Monday, December 13, 2010

finding your sweaty-toothed madman

(Note: this post is part of a project called Reverb 10, where, for each day in December, writers reflect on 2010 and "manifest what's next." Click here for more info.)

Prompt: Action. When it comes to aspirations, it’s not about ideas. It's about making ideas happen. What's your next step? Thanks, Scott Belsky.

When I was in college, my advisor, SueEllen Campbell, gave a talk on her recently published book, Bringing the Mountain Home. She was an avid hiker and naturalist, and she said that the idea for the book had come when she was flipping through her journals and was struck by how, every time she ascended a peak or discovered a new wildflower, she would look to the words of another writer—Thoreau, or Annie Dillard or Wordsworth—to express her sense of awe. This led her to question the authenticity of her feelings. Was she, in fact, experiencing a moment of “being in dreams awake,” or could she strip away these remembered—and therefore suspect—emotions in order to find her own words? In part, her book was her way of discovering and creating a new language, one that relied not on adages and commonplaces, but on molding her own experience into words.

When I read Scott’s prompt, I was impressed not only by the word “action,” but by the sense of action in the question itself. The sense of control. Making ideas happen. Like Campbell, I have often flipped through books of poetry or essays to find that perfect quotation, rather than relying on my own id. When I am trying to get my students to find their authentic voice, I sometimes show the scene from Dead Poets’ Society in which Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) pulls Ethan Hawke’s mealy-mouthed character from his seat, puts his hand over the boy’s eyes, and implores him to describe Walt Whitman, whose portrait hangs on the wall. “A m-madman,” Hawke stutters. Keating wants more. “A sweaty-toothed madman!” Hawke declares, frightened by his own poetic sensibility. Every time I watch that scene, I feel like standing on my chair and yelling, “Oh Captain, my Captain!”

See what I mean? I respond to Hawke’s momentous breakthrough by echoing a tired old phrase by the madman himself.

As a teacher of writing, I find the most nerve-grinding freshman writer-ism to be the reliance on what the writers Graff and Birkenstein call “closest cliché syndrome:”

in which what gets summarized is not the view the author in question has actually expressed, but a familiar cliché that the writer mistakes for the author's view (sometimes because the writer believes it and mistakenly assumes the author must too). So, for example Martin Luther King Jr.'s passionate defense of civil disobedience in ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ gets summarized not as the defense of political protest that it actually is, but as a plea for everyone to "just get along." (Graff and Birkenstein, “The Art of Summarizing”)

This syndrome not only prevents a reader/writer from giving a difficult text a fair reading, it also discourages the writer from believing he or she has anything new to add to the discussion. It’s also a way of avoiding difficulty.

This practice is usually common in writers who are less secure in their language. And I concede that it’s possible I’m so bothered by this idiosyncrasy because I have too often relied on established forms and conventions even as I rail against them. Too often—much more often now than when I fell in love with writing thirty-something years ago—I define my writing by what other writers are doing, and then I crumple my paper into a ball (or I do the electronic equivalent of this) and toss it into the trash. Or into a file that disappears beneath other files.

I have an “ideas for stories and essays” folder, and it’s bursting. I scribble in it often. But what happens far less often is the transformation of those ideas into action (hmmm.. . somewhere in that line I hear the voice of Audre Lorde).

The next step is happening now. Thanks to Reverb, I’m producing. One could argue that much of what I’m producing is “merely” ideas. But I would reply that the action comes in putting the ideas on paper.

SueEllen Campbell needn’t have worried about her tendency to sound her borrowed “yawp” from the top of Long’s Peak; by the time she wrote the aforementioned book, she was already an established ecofeminist and writer. And yet she sensed that her yawp could be a little more barbaric, a little more authentic, and she put that thought into action and produced. My next step will be to keep the reverb reverberating through December and into a new year.

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