12 Winters Blog

Interview with Grant Tracey: A Fourth Face

Posted in July 2018, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 11, 2018

As a publisher, one of your hopes when working with an author is to facilitate their creative productivity — to not only bring out their completed work but to also establish a relationship that nurtures their imagination and their ambition. When I met Grant Tracey in 2015, over coffee in his hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa, he confided some frustration. He hadn’t published a book since 2009, a collection of short fiction, and he had plenty of material for a new book, but he’d come home from the most recent AWP Conference feeling overwhelmed and downtrodden. Various sessions he’d attended had implored authors to be cyber-beings, with websites and Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, and in general to embrace all sorts of newfangled media.

 

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Grant, however, wasn’t interested in any of that. He was a storyteller, and he wanted to focus on his craft, not get bogged down in the world of the Net. I only knew Grant by reputation, as the longstanding fiction editor of the venerable North American Review, the longest continuously published literary journal in the country (in fact, my wife and I were in town for the magazine’s bicentennial celebration conference). I definitely wanted Grant and his work to be part of Twelve Winters Press, regardless of whether or not he had any interest in being a cyber warrior. Certainly, a vigorous Web presence can only help sales, but what matters to me most is the quality of the writing — and the quality of Grant’s writing wasn’t in question at all.

I went away from that conversation with a handshake agreement to bring out a new collection of stories (which evolved into Final Stanzas, released later that year in paperback and e-book, then, a bit later, as a unique audiobook). In the process of working on the project with Grant, I discovered he’d also written a detective novel (his first full-length novel). My curiosity piqued, I asked to see the manuscript, wherein I was introduced to Hayden Fuller, an ex-pro hockey player turned private eye, navigating the mean streets of 1960s Toronto (Grant’s true hometown).

It turned out that detective noir was Grant’s first love as a writer. We published Cheap Amusements, the debut Hayden Fuller Mystery, in 2016, and in the process unleashed a torrent of inspired prose from Grant, complex stories he’d been percolating for years apparently. Twelve Winters has just released the second Hayden Fuller Mystery, A Fourth Face (in hardcover, paperback and Kindle), and Grant has already delivered the third installment of the series, which we plan to bring out next year, while Grant is researching and writing the already outlined fourth book.

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I coaxed Grant into slowing down the composing process long enough to answer a few questions about this newest release, and what follows are his thought-provoking and entertaining responses. (See also my interviews with Grant about Cheap Amusements and Final Stanzas; in addition, we published Grant’s memoir regarding the impetus of Hayden Fuller in an e-book, Toronto, 1965: Cheap Amusements’ Beat.)

Hayden Fuller is back in A Fourth Face. Trying to avoid any spoilers, what’s your protagonist up to in this new novel?

A former teammate, Bobby Ehle, is suspected of murdering his wife and asks Hayden for his help. Bobby has a history of domestic violence, but Hayden believes in the possibility of his innocence and takes the case. From there the trail takes him into a world of dangerous and experimental psychedelic drugs (the mind altering Red 45), quack doctors with their phony cosmetics and plastic surgeries, and a terrorist organization, N’oublie jamais, bent on destroying Expo 67. Hayden also goes on an inner journey, confronting for the first time, the traumas of his own past. The pace is quick, and the violence accelerates.

The title of the novel is a call back to Cheap Amusements and that novel’s exploration of the “third face,” an idea, first expressed by writer/director Samuel Fuller. He believed that we all have private and public faces, but also a third face, ones that we don’t even know we have until faced with trauma or extreme stress, like Fuller experienced on the battle lines in World War II. The third face is the repressed primordial impulse that we all carry. In A Fourth Face, reporter Stana Younger suggests that it, the fourth side of our complex selves, represses what the third side did, denying its culpability and reality. So if, Bobby, in third-face mode, did murder his wife, the fourth face denies what the third did, saying that the third face is not a part of the “real” Bobby Ehle.

Oh, a couple of footnotes. One: this novel, in part, was inspired by the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, where Terry Lennox asks Philip Marlowe to help him out of a possible “domestic jam.” Marlowe, in the Robert Altman film version, comes to discover that Lennox did kill his wife. Two: the Red 45 subplot is something Mickey Spillane might have concocted for a Mike Hammer thriller. No doubt, Spillane’s later Mike Hammer offering, Survival Zero, was an influence on A Fourth Face. Chandler and Spillane are among my favorite writers of crime noir.

I’m sure in the writing of this new Hayden Fuller Mystery you got to know Hayden even better. What did you learn about him? Was there anything especially surprising that you didn’t know before about your protagonist?

Two things. One, there’s a big reveal in the novel that I don’t want to give away, but that plot turn totally surprised me. Hayden came to me in a dream and told me about what had happened in his past, so I just had to work that into the book. It becomes a big part of the inner journey in Neon Kiss, and I think Hayden’s trauma helps explain the violence of the first book’s ending or “execution.” I didn’t feel that I needed to explain Hayden’s actions in Cheap Amusements, but this novel helps contextualize the debut novel’s final moments.

Second, I had no idea what was going to happen to Hayden’s relationship with Stana Younger (which seemed to be over at the end of Cheap Amusements), but relationships are complicated so I allowed the two characters to surprise me with where they were at, and where they were headed as friends, and as possible rekindled lovers. People, emotions, are complicated and I allowed for that messiness, muddy quality, to grab hold of me.

There’s a sensitivity, vulnerability to Hayden that is a part of me, and I guess as I keep writing him, taking risks, I’m surprised at how much I’m willing to explore and reveal of who he is, and in turn, who I am.

It seems like you’re really in the groove now writing about Hayden. You wrote A Fourth Face pretty quickly, and you’ve already completed a draft of the third Hayden Mystery, with plans for a fourth developing. My sense, then, is that you feel really comfortable with Hayden and the world you’ve created for him. How would you describe your comfort level with the characters and their world, and would you agree that the writing of the novels is coming along fairly easily at this point?

When you first suggested to me that with Cheap Amusements we had a series here and not just a one-off, I have to admit I was both extremely elated but also scared. Did I have it in me to continue to write not just this character but plots full of surprising twists, turns, and deceptions? But once I started writing the second novel (which I drafted in just under 40 days, writing every day) things just flowed and the fear went away. Hayden’s voice was overwhelming, there from the beginning, grabbing a hold of me. It’s me, but not me. Hayden’s a smart-ass, sensitive, and like Holden Caulfield, has little patience with phonies. The voice is a good fit with my sensibilities.

My writing style, for this series, is full of allusions. For example, Top Cop Sal Lambertino now wears suits instead of policeman blues, and Hayden describes his outfit as “Sloan Wilson grays,” a reference to a great novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. That’s part of Hayden’s voice, as is the short-jabs of sentences, the quirky one-liners, and the eyes tuned to psychological subtexts.

Stana Younger is also evolving into a character I really like. She’s tough, pragmatic, and fighting to make her way in the male-dominated field of reporting. After the first novel, she may have struck some readers as a femme-fatale, but such labels are too limiting. She’s a complex person who has made some bad decisions in the past, but she’s decent, caring, and committed to empowering the underdogs and outliers. She is also a great resource, with her police connections and fact-finding skills, providing Hayden with much needed information on each case. Sal is the no-nonsense, best friend, the state-sanctioned authority figure, a top cop. And the nattily-attired gangster Babe Migano also helps out Hayden, when it serves his interests. He is an underworld figure who straddles the line between genuine charm and menace. Migano is a cross between 1960s Rod Steiger and Jackie Gleason. If you can imagine that.

Do you feel Hayden is evolving organically, or are you having to coax his character along from time to time?

I never have to coax him. He always surprises me. I’m an impulse writer, comfortable with uncertainty, never knowing what will turn up next. But I trust in the process, my instincts, choices the characters make, that the journey we take will be a meaningful one. I begin with a plot outline and of course the big so what: who killed whom and why, but once the writing begins subplots emerge, side characters elbow their way on stage, and the novel takes me on a series of detours and highways I hadn’t expected to travel. The original plot outline changes dramatically.

I do know that I want each book to have a “hey wow” finish (like Dr. No’s island blowing up at the end of a Bond film), but I don’t pre-plan the shock ending. Somewhere on the journey, maybe three-fourths through, I see it and write toward it. Spillane, by contrast, often began his novels with the shock ending and then worked his way to find how to get there.

The goal is to entertain readers with a thriller, a good whodunit, but also to give them a lead character who is real and not just solving a crime but discovering in the process of detection who he is. The inner and outer stories.

On the one hand, you know a lot about Hayden and his world from your own experiences and interests—hockey, Toronto, the 1960s, etc.—but I’m sure some research or fact-checking is needed from time to time. Can you talk about how much research has gone into the writing of the books so far?

Crime books. As I mentioned before, I read the old masters: McBain, Chandler, Spillane, Thompson. I also admire John D. Macdonald, Richard Stark, Benjamin Black, and Max Allan Collins. Together they help inform, not so much an aesthetic, but a back drop of possibilities, contexts for my own writing in terms of plotting choices.

Movies. My fashion sense grows out of 60s fare: Honey West, The Green Hornet, Route 66, and Naked City. And any film with Paul Newman. Coolest cat ever.

Hockey books about the original six era. For A Fourth Face I read and re-read Roch Carrier’s Our Life with the Rocket; Benoît Malançon’s The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard; and Jean Béliveau’s My Life in Hockey to contextualize 1955’s “The Richard Riot,” which is an important backstory to the N’oublie jamais movement in the novel. I also read Pierre Berton’s 1967 to get a greater appreciation for that year’s Expo in Montreal.

When Cheap Amusements came out in 2016 you were able to give several readings, some in your own backyard and others in Chicago and elsewhere. How did those readings go? How did people respond to Hayden Fuller and the book?

The readings are a lot of fun. I get into it, becoming all the characters, inhabiting their spaces, and I want to give the audience the best performance I have in me that night. I want them to enjoy the energy with which I write.

Fans of mysteries are pretty knowledgeable so when they ask me about influences on my work and I mention writers I admire they know who I’m talking about and they can make those connections. I think one of the things audiences respond to in my books is the comic touches to Hayden’s voice. They like his smart-ass asides, his use of cultural allusions, and his brand of not-so-subtle understatement.

People also like the plotting. They say it’s complex (in a good way) and full of surprising turns.

Moreover, audiences seem to like that Hayden is a former hockey player (at least when I read in hockey towns like Minnesota and Chicago that was the case). That wrinkle gives the book a different flavor. In the 1950s and 60s, William Campbell Gault wrote a series of detective novels featuring Brock (“the Rock”) Callahan, a former lineman for the Los Angeles Rams, who is now a private eye in the City of Angels. My series, in part, is inspired by his earlier series.

In addition to being a writer, editor, teacher (among other things), you’re also an experienced stage actor. How does your acting inform your presentations of Hayden, etc., when you give readings?

The keys to acting are empathy and authenticity. Placing yourself in the spaces inhabited by others and fully understanding, appreciating, without judging, where each character is coming from. Acting is also about keeping it simple and true. Direct, honest. That’s what I try to do in my writing, and that’s what I try to do when I read, inhabit every space. Ron Carlson, in his great book, Ron Carlson Writes a Short Story, says that direct dialogue is a place of genuine freedom; those are the spaces where characters exist outside the modulated voice of the writer. As a writer, when you engage in dialogue, you have to take on each character’s agendas: what they want and what they are willing to do to get it. Or maybe, I should say, you have to allow the characters to take you on surprising journeys. When they speak let them lead. Don’t fit them into a pre-defined agenda. Listen to what they have to tell you. And from there the plot will shift.

I’m also a big fan of the actorly beats. Those are the moment-to-moment choices an actor makes, following the impulses of the dialogue and what’s happening in the scene with his acting partner and within the play’s given circumstances. I’m always aware of beats when I read and let them spin me with surprises.

I also use a lot of beats in my writing. Not just in terms of shifts in dialogue, but I like, as did Ernest Hemingway, using brief descriptors, to create pauses, and thus increase the tension and psychological subtext of each moment. For example, two characters are talking and character A notices character B is chewing on her shirt collar. This is a beat. A pause. And it implies something within the given circumstances of the moment.

Tell us about the Gas Station Pulp Mystery series which you’ve started editing since the last time we talked (about Cheap Amusements).

It’s an imprint series of the North American Review Press that publishes a once-a-year crime novel. I love pulp fiction and the series blends that genre with the inner-directed drive of literary fiction. So I’m seeking character-driven pulp stories, loaded with action but also psychological nuance. Our first book in the series, Black Fin by Mary Frisbee, will be forthcoming soon. I’m currently reading material for our second Gas Station Pulp book.

Neon Kiss is the third Hayden Fuller Mystery (which the Press is planning to get out in 2019). What was your inspiration for the third book?

In the early 1980s I was visiting San Francisco and someone approached me on Geary Street and asked a bunch of questions, trying to figure out my faith (at the time I was an agnostic existentialist). Anyway, I made some disparaging comments about fundamentalists and how I couldn’t get behind their concept of a conditional God: receive my love if you do these things. My idea then was, if there is a God, he loves and accepts all. The fella really dug that comment and said something about how my idea of love fit right in with his church, and the notion of surrendering ourselves over to the way, giving up worldly things, and he invited me to attend a service that afternoon.

I thought about it. The fella had charisma. But, ultimately, I didn’t go. I was a bit freaked out to be honest with you. But I often wondered what would have happened to me if I did go? Would I have wound up in a commune somewhere? I know, I know. I’m sounding a little paranoid here, but a writer has to run with those imagined probabilities. That episode on Geary Street, in part, became the inspiration for the story.

Moreover, I wanted to tell a story about control. How people with dominant personalities and charismatic charm can control those who are less outgoing. At the heart of the novel is an abusive story: one sibling controlled by a megalomaniacal older sibling, who wants to “dismantle the universe,” and thus create his own reality. Twisted relationships of power I find endlessly interesting.

I’m sure at some level Dashiell’s Hammett’s The Dain Curse had a hand in my writing of Neon Kiss as does my fascination/repulsion with cults. John Buell’s The Pyx, in terms of subject matter and structure, was also an inspiration.

When I first drafted the novel, the young runaway woman, at the center of the story, was white. She falls into the cult and becomes the key to Hayden solving the double mystery (what happened to his father and who is behind the cult’s nefarious goings on). However, after visiting and being transformed by my experiences at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in July 2017, I decided to make the young woman Métis. I was really struck with the injustices First Nations Peoples faced at the hands of the Canadian Government.

Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, if a native mom raised a child alone, there could possibly be a knock at her door and that child would be taken out of the biological mother’s home and raised by a white couple. This was so shocking to me (and don’t get me started on residential schools and natives being force to learn white laws and ways) that I was compelled to revise my novel and put a Métis presence at the center of it. Like I said, the visit to the museum was transformative. If you haven’t gone. Do so. I was inspired.

This theme of human rights injustice will be revisited in the fourth Fuller novel, Shot/Reverse-Shot.

And lastly, the novel is a continuation of what happens in A Fourth Face, and here Hayden further explores his troubled relationship with his father. That becomes the novel’s inner journey.

I know you have big plans for the fourth book—you’ve even landed a sabbatical to assist the writing of it. What can you tell us about that Hayden project?

It’s 1966. Hayden is back in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens and he has just won the Stanley Cup. An independent film producer wants to make an indie film, sort of a sappy Canadian Disney thing, and uses several Habs players as extras, filming that year’s Stanley Cup final versus Detroit for footage in his film.

Danny Davis, a minor character in Cheap Amusements will be more prominently featured this time around. Stana Younger, now living with Hayden, and working for a Montreal newspaper will also be strongly featured.

However, back to the main plot line. The indie, hockey producer used to make graphic sexploitation films, stuff in the spirit of the Defilers, and although he’s trying to go all family friendly, his sexploitation chickens come home to roost, and after one of the stars of his film is murdered, a Habs player is blamed for the killing. Hayden, an extra on the film, tries to prove his pal’s innocence.

The journey takes him into a world of sexploitation film-making, First Nations People’s Land rights, and a badass motorcycle club, the Northern Arrows. The title, Shot/Reverse-Shot is double-voiced: a film term, but also indicative of bullets flying.

I’ll be living for four weeks in Montreal, spring 2019, to both write the novel and explore the city and spot locations for the novel’s main lines of action. It’ll be a big challenge for me. I know Toronto really well, but I’ve never been to Montreal before. It has been a long-time dream, going back to my days at Trent University and hearing friends from Montreal (Ivan LeCouvie and Dave Coons), regale me with stories about fountains, bistros, and St. Urbain’s Street. I’m really excited to soak up the culture. If ever so briefly.

But, alas, I’ll always be a Leafs fan.

It would appear Hayden Fuller is taking up just about all your creative writing energy. Is that true, or are you working on some other projects, too?

I’ve started to branch out. At first Hayden was taking up all my time. I was constantly reading other crime novels, detective series, to find inspiration for future Fuller novels.

It takes a lot of energy to write a novel, but the Fuller books have given me the courage to try writing longer works, one-offs, outside the Hayden series. I just finished drafting a stand-alone crime novel, Winsome, sort of modeled on Geoffrey Homes’s Build My Gallows High and William P. McGivern’s Odds Against Tomorrow in which a 36-year-old cab driver, living in Winsome, a small upstate New York town, is confronted with the demons of his past (a prior kidnapping case) and is thus blackmailed into returning to a life of crime (a bank heist). A former radio operator in Korea, Eddie Sands is a good person who has made bad choices. He also suffers from PTSD.

The story is set in 1966, seven years after a 1959 failed kidnapping case in which Eddie’s wife, Karen, double-crossed Eddie and his pal Sy, and led the police to the boy’s location. The child didn’t press charges because Eddie and Karen treated him so well. He claimed only Sy was involved in the kidnapping. Sy, who didn’t treat the kid so well, was captured, and in true gangland code, didn’t rat the other two out. Eddie and Karen have taken on new last names and now live in relative anonymity. She’s a waitress. Together they share a home in a trailer park.

I had my good friend Mitchell D. Strauss read it (he also shoots my author photos for the Hayden Fuller series), and he gave me some really great revision strategies that I’m going to adopt over the next four months. Hopefully by Thanksgiving, I’ll have the new, improved Winsome ready to shop around.

Recently, I’ve also tried my hand at writing short crime stories. “Sun on Prospect Street, 1938” is a 1900-word hit men story inspired by an Edward Hopper painting hanging at the Cincinnati Art Museum. The painting made me think of two people sitting in a car, looking at an empty street, preparing to do what they have to do. It’s a humdinger!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’m just grateful for the opportunity to write what has always been a passion of mine: detective stories. I began writing my first stories in high school, featuring Rick Dragon, Cleveland’s toughest private eye (I’d never been to Cleveland, but the rust-belt town appealed to my love of grime and the smell of dust and dirt). Story titles such as “Accidents Will Happen” (I was a huge Elvis Costello fan back then) and “It All Makes a Lot of Sense” tells you all you need to know. In my MA workshops, I wrote literary fiction and detective stories (as a matter of fact, mobster Babe Migano first appears in a story I wrote way back in the fall of 1984. I think it was called “Find the Girl.”).

However, in workshops, I was often made to feel that detective fiction was less than, that I should be aspiring to write a story worthy of inclusion in an O. Henry Award anthology. My work was taken to be highly stylized and labeled “parody.” What, really? Parody. Come on, now. Raymond Chandler’s not a parodic writer. Neither am I.

We’re both stylized writers, but not parodic. Chandler sought to be the F. Scott Fitzgerald of crime fiction. There are a lot of links between Farewell My Lovely and the Great Gatsby: the yearning for an irretrievable past; a man searching for his lost love; the doomed romanticism of the narrative voice. Anyway, in such a workshop environment, I shoveled my love of crime detection under smoldering leaves, but it was always there, hiding around the edges of my literary stories.

In 2008 the landscape shifted and genre hybridization became more and more apparent in the world of literary publishing, as stories borrowed from speculative camps and you saw a host of literary hyphenates. I’m not a postmodernist writer. I’m a high modernist; however, not to give away any spoilers, I do, at the end of A Fourth Face, deconstruct, or at least, gray up the binaries, of the classic Mickey Spillane ending: Mike Hammer rescuing a badly beaten and tied-up Velda from a gang of communists or degenerates or communist degenerates if you like.

Anyway, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m really writing what I love and I thank you, Ted, and Twelve Winters for allowing me to pursue what got me into writing in the first place. As Sam Spade toasts in The Maltese Falcon: “Success. To crime!”


Grant Tracey is an English professor at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches film and creative writing, and has been the fiction editor of the North American Review for over seventeen years. He has published nearly fifty short stories, four collections of fiction, and articles on Samuel Fuller and James Cagney. His collections are Final Stanzas, Lovers & Strangers, Parallel Lines and the Hockey Universe, and Playing Mac: A Novella in Two Acts, and Other Scenes. In 2016 Grant published his debut crime novel, Cheap Amusements, the first Hayden Fuller Mystery. Thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Grant was the recipient of an Iowa Regents Award for Faculty Excellence in 2013. In addition to his writing, editing and teaching, Grant has acted in over thirty community theater productions. (Author photo by Mitchell D. Strauss)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Locating Our Common Humanity through Expressive Writing

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on May 24, 2018

The following was the opening keynote address at the Fifth International Conference on Language, Society and Culture in Asian Contexts, “Inclusiveness and Sustainability of Asian Societies,” Hue City, Vietnam, May 25 – 26, 2018.

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When the conference committee graciously invited me to speak to you, my first response was to go to the conference’s website and read about its overarching objective, which, I discovered, has to do with breaking down cultural barriers between nations. Even though I do not regularly travel between nations, it is an idea with which I am profoundly familiar. In the United States, the election of our current president has dramatized the theory that we have within our borders two distinct cultures, two dominant ideologies, two divisive world views which threaten to tear us into two separate nations. Or perhaps a better way of contextualizing the situation is to say that the wound caused by our Civil War which nearly broke us in two 150 years ago has never actually healed—and the current administration has merely made us painfully aware of what has always been true.

One can despair when one considers the seeming hopelessness of bridging political, ideological and cultural divides. Emotions run deep, and people are quick to anger and to become defensive when their worldview, when their belief system is challenged. In my classroom, I encourage my students to engage in discussions of the issues that divide them: gun control, immigration, gay rights, reproductive rights, among many others. I daresay that little progress appears to be made in convincing either side to alter their perceptions.

However, when my students access other aspects of their lives—when they move away from issues related to ideologies—they instantly have things in common. In fact, I would assert, they have everything in common. When I ask them to access their emotions—their joys, their disappointments, their frustrations, their achievements—they speak the same language, regardless of whether they are conservative or liberal, straight or gay, gun-owning or gun-controlling, gendered or gender-neutral, Pro-Life or Pro-Choice. That is to say, when they are asked to communicate expressively, students, above all else, are human.

Expressive Writing 1Which brings me at long last to my thesis: Through expressive writing, we can locate our common humanity. In other words, what divides us tends to be the product of intellect, while what unites us is our emotional responses to the world.

Allow me to take a moment to define some terms, especially to define them as I am using them in this presentation. The key term, obviously, is “expressive” writing, by which I mean writing that explores and communicates one’s emotional reaction to a given situation, generally a situation that one has experienced personally. I am adopting and somewhat adapting concepts discussed by James Britton, who identified three writing functions: transactional, expressive, and poetic. Briefly, “transactional” writing aims to inform and/or persuade the audience through the manipulation of primary- and secondary-source material (i.e. “research”), and in this transactional mode the writer’s self all but disappears. Transactional writing, in academic settings, takes the form of analyses and research-based reports, wherein personal experience, even in the form of anecdotal evidence, is frowned upon almost to the point of nonexistence, especially in the sciences but even in the humanities.

As Jeff Park remarks in his book Writing at the Edge, transactional writing is by far the dominant mode in the academy, while expressive writing “continues to be underdeveloped” (25). Returning to James Britton’s terms, the other modes besides “transactional” are “expressive” and “poetic.” Here things can become confusing. By “poetic,” Britton means something made out of language for language’s own sake but having little to do with writers’ expressing their feelings on the subject. Riddles, puns, acrostics, limericks may be examples of poetic language use in the way that Britton is defining the term.

Generally, though, poetry refers to writing that is highly personal and expressive. Therefore, when I use the phrase “expressive writing” I am using it as synonymous with what, in the U.S., we most often term “creative writing,” which includes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction (or the personal essay). Adding to the confusion is the fact that writers can certainly create stories, novels, poems, and essays that are not especially expressive of their emotions. They may be trying to entertain, to titillate, or to expound on some subject, but they are not trying to communicate a personal experience and how it affected them on an emotional level.

Here, today, I am specifically advocating expressive writing as a means to breaking down or through cultural barriers.

Educators have long advocated reading as a key to developing empathy in students, including empathy for people of other cultures. I certainly agree that reading about other sorts of people can spark interest and understanding, which can in turn lead to empathy. More often that not in the U.S., however, reading literature is the sole means of encouraging empathy in the humanities. Empathy development is not bolstered routinely with expressive writing, and that, I believe, is a mistake. We should be having our students write expressively—and, importantly, sharing their writing through some means of publication (more on this in a moment).

While literary study may be only one component of fostering empathy, it is through literary study that we can most vividly see evidence of our common humanity, which is so often obscured by our politics and competing ideologies. I do not want to get too sidetracked here, but I am referring to the concept of archetypal narratives which seem to spring from a common past that transcends geography and culture. I give as just one example, in brief, the narrative of the woebegone sailor who, driven off course, finds himself and his men trapped inside the dwelling of a man-eating giant. Through his cleverness and courage, the sailor manages to blind the giant and escape the dwelling by hiding amongst the giant’s grazing flock. Whether one recognizes this as the story of Odysseus, or of Sinbad, or of the Man with No Legs depends on whether one is familiar with a Greek, Persian, or Korean literary tradition.

In essence, then, the tale of the woebegone sailor is foundational in Western, Middle Eastern, and Eastern cultures (to use Western distinctions)—a tale so ancient no one can cite its precise origin. These parts of the world are sharply divided when it comes to religions and political ideologies, yet the tale of the woebegone sailor must speak to us all: the disorientation and frustration of being lost, the primal fear of being trapped by a predator of superior power, the exhilaration of resourcefulness, and the joy of our life-preserving escape: all peoples, everywhere, can relate to these emotional registers in the common story.

Through expressive writing—that is, writing that accesses and communicates our emotions rather than our ideologies—students from diverse backgrounds can locate their common humanity, and see there is as much that unites us as there is that divides us.

Expressive Writing 2This topic is obviously complex, and I can only begin, here, to outline some of its component parts, but I will touch on the following areas: the theories which underpin the effectiveness of expressive writing for fostering empathy; the likelihood of students engaging in traumatic writing when given the opportunity to express themselves; some of the side benefits of expressive writing; the importance of publishing, and not just creating, the results of expressive writing; and some concrete classroom practices if one is inclined to use expressive writing in their curriculum.

Theories about expressive writing & empathy

First, then, how does expressive (or creative) writing create a connection between writer and reader that goes beyond, that goes deeper than other sorts of modes of communication? To respond, I turn to the work of Marcelle Freiman, who is especially interested in the cognitive connections between creative writers and their readers. Building on the work of cognitive scientists like Gerrig, Oatley and Djikic, Freiman asserts that “human long-term memory” is not only “‘based on memory’” but also “‘actively generates meaning’” (133). Thus, the act of writing helps writers to organize their thoughts and reconstruct memories—including all the associations those memories evoke—and it creates “an extended, externalised mental model” which readers are invited to enter. A well-wrought narrative can make a reader experience the story as if they had direct involvement in it. I am referring to the phenomenon of being lost in a story, to which nearly everyone can relate.

Freiman theorizes that the phenomenon is caused by the reader in essence “‘writing’ the text (in the mind) while reading” (134). Here she quotes Hawkes directly: “[Writers] thus involve us in the dangerous, exhilarating activity of creating our worlds now, together with the author, as we go along” (135, emphasis in the original). Freiman is suggesting that the relationship between writer and reader goes beyond being complementary into the realm of genuine partnership; the writer and reader are literally working together to create meaning. This process of shared responsibility in the text is true of all writing, says Freiman, but it has an enhanced dynamic when it comes to expressive writing: “This capacity for the writing of the creative or literary text occurs, perhaps, even more vividly ‘as experience’ because now the process involves imagination, including experiential representations of referents such as perceptions and emotions, in the language that writes what is imaginatively construed, to be read by a reader” (135). I want to underscore the words perceptions and emotions as these are key elements in an act of empathy. Understanding how others perceive their world and the emotions their perceptions elicit is absolutely vital to seeing people as people and not merely avatars for the ideologies they appear to represent.Expressive Writing 3

Likelihood of students writing about trauma

Let me move on to the question, why are students likely to write about trauma when given the opportunity to write expressively? When left to choose their own subject, many students will, of course, elect to write about happy things, which is valid. Writing about successes, about favorite memories, about the love of family and friends are all legitimate responses to an open-ended task to compose; and others can relate to positive experiences. But many, many students will choose to write about a traumatic experience in their lives, and it is due to the nature of trauma. The term “trauma” is slippery, and it is used to describe a vast array of life experiences; thus, depending on how widely or how narrowly one defines what constitutes “trauma,” the number of people who are suffering from some level of traumatic stress fluctuates up and down. Various studies identify between a quarter and three-quarters of the U.S. population as having had some kind of traumatic experience.1 People who have been traumatized tend to want to write about the experience, either explicitly or implicitly. Studies in the field of neuropsychology have suggested that trauma-related language dominates the linguistic functioning of victims.2 As MacCurdy observes, “Invariably writers gravitate to their difficult stories, the ones that cause the most pain and confusion . . .” (15).Expressive Writing 4

Because the academy does not privilege expressive writing, relatively few educators are trained to facilitate it, and, consequently, to respond to students’ writing about their traumatic experiences. When students elect to write about traumatic episodes in their lives, the complexities of the writing classroom multiply exponentially. The most immediate question educators must ask themselves is “Which is more important: the student’s acquisition of writing skills, or the student’s emotional welfare, which may be improved by engaging the traumatic event?” Before responding to my own question, I should say that communicating one’s trauma is a standard practice in therapy, either through one-on-one discussions with one’s therapist, in a group-therapy setting, or through writing (or some combination of these basic approaches). Once a teacher encourages students to engage their trauma in the classroom, the distinction between teacher and therapist can become murky. MacCurdy attempts to draw a distinction when she writes, “Teachers are advisers, mentors, and role models. Listening with compassion helps to fulfill those responsibilities and creates the trust needed for the student to delve into a difficult topic. . .  . However, teachers are not therapists. While a therapist may listen and then counsel, teachers listen and, if appropriate, suggest counseling and other professional services” (6).

I find no fault with MacCurdy’s assessment other than to say that she makes it plain why teaching—and perhaps especially teaching writing—is more art than science. Knowing when and how to respond to students’ work relies almost entirely on professional judgment; there are no clear-cut guidelines to follow, as much as we may wish at times there were.3

Benefits of expressive writing

So, writing about trauma can have therapeutic benefits for students. If one looks at that aspect of trauma writing—potential emotional benefits—certain pedagogical difficulties emerge regarding the sort of work students produce (in essence, how fragmentary or how complete it may be or must be), the ways in which it should be assessed (according to traditional guidelines for written work or by some other kind of rubric), and whether or not it should be shared with others (that is, published). How one responds to each of these issues may depend in large part on the end goal. If the end goal is for students to produce something that is most definitely going to be shared with others (versus something mainly for their own experiencing of the process), then the pedagogy must shift accordingly.Expressive Writing 5

Again, we are in the realm of art more than of science. The difference between students writing something only for themselves and students writing something which will be shared with others may lie in how the teacher contextualizes the act of writing and the possible benefits of sharing highly personal experiences. Allow me to say what may be needless to say: The best writing—the best art—is generally rooted in the highly personal experience. In order to create texts that are meaningful, and emotionally and intellectually engaging for readers, writers must be willing to reveal their most personal and their most private experiences and ideas. Marguerite MacRobert recommends that writers use techniques similar to those employed by method actors (à la Stanislavski). She says, “Writers are often spoken of as observers, and many writing workshops hone observation skills, but what Stanislavski says of acting could be emphasised in writing too: openness to experience as it occurs and being able to access emotional memories are crucial writing abilities. . . .” (353).

I will add anecdotally that when I took fiction writing workshops with the novelist Kent Haruf, in the opening class session Kent would always ask us to share something personal about ourselves that we had never shared with anyone else. The point of his exercise was that to be effective fiction writers we must be willing and able to share our most personal thoughts and experiences with our readers. Holding back leads to writing that is less than it could be. This sort of openness may seem like a tall order to expect of young students, but recall that traumatized students generally want to write about their traumatic experiences. In fact, they need to write about them. The pedagogical trick is not to get them to write personally, but to be willing to share their personal writing with others: to instill them with confidence, and to teach them that their sharing can benefit others, namely their readers.Expressive Writing 6

Given our setting and the conference’s overarching mission it is vital to note that expressive writing can transcend language barriers, and in fact can benefit from them. That is, students writing in languages other than their primary language (in English for instance) can be beneficial to the expressive-writing process in several ways. Here I will turn to the work of Owens and Brien, who developed a project in which international students attending universities in Australia wrote expressively in English with the goal of producing a published journal. Too often, international students’ language skills are viewed as a weakness or an obstacle to be overcome; however, Owens and Brien, among others (I included), advocate seeing these students’ language skills as a strength and an opportunity. They write, “[P]erceptions about the English skills of [Learners of English as an Alternative (or Additional) Language] have serious implications for large numbers of students, teachers, employers and, more broadly, the higher education industry. . . . [R]ecognising these learners as linguistically complex (rather than deficient) and finding new and enhanced methods to support their language needs . . . could transform both university practices and the students’ experience of those practices” (361-362). In particular, Owens and Brien advocate the use of creative writing as a way to foster these learners’ acquisition of alternative languages and to ease their assimilation into unfamiliar environments.Expressive Writing 7

In Owens and Brien’s project, they found that international students were drawn to writing about the difficulties associated with cultural assimilation. While writing in a language other than their mother tongue did present some challenges, there were also numerous benefits. They write, “[Alternative Language speakers] have both less (English) and more (languages other than English) lexical-syntactic-semantic knowledge than monolingual English speakers. They rely on a more restricted English resource but have alternative language options available to express meaning. . . . So, whilst mother tongue speakers may use their language creatively in response to situational characteristics, Alternative Language speakers may use English more creatively . . .” (362). What is more, the way Alternative Language speakers approach language may lead to particularly poetic constructions, say Owens and Brien. As someone who has taught Alternative Language speakers in creative writing workshops (especially speakers of Asian languages and, most often, speakers of Chinese), I can attest that even beginning creative writers can compose some startlingly beautiful phrases and images in English because of their knowledge of multiple languages, not in spite of it.Expressive Writing 8

Importance of sharing & publishing

It definitely goes without saying that if expressive writing is going to help break down cultural barriers, it must be shared across borders (both geographic and ideologic), which is where publication enters the discussion. Though discussing their project in the microcosm of their university settings, Owens and Brien found that Alternative Language students writing expressively benefited both the writers themselves and their audience: “It allows readers, such as academic staff as well as other students, to gain insight into the cross-cultural experience and develop greater empathy for the cultural sojourner” (369). Moreover, “the act of authoring such texts” can be “empowering” on multiple levels: “Promoting the creative and unique English language capacities of [Alternative Language students] . . . across English speaking host-communities, can help . . . build empathy, understanding and appreciation in a language context where they are conventionally de-valued” (369). Moreover, Jess-Cooke believes that students’ producing “a completed piece of work is a significant part of building self-esteem, and therefore contributes to wellbeing” (254).Expressive Writing 9

Fortunately, we live in a time when sharing writing (or video or audio) across the globe is relatively simple. Material can be posted to the Web of course. Texts can be made available to download to various sorts of e-readers (Kindle, etc.), and print-on-demand options make physically published anthologies readily and cheaply available via outlets like Amazon among many others. Speaking as a publisher and author, the challenge is not to make students’ writing available across cultural boundaries, but rather how to help others realize it is available in the flood of material that is published, one way or another, every day. Some estimates put the number of new book titles alone released each year in the neighborhood of a million. On any given day, several thousand new titles may become available. Unfortunately I have not solved this conundrum. I would say, as with any project, the way to begin, at least, is to start small. That is, micro-target specific audiences, perhaps via university networking opportunities, as afforded via conferences like this one. Work with colleagues in other countries to produce expressive writing and share it beyond physical borders. Perhaps combine the work of students from several countries in a single anthology to be shared and distributed amongst the project participants. Students’ texts could be captured via audio recordings and video performances, adding additional contextual layers to the communicated experiences.

Concrete classroom practices

I would like to end with a practical suggestion for a writing prompt. I have found that students respond quite effectively to what I call “A Moment of Clarity” narrative essay. I ask them to write about a time when they came to understand something about themselves or about their world due to a specific event in their lives. (I have provided the specific assignment and pre-drafting activity as an appendix to this presentation.) Some students write about positive things in their lives: learning the importance of teamwork or dedication, discovering what they want to do with their lives, embracing their spiritual selves, accepting their true sexuality, and so on. More students, though, tend to write about traumatic, life-transforming experiences: the death of a loved one, a near-death experience of their own, the separation of their parents, the crushing loss of a best friend or first girlfriend or boyfriend.

Allow me to share some brief excerpts of papers my students wrote this past year as a response to the “Moment of Clarity” prompt (the students have granted their permission, and I have obscured their identities):

Expressive Writing 10From a student whose boyfriend was driving recklessly and lost control of his car: “The convertible Mustang [car] flipped, pinning me underneath the vehicle. The only thing that kept me from getting my head smashed was the headrest that held it up just enough. I needed to stay calm. I couldn’t focus on anything else but the sound of the blood dripping on the ground. I tried to move my right arm and couldn’t.”

Expressive Writing 11From a student who struggled with the death of her grandmother after a long illness: “Now I understand that death occurs in everyone’s life and everyone is affected by it differently. She was in pain because of the cancer and all of the medicine she was taking. Seeing her in the casket was different because she looked peaceful and beautiful compared to the cancer’s effect on her. I have to let her go because I love her and she would not want me to be afraid or sad. She would want me to strive and achieve my goals and to live my life.”

Expressive Writing 12From a student who attempted suicide: “I spent my teenage years begging myself at night not to give up, not to kill myself. My first attempt at suicide was in 2015. I remember sitting in my room and the feeling rushed upon me. ‘You’re not good enough . . . you don’t deserve to live . . . just do it.’ I felt numb in that moment. I didn’t feel like a person. I got up and grabbed the bottle of pills. I begged myself to get help and go get my mother, but all I could think about was swallowing the pills and not being here anymore.”

Expressive Writing 13From a student who has given up her Christian faith: “I think how many Native Americans think. How we’re all connected and that you should put out what you want in return. I feel life is sacred, but so is the afterlife. The two worlds co-exist with one another. Death doesn’t mean the end of life, it’s just the beginning.”

These narratives were written by young people living in a small town in the heart of the United States, but I daresay they express feelings and concerns and issues that young people—that all people—face daily, no matter their culture, no matter their country, no matter their ideology.

Notes

  1. See Bessel A. Van der Kolk, Alexander C. McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth, editors. Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society. Guilford, 2007, p. 5.
  2.  See Jennifer J. Vasterling, and Chris R. Brewin, editors. Neuropsychology of PTSD: Biiological, Cognitive, and Clinical Perspectives, Guilford, 2005. In particular see Joseph I. Constans. “Information-Processing Biases in PTSD,” Vasterling and Brewin, pp. 105-130.
  3. See Ted Morrissey. Trauma Theory As a Method for Understanding Literary Texts: The Psychological Basis of Postmodern Hermeneutics, Edwin Mellen, 2016. In particular see Chapter 7, “Pedagogical Implications and Conclusions,” pp. 185-224.

Works Cited

Freiman, Marcelle. “A ‘Cognitive Turn’ in Creative Writing — Cognition, Body and Imagination.” New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 12, no. 2, 2015, pp. 127-142.

Jess-Cooke, Carolyn. “Should Creative Writing Courses Teach Ways of Building Resilience?” New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 12, no. 2, 2015, pp. 249-259.

MacCurdy, Marian Mesrodian. The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing about Trauma. U of Massachusetts P, 2007.

MacRobert, Marguerite. “Exploring an Acting Method to Contain the Potential Madness of the Creative Process: Mental Health and Writing with Emotion.” International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 9, no. 3, 2012, pp. 349-360.

Owens, Alison R., and Donna L. Brien. “Writing Themselves: Using Creative Writing to Facilitate International Student Accounts of Their Intercultural Experience.” New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 11, no. 3, 2014, pp. 359-374.

Park, Jeff. Writing at the Edge: Narrative and Writing Process Theory. Peter Lang, 2005.

Jailbreak!: William Gass’s Lifelong Work to Free Himself from the Imprisonment of Print

Posted in February 2018, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 23, 2018

This paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, University of Louisville, on February 23, 2018. Due to a last-minute change, I chaired the panel, Temporalities of Revision. Other panelists were Kelly Kiehl, University of Cincinnati; and Sarah-Jordan Stout, Rice University. The paper is dedicated to William H. Gass, who passed away December 6, 2017.

 


 

In the annals of American experimental fiction, William H. Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife holds a place of reverence due, mainly, to its ambitious (some may say, excessive) experimentation: nineteen different typefaces (varying in point sizes, with unusual placements and movements on the pages), and copious graphic elements, including several photos of a nude model. The odd little novella first appeared in 1968 as TriQuarterly supplement No. 2 – in its most experimental format, which included a variety of paper stock in addition to its other eccentricities – then in a hardcover edition from Knopf (1971) and later a paperback edition from Dalkey Archive (1989). The Knopf and Dalkey editions maintained the original design, minus the use of various paper stock.

Willie Masters’ occupies a place of infamy in Postmodern circles: No one faults Gass’s ambitions. However, the odd little book hasn’t garnered much, well, affection over the years either, which I think is a crying shame. Even Gass himself wasn’t overly generous regarding the end result. In the Art of Fiction interview (1976) he stated,

I was trying out some things. Didn’t work. Most of them didn’t work. . . . Too many of my ideas turned out to be only ideas—situations where the reader says: “Oh yeah, I get the idea,” but that’s all there is to get, the idea. I don’t give a shit for ideas—which in fiction represent inadequately embodied projects—I care only for affective effects. (Conversations 22)

He was, I think, a little too hard on himself. I am moved by the book; it affects me, but perhaps not quite as Gass would have hoped. And Gass may have changed his opinion of Willie Masters’ success over time. In the essay “Anywhere but Kansas” which first appeared in The Iowa Review in 1994 (nearly thirty years after writing Willie Masters’ and on the cusp of The Tunnel’s publication, which required a gestation of nearly that length of time and which makes use of many of the techniques in its infamous predecessor), Gass discusses the importance of experimentation: “An experiment, I would learn much later, . . . had to arise from a real dissatisfaction with existing knowledge. There was a gap to be filled, a fracture to be repaired, an opening to be made” (29). The public at large, he says, only admires experiments that work; however, for the experimenters themselves, an unsuccessful experiment may bring its own kind of success. “In the lab,” writes Gass, “a ‘no’ may not elicit cheers; it is nevertheless a bearer of important information” (30). He may, then, have learned some important narrative lessons from Willie Masters’, lessons he took to heart during the three decades he labored on The Tunnel, which shares some of Willie Masters’ techniques, but significantly toned down.

Gass imposingWhat is more, three decades later, Gass felt just as strongly about the need for writers to engage in experimentation for the sake of their art: “[I]t is . . .  repeatedly necessary for writers to shake the system by breaking its rules, ridiculing its lingo, and disdaining whatever is in intellectual fashion. To follow fashion is to play the pup” (Conversations 30). Gass may not have achieved the aesthetic affects he was aiming for in Willie Masters’ in 1968, but, in retrospect, he seemed to value his own efforts — though he doesn’t say so explicitly.

As wildly experimental as Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife turned out to be, it was tamer than Gass had in mind1. A visit to the Gass Papers at Washington University in St. Louis, where Gass taught philosophy from 1969 to 1999, can give us some sense of what the author had in mind from the start, working only with a manual typewriter, pen or pencil, straight edge, scissors and glue, plus other objects like fabric and newspaper clippings. In part what Gass was trying to achieve was bridging the gap between writer and reader by making the narrative come to life, so to speak, in the reader’s hands. That is, rather than simply describing things — that is, providing symbols for things — which evoke intellectual and (hopefully) emotional responses in the reader, Gass wanted the thing itself to become part of the reader’s world. In essence, the book itself becomes a performance piece in the reader’s world — akin perhaps to the playwright’s task in moving from script to performed play. One writes of a pistol on the page, which becomes a real pistol on the stage, one which discharges so that the audience members can actually hear its bang and actually smell its smoke.

Gass may encourage this comparison by including a play as one of the multiple narratives at work in Willie Masters’, whose overarching narrative is Babs Masters’ seduction of the reader into her lonely text. One of the best examples of Gass’s attempt to move from manuscript into the reader’s reality is via a set of coffee-cup rings that appear on several pages. A new section of the novella begins, “The muddy circle you see just before you and below you represents the ring left on the leaf of the manuscript by my coffee cup” ([37]). But just as the theatrical pistol is only a prop, Gass immediately acknowledges that the dark-brown circle is not actually a ring from his cup: “Represents, I say, because, as you must surely realize, this book is many removes from anything I’ve set pen, hand, or cup to.” The author attempts to enter the reader’s reality more corporeally than authors typically do, but, ultimately, that gap can only be bridged so far.

Text with coffee ring 1

We can see that the coffee-ring idea was an early one in Gass’s conception of the book, and, in fact, was created no doubt by actual coffee.The circle returns later in the novella, but in a more metaphorical role according to the text it encircles: “This is the moon of daylight” ([52]). The circle multiplies to appear as five circles on the final two pages of the book, in two cases highlighting the inserted phrases “HERE BE DRAGONS” and “YOU HAVE FALLEN INTO ART — RETURN TO LIFE” ([58]). The final coffee-like ring appears on the facing page, which is a close-up of the female nude’s breasts and navel, with the ring encircling the latter.Others have noted that there are (at least) two female models used for the book: one whose image appears on the cover, and another whose images appear (possibly) eight times throughout the book. The final coffee ring appears on the torso of, it appears, the cover’s model. The interior version of Babs Masters is more, well, voluptuous than the cover and final coffee-ring Babs. Yet there is a striking difference between the cover and the final image:  The nude on the cover has no belly-button; it’s been airbrushed out. The final coffee-ring encircles and emphasizes the belly-button, however, maybe making us take note of its absence on the cover.

coffee rings - there be dragons

WM cover - no navel

navel - close up

Is it in fact, then, Babs represented on the cover of the book, or is it Eve? Gass would go on to use Eve as a metaphor with regularity in his fictions. Michael Hardin makes some provocative observations about Willie Masters’ in an article in Short Story, discussing both Gass’s novella and Kathy Acker’s New York City in 1979. Hardin notes, for example, that on the first page of the book Babs’s hand reaches toward the title just as the reader does in a rather hand-of-God sort of way:

The extended arm references Michelangelo’s Creation of Man, where God is extending his hand to spark life into Adam’s extended hand. The reader must decide whether Babs (the wife) is in the space of the creator or the created. . . . [G]iven the nature of the sexual politics of the text, one might argue that Babs is the creative spark passed between author (whose hand reaches out with the pen) and reader, God and Adam. (80-81)

hand of godPerhaps Hardin didn’t notice the MIA belly-button because he doesn’t bring Eve into the analysis even though it seems rife for her inclusion. By encircling Babs’s navel at the conclusion of the book (and returning to the cover model for the image), Gass signals that Eve/Babs is now only Babs, making the statement “You have fallen into art—return to life” especially provocative. It may be that our sojourn in the complicated text of Willie Masters’ – which Gass overtly parallels with our having sexual intercourse with Babs – is akin to the Fall, and when we reach the final page we are expelled from the textual Paradise, like hapless Adam and Eve; however, like Adam and Eve we have acquired a unique experience for which we are the richer, even if that richness is colored by sin. But since sin in this metaphor is art/sex, Gass implies sin ain’t such a bad thing, and, in fact, it (art, experiencing it, creating it) is the only thing that makes life worth living: An idea which Gass returned to again and again in his fiction, his essays, his criticism, and his interviews. In addition to being a voracious and eclectic reader, Gass said, in 1971, that he enjoyed “all” the arts, “especially perhaps ballet (when pure and not mucked up) and architecture. I was an opera nut when young. . . . I haunt museums when I can. In one sense, painting has influenced my theory of art more than almost anything, music my practice of it” (9). Gass’s interest in the visual is obviously reflected in his merging of text with pictorial elements. As a writer, he was about what all writers ought to be about, he said: “You are advancing an art—the art. That is what you are trying to do” (26).

One of Gass’s ambitions in Willie Masters’ is to seduce the reader into reading the text carefully and thoughtfully – that is, deeply. Already in 1966, when he began work on the novella, Gass recognized that too many readers were impatiently speeding through texts, and (worse perhaps) too many writers were providing them material that enabled such shallow encounters. Gass said, “A lot of modern writers . . . are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motor boats. . . . They stand to literature as fast food to food” (25). Whenever one begins unpacking a Gass metaphor, the act, by necessity, becomes reductive. Nevertheless, for illustration’s sake, I’ll work my way through Gass’s attempted seduction of the reader in Willie Masters’ via his use of metaphor, wordplay, and imagery. I will force myself as best I can to hold onto a single strand and resist the text’s Siren song which could lead us in myriad directions (not to our doom, however).

One of several storylines Gass juggles in Willie Masters’ is a playscript featuring Ivan and Olga wherein Ivan finds a penis baked into his breakfast roll. At this point in the novella the carnival ride hasn’t become too topsy-turvy for the reader, but it’s about to begin spinning (nearly) out of control. Gass starts interrupting the playscript with footnotes which engage the reader in academic-sounding notes related, it seems, to the main narrative. The first footnote is signaled by an asterisk, and the second by two asterisks (just as Gass is using asterisks to represent other things in the text besides footnotes, so are these footnotes after all? — Or is Gass toying with us?). The second alleged footnote references John Locke’s Concerning Human Understanding (ha!) and discusses how “ideas” are “take[n] in,” “masticate[d]” and “swallow[ed] down” ([15], my emphasis on down). The footnote-like interruptions continue on the following pages, except on page [17] the footnote itself is interrupted with yet another typeface, in bold, which says, “Now that I’ve got you alone down here [i.e., at the bottom of the page], you bastard, don’t think I’m letting you get away easily, no sir, not you brother; anyway, how do you think you’re going to get out, down here where it’s dark and oily like an alley . . . ?” Suddenly “down here” is not the bottom of the page, but rather it’s Babs talking to us about her dark and oily sex, which she says is as “meaningless as Plato’s cave.” We, the blissful readers, have been lured there, in between Babs’s waiting legs, and there’s no easy way out.

Footnote - close up

foot pageThe complexities mount, so to speak, for twenty or more pages before we come (ugh) to the section that introduces us to the “muddy circle” — whose dark shape, like the opening of Plato’s cave perhaps, has even more symbolic weight than mere coffee-cup ring. We also note that the section begins with Babs’s bare leg and foot knocking down the enlarged “T” in “The” with which the paragraph starts, thus echoing the earlier seductive “footnote” ([37]). Gass’s playing with the convention of the footnote, a standard feature of annotated texts, appears to contradict its function, at first, but upon further contemplation (and multiple readings) it does not contradict it. That is, normally a footnote aids in clarifying a reference, and thereby maybe an entire passage, but the footnotes in Willie Masters’ seem to only muddy the narrative waters, obscuring instead of clarifying. However, we later realize that the footnotes are aiding our understanding of the novella as a whole, contributing to the convention that Gass is attempting to seduce us into a complex relationship with his book. Intercourse with Babs Masters cannot be a mere one-night stand; she gets into your head and won’t let you go — à la Fatal Attraction. (Luckily I don’t have a pet rabbit.)

Earlier I said that I am affected by Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. I must acknowledge that its characters do not engage me on an emotional level, but the book itself – Gass’s ambitions and his achievements –are inspirational to me as a creative writer. A black-and-white photo of the Master hangs on the wall next to my desk; a line drawing, too, on the wall of our master bedroom, next to the door where it will be viewed most frequently; I have acquired 51 books either by Gass or which include his writing (among them first editions, rare books, and several bearing his autograph), and this isn’t counting the books about Gass’s work. I have surrounded myself by the Master and his words, including this literary call-to-arms at the end of Willie Masters’: “It’s not the languid pissing prose we’ve got, we need; but poetry, the human muse, full up, erect and on charge, impetuous and hot and loud and wild like Messalina going to the stews, or those damn rockets streaming headstrong into the stars.”

Amen, Master. Rest in peace, and in the knowledge some of us will carry on the good fight.

Notes

1. See “‘The Text Is Oozing Out’: William H. Gass and Transliteracy” by Clarence Wolfshohl, Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 26, no. 4, 1989, pp. 497-503, in which Wolfshohl shares some of his personal correspondence with Gass regarding Willie Masters’ and its production.: “The stains and the nude photos are as close as Gass comes to bringing the outside physical world into the hook, but he wanted much more. He also thought of having cloth tip-ins and a condom bookmark, and, in his own words, ‘lots of other nutty things.'”

2. I’d like to thank Joel Minor and the other archivists in the Special Collections Department of Olin Library at Washington University in St. Louis for their assistance in examining the manuscript drafts of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. Visit William H. Gass: The Soul Inside the Sentence.

3. The photography in Willie Masters’ was by Burton L. Rudman. Gass had hoped for an older model to portray Babs, according to Wolfshohl (see note 1). The images of Gass’s original manuscript pages are by the author.

Works Cited

Gass, William H. “Anywhere but Kansas.” Tests of Time, The U of Chicago P, 2002, pp. 28-36.

—. Conversations with William H. Gass. Edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003.

—. Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Dalkey Archive, 1998.

Hardin, Michael. “Desiring Fragmented Bodies and Texts: William H. Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and Kathy Acker’s New York City in 1979.Short Story, vol. 11, no. 2, 2003, pp. 79-90.

 

 

Interview with Brady Harrison: The Dying Athabaskan

Posted in February 2018, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 10, 2018

I’ve long been interested in the long story and novella; that is, literary work that falls in the gray-area length between a typical (nowadays) short story and a full-length novel — let’s say, about 5,000 words and 50,000 words. That’s an awfully large gap separating what most literary journals will consider and what most agents and commercial publishers will look at for book publication. Yet this is a fairly recent development in the publishing biz. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century it was commonplace for national magazines to publish longer pieces (often serially) which would then be picked up by a commercial publisher for book publication.

Think Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, and Joseph Conrad, resulting in works like A Christmas Carol, Cranford, The Cossacks, The Turn of the Screw, Ethan Frome, The Awakening, and Heart of Darkness, among many, many other great works that are powerful even though — or maybe because — they are not full-length novels.

My interest in the form led me to design a course on the long story and novella for Lindenwood University’s MFA in Writing program (online), which I’ll be teaching for the third time in summer quarter; and it led me to create the Publisher’s Long Story Prize via my literary press, Twelve Winters. The first calls went out in the summer of 2016, and the response was immediate. We appeared to strike a rich and largely untapped vein.  (See the Prizes’s page for further information.)

Dying Athabaskan - FRONT COVER 400From that initial round of submissions, we eventually culled our first winner: The Dying Athabaskan by Brady Harrison, a complex narrative about a freelance writer who embarks on discovering the inspiration for a famous sculpture, The Dying Athabaskan. We recently released our first Long Story Prize winner in paperback and digital editions, and author Brady Harrison generously agreed to be interviewed about his book, his writing process, and today’s literary landscape, especially as it pertains to these in-between-length works of fiction. Here are Brady’s unedited responses.

TM: Even though my main literary love interest is William Gass, by the transitive property of literary love I’m also a fan of James Joyce, and I seem to see a lot of Joycean influence in The Dying Athabaskan: experimenting with varying forms; alluding to other books and artwork, often within the context of working-class drinking establishments; playing with language in the service of lyricism; and even your treatment of dialogue is very Joycean, from a mechanical perspective especially. In particular I’m seeing a lot of Ulysses. Am I projecting that onto your text, or would you count Joyce among your influences?

brady harrison v2 - 150 dpiBH: Joyce: absolutely, and for all the reasons you indicate:  the restless mind, the interest in experimentation and blending different genres, the love of language and how it sounds, and the love of books, music, art. And, the love of bars, of course. In addition to Joyce, my favorite writers are the anatomists, those writers of big, all-over-the-place narratives that refuse to settle on one storytelling mode or style, but that keep experimenting, keep trying out new ideas and ways of expressing them. I’m thinking here of those great comic, yet serious writers like Melville, Sterne, Diderot, Flann O’Brien, Flaubert (in Bouvard and Pécuchet), Woolf, Stein, and Sebald, among many others.  Oh, and Gass, though I know you’re a bigger fan than I am.  For language, the same folks, and Faulkner, too.  A list of my literary heroes. (For the record, I’m also a big fan of Margaret Atwood, despite O’Keevan’s dig.)

In a relatively brief narrative you offer a variety of perspectives and forms. Is this typical of your style, or is The Dying Athabaskan a departure in some ways?

Left to my own devices, this would be my style, but over the years I’ve found it’s easier to place stories that don’t change gears so often, that don’t mix forms, but rather that rely on a consistent point of view and more straight-forward narrative strategies. And, I’m mostly ok with that: the straight-forward story imposes a kind of discipline that I need, and reminds me that I’m not just writing for myself. I remember something that was going around on the web: “Shakespeare wrote for money.” Whenever I find myself wanting to experiment, to turn a story into a play or a letter or a tale from the Arabian nights, and then turn it back and then into something else again, I usually have to reel myself back in. In the case of The Dying Athabaskan, however, I think it works because Ritu, in the process of trying to understand whether or not a thing can mean, tries out any number of forms and approaches. She’s also trying to find out about herself, about her own powers and mind.

Mainstream publishers — even mainstream literary publishers — aren’t inclined to embrace narrative experimentation. Yet you wrote a long, experimental story, perhaps doubling the difficulty of finding a publisher. Can you speak to your interest in experimentation?

After working on stories for a few years, I wanted to try something longer, and wrote a novel about a real-life French poet-explorer set in North Africa in 1930, and I wrote it in the form of an explorer’s journal. It began realistically — what would it be like to travel in the Western Sahara, about the only place in the world that’s not a country, while trying to avoid capture by Berbers and Moors? — but soon enough the journal begins to mutate into other narrative forms and the narrator begins to meet other writer-adventurers who died before he was born, or were born after he died, and at least one of his guides keeps changing shapes and sizes. The narrator, disguised as a woman, begins to turn into a woman. Of course, I thought it was great, comic yet serious, and a number of publishers asked to review the ms.: no takers, and one perhaps made plain what the others were thinking: how could we possibly market so strange a novel about a gender-shifting Frenchman to American readers? Oh, and some sections were written in French, and much of the plot turned around a letter written and mailed to the un-hero before he was born. All to say, I learned my lesson: experimentation and a sort of wildness, at least as I managed them, seem not to be suited to the contemporary marketplace.  Or, maybe it wasn’t any good.

The Dying Athabaskan is the title story of a collection you’re shopping. How would you describe the other stories and their relationship to Athabaskan?

For a long time, the working title of the collection was “Sever,” and most of the stories turn around key moments when the protagonist breaks or severs ties with others or with themselves, usually through an act of emotional or physical violence. In The Dying Athabaskan, Brion wants desperately to sever himself from Sister, Briony breaks rather violently with Neil, and O’Keevan seems to want to push almost everyone away.  In another story, a no-longer-young man has finally resolved, at his mother’s urging, to leave his parents’ failing farm; in a third, a successful engineer abandons his family while on vacation. In a one page story, two friends follow through on a long-ago promise to murder, if a certain thing ever happens, a third buddy. And, then, having severed ties, how does a person go about reconnecting, reconciling, making peace?  Some of the stories are about trying to repair the damage done, or about trying to make meaningful connections where they seem unlikely. In one way or another, they all turn around that very human problem of loss and what to do about it. But I should add:  they’re not all as grim as I might be making them sound; some of them, I hope, are funny, and I’ll call the one about the brothers-by-choice killing their buddy a black comedy.

One of your pub credits is the journal The Long Story — a journal I’ve admired for years, decades perhaps (its editor has rejected my work several times) — which suggests that Athabaskan isn’t your first piece of long narrative fiction. Is the long story/novella a length/form you find yourself especially drawn to? And if so, why? (William Gass felt that the novella was his natural medium, and he was at his best writing in that in-between length, or perhaps his most comfortable.)

If I love the long, baggy, all-over-the-place anatomies (except Pynchon: can’t stand his work, save for The Crying of Lot 49, and have no idea why he’s so celebrated), I also love, equally, the novella, and routinely teach courses on the genre. My lure to students: “If, as Randall Jarrett famously remarked, a ‘novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it,’ and if, as some readers protest, short stories simply cannot offer the richness and complexities of longer works, then what could be more perfect than the novella, that rare, gem-like form somewhere-in-between?” Really good novellas seem to achieve a degree of perfection — I’m not making that claim for myself! — that novels cannot, and seem to offer a richer tapestry than can usually be achieved in stories.

And, some writers, I think, achieve their best work in the form:  I think, for example, that Joyce Carol Oates does some of her best work in the novella, and she’s one of the few contemporary writers who works consistently in the genre. Same thing for Stephen King: while I find his novels way too long, he seems best when he self-edits yet gives plenty of character and just enough plot in works like “Stand by Me” or “The Mist.” The truly sublime novellas: there are many of course, but I would say, Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, and any short novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. In the latter case, every time I read one of her short works, I wonder, How does she do it? Oh, and many of Georges Simenon’s roman durs, outstanding.

Ok, to sort of get back to your question!  I was really lucky (and really honored) to place a story in The Long Story, a journal that, like you, I’ve admired forever. “The Guest” is a really tough thing to read:  it’s about a driver hitting a homeless person, who then sails through the front windshield, and the driver, rather than calling the police and ambulance, drives home and parks in the garage. When I first wrote the story, it was about twice as long: I wanted to honor the tradition in the novella of a frame narrative, and I told, alongside the story of the accident and its aftermath, the story of the narrator, an investigative journalist, and how and why he was dying.  Suffering a traumatic injury of his own, this will be his last work as a reporter. In the end, I cut the frame, and while the story certainly gained in intensity and focus, it also perhaps lost something, too.  All to say, I hope to keep working on the long story: call it the best of both worlds, novel and short fiction.

Long stories are so difficult to place these days, did you think about that as you were writing it? Did you consider restraining the narrative to try to keep it within a more publishable length? How difficult was it to find a publisher for Athabaskan?

I’ll be blunt: I’m damn lucky you created the Publisher’s Long Story Prize! Like most folks, I’d like to see my work into print, but at the same time I’m just perverse enough to also want to write what I want to write and the market be damned.  But you’re right:  I was taking a chance in writing that weird in-between length. At the same time, the long story or novella has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the last decade or so. I’m thinking of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series (though of course they mostly republish the “classics”) and a few literary journals have novella contests every other year or so.  There seems to be a modest market for the form, and it’s not unusual for collections by big guns like David Gates or George Saunders to include a long story.  And, as I say, Joyce Carol Oates (who’s a force of nature) routinely does her part to keep the form alive and well.

As you know, the Press publishes Grant Tracey’s Hayden Fuller Mystery Series, and Hayden is Grant’s alter ego ex-NHL star turned detective, gumshoeing his way through the mean streets of 1960s Toronto, where Grant grew up. Hockey is a major element in Athabaskan as well. Can you talk about hockey’s influence on your creative psyche growing up in Canada?

Grant 5Grant! The G-man! I love Cheap Amusements (and Parallel Lines and the Hockey Universe) in no small part because of the hockey connections. And, I remember vividly the hard-boiled short films Grant made while we were in grad school:  in the Fuller mysteries, we get two of Grant’s passions, two-fisted action on and off the ice.  More on Grant in a moment.

Hockey? I guess you could say I’m about as Canadian as they come. I still play hockey two nights a week, skate in as many pond hockey tournaments as I can, and will often hang around after our games to watch other buddies play; I still count the Montreal Canadiens as my favorite team (the arch enemies of Grant’s beloved Toronto Maple Leafs) and try to catch their games on TV. I love everything about hockey: the speed, the way skates work on ice, the team play, the sheer thrill of scoring a goal. I also love weird things about the sport: I love the sounds of the game, and I’m fascinated by the way players talk to one another in mid-play. I’m a true rink-rat, for sure, always have been.

Ok, that’s a long preamble to a question that I probably can’t answer: hockey’s always been a big part of my life, but The Dying Athabaskan is my first story to include the game. Winter: that has shaped my imagination in every way possible, and hockey is a part of my winter mind: I find in so many of my stories that the cold creeps into the action, that snow and ice and how it feels to be out in winter creeps into the characters and how they move and perhaps even think. There’s a certain caution that comes with winter, but also a genuine exhilaration. I’m rambling: I know and love winter, I can say that much.

After selecting The Dying Athabaskan for the Publisher’s Long Story Prize, we learned that you and Grant have more in common than both being from Canada and writing about hockey. You actually went to grad school together. Can you dish a favorite grad school story on Grant?

Ok, this is the question I’ve been waiting for!  Grant was such a big part of my life in those days, and we’ve remained friends over the years. Back in the day, Grant had a punk rock show on the local public radio station, and he was kind enough to invite me, on several occasions, to sit in and have some time on the mic talking about the music and the history and evolution of punk. I remember the hot, cramped little booth at WEFT, and most of all I remember Grant’s passion and encyclopedic knowledge. What a blast it was: the Clash, Patti Smith, the Ramones, MC5, Iggy, X-Ray Spex, the Pistols, real old school turned up to 11. Grant was such a great host, and the show was on late, and who knows who was out there, listening, but we had such a brilliant time. (G-man:  if you’re reading this, hit me with your ultimate Spirit of ’77 playlist: now that the smoke has cleared, what’s the one, perfect show’s worth of songs?!)

One other story: one day, we hopped in his explode-able Pinto and drove from Champaign-Urbana to Washington, D.C., to see, at the Library of Congress, an alternative ending to Kiss Me Deadly a noir starring Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer. We were just kids, and we had the time of our lives: Grant was doing research on hard-boiled films, and I had never seen the capital, and we talked music and movies and books for hours and hours. Did the alternative ending actually exist? That’s a secret.

You’re also attracted to the poetry and essay forms. Is one your strength, would you say? What are some of your current projects?

I enjoy trying out all forms, but I’m really committed to two: one of my heroes is that great wildman of American letters, Leslie Fiedler (who wrote many of his masterpieces while at the University of Montana), and when asked if he preferred writing articles or stories, he remarked that he saw no difference between writing stories and writing about stories.  I’ve taken that as my cue (as perhaps you have!), and these days I seem to divide my time about equally between fiction and scholarly research and writing. In terms of “creative writing” — truth be told, I can never understand why scholarly writing is not considered “creative” when, to my mind, it’s absolutely as creative as writing, say, stories, poems, or personal essays — I’m interested in narrative. So, I hope to find a good home for the collection of stories I’ve put together, and if that works out, I have a couple of ideas for novels. We’ll see. In my day job, I’m currently writing a book about, of all things, quantum physics and literary interpretation. I’m really enjoying the research—quantum physics is just so damn strange, even comic, at least to me—and hope to finish the book in the next year or so. I’m also co-editing a collection of essays on teaching Western American literature in colleges and universities. I can say this: I’ve been lucky: I’ve had the opportunity to work on things that interest me.


Brady Harrison’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Cerise Press, J Journal, The Long Story, The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, Serving House Journal, and Wascana Review, among literary journals others.  His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and recent poetry appears in the anthology, Poems Across the Big Sky II.  He is also edited two books on Montana literature, These Living Songs:  Reading Montana Poetry and All Our Stories Are Here:  Critical Approaches to Montana Literature.  His most recent book is Punk Rock Warlord:  The Life and Music of Joe Strummer.  He lives in Missoula, Montana, and teaches at the University of Montana. (Photo credits: Brady Harrison / David Baumstark; Grant Tracey / Mitchell D. Strauss)

Critical thinking, conservatism and a personal conundrum

Posted in October 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on October 22, 2017

I have a confession: I’ve been feeling anxious since the start of the school year. I haven’t slept especially well. I’ve had digestive issues. I developed a case of shingles. I’ve had trouble concentrating, and I’ve experienced some uncharacteristic lethargy (which I attribute to a mild bout of depression). Here’s the problem, I think: I’m a schoolteacher and I’m being evaluated this year. I don’t blame the Danielson Framework directly, but I do blame it for contributing to my anxiety.

This is my thirty-fourth year in the classroom, teaching mainly senior English classes (meanwhile I’ve also spent about twenty years teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in literature and writing — I have an MA and a Ph.D. in my subject area). Pre-Danielson, evaluations were kind of a nuisance, but all in all a positive experience. They would end with me sitting in my evaluator’s office discussing teaching strategies, underscoring things that seemed to work well and identifying an area or two where some tinkering may be in order. For twenty-plus years, I’d leave the office with an “excellent” rating, some food for thought (largely generated by my own self-reflection), and a sense of well-being because I was perceived as a valuable part of the school community. In short, I believed my evaluator was glad I was in the classroom.

Then came Charlotte Danielson and the Danielson Framework. Profit-driven school reformers and the legislators in their pockets embraced the Framework because of its proclivity to find fault with teachers. It was originally designed, after all, to be used with first-year teachers, so of course finding fault (that is, finding areas that need improvement) was one of its chief goals. It is rife with hairsplitting adjectives, adverbs and verbs that invite evaluators to select between categories (“distinguished” versus “proficient” for instance) that are separated by a razor’s edge. For example, right off the bat, in Domain One, “Demonstrating Knowledge of Content and Pedagogy,” evaluators are tasked with differentiating between a teacher who “displays extensive knowledge of the important concepts in the discipline and how these relate to one another and to other disciplines” (Distinguished) and a teacher who “displays solid knowledge of the important concepts in the discipline and how these relate to one another” (merely Proficient).

How does one quantitatively distinguish “extensive” from “solid” knowledge? How many whats are in an extensive understanding, and how many whats are in a solid understanding? Both teachers must show how these bits of knowledge relate to one another, but the distinguished teacher also shows how these bits relate to other disciplines. As an English teacher, I’m not sure what is meant by “other disciplines.” Under the umbrella of English are slightly smaller umbrella areas like literature, composition, and linguistics; and under each of these slightly smaller umbrellas like American literature, versus British literature, versus world literature; then we have Colonial and Native American literature, nineteenth-century literature, twentieth-century literature, and so on. Or does “other disciplines” strictly mean, from an English perspective, things like history, biology, psychology, and physical education? If one discusses character motivation in a piece of literature, is that not touching on psychology? If one discusses setting, could that not touch on history?

Then there’s the whole issue of explicit versus implicit display? How obviously must the relationship be made in order to count as being connected? And wait a second — isn’t the whole idea for the students to be making the connections themselves? Is the teacher who draws the connections explicitly doing the intellectual work for the students? Isn’t it better to lead the students to the point where they can make the connections themselves? How exactly will the evaluator be able to determine who among a hundred different souls made (or will someday make) connections thanks to a particular teacher’s efforts? Therefore, perhaps the teacher who isn’t demonstrating connections is the more distinguished teacher. Maybe Sister Charlotte has it all bass ackwards. Right? (After all, she has extremely limited classroom experience.)

Let’s toss into the chaotic mix the fact that the evaluators tasked with making these Solomon-like decisions almost certainly, statistically speaking, aren’t qualified to teach the subject themselves (they were, say, a drivers education teacher and now they’re evaluating an Advanced Placement chemistry teacher, or they were a choir teacher and now they’re evaluating an art teacher). Also, even with pop-in visits to the teacher’s classroom, they’re still only observing teachers less than 1% of the time they spend with students during the course of the school year.

Wait, you argue, teachers being evaluated under Danielson also have to provide documentation, that is, “artifacts” that demonstrate their abilities in the various Domains. When Danielson first came along six years ago (as far as my world is concerned), teachers would overwhelm their evaluators with hundreds of pages of artifacts, which still only told a tiny sliver of their story in the classroom. Understandably, evaluators weren’t able to wade through all the paperwork — to say nothing of their ability to understand it in any meaningful sort of way. (I certainly couldn’t look at a six-inch stack of handouts from the chemistry teacher or physics teacher or French teacher or P.E. teacher and be able to determine if it all meant they were Distinguished versus Proficient [versus Basic versus Unsatisfactory].)

After that initial round of Danielson-style evaluations, a lot of districts went to a slim-downed approach whereby teachers would only have to give their evaluator the bare minimum of artifactual evidence of their teaching ability. Great. But, hold on, isn’t the idea of providing artifacts designed to compensate for the copious gaps left by their evaluators observing their teaching less than 1% of the time they spend with students? The ridiculously thick binders of documentation only told a tiny portion of the teacher’s professional story, and now the big improvement is that teachers are allowed to provide a tiny portion of the tiny portion. Granted, the amount of material is much more manageable, but does it a give greater or lesser insight into the teacher’s professional skills? Yes, reading only the first few pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses is a more manageable task than reading the whole 650-page novel of dense, experimental prose — but should one be in a position of authoritatively passing judgment on the book? (Side note: Censors used to think so.)

Thousands of teachers find themselves in the anxiety-producing situation of having their livelihoods depend on the assessment of an evaluator who isn’t qualified in their subject area and who has significantly less classroom experience, who’s using an instrument designed by someone with even fewer qualifications and even less experience, mandated by legislators who have no qualifications and no experience. It’s a wonder any of us can eat or sleep at all.

Two years ago, I found myself in fairly serious trouble with my superior. The incident happened after my evaluation was completed (just). I received an “excellent” (our version of “distinguished”), but it was no sure thing; and with the shadow of the incident of two years ago still stretching its gloom over my teaching life, I have no idea what to expect this time around. It’s a complicated story and it’d probably be unwise to get into the details, but I believe it all boils down to the fact that my overarching goal as a teacher has always been to coax my students into being critical thinkers. Every day, sometimes by microscopic degrees, I’m trying to prod my students toward becoming critical thinkers, or better and better critical thinkers.

To think critically one must at one’s core question literally everything. Nothing can be sacred; that is, no subject, no person, no movement — nothing — can be beyond critical analysis. With the rise of the Alt-right and Trumpism, we have seen the most extreme conservative elements in our society emboldened. The media cover the most eye-catching examples: dramatic rallies, violent attacks, policy shifts at the state and federal levels, and so on.

But the rise of extreme conservatism filters into our everyday lives, and conservatism is antithetical to critical thinking. For conservatives, there are sacred subjects: God and guns, for example, the concept of American exceptionalism, and, perhaps most sacred of all, conservatism itself. Throughout my career I have encouraged my students to question everything — all ideas, liberal and conservative, all people and their most heartfelt opinions, including me and mine. Extreme conservatives don’t want that sort of academic environment for their children. They don’t want their children critically analyzing conservatives’ sacred subjects — and teachers who encourage such analyses are considered antagonists.

I’m sure extreme conservatives in our communities have always felt this way, but from my perspective it’s only been since the rise of the Alt-right and Trumpism that they’ve been emboldened to attack individual teachers whom they see as part of some ill-defined liberal conspiracy to indoctrinate their children with unwholesome, impure and downright dangerous thoughts. My methods, however, are not designed to imprint certain kinds of thoughts on students’ brains, liberal or otherwise, but rather to enable students to develop their own ideas based on legitimately generated data — thoughts which may run contrary to my own way of viewing the world, and that’s just fine with me. Nothing brightens my day more than a student showing me a new way of seeing things.

I am not someone who seeks out and enjoys confrontation — most teachers, I would say, are not. But I find myself in a professional and personal conundrum: Do I remain true to my overarching mission of fashioning my students into lean, mean critical-thinking machines, or do I avoid conflict by kowtowing and treating certain topics as untouchable because conservatives consider them sacred? Once those walls of untouchability are erected, their confinements spread like a cancer through the anatomy of critical thinking. In fact, critical thinking ceases to exist.

What is more, teachers in the humanities, and especially teachers of older students in the humanities, are unfairly at risk to come under attack by conservatives. Teachers in the sciences and vocational areas are not duty-bound to engage controversial subjects. Conservatives don’t concern themselves with the way geometry theorems are taught, or which method of accounting the business teacher advocates, or the proper way to apply lacquer to a freshly constructed cabinet.

Life, on the other hand, is different for English teachers. How does one teach To Kill a Mockingbird without entering into discussions of racism? Or Heart of Darkness and considerations of colonialism? Macbeth and ill-gotten political power run amok? How does one teach logical fallacies and propaganda techniques, and avoid contemporary examples related to “fake news” and “alternative facts”?

My seniors graduate to schools like Cornell, Notre Dame, DePaul, Northwestern, and University of Illinois to name a few. They are considering careers in medicine, the law, engineering, psychology. As undergraduates and graduate students they will be in direct competition with peers who have come out of academic environments immune to conservative meddling. My students’ critical-thinking skills must be as finely tuned as I am capable of making them, but in recent years I have been hamstrung with the knowledge that bringing up the wrong topic in class or allowing students to pursue certain lines of inquiry could jeopardize my career. For the material we’re studying I think of apt comparisons to current events, but hold my tongue. Before, a lively and thought-provoking discussion could have ensued. Now we quietly move on to the next page of text.

Compounding the problem is that the complexly nebulous Danielson Framework can be manipulated to find teachers to be whatever evaluators want them to be: from rock star to ne’er-do-well — it all depends on what boxes an evaluator feels like checking: Does a teacher demonstrate solid or extensive knowledge of concepts? To be clear, it’s not simply a matter of ego. What difference does it make, one might ask, whether a teacher is judged this versus that according to the Danielson rubric?

Here’s the answer: Republican legislators have been chipping away at tenure and seniority laws and at teacher unions, and they’ve been successful in Illinois and elsewhere at weakening the webwork of laws to the point where a veteran teacher could be terminated in favor of a less-experienced one if their evaluation shows them to be lacking. It’s all under the pretense of giving school boards the ability to replace old, underachieving teachers with young go-getters. But it could easily be used to replace an expensive teacher with a cheaper one, a trouble-making teacher with a more docile one, a liberally minded teacher with a more conservative one — or a gay teacher with a straight one, a teacher of color with a white one, a female with a male, a Muslim with a Christian, an agnostic with a believer.

Charlotte Danielson herself noted that the biggest problem with her own Framework is the misdirected way evaluators are applying it to their teaching staff. In fact, she recommends that her Framework not be used once a teacher has achieved a particular professional status (tenure perhaps?).

The Danielson Framework, combined with the rise of extreme conservatism have opened the door to a world where ability, experience, dedication and old-fashioned hard work can be rendered moot by a series of checks on a computer screen. This new reality is what’s been weighing on me since the start of the school year, and I know I’m not alone. My posts about the shortcomings of the Danielson Framework and how the Framework is being used in education have attracted around 200,000 readers and hundreds of comments (practically all of them in support of my views) — some posted to my blog, but others sent to me via email or Messenger, or spoken in person, because many, many teachers want to avoid the public viewing of their opinions. They are afraid of reprisals.

This has become the world in which we teach.

I have reached the end of this post. My finger, in essence, hovers over the “Publish” button. My anxiety spikes. My gut takes a turn or two. Will posting this help anyone or anything, or is it merely adding another nail to my coffin?

(Note: Stock teacher image found here.)

 

The myth of ‘best practices’ in education

Posted in August 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 20, 2017

Last Wednesday I began my thirty-fourth year as a schoolteacher. To be sure, teaching has changed in those years, kids have, too — although neither as much as one might think. There is one thing, however, that has been amazingly consistent: the number of people who, year upon year, insist that I and my peers adopt a method which they bill as a “best practice” — some technique that they know will improve my teaching because, well, how could it not? It’s a best practice.

Not once — in all those innumerable workshops, inservices and presentations — has a purveyor of a best practice offered a shred of evidence that what they’re promoting will actually lead to better (let alone, the best) teaching. It’s always offered under the implied guise of common sense. It’s the epitome of the logical fallacy of begging the question: Dear Teacher, accept the fact that what you’ve been doing (whatever it may be) hasn’t been as effective as what I’m about to tell you to do. Trust me — I’m a presenter.

And teaching is, allegedly, an evidence-based profession. Schools claim that what they’re doing is “evidence-based,” but oftentimes, if there is something like evidence out there, it’s contrary to what’s being prescribed. On the one hand, I don’t really blame folks for not presenting the evidence to support their claims of the effectiveness of the practice they’re advocating, because (as I’ve written about before) testing in education is fraught with problems. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to generate data which can be reliably analyzed. In any given testing situation, there are simply too many variables to control, and many of them are literally beyond the control of educators. Students are not rats confined to the tiny world of a lab where researchers can effect whatever conditions they’re studying. Imagine scientists sending their rats home each night and asking them to return the next morning for continued research; and periodically the group of rats they’ve been studying are replaced by a whole new group of rats whose histories are a total mystery. (Apologies for comparing students to rats — for what it’s worth, I like rats … and students.)

All right, so I don’t blame purveyors of best practices for not presenting their (nonexistent) evidence; however, I do blame them for suggesting, implicitly, that evidence does exist. It must, right? Otherwise how could they say some technique, some approach is “best” (or at least “better”)?

The reality is, best practices are a myth. Forget good, better, best; let’s turn, instead, to effective versus ineffective (and even that paradigm is nebulous). Effectiveness must be considered on a case by case basis. That is, we want all students to benefit as a result of our efforts, but what works for Bobby versus what works for Suzie on any given day at any given moment, for any given skill or knowledge acquisition, may constitute completely opposite approaches; and tomorrow the reverse may be true. And quite honestly, whether an approach is effective or ineffective may be unknowable, in the moment and even in the long term. The learning takes place in the student’s mind, and the mind is a murky, complicated place. Hopefully the skill or knowledge is identifiable and assessible (via a quiz or test or paper or project), but it may not be, especially in the humanities, which are more concerned with creative and critical applications than in the sciences or the vocational area, where right-or-wrong, black-or-white distinctions are the rule rather than the exception.

Generally the purveyor of a best practice is able to communicate the technique in a few bullet points on a handout or a PowerPoint, but the differences — the vast differences — between grade levels, subject matters, demographics of students, backgrounds and knowledge-levels of teachers, etc., etc., etc. make such simplistic declarations ridiculous. Imagine going to an agricultural convention and telling an assembled group of farmers that you have for them a best practice, and here it is in six bullet points. You’re welcome. No matter what they’re growing, where they’re growing it, what sorts of equipment they have at their disposal, what the climate models are suggesting, how the markets are trending — This is it, brother: Just follow these six steps and your yields will be out of this world. Trust me — I’m a presenter.

The farmers would be nonplussed to put it mildly. Plug in professionals from any other arena — business owners, attorneys, medical doctors, engineers — and the ridiculousness of it (that a single set of practices will improve what they’re doing, regardless of individual situations) becomes clear. It’s so clear, in fact, I can’t imagine any presenter doing it — telling a room full of surgeons, for instance, to do this one simple procedure all the time, no matter the patient’s history, no matter their lab work, no matter how they’re responding on the table — and yet it happens to educators all the time.

Almost without fail, techniques that are presented as best practices are observable. It’s about what you say to students or what they say to you; what you write on the chalkboard; what you write in lesson plans or curricular outlines. It simplifies the process of evaluating teachers’ performances if the evaluator can look for a few concrete actions from every teacher, from kindergarten teacher to calculus teacher, from welding teacher to reading teacher; from the teacher of gifted students to the teacher of exceptional students. It makes assessment so much simpler if everyone is singing from the same hymnal.

I deliberately used the word performances in the previous paragraph because so often that’s what evaluation boils down to: a performance for the audience-of-one, the evaluator. We often hear the term “high-stakes testing” in the media (that is, standardized tests whose results have significant consequences for test-takers and their schools), but we have also entered into a time of “high-stakes evaluating” for teachers, performance assessments which impact their literal job security. Teachers quickly learn that if their evaluator claims x, y and z are best practices, they’d better demonstrate x, y and z when they’re being observed — but quite possibly only when they’re being observed because in truth they don’t believe in the validity or the practicality of x, y and z as a rule.

In such cases, teachers are not trying to be insubordinate, or mocking, or rebellious; they’re trying to teach their charges in the most effective ways they know how (based on the training of their individual disciplines and their years of experience in the classroom), and they disagree with the practices which are being thrust upon them. Teachers do no take an oath equivalent to doctors’ Hippocratic oath, but conscientious teachers have, in essence, taken a personal and professional vow to do no harm to their students; thus they find themselves in a conundrum when their judgments about what’s effective and what isn’t are in conflict with the best practices by which they’re being evaluated. For teachers who care about how well they’re teaching — and that’s just about every teacher I’ve had the privilege to know in the last thirty-four years — it’s a source of stress and anxiety and even depression. More and more teachers every year find that the only way to alleviate that stress in their lives is to leave the profession.

Again, much of the problem is derived from the need for observable behaviors. I like to think my interactions with students in the classroom are positive and effective, but, as a teacher of literature and especially as a teacher of writing, I know my most important and most valuable work is all but invisible. My greatest strengths, I believe, are in developing questions and writing prompts that navigate students’ interactions with a text, and (even more so) in responding to the students’ work. When a student hands in an essay based on a prompt I’ve given them about a text, it is essentially a diagram of how their mind worked as they read and analyzed the text (a novel, or story, or poem, or film) — a kind of CAT scan if you will — and my task is to interpret the workings of their mind (in what ways did their mind work well, and in what ways did their mind veer off the path somewhat) and then, once I’ve interpreted their mind-at-work, I have to provide them comments which explain my interpretations and (here’s the really, really hard part) also comments which will alter their mental processes so that next time they’ll write a more effective essay. In short, I’m trying to get them to think better and to express their thoughts better. (I should point out that to do all of this, I also have to possess a thorough understanding of the text under consideration — a text perhaps by Homer or Shakespeare or Keats or Joyce or Morrison.)

It’s the most important thing I do, and no one observing me in the classroom will ever see it. If my students improve in their reading and thinking and writing and speaking — largely it will be because of my skill to interact with them productively, brain to brain, on the page. The process is both invisible and essential. This is what teaching English is; this is what English teachers do. And we are not unique, by any means, in the profession. Yet our value — our very job security — is based on behaviors that are secondary or even tangential to the most profound sorts of interactions we have with our students.

I know that purveyors of best practices mean well (for-profit educational consultants aside). They are good, smart people who sincerely believe in what they’re advocating, and frequently a kernel or two of meaningful advice can be derived from the presentation, but we need to stop pretending that there’s one method that will improve all teaching, regardless of the myriad factors which come into play every time a teacher engages a group of students. It makes teaching seem simple, and teaching is many, many, many things but simple isn’t one of them.

(Image found via Google Images here.)

 

 

 

An Interview with John Paul Jaramillo: Little Mocos

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 19, 2017

I’ve known John Paul Jaramillo for several years. Shortly after my first novel, Men of Winter, came out, John Paul interviewed me for a video journal that he edited. He also had a book out, a collection of stories titled The House of Order (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011), which, I discovered, had garnered John Paul much praise and several accolades. Fast forward to, I believe, 2014. John Paul shared with me a manuscript for a book he’d spent quite a bit of time writing and revising (and revising). It was a novel of sorts, comprised of more than thirty interconnected stories and vignettes, a complex family saga that unfolded over decades and multiple generations.

John Paul’s main interest was getting my feedback on the manuscript. I had relied on John Paul’s opinion and expert eye more than once, sharing my own work with him as well as work by some of the authors I was publishing via Twelve Winters Press. I was interested in doing more than giving him feedback on his book; I very much wanted to publish it. I think he was genuinely surprised. We were having coffee at Wm. Van’s Coffee House in Springfield, Illinois. It was summertime so we both had a bit more time on our hands than we normally would during the academic year. We sat there over our coffees talking for a long while.

My sense was that John Paul had worked on the book for so long and had received so much advice, so many critiques, he wasn’t sure any longer quite what he wanted the book to be. So I asked him to take a few months, perhaps enough time to let some of that advice fade away, and figure out exactly what he wanted to publish. The book did go through some changes, including a title change, before he submitted the more or less final version of the manuscript, which I then assigned to one of the Press’s talented and dedicated editors, Pamm Collebrusco, who worked with John Paul to finalize (now) Little Mocos for publication.

I fell behind the publishing schedule I’d hoped to adhere to, but John Paul was consummately patient. We finalized a book cover this past winter; then this summer we were able, at long last, to make available to the world Little Mocos, a novel in stories, available in hardcover and digital editions.

LITTLE MOCOS -- DIGITAL COVER 1000

It’s become a tradition that when I publish an author’s work, I also give them some interview questions. What follows are John Paul’s unedited responses.

My sense is that Little Mocos had a long gestation. When you and I first discussed the manuscript it had a different title, and you talked about a few incarnations of the text. Would you talk about the writing and development of the book?

I’ve been working on this particular book Little Mocos and a grouping of stories for five years I believe. I have always known my writing process is incredibly slow and meandering. I often say it is a mis-perspective that writers have an ease with words and language, because I feel it is the opposite—writers struggle to capture the right words and structure. I have an idea and I like to give myself the time to follow that idea and see where the language or my thoughts take me. I don’t think I am the kind of writer who just sits and executes the outline, premise or story—I have to take time and find the story arc and premise and find the surprises. I have to think and re-think and find the ideas rather than drive them. Also I think I am the kind of writer that is always looking for the better angle into the story in terms of means of perception. So there are drafts on my computer in third person and first person and just different experiments to find the right way to approach the stories I want to tell. Drafts that include or exclude different characters. Fragments that fail and fragments that succeed. Writing and drafting a book is incredibly difficult, and taming that and coming to terms with that takes a long while. Also an editor friend and mentor of mine Jennifer C. Cornell has given me advice and guidance to tweak the book to the current organization. I always need help and I am always second-guessing the manuscript as well as my choices.

At one point you were calling the book “a novel” and then altered that to “a novel in stories.” As a writer I’ve been struggling a bit with those labels myself on a particular project. What do you think the difference is, and why did you ultimately decide on the latter label?

John Paul 1I feel as though I work in a way to send stories out to get feedback from editors. So my work is intentionally worked out in bite-size chunks. Also I think I am a minimalist so always trying to do more with less. And most publications or lit websites I admire are looking for short pieces—one needs to be a bit more experienced and known for a novel excerpt I believe. I usually label something a short story rather than a chapter though I believe a chapter and a short story are similar in many ways—they both have a beginning, middle and end. I also seem to float back to the same “universe” of characters and that keeps them together. I often say the material comes how it comes and I follow it. I hear stories or read stories about Colorado and just try and get them re-imagined and down into bite-size chunks for publication. I’ve always advised my students to create relationships with editors who publish similar work and I’ve tried to submit and gather feedback from Latino lit publications to help with revision and these aesthetic choices. I guess simply the label “novel-in-stories” or “composite novel” or even “novella” comes back to the writer’s decisions and style.

I mean I’ve always known I have a sort of disjointed sort of style. I have always written smaller stories following the same characters, and I’ve always felt these smaller stories as “complete and autonomous.” Interrelated enough yet at the same time creating a complete whole. Creating a story arc the way a novel would. And I’ve never liked fiction too on-the-nose. I like a rougher feel to the writing. Like punk music or something. But as it comes down to the wire on revisions and I get closer and closer to turning over the manuscript to the publisher I struggle with labeling the work a novel-in-stories, composite novel or just plain stories as well. Making decisions is difficult.

The one guiding organizational principle to the book is thematic but also follows the same characters and quite nearly stays in a similar place. The family I am writing about has a family tree that is broken and winding and shattered and so the structure should mirror that. Astillarse, one character describes in the book, or splintered.

My book features a composite structure from what Chapter 1 from The Composite Novel—a book I read once by Margaret Dunn and Ann Morris—classifies as the following: Setting—(all my work takes place in the old neighborhood); Protagonist—I follow the Ortiz family; Collective protagonist–the family and neighborhood in different time periods and perspectives; Pattern/patchwork—identical or similarly themed stories focusing on trouble, problems, work/joblessness, etc.

I know some of the elements of the book, for example the character Cornbread Vigil, are pulled directly from history, while others, I presume, are purely fictional. In your writing process how did you negotiate history and fiction, and I suppose those gray areas in between?

Cornbread Vigil is a character based on a man named Ray Baca who is pretty infamous in Colorado—his name appeared in the newspaper quite often. He was a local criminal from my old neighborhood of Pueblo, Colorado, who folks often talked about. Mostly they talked about how they were afraid of him. My Grandfather talked about him since he robbed some local places. He was a person who had multiple crimes attached to him and he was the kind of person who always seemed to get out of trouble—petty crimes and thefts. He became somewhat of a local infamous character but also a weird folk hero/character. In my mind he represents the complex place I was raised and also the moral problem young Latino males perhaps face growing up. The violent expression that is sometime nurtured. I had so few literary or teacher heroes growing up but my heroes were “around-the-way” kinds of heroes at least when I was very young.

I think in much of my writing I try to take these stories from the paper and try to imagine or re-imagine them. To try and make sense of them, especially the darker or the more senseless stories. It felt as if this Baca criminal was from the same place I was from and I always found that to be very interesting. He always represented the myths and flavor of Colorado, and I wanted to re-create and re-imagine his story and how it merged with some of my own family.

You and I have discussed some of the difficulties presented by using Spanish and Spanish slang in the text, particularly when it came to dealing with editors and finding a publisher. Could you discuss some of the issues that you encountered?

I try to create relationships with Latino lit publications—with editors more sympathetic to the use of Spanish in a manuscript. This seems to be a very American issue. I always try to write the way folks talk in Southern Colorado and they speak Spanish and I guess Spanglish would be the term. A blending of Spanish and English—incorrect Spanish and incorrect English. But I have a collection of emails and responses from editors who were pretty aggressive in wanting me to take out the Spanish or to make the stories somewhat of a caricature of how folks speak in Colorado. Perhaps it was my fault for not knowing the publication well enough. There are so few Latino publications. I guess I want to represent but not sell-out anyone from my old neighborhoods.

Also though there is a professional dimension where Latinos who speak fluent Spanish will question my decision to omit or to use italics with Spanish in the stories. One writer I admire has Spanish italicized in all of his work and yet criticized me for my decision to italicize in my last publication. The idea being the language is not foreign so one shouldn’t italicize it. Until only recently I have become confident enough to edit what I choose in my own manuscripts and fight for more of my aesthetic choices. I see the whole problem as just working with presses who are sympathetic or understanding of these representation issues or not. I’ve received complaints from some editors and emails from some readers who say I’ve captured the way folks in Colorado speak accurately. So perhaps this is also an issue of representation of place as well as representation of the Spanish language in stories.

Little Mocos covers similar territory to your first book, The House of Order. In fact, one of the stories in Little Mocos is titled “House of Order.” How do these projects connect? In what ways does Little Mocos extend or perhaps complicate some of the elements in The House of Order?

The House of Order was a collection of stories published in differing publications and collected in somewhat of a linear narrative structure though missing quite a bit of backstory to the families and relationships. Little Mocos is the fuller story. Readers of The House of Order didn’t read it as a collection of stories but read it as a novel and this book is the novel bringing in many similar stories that have been tweaked to act as a portion of a larger story rather than to just act as a standalone story. There is more time and room to explore the family and legacy only hinted at, I think, in the collection of short pieces. I wanted to tell the fuller and larger trajectory of the story here. I very much see this novel as a continuation and sequel of sorts to that earlier book.

Little Mocos is divided into six parts which vary considerably in terms of length. What was your organizing principle in determining how to fit the various stories together? Ultimately do you feel satisfied with the structure of the book, or is there anything that still nags at you in the middle of the night?

I have a hard time telling a linear story. Also like many other writers, Leslie Marmon Silko as the greatest influence on me, I wanted to tell a story that was not linear but more at liberty with the timeline. The timeline or the structure is circular almost. Later in the book the narrator is criticized for overly thinking on past events in the story and I think that is similar to me. I am drawn to family stories and family history and my mind is rarely in the moment but racing in time to backstory and I wanted that feel in the book. I like to recreate moments of simply sitting and recounting the past. I am not so much interested in linear stories, I guess, but stories that represent the complexity of past and present relationships. I feel that I carry my family with me and the movement in time from section to section is my way to recreate that in the structure. Also I am more and more interested in this idea of legacy and family spirits that mold an individual. I feel I carry my Uncle and Father who have passed away with me in my everyday decision-making as well as in the genetic similarity of appearance and personality. Family trauma is always at the heart of my stories and the stories I like to read and so again this is my way of re-creating that familial dimension to a daily life.

I do very much feel satisfied with the structure though I’m drafting new stories all the time I wish could’ve found their way into the final manuscript—drafts that fill-in certain characters’ back story. I’m always drafting and note-taking on the Bea character and the Tio Neto character though I know they won’t find their way into the fuller story because of deadlines for turning in drafts. I guess what keeps me up would be exploring more stories with these characters and including all of them in one manuscript.

I know your teaching takes up a lot of time and energy. How do you balance teaching and writing? How does teaching and working with your students inform and energize your writing?

I teach composition and literature and I keep a blog on teaching and writing, so this is something I think all writers who work in schools may struggle with—the balance of time. I teach many classes to pay the bills and also teach creative writing. And I think all of my classes represent my thinking about the written word and also books I admire. I think as a writer I am perhaps a bit more skilled to teach about form or structure of writing as well as meaning. I have an MFA in creative writing instead of an MA or PhD and so I feel I might speak differently about writing and reading than say someone who studied literary criticism theory. I often say I have a degree in writing rather than in the study of writing since I see myself as a creative writer first and foremost, rather than as a researcher, teacher, or critic. Writers rarely think about meaning or theme and yet most classes and most instructors lecture on dominant themes and dominant interpretation, and I am more interested in how the writer or the character is represented in the work. I think there is a large distinction between what a work is saying and how the work is constructed. As a writer I am rarely thinking about what I am trying to say and more and more interested in how to construct a more dynamic experience for the reader. I like the idea that perhaps I can bring a different perspective on writing as a writer than say a lit scholar.

Other than finalizing Little Mocos for publication by the press, you’ve been done with the book for quite awhile. What else have you been working on? Is writing fiction your only interest, or have you explored other modes of writing?

Little Mocos in many ways is a love letter to my father’s side of my family. The last story in the book is about my mother’s family. While Little Mocos is an entire book about my father and his relationship to his brother and father, I have a whole manuscript of material I’ve been working on that follows the relationship between my mother and her father. Again I am interested in family legacy and family trauma. This manuscript is tentatively titled Monte Stories or Mountain Stories as my mother’s side of the family is from the San Luis Valley in Colorado and that is where most of these stories take place. I am more and more obsessed with my mother’s father and his life in the San Luis Valley. Recently I’ve had a story from this manuscript featured at La Casita Grande Lounge—a website for Chicano and Latino literature.  I have a good dozen of these stories I am slowly hoping to build into another book taking place in the same Colorado universe of characters.

I have also been working on a collection of creative non-fiction essays. Most of my favorite fiction writers are also my favorite essayists. I hope to turn more of my blog post son teaching and writing and on the Colorado steel industry into essays. I am also hoping to write more memoir-styled essays. Essays that read as short stories but driven more by facts. I have always written little fragments of reviews and recounting of experiences on my blog and I hope to conduct more interviews and also gather more of these essays for a non-fiction collection. I am interested in the steel industry in Colorado and its history as well as the subject of being a Latino male in the teaching profession.


John Paul Jaramillo’s  stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Acentos ReviewPALABRA: A Magazine of Chicano and Latino Literary Art and Somos en Escrito. In 2013 his collection The House of Order was named an International Latino Book Award Finalist. In 2013 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed Jaramillo as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read. Originally from Colorado, he lives in Springfield, Illinois, where he is a professor of English at Lincoln Land Community College. (Author photo by Polly Parsons)

 

In the Heart of the Heart of Despair

Posted in May 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on May 27, 2017

“In the Heart of the Heart of Despair: Seclusion in the Fiction of William H. Gass” was presented at the American Literature Association annual Conference on American Literature in Boston, May 25-28, 2017. It was part of the panel “The American Recluse: Contesting Individualism in Narratives of Isolation and Withdrawal,” chaired by Susan Scheckel, Stony Book University. The panel was organized by Matthew Mosher (Stony Brook), and he presented his paper “‘Our Inviolate Realm’: Self-Reliance and Self-Destruction in E. L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley.”


First of all, I’d like to thank Matt Mosher for inviting me to join this panel on recluses in American fiction. His invitation encouraged my wife Melissa and me to attend this terrific conference for the first time, and visit Boston for the first time. More important, however, Matt has opened my eyes to an aspect of William H. Gass’s work that is so obvious and so foundational I never quite saw it in spite of spending the last decade of my scholarly life focused primarily on Gass (aka, “the Master”). From his very first fiction publication, the novella “The Pedersen Kid” in 1961, to his most recent, 2016’s collection of novellas and stories, Eyes, Gass’s protagonists have almost always been solitary souls, withdrawn from their various social spheres: in a word, reclusive. In various papers and reviews of Gass’s work, I have nibbled around the edges of this realization, discussing the loneliness and/or isolation of individual characters—but I’ve never noticed the pattern, a proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room of Gass scholarship.

Gass imposingAs the title suggests, my main focus for this paper will be Gass’s early experimental story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (published independently and as the title story of his seminal collection in 1968); it’s important to note, though, that I could have tossed a dart at my William H. Gass bookcase and whichever spine it came to rest in would have provided ample material with which to write this paper. According to the law of probability, I likely would have landed my dart in The Tunnel, and it would have been an especially fruitful stroke of fate. I say it would have been likely because Gass’s American Book Award-winning novel tips the scales at more than 650 pages, and I have three copies (plus the audiobook) among the volumes in my Gass bookcase. I describe the dart’s prick as fruitful because the first-person narrator William Kohler (a sort of William Gass doppelgänger) spends the entire 650 pages of the book sitting alone in his basement writing a highly personal and ego-centric memoir, which is The Tunnel itself.

I’ve chosen to focus primarily on Gass’s earlier work, however, because it’s more manageable given the context of this paper, and also it provides ample insights to what I believe is at the core of this phenomenon: this pattern of isolated characters in Gass’s fiction. (As I write this paper, I’m anxious to hear what Matt and my fellow panelists have to say on the subject of reclusive characters and see if it complements or contradicts my ideas about Gass’s characters.) I shall leave you, for the moment at least, in deductive suspense regarding my theory.

Earlier I referred to “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” as an experimental story. “Experimental” is certainly true; for “story” one must broaden one’s sense of the word. A story is normally something with a plot, that is, a discernible conflict and at least a nod toward resolution. Not so with the Master. “In the Heart” features 36 sections with subheadings. The sections vary in length from just a few sentences to several pages, and their styles range from coldly clinical to lusciously lyrical. There is no central conflict, at least not in a typical sense. The story was somewhat inspired by William Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927)—in fact, it begins by more or less quoting from the poem’s second stanza, “So I have sailed the seas and come . . . to B . . .” —and its structure is loosely based on the ottava rima form that Yeats used for his 32-line poem. It is their kindredness in theme, though, which is of greatest importance to our purpose here.

in the heart cover 2Yeats begins by lamenting the deterioration of his physical self due to old age (he was in his sixties when he wrote “Sailing to Byzantium”), but ends with the understanding that the physical is fleeting while the soul that aspires to a higher artistic ideal is immortal. In Gass’s story, the unnamed first-person narrator is an aging poet who has come to B, a small town in Indiana, and is reflecting on his life in this mundane Midwestern locale, season upon season, year upon year. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is not merely a prose interpretation of Yeats’s poem, which ends on a more optimistic note than it began. On the contrary, Gass’s story starts bleak and only grows darker. Repeatedly the narrator refers to his own isolation and loneliness, as well as to the isolation and loneliness of his Hoosier neighbors. Early in the story, he tells us that he is “in retirement from love,” and “I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween?” (173). The story concludes, 28 pages later, with the narrator’s sense of isolation at Christmastime in the town, a time which represents the pinnacle of the town’s communal life. He finds himself (or merely imagines himself) in the deserted downtown, which has been bedecked for the holiday: “But I am alone, leaning against a pole—no . . . there is no one in sight. […] There’s no one to hear the music [“Joy to the World”] but myself, and though I’m listening, I’m no longer certain. Perhaps the record’s playing something else” (206).

Meanwhile, in the heart of the story, the narrator describes, here and there, his various fellow townspeople, especially his neighbor Billy Holsclaw, who “lives alone” (179). The narrator paints a sad picture of Billy (unshaven, dirty with “coal dust,” dressed in “tatters”), and ends the initial section about him with the statement “Billy closes his door and carries coal or wood to his fire and closes his eyes, and there’s simply no way of knowing how lonely and empty he is or whether he’s as vacant and barren and loveless as the rest of us are—here in the heart of the country” (180). We note that the narrator describes Billy’s actions inside of his house even though it is not possible for him to know what goes on after Billy shuts the door; thus, the narrator seems to be assuming Billy’s behavior based on his own, alone in his own house. This point brings up an important issue in the story: How does the narrator have access to all that he describes in B? H. L. Hix asserts, “He does not wander out into the world, so the reader gets not a picture of B, but a picture of the narrator’s confinement, the view from his cell” (49). Not literal cell of course: the cell of his isolation, his loneliness: the cell from which he projects everyone else’s isolation and loneliness.

Referring to the narrator’s view underscores what would become a major motif in Gass’s fiction: the window. There are numerous references to windows and what the narrator sees framed in them in “In the Heart.” He describes the windows of his house as “bewitching [. . . with] holy magical insides” (179). Through his window he views vivacious young women and fantasizes about them: “I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river. I’d follow a vein with the point of my finger, hold your bare feet in my naked hands” (179), and “[Y]our buttocks are my pillow; we are adrift on a raft; your back is our river” (188). However, he knows he is well beyond the point when any such contact could reasonably take place. This realization makes especially poignant his later observation that rather than interacting with the world directly he has “had intercourse by eye” (202). That is, he has lived mainly through observation of his fellow human beings, not by talking to and connecting with them directly.

As I said, references to windows are everywhere in Gass’s oeuvre. The story “Icicles,” also collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, begins with the main character, Fender, sitting down to a lonely dinner eaten from a tray in his living room and looking through his picture window: “[H]is gaze pass[es] idly along the streets in the wheel ruts and leaping the disorderly heaps of snow. He was vaguely aware of the ice that had curtained a quarter of his window . . .” (121). Here the ice emphasizes the coldness of this sort of existence, an existence void of human warmth for Fender, even though his profession as a real estate agent requires him to interact with people all the time. Unlike the narrator of “In the Heart,” Fender does engage with people, but this engagement does not lessen his isolation; it only amplifies it. This is an important variation on the theme of isolation in Gass’s work. Often, Gass’s characters are not literally alone, but they feel isolated and lonely nevertheless. William Kohler in The Tunnel is married, but to a wife he hates and who has no interest in his life’s work as a historian. As the title suggests, Babs, the wife in the novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, is isolated, lonely and horny in spite of her marital status, or perhaps because of it. The ironically named, antisocial Mr. Gab of the novella “In Camera” spends his dreary days inside his shop that sells black-and-white photographic prints, with only his assistant Stu (short for “stupid”) for company. The boy-narrator, Jorge, in “The Pedersen Kid” is living among his family on a farm in North Dakota but is as desperately lonely as a boy can be thanks to his bellicosely alcoholic father, brutalized and traumatized mother, and live-in farmhand Hans, who may be molesting Jorge. The list goes on and on. (The Master is a real feel-good kind of author.)

All fictive writing is autobiographical to some degree, but Gass has never been one to make the veil especially opaque. The autobiographical elements flash neon in his work, and in his copious interviews he has been happy to connect the dots for readers and critics. In The Tunnel (his magnum opus) and Willie Masters’ he’s given the main characters his own name, or variations of it. The tunnel-digging William Kohler is a university professor, as was Gass, with a history and a list of interests quite similar to Gass’s. Eerily similar; disturbingly similar for some readers. Joseph Skizzen of the novel Middle C is an isolated music professor who specializes in Arnold Schoenberg, the composer whose twelve-tone system Gass used to structure The Tunnel. Like Jorge in “The Pedersen Kid,” Gass was born in North Dakota and grew up an only child in a family devastated by alcoholism and hatred. The list goes on and on.

Gass painted

Understanding the extremely close—at times, uncomfortably close—connection between Gass himself and his characters is especially important when viewed alongside his fascination with windows. Hix explains: “The window, which represents the ambiguity of our connection to the world, our looking out on a world from which the very looking out separates us, has appeared as a metaphor regularly in Gass’s […] fiction” (124). Windows, then, and their representation of separation through observation, seem to be a commentary on Gass’s own sense of isolation: that is, Gass the writer, Gass the intellectual, Gass the artist. It is the artist’s job—their curse perhaps—to observe the world around them, closely; to think about it, deeply; and share their interpretations with the world, honestly. It is a vital function, but one that requires and creates distance from one’s family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. In a 1984 interview, Gass identified himself as “a radical, but not one allied with any party. Parties force you to give up your intellect” (Saltzman 92). In other words, he was, in essence, a lone-wolf radical. To clarify, Gass has not seen himself as a writer with an overt political agenda, but rather one with a loftier, more ethereal, more profound goal: the alteration of his readers’ consciousness. [About the photo: William H. Gass painted by Philip Guston for his lecture at Yaddo, “Why Windows Are Important To Me,” 1969.]

In his landmark essay “The Artist and Society” (1968), Gass writes that the artist is “[naturally] the enemy of the state” and “[h]e is also the enemy of every ordinary revolution” (287). Moreover, he “cannot play politics, succumb to slogans and other simplifications, worship heroes, ally himself with any party, suck on some politician’s program like a sweet. […] He undermines everything.” Again, the artist/writer as lone-wolf radical. The payoff, though, can be sublimely effective. Gass writes, “The artist’s revolutionary activity is of a different kind. He is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there. His inactions are only a blind, for his books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times. How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” (288). In other words, to be the sort of artist, the sort of writer, the sort of radical Gass admires most—the sort whose work will be worth reading a century from now, or a millennia—he must be solitary and isolated: the observer behind the window encased in ice.

Paul Valery 1If this paper were to be extended, I’d try to make the case that Gass’s philosophy may be traceable to one of his idols, the French writer Paul Valéry, of whom he said, “He dared to write on his subjects as if the world had been silent . . .” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, xi). Known mainly as a poet and essayist, Valéry also wrote the novella “The Evening with Monsieur Teste” (1896), whose title character is an isolated intellectual very much akin to many of Gass’s fictional creations, especially William Kohler and Joseph Skizzen. In the Preface to his novella, Valéry describes the philosophy which led to the creation of the character Monsieur Teste (or, in English, essentially “Mr. Head”), and I think at this point we can see that it could have been written by his devotee, William H. Gass. I shall let Valéry’s translated words be my final ones here:

I made it my rule secretly to consider as void or contemptible all opinions and habits of mind that arise from living together and from our external relations with other men, which vanish when we decide to be alone. And I could think only with disgust of all the ideas and all the feelings developed or aroused in man by his fears and his ills, his hopes and his terrors, and not freely by his direct observation of things and himself. . . .  I had made for myself an inner island and spent my time reconnoitering and fortifying it. . . . (4-5)

Works Cited

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. 276-88. [The complete draft, from William H. Gass’s papers, is available online via Washington University.]

—. “Icicles.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories, Godine, 1981, pp. 120-162.

—. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories, Godine, 1981,  pp. 172-206.

—. Preface. Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. xi-xiii.

Saltzman, Arthur M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 81-95.

Valéry, Paul. Monsieur Teste. Translated by Jackson Mathew, Princeton UP, 1989.

The paradox of uniformity

Posted in April 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 13, 2017

Nearly a year ago I posted “Danielson Framework criticized by Charlotte Danielson” and it has generated far more interest than I would have anticipated. As of this writing, it has been viewed more 130,000 times. It has been shared across various platforms of social media, and cited in other people’s blogs. The post has generated copious comments, and I’ve received dozens of emails from educators — mostly from North America but beyond too. Some educators have contacted me for advice (I have little to offer), some merely to share their frustration (I can relate), others to thank me for speaking up (the wisdom of which remains dubious). To be fair, not everyone has been enthusiastic. There have been comments from administrators who feel that Charlotte Danielson (and I) threw them under the school bus. Many administrators are not devotees of the Framework either, and they are doing their best with a legislatively mandated instrument.

Before this much-read post, I’d been commenting on Danielson and related issues for a while, and those posts have received a fair amount of attention also. Literally every day since I posted about Danielson criticizing the use of her own Framework the article has been read by at least a few people. The hits slowed down over the summer months, understandably; then picked up again in the fall — no doubt when teachers were confronted with the fact it’s their evaluation year (generally every other year for tenured teachers). Once people were in the throes of the school year, hits declined. However, beginning in February, the number of readers spiked again and have remained consistently high for weeks. Teachers, I suspect, are getting back their evaluations, and are Googling for information and solace after receiving their infuriating and disheartening Danielson-based critique. (One teacher wrote to me and said that he was graded down because he didn’t produce documentation that his colleagues think of him as an expert in the field. He didn’t know what that documentation would even look like — testimonials solicited in the work room? — and nor did I.)

It can tear the guts out of you and slacken your sails right when you need that energy and enthusiasm to finish the school year strong: get through student testing (e.g. PAARC), stroke for home on myriad learning outcomes, prepare students for advancing to the next year, and document, document, document — all while kids grow squirrelier by the minute with the advance of spring, warmer weather, and the large looming of year’s end.

But this post isn’t about any of that, at least not directly. The Danielson Framework and its unique failures are really part of a much larger issue in education, from pre-K to graduate school: something which I’ll call the drive for uniformity. I blame Business’s infiltration and parasitic take over of Education. It’s difficult to say exactly when the parasite broke the skin and began its pernicious spread. I’ve been teaching (gulp) since 1984 (yes, English teachers were goofy with glee at the prospect of teaching Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984, just as I was in 2001 to teach 2001 — we’re weird like that), and even then, in ’84, I was given three curriculum guides with precisely 180 pages in each; I was teaching three different courses, and each guide had a page/lesson for each day of the school year. Everyone who was teaching a particular course was expected to be doing the same thing (teaching the same concept, handing out the same handout, proctoring the same test) on the same day.

Not every school system was quite so prescriptive. I moved to another district, and, thankfully, its curriculum was much less regimented. Nevertheless, it was at that school that I vividly recall sitting in a faculty meeting and the superintendent uttering the precept “We shall do more with less.” The School Board, with his encouragement, was simultaneously cutting staff while increasing curricular requirements. English teachers, for example, were going to be required to assign twelve essays per semester (with the understanding that these would be thoroughly read, commented on, and graded in a timely fashion). At the time I had around 150 students per day. With the cuts to staff, I eventually had nearly 200 students per day. This was the mid 1990s.

The point is, that phrase — We shall do more with less — comes right out of the business world. It’s rooted in the idea that more isn’t being achieved (greater productivity, greater profits) because of superfluous workers on the factory floor. We need to cut the slackers and force everyone else to work harder, faster — and when they drop dead from exhaustion, no problem: there are all those unemployed workers who will be chomping at the bit to get their old job back (with less pay and more expectations). CEOs in the business world claimed that schools were not doing their jobs. The employees they were hiring, they said, couldn’t do math, couldn’t write, had aversions to hard work and good attendance. It must be the fault of lazy teachers, the unproductive slackers on the factory floor so to speak.

Unions stood in the way of the mass clearing of house, so the war on unions was initiated in earnest. Conservative politicians, allied with business leaders, have been chipping away at unions (education and otherwise) wherever they can, under the euphemism of “Right to Work,” implying that unions are preventing good workers from working, and securing in their places lazy ne’er-do-wells. The strategy has been effective. Little by little, state by state, protections like tenure and seniority have been removed or severely weakened. Mandates have increased, while funds have been decreased or (like in Illinois) outright withheld, starving public schools to death. The frustrations of stagnant wages, depleted pensions, and weakened job security have been added to by unfair evaluation instruments like the Danielson Framework.

A telltale sign of business’s influence is the drive for uniformity. One of the selling points of the Danielson Framework was that it can be applied to all teachers, pre-K through 12th grade, and even professionals outside the classroom, like librarians and nurses. Its one-size-fits-all is efficient (sounding) and therefore appeals to legislators. Danielson is just one example, however. We see it everywhere. Teaching consultants who offer a magic bullet that will guarantee all students will learn, no matter the subject, grade level, or ability. Because, of course, teaching kindergarteners shapes is the same as teaching high school students calculus. Special education and physical education … practically the same thing (they sound alike, after all). Art and band … peas in a pod (I mean, playing music is a fine art, isn’t it? Duh.).

And the drive for uniformity has not been limited to K-12 education. Universities have been infected, too. All first-year writing students must have the same experience (or so it seems): write the same essays, read the same chapters in the same textbook, have their work evaluated according to the same rubric, etc., etc. Even syllabi have to be uniform: they have to contain the same elements, in the same order, reproduce the same university policies, even across departments. The syllabus for a university course is oftentimes dozens of pages long, and only a very small part of it is devoted to informing the students what they need to do from week to week. The rest is for accreditation purposes, apparently. And the uniformity in requirements and approaches helps to generate data (which outcomes are being achieved, which are not, that kind of thing).

It all looks quite scientific. You can generate spreadsheets and bar graphs, showing where students are on this outcome versus that outcome; how this group of students compares to last year’s group; make predictions; justify (hopefully) expenditures. It’s the equivalent of the much-publicized K-12 zeal for standardized testing, which gives birth to mountains of data — just about all of which is ignored once produced, which is just as well because it’s all but meaningless. People ignore the data because they’re too busy teaching just about every minute of every day to sift through the voluminous numbers; and the numbers are all but meaningless because they only look scientific, when in fact they aren’t scientific at all. (I’ve written about this, too, in my post “The fallacy of testing in education.”)

But this post isn’t about any of those things either.

It’s about the irony of uniformity, or the paradox of it, as I call it in my title. Concurrent with the business-based drive for uniformity has been the alleged drive for higher standards: more critical thinking, increased expectations, a faster track to skill achievement. Yet uniformity is the antithesis of higher standards. We’re supposed to have more rigor in our curricula, but coddle our charges in every other way.

We can’t expect students to deal with teachers who have varying classroom methods. We can’t expect them to adjust to different ways of grading. We can’t expect them to navigate differences in syllabi construction, teacher webpage design, or even the use of their classroom’s whiteboard. We can’t expect students to understand synonyms in directions, thus teachers must confine themselves to a limited collection of verbs and nouns when writing assignments and tests (for instance, we must all say “analyze” in lieu of “examine” or “consider” — all those different terms confuse the poor darlings). This is a true story: A consultant who came to speak to us about the increased rigor of the PAARC exam also advised us to stop telling our students to “check the box” on a test, because it’s actually a “square” and some students may be confused by looking for the three-dimensional “box” on the page. What?

But are these not real-world critical-thinking situations? Asking students to adapt to one teacher’s methodology versus another? Requiring students to follow the logic of an assignment written in this style versus that (or that … or that)? Having students adjust their schoolwork schedules to take into account different rhythms of due dates from teacher to teacher?

How often in our post-education lives are we guaranteed uniformity? There is much talk about getting students “career-ready” (another business world contribution to education), yet in our professional careers how much uniformity is there? If we’re dealing with various customers or clients, are they clones? Or are we expected to adjust to their personalities, their needs, their pocketbooks? For that matter, how uniform are our superiors? Perhaps we’re dealing with several managers or owners or execs. I’ll bet they’d love to hear how we prefer the way someone else in the organization does such and such, and wouldn’t they please adjust their approach to fit our preferences? That would no doubt turn into a lovely day at work.

I’ve been teaching for 33 years, and over that time I’ve worked under, let’s see, seven building principals (not to mention different superintendents and other administrators). Not once has it seemed like a good idea to let my current principal know how one of his predecessors handled a given situation in the spirit of encouraging his further reflection on the matter. Clearly I am the one who must adapt to the new style, the new approach, the new philosophy.

These are just a few examples of course. How much non-uniformity do we deal with every day, professionally and personally? An infinite amount is the correct answer. So, how precisely are we better preparing our students for life after formal education by making sure our delivery systems are consistently cookie-cutter? We aren’t is the correct answer. (Be sure to check the corresponding squares.)

Education has made the mistake of allowing Business to infect it to the core (to the Common Core, as a matter of fact). Now Business has taken over the White House, and it’s taken over bigly.

But this blog post isn’t about that.

Modernism’s Last Gasp and the Architecture of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel

Posted in February 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 23, 2017

This paper, “Modernism’s Last Gasp and the Architecture of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel,” was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 on 23 Feb. 2017 as part of the panel titled “Imagining Space: Experiments in Narrative Form.” The paper veered from its original intent and perhaps a suitable secondary title may be “A Text Suddenly of Our Time.” The panel was chaired by Liana Babayan, Augusta University. Other papers presented were “Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant and Architectural Liminality” by Adam McKee, Queensborough Community College, CUNY; “Haunted Houses from House of Leaves to House of Fiction” by Amanda Davis, University of Chicago; and “Contrasting Spaces in Jean Genet’s Miracle de la Rose” by Maria Slocum, Missouri University of Science and Technology. Other papers on William H. Gass’s work can be found at this site by searching “gass.”


“For me a book tends to exist in a metaphorical relationship to a building. For me architecture represents best the basic metaphorical image of the way a text exists, say, metaphorically or philosophically” (Janssens 66). Thus spake William H. Gass in a 1979 interview, about midway through the composition process of his magnum opus The Tunnel, which was published in 1995 after a nearly thirty-year gestation. Sections began appearing in print as early as 1969 and continued off and on for almost two decades, garnering numerous accolades (for example, inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of 1980), and in two instances being released as stand-alone, limited-edition books by art presses. In 1996 Gass’s massive book (over 650 pages of dense prose, riddled with myriad experimental techniques, a host of fonts, amateurish doodles, and other graphic representations) won the American Book Award. Meanwhile, it spawned copious reviews which ranged from fawning to furious. Even some of the novel’s harshest critics, however, acknowledged that it would take decades of scholarly work to fully come to terms with Gass’s achievement—no matter whether one believes he achieved a masterpiece or a monstrosity. Sadly, that work remains largely undone.

20170220_102148

This is at least the third paper I’ve presented at this conference chiefly focused on Gass’s The Tunnel. When his next novel appeared in 2013, Middle C, that much more manageable book led me away from The Tunnel for a paper or two; and I also did some work on Gass’s earlier publications: one of his earliest pieces of published fiction, the novella The Pedersen Kid, and then a paper focused mainly on Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and On Being Blue. Pondering possibilities for this year’s conference, I decided it was time to return to the excavation site and say something further about The Tunnel. I’ve been coming here for more than a decade, and I can only recall one other Gass paper being presented in that time (a Willie Masters’ paper). (When I first started attending the conference I was a William Gaddis guy; I hadn’t yet fallen under the Master’s spell.) My hope has been that by keeping the spark of scholarly interest alive others will join the conversation—and that hope has rested mainly on the book’s artistic merits. However, between the time that I proposed this particular paper topic and now, something historically monumental happened which makes The Tunnel vitally relevant: the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States (and the rise of the alt-right in general). That is to say, the overarching theme of The Tunnel—which Gass has described as “the fascism of the heart”—makes the book amazingly and unfortunately up-to-date. Perhaps an appropriate secondary title for my paper would be “A Text Suddenly of Our Time.”

gass-at-desk

Our times have led to a rekindled interest in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and other dystopian books. For the same reasons it is worthwhile to descend into William Gass’s tunnel, a place whose squalidness has turned away many readers—but these, my friends, are squalid times. So, in the interest of truth in advertising, I am going to discuss (to some degree) the structure of The Tunnel and its relationship to architecture; but I’m also going to talk about the fascism of the heart and what the book has to say about the Trump phenomenon.

The basic plot of the novel is fairly straightforward (although plot doesn’t mean quite the same thing in Gass’s world as it does in most fiction writer’s): The first-person narrator, William Kohler, is a middle-aged history professor at a Midwestern university who has finally completed his magnum opus, prophetically thirty years in the writing, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. He has sat down in his basement office to write the book’s preface (the final nail in this towering edifice, so to speak) when he finds himself blocked and therefore begins writing, instead, a very personal memoir about his unhappy childhood, lackluster career, loveless marriage, lost loves, disappointing children, and irritating colleagues. He slips the pages of this tell-all autobiography in between the manuscript pages of Guilt and Innocence so that his wife won’t see them (having no interest whatsoever in his life’s work), and, meanwhile, he begins to dig a tunnel out of his basement—or at least so we’re told. Gass himself has written in the liner notes of the audiobook edition of The Tunnel (45 hours of listening pleasure) that his narrator is “wholly unreliable”: “That does not mean he never tells the truth. He may always tell the truth. He may never. But he can’t be trusted. So he may not be digging a tunnel out of his basement” (emphasis added). Either way, writes Gass, “[t]he pointlessness of this activity has to be stressed.”

william-and-mary-gass

Returning to my opening quote, Gass has said that “architecture represents best the basic metaphorical image of the way a text exists.” He has had a long-standing interest in architecture. It is difficult to say which came first, the chicken or the egg, as Gass married Mary Henderson in 1968. Mary Henderson Gass has had a distinguished career as an architect in St. Louis since moving there with her husband in 1979 when he accepted a professorship at Washington University. (He retired from the university in 2000.) Gass has found the experimental designs of architect Peter Eisenman especially akin to his own literary aesthetic. “He does crazy things in one sense,” said Gass, “but he is really a serious artist, first rank, I think. He is not just doing things to shock people, or surprise them or be different” (Janssens 68). Gass’s statement about Eisenman and his work sounds a lot like what defenders of Gass and especially The Tunnel have been saying for years.

In explaining how The Tunnel functions architecturally, Gass has contrasted his work to James Joyce’s, especially Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Gass said,

Now, the idea of a book as fundamentally or conceptually a structure in which you are being taken on a tour by the author—I think a lot of modern works are constructed this way, Joyce, for instance, makes Ulysses in such a way that it is not possible for you to conceive the book and hold it in your head at the same time, you have to go back and forth in it. He takes you through the first time; you may jump around in it later as you wish—and Finnegans Wake is certainly constructed that way. (Janssens 66)

Gass continued,

Joyce demands total recall, an ideal total recall. […] I am like I would be when I went through a building: I am putting the pieces together to compose the building which exists ontologically all at the same time, and which I can only know experientially one at the time, and therefore I can only conceive or conceptualize the way it actually exists; I can have an idea of how this house exists. (67)

In other words, when one reads Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, both of which are structurally linear (a second by second account of a single day in Dublin, Ireland, or the unconscious mind’s progression through a single night of sleep [perhaps]), one is at a different point on the overall timeline with each passing word, and one has to be mindful of that progression to make sense of the experience. In other words, how have we gotten from point A to point B . . . to point Z? Metaphorical connections must be made by recalling earlier parts of the text.

The brutally nonlinear construction of The Tunnel operates differently. To illustrate that difference, Gass referenced Eisenman:

Now in Peter Eisenman’s work, what he wants to do often is to make one experientially aware of other parts of the house at the same time [emphasis added]. So in one of his houses, called House Six, there is, for instance, in the second-floor bedroom a strip of glass that goes across the floor, from which you can perceive the living-room below, and vice versa. Similarly, there are holes in various parts, openings which allow you […] to look through the house. So I am always aware in that house of other parts. (67)

In the execution of this theory, Gass constructed The Tunnel in twelve parts (which he describes as phillipics, or bitter denunciations), and each consists of twelve “fundamental themes and a lot of minor ones would be sounded in different arrangements so that a central aspect or meaning of the text would emerge at the beginning; then sink down and be relatively innocuous or weak at a certain point”—all of which would be “superimposed on a completely different structure: the tunnel itself” (“William Gass”). Gass, incidentally, is simultaneously using a mimetic musical structure—Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system—but we don’t have time to go there too. Thus, while Gass’s narrator Kohler pinballs between his childhood, his career in the army, his grad school days in Germany, his various love affairs, his current life, etc., the author returns again and again to these major and minor motifs. In an artfully designed building each room, each hallway, each alcove, each stairway, and even outdoor spaces reflect certain colors, shapes, themes, and moods that tie them together as being parts of a consistently constructed whole. There are variations of course. A dominant color in the entryway may return as complementary accent color in the master bath, for example. A sailboat model in the library may be echoed by a nautically themed kitchen. So forth and so on. Thus it is with The Tunnel.

As illustration of this technique, I will focus on one of the novel’s major motifs and its juxtaposed doppelgänger: windows and mirrors. Gass seems to want us to pay special attention to windows as he titled the sixth phillipic “Why Windows Are Important to Me,” and it takes up the literal center of his book, pages 282 to 333 out of 652. Also, windows have been metaphorically important throughout Gass’s career. As H. L. Hix points out, “The window, which represents the ambiguity of our connection to the world, our looking out on a world from which the very looking out separates us, has appeared as a metaphor regularly in Gass’s previous fiction” (124).  Hix’s observation is a valid one, but I think Gass takes the metaphor further in The Tunnel by pairing it with almost equally numerous references to mirrors. More regarding that in a moment. What follows are only a few examples of window references in the text. The first comes just a few pages into the book when Kohler recalls a car ride with his lost love, Lou: “The window of the car would not roll up and Lou’s face looked warm from the cold wind as if freshly slapped or shamed or elsewhere loved” (7). This car ride, only briefly mentioned here, foreshadows an episode titled “A Sunday Drive,” which describes in detail a family outing from Kohler’s childhood that is referenced repeatedly in the novel and also prefigures the narrator’s own family outings when he becomes husband and father (always with Gass, repetition, variation, point, counterpoint).

In the central section of the novel, Gass compares a blackboard to a window, writing, “The board is at once the surface of a pit-black sea and a bleak opening onto all our inner spaces. It is the brink of what we are, and hence a horror. […] unlike a window which is always full of the flitter of images […]” (311). Discussing the blackboard’s “opening onto all our inner spaces” (in that professors, like Kohler, use the blackboard to broadcast their beliefs to their students), Gass also connects blackboards to mirrors—both being framed objects antithetical to windows in their own ways. The book’s final reference to windows is about as far from the end as the first reference is from the start, and it’s in an imagined scene with Kohler’s hated wife Martha wherein “[I] lead her to the window [hand in hand … and] put our gazes on together” (650). Kohler imagines trying to get Martha to see the world as profoundly as he does, “but she would interrupt me with a snort from her derision because she despises oratory, wants to slap cheeks when they puff.” We notice the mirror opposites of the first window reference being a recollection of Kohler’s lost true love, Lou, and the final reference being an imagined scene with Kohler’s despised wife. Further linking the two scenes are references to face slapping, one metaphorical, the other imagined but likely. These examples constitute just a tiny taste of the repetitions, echoes, foreshadowings, and prismatic reflections, complications and contradictions that appear in some form or another on every page of the novel.

heide-ziegler-and-william-gassWhat then of the mirrors? Again, there are a plethora of references, the first being on page 10 and it is immediately paired with a window (via negation), as Kohler describes his dingy basement work space: “I’ve no mirror, cockeyed or otherwise. One wrinkled window. Above: a worn lace curtain like a rusted screen.” I believe that the pairing of windows with mirrors (and Kohler’s professorial blackboard) is related to the overarching theme of the book as delineated by one of Gass’s most adept readers, Heide Ziegler, a long-time friend and collaborator of William Gass (next to Gass in the photo from a 1991 symposium on postmodernism in Stuttgart, Germany). In response to reviews of the The Tunnel that ran from lukewarm to hostile, Ziegler wrote, in essence, a defense of the book which appeared in Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel (1998). In the interest of my waning time, I shall cut to the chase of Ziegler’s reading, which unknowingly anticipated the novel’s connections to our own desperate times. The key to understanding the book is in the phrase that Gass identified as its “fundamental subject”: the fascism of the heart. Ziegler writes, “[G]iven the pervasiveness of his message […] it is dangerous to miss the point. His message is not that all of us are fascists, but that there is always the danger that the fascism that lurks in our hearts might erupt, that we will become fascists” (80). She suggests that the nostalgically tender (and rare) recollections from Kohler’s boyhood contribute to the idea that anyone is capable of being lured into the dark tunnel of fascism. That same boy—who relished dime-store candy and wanted nothing more in this world than a dog of his own to play with—became the young man who succumbed to the mob mentality of Kristallnacht in 1938 and threw a stone through a Jewish storekeeper’s window. I’ll supplement Ziegler’s fine reading by asserting that Gass’s frequent references to mirrors also emphasize Kohler’s (and everyone’s) potential for becoming the same sort of people he spent his academic life studying (gazing upon, if you will, as if through a window): the innocent German citizens who were transformed into the Nazis who were guilty of exterminating six million Jews. Ziegler writes further,

Given the right historical circumstances—economic insecurity, a time of depression—and given the right seducer […] your Everyman will follow that leader simply in order to flee his own loneliness, as well as what he believes to be undeserved misfortune. […] Since […] political agitators possess no true authority, they need to create scapegoats—the Jews in Germany, minorities all over the world. What Gass attempts, and obviously achieves, judging by the emotional responses to his book, is to change the Holocaust from a horrifying, unforgivable, yet singular European spectacle into a general historical possibility. That is the reason that The Tunnel is not about Germany or about Hitler. It is—potentially—about all of us. (80-81)

Referring specifically to the sort of finely tuned brainwashing the military is able to achieve but meaning more broadly the way anyone can be manipulated, Gass writes, “Eventually they compel you to act against your conscience, contrary to your nature, in defiance of every precept of morality and religion, until all that remains of you is your past, your prehensile tale [spelled t-a-l-e], your history. Then they begin on that” (242-43).

I hardly need to point out the parallels between Gass’s description of the Holocaust and our own time, with the rise of Trump and the rhetoric of the alt-right, especially their scapegoating of Muslims, immigrants, liberals, the press, and even the judiciary as reasons for our alleged decreased safety and floundering economy. What is more, on a personal note I’ll say how surprising and discouraging it’s been over the past year to view friends, neighbors and family via the window of Facebook and other social media and discover the fascism of their hearts—their willingness to believe Trump’s lies and to support his undemocratic, unpatriotic and unconstitutional schemes. How best to resist, other than simply by putting a hashtag in front of the word, is a question that millions have been wrestling with. Obviously political action is a necessary part of resistance to this wave of fascism. William Gass dealt with this question, too, in a powerful essay, “The Artist and Society” (first published in The New Republic, July 17, 1968). In it Gass suggests that the artist shouldn’t become involved in a revolution in the typical sorts of ways, but rather he must become involved through his art. He writes, “The artist’s revolutionary activity is of a different kind. He is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there. His inaction is only a blind, for his books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times. How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” (288). Artists must resist, then, through their art. It is via their art that they can have a greater impact than a mere bomb’s momentary blast.

My original concept of this paper was to discuss how Gass’s techniques align his book with the intentions of aesthetically minded architects—how their conceived ideas, drafted as blueprints and 3D models, are transformed into lived physical spaces, and, similarly, how Gass attempts to make William Kohler’s surreptitiously written memoir materialize in the hands of the reader via the book known as The Tunnel. I planned to make good use of an interesting article coauthored by Gass and his wife, Mary, about the artistic principles of architectural design and their analogues in other forms of art, like writing. And I planned to talk about Gass’s hopes for the publication of his novel, what the publisher and printer were able and willing to execute, and what they weren’t. I also meant to explain my paper’s title regarding “modernism’s last gasp,” comparing, say, Joyce’s efforts to mimic a conscious or unconscious mind versus Gass’s efforts to create a consciousness. But alas those discussions will have to wait for another paper and another day. I encourage you, meanwhile, to risk a visit to The Tunnel, a book suddenly very much for our time.

Works Referenced

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. 276-88.

—-. The Tunnel. 1995. Dalkey Archive, 2007.

—-. William H. Gass Reads The Tunnel. [liner notes for the audio book written by the author] Clayton Studios, 2005.

Gass, William H., and Mary Gass. “The Architecture of the Sentence.” Conjunctions, 1999, pp. 93-108. [Available online]

Hix, H. L. “Twenty Questions on The Tunnel.” Understanding William H. Gass, University of South Carolina Press, 2002, pp. 76-139.

Janssens, G. A. M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, University Press of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 56-70.

“William Gass with Michael Silverblatt” (5 Nov. 1998). Vimeo, uploaded by Lannan Foundation, 2011, https://vimeo.com/12812717.

Ziegler, Heide. “William H. Gass: Is There Light at the End of The Tunnel?Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel, edited by Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin, University of Delaware Press, 1998, pp. 71-83.