Democracy? Sweet!

As migraines decrease, knotted muscles relax, restless nights shift into deep, relaxed sleep, and the voices of anxiety soften in our minds, the first month of the Biden administration cruises along—calm, adult, competent. Not that our country is fully out of danger. The pandemic still rages, though the delivery of vaccines is finally ramping up. The insurrectionists are only beginning to be rounded up, but prosecutions will inevitably follow. The disgraced former resident of the White House remains unrepentant, but a world of legal troubles awaits him, even if he escapes conviction for his second impeachment.

Much work of course remains undone, but social and racial inequity relief is being embedded into government programs, and the pandemic rescue bill is going big. So perhaps it’s time to stop holding our cautious breaths and celebrate a little.

A good way to begin would be to listen to Democracy! Suite, a new work composed by Wynton Marsalis for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet. Written to provide “the healing insights of Jazz,” the eight songs of this suite exude optimism and joy. In many ways it’s a celebration, a testimony to the human spirit that—despite unacceptable losses and a torn national fabric—has survived one of our country’s hardest of hard years. I listen to this album every day, and sometimes all day long. It makes me want to sing, to dance, to shed invisible demons.

There’s a performance video available for many of the songs in this suite, each one well worth watching. The band plays before an enormous window overlooking Columbus Circle, Central Park, and the broad busy street of Central Park South in New York City. They begin the suite in the light of day, and by the end of the song cycle they’re performing in a rich dark night adorned with the city’s glitter. Here is the band, led by trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, playing “Be Present,” dedicated to the frontline workers in the pandemic.

The entire album is a magnificent gem, one of the best alternatives to Doom Scrolling that I can think of.

Another effective antidote to obsessive internet anxiety that I’ve recently discovered is Leonard and Hungry Paul, the debut novel of Rónán Hession, a musican and social worker based in Dublin. This novel achieves something I’ve never quite encountered before in fiction, a sense of calm without for one moment inciting boredom.

Perhaps this is because author Hession displays such a broad acceptance of all his main characters. But the novel mainly concentrates on the story of two seemingly ordinary people, two adult men who have not yet found a way to expand their lives. Leonard, who lives alone, is a ghost writer for children’s science books, and Hungry Paul is a part-time mail carrier who lives with his parents. They are best friends, and understanding of each other’s foibles. The novel begins with them spending an evening playing a board game:

As they both played board games regularly, and switched between them often, it was not unusual for games to start slowly whenever they changed to something new. It was perfectly normal to have a warm-up period, like the way a polyglot who has just arrived at the airport needs to hear the local language spoken around him before he can regain his own fluency in speaking it. Before long, the game settled into a steady rhythm of clacking dice and turn-taking, interspersed with uninhibited rallies of conversation between the two friends, both of whom were free thinkers with a broad range of interests.

Both characters, in their quiet ways, are careful observers of the world around them. Here, Leonard has come along on a shopping expedition to help Hungry Paul buy a suit (his first ever) for his sister’s impending wedding.

“What colour do you want?” asked Leonard.
“Not navy, as that’s too much like my post office uniform. Not black, because I’ll look like someone in a ska band. Not brown, because I’d look like a teacher. So, maybe gray, dark grey even?” Hungry Paul had given this some thought.
“What about the pinstripe one?” suggested Leonard.
“Nah, pinstripe is for a work suit, not a social occasion. Besides, that’s chalk stripe, which is different.”
“I’m impressed,” said Leonard, “I sort of expected you to be hopeless at this, to be honest. How do you know so much about all this?”
“I think my mother thought the same. There isn’t much to know. Men don’t have huge variety in suits and I like to pay attention to what goes on, so after a while you notice who wears what, even if you’re not interested in wearing a suit yourself. Let’s try that dark gray one.”

The novel is filled with quirky observations that reminded me of the celebrations of the often overlooked and ordinary in Nicholson Baker’s first two books, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature. Hession’s novel has a further strength: a sustained, canny sweetness, because while Hession has the best interests of his characters in mind, the twists of the plot feel more than earned. By the last page the book felt less like a novel (though it is a wonderful, distinctive novel) and more like a friendship I had made.

Perfect for a post-Trumpocalypse world. It’s time to shake off the inner restraints of the past four years, which I grant will likely be a long process, and embrace some optimism. The first steps could be to read Leonard and Hungry Paul while listening to Democracy! Suite.

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February 11th, 2021 by admin

“That’s Why I Love Mankind”

As the New York Times has reported about the insurrection of January 6, the far-right Proud Boys, before they joined the fray, “stopped to kneel in the street and prayed in the name of Jesus.” And then, “they invoked the divine protection for what was to come.”

Christian symbols could be seen everywhere in the seditious mob because “the most extreme corners of support for Mr. Trump have become inextricable from some parts of white evangelical power in America.”

Over the years, I’ve noted—initially with amusement, now with real alarm— that many of his supporters refer to him as their “God Emperor.”

And yet, “The people Trump despises most love him the most,” according to Howard Stern. Trump would not want them in his hotels or golf properties. “He’d be disgusted by them,” Stern said.

Stern’s words have been echoed by Olivia Troye, who was once a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. She has revealed that, during one meeting, Trump said the pandemic had at least one benefit: now he had an excuse to physically distance himself from his followers: “I don’t have to shake hands with these disgusting people.”

No surprise, then, that last week while Trump gleefully watched on television the destruction being wreaked in the Capitol Building, the only downside, in his opinion, was that so many of his followers looked “low class.”

All of which reminds me of one of Randy Newman’s most cynical, excoriating compositions, “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind).” It’s the final song (what could possibly follow it?) from his third album, 1972’s Sail Away.

Newman begins the song’s lament with his barrel-house piano slowed to a painful, piquant blues, as the Biblical figure of Seth asks God why humans must die, and receives this divine reply:

“Man means nothing, he means less to me
than the lowliest cactus flower
on the humblest yucca tree
he chases round this desert
cause he thinks that’s where I’ll be
that’s why I love mankind.

“I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
from the squalor, and the filth, and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That’s why I love mankind.”

By the end of the song, as the world begins to spiral out of control from several crises, religious leaders band together on “satellite TV” to beg God for help. This section of the lyrics, written in the 1970s, seems uncannily prescient about today’s ills. They could easily refer to the unchecked Covid pandemic, the rising seas of global warming, the burning cities of protest and counter-protest in America this summer, and children being forcibly separated from their parents at the US-Mexican border, all glaring examples of Trump’s current incompetence, inaction, malevolence or failure:

The religious leaders plead:

“Lord the plague is on the world
Lord no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Are tumbling to the sea
Lord, if you won’t take care of us
Won’t you please, please let us be?”

And the Lord said

“I burn down your cities—how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say, How blessed are we
You must all be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me
That’s why I love mankind”

Now when I listen to these last lines that Newman attributes to God, I see in my mind the image of Trump standing before the White House in that video he released in the middle of the attack on the Capitol, saying to those “low class” fervent supporters, “We love you, you’re very special.” How they must have basked in his false affection.

The blindness that God relentlessly, even gleefully celebrates in Newman’s song is clearly echoed today by Trump’s followers. No matter what Trump does, no matter what principles he shatters that they previously espoused, no matter what lies they willingly believe, no matter what contempt he shows for them, they blindly follow. Because, with all their grievances, real and imagined, with all their inner wounds, they really need him.

Even though their “God Emperor” won’t take care of us, and he won’t let us be.

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January 12th, 2021 by admin

In Praise of Darkness

Language matters, especially language we use without truly thinking about the implications, even the invisible hurt, of our word choices. This is far from an original observation, but these past months of our country’s election saga have reminded me of a particular misuse of the word “dark.”

After five days of vote counting, when Joe Biden was finally declared the winner of the 2020 election on November 7, many commentators across the media platforms of CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times and elsewhere said or wrote that light had finally broken through the darkness of recent years.

This week Joe Biden gave a speech saying that the insurrection at the Capitol building was a “dark day for America.”

Yesterday, I received a mass email of thanks that Senator-Elect Raphael Warnock sent to his supporters, in which he (of all people!) said, “It’s dark in this country right now.”

I respectfully disagree. January 6, a day that will live in infamy, was not a dark day—instead, it was a blindingly white day, a day of white supremacist ignorance, arrogance, and violence.

However, the day before, January 5, was indeed a dark day: a day of nurturing darkness, when the off-the-charts voting of people of color in Georgia—spurred by the herculean organizational efforts of Stacey Abrams—proved the decisive factor in returning control of the Senate to the Democrats (as they had also been in delivering Georgia’s sixteen electoral votes to Joe Biden in November).

I think it is well past the time to use the word “dark” as a stand-in metaphor for all that is threatening, disturbing and evil.

For over thirty years, I used a short excerpt from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon to illustrate to my Introduction to Fiction students how seemingly simple words are actually charged with meaning, if only you look closely enough:

“And talking about dark! You think dark is just one color, but it ain’t. There’re five or six kinds of black. Some silky, some woolly. Some just empty. Some like fingers. And it don’t stay still, it moves and changes from one kind of black to another. Saying something is pitch black is like saying something is green. What kind of green? Green like my bottles? Green like a grasshopper? Green like a cucumber, lettuce, or green like the sky is just before it breaks loose to storm? Well, night black is the same way. May as well be a rainbow.”

I was reminded of this passage recently as I read Jennifer Ackerman’s Birds by the Shore, where she describes (in detail that is clearly the result of years of observant experience) her evening wanderings along a cove near her home in Delaware:

The darkness of the marsh is not the close darkness of woods, where blackness pours up from between the trees, but a thin, liquid, open, far-reaching darkness that descends onto the grass.

Other cultures have their own take on what “dark” connotes. In one of my favorite books, In Praise of Shadows, Junichiro Tanizaki discusses how darkness—shadows—came to be valued in Japanese architecture:

The fact that we do not use glass, concrete, and bricks, for instance, made a low roof necessary to keep off the driving wind and rain. A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us, too, than a dark room. The quality that we all call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover the beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.

My home office has three lights: a ceiling light; a lamp set on the corner of a small, glass-door book cabinet beside my desk; and a floor lamp, which has three settings, standing beside my reading chair. Throughout the day and evening, I turn the various lights on and off: sometimes for maximum brightness, but other times to create a particular mood of light and shadow. I often keep the lamp by my reading chair at the medium setting at night, with all other lights off: I enjoy the soft penumbra of light above me and the chair, while the rest of the room is cast in a comforting darkness. In writing this, I realize that in other rooms of the house, and without really thinking about it, I do much the same, guiding “shadows towards beauty’s ends.”

The complexities of darkness in the physical world, however, are nothing compared to those in one’s interior world:

and in the underworld of sleep
you can visit
all the shadows
of your different selves

–Miriam Sagan

Exhausted from the events of the day, we seek out the dark as we settle into bed and sleep. In that darkness our dream-life awakes, when deeper truths about who we are reveal themselves. Our imaginations exercise in the dark. And when day arrives we reap the benefits, if we choose to listen.

Every day we welcome the dark. The night gives us most of the parties we’ve ever been to, most of the concerts we’ve ever attended, and no movie or play can begin in a theater unless the lights are dimmed.

Using “dark” as a stand-in for anything negative perpetuates yet another insinuating connotation that people of color have to live with. It’s a linguistic monument waiting to be pulled down. Think of this past, tumultuous week. “Dark” people—people of color—were the driving force in helping perpetuate our democracy, while violent white people tried to stage a coup in the Capitol building. This contrast reminds me of a moment in Red Dust, a novel by the Cuban science-fiction writer Yoss. The narrator, a well-meaning, law-enforcement robot who tries his best to understand the ways of humans, watches his ally, Vasily, engage in a battle of forcefields with a dangerous criminal named Makrow:

It looked to me like Vasily’s field was navy blue, almost black, while Makrow’s was pinkish white—which for some reason I found almost shocking. Wasn’t the purest color supposed to be for the good guy? It’s hard to put any credit in archetypes after a surprise like that.

*

Poem by Miriam Sagan can be found here.

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January 9th, 2021 by admin

Disaster Overtook Them All

In those especially frightening early days of the Covid pandemic, my wife Alma and I had just begun a two-week quarantine in our Rhode Island home, following our last-minute, middle-of-the-night escape from Europe in mid-March. While the economy crashed, we sewed our own masks out of old t-shirts and made our own hand wipes, we scrubbed down any available surface and we fought the almost unconscious desire to touch our faces. Meanwhile, on TV, frontline health workers on the verge of collapse described their intolerably long days fighting to protect their patients from a disease that at the time no one really understood.

New England then was one large raging pandemic hotspot. Home became a kind of cave, the walls lined with worry for loved ones, for strangers. Our son and his wife and their two children hunkered down together in New Mexico, school cancelled. Though we urged our daughter to leave New York City, she, and her partner, decided to stay in the city they have long loved, no matter how much Covid had wounded it.

Once our quarantine ended, we rolled the dice on any outside activity, including what store hours might be the least dangerous for buying food. With too many unknowns out in the air, mostly we stayed put, lucky that we were economically able to, while others died because they had to risk their lives to continue their essential jobs. Nursing homes transformed into morgues, hospitals filled with the infected, our government’s incompetence morphed into greater incompetence, and the number of dead rose and rose. No one could predict where this disaster was heading. We still can’t, can we?

From time to time, all the terrifying unknowns got my legs working, and for hours I’d weave a tight circular stroll through our small backyard, but no matter how many miles I clocked, there was no escaping what our world had become.

Not even when I attempted a different escape, by reading travel books.

As spring settled in, I perched myself in the sun room, where I often like to read and to write in my notebook. Three of the room’s four walls are almost entirely windows—I looked out into our neighborhood’s portion of the world, but I couldn’t leave. I hoped that the perfect pandemic respite might be A Time of Gifts, the first volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s celebrated account of his nearly two-year hike across Europe from 1933 to 1935. Fermor’s then nineteen-year-old self began this grand adventure almost as a lark. Up until then, he had led a rather aimless life, getting kicked out of one school after another, not because he wasn’t a first-rate student (even at that young age he was something of a polymath), but because he was the sort of fellow who chaffed under rules and regulations. So, his almost offhanded inspiration to walk across Europe—from the Netherlands to Constantinople—made a kind of supreme sense: he would be on his own, could take any route he wished as he encountered the world in ways that left far behind the strictures of a classroom and the expectations of others.

He was so eager to leave his old life behind that he began the trek in December of 1933, the coldest possible month to begin such a journey. But Fermor was possessed of boundless pluck and charm and made friends everywhere, whether it be day laborers or famers or gypsies, or wealthy families who were willing to put him up for a week or so in exchange for his growing cache of travel stories, and his boundless curiosity about their lives.

After walking through the Netherlands, he crossed the border into a Germany already affected by Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor a mere year before. Hitler’s worst was far ahead, but already there were ominous inklings of that terrible future. His first day in Germany, Fermor came upon the unsettling transformation of the border town of Goch: “The town was hung with Socialist Nationalist flags and the window of an outfitter’s shop next door held a display of Party equipment: swastika arm-bands, daggers for the Hitler Youth, blouses for Hitler Maidens and brown shirts for grown-up S.S. men.”

Weeks later, having been offered a few days of hospitality by a middle-class German family, Fermor listened one evening to his hosts’ unsettled dinner conversation:

Hitler cropped up. The professor’s widow couldn’t bear him: such a mean face! And that voice! Both the others were against him too, and the whole Nazi movement: it was no solution to Germany’s problems; and wrong . . . the conversation slid into a trough of depression. (I divined that it was a theme of constant discussion and that they were all against it, but in different ways and for different reasons. It was a time when friendships and families were breaking up all over Germany.)

One night at a village inn, a Nazi sympathizer divined that Fermor was English and began an increasingly angry political rant until pulled away. In another town Fermor befriended a working-class drinking companion until he discovered the young man had decorated his rented room as “a shrine of Hitleriana.”

Finally Fermor crossed the border from Germany to Austria, but the night he arrived in Vienna he almost immediately encountered raging street battles. “‘It must be the Nazis again,’” a woman beside him announced. “‘They’re always shooting at people, throwing bombs, starting fires!’” Indeed, it proved to be the latest clash between anti-fascist labour unions and Austrian Nazi sympathizers.

Though Fermor had arrived penniless in the middle of this chaos, with his usual charming adaptability he raised money on the calmer streets by drawing strangers’ portraits for a modest fee.

At the end of A Time of Gifts, when Fermor crossed into Czechoslovakian territory and entered the Slavic cultural world, I felt a palpable sense of relief, glad to leave behind the disquieting influence of the Germanic countries. In 1934 Europe was just five years away from the onset of World War II, and it contained too many echoes of present-day America. For three years we’ve endured the imposition of a Muslim travel ban, White supremacist violence in Charlottesville and elsewhere, the caging of Central American immigrant children after separating them from their families, and an unparalleled governmental venality and disrespect for the rule of law nearly impossible to keep track of. Sometimes, the grim turn from the past to the future works in seeming slow motion.

If I was hoping for a little breather in Fermor’s second travel volume, Between the Woods and the Water—in which he continued his epic hike, through Hungary to the border of Bulgaria—I was quickly disappointed. Before I had read halfway through, the ruthless public murder of George Floyd set the US aflame with this latest injustice of a seemingly endless litany of injustices towards Black citizens and their bodies and souls. Once again, Fermor’s journey of almost ninety years ago had something to say about the turmoil of our country in this bedeviled year of 2020.

Although Fermor carried with him throughout his journey a set of notebooks, which he filled with the details of his adventures, he didn’t begin formally writing his travel trilogy until he reached his sixties. So the books’ narrative voice criss-crosses back and forth, from the immediacy of Fermor’s various encounters on the road so long ago, to the seasoned eye of a much older man who knows how the story ends:

Every part of Europe I had crossed so far was to be torn and shattered by the war; indeed, except for the last stage before the Turkish frontier, all the countries traversed by this journey were fought over a few years later by two mercilessly destructive powers; and when war broke out, all these friends vanished into sudden darkness. Afterwards the uprooting and destruction were on so tremendous a scale that it was sometimes years after the end of it all that the cloud became less dense and I could pick up a clue here and there and piece together what had happened in the interim. Nearly all of them had been dragged into the conflict in the teeth of their true feelings and disaster overtook them all.

Disaster could easily overtake our own country, even more than the crushing calamities we’ve already endured, as the current resident of the White House condones the violence of private militias attacking protestors, hosts rallies of unmasked crowds that then become virus super-spreader events, tries to hobble the United States Post Office in order to steal the coming election, and even refuses to say whether, if defeated, he will or will not accept the election’s result.

The future will soon be upon us, and not in slow motion. Voting, it seems, is our remaining, thin line of defense against disaster overtaking us all.

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September 26th, 2020 by admin

When the Future Becomes the Present

The photo looks like something you’d find in an old cardboard box, perhaps—the box hidden in a corner of an attic, or a closet, or a shelf in the shadows of a basement. The grainy yellowed photo captures twenty-two people—friends and relatives—gathered on a beach by the Adriatic Sea, the group caught for a second in the midst of eating and drinking, the children in high spirits. From the dress of the people in this grainy, yellowed photo, you might imagine this scene was captured around a hundred years ago, and you would be right. The date written in the right hand corner of this photo is July 25, 1914.

Three days later the young artist Béla Zombory-Moldován (he’s the fellow seated near the center of the photo, white-capped and suited, looking directly at the camera) decided to take a morning stroll along the shore, in order to walk off the after-effects of yet another summer party. He paused to take in “the mirror-flat water stretching to infinity. It was sleeping calmly now, though it was capable of such cruelty; even so, I loved it. I could never have enough of this beauty.” But soon after this moment a figure appears in the distance. Béla, watching him approach, has “no inkling that the course of my life would be decided in the next few minutes.”

What changed his life was the news that Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia, effectively initiating World War I. In a month Béla, newly conscripted into the army, will barely survive one of the war’s first battles, a virtual massacre when Russian artillery cut down over 100,00 Austro-Hungarian soldiers in Galicia (now a portion of Poland).

Béla eventually wrote a memoir of those days, yet never finished it, and only many years later did his grandson discover the manuscript and translate it into English as The Burning of the World. In his introduction, Peter Zombory-Moldovan writes:

Béla’s birthplace, on April 20, 1885, was the small and ancient city of Munkács, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. It lay in the east of what was then the Kingdom of Hungary, part of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy ruled by Franz Joseph I, the emperor of Austria and holy apostolic king of Hungary.

The Carpathians are still there. All the rest is gone.

I read Zombory-Moldovan’s memoir in 2015, in anticipation of a trip to Budapest. Those were days long before the botched response to the Coronavirus pandemic carved a hole out of our daily lives, before the deaths of 170,000 people (so far) in the U.S. alone, before we were caught in an economic collapse far worse than the Great Recession, and before the last-straw public murder of a black citizen, George Floyd, set off a nationwide protest against the structural racism of our society—a protest that insists there will be no going back to the way things were.

I think all of us now harbor a moment from this year when we realized, past the point of any denial, that the world had changed. Vassily Grossman, author of the novel Stalingrad, captures with uncommon and unsettling power a crucial moment in World War II, and the growing rift between the past and the future.

[A]clearly audible voice pronounced with awful certainty, “Comrades, Germany has attacked the Soviet Union. Everyone to the airstrip!”

Soon after this came a moment that lodged itself in Novikov’s memory with a particular sharpness and precision. As he hurried after the pilots dashing towards the airstrip, he stopped in the middle of the garden where only a few hours earlier he had gone for a stroll. There was a silence, during which it seemed that everything was unchanged: the earth, the grass, the benches, the wicker table under the trees, a card chessboard, dominoes still lying scattered about. In that silence, with a wall of foliage shielding him from the flames and smoke, Novikov felt a lacerating sense of historical change that was almost more than he could bear. It was a sense of hurtling movement, similar perhaps to what someone might experience if they could glimpse, if they could sense on their skin and with every cell of their being, the earth’s terrible hurtling through the infinity of the universe. This change was irrevocable, and although only a millimeter lay between Novikov’s present life and the shore of his previous life, there was no force that could cancel out this gap. The gap was growing, widening; it could already be measured in meters, in kilometers. The life and time that Novikov still sensed as his own were already being transformed into the past, into history, into something about which people would soon be saying, ‘Yes, that’s how people lived and thought before the war.’ And a nebulous future was swiftly becoming his present.

I think most people today reading Grossman’s words can hear, in the growth of that widening gap, our own recent experiences, that “only a millimeter” moment when it became clear the Covid-19 pandemic, once troubling news happening elsewhere, was now firmly lodged and expanding in our own lives.

In these smart phone camera-crazy days nearly all of us, I’m sure, has a “lost world” photo commemorating one of our last pre-Covid social events.

I have my own photo that rivals Zombory-Moldován’s. I snapped this photo in the Cervejaria Trindade, in Lisbon, on Friday, March 6 of this year, during the writing residency of the Vermont College International MFA in Creative Writing and Translation. There we all sat, students and faculty crowded together on a long table, and if you look closely, you can see further tables in another room, all packed. Behind us, a long line of people waited, and not so patiently, for a table to open up. No one wore a mask—in those days, who even had them? What pleasure we took in each other’s company, unaware of the abrupt changes later in the month, when we all returned home and could no longer trust even the simple air we breathed, which was possibly rife with virus droplets.

That March 6, back in the U.S., New York had only 44 confirmed cases. Five days later, on March 11, when the World Health Organization declared the spreading Covid-19 virus a “pandemic,” my wife Alma and I had left Lisbon and were preparing to give a joint reading in Brussels. Our “the world has changed” moment came when our daughter called us in the middle of the night, warning us of the immanent cancellation of flights from Europe to the U.S., leading us to a mad-cap rush to the Brussels airport in a 3 AM rainstorm.

When the course of an individual’s life is suddenly and decisively altered, how can one accept wholeheartedly any appearance of calm later in life, or shed the fear that behind the ordinary lurks chaos? People who have survived serious car crashes, debilitating illness, or the sudden loss of a loved one know the difficult path that follows, when perhaps never again is there any true relaxing.

What happens when millions share a sharp division from one world to another? Will we be able to give each other strength, or will we be held back by our collective wounds? The U.S. scorecard so far is less than promising. Even after something declared “normalcy” is eventually achieved, how will our individual and collective inner lives adapt, how will we birth ourselves into a future we can bear to live in?

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August 21st, 2020 by admin

Writing Is the Work of Discovery

Over the past year I’ve been reading, and rereading, a page or so at a time, one of the best books on the process of writing that I’ve ever encountered.

That book is Several short sentences about writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg. I recommend this book to every writer, budding or established.

What Klinkenborg gets so right is his attention, at the granular level of composition, to the interaction between thinking and writing, and the acts of discovery that arise for any writer who thinks deeply about his or her developing words on the page.

But first, a writer needs to let go of a certain amount of baggage:

The central fact of your education is this:
You’ve been taught to believe that what you discover by thinking,
By examining your own thoughts and perceptions,
Is unimportant and unauthorized.
As a result, you fear thinking,
And you don’t believe your thoughts are interesting,
Because you haven’t learned to be interested in them.

There’s another possibility:
You may be interested in your thoughts,
But they don’t have much to do with anything you’ve
ever been asked to write.

. . . What we’re working on precedes genre.
For our purposes, genre is meaningless.
It’s a method of shelving books and awarding prizes.

As you can see from the above examples, Klinkenborg often divides his sentences into what look like lines of poetry. He does this, I think, to emphasize the structure of his sentences, and therefore his thinking. It also allows readers to pause at their own pace, as they take in his insights.

This tactic also makes it easier, I’ve found, to dip into the book at any point, and immediately find something of value, such as this nugget:

Anything you think you need to write—
Or be “inspired” to write or “get in the mood” to write—
Becomes a prohibition when it’s lacking.
Learn to write anywhere, at any time, in any conditions,
With anything, starting from nowhere.
All you really need is your head, the one indispensible requirement.

This section especially spoke to me. It reminded me of one of the times when I struggled with my writing (just one of the times—at least this writer has grappled all my life with the task of shaping my words into a state of readability). In 1980, I lived in the small village of Kosangbé, in Ivory Coast, West Africa, where I had accompanied my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, on her first stint of research among the Beng people.

I, however, am not an anthropologist, I’m a writer. In the beginning of that year among the Beng, I was forced to adjust to certain living conditions in the village.

All Beng villages are structured this way: each family lives in a compound—four or-five small, mud-brick buildings that surround a central, open courtyard. Most of the living during the day takes place in this open courtyard.

Here’s a map of a Beng compound in the village of Asagbé, where Alma and I lived in 1993:

As you can see, this compound isn’t protected by a wall or fence or gate. There’s always ample space between the buildings of any Beng compound, so any person strolling from one end of a village to the other walks through various neighbors’ compounds—which is, essentially, akin to walking through a series of living rooms.

All of the above may explain why there is no word for privacy in the Beng language.

My initial reaction to the Beng’s very present social world, whenever I needed to write, was to remain in our two-room, mud-brick house and work at my desk. A Beng friend, Yacouba, quickly advised me not to do this, as it would raise great suspicions among our neighbors. Any person who tries to avoid others is distrusted, as they must be up to no good. The misuse of spiritual power—specifically, what would be called witchcraft by the West—is a great concern among the Beng people.

So, every morning, I hauled my small desk out of the house and into the compound, where everyone could see what I was doing.

This solution created its own problem.

Remember, the Beng have no word for privacy. There was no way to be invisible in the lively back-and-forth of the compound. Women pounded yams with large mortars and pestles, children ran about playing games or running errands, elders from other compounds dropped by to chat with anyone who might be interested, someone might arrive with juicy village gossip, and because the Beng are a ritually polite people, everyone arriving had to say Hello.

Saying hello is a complicated procedure in Beng culture. Alma and I spent much of our first months among the Beng simply learning how to say hello properly. Hello requires a call-and-response of several exchanges, and the wording changes depending on whether it’s morning, afternoon or night, or whether a man greets another man, or a woman greets a man, or . . . you get the idea. So many possible variations. The entire process takes at least a half-minute to go through, and I must have responded to a hundred or more greetings a day.

A lot of interruptions for a writer trying to breathe a little life into his inert prose.

I accepted my place in the compound and its conditions. After all, Alma and I were guests among the Beng. We tried our best to behave as a proper Beng person might.

But those interruptions. Sitting exposed in the compound, I could never snag more than a few minutes to myself. My typewriter sat before me as more of a metal lump than a machine I could tap at.

Yet during that year I managed to complete a few short stories, and numerous letters. So what happened?

Philip Graham writing in the village of Asagbé, 1985.

Eventually I learned to write in two-minute increments. Whenever a spare moment arrived, I offered myself to my imagination and dashed off a sentence or phrase in my notebook, or pounded out a sentence on the typewriter. All I needed, to paraphrase Klinkenborg, was my head—and the incentive to take advantage of every gift of quiet that came my way.

In so doing, I learned through trial and error what Klinkenborg advises so eloquently:

You have no idea what you’re going to say
Until you discover what you want to say
As you make the sentences that say it.
Every sentence is optional until it proves otherwise.
Writing is the work of discovery.

That hard-won ability to jump from one to sixty MPH turned out to be a great blessing once I returned home to the U.S. Since then I’ve carried a notebook with me everywhere. I am always scribbling away in one, knowing that much of what I write down will not necessarily be used, but will at least lead me, eventually, to something that can be.

Or, to quote Verlyn Klinkenborg once again:

How do you begin to write?
. . . You’re holding an audition.
Many sentences will try out.
One gets the part.

**

To learn how I eventually discovered a Beng solution to extend that two-minute window reserved for inspiration, you can read this excerpt from Parallel Worlds.

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January 5th, 2020 by admin

A Writer Speaks from the Grave

In recent years, my long-time admiration for the work of the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996) has steadily increased, perhaps even more so since her death in 2012. She is, in some ways, a Metaphysical poet like John Donne or George Herbert—through the intimate speaking voice that she adopts, the logic of her poetry unfolds with a special clarity, humanity, and a surprising wit, as she almost always thinks outside of the box on any subject.

One of my favorite Szymborska books, Nonrequired Reading, however, is not poetry but a collection of book reviews that are actually short essays. She wrote these essays as a newspaper column. I know that in the Portuguese-speaking world this is an established literary genre called cronicas. It’s a great way for writers to make a little extra income, and write about pretty much whatever in the world they feel like writing about—real artistic freedom, there, in the unlikely location of a newspaper column. José Saramago and Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portugal) and Clarisse Lispector (Brazil), to name a few, have written highly regarded columns, which were then published in book form. I wonder if Poland has its own, similar tradition, or if there are other examples across other European countries. Perhaps some blogs and podcasts can be regarded as the new versions of cronicas.

In any case, Szymborska’s “book reviews” are a marvel. The books she picked to review were as wide ranging as you can imagine, books on gladiators, caves, hugs, the childhood of animals, the Chinese alphabet, or the memoirs of Napoleon’s valet. In each case, she will begin with the book in question, and then quickly shift to elaborate on some odd and incisive thought the book has inspired in her. Her review of Wallpapering Your Home, for example, becomes a harrowing compendium of how daily domestic tasks and projects can pile up to devour one’s life.

I read two thirds of Nonrequired Reading over the course of about six years. The book always sat on my desk somewhere, and when I felt the urge, I’d pick it up and savor another short essay (the longest are three pages). The best kind of literary bonbon. Yet last month I felt the need to read that last third in one steady gulp. Something about the doldrums of the year, politically, as the fate of our nation seems to be held, at least temporarily, in suspension, made me want more of Szymborska’s curiosity and honesty. Her wit would be a plus, too, a balm, perhaps, for my worries.

Which is mostly what I received, until I came to her review of A Fantastic Zoology, by Jan Gondowicz. In this book, which expands on Jorge Luis Borges’ encyclopedia of imaginary beings, we get further examples of unusual creatures from fairy tales, travel accounts, and so forth. But Szymborska notes that the most common beast is not imaginary at all, and can be seen regularly on TV, and “sometimes this entity takes the shape of someone’s talking head and sometimes of a whole triumphant human figure in snapshots from current wars.”

She then gives a more detailed description, and remember that Syzmborska wrote the following in 1995, a mere three years after Poland threw off the yoke of Soviet domination. And, I might add, twenty-four years from the present day. As I read on, I felt the increasing horror of my familiarity with this particular kind of monster:

“Known since time immemorial. He doesn’t change; only the methods change that he employs in gaining his end. Moderately ominous when he acts in isolation, which, however, rarely occurs, as he is contagious. He spits. He spreads chaos in the conviction that he is creating order . . . He departs from the truth in the name of some higher order. He is devoid of wit, but God save us from his jokes. He is not curious about the world; in particular he does not wish to know those whom he has singled out as enemies, rightfully considering that this might weaken him. As a rule, he sees his brutal actions as being provoked by others. He doesn’t have doubts of his own and doesn’t want the doubts of others. He specializes, either individually or, preferably, en masse, in nationalism, anti-Semitism, fundamentalism, class warfare, generational conflict, and various personal phobias, to which he must give public expression. His skull contains a brain, but this doesn’t discourage him . . . .”

And with this paragraph, Szymborska’s voice from the grave pulled me out of my depression about the threat to our country today, and energized me in ways I haven’t felt in months. That’s the ultimate power of literature, isn’t it? The best writing doesn’t die, its power is always worthy of the present tense, and simply waits for the arrival of readers in the future. In my case, I knew this Polish poet had something to give me this summer, but I didn’t know quite what. When her gift arrived it surprised me and yet seemed inevitable.

Since then, I’ve renewed my political engagement. I’ve attended a lively town hall by Rhode Island Congressional Representative David Cicilline, continued to push for Senators Reed and Whitehouse to hold similar town halls for a broad range of their constituents, picked my Democratic candidate—Elizabeth Warren–and am now contributing to Stacy Abrams’ voter protection initiative, Fair Fight 2020. And there’s much more to do.

Last week, my wife Alma and I joined a march on a Rhode Island detention center, which is holding immigrants rounded up by ICE. The march and protest was organized by Never Again Action, a Jewish political youth organization dedicated to sounding the alarm about what our government is doing, and where it might lead if something isn’t done to counter it. The protest march drew over 400 people, people of all faiths and backgrounds.

We shouted and sang the usual stirring slogans, and when we arrived at the barbed-wired Wyatt Detention Center we listened to fiery speeches while people waved to us from the narrow windows of the prison.

Alma and I then left for home as it grew dark, and missed by fifteen minutes the awful spectacle of a detention center captain driving his truck into protesters. A few people were hospitalized, the incident made national news, that captain has resigned, and I’m sure more than a few lawsuits will be headed his way.

If this violence was meant to intimidate, it failed. We’re already planning on attending the next march against that detention center. As I mentioned, there’s much more to do.

So thank you, Wislawa Szymborska, for the ever-living power of your voice. Heard.

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August 21st, 2019 by admin

I Believe in Ghosts

I believe in ghosts, though not necessarily the kind that floats through the air. I believe in the ghosts that live in our minds: personal ghosts, historical ghosts, ghosts of all possible persuasions. I believe that every person’s life story contains within it a series of hauntings. Sometimes it can take years for us to realize how deeply we have been affected.

Here is one of my ghost stories.

My wife Alma and I have just settled into the train at Providence station; soon we’ll be setting off to visit our daughter in New York City. When the conductor arrives, Alma hands her our two folded tickets and then returns to checking email on her phone.

The conductor carefully, awkwardly separates the tickets while trying to scan their bar codes, and already I’m apologizing for not having first unfolded them for her. The conductor assures me it’s no problem, but I’m not quite convinced and regard her face for any barely concealed annoyance.

A few minutes later, finally underway, I half-worry that maybe we’re on the wrong train, not heading toward New York but instead barreling along in the opposite direction, to Boston, and that the conductor would have warned us about this, if only we’d properly unfolded our tickets for her. Should I say something? Of course not. We must be going the right way. Meanwhile, Alma continues checking her email.

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At moments like this, I envy my wife’s ability not to worry. She will walk into a store expecting straightforward transactions, while I’m always looking to appease. When shopping, I don’t like calling attention to myself. It’s a low-level feeling of dread that I’ve become so used to that I barely notice it, and yet nearly every day it guides my actions.

All this, because of a stranger who has quietly haunted me for 60 years.

It began in the narrow space of a soda fountain shop, where on one side ranged a long lunch counter with its circular stools for customers.

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On the other side stretched a wall filled with displays of magazines, newspapers, and comic books. I remember staring at all those comics. I was seven-years old, and beside me stood my four-year old brother, also entranced.

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One comic book especially attracted my brother, and he held it tightly in his hands. We had no money, but our mother was buying yarn in the sewing shop next door. She had parked us here in the front of the comic books, probably to give herself some peace.

“You wait here,” I told my brother. “I’ll get the money from Mom and be right back.” I should have known not to leave him alone.

I hurried to the sewing shop and wrangled from our mother the necessary dime, but when I turned to leave there stood my brother, comic book in hand. He had followed me, too young to understand you can’t leave a store without paying.

The soda fountain’s short order cook standing behind the counter watched us return, his broad face angry. He seemed huge, and I can still see his dark hair and thick arms, his white apron tight over a white t-shirt as he pointed a knife straight at us. To me, that knife looked as large as a machete.

He shouted, “Don’t you ever, ever do that again!”

Too furious to listen, our explanations and protests of innocence meant nothing to him. At least they didn’t until our mother finally arrived on the scene.

That short order cook has likely long since passed away, but still he lives in me. Although I almost never thought about him, he lurked within, hidden and yet able to spark my anxiety. Haunted without knowing that I was, perhaps my greatest secret source of disquiet wasn’t that I’d be falsely accused, but that my defense wouldn’t be heard or accepted, no matter what I said. When this feeling comes upon me, I might as well be lost in the recurring drama of a bad dream.

Sometimes I wonder if I have in turn haunted that short order cook. Did the shock and fear on the face of a boy ever appear to him at odd moments? In later years did he feel regret for his behavior? Or maybe there had been a raft of shoplifting and he was on the alert, and the memory shaped him into a hero, because hadn’t he caught two budding thieves in the act and taught them a lesson?

And what of the others sitting at the lunch counter? Did that incident ever haunt them, did they question their silence at the cook’s fury, ever regret the missed opportunity to confront a bully who frightened two children?

These speculations are the stuff of fiction, because I can’t know what went on in their minds, at that moment or after. I can only imagine.

Yet sometimes in our lives we do encounter a person that we have haunted.

We perhaps too often emphasize how we are haunted, by people whose names we’ve never known, or by people whose names we’ve forgotten, or by people whose names we’ll never forget. But we are all accomplished at the haunting of others. Every living person doubles as a kind of ghost, and not just merely one ghost, but multiple ghosts, because we live, disembodied, in the minds and memories of those we live with, or have lived with, or those we have merely met. The richness of the material world too often dazzles and deceives us. We are far more than our physical borders. We park our presence in others.

Here is another of my ghost stories.

Two years ago, during my last semester teaching at the University of Illinois before retiring, I received an email from a former student I could just barely remember. Her name was vaguely familiar, and my only remembrance, more a feeling than a certainty, was that she had been a good student. I’ll call her here Dana. She was taking her two young daughters on a road trip during their spring break, and would be in the Urbana-Champaign area for a day. Would it be possible to meet?

A week later we sat at a popular campus café, her two adolescent daughters politely incurious about their mother’s old professor. We went through some quick how-have-you-beens covering Dana’s past 25 years and mine. She had published a few essays during that time, she told me, but always wanted to write more. Then Dana took a manila folder from her large bag and opened it to reveal all the short stories she had written for my two classes, copies that included my hand-written comments.

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“I have a couple questions,” she said, paging through a story. She stopped and pointed to one of my comments in the margins, and asked, “Could you explain what you meant by this?”

I was almost afraid to look. What had I possibly written that could have caused her to keep these stories all these years? As I began reading the comment by my 39 year old self, strangely resurrected through my familiar awkward scribble, I remembered her writing, the incipient strength of it. Though a freshman at the time, she knew how to access the minds of her fictional characters’ interior lives. Their thoughts interested her as much as their actions, and that’s what I’d praised in my long-ago comment. She just needed to further explore this vast territory she had discovered.

Sitting there in the coffee shop, I told her this again.

“Did you mean it?” she asked.

Perhaps surprised by the surprise on my face, Dana explained that she’d taken a third creative writing class, with a colleague of mine who had discouraged her and caused her to doubt herself as a writer.

“I’ve always regretted not getting an MFA,” Dana said in a quiet voice that couldn’t quite disguise the emotion she held back.

Now I understood why we were meeting. For a quarter of a century, she had wondered who was right, had been haunted by the disparity between my praise and my former colleague’s discouragement. Whenever she sat down to write, two contradictory voices spoke to her. This meeting with one of her ghosts was an act of bravery on Dana’s part. She’d taken the risk of offering me an opportunity to break that tie within her, and give her permission to proceed.

I should say that Dana now haunts me, because in that last semester of my teaching I realized more than ever how easily a mentor could haunt a student. Our words matter more, perhaps, than we think, they sound louder and resonate more than we can imagine. How easy it is for our presence to haunt others and then to be haunted in turn by them. It’s almost second nature for our physical bodies to echo with ghosts of the past and present, ghosts vivid to us, or those we need to uncover.

I believe in ghosts. I believe that, in all their varied incarnations, they offer paths that might lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves, if only we can learn how to better see them, if only we can better locate our own ghostly presences alive in others.

***

“I Believe in Ghosts” was first presented on the panel “Hauntings in Nonfiction,” on November 1 (the Day of the Dead!), at the 2018 NonfictioNow conference in Phoenix, Arizona. My fellow panelists Kate McCahill, Michele Morano, Audrey Petty and Mimi Schwartz shared with the audience their own personal landscape of ghosts. You can find an Assay journal blog of the panel here.

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December 2nd, 2018 by admin

The Ambush

I was once ambushed by a right-wing radio host.

And it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my current politically active life.

I have been more engaged than ever before during this crazy time in our country’s history. Since December of 2016, along with my wife Alma Gottlieb, I have participated in more protests and rallies than I can count, including a march on Trump Tower and one at the White House, the two Women’s Marches so far, a march against gun violence, a march against family separation at the border, and more. I’ve attended protests against neo-Nazi violence and against the Republican tax bill; I’ve been to a ripsnorter of a town hall, and joined weekly demonstrations at the offices of my state’s congressional Representative and two Senators. I’ve given public speeches at demonstrations and on local TV, hosted Postcards to Voters parties, done phone bank canvassing and voter protection poll inspecting. I know all the liberal protest cheers by heart.

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All of this political activism can be tiring. But my occasional exhaustion also comes from a private place. My protesting has become so obsessive it threatens the worlds I try to create as a writer. It’s difficult to call up the imagined or remembered worlds of my fiction and nonfiction when this world seems on fire.

When I’m at a political gathering, I KNOW I’m right about the threat of Trump. I’m certain of that. But all my training as a writer, and the influence of everything I understand about the making of art, tells me that life is complicated, not simple, and that the best art can reveal the hidden complexity of oneself and others. Writers struggle to achieve what is rounded, we attempt to bend the straight line.

Sometimes, when I’m in a crowd of protesters and shouting with gusto, a part of me separates and tries to turn my self-righteous knob down to a reasonable level. So last March, when I was invited to do an interview—as a board member of Indivisible Rhode Island—at a radio station just across the border in Massachusetts, I was of two minds when I accepted. It would probably be a call-in show of like-minded individuals grousing together. The comfy prospect almost bored me.

When the day came and I arrived at the radio station, Tony, the program host, introduced himself and said, “Hello, Professor.”

“Hey, you can just call me Phil,” I replied.

“Anything you say, Professor.” Tony grinned. “You should know, by the way, that I’m a pretty conservative guy.” I wasn’t sure if he was joking, until we entered the studio, and the previous program’s host, clearing out, smiled at me and said, “Ah, the Bolshevik is here!”

This interview invitation, I realized, was really an ambush.

Well. What to do, now that I had entered the conservative information bubble? I certainly wasn’t going to back out. And to tell the truth, a part of me was guardedly pleased. How many times, after reading some crazy right-wing letter to the editor, had I fantasized about sitting that lost soul down at a coffee shop and challenging the logic of his arguments? I knew how to hold my own. Of course, in these imaginary scenarios, I always triumphed. But this interview would be no fantasy. Tony, and his radio studio, were real.

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As I settled in the guest’s chair and adjusted the microphone, I said, though not entirely convinced of my own bravado, “I’m looking forward to this. I never get a chance to talk to conservatives.”

Tony wasn’t sure how to reply, perhaps because, at least as far as he could see, his ambush hadn’t spooked me. He concentrated on adjusting knobs and dials, getting ready for the show. Then he pressed a button for his show’s intro music, a hard rock song that sounded vaguely familiar. What was it, and why, at this moment of all moments, should I even care? Then I finally placed the tune: it was performed by a group whose music my younger brother, a zillion years ago, used to play day and night.

“Isn’t that Grand Funk Railroad?” I asked Tony.

He paused, only able to nod at this second time in less than two minutes that I’d surprised him. I mentioned that this Grand Funk song reminded me a little of Novum, the latest album by Procol Harum (one of my favorite bands from the 1960s). I’d actually been listening to it during my drive to the radio station. And so, Tony’s right-wing political talk show began in the middle of our conversation about classic rock.

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Here I began to see the path I might be able to take in this interview, but Tony had already turned to politics. He handed me across the table a hefty stack of articles and charts he’d collected that he said proved climate change was a hoax.

He’d certainly come prepared! But I barely glanced at his reams of so-called evidence. Engaging with this stuff would only lead to a fruitless argument. “Look,” I said, moving it aside, “you’re never going to convince me that climate change doesn’t exist, and I’m never going to convince you it does. So for the moment, why don’t I concede your point and agree that all the scientific evidence is wrong, there is no climate change. Maybe it really is a hoax.”

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Poor Tony. He’d expected to rile me into a red-faced angry response. And if I’d caved in so easily, all that research he’d done had been a waste of time. But I wasn’t finished. “Even if climate change really is some left-wing conspiracy,” I continued, “that’s still no reason not to invest in solar and wind. They’re both getting less and less expensive, and if we don’t develop cheap and clean energy technology, China and Europe will. Do we want to sell the energy of the future to them, or are we going to buy it from them? It’s a matter of smart economics.”

Tony reluctantly—and I do mean reluctantly—agreed. Here, finally, beckoned that path I’d initially intuited: abandon my ideological corner and employ a form of rhetorical rope-a-dope: gently agree to disagree, look for some sliver of possible common ground, offer an alternative way to look at a hot topic, keep my sense of humor, be my ordinary self.

Slowly, I began to wear Tony down. During commercial breaks and pauses for pre-recorded news and weather reports, I took the opportunity in those down times to tell Tony about my life, my family, my volunteer work, quietly refusing to embody the stereotype of a dreaded liberal and encouraging him to see my human face. I asked about his family, his life. When he said that he worked as an accounts manager for a bread company, I mentioned that my daughter did similar work for a PR company in New York.

Still, Tony kept identifying me over the air as “PROFESSOR Philip Graham,” really leaning into that professor part, because he was trying to rile up his listeners, goading them to call in. “Professor,” I realized, was quite a dirty word with this crowd. And what a crowd. One caller peddled a George Soros-conspiracy, another quoted from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion! I seemed to be getting through to Tony, though, because he actually winced, embarrassed that I was being subjected to their ranting. In spite of himself, Tony had come around to see me more as a guest and less as a threat. Together, we had begun the journey of becoming rounded, complex people to each other, rather than one-dimensional embodiments of fantasy and fear.

Our discussions became so civil that, at one point, he agreed that Trump is a horrible misogynist, and I agreed that Bill Clinton was terrible to women too. A couple of Tony’s listeners called in to complain that he wasn’t being mean enough to me.

By the end of the show I was finally, simply Phil, and Tony actually offered to have me back on the show. There was so much we hadn’t covered—hard topics like abortion and racism. I agreed, and we shook on it. But I never did receive that return invitation. Maybe his audience read him the riot act the following week, overruling that brief moment of connection.

The glorious 2018 Midterm election has come and gone, and a majority of Americans has risen up to repudiate the present version of the Republican Party. Every day, as new returns are reported of absentee ballots being counted, the Democratic victory deepens. Soon, despite recent and disturbing threats to his investigation, Robert Mueller will finally deliver the goods against the traitorous, racketeering Trump enterprise.

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What then do we do? Too many of our fellow citizens have been poisoned by the actual fake news of Fox and its various right-wing radio minions. Some, I believe, are simply lost souls at this point. But not all of them. Will it be possible for both sides to talk to each other again in this country, to see each other not as threats but fellow human beings? Or are our mental ecosystems now so rigid they can’t bear the force of counter-influence or contradiction? In my worst moments of political despair I remain skeptical, uncertain of what will rise from the ashes of our present political dilemma. But I’ve learned that, at least for two hours, it was possible to temper partisan anger. Two short hours.

*
An early version of this blog post was originally presented on the panel “ThreaTs of Influence,” at the NonfictioNow conference in Phoenix, Arizona, November 3, 2018. Hats off to my fellow panelists, Amy Benfer, Mary Cappello, Maria Tumarkin and Jean Walton, and to our friendly “hecklers”: Ames Hawkins, David Lazar, and Patrick Madden.

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November 10th, 2018 by admin

What a Writer Knows and Doesn’t Know

In all my years of teaching at the University of Illinois, I sometimes grappled with a bit of writing advice that seemed to hover in the air, always ready to be plucked and displayed for a classroom discussion about fiction: Write What You Know.

It’s an odd statement that can easily be reduced to justifying a lack of curiosity or advocating a safety of vision: only write about those things, people, events that you think you know well; this “knowing” will give you authority. While it is important to understand your subject to the best of your ability, the phrase seems to imply that one must not approach territory that is unknown to you.

I think that my former writing teacher and mentor Grace Paley offered a clear path out of this conundrum: “You write from what you know but you write into what you don’t know.” In other words, while you might start from a familiar place, you then use that as a base for exploring, for taking risks. What you know of yourself, for example, is a way to try to understand others, a method of developing empathy for your budding fictional characters.

What is this “knowing,” really? We are often foreign countries to ourselves, and our internal map is constantly changing. And yet examining this fluid state of selfhood is what is needed to construct the contradictions of the imagined people in our fictions.

And yet. Writing from what we know is important.

I remember a student in one of my introductory fiction writing classes from many years back, a student who was smart in his comments about his fellow students’ work, was ambitious about his writing, but was having trouble finding his voice. His first story for the class recounted the adventures of some urban vampires, and though earnest, it seemed as familiar as any movie or TV show featuring vitamin D-deprived, blood-sucking immortals. In workshop, the class and I suggested that perhaps the supernatural wasn’t his subject.

His next story followed the bloodletting of a serial killer, and again, the subject seemed as familiar as any movie or TV show featuring nightmarish loners with a collection of sharp knives. The student was clearly frustrated with the class reactions to his efforts, so after class, I asked if he might want to come see me in my office so we could discuss what he’d write for his next story.

And he did drop by, with a first draft of a new story, this one about the Mafia.

“Do you know anyone in the Mafia?” I asked.

“Well, no,” he replied.

“So where does your knowledge of the Mafia come from?”

“From the movies and TV.”

And that was the problem. He wrote from what he knew, but that knowledge was gleaned from television and film. He was trying to create stories out of narrative models he was familiar with, yet these models were far from his own life.

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I found myself asking a question that always made me uncomfortable, considering my conflicted relationship to the phrase Write What You Know. And yet the words came out: “What about your own life, why not write about some aspect of your own life?”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” he replied.

“Why not?”

“Because I grew up on a farm.”

At first I didn’t know how to respond. He thought he’d grown up in a fiction-free zone. But then I recalled the writer Jane Smiley’s extraordinary novel, A Thousand Acres. The novel is a retelling of the King Lear story, set in the cornfields of Iowa, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. I suggested to my student that he walk across the street to the university bookstore, buy a copy, read it as soon as he could, and then come back to see me.

Three days later he returned. He’d read about one hundred pages of Smiley’s novel and already he was filled with ideas and enthusiasm. “I didn’t know you could write about this!” he said.

Two weeks later he turned into class a stunner of a story.

The story takes place in a farmhouse kitchen at dawn. The main character, a farmer in his early thirties, is having breakfast with his wife and ten year old son, and he is filled with conflicting feelings that he hides from his family. Because once breakfast is over, he’s going to take his young son out to the fields with him for the first time, to teach him how to farm, but for the moment he can’t stop thinking back to when he was young, when his own father introduced him to the harsh realities of farm life.

He had always loved his father dearly, but in the fields his father became a brutal teacher, demanding absolute attention to the smallest detail, and he was quick to punish.

Sitting there at the breakfast table, the farmer remembers how he began slowly loving his father less, how a distance grew between them that never quite erased. Yet he also remembers that his father had only seven fingers left on his two hands, permanent reminders of how dangerous farm work can be. Now the farmer thinks of that maimed hand and he regards his own two unscarred hands, and realizes that his father taught him well. And he knows that he has to teach his own son the same lessons, this son he dearly loves, this son who may eventually grow to love him less because of those necessary lessons.

The breakfast finally done, father and son leave together in the early morning for the fields.

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This was one of the finest stories a student ever wrote for any of my classes, and it has no “action” to speak of, it takes place entirely in the farmer’s mind, while breakfast is being served. No one else in the story knows what the farmer is thinking. Not his son. Not his wife. Only the reader. The reader who has been given the gift of listening in on another’s inner life. No plot tricks or cheap violence are needed to create a story of heightened tension and emotional truth.

That young writer had squared the circle. He dived into a world he’d grown up in, the farming life, and yet from there he ventured into imagining another person’s interior self. He wrote from what he knew and he wrote into what he didn’t yet know.

This, I think, is why we write stories, why we read stories. Not to be satisfied by the comforts of the familiar, but to be given passage to a new landscape, to be taken to a place where we might not otherwise go, a place where we might bridge the gap of solitude that divides us.

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September 3rd, 2018 by admin