13 Jul

A Theory about my World Cup Watching

Here’s something that occurred to me a few weeks ago: All else being equal, if I lived outside of the US, I might not love the World Cup as much as I do.

I recently read about some of Jorge Luis Borges’ opinions on soccer; he didn’t like it. According to Shaj Mathew, writing at New Republic, Borges’ “problem was with soccer fan culture, which he linked to the kind of blind popular support that propped up the leaders of the twentieth century’s most horrifying political movements.” Borges was an Argentinian, who witnessed firsthand the Dirty War and the rise of a fascist government—horrifying political movements—so it makes sense that “he was naturally suspicious of his countrymen’s unqualified devotion to any doctrine or religion.” He feared that nationalism seems to go hand in hand with soccer. “Nationalism only allows for affirmations, and every doctrine that discards doubt, negation, is a form of fanaticism and stupidity.” I just want to pause and digest this last comment. Nationalism only allows for affirmations; you’re either with us or against us; love it or leave it.

Franklin Foer uses the term tribalism instead of Nationalism, but he illuminates exactly what freaked Borges out when he describes how in the “2002 World Cup [held in South Korea], there was a deadly riot in Bangladesh between fans of Argentina and fans of Brazil.” Or how “support for Rangers [over the Celtics in Glasgow, Scotland] has become a means for venting a sort of lingering Catholic hatred.” (Apparently, fans have adopted the Rangers as the Protestant team, and even wear orange despite the team’s colors being blue, white, and red.)

Indeed, soccer somewhat regularly brings out the worst kind of us vs. them mentality. A really great example of the nationalism inherent in soccer comes from Diego Maradona’s description of Argentina’s victory over England in the 1986 World Cup. In 1982, there was a brief 10-week war between the UK and Argentina over the Falkland Islands, off the coast of Argentina. Four years later, the Argentine team beat England in the World Cup in Mexico. Maradona writes in his autobiography, “It was as if we had beaten a country, not just a football team. Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas War, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.”

I could give a lot more examples, but suffice to say soccer is prone to disturbing tribalism. So I think Borges has a point.

And yet, there’s something pretty appealing about that level of passion and belonging. When I lived in Ecuador, we were drawn into the soccer fervor a little. When they beat Argentina, all of Quito erupted into ecstatic celebration. I remember watching the game at a restaurant and seeing a guy jump up at a near-goal moment and shout “Fuera Lucio,” a reference to the very recent ousting of corrupt president Lucio Gutierrez. It was a joke, but still, the link between pride in the national team and pride in the citizenry’s patriotic ouster of an asshole made a lot of sense. And it felt genuinely patriotic. In fact, one thing I noticed when living in Ecuador was that people there were very aware that the government did not necessarily represent the citizenry—hence, despite the widespread unpopularity of Bush, who was the US president at the time, Ecuadorians did not look at me as a de facto supporter of him. They didn’t judge people by their political leaders. Consequently, they seemed to have a strong sense of what ties them all together, and that bond exists quite apart from politics, or rather in spite of politics. On a regular basis, I heard the term “La Patria” thrown around. It means homeland, fatherland, and is rooted not in politics but in heritage.

I have to admit that back here in the states, I’m soured on the term patriotism because it has been so co-opted by those with political motives. It’s oft-referenced by knee-jerk “love it or leave it!” types or by politicians looking to gain an emotional foothold among those who remember when patriotism meant something other than supporting the Patriot Act.

And my level of tribalism/patriotism/nationalism has, at least in the majority of my adult years, been mitigated by an awareness that nationalism is kind of dumb. I mean, in this country, we all came from somewhere else (footnote 1), and relocating to other parts of the country is so common, at least amongst the educated classes of the Midwest, that we almost all recognize the absurdity of regionalism, the cousin of tribalism and nationalism (I have very good friends in Seattle, Portland, Denver, NYC, Alaska, Minnesota, and Boston).

So I take our nationalism with a grain of salt.

Actually, maybe it’s worth distinguishing between nationalism and patriotism. If Nationalism is a relatively unquestioning support of the political state, especially as it compares to other political states, then patriotism is merely a love of one’s own homeland and doesn’t necessarily equate to a blind, untested preference over other people’s homelands or to any real competitive or comparative m.o.

For me personally, I find it very easy to have little stake in the winner or loser of the World Cup. The US is never a contender. And in some ways, that assuages the potential for tribal identification or a competitive/comparative nationalism. I get to watch and root for other nations. And if/when I have less stake in who wins, my spectating becomes a matter of appreciating the athleticism on display and the story that develops over the course of the 90- or 120-minute game, rather than personal identification with the struggles of my people.

In other words, soccer is decidedly not tribalist for me. And I think that has a lot to do with my being an American.

Watching soccer feels foreign, worldly, like vacationing in Europe. In fact, it reminds me of watching the European championship when my wife and I honeymooned in Ireland. And coincidentally, just as I was in the midst of writing down these thoughts, I came upon an article in the most recent Harper’s magazine written by a guy named Simon Kuper, author of Soccernomics, who says, “Soccer—especially European soccer—makes American fans feel like cosmopolitans.” He goes on to say that American soccer fans “tend to be Democrats, even though sports fans overall lean Republican.” That jibes pretty well with the very unscientific observations I’ve noted on Facebook.

My theory is this: because my consumption of the sport is based not on fanaticism and tribalism or other political subtexts, I am both free of some constraints that might otherwise determine my preferences and ignorant of some information that might otherwise deepen my attachments. I’m a tourist. I’m a visitor. I vacation in the country, love it, and leave with my good memories intact. Were I, like Borges, to live in soccer-land, I’m not sure I would like it as much. It just might reek of politics a little too much.

(footnote 1: except for Native Americans, who are among the most impoverished and historically trod-upon groups in this country. And in fact, it’s sort of “patriotic” to celebrate the revisionary history in which European settlers sat down to feast with the Native Americans, which just goes to show the very shaky foundations upon which American patriotism is built.)

12 Aug

Shakespeare and the First Year of My Daughter’s Life

About a month ago, in early July, we went with a friend to see Hamlet at American Players Theater, an hour’s drive away. It wasn’t the first time we’d been away from Cora for her bedtime routine, but it was still new enough to us that we felt some trepidation in leaving her. One might say we felt a little like the watchmen at the beginning of Hamlet—a bit on edge.

APT’s production actually put their medieval Danish guards on stage prior to the play’s start; they looked nervously into the imagined darkness of the audience and provided all of us with a fun distraction. We talked about how hot they must have been in their leather armor, and I quipped something like, “Spoiler alert: they’re going to see a ghost.” Someone else answered back, “Uh-oh. I hope it all ends up okay.”

I imagine that most people who go to a Shakespeare play know the entire plot of the story they’re about to watch. They usually did in Shakespeare’s time; very few of his plots were original, but that didn’t stop the Elizabethan audience (just as it doesn’t stop modern-day audiences) from going to see the ever-compelling struggle between a character and his pre-determined fate. Indeed, the central tension of a tragedy lies in the fact that the characters—whether or not they know the course of events they will soon face—are not content to passively endure those events. That is to say, the central tension of tragedy is fate v. free will.

In Hamlet, this tension is spelled out with particular eloquence in the famous “To be or not to be” speech. Yes, it is eventually a speech about whether Hamlet should kill himself, but the driving question is “whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/ and by opposing end them.” Should we fight our lot in life or should we accept our position and all the accompanying suffering that comes with it?

This existential question is at the root of much literary art. “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” “Do not go gentle into that good night.” “You can’t repeat the past.” And so on. Small person vs. large force outside of our control. Some call that large force fate; some call it destiny; some call it fortune; some call it God. At one point, in Act 5, I think, Hamlet says, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends/ rough-hew them how we will.” We might have some small control over “hewing” the shape of our lives, but ultimately, God shapes them. Or fate does. Or whatever.

Go back another 600 years or so from Elizabethan England and you’ll find the Beowulf poet making similar observations about “the shape of things to come” (a phrase repeated throughout the poem). For the only partially-Christianized medieval Englanders, the force that determined one’s fate was a divinity called Wyrd, who embodied a pretty sophisticated concept of how the individual interacts with the universal. (Read more here.) Wyrd is the basis of Macbeth’s weird sisters, by the way, who prophesy Macbeth’s rise to kingship at the play’s beginning.

But let’s come back to the present. After the play, while we were driving back to Madison from Spring Green, we came upon what appeared to be a horrible accident. We saw multiple rescue vehicles blocking the highway—police cars, fire trucks, an ambulance—and we were detoured to a little oxbow of a road that brought us back to US-14 a quarter-mile later. As we were turning for the detour, my passenger seat friend said, “Oh, no! There’s a motorcycle. I don’t want to look.” We knew, of course, that motorcycle accidents on a rural highway at 11:00 at night seldom turn out well. We were dealing with a likely fatality. So for the next several minutes, we didn’t say much.

This sort of ruminative silence has hit me frequently of late. It’s not that I go around quietly contemplative all the time; it happens more like this: I’m carrying my baby on the sidewalk in front of my house and I get a flash of a what-if. What if I tripped right now? Or I prognosticate. What if, three years from now, while riding a balance bike, my daughter drifts into the road in the two-second period when I’m not watching her closely? Or what if after 13 years of staying physically safe and sound, she gets cyberbullied by a bunch of preadolescent shitheads?

Thoughts like these cycle through my head sometimes half a dozen times a day, sometimes just a couple times a week, and they break down into two major categories: fear of harm coming to my child (illustrated above) and astonishment at the unknowability of the future (What hobbies will she choose? Who will she become? What will she look like?). Occasionally, these two categories overlap, as in What will be the defining hardship of her life come age 15—a hardship I will not be able to prevent?

Ultimately, I know safety is an impossibility. Tragedy, like shit, happens. There’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why it’s tragedy.

But still.

That guy on the motorcycle, the cause of our detour the night we returned from Hamlet? Turns out he hit a deer, which is exactly what I’m talking about here. Tragedy: a beast emerging from the woods, an act of nature, utterly outside of anyone’s control. Fortunately, the guy hadn’t been killed; he was in the hospital. But it turned out he was charged with a DUI, his fourth.

Now, maybe I’m being to harsh here, but upon learning this fact, I immediately lost some (not all) sympathy for him. Because suddenly his will was implicated; or, more specifically, a failure of his will. His decision—impaired though his decision-making apparatus was—to drive while intoxicated at 11:00 pm on a rural highway made the tragedy a little less pure, made his efforts to thwart fate/destiny/God/deer just a bit half-assed. Or less-assed than they could have been.

I certainly realize that one can’t be forever vigilant. Lord knows parenting breaks you down, battering you with sleeplessness and overwhelming you with decisions (Sleep train? Breastfeed?). And an infant is an interesting mixture of an opposing will and a force of nature. Here’s what I mean by that: an opposing will is a person with his own desires that sometimes gets in the way of your desires. A force of nature results from natural laws and/or natural chaos (gravity, cancer). A baby is both. She has a will, but she’s also a chain of natural cause/effect. She needs sleep, food, and comfort. She needs these things more than she desires them, more than she understands what desire even is. When she doesn’t have one of those, she cries or “gets fussy,” as parents of babies say. It’s not always easy to discern what she needs, however. In fact, it can drive you absolutely batty trying to figure it out and/or to manipulate circumstances such that her needs are fulfilled. It’s thus all the more imperative that you be in control of your own will because part of you will want to shake that baby.

I’m pretty patient when it comes to dealing with opposing wills. (You kind of have to be as a teacher since you’re at the epicenter of administrators, parents, and students.) But I’m not so graceful when it comes to dealing with unyielding forces of nature. And so Cora’s infancy was, for me, full of frustration. You put in an hour and a half of effort and get a 30-minute nap out of it. Makes you want to punch a wall.

But a parent has to be willing to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous babies and their allergies to cow’s milk or their refusals to nap. In fact, as Shakespeare scholar B.S. Field says, “a person’s capacity to withstand Fortune, to accept its buffets and rewards with equal thanks, was taken as a measure of a person’s right attitude, of his personal grace, not only in Hamlet, but in the Renaissance generally.” That’s from an essay on Twelfth Night, a play Shakespeare wrote right around the same time he wrote Hamlet, and yet another one that exposes the right attitude (in Viola, whose name refers to a flower thought to symbolize loving thoughtfulness) and the wrong attitude (in Malvolio, whose name means ill will) in our approach toward fate and fortune.

It’s not that this admonition to be graceful is all that groundbreaking a moral (see also: To live in harmony with the Tao; or to “Be still and know that I am God”). It’s something that most people understand on an intellectual level. (Kind of like how most people know how Shakespeare’s plays will turn out.) But as MacDuff says upon learning of the deaths of his wife and children and consequently being admonished to take it like a man, “I must also feel it as a man.” And this is what parenting does to you; it ups the stakes of your powerlessness in the face of fate and fortune and then it forces you to feel that powerlessness on a daily basis. The best we can do is say, “Uh-oh. I hope it all ends up okay.”

10 Jul

This Little Piggy: An Analysis

[This is so stupid, but it was kind of fun.]

“This little piggy went to the market,” the story begins. Most of us find this proclamation innocent; we might picture the anthropomorphic pig, behatted with a French beret, carrying his picnic basket to a little produce stand beside the baker’s. But there’s a disturbing undertone established immediately and subtly in this first line, for there are three entities that arrive at a market: 1) producers, 2) consumers, and 3) products. We tend to picture the pig as a consumer. Or perhaps some of us envision Farmer Pig, selling corn on the cob or potatoes—foodstuffs that require no slaughter to end up on our tables. But, of course, it’s likeliest that the pig is a product. The one being slaughtered.

Thus, with this clever beginning, there is immediately established a triple tension. Is the pig alive or dead at the market? Does he inhabit the world of fantasy (consumer pig, farmer pig) or brutal reality (slaughtered pig)? And is he more or less fortunate than the second piggy, who, we soon find out, “stayed home”? This question of fortune, in some sense, drives the entire narrative, for it raises the moral stakes of the tale. If we tend to feel pity for the second pig, stuck at home while his (larger) compatriot gets to go on a journey—one that likely does not end as well for him as he (or we) might initially think, then we’re cornered into a Kevorkian celebration of the first pig’s fortune. If, however, we see the second pig as fortunate, then we find ourselves at another moral impasse, for his fortune depends on the first pig’s death. That is, he benefits from the other’s unwitting sacrifice, which has surely staved off his own demise. (Indeed, the first pig is thus an ignorant Christ figure.)

And so the tale places us in a predicament even before our introduction to the third pig, who “ate roast beef.” Up to this point in the story, we’d be forgiven for believing this clever philippic to be nothing more than an innocent fable, absent of any political commentary, but the third pig’s consumption of beef, when considered alongside the previous juxtaposition of pig 1 and pig 2’s fortunes at (or away from) the market, mandates that we recognize the central socio-political commentary at play here—namely, that consumption of animals (against the backdrop of the commercial marketplace) poses moral dilemmas from which we cannot flee.

The fourth pig, who “had [no roast beef],” continues the dialectic established with the second pig and adds a have/have-not dimension to that dialectic. The oppressors, the haves, are always meat-eaters, both literally and metaphorically (recall Orwell’s Animal Farm pigs secretly eating meat). And, of course, the choice of cuisine for piggies 3 and 4 only serves to emphasize the quandary already established in this story vis a vis consumption of animal products. For if a pig, who is a domesticated farm animal himself, eats a domesticated farm animal, he is engaging in a sort of cannibalism by proxy, condoning the very mechanism of slaughter that might someday find him “at the market.” Thus, the fourth pig, who “had none,” is the one pig whose moral stance we should most identify with thus far.

Of course, the choice of verbs with pigs 2 and 4 (stayed, had), do not necessarily suggest will on the parts of the pigs. Was it the second pig’s choice to stay home? Did pig 4 refuse roast beef? The lack of agency in the pigs’ actions prevents us from identifying them as the heroes of the tales.

Indeed, the only pig who clearly exhibits volition is the fifth pig, the one who “went wee wee wee wee wee wee wee wee all the way home.” Granted, there remains some ambiguity within the pig’s proclamation (are these cries of joy or sorrow?), but there can be no denying that pig 5 is the only one with a voice—a voice with potential for morality. Even if the pig’s going home is a passive act, his utterance is likely not. Whether his utterance accomplishes anything is another matter; as stated above, the moral dilemmas presented in the narrative are inescapable. But the fifth pig is the only one with anything to say about his own oppression. Though what exactly he has to say is lost in translation, of course. And yet, the very fact that we can’t understand in what sense the fifth pig means “wee wee wee wee wee wee wee wee” highlights the indefensibility of eating him.

The story’s genius ultimately lies within its layering of mysteries and problematics. For what right have we to consume that which we do not fully understand? By constantly shifting the locus of our sympathies and by calling to question the fortunes of the various protagonists, the story uproots our taken-for-granted cultural mores, the mores at which we find ourselves at home. In the end, we are asked whether that’s a home we want to run to or from.

27 Jun

The Six Senses of Reader Engagement: The Little Three

(What follows is the second half of my lecture from Write by the Lake.)

Okay, now the little three.

First: sense of desire. By this, I mean sex, but I’m phrasing it otherwise for reasons you’ll see soon. Sexual tension is pretty captivating. Attractive people are fun to think about. This is no mystery. The entirety of pop culture has caught on to this. And writers might want to consider harnessing the draw of sex. I mean, there’s a whole genre—Romance novels—that have this sense as their principal appeal. Hey, you object, romance novels are not just about sex. Yeah, but neither is sex just about sex. Sex is about intimacy and belonging. Sex is about intimidation and power. Sex is about procreation and survival. Sex and attitudes toward sex highlight morality and repression—institutional or otherwise. Fantasies about sex can indicate desires for freedom, security, increased autonomy. In other words, romance novels are just about sex. The point here is that sex doesn’t necessarily equate to the physical act of bodies coming together. In fact, what’s most compelling is unconsummated sex. If you’ve ever heard any instruction about writing sex scenes, you’ve heard this: don’t describe body parts bumping together. Young adult writers know this. Listen to this scene from E. Lockhardt’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks:

A half hour later and two hundred yards down the boardwalk, Frankie was shivering in that string bikini. She’d eaten half a chocolate frozen custard before the sky had clouded over. Now the cone was giving her chills, but it had cost nearly five dollars and she couldn’t bring herself to throw it away.
Her hands felt sticky and she wished she’d brought a sweatshirt.
“You gonna eat that?”
Frankie turned. Sitting on the edge of the boardwalk with his feet dangling was a husky, sandy-haired boy, about seventeen years old. His small, friendly eyes squinted against the wind, and his nose was dotted with freckles.
“It’s too cold.”
“Can I have it?”
Frankie stared at him. “Didn’t your mama teach you not to beg?”
The boy laughed. “She tried. But it appears I can’t be trained.”
“You really want a frozen custard some stranger has licked? That’s disgusting.”
“So it is,” said the boy, reaching out his hand for the cone. “But only a little.” Frankie let him have it. He stuck out his tongue and touched the custard. Then he squashed the top down into the cone, putting his whole mouth over it. “See? Now the worst is over and it’s just my own spit. And I have a frozen custard for free.”
“You’d be surprised what people will do if you ask them.”
“I didn’t want it anyhow.”
“I know.” The boy grinned. “But you might have given it to me even if you did want it. Just because I asked. Don’t you think?”

See, we’re dealing with something there in addition to any of the big three, aren’t we? I mean, there’s tension, but it’s not exactly disorder. There’s a draw to the potential of these two characters coming together in a romantic way. You see this same thing in Billy Collins’ poem “Love”:

Love by Billy Collins

The boy at the far end of the train car
kept looking behind him
as if he were afraid or expecting someone

and then she appeared in the glass door
of the forward car and he rose
and opened the door and let her in

and she entered the car carrying
a large black case
in the unmistakable shape of a cello.

She looked like an angel with a high forehead
and somber eyes and her hair
was tied up behind her neck with a black bow.

And because of all that,
he seemed a little awkward
in his happiness to see her,

whereas she was simply there,
perfectly existing as a creature
with a soft face who played the cello.

And the reason I am writing this
on the back of a manila envelope
now that they have left the train together

is to tell you that when she turned
to lift the large, delicate cello
onto the overhead rack,

I saw him looking up at her
and what she was doing
the way the eyes of saints are painted

when they are looking up at God
when he is doing something remarkable,
something that identifies him as God.

Now as you can see I’m going relatively chaste with this stuff. That’s because I want to challenge your thinking, not just read you Fifty Shades of Grey. So here’s the question I wrestled with in all of this. Even children’s lit? And I think yes, even children’s lit. I think even kids, who have no sexual awareness really, are aware of a special bond between mom and dad, and they crave that bond, right? And they become aware that it’s possible to create a family with someone outside of your family. So yes, we get this in children’s lit. An obvious example: Peter Pan and Wendy. But there are kids stories about, I don’t know, the turtle and penguin becoming close friends. That’s really engaging for kids. To broaden the reach of family and to know that you can create bonds with those outside of family is pretty thrilling. So, this sense isn’t just lust; it’s something broader, a sense of desire to couple, maybe. That sort of magnetism between people is really engaging to watch.

Next little one: Humor.

Listen to some of these one liners from the masters (Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright):

Mitch Hedberg:
I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.
I’m against picketing, but I don’t know how to show it.
I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long.
Is a hippopotamus a hippopotamus or just a really cool opotamus?

Steven Wright:
I’m addicted to placebos. I could quit, but it wouldn’t matter.
What’s another word for Thesaurus?
I went to a restaurant that serves “breakfast at any time,” so I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.

I would argue that humor is distinct from just a sense of order. Yes, humor toys with our expectations and creates a sort of tension-release pattern. There’s a surprise element to a good punchline, but humor is a particular type of surprise. My 14-month daughter has a sense of humor. Just yesterday, we saw one of our dogs lying on the ground with her two front paws resting atop a book. I pointed to the dog and said to Cora, my daughter, “Look, the dog’s reading.” And Cora smiled at her. It was funny. Was she drawn by realism? No. By wonder? A little, but I don’t think wonder caused her to smile. By her penchant for order? I don’t know—I mean, it was outside of the normal pattern—but did she want order to be restored? No. She enjoyed the situation as is.

So this is why I’d argue humor is a distinct sense. And it’s one worth mining. It really goes a long way.

Now I can think of plenty of funny books. Christopher Moore books are pretty clever. Jess Walter is hilarious in Financial Lives of the Poets. Sam Lipsyte in The Ask. You can name several, too, I’m sure. But here’s a caveat to this: I would maintain that humor is most effective when yoked to seriousness and poignancy.

Here’s what I mean, courtesy of George Saunders. It’s from a story called “Puppy,” about a family who goes to a squalid house to potentially purchase a dog:

Abbie squealed, “I love it, Mommy, I want it!” as the puppy looked up dimly from its shoebox and the lady of the house went trudging away and one-two-three-four plucked up four dog turds from the rug.

Well, wow, what a super field trip for the kids, Marie thought, ha ha (the filth, the mildew smell, the dry aquarium holding the single encyclopedia volume, the past pot on the bookshelf with an inflatable candy cane inexplicably sticking out of it), and although some might have been disgusted (by the spare tire on the dining-room table, by the way the glum mother dog, the presumed in house pooper, was now dragging her rear over the pile of clothing in the corner, in a sitting position, splay-legged, moronic look of pleasure on her face), Marie realized (resisting the urge to rush to the sink and wash her hands, in part because the sink had a basketball in it) that what this really was, was deeply sad.

I chose this one because it’s particularly blatant with the point I’m trying to make. But the entirety of “The End of FIRPO in the World” showcases Saunders’ brilliance in this realm.

My last little one: Musicality. Not just of words, but of phrases and sentences. Words have three characteristics: denotation, connotation, and sound. We sometimes ignore sound. But it’s pretty crucial. My recommendation: read everything you write out loud at some point. You’ll figure out why you need to vary sentence lengths and patterns, why you shouldn’t use dialogue tags after every instance of dialogue and why it might be worth using, say, the word charred rather than burned.

There’s a really lucid explanation of this in Perrine’s Sound and Sense:

Here’s a poem by Ogden Nash

The turtle lives twixt plated decks
Which practically conceal its sex.
I think it clever of the turtle
In such a fix to be so fertile.

Much of the appeal here is not so much in what it says as in the manner in which is says it. If we recast it as “Turtles live in a shell which almost conceals its sex. It is ingenious of the turtle, in such a situation, to be so prolific,” it falls flat. But it’s not just the meter that matters. Here’s another version:

Because he lives between two decks
It’s hard to tell a turtle’s gender
The turtle is a clever beast
In such a plight to be so fertile.

But now we’re missing the repetition between decks and sex, turtle and fertile.

So, you see, the sound alone matters a lot to the creativity of a passage and to the reader’s engagement in the writing. Here’s a nonfiction passage from the very poetic Dylan Thomas to drive home this point:

I was born in a large Welsh town at the beginning of the Great War—an ugly, lovely town (or so it was and is to me), crawling, sprawling by a long and splendid curving shore where truant boys and sandfield boys and old men from nowhere, beachcombed, idled and paddled, watched the dock-bound ships or the ships streaming away into wonder and India, magic and China, countries bright with oranges and loud with lions; threw stones into the sea for the barking outcast dogs; made castles and forts and harbours and race tracks in the sand; and on Saturday afternoons listened to the brass band, watched the Punch and Judy, or hung about on the fringes of the crowd to hear the fierce religious speakers who shouted at the sea, as though it were wicked and wrong to roll in and out like that, white-horsed and full of fishes.

Bringing it all together:

I. A Conversation at the Grownup Table, as Imagined at the Kids’ Table
 By Simon Rich (from 2007 New Yorker)
Mom: Pass the wine, please. I want to become crazy.
Dad: O.K.
Grandmother: Did you see the politics? It made me angry.
Dad: Me, too. When it was over, I had sex.
Uncle: I’m having sex right now.
Dad: We all are.
Mom: Let’s talk about which kid I like the best.
Dad: (laughing) You know, but you won’t tell.
Mom: If they ask me again, I might tell.
Friend from Work: Hey, guess what! My voice is pretty loud!
Dad: (laughing) There are actual monsters in the world, but when my kids ask I pretend like there aren’t.
Mom: I’m angry! I’m angry all of a sudden!
Dad: I’m angry, too! We’re angry at each other!
Mom: Now everything is fine.
Dad: We just saw the PG-13 movie. It was so good.
Mom: There was a big sex.
Friend from Work: I am the loudest! I am the loudest!
(Everybody laughs.)
Mom: I had a lot of wine, and now I’m crazy!
Grandfather: Hey, do you guys know what God looks like?
All: Yes.
Grandfather: Don’t tell the kids.

I think this is firing on all of the cylinders. Realism? Wonder? Order? Desire to couple? Humor? Musicality?

Now, one last addition. The reason literature resonates with people is because ultimately it appeals to one primary sense: our sense of humanity. Speaking specifically of fiction—though I believe this applies to all writing—Neil Gaiman says, Fiction is dangerous because “it lets you into others’ heads, it gives you empathy, and it shows you that the world doesn’t have to be like the one you live in.” Barry Lopez says, “This interest you have is a calling to go inside yourself and figure out who you are and what that means. If you can do that, somebody else will be brought up off their knees.” There is nothing that connects us like thoughtful communication. And the act of writing is, I believe, ultimately an act of compassion. That’s why I like hanging out with writers so much. They’re observant, insightful, attentive, kind people. So thanks for coming to Write by the Lake and thanks for making this such a pleasant experience for all of us.

26 Jun

The Six Senses of Reader Engagement: The Big Three

I had a few requests to make this talk available; it’s the lecture I gave Friday morning of Write by the Lake.

So this is my broad-appeal speech about reader engagement. The course I’m teaching this week is also about reader engagement, but it’s predicated on a fact I won’t really cover here: namely, that humans think and interact in story. Narrative is our way of making sense of the world. [See Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal, Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story, and the first Radiolab episode, which at one point interviews neurologist Paul Broks, who says that “the self is really a story–it’s the story of what’s happened to [your] body over time.” Also, here for some more relevant quotes.]

But my concern here is about the page-level stuff (i.e. even if you’re one of those crazy poets, or if you write lyrical essays—both of which can get away with skirting story/narrative—you still should be thinking about these things). What is it that draws readers to the words on your page? I’m calling these the six senses of reader engagement. But I’m breaking these down into the big three and the little three. Of course, I’m predicating this whole thing on the age old advice to appeal to the senses. We’ve all heard this one, yeah? Descriptions that appeal to the senses are stronger. This is nothing new. Writers throughout time have known this trick. Whether it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald drawing our attention to Daisy’s voice in The Great Gastby or Upton Sinclair in The Jungle describing the vague elemental smell that saturates the air as the immigrants ride the train into Chicago’s stockyards.

Actually, this whole appeal-to-the-five-senses thing falls under the umbrella of my first sense: the sense of realism. Concrete physical reality is always engaging. Ah, you say, but there are people who dwell in abstractions all the time. No there aren’t. There are people—like Einstein—who were/are really good at that sort of thing, but they don’t dwell in abstractions all the time. Einstein got to relativity theory by imagining “what it would be like to plummet down an elevator shaft, then take a coin out of his pocket and try to drop it” (Cron). Here’s Einstein himself: “My particular ability does not lie in mathematical calculation but rather in visualizing effects, possibilities, and consequences.”

So what I mean by this first sense is what the appeal-to-senses thing and “show don’t tell” is all about: readers absolutely need concrete physical stuff. Think about this. When you read a headline that 18 were killed in a suicide bombing in Baghdad, do you engage with that? If you read that “in October 2006, nearly six thousand people worldwide perished in hurricane-induced floods,” what do you feel? “Now imagine a wall of churning water rushing down a dirt road toward a boy who clings desperately to his frantic mother. She whispers to him, ‘Don’t worry baby, I’m here, I won’t let you go.’ She feels him relax in that suspended slow-motion moment just before the water hits the two of them and rips him from her arms” (Cron, but altered a bit). You’re feeling more now, right? You’re feeling the implications of the deaths; you’re picturing a concrete image. We might even say, now it’s real for you. That’s what I mean by realism.

Nobody’s off the hook here. This goes for writers of Sci Fi and Fantasy, too. I originally labeled this sense as a sense of reality, but it’s not reality that’s important, it’s realism. You render the world with concrete physical detail and you can have anything happen (think of special effects in film). Here’s the start of Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead:

When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand. First he had died, he said, and then—snap!—the desert. He told the story to everyone who would listen, bobbing his head to follow the sound of their footsteps. Showers of red grit fell from his beard. He said that the desert was bare and lonesome and that it had hissed at him like a snake. He had walked for days and days, until the dunes broke apart beneath his feet, surging up around him to lash at his face, then everything went still and began to beat like a heart. The sound was as clear as any he had ever heard. It was only at that moment, he said, with a million arrow-points of sand striking his skin, that he had truly realized he was dead.

But this brings me to my next sense: a sense of wonder. Curiosity. The strange and absurd is inherently engaging. This was my thesis last year for everything I did here at WBTL. And I quoted David Lodge more than once: “the essential purpose of art is to overcome deadening effects of habit by representing familiar things in unfamiliar ways”—unfamiliar being the key word there.

You tell stories about unusual things that happened to you. You don’t tell stories about usual things.
I mean really. What’s more engaging? “I went to the store and got five pork chops, and a box of wild rice”; or, “while I was at the store, a guy in a chicken suit ran in, smashed the window of the poultry case, and shouted, ‘Run free my brothers!'” Not that you have to be that weird. But pick up almost any book and you’ll find something odd on the first page. Here’s the beginning of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, literally the first book I picked off my desktop:

They say it come first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that is was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fuku americanus, or more colloquially, fuku—generally a curse or doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and Doom of the New World.

Here’s the beginning of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom:

The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally—he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now—but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically-compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.

Here’s the beginning of a favorite Joann Early Macken book of mine:

Baby rolls along, grabs a yummy snack,
waves at the people, and they all wave back.
Baby, what do people say? Baby says, “Moo!”

Sense #3: Sense of order. This one is huge. Maybe the most important of all these. You’ve got to toy with people’s craving for order. Here’s Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story:

Your brain doesn’t like anything that appears random, and it will struggle mightily to impose order—whether it’s actually there or not. Take a starry, starry night, for instance. As Nobel laureate in physics Edward Purcell wrote to evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, “What interests me more in the random field of ‘stars’ is the overpowering impression of ‘features’ of one sort or another. It is hard to accept the fact that any perceived feature—be it string, clump, constellation, corridor, curved chain, lacuna—is a totally meaningless accident, having as its only cause the avidity for pattern of my eye and brain!”

The human brain is a pattern-making device. As scholars Chip and Dan Heath note, “The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern.”

Conflict. Trouble. Disorientation. Disorder. These things get our attention because we want order to be restored. We want justice. We want harmony. And what these damned authors keep doing is screwing things up so that we absolutely have to keep reading to see if things will return to a peaceful state. Here’s Donald Maass on the topic: “Between what we are supposed to know and what we do not—questions unanswered—there is tension. Our minds strain to fill in the gaps And here’s Raymond Chandler: “In everything that can be called art, there is a quality of redemption.” Well, what does redemption first require? A fall of some sort. Trouble.

Listen to the beginning of Brian Turner’s poem “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center” for how he’s appealing to all of the big three. Realism, wonder, and order.

Standing in aisle 16, the hammer and anchor aisle,
I bust a 50 pound box of double-headed nails
open by accident, their oily bright shank
and diamond points like firing pins
from M-4s and M-16s.
                     In a steady stream
they pour onto the tile floor, constant as shells
falling south of Baghdad last night, where Bosch
kneeled under the chain guns of helicopters
stationed above, their tracer-fire a synaptic geometry
of light.
            At dawn, when the shelling stops,
hundreds of bandages will not be enough.
                                  . . .
Bosch walks down aisle 16 now, in full combat gear,
improbable, worn out from fatigue, a rifle
slung at his side, his left hand guiding
a ten-year-old boy who sees what war is
and will never clear it from his head.

Here, Bosch says, Take care of him.
I’m going back in for more

It’s concrete and real, but also poignantly strange, and of course, something is going very wrong here. Good stuff. (I’ll post the little three in a couple days; stay tuned.)