Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why an M.F.A. in writing is not worth the cost

My first course in graduate school was a survey on Melville. Melville is my favorite writer. The professor for the class was Brian Higgins, one of the great Melville scholars in the world. (I'm sorry to find out that Brian died in May.) This was as close to Heaven as I would ever find in life. He told a story about fellow Melville scholar Hershel Parker. A former student of Parker's drunk-dialed him in the middle of the night once, his plaintive voice pleading for an answer to the question, "My God, Hershel, what does Moby Dick mean?" Parker was reportedly proud of the answer he managed to scrape together while still half-asleep: "When you go up against the universe, you're likely to get the shit kicked out of you."

I hope you liked that anecdote. It cost me about $50,000.

It also illustrates one of the reasons I left graduate school after my M.A., instead of continuing on for a Ph.D. and a life centered around literature. Recently, Blake Kimzey, the guy who edited my story and who I was then a jerk to before realizing he'd actually done a good job, tweeted about his "Ahab-like quest to be a writer." Obviously, I identify with Ahab. Anyone who "gets" Moby Dick identifies with Ahab. I can imagine being caught up as a member of the crew on the quarterdeck when Ahab nails the coin to the mast and cries, "God hunt us all, if we hunt not Moby Dick to his death!" The whale for me in my twenties was to become a writer, to fire back at an indifferent universe with words. My words might not hurt the universe at all, but that wasn't the point. Get the whale or die trying. That was the point.

But less than two years later, I had pretty much given up the hunt. I think it partly had to do with reading the book The Comedy of Survival, by Joseph Meeker. Meeker looked at Western literature from an ecological perspective, thinking about how literature plays a role in survival. He felt that a tragic mindset, like, say, Hamlet's, was much less helpful to survival than a comedic mindset, like the hero of the Picaresque adventure Lazarillo de Tormes. The tragic mindset is willing to die for abstract causes. Meeker argues that this is unnatural. He recalls a story of an elk whose child was killed by a bear as the mother watched. The elk didn't track the bear seeking revenge. The elk didn't drink or suffer from depression. The elk moved on with the herd. What else could it do?

If Ahab were just taking a jet-ski and a harpoon gun on his own into the deep blue to seek the whale, we might be right to admire him.  But he sinks a ship full of people, people who went on board the Pequod for reasons of survival, to earn a living for families. He's an asshole, albeit a sublime asshole.

I didn't want to be Ahab, to be so focused on my own obsession that I brought down myself and others with me. I didn't have the strength to keep punching at the universe. I could either preach, unnoticed, on a street corner about the evils of a world that allows children to starve, or I could get a job and feed a mouth or two.

Mammon-the unavoidable reality
This is the main reason I wouldn't advise getting an M.F.A., or really any advanced degree in the humanities. School is a huge expense. The fact is that an advanced degree in the humanities doesn't pay for itself in most cases. (This is contrasted with an undergraduate degree in the humanities, which might actually be worth it. I believe this is because a lot of good jobs just require a college degree in "anything." My job is one of them.I still think you might be better off getting a specific, job-related degree. But I digress.)

Look, at 23, it's hard to accept that 40 years of claims adjustments for an insurance company or managing a call center isn't a bad way to spend your life. It's tempting to think that if you could put that off for a while and learn more, maybe you could make your dream of living for art and beauty and anarchistic freedom a reality. We tend to reinforce this idea in society with movies, TV, etc. about people who dreamed big and made their dreams come true. These stories tend to set up a false dichotomy between "selling out" and "remaining true to yourself." Ever see a story that celebrates a would-be poet forsaking a long-shot dream so he can help his brother pay for care for his special-needs child? A teacher who wanted to work in films, but who now tutors extra hours so she can pay for granola bars and school supplies for her students? A real estate agent who used to be a musician, who now works three jobs to pay for coyotes to take her family out of dangerous countries? Did any of these people sell out? Not at all. In fact, if you're planning to go all-in on trying to be a full-time artist, the odds are that at some point in time, you're going to owe your ability to eat to someone like this.

Let's say you decide you need beauty in your life. You get your Ph.D. Your best job prospect is at 42K a year teaching in Montana. You have a 300/month student loan payment. That's 3600 a year. To make that much after tax, you'd have to earn about 5000 gross, give or take. So your effective salary is now down to 37K. It's probably living wage. Unless you also ran up your credit cards for surgery for your pet Labrador while in school. And to fix the brakes on your old car. Now, you're down to 32K a year. You buy a new car, because yours has finally had it, and you finally got the job you were promising everyone you'd get, and can't ask them for more help. It goes on. Your decision to enjoy life at 25 can make your life miserable well into your forties.

But aren't there things more important than money, just making it through? Of course. But know what you're choosing. If you want to live for art and beauty, please, don't have a family. Not until you finally make it, or find a decent fall-back plan and pay off your debts. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the decision not to have kids. If more people chose it, the world would probably be a better place. Just know what you're getting into.

All this is moot if you have a family to take care of you. And there's nothing wrong with that, either. If your family is fine footing the bill while you try to get your career off the ground, well, that's kind of the whole reason people work hard: to be able to offer their kids a chance at their dreams. Go for it. Also, if you have a scholarship or T.A. deal with the school, and can get through without debt, that's another matter altogether. But I still don't think that an M.F.A. is the best way to go about becoming a writer, for the reason below.

The workshop: how to waste your time in a pointless meeting without even having a job

 I got an M.A., not an M.F.A., but I took five graduate level workshops. Two were in novels, two in short stories, and one in poetry. I know what awaits you as an M.F.A. candidate. You will be put into workshops with about ten or so students. You will take turns reading work from other students, probably two per class. You will get your work looked at every four or five weeks. You'll try to provide good feedback to other students, but you'll have a hard time with it. Some work will strike you as very poor. You'll wonder why that person is in grad school at all. What advice do you offer to fix a manuscript that is rotten from beginning to end?

Some students will seem to get the basics of writing, but will write about subjects that bore you, or in a style you already decided you hated back in high school. You'll try to offer helpful suggestions to the guy who writes all in stream of consciousness or the girl who writes entirely in second person. You'll feel like you weren't very helpful.

When it's finally your turn to get feedback, you'll find that the other students had as much trouble figuring out what to say about your work as you did about theirs. You'll wonder if some even tried, or if they are just cruising until it's their turn to go again. Soon, you'll start to do the same for them.

The 60-90 minutes spent discussing your work will be mostly a waste of time. Each student will offer their half thought-out critiques. They have other classes and jobs and families, and your work is the easiest thing to fluff on. One student will have something semi-useful to say that kind of interests you, but then he'll be shouted down by the one student who never shuts up (the same one you can't believe is actually in an M.F.A. program). The one person who won't have much to say is the professor, the one person in the class who has presumably published some work of renown, and whose opinion might, therefore, matter. The professor will hand you back her copy of your work with her comments. These will be margin notes and half a page of general thoughts. For this, you have just borrowed $5,000 at 4% interest.

I'm sure there are advocates of the workshop. I'm sure some professors run them in a more useful fashion than this. But I have a feeling the situation I just described is the rule, just as it's the rule that most meetings in any organization are an incredible waste of time. The people running the meetings seem to be incapable of determining purpose, scope, and method and then keeping everyone on task.

Contrast this with Carve magazine's literary services.  If you want to just get general thoughts and a line-by-line edit on a 6,000 word short story, you can do it for $150. General thoughts only on a 4000 word story is just $50. (For reference, in most semester-long workshops in grad school, you'll probably get your work looked at twice.) For that money, someone who has at least published some work will give you reasonably considered feedback. It isn't perfect feedback, maybe, but from my experience, it is better than almost any feedback you'll get in a graduate program. The most expensive package they offer is $1500. For that, you get three months of intensive coaching. This includes up to 50,000 words reviewed, if you've got that much. You get six meetings, and weekly in-depth feedback. This would probably equal more individual care than I got in four semesters of grad school combined.

Plus, these are things you can do while you continue to work. That means you'll not only be not getting into debt, but you'll be getting new life experiences to write about. (Even writers are bored by writing about being a writer.)

Your adviser in graduate school is not going to be your best friend

I had three workshop leaders in graduate school. Cris Mazza, Gene Wildman, and Luis Urrea. All three were fine people. Luis is a goddamned beautiful human being. I had just enough self-respect in graduate school to refrain from being his stalker. Cris was my adviser. She surprised me by treating me most of the time like she thought I was kind of smart. Gene's class must have led the league in curse words, but never in an angry way.

They were three really nice people, and fairly talented. I didn't really like Cris's subject matter in her books, but it was clear she could write. None of them gave me a cold shoulder. I had occasional e-mails and meetings with them.

I just don't think I got $50,000 worth of advice from them. Not really their fault. They were working on their own writing, their own careers. They had families. It's not like they could clear their schedules to spontaneously invite me to a six-hour dinner after class. (They'd have had to pay for it, too. I was fucking broke.)

I have to imagine this will be the case for most grad students. I think one reason people pay big bucks is the hope that an adviser will help you get a break, will put in a good word for you with an editor somewhere. Maybe that an adviser will generally adopt you and make your success the whole purpose of his/her existence. That you'll cry and hug her when you accept your Nobel.

Someone may have a different experience, but I just don't think this is going to happen. I think you'll get responses to e-mails that answer your questions, albeit not in an expansive way. I think you'll get office hours meetings if you ask for them. I think you'll get a half a page of feedback each time it's your turn to go in a workshop. But you're not going to get a literary parent figure. Advisers have their own agendas, and they need to have boundaries.

Writing is hard work, and there is no substitute for knowing the basics and just writing

I got through an M.A. in English without ever reading Shakespeare in college. I've read a fair amount on my own; it just was never part of a class I took. (Probably because we spent way too much time reading bullshit literary theory to spend time on actual literature.) Likewise, I managed to collect a graduate degree "with a concentration in creative writing" without ever reading a single book about how to write. I think I believed that writing couldn't be taught, that I'd just read the greats and something would happen. I hardly ever even read anything that had been written after, say, 1975. I didn't even know what contemporary literature looked like.

Maybe my graduate program assumed we had read books on how to write in undergrad. Maybe I wrote well enough to make it look like I had some idea what I was doing, but not well enough to succeed. But I can't understand how I can get an M.A. or M.F.A or whatever without ever being required to read books of "craft." (I hate that word, but that's really what I'm talking about.) Thinking back, it's obvious a lot of students besides me had never read about how to write. If we had, we wouldn't all have made so many point-of-view mistakes.

Rather than waste time, I think it would have been far more useful to have readings on craft included as part of the curriculum. Once we all had a common vocabulary, we could have spent our workshop hours much more usefully.

I don't understand why the basic model isn't this:

1) Know the basics of your craft and prove you can use the terminology
2) Submit every week
3) Get feedback from your professor every week.
4) Apply feedback and submit again the next week.

Why do other students even enter into it? You could certainly look to them for moral support and a sense of community, but the guy who supposedly knows something should be the one giving you most of the advice. For $5,000, it seems like you ought to be able to expect that. Carve is offering it for $1500.

At some point in time, if you want to write, you're going to have to learn the basics of how it's done and then write a lot. Unless you're very talented, you'll have to write a whole lot of stuff that isn't very good before it all clicks. (I say "talented," not "smart." You can be very smart and not really "get" writing.)

A lot of people say the benefit of an M.F.A. program is that is forces you to have the discipline to write by a deadline. I think that if you need an external reason to write, you will never have the discipline to write. I knew a lot of guys in the Marine Corps who came in fat and were hoping they'd learn the discipline in the Marine Corps to be in shape. They're all fat again now. An M.F.A. is not a deus ex machina to get you off your ass (well, for a writer, I guess "on your ass," technically) and in front of the keyboard. If you can't get yourself to write on your own, you won't be a writer.

If you've written and written and written and read up on how to write and then written and written and written some more, and you're still not getting anywhere, and you're willing to take the anchorite vows of making it as a writer or bust, then go try a graduate program. But if you haven't already filled a library with attempts to succeed before you get there, I really don't believe you'll succeed afterwards.

And that's why I'm done with the blog

My purpose in posting so much about doubts and difficulties as a marginally gifted writer was to help people struggling with similar situations.  If someone else with thirty stories, one publication and five encouraging notes from editors could see that it's not just them throwing their hands up in exasperation, maybe they could at least face the frustration knowing they're not crazy or alone.

But I can't do as many things as I'd like to do. I can't blog about writing and write and do my day job and take care of my family and floss and lift weights and wash my clothes and, hopefully, get back to volunteer work again soon. So the blog has to go. I thought a couple of weeks ago that I could just write about all the things that bother me about fiction writing and exorcise them and be done, but really, I haven't even scratched the surface. Maybe if I actually, you know, succeed one day at fiction, I'll write about all the problems I had breaking in, and people will actually care because I finally figured it out. But for now, I'll worry about solving the problems rather than recording them in excruciating detail.

Thanks to everyone who read, and the few who even commented. If you'd like to leave a comment in the future, I'll probably see it eventually.

I wish any aspiring writers the very wildest of success, but I also wish success in life to those who give up writing to tend to more important, other things.

UPDATE: 11-7-2016

I wrote five more stories since this post. Two were published: one in Bartleby Snopes, and one coming up soon in The Potomac Review. That story was actually selected by two journals on the same day, leaving me in the unprecedented position of actually turning a journal down. I had a short story collection win honorable mention in Leapfrog's 2016 fiction contest.

I wrote my novel in the spring of this year. It was a farce about my day job. I sent it off to a few literary agents, but haven't heard anything back. I doubt I will. It's apparently very hard to break in. I could always go the self-publishing route, but I just don't have the energy to expend in self-marketing. It's a pretty good bet it would be one more ignored, self-published book on the digital heap. Even if I did score a traditional publishing contract, apparently that hardly means I'd get much readership.

I've been getting rejected hard lately with stories I sent off to the major league journals. I've sent what I thought was my best work to many of the journals from this list of the best in the country. One got form rejected in five days. None have gotten so much as a "we liked it, but can't publish it right now."

Fiction is hard, and it's unlikely to ever get you fame or fortune. That's really all every writing program should tell its students.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Speaking of bad readers...

I've posted a few times about how readers don't pay attention to what they read, and so tend to completely miss the point; this can be incredibly frustrating for writers. It's one thing to be criticized for what you actually wrote, but being criticized for the version of what you wrote that exists in the critic's head is maddening. I include myself among those bad readers, by the way. Like anyone, I can be too self-absorbed to give someone's writing its due.

But I may have never seen a more egregious example of willful bad reading than that by Peter Maass in an article from The Intercept on August 11th. In it, Maass revealed what he claimed were seven editorial columns from the National Security Agency's internal website, written by a working-level translator. The translator's name was known to Maass, allowing him to do some basic research on the NSA employee. Maass dubbed the translator "Socrates" because six of the editorials were supposedly written for a column NSA called "The SIGINT Philosopher." (I will call this translator "Melville" instead of "Socrates," because the writer himself joked about how little Philosophy he had studied.) Maass combined these editorials with what he found on what he believed to be Melville's personal, non-work blog about life as a failed fiction writer to create a composite, conjectural portrait. The picture was not flattering, as the title "What Happens when a Failed Writer Becomes a Loyal Spy?" might suggest.

Maass's eight-page article included long sections on his search for information on Melville--not much of a challenge, as Melville was attempting to be found rather than hide on the internet, and Maass already had a lot to go on from the editorials. Maass played a tongue-in-cheek game of "tell you who he is/not tell you who he is," sharing many paragraphs of detail about Melville's life taken from the blog, including hints about his family, apparently to make the point (already known by everyone) that people can find out a lot about you if they are really determined to, even if you work for NSA. He explained that even if readers managed to decipher Melville's true identity, he had a "get out of guilt free card," because he was certain he had interpreted Melville's editorials sufficiently. As he saw it, Melville wanted the government to collect everything on everybody, because it made us all safer. Maass found irony in Melville's desire to keep his name out of Maass's story, because, after all, hadn't Melville just said that the more others know about you, the safer you are?

Since Maass's decision to provide so much personal information on Melville was entirely built on his certainty of his own interpretation, it's odd he spent so little time actually, you know, reading the articles. He and NPR's On the Media referred unproblematically to Melville's belief in "total surveillance." Nobody seemed to notice that this phrase, appearing in some re-posts of the story in quotes as though it were Melville who said it, is Maass's restatement, not Melville's words. As I'm about to show, it isn't a good restatement.

"Melville's" Actual Writing: What it says and doesn't say

What did Melville actually say? Maass dealt mostly with two of the editorials, so I will look at the same two. One editorial was the first Melville wrote as SIGINT Philosopher. With what looks to be roughly a one-page word limit, Melville attempted to answer the question not--as Maass thinks--of whether NSA should grab all communications on Earth, but whether it is morally acceptable to conduct surveillance on foreign targets who are not clearly "enemies." When Melville first stated work, he had misgivings. He wasn't targeting terrorists or drug lords, but foreign government officials who seemed like good people. They were folks, like Melville, who had taken government jobs because work for one's country seemed like a respectable calling in life and because it enabled them to care for their families. They weren't being targeted for doing bad things; they simply knew information that Melville's employer also wanted to know.

Melville then recalled a moment when he was himself a "target": his employer was re-investigating him for his security clearance at work. He apparently had problems with the polygraph (not an uncommon occurrence, even for those who are telling the truth). He passed a month later, it seems, but in the meantime, he felt depressed while waiting to retake the test after failing it. Sardonically, he listed two wishes he had while nursing his wounds:

1) That he could run away from it all, take his family out onto the prairie of old and live in a mud hut.

2) That his employer would just know everything about him, rather than just the flawed information from a polygraph.

I don't think either with was a real wish. If given the chance, he wouldn't go back to the 19th century and rub elbows with Ma and Pa Ingalls. Neither did he really want his employer to look through everything of his. These were his depressed, illogical thoughts, and they are presented as such. These ideas made sense when he was under duress, but now that he has recovered his equilibrium he is making fun of his own thoughts. He's poking fun at himself, not expressing a true desire. These crazy thoughts do relate to what comes after, but the later thought expresses a different wish than total surveillance.

He drew an analogy between himself as a target and his own targets he eavesdrops on. He wanted to be "complete and competent" in monitoring them. Not to listen to everything they said, but to listen to enough to be "competent," to not misunderstand them, to not misrepresent them based on bunk data, such as the bunk data from a polygraph. He said this was as much for the targets as it was for the Unites States, thinking of the repercussions that can result from a powerful agent that misunderstands an innocent target.

This is what David Hume (I think I have this right) would have called an "imperfect analogy." The two parts of Melville as target and Melville as eavesdropper only partly line up. He had a crazy desire to have the government know everything about him, and it led him to a less crazy realization that his job has meaning when he does it well enough to prevent propagating bad information.

I think Melville made a rather important punctuation error at one point. In a paragraph right after talking about his crazy desires, he began with "This is the attitude I have brought to my SIGINT work since then." That makes it sound like he meant "I've taken this crazy idea of the government knowing everything about me and put it to work." Some commenters have found this so outlandish they have even wondered if this was a mock piece, the NSA version of The Onion. But taking the whole article into consideration, I see it as a simple punctuation error. It should have said "This is the attitude I have brought to my SIGINT work since then <COLON>," thereby tying it to what came after.

This would have made it clear that the actual attitude he adopts is the next phrase: "If we are going to work on targets that fall short of being technically 'enemies' but are rather informative for our policy makers--and we are--then even looking at it from the target's perspective, we are honor-bound to do more and better monitoring rather than less." The more is not on everyone, only on his small set of foreign targets. And it's not infinite; it's only "more" to the extent it leads to "better."

There is a bizarre finale about seeking a "deity-like monitoring of the target." It's a weird, sudden insertion of a new metaphor of the government spy as God and the target as the humanity that God watches. I don't believe this was even Melville's original line. He's an agnostic. He just said the government "does not have godlike powers" a paragraph before that line. I think there might have even been a smiley-face emoticon stuck in there that didn't show up in Maass's version, and I don't think Melville would EVER use one of those outside a text message.

I'd wager that something happened here Maass can probably relate to. Melville had an editor. The editor thought this was a pithy way to wrap up, and Melville, in his first article, didn't feel he could fight too hard. But even if my textual postulations are wrong, and we take the text at its word, it's clear the text is not calling for monitoring "all of us," as Maass put it during his On the Media interview. It's deity-like monitoring of his targets. Those targets are apparently both foreign and few. He seems to have some level of familiarity with them, which would be impossible if he monitored thousands of people. He's a translator, after all. Ever try to translate just one person? It takes a long time.

All in all, I look at this article as a government employee saying that he finds monitoring other people to be a little unnerving, but that he has come to grips with it by determining to do his job competently. The government is going to do it anyway, so it's better for everyone if they at least get the right information. He has developed an ethic of trying to get "more and better monitoring of (his) targets," so that he can pass on information in a "complete and competent" manner.

This is certainly a position that you could still call into question. It does not interrogate many larger issues about the U.S.'s role internationally as a superpower and the effects thereof. I don't think he could have addressed all of this--short word count. In any event, these critiques, though important, are a long way off from a guy who thinks the government should find out everything about its own citizens.

Contents of second article

In the second article Maass quoted from, Melville, drawing on his newfound love for studying the American Civil War, found lessons from the past for civil servants of today. Melville believed that if he had been an adviser to Lincoln at the start of the war, he'd have urged Lincoln that he couldn't win, and therefore, Lincoln had no choice but to live with secession. Melville would have had a lot of solid-sounding pragmatic reasons why the war was doomed to failure, but his reasons, though brilliant in his own mind, would have been completely wrong. (Partly, he'd have been wrong because he'd have underestimated Lincoln's ability to make the impossible possible.)

Extrapolating from this, he suggested that civil servants like him may want to think twice before opposing too stridently policies they think are wrong. Those civil servants, though well-informed and well-intentioned, might be wrong, even though they could explain so well why there were right. Even if the employees were right and the policies from leaders were wrong, bad policies can sometimes work out: Lee made stupid decisions that his soldiers found a way to make look brilliant just by carrying them out in a brilliant way. (And luck.)

As a former military guy myself, I can't help but interpret this in the context of grousing government employees. Nobody can complain like a government employee can. Melville may have heard a lot of this type of complaint. Although his NSA colleagues are no doubt intelligent people who have brilliant reasons to pick apart policies, Melville apparently felt that to oppose every policy, to think he has everything figured out more than those who made the policy, would amount to hubris.

Maass saw in this a loyal-to-a-fault Melville willing to follow even unethical policies. But Melville did not say that Southerners who opposed slavery should have fought for it because their country demanded it. He said that those who accepted the South's cause were doing the "right thing" (within the context of being utterly wrong about slavery), to try to make the flawed strategies of their leadership work. If NSA employees accept NSA's overall mission of using foreign communications to provide foreign intelligence for America's military and policy makers, then they should generally work to make policies in support of that mission achieve their intended results. In this context, the policies Melville thought that workers might object to are more likely to be inefficient or counter-productive in nature, not unethical. This is clearer if one reads some of the other columns Melville wrote, in which he himself groused about a number of those policies, such as a promotion system that discouraged the collaboration it was supposed to reward.

In fact, Melville listed three valid responses to policies employees might not like. One was "I might be wrong." Second was "I might be right, but the wrong thing might work anyway." Third was--directly quoting here: "My oath is to uphold the constitution, and as long as those decision makers are operating constitutionally, I will put my own feelings aside, and support them." (Bold mine.) Melville was willing to give his leaders a lot of latitude, but not infinitely so.

Melville's far from a perfect writer. His blog is sometimes intolerably self-indulgent. In his SIGINT Philosopher columns, he tried to avoid bureaucratic speech and write something interesting, but in the process he left daylight for an uncautious reader to arrive at interpretations that I don't think he meant. But there is no reason to read the worst into what is there unless you've already made your mind up beforehand that you know what he's talking about. That is to say, you might not have the necessary context, and should approach with caution. Melville was wary about pretending he knew more about his targets than he really did (one of his columns was entirely about this). That's why he wanted to know more about those targets. He was worried that the government might take action against the target based on a faulty understanding of the context.

Maass seems to have done exactly the thing Melville wanted to avoid in his work. He pulled the trigger on an accusatory story without having enough context. He read into Melville what he assumed he would find. He assumed, anachronistically, that Melville's admonition to follow policies he didn't like was about NSA metadata programs that have since come under fire (even though those weren't an issue of public debate until months after Melville wrote). It seems more likely, though, that Melville was referring to something entirely different, possibly government policies Melville thught were counterproductive concerning parts of the world he cared about. Maass also assumed that Melville meant "more" monitoring equaled "total" monitoring, and monitoring of everyone, and for whatever reasons suited his fancy. A remotely careful reading, though, clearly shows Melville wanted better monitoring of a limited number of foreign targets picked for specific reasons so that the government had the correct information.

I don't fault The Intercept, The Guardian, or any other venues for trying to write stories about NSA. The Intercept does some important journalism. Last month, they had a story about women on Riker's Island who faced sexual abuse for seeking medical care.  After the Kalief Browder story, I don't see how anyone could not see this as critical journalism. Giving a voice to the voiceless is journalism at its best. But a story like Maass's, so blatantly missing the point of writing that was right there in front of him, calls his reliability into question. By extension, it calls The Intercept into question. As the de facto mediators between the Snowden documents and the public, they have to do better than this, or the entire public discourse about surveillance will be off course.

I understand, given the age we live in, anxiety over monitoring of electronic communications. The public will never feel easy about monitoring its government does in secret, just like Melville did not feel easy about his employer monitoring him. NSA must do a better job of explaining how it balances the 4th Amendment rights of its citizens against the need to protect its citizens. A much better job. As in, it should allow the people who actually do and know the work to explain their jobs instead of marching its leaders in front of us to give broad and generic reassurances. Providing a declassified version of USSID SPOO18, NSA's regulations for protecting 4th Amendment rights while carrying out the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was a great start, but there is much more NSA could do to make clear to Americans what NSA actually does.

It won't be easy. NSA is, I imagine, worried that every reassurance it makes to the American people has a cost in what it teaches adversaries about how to evade NSA. And they might be right--since we don't know everything about how they work, we can't imagine how seemingly innocent revelations might hurt NSA. But it can be done. It just takes creativity and political willpower. I appreciate that The Intercept is part of creating that political willpower, although they are doing it, like all us writers are, imperfectly. Because honestly, nobody would rather see NSA open up more to its citizens about how it does what it does than I would.

In any event, it's another warning to writers. Do everything you can to avoid being misread. But know you'll still be misread, anyway. Me, I take solace in recalling the scorn the real Melville, Herman, received for Moby Dick when it came out. Commenters in America noted that it didn't make any sense how Ishmael was telling the story, when the entire crew of the Pequod died. But it was a simple printer error. The American version left off the end, "I alone have escaped to tell thee," where Ishmael survives. There's no end to things that can go wrong in writing. But keep writing anyway. Someday, perhaps, you'll be vindicated.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Inspiration for the mediocre from the never-mediocre Borges

Recently, I posted something about moving my goals from being one of the great writers of all-time to getting key ideas across in a meaningful way to a handful of people (it's at the beginning of that link). I guess that qualifies as lowered expectations. Somewhere at the back of my thinking in saying that was a wonderful miniature from Jorge Luis Borges I read a dozen years or so ago and just dug up again in recent days. The translation is mine, so if it's hosed, you know whom to blame.

Inferno, I, 32

     From the twilight of dawn to the twilight of evening, a leopard, in the final years of the twelfth century, looked at wooden planks, some iron bars, men and women who came and went, a wall, and, perhaps, a stone gutter full of dried leaves. He did not know--he could not know--that he longed for love and cruelty and the warm pleasure of tearing something apart and the wind carrying the scent of deer, but something in him was drowning and rebelling, and God spoke to him in a dream: You will live and die in this prison, in order that a man I know will look upon you a certain number of times and not forget you and will put your image and your symbol into a poem, a poem that has its precise place in the drama of the universe. You will suffer captivity, but you will have given a word to the poem. God, in the dream, illuminated the simplicity of the animal, and he understood the reasons and accepted this destiny, but when he awoke, all that remained in him was a dim resignation, a valiant ignorance, because the world is too complicated a machine for the simplicity of a beast.
    Years later, Dante would die in Ravenna, as unjustified and alone as any man. In a dream, God revealed to him the secret purpose of his life and his work; Dante, astonished, discovered at last who he was and what he was and blessed his sufferings. Tradition says that when he woke up, he felt that he had received and lost something infinite, something that he could not recover or even get an inkling of, because the world is too complicated a machine for the simplicity of men. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

failures as a human and putting it in writing

Writers are supposed to be like comedians in that anything bad that happens to us or any shortcomings in ourselves are supposed to be seen as almost fortunate: they give us something to write about. Louis CK does a bit about how he's just waiting for his kids to get old so he can commit suicide, but in the meantime, he's masturbating a lot and letting his body go, and we laugh because it's really funny. It is. It shouldn't be, but it is.

I've quoted that line by Charles Baxter about hell being story-friendly so often by now the four people who read this blog are probably sick of hearing it from me, but writers are told that when we see weakness in ourselves, we should see it as grist for writing. It's a fortunate failure, allowing us to convert our personal failures into something universal. It's like we got caught eating candy in class, and the teacher said "Did you bring enough for everyone?" only to find that by some Jesus-and-the-fishes miracle, you actually do have enough for everyone.

I guess hooray for everyone, then, except that it still leaves you, the writer, failing as a human. I'm thinking of a specific example. Last night, I was at a small party. A soiree, really. Not that many people, but all really smart people. Some I was meeting for the first time in person, but I knew them from correspondence as highly intelligent folks.

I'm not a big drinker, but I drank a lot. That's not the failure part. The failure is that one guy crossed over, in my mind, the line between funny comments about race (and maybe gender, too? I can't remember. I was kind of drunk) and stuff he just shouldn't have said. I'm of the opinion that you should be able to say whatever's on your mind about race, but you should always say something you would say in mixed company. If you'd say that line with someone of that race in the room, then by all means, say it, however edgy it might be. If it fails, I'll support you for the effort. But we were a gathering of privileged white males.

It wasn't close to the most prejudiced line I've heard, but I think it was out of bounds. But I really just failed to speak up. There were a lot of reasons. I was intimidated as (in my mind) the dumbest guy in the room, I was having a good time and didn't want to bring it all down, it wasn't my house or party, and I didn't want to ruin it for the host, and probably some good old-fashioned moral cowardice. Also, I was drunk. Don't know if I mentioned that. He was probably drunk, too.

My lame attempt to shame him was to bring up my close relationship with specific black people. I think I was trying to intimate, rather than explicitly say, "Hey, man. That last bit wasn't cool." I think my point eluded him. Not surprising; I wasn't anywhere near direct enough.

A fiction workshop would be happy about this and want me to get to work immediately on some kind of vignette about it. The four men, the cigar smoke, the pool table, the one word that made my head snap. (Not THE word.) I should show by actions, dialogue, dress, demeanor, and so on why person one felt it was okay to say such a thing, and why person two (me) didn't lodge the proper protest.

On the one hand, this makes sense to do this. This is the kind of role playing people in ethics training do all the time. You're the dumbest in a group of four people at someone else's party, and a guy you've just met, who is enjoying telling a pretty good story, gratuitously inserts an ethnic off-color line. What do you do?

The problem with these scenarios is that nobody really has time in real life to think of what to do. What's the perfect thing to say? How do I convey that this person has violated what I think is decency in his speech without moralizing? How can I be convincing? I don't want to just lodge a protest to make my own linguistic predilections clear. I want to convert. I can't stop being an evangelical, I guess.

Furthermore, I wonder if writers actually become better people by writing about their failures. If a comedian continues to get laughs from her screw-ups, isn't it a temptation to keep screwing up? You could even justify it as "staying true to who you are" or some bullshit. Amy Schumer's character in Trainwreck finally gets her shit together, but that's the moment when we stop watching the movie. What if the movie continued on from that great final scene, but she's not as interesting from then on? This is what I think the temptation is in writing: to embrace too deeply your own flaws, rather than set to fixing them, because they give you grist for stories.

Ultimately, I don't want to be someone who fails to be brave on a thousand small moral battlegrounds. I want to be someone who does the right thing. Does writing help me to get there? Or does it just offer me a means to forgive myself, or to fix my flaws by proxy rather than doing the hard work of fixing myself for real?

So that this blog entry doesn't become the only thing I do about last night, I'm going to at least e-mail him about what I thought. It's not much, but it's better than letting it go forever.