Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Write About A Real Boy (The Poetry of Experience, Part Two)

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, can’t remember which, I and the other students were asked to write a short story.

I’d been writing short stories since about third grade. I can’t remember what story I actually turned in for this (let’s say) sixth grade assignment, but I began around then to write longer stores than I ever had before. At the time I was a frequent reader of Poe on my own, but had not yet read Lovecraft.

One story I wrote about the time of the assignment, but did not turn in, concerned a murderer in the hills of New England. Soon after the murder (which may have been at least partly provoked), the murderer passes out in the snow-heavy hills, wounded and losing blood, apparently on the verge of dying. When he wakes up, he finds he has been revived and captured by a strange group of people who always wear the hoods of monks over the faces, so he can’t see them.

After spending some weeks imprisoned by them, he realizes that these people aren’t human but alien, although he hasn’t seen them yet. Then he realizes, after several encounters with a strange odor that both repels and excites him, that they intend to mate him with one of their kind. Their goal: they cannot proceed in their desire for world domination until they have absorbed the human capacity for evil, which he, as an apparently unremorseful murderer, seems to represent for them.

At the end of the story, this main character, conflicted between the desire to commit suicide in order to save human beings and the overwhelming urge to mate with the alien creature, finally gives in to his sexual desires after recognizing that in fact he doesn’t really care to do good for other people and never has. Besides, he has no wish to save a species from whom someone like himself could have been created. He himself is the proof, that is, that there’s no particular reason to save the human race or to feel that doing so would be morally right. So he goes ahead and mates with the alien and unleashes destruction upon the human world.

Have all the fun examining the social and psychological underpinnings of the sixth grader writing such a story that you want, as I myself certainly have. But that’s not the point here.

The point has to do with the fact that I spent a lot of time discussing story writing with a friend in my neighborhood, a boy I’ve long since lost track of and probably can’t even name right. We had a lot of crazy ideas for stories.

After he wrote his own fantasy story, however, his parents told him that he couldn’t turn it in. Instead they took it from him and told him that he had to start over, and that this time he had to “write a story about a real boy.”

Hard to know what if anything he ever wrote after that. I’m the one who kept writing.

One of his parents was an English teacher. I’m sure they were giving him what they thought was very sophisticated literary advice. And what a great side effect that it must have corralled a little bit of his uncorralled imagination.

Sometimes, when I think about all this, I realize I was lucky to have parents who were not English teachers and did not try to give me the latest writerly wisdom for sixth graders.

But who knows? Maybe being told to “write about a real boy” didn’t drain the life from my friend’s creativity by teaching him that writing literature was just another way to do what you’re told, to figure out how to be a successful, responsible, conformist adult. Maybe he wouldn’t have been all that interested in writing anyway.

When I look at many of the critics promoting a “poetry of experience” or “literary realism” or any similar attempt to straitjacket literary imagination and inventiveness according to some weakly defined, supposedly pragmatic standard, I wonder about that bit of literary advice that I remember so vividly from my childhood. It was a bit of advice perhaps meant kindly, and with the benefit of significant reading in normative literary conventions, and with the helpful learning strategy of showing an excessive, fanciful young man that creating literature is another way of learning to deal in an organized manner with the practical facts of day-to-day life.

How much of our contemporary critical discussion, by creators of literature as well as critics of it, really is just a more developed embodiment of that same bit of perhaps well-meaning high school English discipline? A world of English teachers wrapping writers on the knuckles for their own good and telling them to get with the program?

And is part of it really perhaps not so well meaning? Isn’t part of it lazy, pedantic, and illogical, though it claims otherwise? Doesn’t it contain just a bit of the desire to gain control over the imagination of others?

And is the advice to write about a real boy or girl one you would give your own children, if you have any?


Johannes said...

Right on, Mark.

Elisa Gabbert said...

That is amazing. I'm pretty sure all the stories I wrote for school at that age were unconsciously plagiarized.

mark wallace said...

I was a very conscious Poe borrower at that age, Elisa. Clearly one can see where I got my 12-year old aesthetic, but in fact I've always been interested in that story because the thematics of it don't seem either too Poe (or too Lovecraft, who I would start reading around that age).

Maxine said...

The Alien story sounds like the work of African-American science fiction writed Octavia Butler. She went on to write about 7 (I think) books in the series, and the humans did end up breeding with the aliens. The series (the 'Dawn series?') is a cult hit.

I remember, myself, writing a scene as an adolescent where the grandmother said to a grandchild 'mi gwan whip ye batty fe sure' (I'm going to whip you bottom, for sure), and the teacher taking ten marks off for 'mocking the English language'. It was Australia, in the late eighties and she didn't understand that was how Jamaican grandmothers spoke. Now my first novel comes out next year here in Australia, partly written in this kind of patios. Oh, how times change...and let's hope they keep changing.

Steve said...

...and Butler's earlier books (the Patternist series-- "Dawn" is part of the Xenogenesis series) have their beginnings, as she said in interviews, in work she completed in her teens...

Art Durkee said...

I think like any well-meant and sometimes-useful advice, it goes bad when it turns into a dictum, or an absolute, or a Rule.

I do however think there is a bias towards writing what's "real" rather than what's "fantasy." That bias shows up all the time, in lit crit, as completely ignoring the fact that a lot of great writing goes on in the "genre fiction"—often quite a bit better writing than one finds in the "fine art literature" of the mainstream.

And "realistic fiction" is an oxymoron: Fiction is art: fiction is artifice. It's a lie that tells the truth. It's artificial. It's ALL made up. It ALL uses the imagination.

So this dictum can be interpreted as trying to control what channels one puts one's imagination into.

But kids love fantasy. Look at "Eragon." Look at the original "high fantasy" novel, The Lord of the Rings. Heck, look at Harry Potter.

So it's very much a double-edged sword of a dictum, that can cut the wielder, too.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

Octavia Butler is awesome!

Mark, this post (and all the conversations we've had in and around it) makes me realize that no one, at any point in time, has ever taken away something creative I made and told me that it was not appropriate and to re-do it. In 6th grade, my class did a sort of home made magazine of stories: mine was about two girls and some drug dealers. Eventually, one of the girls and one of the drug dealers are killed, but they both return as ghosts, and the very convoluted story continues. My teacher and family expressed concern that the story was violent and weird, but didn't take away my contribution. I remember explaining to them how hard I'd worked on making the language describing the drugs and the ghosts realistic.

Doug said...

Hi Mark

I don't know about this - experience conveys authority, if we can't convey authority through experience then how can it be done?

Don Zirilli said...

In case you're interested, here's the article about The New Thing (aka, write about a real thing).

Now Culture publishes old things, new things and other things.

Let me know if I'm just making a straw man out of a molehill.

Michael Theune said...

I love that story, Mark--when will the movie come out? Will M. Night direct?

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these further comments, everyone.

Maxine, what your story suggests to me is important: it shows how much realism is defined differently in particular places and times depending on the ideologies of those approaching it. The history of realism is as full of the ideology of its time and place as any other literary approach, and no amount of insistence on pragmatism will change that--clearly, people reading at a later time the pragmatic realism of this moment will remark on its ideological limitations.

I do know--and have taught--Octavia Butler's work, but I haven't read all of it, so thanks to you and to Steve (welcome, Steve) for the suggestions.

Don, I have indeed read Steve's essay, and I certainly like many of the writers he is also interested in--some of them, like Graham, are long-time friends. I suppose I could do a fuller short reading of his essay at a later time. But John Latta's response (you can find it linked at Johannes Gorannson's blog) is I think a pretty good one. Let me add though that the poetics described, one of anti-ornamental discretion and restraint, along with some "direct treatment of the thing," is very deeply American. In many ways it's not far from early Puritan poetics. I don't say that as purely negative, but I think it's an issue worth considering.

Doug, I'm assuming you mean "authority" in its good sense--that is, as a guide for others and not something that controls them. In that sense I think authority comes from wisdom, not from experience, and experience by no means automatically creates wisdom. Some people remain fools their whole lives, despite many experiences, and the man who has been married 20 times (and such men do exist) is not automatically therefore a wise authority on marriage.

Doug said...

ok, what I mean is experience conveys authority in comparison to conveying authority through ways which don't take experience into account, but may be in fact taking something else into account which is neither wisdom nor experience

i think your hypothetical guy could be an authority on how to get married, but definitely not one on how to stay married. In my experience wisdom and experience often run together, more often than not, at least the person is more likely to have wisdom in regards to what they're experienced with

mongibeddu said...

"authority comes from wisdom, not from experience, and experience by no means automatically creates wisdom"

Of course, it all depends on your definition of "experience." There are several books that work through the permutations and their philosophical histories, but it all basically comes down to (a) experience as what happens or (b) experience as what we learn from what happens. "Have you had a sexual experience?" vs. "Are you an experienced lover?" Immediacy-process-event vs. Reflection-product-knowledge. Data vs. interpretation.

Though some would say that the data is authoritative and interpretation suspect.

The word is really a kind of Rorschach test. Enjoying your response to it!

Ben F.

mark wallace said...

Hi Ben:

That's interesting. I've never heard of someone defining "experience" as what we learn from what happens--although I see what you and Doug both mean that to call someone "experienced" is to suggest that they know a great deal.

I'm absolutely inclined to the view that all interpretation is suspect (although some interpretation is more suspect than others). Not sure I know how data itself could be authoritative, since I don't think of data as being outside interpretation. The relationship between "event" and "interpretation of event" is very tricky, that's for sure.

mongibeddu said...

Regarding "data," I was thinking in part of this passage from Emerson's lecture "The Transcendentalist":

"As thinkers, mankind have ever divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness; the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final, and say, the senses give us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell."

The authority of experience derives here from the authority of sense data. Which is Dilthey's position, more or less, opposed by Benjamin (who I associate with the wisdom-soaked definition; see e.g. "The Storyteller").

I've written about this, actually, with regard to Creeley. I can send you the essay if you're interested.


John Gallaher said...

"Doesn’t it contain just a bit of the desire to gain control over the imagination of others?"

Well of course. I think that's the goal, isn't it (especially in Hoagland)? I mean, the not subtle at all goal?

brian (baj) salchert said...

I came here to write about having Poe's works to read, but "event" and "interpretation of event" stopped me.

Childhood story:
One day as I was climbing higher into a box elder I came upon two branches. The lower one was green, and the one about a foot above it was grayish and thicker. I looked at them. I deliberated. I chose the higher one. Now, where I was put me 15 to 20 feet above a pile of smashed concrete and glass mixed with twisted metal.
The branch I chose snapped, causing my body to flip backwards. I was heading head down toward the nastiness below, but under my bent knees the green branch gently sprung, and held me.

You won't believe the
word verification:
heldisav (held i sav(e))

mark wallace said...

Ben, I'd certainly like to read your essay on Creeley, and I just e-mailed you.

I see what you mean now by some people speaking of the authority of data.

Re wisdom though, I think we're still talking past each other a bit.

Dilthey's position, as you put it, is similar to that of Sherlock Holmes, which is that one should never theorize in advance of having the (objective) facts.

But even if I were to grant that, which I don't, quite, since Holmes' point is itself a theory, the point with Holmes is that while he sees the data that is there, and the data is literally there, other people don't see it, which is why they need Holmes.

In other words, even if we take data as authority, nothing in that theory suggests that every person will know how to recognize the data. The wise individual is defined in this case as one who has learned to objectively process the data. His wisdom comes from recognizing the data; the foolishness of others comes from not being able to recognize it. So wisdom still comes from something that the individual has to do, and the "experienced" individual is the one who can process data objectively. Wisdom still counts here, and it's found in the person, although there's a specific kind of relationship between wisdom and data.

John, I have no doubt that Tony's goal, or at least part of it, is perhaps something like that. I don't know whether he himself would see it that way though, which is more of the problem I was raising. Were the parents (who I knew) of my friend consciously trying to corral his imagination, or did they with good intentions believe they were trying to help him? Who knows? The same could be asked of Tony: isn't it likely that to his mind he's trying to help other writers see the light and the error of their ways? I can't say, but I would think that has to be part of it, unless the man is just pure control-freak vindictiveness.

The problem is that the desire to control so easily gets covered up by, and confused with, the desire to help.

Brian, thanks for that story. Glad you came out of it okay. My climbing story from childhood didn't have so great an outcome: I slipped on a fence and tore my arm open from the elbow nearly to the wrist. I was eight. I wrote a story once about that too.

John Gallaher said...


I can imagine it could be phrased this way: those people are doing it all wrong and wasting their time and ours. They need to do it THIS way. I agree that it's probably very "help them to see the light" oriented. And I'm sure it's not vindictive . . . but it's not the way innovation happens.

And the "real boy" advice is good advice. Kids, don't waste your time out there making things up. That's not mature. It's painful to watch. Please stop, and write these little things that really happen, and write about them in ways we've read before so that we can be assured you are competent. Because competency comes first.

And, of course, it doesn't really work that way, but in the general way advice works, and reviews work, people pretend so. Innocently, I believe.

mongibeddu said...


What you write makes me realize that "wisdom" is a word I use without really knowing what the hell I'm saying, and generally I use it only because I find it in my reading--in reading I care about--and because I tend to work with the words I'm given. It's like those disposable gloves dispensed like Kleenex in hospital rooms, that you use when you're going to touch something intimate, to avoid infection. When you're done touching, you throw the gloves away. Except that wisdom doesn't offer any protection; it's a placebo. If gloves can be placebos.

Dilthey is incredibly complex and I can't say I have a firm grasp of his philosophy, but...I'm with you. It's all in the processing.


brian (baj) salchert said...

"It's all in the processing."

Yes sir ree, Billy Jimbo. And, alas, too often my processing was downright lowzy.

It isn't that something can't be seen well enough to be interpreted usefully; it's that emotions, distractions, the persuasivenesses of others and/or of whatever can cloud clarity. Yet, sometimes, even in frightening circumstances, one chooses wisely.

Art Durkee said...

It seems to me that this discussion is related to an ongoing one I've seen elsewhere, with regard to fiction. Here's a link, if anyone is interested:

mark wallace said...

Thanks for that link, Art. I'm aware of James Woods and his work, and certainly you're right that he's relevant to this discussion, although as I'm sure you know, I don't agree with much that he has to say.

I've been meaning to get back to you about one of your earlier comments, so watch out for that.

Art Durkee said...

No worries.

I'm very ambivalent about Woods myself. I know some critics who fawn at his every word. But he is very clearly biased in some important ways. Esposito gets at all that rather well, I think.

jh said...

i recently read that in the tradition in persian story telling a tale generally begins with something like - this person/not this person or in this time/no time that we know of

so idea of enchantment is stated right at the beginning

the best stories that i know of are "elegant lies" a la Poe
but invariably they point to something important

what an amazing memory from childhood
i'm not sure if i had figured out the whole mating thing yet in 6th grade

my first story had to do with a rodeo experience where a horse was killed because of a broken leg
it was a real life experience but i embellished the hell out it to the point where i remember the teacher being a little worried about my imagination...that was
4th grade

i peruse over here once in awhile
always of interest