Thursday, July 18, 2019

Poetry Problems


The same way that a squirrel stockpiles nuts for winter, I spend my school year searching used bookstores and attending author readings to build up an arsenal of literature to read over the summer. My entire school year is basically devoted to reading too, of course, but there’s a certain pleasure in reading something you’ve chosen off a shelf or picked up on recommendation that never comes with following a course syllabus, not to mention that choosing my books helps me fill out my knowledge as a reader (some of which, I hope, bleeds over into my skill as a writer). But there’s never enough times for every book I want to read, so summers inevitably become an odd balance of reading slowly enough to enjoy something, but quickly enough to get on to the next. It’s an easy balance to make in fiction, which is usually well enough paced that one page leads on to the next. But I just finished reading Hai-Dang Phan’s* poetry collection Reenactments in one sitting and, I’m not sure it was a very good decision. I feel like I absorbed a lot of detail, much of it beautiful, but so much that I’m not sure I’ll remember any of it, and I may understand even less.

Feeling unmoored by poetry isn’t a new experience for me. I’m a fiction writer, so trying to understand some new sort of art always unmoors me a little**, but poetry is always particularly irritating because it’s so close to prose. Most writers at least dabble in both, and it doesn’t take much to blur the line between the two. But the tools for understanding prose just don’t translate. When I start reading a story, no matter how experimental, there’s always some sort of narrative to grab, and the experience of reading and understanding naturally flows naturally. For poetry, that kind of anchoring is never a given. Often in Phan’s collection, I encountered a stanza like “In the cracked and blazing lot / you stand like a sundial / searching for that good shirt / you wear like someone else’s life” and could only wonder what made it beautiful or meaningful. That kind of wondering isn’t exclusive to poetry, of course. It’s the core of any literary analysis. But in fiction, at least you have a plot and characters as a guide through those moments, a tool to understand them, and a failsafe means of enjoyment in case you can’t make sense of those more esoteric bits. In poetry, it’s anyone’s game. That’s why I appreciate reading poetry in class: at least when the students and professor pool our talents in discussion, we’ll puzzle out something meaningful to take away. I don’t have that security reading poetry on my own, and I guess that’s why I’m scared that I’ll forget everything I appreciated about this book, that my fifteen dollars and the hours I spent reading it will all be a waste.

Of course, when anything resists interpretation, there’s that frustrated temptation to reject it altogether. I’ve certainly felt that way about poetry before. I’ve often thought and sometimes said that it’s an elitist art form, since it demands so much more time to decipher than prose, and there’s never any promise that it means anything at all. But I can’t accept that, since it would be so much more elitist to insist that every written word with creative intent must have characters and plot. There’s a need that poetry fills and prose doesn’t, and I know because I’ve felt it too. Taking a break about halfway through reading Phan’s collection, I started thinking about a theory I heard in English class once, that humans are drawn to poetry and its rhythm because it matches the beat of our hearts and the inhale-exhale patterns of our breathing. After a little muttering to myself, playing around with different words, I came up with my first ever lines written in something approaching a real meter:

Deep in the dark red double-thump
Where all first poems were born
An explanation, simple, true,
Too secular to be warm.

I’m not saying that it’s great writing. It’s a first draft in a format I’m unfamiliar with. But it helped me understand a little about how it all works. How you don’t always need a person and a plot to make a set of words beautiful. There’s no character in my little amateur poem, just sounds and thoughts, and I like it well enough all the same. And maybe that solves my fear of forgetting too. Even if all of Phan’s words don’t stick with me and I don’t have the names or scenes to tie it to in my memory, there will always be lines that will persist. “The fern leaves floating on the surface arrange themselves into brittle continents.” I’m not sure why, if it’s the sound or the image or the memory rises in response, but that’s at least one line I know I’ll hold onto.
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* He’s an English professor at Grinnell, by the way, and one of my favorites.

** An idea I explored in another post a few weeks ago.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Some Jesus Thoughts


A couple weeks ago, during lunch at the summer school program where I work, some students were arguing over the best weapon in Fortnite. They threw around some obvious contenders, machine guns and flamethrowers and so on, but then, out of nowhere, one kid who had just been silently looking on at the whole conversation spoke up and said, “Pastor Bob says that the most powerful weapon of all is Jesus Christ’s forgiveness.”
That’s been my go-to anecdote when someone asks me about my summer, though it’s not exactly an all-purpose tale since I tend to end it differently based on who I’m talking to. If they’re not too religious and they take the kid’s unorthodox weapon of choice as a punchline, I wrap it up with something like, “And what was I supposed to say to that? Of course, the whole lunch table went silent until someone listed off another favorite Fortnite weapon, and we all went on like nothing had happened.” But if I’m talking to the more religious type (generally of the older, crankier, anti-Fortnite persuasion), I give an alternate ending: “And what was I supposed to do? I’m a government employee for this summer, so I can’t exactly go tell the kid that he’s exactly right. But I still wanted to give him some credit for saying something like that. I let it pass, though, and the conversation moved on.”
Neither of these stories are untrue, exactly. They just use the kind of omission essential to any story, because if I told you both stories at once, the kid as the punchline and as the hero, it wouldn’t make any sense, even though that’s how I felt in the moment. I saw it as I would if I were another Fortnite-obsessed kid at the table (an identity I’m not too far from, even if I’ve never gotten stuck on that particular game), half pitying the altar-boy’s poor social skills, half resenting him for ruining the fun with his God-talk. But also, isn’t what he said wonderful? Not to be anti-gaming, but when other boys were talking about the most effective methods of killing, this one child put a word in for forgiveness. Not some popular and easy virtue, like righteous anger or justice, but forgiveness. The opposite of violence. Isn’t that just wonderful?
This story and its different tellings has been on my mind for the past couple of weeks, and so has Jesus. You’d think He’d be on my mind a lot more often, being the center of my faith and all. But, if you grow up going to church six times a week, singing hymns of praise and hearing the story over and over again, Jesus sort of becomes taken for granted. Do I love Jesus for saving me for my sins? Sure. I also love the sun for providing our planet with a gravitational anchor and oxygen for keeping my brain and vital organs alive. 
Ironically, I think that doubt is essential for any real love of Jesus, otherwise He’s just something large enough to be forgettable. Luckily, Grinnell is an excellent place for doubt. I had a long conversation with another Grinnellian last night about whether or not Christianity was any different from Greek myths. I argued that, even if Jesus wasn’t the son of God, Christianity is still more real because at least Jesus was a real historical person (there’s actually quite a bit of evidence for this, though I sold off all the books from religious studies courses that would’ve let me back up that claim). But, even though my atheist Grinnell friend didn’t point this out, I’d argued myself into a corner. Because, if you consider Jesus as a historical figure, His godhood seems immediately suspect. Why him, and not the billions of people who came before or the billions who came after? Why should Jesus be a man if, as I believe, men and women are equally made in God’s image? Why Bethlehem? Why the apostles? Hell, if God is all-powerful, why did there have to be a human sacrifice to end the olds laws and offer forgiveness? Why not just forgive, free of charge? There have been so many religious leaders through the years, why pin my hopes on this one in particular?*
These inconsistencies have ended the faith of many smarter people than me. But I think, if you table these inconsistencies, the real beauty of the narrative begins to emerge. Jesus’s story, in my opinion, is that hardest to appreciate when it encompasses the whole world, and most powerful at its most human, its most particular. What often scares me about atheism, or more grim interpretations of Christianity, is the unfeeling, mechanical nature of the universe. But, in Jesus, we can see a God who knows what it means to be human, who weeps at the Garden of Gethsemane and lashes out in anger at the merchants in the temple, who relentlessly spoke out against the government and the church and pretty much everyone. A God who, if not sinning, comes awfully close to the least attractive of our human impulses. And yet, unlike most other cultural heroes or deities, he never kills anyone. He never even hurts anyone. He damages some property and offends nearly everyone (and lets a demon kills some pigs once), but never fights. That’s especially powerful when you consider that nearly everyone wanted Jesus to be violent savior, Judas most of all. I find it ironic (in a more sad than funny way) that so many Christians expect Jesus to kill everyone they disagree with in the second coming, when that’s exactly what the most famous traitor in the western world wanted. Instead, Jesus offers forgiveness and love. Mystery and pain and confusion and commandments that make us squeamish come with the package, of course, but forgiveness and love at the bottom of it all. If no one really knows where the universe came from or who controls it, then the only way to pick a god is with your gut, and I wouldn’t choose anyone or anything besides a fellow human who knows our pain but still doesn’t cave to our violence.
I forgot which kid in summer school said the thing about forgiveness being the best weapon in Fortnite, but I need to remember and find him and tell him he’s right. Screw separation of church and state, I’m only under the fed’s thumbs for one summer anyway, and this is worth it.
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* Of course, I’m overstating things for dramatic effect. I’ve been working through these questions since elementary school, as any pastor who’s been burdened with me can tell you. That conversation did open up a lot of question I’d forgotten about, though, so it still was important.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

American Monarchy and the Fourth of July


Since the program I’m teaching at this summer has a four-day weekend for the Fourth of July, to give the kids a treat we cut back on normal classes this week and instead had them rehearse and perform a couple scenes and songs from a classic movie; in our case, The Lion King. The performance was cute and wonderful, though if you take our version of the script as a one-act play in its own right, it’s horribly depressing; we end as the lion prince Simba is happily on his way to the liar of the Hyenas, ignorant that it’s all part of his evil uncle Scar’s plot to murder him, so for all we know he gets eaten immediately and Scar takes the throne. Real downer*. But, before we started rehearsal, we had to watch the movie in class first because a lot of the kids had never seen it. And, aside from watching the Spanish dub once when a kindergarten teacher ran out of ideas, I hadn’t either. The whole story struck me as sort of morally dated. It’s about a Lion named Simba, born to be the king over all the animals, but his jealous uncle Scar kills Simba’s father and tricks Simba into running away, leaving no king and no heir so that the throne becomes his. So the real core of the story is Simba reluctantly growing into his role as a king and overcoming cowardice to confront his uncle Scar. It struck me as deeply emotional in parts, contrasting Simba’s childhood fantasies of his future kingship with the grim reality of facing his father’s killer and governing a devastated land. But why is Simba the only one who can face Scar anyway? Temperamentally, he seems like the worst candidate: whiny, entitled, self-centered. It’s a nice journey of emotional growth to see him overcome those qualities, but it seems like the least efficient way to actually solve the problem. The reason why it has to be Simba and only Simba, according to the movie, is that the animals need to be governed by a lion, specifically one  who is strong, male, and descended from a royal bloodline. This casts the allegorical world of the film as an innate hierarchy, one that gets balanced in death, sure (ergo the famous “Circle of Life”), but a hierarchy all the same.

I bring this up on my Fourth of July post because it seems like a distinctly un-American idea. In the land of democracy, we’ve got an odd obsession with royalty and human hierarchy**. The Lion King is a Disney movie, of course, a company that is maybe the standard-bearer for U.S. cultural influence around the world, yet they made a name for themselves with movies about princesses and now run the Marvel universe (which is infested with kings and royalty) and Star Wars (where fans rioted when it turned out Rey wasn’t from the Skywalker bloodline). Tolkien and C.S. Lewis might be British, but Americans really like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia too, both of which tend to favor rightful kings. And then there’s the “chosen hero” trope in Harry Potter and Percy Jackson (one British, one American, but both loved in the U.S.) where destiny works as a kind of divine right to choose heroes. I hope I’m not complaining too much, I really like a lot of these stories. But it just seems weird that we all seem to love kings so much, when our most famous achievement as a nation is ditching one and making sure we’d never have another.

To generalize way too much, I’d like to suggest that Americans only half-heartedly accepted our own values. A lot of what we think of as mainstream American culture and identity came from European immigrants and their children, of course, so it’s only reasonable to expect that they’d be reluctant to let go of their kings and queens and the notions that came with them. I heard once that most vegetarians actually eat meat when drunk, and I think Americans and democracy work in much the same way: we respect all people as equals, but only on our best behavior. And if alcohol is to people as literature is to nations, then we kind of have a drinking problem.

You can see it in Fourth of July celebrations more than anything. Americans tend to celebrate the founders not as people (many of whom chose to own other people) but as cultural heroes above critique. People tout the Declaration and Constitution, but treat them like sacred texts rather than human creations in the same way that some Christians seem more fond of waving Bibles in the air than reading them. Generalizations abound in this synopsis of our culture, and I’m sorry about that, but I think anyone living in the U.S. can understand what I’m getting at, whether they agree with my conclusions or not. The real irony is that everyone seems to agree on our nation’s best idea: leveling out an unfair world and giving everyone a voice (even if it took us a really, really long time to make any real movement towards that goal). But a lot of people celebrate that good idea by raising up symbols and long dead people, not the American population as it is today or as it ever was. The Trump administration seems like the best and most disgusting example of this American royalty: prioritizing an individual ego above human rights or basic reality. 

Which isn’t to say that I don’t love fireworks or parades as much as the next guy***. But I think they represent the wrong things to too many people. Our land was made and blessed by God, but so was every other country. And so was every other person, political hero in 1776 or random person in the world today. We should take today to celebrate that our society has come so far towards real equality, and recognizing how far we have to go.
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* Not as dreary as the first graders’ depiction of Annie, though. Their plot goes something like, “Annie is an orphan living a miserable life at a cruel orphanage, holding onto a desperate but ultimately naive hope that her parents are still alive and will find her someday. The end.”
** And, to be clear, identity is a big factor here. You don’t see many depictions of divine right that aren’t white, male, cisgender, able-bodied, and so on and so on. But, in the worlds of these stories, even most winners of the identity lottery end up unimportant commoners.

*** Actually, I hate parades. Unless I manage to exploit a loophole to get my underground satirical newspaper a float, which I actually did once and loved.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Triskaidekaphobia


In my last post I noted that this was looking like a very writerly summer, even though I wasn’t actually doing very much writing. Well, it looks like a little triskaidekaphobia was all I needed to start writing again, because I’ve been way more productive ever since starting my thirteenth creative writing notebook last week. It’s not because I actually have ideas for things to write; most of it is just sub-par flash fiction or daily anecdotes that really don’t deserve being put to print. But ever since starting that journal, I’ve been living through cursed time, and it’ll only end when I fill up that notebook and move onto my fourteenth. Nothing too unlucky has actually happened yet; it’s been a perfectly decent week all things considered. But, to my OCD-riddled mind, always unraveling a vast mathematic conspiracy that doesn’t exist, evidence is a vestigial concern when compared to the evil of the number thirteen.

I became triskaidekaphobic* when my family moved from Texas to Minnesota on my thirteenth birthday. I don’t entirely remember if I legitimately thought we moved because I turned thirteen or if it was some really weird and ineffective form of protest, but either way, it stuck around long past its usefulness (if it ever had any to begin with). And it’s not just the number thirteen itself either; there’s a whole host of family of unlucky numbers that all tie back to thirteen somehow. If I’m reading a book, say, then I’ll never stop reading on page twenty-six because, of course, twenty-six divided by two is thirteen. If I’m on a run, I’ll never go six miles on a main route and then add on an extra mile to make it seven, since six plus seven equals thirteen. Six and a half miles is also off the table, because if you double that, you get thirteen**. This makes reading and running and keeping a calendar and a whole host of other things pretty difficult, especially when you get into the three and four digits and there are just too many hidden links to keep track of. I’ve often said that I’m not really a math person, but that’s not true, I guess. I’m just really, really good at a kind of math that doesn’t matter to anyone but me, and doesn’t ever help me at all.

To be clear, I’m not a slave to my fear of thirteen, more of an employee. I’ll slack off on my duties if I have a good reason, but then try to do something to make up for it later, and feel guilty the whole time. I would intentionally make mistakes to avoid an unlucky answer on high school math homework, but I’d usually pull it together for quizzes or tests. I always knew that the fear was imaginary, and that good grades were worth whatever stress writing the forbidden numbers would put me under. But, imaginary as it was, the fear was always there, and I could never be entirely at ease until it was neutralized. Reading over those last two sentences, I realize that I probably came off as crazier than I meant to, writing something that no one with a totally healthy mind could ever really understand. I guess that’s because I don’t have a totally healthy mind: I’ve got clinical OCD, and fear of thirteen is one of my less stressful but more noticeable symptoms.

The few times that I’ve tried explaining this fear to someone, they’ve usually proposed a test: read a book to its thirteenth page (or something like that), leave it for a whole day, and see if anything bad happens. But there’s just too much stimulus in a day, and I can always find something that goes wrong and claim to myself that it was all the thirteen’s fault. I’ve even made thirteen into something of a character in my mind to explain these discrepancies: a tempter who offers a couple pleasant days, maybe even a spot or two of unusually good luck, then strikes when you look away, and when you realize your mistake, it’s been on you too long and left a stain too large to clean simply by flipping to the fourteenth page***.

I’m not sure if any of this is at all interesting to anyone but me. All these conflicts are so deep in my own mind that I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t translate well to anyone else’s. This is still a blog post, though, so I feel like I need some kind of a conclusion. It’d be nice to say that I’m still fighting it, that I won’t surrender to the illogical disease in my brain. But, even at my best, I’m not a terribly logical person, and don’t want to be one either. And as far as OCD symptoms go, this is a pretty innocuous one. Maybe it’s all just striving for some kind of control, the result of a faulty survival instinct finding a pattern where there isn’t one. If that’s the case, then I’m fine living with the illusion. 
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* In case you haven’t caught on, yes, someone took the time to designate a seventeen-letter, seven-syllable word for people who fear the number thirteen. Either there are a disturbing number of people who share my superstition or lexicographers just have too much time on their hands.
** Fun fact: in my personal numerology, one hundred and thirty nine is the absolute worst number. The first two digits on their own make thirteen, the last two digits on their own are three times thirteen, and all the digits added together make up thirteen.

*** I’ve actually made up a whole cast of characters for the numbers to explain their odd interactions: one and three are toddlers, innocent but with infected blood, doomed to grow up into the demonic numbers. Six and seven are brother and sister (six is the girl and seven is the boy, of course), who are each okay on their own, but when you put them together they begin to resemble their evil aunt thirteen. They relentlessly bully number five, by the way, who is the put-upon middle child of the single-digit family. As I said, I’m decent at the parts of math that don’t actually solve problems, like character-development.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Adventures in Quilt Appraisal



I feel like I’m having a very writerly summer. Not that I’m actually putting a whole lot of words on the page this summer (my productivity, compared to the past four summers, is actually at an all time low), but there’s something that seems vaguely but powerfully literary about my schedule. I get up early in the morning, spend eight hours navigating the byzantine social structures of second graders, come home starving and make myself too much pasta, and spend the evening reading and phoning my girlfriend and wasting time on Minecraft and trying to write. It seems like the kind of summer a successful novelist would reflect on years later in a long and rambling memoir, or the groundwork for a novel that’s bound to turn interesting once my character discovers a dead body or finds a portal to another world or something. I’m not sure what exactly is writerly about it; maybe the work, or the independence, or the loneliness. At any rate, a key element of my writerly summer seems to be that I do a lot of wandering, and last week that wandering brought me to investigate the Faulkner Art Gallery, where I found that some consortium of Midwest quilters were having their annual exhibition. That seemed like the natural place for a writer-type to have a wandering, so I went in and looked around.

Writerly pretensions aside, I’ve honestly really wanted to go to a quilt exhibit ever since my Art History professor made the case that quilters found beauty in abstraction centuries before the official art scene experimented with new kinds of representation, though the art of quilting wasn’t recognized by scholars until very recently for the obvious sexist reasons. I’ve also been interested in visual arts for a while, ever since my girlfriend told me how her composing figures on a background in a painting gave her the idea for a beautiful short story.

Wandering around a museum and assessing art is harder than it looks, though. I’d only ever really tried it for a couple Art History assignments, and then I had the terms and tools for analysis laid out ahead of time. Focusing on the quilts beyond a glance felt unnatural, like forcing magnets together at matching poles. It makes sense, I guess; I’ve spent basically my whole life paying attention to whatever visual stimulus is immediately interesting or useful and discarding the rest. Looking at the quilts mounted around the gallery, I couldn’t help but wonder what I was supposed to be thinking about these things that I’d hardly glance at if they were laid out on a bedspread. 

So, as a frustrated college student is wont to do, I jumped through a half dozen academic frameworks and arrived at no conclusion. I got some decent Feminist-Marxist analysis out of a quilt full of half-naked women, cut off at odd angles and spiraling in floral patterns, as something about the commodification of bodies, in line with Hannah Höch’s work in the early twentieth century. But then I read the artist’s statement on the side of the quilt, which read something like, “When I saw all the pretty girls on this fabric, I just knew I had to make a quilt out of it!” So, unless the artist was going for some deep death-of-the-author type crap, my analysis was bust. Next I tried looking at the quilts as the creators would, but it was clear from the start that it was a world unto itself: every artists’ statement referenced different teachers and styles and schools that I had never heard of. Assessing the quality as something objective was impossible too (I had no idea why the quilts that won awards were better than any others), as was simply appreciating the time and effort that went into the art (because I just had no clue what it took to make them). 

The best I could come away with were a couple personal feelings, no more than whim and memory: a collection of brown and grey patches that reminded me of a snowless and cloudy winter day in Minnesota, an elegant pattern of warm colors on a black background like fire at night, a collage of rose designs that faded from black to red to pink to white. But there was no epiphany, nothing but a couple quilts I thought were pretty.


Which scares me, sometimes. I don’t like the idea that there’s a whole world of richness and beauty that I could only ever unearth if I spent the next five years studying quilts. I’ve always imagined that the beauty of visual art is available to anyone willing to lend their eyes to a picture for a little while. Which is reductive, I realize; people study art for a reason, and for many of the same reasons why I study literature. Probably all this wasted thought comes from my impulse to make myself writerly, to be the kind of mustache-stroking intellectual who can stare at a painting and recognize its worth, even if I also think those kinds of people are insufferable a lot of time. I found some beauty in something I’d never seen before. Maybe that should be enough.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Sorrows of Being a Male English Major

Over the past couple of years I’ve had to get used to being the only guy in the room. Last year at the New York State Summer Writer’s Institute I was in a fiction class of eighteen with only one other male, and was one of the few guys working for Cow Tipping Press. Every summer before I was one of the only boy employees at Kiddywampus (and the only one willing to work Princess-Fairy Camp when needed), with babysitting jobs on the side. And now I just finished up my training as an Americorps Service Member for an elementary school literacy program which, predictably, was also mostly women. A look at my resume, and you’d probably give three-to-one odds that I was female. That’s the life of an English/education major, I guess.

I should be clear that this isn’t some kind of men’s rights screed against the oppression of the matriarchy. At worst, my position as a straight, white, middle-class, Christian male gets me moderately uncomfortable sometimes, and even that’s rare. Mostly it’s a non-issue, which I know is far from the story a woman entering a male-dominated field would tell. And God knows that I’m much happier working at a toy store or school than, say, in the axe body spray-filled university-sized locker room that I imagine business school is. 

Still, there are times when I’ve felt left out. It’s a small problem, but it still hurts, and I think it’s worth writing about all the same.

There was this book that circulated through my family during our last year in Waco called Pick Me Up, which was basically a huge collection of infographics and random facts on topics the authors must’ve chosen by throwing darts at a college course catalogue. I still remember that page 87 described the evolutionary and biological features of masculinity, dating back to hunter-gatherer societies, while page 127 described the same thing for femininity. One column explained how men operated on a “fight or flight” reflex in times of scarcity, while some scholars theorized that women alternatively used a “tend and befriend” framework. Another claimed that, even in the most socially-constructed view of gender, men are still angrier and more prone to violence than women. A couple other fun fact sheets I found as a kid, along with a lot of explicit instructions, told the same story: girls had their world of creativity and caring, while boys got to fight over who gets to be leader. As a boy who never had much of a shot at being the alpha male and didn’t see much in it in this first place, it’s probably not much of a surprise that I spent most of my time in elementary school hanging out with girls.

Again, this isn’t something that bothers me much these days. But sometimes it does. Sometimes I come across a character that makes fun of less-than-manly men as lazy, weak, naive, spoiled, pretentious, arrogant, or, at best, as a soul too pure for this world who can only hope to inspire the real heroes with their inevitable death. And I can’t help seeing myself in them.

But, for all the thinking I’ve been doing about it, I think the best answer is just not to think about it. Kids don’t care if you’re a boy or girl when you’re reading them a storybook, so long as you use funny voices and make sure they can all see the pictures. Your characters don’t know what your gender is, to them you’re the omnipotent God charting the plot of their lives at your whim, and anyway they’re probably less concerned with your gender is than why you’re making their lives so goddamn difficult. So screw it. That’s easier said than done, but if what I love doing is what I love doing, then the gender demographics of it isn’t going to change what I love about it.
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* If anything, it makes ingrained sexism even more apparent (if the publishing industry reflected the actual number of people writing, men would be lucky to have a couple feet of shelf space in any bookstore). 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Journaling


As if keeping a blog where I talk exclusively about my own thoughts, feelings, and experiences wasn’t enough of a tip-off that I’m way too concerned with myself, I’ve also been keeping a journal since August 11, 2013. I’ve updated it every single day in the six years since, covering my entire high school experience and three quarters of college. That’s a little over two thousand entries, spanning a collection of six full tattered spiral-bound and composition, with a seventh in progress. And I doubt anyone will ever read it, not even me.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Maybe after I die some family members might page through it, or some historian might use it as a footnote in some argument about politics that haven’t happened yet (though I doubt it; historians of the future won’t exactly be hard-pressed for personal information about out generation). And I’ve glanced over it, once in a while, though I’ve never read it through all the way and probably never will. Because doing so would mean trudging through pages of entries from uneventful chapters of my life, like Saturday, February 7, 2015: “Slept it pretty late. Saw a terrible movie. Pretty warm outside for once.” I mean, seriously, how could that be interesting to anyone at all?
So why do I do it? On August 11, 2013 I probably had grand ideas about preserving my life for posterity’s sake, but nowadays these seven notebooks are mostly one of the less harmful products of my clinical OCD. I know that I won’t sleep be able to fall asleep if I don’t write something, even if it is nothing more than the thirteen useless words from February 7, 2015. If there is a deeper reason that’s been driving me, it’s probably a fear that the days of my life will all blend together into one mass of memory, and that I’ll eventually forget everything that mattered to me. But, if that’s the problem, then three not-quite sentences the state of sleep, weather, and cinema on February 7, 2015 don’t really do much to preserve the importance of my life. If anything, they raise questions of whether I’m doing anything worth remembering. 
But, of course, the entries aren’t always like that. Some are truly bizarre, made even stranger by the lack of context supporting them, like September 11, 2013: “Guy from the Thespian Club running around acting weird and slapping people. He came after me, so I ran and hid in the Euro room.” Was the Thespian Club doing some experimental recruitment strategy at the activities fair, or was it a rouge member unleashing thespianism upon Edina High School? Did he actually pose a credible threat to me, or was I just a weak-willed sophomore who saw danger everywhere? (I can actually guess the answer to that one, but I’d rather not dwell on it.) No matter what, the more interesting sections of my journals are disturbing in their own right. Clearly I imagined that the Thespian Club incident was important enough to get a reserved spot in my mind for all time, and all I’d need was a couple lines to retrieve the anecdote from memory storeage. But it didn’t work; it’s all gone, and the only hint that any of it ever happened are two sentences that might’ve been hyperbole, or straight-up lies. (Maybe it’s a bad sign that I don’t even trust my past self to tell me the truth.)
And then, of course, there’s the problem of what my journals don’t capture. The entries are never exhaustive or emotional (with a couple comically melodramatic exceptions where I lapse into purple prose and end sentences with multiple exclamation points). As my dad often notes in his sermons, life isn’t like the end of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, where everyone immediately recognizes the important things you’ve done, throws a parade in your honor, and gives you a giant glowing orb for your troubles. The small moments: the thoughts that occur to you on walks between classes and seem incidental at the time, only to grow, or the friendships that start with a passing comment, none of that makes it onto the page. Keeping a journal really wrecks the realism of any epistolary story because, read as a narrative, my journal is absolutely terrible: names appear with no introduction and the main character makes random (and often really, really bad) choices for no apparent reason. 

So yeah, don’t expect a lot from journaling, especially if you aren’t about to invest a whole lot of time into it. Half of it is boring, half of it is completely indecipherable, and most of the real story is missing. But at most it’s only three minutes a night. It’s a light investment, and I think it’s worth it for a fast and loose, incomplete and incoherent account of my life.