable, of course, that of Frances McDormand. Who doesn’t want to watch a brilliant actress stomp around dressed like Rosie the Riveter giving overt racists hell? (We’re never told why she dresses like that; she works in a gift shop.) It’s as if the image, like the billboards McDonagh saw passing through Texas, were too enticing to bother with the film’s many flaws around race. Was it laziness? Ignorance? Why did all those that reviewed it found it praiseworthy? These are not questions from the P.C. Police but meat-and-potato storytelling considerations, though McDonagh thinks differently. “I can’t happily defend [the movie] at any stage. I think it’s a really good film, and I think often the backlash is kind of a knee-jerk reaction maybe.” To return to McDormand’s admirable speech: A clue to why this movie was made comes after she announces, "I’ve got some things to say,” exciting the crowd. She thanks the director, humorously adding, “We are a bunch of hooligans and anarchists, but we do clean up nice.” It’s in this vein of anarchism that I think we find a closer explanation for McDonagh’s movies, the work of a provocateur. Why not throw the kitchen sink of hot-button issues at viewers and see how they respond? Sensationalism as a tool for story chaos. Unlike Flannery O’Connor, who knew the South and cared about her characters, McDonagh’s movies are more interested in emotional pyrotechnics, leaving the heavy lifting of character development to its actors who are very good. And if no one asks questions that any VONA workshop might about core issues of representation, we’re destined to see more Oscar nominees like Three Billboards, Crash, and The Green Mile perpetuating the treating of people of color like props—and more positive reviews. It might not matter if McDormand’s call for inclusion riders comes about. Five black actors were in the film about racism that won her an Oscar. We barely saw them.

The Panopticon: John Updike’s Apartment Stories

Has there, in American letters, at least, ever been a better noticer than John Updike?  By “noticer,” I don’t mean “writer of detail,” exactly.  There are many writers whose use of detail I find more narratively effective:  Saul Bellow, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Denis Johnson, Stephanie Vaughn, etc.  Updike’s use of detail, as I discussed in a recent essay, often impinges upon the realism, or “realism,” of his fictional worlds, overlarding them with sensory detail that too often alerts the reader to the writer’s presence.  But in terms of pure, preternatural eye for the minute, the ephemeral, and the easily missed, it is difficult to think of another writer who can compare. Here are a couple of excerpts from “Incest,” one of the earlier stories (contained, in fact, in the wonderful The Early Stories), many of which endeavor to capture the mundane drama of young married life, as played out in a series of similar, cramped New York apartments.  In the first excerpt, Lee, husband and father, is cleaning up the sugar his daughter has spilled: With two sheets of typing paper, using one as a brush and the other as a pan, he cleaned up what she had spilled on the counter, reaching around her, since she kept her position standing on the chair.  Her breath floated randomly, like a butterfly, on his forearms as he swept. Later, he watches his wife drying diapers in the bathroom: Looking, Lee saw that, as Jane squinted, the white skin at the outside corner of her eye crinkled finely, as dry as her mother’s, and that his wife’s lids were touched with the lashless, grainy, desexed quality of the lids of the middle-aged woman he had met not a dozen times, mostly in Indianapolis, where she kept a huge brick house spotlessly clean and sipped vermouth from breakfast to bed. The random breath on the forearm like a butterfly, the fine-grained quality of dry eyelid skin—these are signature Updike details.  What other writer would notice, let alone bother to describe, the texture of his wife’s eyelids?  He is a master at this kind of description, keying in on the microscopic and near-invisible, not as world-building flourishes, but as primary detail.  The child’s breath on Lee’s forearm hairs is a perfect metaphor for Updike’s sensory apparatus—I imagine this apparatus as fine cilia, authorial cat whiskers, delicately picking up the slightest shift in descriptive breeze. This keenness extends to non-sensory details, the internal mechanism of a character’s mundane thoughts.  We have closely followed Lee from, in his words, breakfast to bed, and we lie with him as he deploys a favorite tack against the insomnia their tiny, hot apartment causes him, a mental exercise he refers to as the insomnia game.  The insomnia game sees Lee working his way through the alphabet in the following manner: He let the new letter be G.  Senator Albert Gore, Benny Goodman, Constance Garnett, David Garnett, Edvard Grieg, Goethe was Wolfgang and Gorki was Maxim.  Farley Granger, Graham Greene… Detailing a character’s nighttime mental routine is unusually perceptive to begin with, but true to form, Updike finds a higher register of his protagonist’s attention to pay attention to, as Lee pauses his list to work through the less familiar foreign first names of Goethe and Gorki.  These moments of deep attention are not there to embellish a larger narrative point—they are the point.  In the space of several pages, an accumulation of these details create a world in miniature and a feeling of rare intimacy with its inhabitants. The apartment stories—“Incest,” and others like it:  “Snowing in Greenwich Village,” “Sunday Teasing,” “Should Wizard Hit Mommy,” etc.—seem to me the perfect vehicle for Updike’s rare gifts.  There is, after all, a claustrophobia to this kind of detail, and these small city apartments match setting and theme to technique.  The apartments become a kind of panopticon, with Updike’s thousand eyes relentlessly monitoring the stifled desires and tense moods of their main characters—almost invariably a young married man. At the same time, the molecular focus that Updike brings to these stories manages to turn one-bedroom shotguns into universes of discovery.  There is a sense in these stories of relentless searching for a truth or truths that can only be found by plumbing down into the granular, the microscopic; these tiny details both encode and reveal the larger hidden structures we move through unaware.  A small New York apartment contains an entire life—the miracles (and curses) of marriage, childbirth, sex, and death. [millions_ad] The stories themselves follow suit, finding the largest meaning in the smallest plot point.  For the most part, these tales bear little in common with others of their seeming kin—John Cheever’s earlier stories, for example, many of which also center on young married couples pressure-cooking in tiny apartments.  But Cheever, despite being an eccentric fabulist, is conventional in his adherence to traditional plot devices, the need for inciting incidents and escalating tension.  There is no Enormous Radio in Updike, just a very small one playing in the background, the crackling sound agitating the room’s ambient emotion, and the humbleness of the device itself obscurely bothering Lee (or Richard or Arthur) trying to read in the next room.  We seem to be dropped into these characters’ lives almost at random, the barest wisp of event enough cause for a story to coalesce.  In “Walter Briggs,” for example, a couple driving home from a party (cars—or trains, or airplanes—like apartments, are ideal Updike sensory dioramas) attempts to remember people they met on their first wedded vacation: “How could you forget Roy?  And then there was Peg Grace.” “Peg, Grace.  Those huge eyes.” “And that tiny long nose with the nostrils shaped like water wings,” Claire said.  “Now:  tell me the name of her pasty-faced boyfriend.” “With the waxy blond hair.  Lord.  I can’t conceivably hope to remember his name.  He was only there a week.” This goes on far longer than it would in the work of other writers, several pages.  On and on they drone, exactly the kind of inane, half-focused conversation that composes the atomic structure of married life, exactly the kind of desultory scene typically excised from most stories.  And yet: something snags—her enviable memory, and his inability to summon the name of a comic figure at the camp.  Later, at the door of sleep, his mild frustration blends with a litany of details from the camp, and the sudden return of the man’s name—Walter Briggs—is like a poignant echo of his old love for his wife.  In both their obsession with remembering tiny details, and their ability to do so, these two resemble their creator.  Who, but Updike, would find erotic charge in a nostalgic memory competition? By so heavily foregrounding textural detail in these stories, Updike calls into question what constitutes a story to begin with.  There is an aesthetic claim being made, that anything can be a story if you look closely enough.  And the domestic sphere, Updike’s natural habitat and milieu, is all stifling closeness—what are marriages if not an infinite series of minute, learned, hateful, and joyful gestures, performed in the tiny theaters of our living rooms and beds? Here, the aesthetic claim grades into something that approaches a moral claim.  A reader, waiting in these stories for twist or conflict or denouement, will get to the end unsatisfied, having missed the all intervening action, action that occurs on a moment-to-moment perceptual level.  Life is like that, too.  Although modern readers may justly find Updike morally distasteful on many counts—mid-century white male privilege, literary sexism, and political conservatism to name a few—he seems exemplary, at least, in the sense of how much attention a person ought to bring to bear on the banal splendidness that comprises their life. Taken as a whole, the attentiveness that Updike trains on these intermittently peaceful and unpeaceful homes becomes performative and self-justifying.  Like a fantastically gifted magician, the show becomes less about the trick itself and more about the dexterity required to perform the trick.  He is constantly finding the edge of his talent and reaching just beyond it for the detail so fine and fleeting that it is preposterous, even for him, to notice it. Yes, on a basic level, this is show-offy.  But I sense that it also comes from a generous instinct, a desire to share something with the reader no one else has shared before.  As he puts it in “Wife-Wooing”:  “An expected gift is not worth giving.”

Father Figures: On Armistead Maupin’s ‘Logical Family’

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City  broke ground in perhaps the most satisfying way: sexually brazen and politically stealthy, with a healthy dose of humor.  His recent memoir, Logical Family, tells the tale of Maupin’s youth, and many of the personal stories behind his beloved Tales.  As Maupin remembers, fiction hadn’t run in a daily newspaper for more than 100 years when in 1974, the San Francisco Chronicle hired him for weekday installments of a series on avatars of local types, scheduled to run indefinitely.  Maupin was a young journalist new to fiction, but he greeted the challenge.  The saga quickly won plenty of fans, neutralizing the requisite scolding subscribers.  Average readers soon became attached enough to the characters to sympathize with their loves, losses, and personal awakenings.  The column also became a conduit to process collective hardships like AIDS, the killings of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, and anti-gay initiatives.  The Tales ran for more than 10 years and took on a life of their own—collected in books, adapted for TV, sometimes even set to music—and Maupin became an icon of queer storytelling.  He continued the series through subsequent novels; the ninth and purportedly final volume came out in 2014.  A documentary, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, supplements the release of his memoir. Roughly, the memoir covers Maupin’s childhood in the South, service in the military, move to San Francisco, and life as an author.  Substantively, it dwells on certain motifs: his parents and grandparents, Southern culture, various late 20th-century gay touchstones and the Tales series itself.  It does not dwell in specificity on the concept of chosen or “logical” family, which disappointed me—especially after a clarion call in the prologue: Some children…grow up another species entirely, lone gazelles lost among the buffalo herd of our closest kin.  Sooner or later though, no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us.  We have to, if we are to live without squandering our lives. By the book’s end, it seems Maupin is referring simply to his own experience coming out, letting go of his parents’ expectations, and embracing life as a gay man.  I’m aware it wasn’t easy, however pleasurable–and Maupin delights in relating that pleasure.  People of my generation tend to take for granted the comparative ease of living queer now.  But perhaps because of this, those of us yet to reach middle age often lack a template for a more robust kind of “logical family:” what it looks like to live, love, struggle, and age together without traditional family ties.  Within the community, some will say that marriage rights have obviated this need.  It’s easier than ever for diverse couples to marry, parent, share property, execute medical directives, and take part in mainstream rituals of all kinds.  Indeed, Maupin himself is married. Others believe that assimilation co-opted a vibrant liberationist movement whose members invented their own lives.  Maupin first produced the term “logical family” for the characters in his Tales: Anna the witchy landlady and her brood of tenants on Barbary Lane, the fictional home in the stories.  Mary Ann Singleton, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, Mona Ramsey, and others weren’t only lovers or friends; they were family.  The places they’d come from weren’t ever home.  Their blood relations couldn’t accept who they were.  Society around them didn’t offer suitable options for life as an independent woman, a Southern gay man, or elderly single person.  For many of us, it still doesn’t.  Yet early on in the stories, Mona and Mouse shared their fear that one would pair off and opt out of a shared life.  These tensions, between romance and loyalty and between blood and true affinity, run through the series, but Maupin leaves them sadly unexamined when discussing his own life. There are moments in which Maupin’s alienation growing up feels familiar, and others that feel quite foreign to me.  We both came from conservative families, but mine was the religious kind, while his had been Confederate gentry.  In my case, gender compliance would never feel like a viable option, however drastic the maternal enforcement.  Maupin was more tenacious in his filial pursuit; throughout his memoir, he invokes a desire for his “un-Reconstructed” lawyer father’s approval.  He cites this desire as spurring pro-segregation editorials in his college paper, his work for Jesse Helms soon after, his brief stint in law school, volunteer Navy enlistment and subsequent deployment to Vietnam.  After collecting groovy adventures in his cushy officer’s post, he volunteered again: this time for a group of young vets returning to build houses, a Nixonian PR stunt to counter Vietnam Veterans Against the War.  Maupin proudly posed for a photo with Richard Nixon, and displayed it on the wall of his new home until noting how it disturbed his conquests. Those conquests took place in San Francisco, where he moved shortly after Vietnam to take a job with the Associated Press.  In between though, he spent a brief stint at the naval base in Charleston.  This part of his story is the most interesting to me, when he was, as he eloquently puts it, “no longer one thing and not quite the other…in transition, foolish and floundering.”  It was where at 26, he had sex for the first time, having known he was gay all his life.  He wouldn’t come out until moving to San Francisco, at which point he became somewhat militant about requiring others to do so.  But it was in Charleston that he began to envision a life he could live outside his parents’ world.  Up to that point, his main sense of one came from a few “fairy godmothers” who could dig his artistic, sensitive soul.  They seem to have been very good ones, in fact; I found myself feeling envious, not having had those guides myself.  One was his free-spirited, suffragist grandma, who became his main model for Anna Madrigal. Ultimately, what Maupin cultivates for himself is a network of friends and occasional lovers, orbiting his married domestic life.  The “logical” father figure he does eventually invoke is Christopher Isherwood, whom he met at an Oscars party for Saturday Night Fever.  In my experience, it’s rare for established authors to engage so meaningfully with up-and-coming ones, however kindred.  As have their respective books, Maupin’s life has had a very different texture from Isherwood’s.  The latter was a dedicated seeker who almost became a Buddhist monk.  His stories are sometimes melancholy and occasionally jaded, but always feel generous in their appeal to a deeper meaning.  Maupin’s fiction remains highly accessible, but his personal angst feels uniquely American, perhaps rooted in his biological family’s Confederate history.  But Brit-turned-Angeleno Isherwood historicized their friendship and “tribe” by summoning Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, E.M. Forster, and W. Somerset Maugham (he had known Forster in England).  Maupin makes a point of encouraging others to be mentors too—though there may be another dimension in these men’s case.  As Maupin is now, Isherwood was partnered with a much younger artist, 18 at the start.  The Untold Tales reveals that Maupin found his on “daddyhunt.com;” the younger man founded the site. The other person Maupin cites as “logical family” is Laura Linney, who played Mary Ann in PBS’s Tales of the City miniseries in 1993 and 1994.  Linney later rode with Maupin when he marshalled San Francisco’s Pride Parade, and eventually used “Armistead” as her child’s middle name.  Having been young for the miniseries when it came out, I hadn’t known it was a target of the Republican push to cut public arts funding.  Watching the series today it feels quaint in its re-creation of 1970s California, but a happy antidote at a time when TV’s main event was the O.J. Simpson case.  In a filmed interview, Olympia Dukakis is refreshingly candid about her initial cluelessness being cast as (spoiler!) trans woman Anna.  She immersed herself deeply enough to create a timeless, magical role—just one indication of why cast and crew were so heartbroken when PBS canceled the second book/season in 1996.  The show had been an overwhelming ratings success and a major critical hit too, like a grown-up, soapier Sesame Street.  Indeed, it won the coveted Peabody Award.  Linney believes if it hadn’t been for the American Family Association’s campaign in Congress, the audience who saw the first gay kiss on TV would’ve gone on to see one of the two men later survive HIV. [millions_ad] The memoir’s emotional heart is that of the Tales, the “Letter to Mama.”  In it Mouse comes out to his parents, and thus the author came out to his.  The text, which ran in the Chronicle in 1977, is reprinted here as an epilogue; in the documentary participants including Maupin, Ian McKellen, Linney, and Dukakis read it aloud in moving composite.  Perhaps Logical Family’s biggest surprise is the longevity and depth of Maupin’s hunger for his parents’ approval—not satiated when his folks joined him at Harvey Milk’s vigil and smoked a joint with his gay friends (as his mother was dying of breast cancer, no less).  It seems he wanted his father to personally confront Jesse Helms about his cruel response to AIDS, and his father failed in this respect.  But the younger Maupin closes the book with his father’s deathbed blessing on his union to his husband, at which point the famous author was 60. If I have one technical complaint about the book, it’s that for such a reliably linear storyteller, Maupin seems heedless of derailing his own story repeatedly.  Once he reaches the point of his first collection’s release, the timeline he keeps in the memoir breaks down too much to preserve the episodic narrative.  Lest this worry potential readers though, know that Maupin rewards with color commentary on sex with Rock Hudson about midway through.  If one phrase carries on from the memoir, let it be “lost boner rodeo.” The author expresses some dissatisfaction with the San Francisco of today, though just how much might depend on his mood.  In the memoir, he’s unmistakably angry about what the tech sector has done to push out artists and most anyone else who isn’t rich.  In the film though, he professes not to mind about things like “the Google bus” when friends didn’t live to see it at all.  Surely both can be valid, both a sense of thankfulness and a desire to protect the place from pillage.  To the extent that the city has constituted a family home, shouldn’t elders seek to guard it for their younger counterparts?  Other Untold Tales interviewees include fellow San Francisco literati Kate Bornstein, Amy Tan, and Margaret Cho (Cho’s parents ran a Castro bookstore), but they all discuss the city in its past tense.  No one I know can afford to live near it now, neither my transplant queer artist friends, nor my Bay-bred evangelical cousins.    In the most recent Tales, Maupin had Michael, Mary Ann, and Anna at Burning Man and on Twitter, but these felt more like concessions to the present than a real reckoning with it. Rumor has it that Maupin, Linney, and Dukakis have agreed to a Tales revival for Netflix, with Michael Cunningham as lead writer.  My hope is that given such an opportunity to reach a younger audience, Cunningham will push the series beyond a legacy act to show what logical family might mean today for the characters’ wider communities: how to move on from past battles while holding onto their lessons, and fashion something new, both adaptable and lasting.

Don’t Forget Me: Lorena Hickok’s Unsung Oral History of the Great Depression

1. In 1936, restless in her romantic relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and eager to cement her identity as a writer, the journalist Lorena "Hick" Hickok began working on a book about her three years of travels across the country to interview regular people. Nurses, day laborers, miners, teachers, county administrators, housewives, and even children talked to Hick about their experiences of poverty during the Depression. The book was to be about them and for them: "the chiselers and the shovel-leaners; this is their story and to them it is dedicated, in all sincerity and humility." Hick planned to draw on reports she'd typed in dreary hotel rooms as she made her way across the country starting in 1933. Primed with bourbon and homesickness, she cabled her words each night to her boss Harry Hopkins, typically cc'ing Eleanor, who often shared them with the president. These collected reports constitute one of the most valuable oral histories of the Depression ever made. In breadth—covering every region of the country except for the Pacific Northwest—and depth—containing countless one-on-one conversations with individuals—they deliver a multifaceted chronicle, enlivened by Hick's signature humor, eye for detail, and pathos to beat the band. But Hick's book was never published. Editors in New York, well aware of her special access to the first lady, were much less interested in a chronicle of Depression-weary Americans than they were in behind-the-scenes tales about the most famous woman in America. Of course, Hick would never write that book. She had promised long ago that she would never write anything that could hurt Eleanor; she kept that promise, though it cost her dearly. And so when journalists and social scientists and historians began the scramble to shape the Depression into a story that could be told, Hick's work was not among their sources. In 1936, just as now, some voices were valued and some were silenced. It was decades before academics excavated her reports and shed light on the role she played in not only capturing Americans' experiences but shaping policy that in turn shaped lives. Though few seemed to be listening, Hick was telling these stories. And in doing so, she was attempting to tell her own. 2. Hick's childhood in the upper Midwest was, to borrow a phrase, nasty, brutish, and short. The Hickoks were dirt poor, and Hick's father was a violent man who seemed to take sick pleasure in terrorizing Hick in particular, perhaps because she was sensitive and found relief from her social anxiety in spending time with animals. Once he used a horsewhip on her dog while she lay in her room listening to its howls. Another time, he dashed her new kitten's brains out on the side of the barn and left its body where she would see it on her walk to school. Hick left home at 13 and moved from one job to the next around Bowdle, S.D.—maid in an infested boarding house for railway workers, cook in a farm kitchen, dishwasher in a saloon. Her school attendance was spotty. When she could go, she stuffed paper in the toes of her ragged shoes to keep her feet from freezing. Eventually, an aunt in Michigan took her in and she completed high school and went on to Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisc. But Hick struggled there, eventually flunked out, and took a job as a cub reporter for the Battle Creek Evening News in 1912. There Hick found her calling hunting down sources and capturing stories on the page. Later she would say that being a reporter was the only thing she was ever good at, and she used her signature irreverence to describe the tribe she treasured being part of: "We were a wild, boisterous, cynical, unmannerly crew. Only the bootleggers loved us." 3. Over five years as a reporter for the Associated Press, Hick rose from the women's page pabulum she despised to writing bylined stories on political corruption, sensational crimes, and, finally, covering Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign. In late October 1932, as the whistle-stop tour chugged toward election day, Hick was assigned to interview Eleanor Roosevelt on an overnight train from Potsdam to Grand Central Station. Something happened in those hours of intense conversation, and by the time the train screeched into Manhattan the women had fallen hard for each other. They spent the next few months in the flush of new love—going to the opera, dining together alone in Hick's apartment, talking by phone each night. Hick gave Eleanor a ring that she wore for the rest of her life. And the women wrote letters, sometimes more than one a day. Hick had been assigned to cover the incoming president, to subject him and anyone in his circle to the hard-hitting coverage she was known for. But love had done her in. Her objectivity was compromised, her work suffered, and finally she was forced to leave the AP. Hick's 21-year career in journalism was over. Unlike Eleanor, who was a Roosevelt twice over—Franklin was her fifth cousin once removed—Hick had no gilded surname to see her through the dry spell. She needed to find a job, and quick. It was Eleanor who set her up with Harry Hopkins, the top administrator of the New Deal's Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). In 1933, Hopkins was drowning in data. Charged with overseeing the distribution of $500,000,000 in federal aid money to local officials, Hopkins spent his days scouring statistical reports. The press, meanwhile, demanded to know whether the extraordinary sums being spent actually were making a difference. Statistical data alone could not answer this question. Hopkins wanted a report on the human dimensions of the crisis, and for that he needed a different kind of expert—not a statistician, but a storyteller. Eleanor Roosevelt let him know that one of the best had just become available that summer. Hopkins made Hick the first in his team of investigators, asking her, simply, to talk to people who had lost their jobs, savings, material comforts—and their hope. In the era before Medicaid or Medicare, before public housing and food stamps, school lunches for children or formula for infants, it was a marvel anyone was surviving. The life savings of middle-class families had been wiped out in a day, taking the hopes of the already-poor, who worked for them, right down the tubes too. In each new town, Hick would meet with local officials who were charged with distributing federal aid. Surging rents and food prices as well as local politics and even personal grievances often clogged the pipeline, and officials would eventually break down and tell Hick the location of the worst suffering in their district. Then she would go there: in cities it was the slums, where priests begged her for medical supplies; in rural hamlets she would sometimes have to ditch her car to walk the impassable dirt roads on foot, going door to door, taking notes on the steno pad she kept in the pocket of her skirt. On one of those roads in Kentucky, she met a barefoot old white woman the local people called "Aunt Cora." Hick wrote that she was "half dead from pellagra," the disease caused by lack of niacin. Hick stopped to talk to her and when they said goodbye, the woman put her hand on Hick's arm and said, "Don't forget me, honey! Don't forget me!" Hick was the ideal person for this job because she had spent half her life in poverty. Few journalists of the time with her contacts—a direct line to the White House, experience working with most of the top reporters in New York and DC—could say the same. Those years of deprivation shaped her thinking and her imagination, and the reports show that her firsthand experience shaped what she observed. The men she encountered, she noticed, were haunted by what they saw as a failure to provide for their families, and wanted to keep the fact of their unemployment secret. But in order for a family to receive FERA aid for groceries and rent, a caseworker had to visit the home to fill out paperwork and gather demographic information. These jobs tended to be held by educated young women from the city, and when they knocked on a front door, curtains parted all along the street as neighbors took note. The men's shame about taking aid was compounded by their wives' heartache at letting these women into their living rooms. The social workers arrived smartly dressed, one husband lamented, with "powder on, and lipstick, and pink fingernails." It was unbearable for his wife to be reminded of all the accouterments of beauty she could no longer have—another mark, Hick understood, of the shame of being poor. Because Hick knew the pain of being overlooked and dismissed, she made women a central focus of her reports, ensuring that Hopkins—and the president—could not ignore their plight. One woman in California even confided in Hick that she'd agonized about going without rudimentary birth control measures available in drugstores at the time. She was terrified of creating more mouths to feed, but abstinence was not an option. "You don't know what it's like when your husband is out of work," Hick reported that the woman told her. "He's gloomy all the time…You must try all the time to keep him from going crazy. And many times—well, that is the only way." Birth control was not the kind of thing discussed in polite company in the 1930s, yet Hick courageously recorded the woman's words. This, too, was part of the story of the Depression. In another town, where truancy was rampant because of a lack of clothing, officials used some of the relief money to have donated fabric made into pants for boys to wear. But still the boys did not show up at school. After a single conversation with one of them, Hick understood why. The fabric had a distinctive pattern the other children recognized, and the boys didn't want to be seen wearing government pants. Hick's genius was that she had both devotion to the voiceless and shrewd belief in the power of narrative to sway even the skeptical to take action. When she asked a North Dakotan farmer how his family was fixed for food and clothes for the winter, he broke down crying. Not only did Hick cry right along with him, she made sure to describe her own tears in her report. She knew exactly what she was doing. Hick's perspective was not objective, and some of her reports are laced with racism about black, Mexican, and native communities. She expressed fear about traveling alone in the South in predominantly black areas, and hauled out old tropes about physical differences, work ethic, and hygiene. Many of the New Deal programs introduced during her time on the road plainly favored whites. The 1935 Social Security Act, for example, provided the first-ever guaranteed income after retirement for millions of Americans, but it excluded domestic servants and agricultural workers, and the vast majority of black workers fell into those categories. The Federal Housing Administration, established in 1934, created an appraisal system that tied mortgage eligibility to race, codifying racism and segregation in federal law. It may have been above Hick's pay grade to critique federal economic policy, but she saw evidence of the disparity on a daily basis and failed to question why some people were being left behind. [millions_ad] 4. As Hick spent night after night in those dismal hotels, scrounging up uninspired dinners and drinking too much, her only comfort came by mail: letters from Eleanor. "A world of love to you, darling," Eleanor signed off on November 17. "I'm getting so hungry to see you." The next day: "The 18th, less than a month till you return. Bless you & keep well & remember I love you." Then, two days later: "Dear one, I'm tired but very well. I can't bear to get no letters Friday or Saturday so I'm wiring you my address and from the 29th-3rd I'll be in Warm Springs. I would give a good deal to put my arms around you and to feel yours around me. I love you deeply & tenderly." We mostly have to imagine how Hick replied to Eleanor's loving words. We know that she did because Eleanor references Hick's letters, but most of them are missing from the archive of their correspondence. In 1936 Hick began to reclaim letters she had written to Eleanor, and Eleanor obliged; when Eleanor died in 1962, Hick burned hundreds of letters, including almost all of her own and many of Eleanor's from those first fervent months. Hick told Eleanor's daughter Anna why: "Your mother wasn't always so very discreet in her letters to me." But lest anyone think she wanted to keep their entanglement secret for all time, Hick made sure to donate the remaining trove to the Roosevelt Library, with instructions that it not be opened until 10 years after her death in 1968. Maybe she hoped that in some future time, as our country became a more progressive, open place, the world would be able to understand that she had been in love with Eleanor Roosevelt and that Eleanor Roosevelt had been in love with her. Hick could have burned every last page, but she didn't. Just like the people she met on her travels, she wanted to be sure she wasn't forgotten. 5. The place that haunted Hick most of all was Scotts Run, near Morgantown, W.Va., where the coal mines were shuttered. Families who had come to the region decades before for work were now stranded in the hills, some living in company housing for which they still had to pay rent despite their unemployment, some living in tents. They used the creek polluted with mine runoff for drinking and bathing. Children ran around naked, some covered in sores. Diphtheria and dysentery were common, and many babies died of typhoid every year. People were so hungry they could not wait for the vegetables to mature in their gardens and dug up the tiny, bitter potatoes and ate them raw. Hick called Scotts Run "the worse place I had ever seen." Though she was well aware that her job was to take notes and leave the policy decisions to the experts, Hick was so upset by conditions in the mining camps that she called Eleanor long-distance that night from her hotel room in Morgantown and begged her to do something. To Hick's amazement, Eleanor got in her car and drove herself to West Virginia the next day, and they toured the camps. Most of the people Eleanor talked to had no idea they were speaking to the first lady of the United States. She listened, took notes; she was already forming a plan. Eleanor had a hunch that West Virginia would be the ideal place to try out a program she and FDR had dreamed up, a "back-to-the-land" initiative that would empower the rural (white) poor through decent housing, training in subsistence farming, and work in local industry. A year later, 50 homesteads stood on a 1,000-acre parcel the government had purchased and named Arthurdale. That was 50 families with running water, heat in the winter, and fertile land on which to grow food and raise animals. Soon the number of homesteads grew to 165, and Arthurdale included a clinic, a school, and a community center. Though Eleanor was derided in the press for her "socialist" aims, and despite huge cost overruns and the project's ultimate demise, Eleanor never lost faith in Arthurdale. It changed the lives of hundreds of people and served as an important laboratory for programs that would be used in different forms across the country. And it all started because of Hick's report. 6. Eleanor's letters to Hick never stopped, but they changed in tenor. As the first lady's life grew increasingly more complex, her devotion to countless people, causes, and projects left little time for Hick. Hick's life had evolved in the opposite direction as she saw key pieces of her identity slip away in the wake of the relationship—foremost, her job at the AP, but also her life in New York City and even her beloved German Shepherd, Prinz. Hick realized she'd been naive to believe that, if she sacrificed and was patient, she and Eleanor would really be able to make a life together as they'd promised in the early days of their romance. It was, they both had to accept, heartbreakingly impossible. And so things changed, and the once intense entanglement downshifted into fond friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. Hick put 7,000 miles on her cars in the period she called a "three-year journey into every man's land-and no-man's land." The information she collected in her reports validated Hopkins's hunch that creating jobs that paid real wages would be a more successful form of relief, and he was able to lobby Congress to create the Civil Works Administration to do just that. Visitors to the White House were often astounded by FDR's knowledge of conditions across the country, and much of the detail was gleaned from Hick's reports. Those reports represented years of work and risk—risk of physical harm and depression, and the even greater risk Hick had faced all her life, of being dismissed and forgotten. Hick was a woman with tenuous social standing: her gender, her class, and her sexual identity all made it likely she would be erased. She had to fight to be heard. Flawed though she was, Hick felt a solemn duty to let imperiled Americans speak for themselves, and she left behind a crucial record of some of their lives. "Don't forget me, honey," the old woman in Kentucky had begged her. Hick never forgot her, and, though our attention is overdue, she made sure we won't forget her either. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What Physics Can Teach Us About Writing Fiction

Sometimes writing fiction feels to me like that oft-used image of a godlike creator: the man pulling the strings of the marionette, orchestrating each fine movement from above the stage. One string might be character, another plot, a third setting, a fourth conflict, then dialogue, figurative language, pacing, point of view, tone, and so on in innumerable quantities. When I position myself at the center of this image—as the Writer—fiction seems like a failed proposition. Invariably, things go wrong: the strings get tangled, the synchronization is off, I lose track of what the left foot or right hand is doing, and the whole show falters. The work is revealed as amateurish and I must step down like Oz from behind the curtain to face my shame. As a teacher, I see my students grappling with this difficulty on a daily basis. Their small successes (“Great dialogue!”) are overshadowed by all the parts that aren’t yet working. And there are so many parts, so many ways to not be working. This is what got me started thinking about simplifying an approach to craft, or rather, trying to understand what craft elements encompass which other ones as a way to focus on manipulating the fewest elements of a story to receive the largest payoff. My answer came from another, highly-complicated field: Physics, specifically, Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. In layman’s terms, the Theory of Relativity proposes that the measurable properties of time and space aren’t actually as fixed as we perceive them to be. They’re subjective. In our real universe, time and space flex, expanding or contracting relative to moving objects. I began to see parallels between the time and space of the physical universe and the time and space of the fictional one. What if time and space were the only two properties the writer sought to control? Would the universe of craft choices become less overwhelming in their entirety? Don’t worry, there’s no math involved in any of this, but there is a diagram. A rudimentary version might look like this,   with other craft elements, such as pacing, dialogue, point of view, and so on following naturally from there. Of what use is this to the writer? For one, it puts craft choices into perspective. The writer’s aim must be to address these two questions principally: (1) How will time be managed? and (2) What is the space of the narrative? The first question is addressed by the work of narrative theorist Gérard Genette, whose book Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, proposes three principal ways in which writers can and do manipulate time: order, duration, and frequency. In the first, “order,” the writer may choose to present events out of chronology; associated terms include flashback and flash forward. At the macro-level, stories that do this wonderfully include Dan Chaon’s “Falling Backwards,” which is narrated, as the title suggests, in reverse order, or Brian Evenson’s “Younger,” a story about two adult sisters attempting to reconcile very different versions of a childhood memory. At the micro-level, nearly every short story is an exercise in anachronisms, borne of the nature of English’s grammatical structures and the writer’s urge to withhold. The second, “duration,” refers to the ways in which a writer might speed up or slow down the effect of the narration, typically through the number of words she chooses to deploy for a particular moment; 10 years might last a sentence, while a minute may consume three pages. In writer’s circles, we call this pacing, and we harp frequently on the rule to show not tell, although all the best writers are masterful tellers, skilled in the art of contracting narrative time in order to squeeze the marrow from it. [millions_ad] Few writers are as deft at this as Lydia Davis. In her story “How Difficult,” she moves from compressed time into present time midway through the final sentence, neatly cramming years of grievances into a single phone call. For years my mother said I was selfish, careless, irresponsible, etc. She was often annoyed. If I argued, she held her hands over her ears, she did what she could to change me, but for years I did not change, or if I changed I could not be sure I had, because a moment never came when my mother said, ‘You are no longer selfish, careless, irresponsible, etc.’ Now I’m the one who says to myself, ‘Why can’t you think of others first, why don’t you pay attention to what you’re doing, why don’t you remember what has to be done?’ I am annoyed. I sympathize with my mother. How difficult I am! But I can’t say this to her, because at the same time that I want to say it, I am also here on the phone coming between us, listening and prepared to defend myself. We are caught, almost by surprise, by the narrator’s dilemma—her ownership and disavowal of her own pettiness, the depth of her grief over neither being able to accept her mother or, as a result of her mother, herself. A long, drawn out scene would hardly capture the same, knife’s-edge force. A writer can also, according to Genette, manipulate frequency. Here, some algebraic-looking letters: In life, an event happens (n) times, (n) being any number between zero and in perpetuity. Of course, the writer may choose to narrate an event more or less frequently than (n), each of these choices bearing significant effects; In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the same events are narrated four times, in each instance through the lens of a different narrator. Other times, as in the above Lydia Davis story, multiple distinct events (i.e. the mother’s frequent nagging) are narrated in a fell swoop, indicating habit. In still other instances, something that doesn’t happen at all is narrated in a hypothetical mode. In an even stranger variation, something that happens once might be told multiple times by the same narrator; Grace Paley’s “Mother,” comes to mind, in which the titular mother dies twice, once halfway through the story and a second time at the end, in order to emphasize the narrator’s grief and regret surrounding the mother’s death. To Genette’s list, I might add “gaps,” the domain of narratologist Meir Sternberg and generally understood by writers as “white space,” or “omissions,” that is, the “stuff left out.” In attending to time, the writer naturally addresses other elements of craft, such as plot and conflict. The arrangement of events and the speed and ease at which we move through them determine the reader’s experience of those events, what Steinberg terms “suspense, curiosity, and surprise.” What is not addressed by time is easily covered under the domain of space: of course this includes the setting and characters in the story, which naturally gives way to thoughts about point of view, voice, dialogue, tone and mood, the goal of which are often mimetic, aimed at creating Roland Barthes idea of a “realistic effect.” The unit of composition here is the detail, or if you prefer, the image, which is primarily a matter of distance. How close are we? This is a function of point of view. What can we see, smell, hear, feel, and taste? I prefer detail to image, only because image tends to imply that the visual is the primary sense. Moreover, how large is the space? By this, I am not merely describing setting as filtered through a point of view, but the space of the story itself as an imagined thing. When the reader is lingering over the story later, as is the hope of any writer, how does the story expand into three dimensions in the headspace of that reader? How many rooms are there, if there are rooms at all? Space is a function primarily and necessarily rooted in language. For this, I turn to Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, in which he discusses the difference between private and public poets. The distinction lies in the relation of the poet to the language. With the public poet the intellectual and emotional contents of the words are the same for the reader as they are for the writer. With the private poet, and most good poets of the last century or so have been private poets, the words, at least certain key words, mean something to the poet they don’t mean to the reader. He goes on to say that, “The reason this distinction doesn’t hold, of course, is that the majority of words in any poem are public—that is, they mean the same to writer and reader.” Of course, this cannot be the case. I think often about this distinction when teaching fiction writers how to create the space of a story through the narrator’s voice (we are, in effect, occupying the space of the narrator’s head, especially in first-person or close third-person fiction). The writer Charles Baxter once gave me the advice not to try to approximate “voiciness” on the page through common spoken tics—colloquialisms of generic nature, or syntaxes meant to sound “speechy.” The advice holds. All good writers are interested in voice, even ones as distinctly different in style as Jamaica Kincaid and George Saunders. What holds their disparate approaches together is that the voices are Hugo’s private voices; the reader understands each word for its denotative meaning, of course, but as Hugo describes, the language bears the mark of living off the page, which in turn allows the characters to feel three-dimensional in the mind of the reader. We call such characters round rather than flat, which means they live with us; they take up space. I return again to the question of how this notion can be of practical application to the writer. If I must take anything from Einstein’s theory, it is that everything is relative to a degree, which suggests to me that the failure of all advice about craft is its willingness to prescribe, and it is this very prescriptiveness that works fresh writers into a tizzy; there are too many rules to follow. I would suggest then, that the only two questions we need to ask ourselves are: Where are we headed, and how quickly or directly would we like to get there? Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.