Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Alice B. Toklas*

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself and my writing, it’s that major breakthroughs and advances — well, they don’t come easy.  Sure, from time to time a breakthrough will come hurdling through the clouds and sky and onto my laptop or notebook page, but I know that I can’t depend upon that.  I also know that these breakthroughs only come hurdling through the clouds and sky and onto my laptop or notebook page if I’m there at my laptop or notebook page.  In other words, I do sometimes have breakthroughs out of the clear blue sky that make everything very much easier,

This is a photograph of the feline Alice B. Toklas, who is the hero of today's story.

This is a photograph of the feline Alice B. Toklas, who is the hero of today’s story.

but said out-of-the-clear-blue-sky everything-easier-making breakthroughs only come from hard work.

And when I say hard work, I mean hard work.  I mean hard, frustrating work.  I mean minutes and hours and days and years of hard, hard, hard frustrating work.  And sometimes it takes a very long time, and always it takes being honest with myself in a way that isn’t exactly comfortable.

It’s a funny thing, being a writer — often, when I finally figure out how to do something and do something well, it’s exactly the point when I know I shouldn’t get comfortable.  If I get comfortable, I do the same thing over and over again, kind of like my treat addict of a cat, Alice B. Toklas — she’s figured out that if she goes in the kitchen and meows and looks up at me in this certain unbelievably pitiful way, she will receive two treats.  But writing isn’t like that, no matter how pitiful the look I give my laptop.  Eventually, the treats stop coming.  Or else the treats do keep coming, but they’re increasingly stale.  Like, moldy stale.  Yes, I’m doing something I figured out how to do, and sometimes even to do well, but I’m not growing.  I’m not moving to the next level.  I’m not taking risks and challenging myself and thinking, really thinking, about what I’m doing.  I’m not engaging with language and the way it’s built.  I’m not doing myself or my work any favors.

And so I keep pushing myself to push myself, even if I don’t get the treats.  And usually, when I’m moving towards a breakthrough, there are no treats anywhere to be found (apparently, I have decided to stay with this metaphor and stretch it beyond its capacity.  Which is, incidentally, one of the things that I do when I’m not pushing myself the way I need to push myself as a writer.  Harumph).  There are just — pardon me, but Anne Lamott’s phrase is too perfect not to borrow — shitty first drafts.  And shitty second and third and fourth drafts.  There are hours of staring at a screen, putting a line in one place and then moving it and then deleting it completely, only to put it exactly where it was the next day.

See?  Frustrating.  Like, beyond.

And that’s the state I was in a while ago, when I realized that I had no idea where Alice B. Toklas was (the feline Alice B. Toklas, of course; it’s pretty clear where the actual Alice B. Toklas is, or was).  This is generally bad news because it could mean that she’s eaten a couch or gotten arrested for spying on my neighbors.  I started walking around the house very slowly and saying Alice very softly, both because I didn’t want to scare her and

This is the ball and the corner in question.  I'm posting a photograph of it mostly to remind myself, in the future, of what kind of ball Alice B. Toklas likes for when Alice B. Toklas eats it or gives it to the cicadas or something and I have to buy more of them.

This is the ball and the corner in question. I’m posting a photograph of it mostly to remind myself, in the future, of what kind of ball Alice B. Toklas likes for when Alice B. Toklas eats it or gives it to the cicadas or something and I have to buy more of them.

because a disappeared cat is a generally terrifying situation.  When I found her, she was in the corner of my bathroom, trying to wedge her let’s-call-it-big-boned-and-just-very-furry body between the toilet and the bathtub.  At first I thought this was just another thing that Alice B. Toklas likes to do, like licking the windows or hiding under things by only putting her head under them and closing her eyes.  Then I started hearing a bell, and I realized that there was a reason for her hiding behind the toilet, besides, you know, hiding behind the toilet: she was trying to get her ball out of the corner, and with the kind of complete and total focus my cats usually only give their food bowls or my feet when they want to bite them.  I decided to help her out and picked up the ball and threw it, expecting her to jump joyfully after it.  Instead, she just looked up at me in great confusion — or, at least, more confusion than usual, which I admit is quite a bit of confusion.  I said what and she just sat there, staring with great confusion until, finally, she walked off in defeat to chew on a sofa or something.

That’s when I realized that it wasn’t the ball itself that Alice B. Toklas wanted; it was the challenge of getting to the ball.  She enjoyed the struggle, the fight.  She loved the work itself — and then the bell went off in my mind.  I realized that’s what I needed to do, too — to let myself relax, to allow myself the shitty first, second, third, fourth, and nth drafts, and to just enjoy playing with language, finding new ways into words.  I may get the ball.  I may not.  In the end, really, I think it’s not about the product but the process — not the solution, but the struggle — and learning to be happy with both.

* That is, the feline Alice B. Toklas, of course.  Everything I learned from the human Alice B. Toklas is only legal in Amsterdam, Washington, and Colorado.

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Are There Things That Are Important Beyond All This Fiddle? Or NaPoWriMo and You

People, here’s the thing: it’s April.  That means it’s National Poetry Month.  That means it’s National Poetry Writing Month.  That means I’m writing a poem a day.  That means I’m participating in a poem-a-day writing challenge.

NaPoWriMo FTW!

NaPoWriMo FTW!

And that means I’m writing a poem a day along with my fellow writers on campus.

Publicly.

As in, where everyone can see.

Yes, those were the sounds of panic you just heard.

Here’s the thing: sometimes, you hear people say that those who can’t do, teach.  Here’s the other thing: that’s totally wrong.  I mean, sure, maybe some people who can’t do teach, but I think there’s a qualifier there: they may teach, but they probably don’t teach well.  And I’m not saying that as a teacher, really — I’m saying that as a student.  I’m saying that as someone who learns, which I will, God willing, always be, teaching or no teaching.

Here, I guess, is the thing I really mean: I learned how to teach from those who taught me, and I praise everything out there that those who taught me taught very, very well.  They taught very, very well because, well, they did.  And they weren’t afraid to let me watch them doing.  My writing teachers wrote with us: if they gave us an exercise in class, their pens were always moving, and they read their drafts when we read our drafts, no matter how terrible or wonderful any of our drafts were.  They read poems and puzzled through poems and thought through problems and they did it all out loud, in front of me.  And from their thinking, I learned how to think.  From their writing, I learned how to write.  And I learned, about writing, about everything, the most important thing: keep doing.  Do and do and do.  Yoda was right: there is no try, there is only do — because trying is its own form of doing.

If there’s one thing I have learned as a teacher, though, it’s that that?  That’s not easy.  Writing along with my students means that I could write something that’s terrible, and reading along with them means letting them know I wrote something terrible, right then and there, before their very eyes.  Sometimes, it’s easier to hide behind the screen, like Oz trapped in a cinderblock room.  Sometimes, it’s easier to pretend like I’m the expert, the all-knowing, and they should listen to me just because I’m in the front of the room.

Easier doesn’t mean better when it comes to most things, teaching included.  When I first started teaching, I was so terrified of doing and failing that I came into class every day with a full script, sometimes one that I’d rehearsed in the bathroom mirror beforehand.  I even wrote out jokes, which, of course, failed, as the classes themselves tended to fail.  I told myself that perhaps my humor was just too awesome for my students to get, but eventually, I had to realize that they just weren’t funny.  They weren’t spontaneous.  They were fake, and rehearsed, as was everything that happened on my end of the classroom — I wasn’t doing anything except reading lines, and when unexpected things (like, say, questions) came from the other

This is how I know my writing's going well.

This is how I know my writing’s going well.

side of the room, I hadn’t rehearsed a response.  I didn’t know what to do.

All right, I’ll say it: my classes sucked.

And I wasn’t the only one who thought so.  Within three weeks of my first semester teaching, my name popped up on The Website That Shall Not Be Named, and there was a nauseously green frowny face next to it.  One student wrote that she would rather jump out of a building than be in the same room with me.  I drove to the gas station up the street, bought a bottle of cheap red wine, and sat on my couch and cried.

Looking back, that comment still has its sting, but most of the sting comes from the fact that I don’t blame her.  I wouldn’t want to be in a room with me either, especially a classroom.  Not long after that, I realized that I couldn’t keep up being a robot in class, even if being a robot was far more comfortable.  I realized that in order to teach, I had to do.  I had to show my students how I think, how I work, how I write.  I had to get comfortable with acting out that process instead of some lame script, and I had to get comfortable with the fact that sometimes, I would falter.  I’d be wrong.  I’d fail.  And I’d recover.  I had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable — because what else would I ever want to teach?

Now, I’ve reached the final frontier of discomfort: writing a poem every day and posting it for my students and colleagues — and, well, the Interwebs — to see.  Sometimes, I will falter.  The poems will go wrong.  They’ll fail.  I’ll recover.  And in doing, I’ll do the most important thing: I’ll learn myself and let the language teach me, which is, after all, all I could ever want to teach.

Are We Après The Avant?*

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately — like, a lot — like, an AWP-followed-by-Spring-Break a lot.  A lot of what I’ve been reading circles around one of my continual curiosities: the avant-garde, and what we consider to be the avant-garde.  This week, I delved into page after page of avant-garde poetry and prose.  It was very exciting.  And then it was, well, a little boring.

I was shocked at my own boredom, but, at the same time, I couldn’t help it.  I also couldn’t help realizing that I was reading, well, the same thing.  Over and over again.  The same kind of poem, prancing across and down the page in the same kind of way, breaking its lines at the same kinds of places.**  The same kind of realist-turned-surrealist story, with the same kind of title (“And A Gathering Of Words Which When Gathered Together Sound Ominous And/Or Biblical”).  The same kind of essay, twisting through hybridity, moving from lyric to narrative to back within the same kind of fragmentation.****  Yes, the turns each author made within the form were very often electrifyingly brilliant — but I couldn’t help but think that they were that, exactly, turns within a form rather than complete formal innovation and experiment.  And I couldn’t help but think that the fact that each piece inhabited a similar form meant, de facto, that they weren’t avant-garde.

Perhaps the issue is that, at the same time, I have been reading authors who are very definitely doing their own thing, making their own forms, creating their own shapes for their own thoughts and working them out on the page, sometimes over the course of multiple texts.  I’m thinking of Anne Carson, who has a mind unlike any other mind at work today, and who makes that mind work on the page through a dizzying, unclassifiable, inimitable collision of form and genre.  I’m thinking of the piece she read at AWP, a collaboration with a California artist, in which she explored the idea of sleep through a searingly brilliant academic critique of the character of Albertine in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.  This piece s both a brilliantly constructed essay and an immaculately built poem — a true innovation in form which might be unique to Carson’s work, starting with “The Glass Essay” ******in her 1992 Glass, Irony, and God, a text which is itself a mind-blending blur of genre and form and forms of thought.  Perhaps the most striking quality of the Albertine piece, to me at least, is that her reading revealed something truly shocking: it’s funny.  Like, actually, legitimately funny.  As in the audience couldn’t help but laugh out loud from time to time.  I now wonder if this — combining poetry, legitimate scholarship, literary analysis, and humor — is what puts the avant in the garde of Carson’s work.

Of course, we can’t all be Anne Carson — which is precisely the point.  A mind like Carson’s, with its ability to shatter form both in terms of structure and of content in order to do something that’s really, truly new, comes along only once in a little while.  Emily Dickinson’s mind was another such mind, which is another point.  Though even elementary school students know Dickinson now, she published fewer than a dozen poems in her own lifetime — which is, I think, yet another point.  Good doesn’t necessarily mean publishedBrilliant means published even less, and truly innovative and new?  Rarely does that mean published.

Perhaps, then, there’s a reason why the avant-garde feels less like individual formal innovation and more like a group form.  Perhaps what we term as “avant-garde” isn’t necessarily the work of individuals quietly bulldozing and disposing of the boundaries on their own, but of groups of people who run the bulldozers together, for support.  I’ve been reading Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty this week.  Nelson herself, I think, is an interesting case — hers is a mind that blends and bends genre, but rarely inside the same text.  This is not to say that Nelson’s work isn’t absolutely brilliant, because it is — it’s just to say that her brilliance fits inside of forms that have become, well, forms.  I don’t mean this as a critique, in any way, because I think her work fits well there: her brilliant criticism is brilliant criticism, her brilliant lyric essays are brilliant lyric essays, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

It does, however, seem symptomatic of what Nelson describes in The Art of Cruelty, in which she explores the work of various performance artists.  After a while, all of their pieces began to blend together for me; they started to feel the same, as though each performance artist worked off of the form and content of other performance artists.  Though each of the performances Nelson describes is unmistakably avant-garde, they are also avant-garde in the same way.  These artists use the same forms to express their ideas.  They push the same boundaries, test the same limits, and in the same way.  This doesn’t make their work any less important or useful, but it does, I think, make their work part of a movement.

I guess what I’m arguing here — if I’m arguing anything, if there’s anything to be argued — is that what we typically think of as avant-garde or experimental writing is writing that is part of a movement.  It’s the work of a group who are facing the same limits in the same ways.  That’s not to denigrate this kind of writing at all, but to say that perhaps we need different definitions — and different ways to talk about the work of writers who are really, truly doing their own thing.  This isn’t to say that the former is better than the latter, or vice versa, but to say that there’s a difference, and it’s one of which we should be cognizant when we talk about experimental writing.

After all, I think there’s value in pushing one’s self as an artist, in testing limits and boundaries, no matter how that’s done.  The truth is that Emily Dickinson did only publish a handful of poems during her lifetime, and we have her work now through what seems to be essentially a series of accidents.  The truth is that there might be hundreds of Emily Dickinsons out there, whose work didn’t reach us through the same sort of happy accidents.  The truth is also that if there is a group of people working together to test boundaries, their work will be more likely to reach readers, as they will be more likely to publish each other.  And they may be more likely to continue their work: as a group, human beings love groups.  More and more it seems to me that we’re pack animals.  We need company.  We need the support of people who think the way that we do.  Every human institution — from kindergarten classes to University departments to corporations — splits, eventually, into groups of like-minded people who like to do the same things.  The literary world is no different.  And the existence of a group means freer communication, which means the development of ideas, and it’s difficult to argue that there’s anything wrong with that.

Still, I think of Anne Carson.  I think of Emily Dickinson.  I think of the writer and artist and thinker working, quietly, on their own, thinking and putting their thoughts on the page in ways which can be thrilling and terrifying all at once.  I think of the artist who eschews the group and walks out, alone, into what might be a field of flowers, what might be a minefield, and keeps going.  I can’t help but think that there must be a way to support this kind of writer, or, at least, to talk about their work more clearly, without classifying it out of existence.

Though, of course, that might be just the point: if we do classify it, if we do have names for it, then it no longer exists in the same mind-scorchingly brilliant way.

In that case, let the Carsons be Carsons.  We can, with them and through them, rejoice in their ability to let the unnameable go without name.

 

*That’s right, people.  I did that IN FRENCH.  Somewhere, Madame Lee is suddenly forgiving me for pronouncing English words in a French accent for years.
** I feel it’s only right for me to go ahead and say that I in no way excuse myself from this, as I’m as much a part of the sameness as anyone — I swoon over a couplet, I love a single-line stanza, I die for a transformational line break.  Mea culpa.  Mea maxima culpa.***
*** That was Latin, which is also another language.  THIS ENTRY IS HELLA DEEP, Y’ALL.
**** Here, too, I admit that I am complicit.  I hesitate to say guilty, because I don’t think that “guilt” is an applicable term.  “Prey to the zeitgeist,*****” maybe.  But then again, is “prey” the right term?  Or is this just the form thought is taking on the page, in the age of electronic information and publishing?
*****THAT WAS GERMAN.  BOOM.
******There’s a link right there to the poem, posted on The Poetry Foundation’s website, because if you haven’t read it, you need to.  Believe me.  Just fasten your seat-belt and get ready.