Stay tuned here, readers. Beginning July 1, I’ll be attending the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal. I will be in workshops with Poets Prize winner Erica Dawson, and learning in seminars led by none other than Denis Johnson (author of Jesus’ Son) and Terri Witek, among others. Updates will follow. In the meantime, Bom viagem!
As a kid growing up in the 80s, my television family was the Seavers, not the Cleavers. Every boy my age wanted to be Kirk Cameron (Mike Seaver of Growing Pains), or maybe Michael J. Fox, who played Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties. Shows like these made it seem cool to be like those families and their kids, for certain.
In today’s literary community, aspiring toward a more traditional type of success has been replaced by a phobia about being “too mainstream.” I was reading an article just the other day by a respected author who lamented that her life was “becoming too mainstream,” which she defined by tasks like going to the grocery store, washing dishes, and tending to the relationships beneath her roof.
Sadly, being responsible and attempting to live a reasonable, self-sufficient life are both ideas that have been denigrated by various media in recent years. The notions that we should work ethically, raise a family, seek advancement in a single field, and aspire toward something greater than self-satisfaction are frowned upon by a vocal minority. There are those, after all, who believe such ideas to be too old-fashioned, too whitebread, or too puritanical for the twenty-first century.
But this isn’t a political post. I’m here to defend the value of the mainstream in our literature, specifically. There is beauty in the common, after all, and while socio-cultural activists may be trying their hardest to redefine what constitutes “the norm,” Joe and Jane Average still know that their lives — complete with light bills, plumbing repairs, and runny noses — have wonder, merit, and poetry in their seemingly mundane routines. Eschewing the everyday limits the scope and reach of our literature.
What’s more, by omitting mainstream details, artists portray a fallacious picture of what our world is really like: Rather than giving readers honest visions of life, many are seeking shock value, or perhaps some abstract, inauthentic version of their environment. In the end, both of these motives generate lies — creative, occasionally beautiful lies, perhaps, but lies nonetheless. While I’m no Realist (artistically speaking), I also don’t believe that writers should fear the mainstream. Give us the sidewalk cracks, the wasps and overdue notices in the mailbox, the wiffle ball stuck in the backyard oak tree. There is poetry in all these things, and there is life.
Being mainstream, by the way, isn’t all that bad, you’ll find. Parenthood and the obligations of marriage, career, and family life remain sources of great inspiration, just as they did in prior generations. Maybe it’s not new, it’s not avant-garde, and it’s not the “artist thing to do.” But I’ll take it any day over the exotic or the crazy. To be clear, I’m not saying “mainstreaming” is for everyone. However, I am saying that in going about the business of writing, we as authors should not be scared of that which seems standard. For it is the run-of-the-mill that yields the exceptional, the original, and the special. And that, writers, is what we’re after — the diamond in the rough, the pearl inside the oyster, and the rainbow out of the gray. Without the ordinary, there can be no extraordinary.
In just a few short weeks, I’ll be speaking to the graduating class of my alma mater’s MFA program. I’m supposed to be addressing “Life after the MFA,” a subject that I’ve become intimately familiar with over the last year and a half. In preparation for this talk, I’ve been looking over some of the notes I once took in MFA workshops, seminars, and synthesis sessions, and I’ve found that, while apart from the academic structure of the program, I’ve developed a discerning sensibility about some of the issues presented by professors in grad school.
One subject is that of using the abstract vs. using the concrete. Not one, not two, but three different professors in the MFA program at different times encouraged students to eschew abstraction in favor of concrete images. This is a good idea for beginning writers like the ones I teach, as their poetry is often littered with pathos in the form of notions like love, jealousy, rage, and abandonment.
But to lay down as a rule the idea that anything abstract or intangible must be omitted is incorrect, or at the very least, in need of refinement. The truth that I’ve found is this — using the abstract in poetry is much like using anything else in art: too much, and the work will become imbalanced; too little, and the work will lack relatability. This is especially true in the use of one of my favorite literary devices, the zeugma. For the unfamiliar, a zeugma is a combination of something concrete with something abstract in a line of poetry (or literature): “She spoiled her honor and her Sunday dress,” for example. Using too many zeugmas cheapens a poem and casts the image that the author must prevail upon parlor tricks to wow the audience rather than solid content.
But the right zeugma in the right place can make a piece sing. Just like similes, metaphors, oxymorons, and the whole array of other literary devices, the zeugma too carries its weight. And without abstraction, the zeugma is relegated to the status of a single image, a single item. Abstraction is necessary for this device and so many others to work.
“Everything in moderation,” the old saying goes, and in poetry as in life, this cliche actually holds true. Plenty of concrete imagery mixed with the right amount of abstract language can produce beauty, truth. Will I, like my former professors, prescribe my advice to near-graduates? Probably not. I’ll probably discuss the pragmatics of literary life — the necessity of staying in touch with fellow writers and readers, the merits of continuing to submit work, and possibly the necessity of overcoming rejections.
As for using the abstract, my students and I will continue to ply the often-holistic, qualitative language in our everyday writings. Rather than removing a tool from the writer’s toolbox, we will use it as a carpenter uses a plane — the write tool for the right job at the right time.
In the middle of the twentieth century, critical theorist John Dewey put forth his then-radical idea that experiences equal education. Dewey, considered the father of the progressive movement, posited that interaction and continuity were the two key traits that made up an educational experience. Even today, while educators use different names for those same ideas (interaction=engagement, continuity=structure), Dewey’s legacy lives on. But it’s not just for those of us in the classroom. Dewey’s experiential education model is undergoing a renaissance of sorts at the post-secondary level, with more colleges and universities touting that they believe in it and use it to provide students with memorable learning. Even for working writers and parents, the thoughts that Dewey developed have implications that can provide lasting benefits to us in our average, non-academic lives.
To begin, experiences form the foundation upon which all truly great literature is built. Even if those experiences are imagined or exaggerated, they nonetheless constitute the building blocks of fiction, poetry, and plays around the world. For those of us in the everyday world, the small experiences can generate great writing.
This summer, I’ve been riding bikes with my sons. We started small, with a few laps around our block here, and recently, we sojourned to their grandmother’s house about a mile away. The bike riding sessions have given rise to those metaphorical, time-transcending conversations that parents have always found meaningful: learning to ride a bicycle safely is a parallel to one’s larger life, after all. Lessons in persistence, balance, confidence, care, and initiative can all be heard when one is teaching others about basic cycling. Uphill grades can’t be conquered without perseverance, and the reward is always that downhill gust of face-breeze. Bicycles and their allegorical implications have been used by writers for years, and so, I haven’t bothered to write a poem about this experience yet. I feel that it’s been covered entirely too well by others before me. The poem that this experience generates will probably not be the old cliche about “letting go of the baby bird” or some similar tripe, but I sense that something from our time together will mold itself into poetry before the summer’s out. It just needs some time for creative gestation.
Last summer, my oldest son and I spent almost every day kayaking. There are lakes all over our town, and we would set out on Lake Martha, carving a trail to the park across the lake from our launch point. The park made for some great play time, and afterward, we would paddle back. This experience also bore a number of universal lessons that later worked themselves into poetry — the landmarks around the lake were particularly symbolic of different stages in life: the park being childhood, the high weeds being adolescence, the tall offices being adulthood, and finally, the hospital just before home. As you might have guessed, the experiences of our kayaking journeys lent themselves toward poetry.
I relate these two examples to reinforce the larger point: Yes, experience equals education, but more than that, experience equals life equals literature. Only by living can we truly write in a way that will relate to others. Until next time — to write great, live great.
As I spend my last day at home before the big Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing residency, I’m taking a few last minutes to brush up on all the reading I’ve done before this point. Everything from Aristotle to Billy Collins has been thrown at me in preparation for this upcoming session, and I’m proud to say that I’m ready.
Which leads me to a bit of history: Prior to adulthood, I was not always the exemplary student. In junior high, high school, and even as an undergraduate, my performance was, shall we say, lackluster. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work; it was that I lacked motivation. If I didn’t see the need for learning something, then frankly, I didn’t learn it. Daniel Pink talks a great deal about motivation in his book Drive, and in many ways, I am the poster child for his theories: If I like it, if I want it, if I enjoy it, I’ll do it. Likewise, if I am given autonomy to perform tasks (academic or otherwise), then I am largely happy, and I will produce. However, the flip side of this coin also holds true. I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to overcome my own resistance to math, in particular. My mind simply does not operate in mathematical ways, even though I can be very logical and reasonable at times. Also as an adult, I have had to face the truth of maxims that my parents constantly threw at me: “You might not LIKE it, but you still have to do it,” and “We do what we HAVE to do so we can do what we WANT to do.” So, when an unpleasant task comes my way, I have learned to discipline myself, break chores into pieces, and do all those things that my mom and dad (for years) tried to persuade me to do. For me, changing required firsthand experience — all the idioms in the world don’t replace real-world encounters for learning purposes.
In my first graduate program, which was in education, I earned a 4.0 grade point average. Here again, it was subject matter that I enjoyed, and which I decided to pursue. In addition, I was paying for the education myself. Straight A’s were my own personal expectation and goal (not anyone else’s), and therefore, I fulfilled that aim. Now I find myself having to persist in this MFA reading, as well. While many of these reading selections are interesting, I notice that I have to force myself to stay aware and absorbent to the ideas presented on the written page (especially Aristotle). By steeling my mind to assimilate the learning that I personally want, I am preparing to reap the benefits of an education that I have tailored to my own interests and needs. My eventual goal is to teach at the college level, but to get there, I have to pay the piper first. I suppose now would be a good time to stop procrasti-blogging and hit the books. Brain, don’t fail me now!