Monday, January 30, 2017

First experience being edited

Good news #1: My third published story just came out.
Bad news #1: You can't access it online. You have to buy the journal. I have two contributor copies. One is for my parents. I guess that makes it hard to share it with you.

Good news #2: Yesterday, an editor told me his journal would publish another story, my fourth to be published.
Bad news #2: It doesn't come out until July. The story is set during Christmas, so the timing isn't great.

News I want to talk about: The editor who picked up this last story approved it a day after I submitted it. That does not happen, like, ever. But he had suggestions. That also has not happened before on stories that were accepted. Most of the suggested changes were minor, and really just catching small mistakes. But there were two major recommendations:

1) Change the title, and
2) Change the ending.

Not to give too many spoilers of a story you will never read, but the end of this Christmasy story involved two people who are starting to realize they are in love with each other giving one another gifts. Inevitably, this invokes O Henry's "Gift of the Magi." Not that this is necessarily bad. It's a story; everyone knows it for a reason. But the two characters in the story have their own existence, and to overshadow that existence by heavily injecting another meta-narrative onto them would weaken the story. I tried to avoid this writing the story one way; the editor suggested another.

All my training had led up to this

I knew that one thing I would not do at this point was act like a prima donna and refuse any changes. However, I wasn't really sure how to make the changes he was asking for. It would have involved really re-imagining who I thought the two characters were. I would have had to rewrite more than just the ending, I thought. So I felt myself in sort of a tough spot: wanting to NOT be a difficult, intractable writer, but also not wanting to find myself committing to writing a story I didn't know how to write.

I wrote him back, emphasizing most of all how grateful I was for his interest in the story. It's a story about refugees, and it was nice to have it accepted yesterday, of all days. I'd been trying to get it published for 9 months, according to my submission records. So I really was grateful. I tried to explain my reasons for my decisions to the editor, but also say that I was open to changes. In the end, we settled for just changing the title, which, in retrospect, seems to me like a good change. (Just recently, on the journal for which I am a reader, I recommended a story to the editor but also wanted to change the title.) The editor trusted me with the ending, even though it didn't fully mesh with his aesthetic sense.

So what did we learn?

If an editor cares enough to offer suggestions, it's a good bet he really likes your story. That also means his suggestions might be good ones, because if he liked the story enough to offer suggestions to begin with, it's likely he gets what's good about it. It'd be much easier and less time consuming to just reject the story. I've seen it happen, where the staff just says "this thing about the story dooms it for me." Offering suggestions meant more work for him--two emails worth of work where we hammered it out.

The moral is: work with your editor. Trust him, and he'll probably trust you, too.

 A second lesson

There is something in common with story #3 that was just published and this one that will be published in July. I had hoped that both might be "breakthrough" works for me: that they would be published in one of the big 50 journals, granting me gravitas as a writer. I wanted something impressive to brag about when I send out query letters for my novel.

The day I was accepted for my third story, I informed the other journals I'd applied to that it was off the market. One editor from a journal I really wanted to get in sent me an email that she'd been just about to accept it. I was kind of disappointed; why hadn't I waited? I even thought of telling the first journal I wanted to pull out.

But Potomac Review, the first journal, had grabbed it first. They sent a letter that made it clear why they liked it. I'd connected with somebody there. No matter what resume-fodder the other journal could offer, I'd never find a more appreciative journal than Potomac Review. So I stuck with them.

With the story where the editor and I made changes, I had also submitted it to other journals, including some "dream big" ones. When questions about changes started, I thought maybe I should hold out. But that would have been foolish. The effort to suggest changes meant I already had someone who appreciated the story.

There are a lot of writers and too few readers. The odds of a big-time career are thin. The best I can hope for is to find people with whom my stories resonate. It would be great to find lots of people with whom they resonate. But it's also great to have a few people with whom they resonate deeply. I'm going to stick to that. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

In which I take one of those 60's ladies magazine-style quizzes for the edifiation of all

I remember back when the highly unscientific quiz posing as a very scientific quiz was a staple of the ladies' magazines by the checkouts in stores. It seems to me a couple of 70's or 80's sitcoms used the prop of a wife taking one of those quizzes (usually about her relationship to her lout of a husband) and seeing how bad she had it as a way to drive the plot for 22 minutes. In that spirit, I now publicly take the 12-question quiz posed by former Bartleby Snopes editor Nathaniel Tower, "12 Signs You Aren't Really a Writer." May it lead to as much whimsy as a classic episode of The Ropers.  

Here we go:

1. You always force yourself to think about ideas to write about

What Nathaniel says: It’s fine to think about writing, but take a fucking break once in a while. If you’re always forcing it, then it isn’t real. Real writers don’t spend every waking moment straining to find things to write about.

Jake's answer:  The last sign in this survey is going to suggest the opposite: that if you think you don't have enough experiences for a story, you're lost. Writing primers are always saying that everybody has enough experience for a story, that a story can come from any little scrap of life. This is one of those times when one can utter two similar phrases, but only one is true. "A story can come from anywhere" is true, but "A story can come from everywhere" isn't. Maybe one sign of maturation is the ability to let some ideas go if they don't seem to be yielding anything after a while.

Conclusion: Point me. 1-0 I'm a writer.

2. Criticism hurts your feelings

What Nathaniel says: Sure, a bad review of what you thought was your career-defining work will get you down, but if you can’t take any criticism, then you aren’t really a writer. This is especially true of constructive criticism. If you’re the type who thinks every little critique is an attack on your skills as a writer, then a writer you are not.

What Jake says: I take criticism very hard. It helps that now I'm a reader who helps decide what we keep and don't keep. I realize the tough odds I'm up against and how often very good stories get rejected. But that doesn't always make me feel better. Sometimes, it makes me feel worse to think that I'm just another guy on the scrap-heap of almost-good-enough. I'm not entirely certain that some level of dislike for criticism can't be good. Michael Jordan seemed to still be carrying around some bitterness about rejection from his younger years in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. He did okay. It might have helped fuel his fire. But fine, I do still get down when I get a rejection, I'll take the hit on this one.

Conclusion: Point to "not a writer." 1-1.

3. Rejection gets you down every time.

What Nathaniel says: Get over yourself. Rejection is part of being a writer. Sure, some rejections sting more than others, but you eventually just have to accept it. When real writers are rejected, they do one of two things: submit somewhere else or revise their shitty writing. Oh, and maybe drink themselves into oblivion.

What Jake says: Although, upon the advice of a good friend, I've begun to drink more than I used to, I still don't like to drink that much. So I'm left to feel the sting every time. It doesn't hurt as bad as it used to every time, but it does still hurt.

Conclusion: Point "not a writer." I'm down 1-2.

4. You think you’ll lose it if you don’t use it

What Nathaniel says: It’s fine to write every day. It’s cool if you want to set aside time to write or have daily word count goals. But if going a day without writing makes you feel like you’re going to lose something as a writer, then you aren’t a writer. It’s like riding a bike. You don’t forget how to write because you go a day or two without doing it.

What Jake says: I don't write every day, nor have I ever felt I should. I do start to get antsy if I haven't written for a while, but this is probably one of those need-to-find-a-balance things. You can't be always writing, but you do need to write a lot to be a writer.

Conclusion: Point me. 2-2.

5. You don’t recognize your own bad writing

 What Nathaniel says: Do you think everything you write is good? You’re definitely not a writer. Even great writers have a fair amount of shit in their repertoire. The best writers in the world publish less than 25% of what they write.

What Jake says: Let's say I'm "in development" on this.

Conclusion: A draw. Still 2-2.

6. You think everything you write is bad

Flipside of the last one, which means this is a draw, too. I have days when I think I'm brilliant, and days when I think I should have been a locksmith.

Still 2-2.

7. You’ve never made any money off your writing

 What Nathaniel says:You don’t have to make a living off writing in order to be a writer, but if you’ve never made any money, then you aren’t a writer (yet). Especially in today’s world where there are so many opportunities to make a few bucks here and there as a writer (hell, self-publish on Amazon and sell one copy to your mom). Shooting free throws in the driveway a few days a week doesn’t make you a basketball player, does it? Oh, one more thing. Just because you have made some money off your writing doesn’t mean you are a writer. Getting called in to sub for your cousin with a broken arm in a pick-up basketball game on the playground doesn’t make you a basketball player either.

What Jake says: I find this criteria confusing. Is it enough to have sold a self-published book to my mom or not? I do have a job where writing in a very boring, methodical way is a big part of what I do. Does that count? If not, I once made $20 on a poem, and I was offered $25 for my story that won Story of the Month at Bartleby Snopes. I gave the money back as part of my "I support the journals that support me" pledge. 

One could argue that in a very literal sense, shooting baskets does make one a basketball player. 

Conclusion: I don't know. Still 2-2.

8. People often tell you that you can’t make it as a writer

  What Nathaniel says: I often hear people tell these horror stories about all the people who’ve told them they’ll never cut it as a writer. Not to be an ass, but no one has ever told me that. If you’re hearing this all the time, then you probably aren’t a very good writer. Hey, if it doesn’t quack like a duck…

What Jake says: I don't know that people have an opinion one way or another about this. I happen to believe I have very little chance of ever supporting myself fully as a writer. That wouldn't make me different from the vast majority of writers out there who need to moonlight.

Conclusion: I don't know. Still 2-2, now with four draws.

9. You get really mad about other people’s book deals

 What Nathaniel says: Yeah, it probably ticks you off a little that 50 Shades of Grey sold millions of copies even though it’s widely considered to be utter shit. But some shit sells. If you get really mad about everyone else’s book deal, then you aren’t a real writer. Instead, you should spend more time figuring out what actually sells.

 What Jake says: "Why do the wicked still live, Continue on, also become very powerful?" Job asked. It's an ancient and respected impulse to be angry about the success of those who don't deserve it. With literature fighting a tough battle to stay alive, it is sad to see the few mega-hits go to books that are just terrible. You know the people who bought that book were often buying the only book they were going to buy that year. 

Conclusion: Fine. Guilty. 2-3 against me. 

10. You create conspiracy theories about publishing

I can leave out Nathaniel's explanation. I harbor no such conspiracy theories. What publishers like is such a mystery to me, I wouldn't pretend to think I could explain it with a theory.

Conclusion: Point me. 3-3.

11. You spend more time wondering if you’re a writer than actually writing

Nathaniel says: Writers write. If you’re always sitting around thinking, “Oh, woe is me, am I writer?” then you aren’’t a writer. Just shut the fuck up and write already.

Jake says: Ouch. This blog started out pretty much as a place to wonder if I was really a writer. It still is, in some part. But I have written more actual fiction since I started this blog than I have blogged about my doubt about it all.

Conclusion: I have 9 stories out to editors at 20 different journals right now. Point me. I'm up 4-3.

12. You think you’ve never had an experience worth writing about

What Nathaniel says: No matter what type of writer you are, you need some real life experiences. Poets, fiction writers, journalists. Everyone has to be able to draw from something. But guess what? Even sitting in your room without doing anything for five years is an experience you can write about. If you can’t find any inspiration from your own life, then you aren’t a writer.

Jake says: This is the flip side of "sign" #1. I do think I've had enough experiences to write about. But then again, I've been a lot of places and done a lot of things. If there is something that makes me violate "sign" #9, it's that a lot of what I read seems to come from people with rather thin experiences.

Conclusion: Point me, and I win 5-3. I'm a writer. Barely. I think the fact that I have a hard time with failure doesn't mean I'm not a writer, it just means I have temperamental traits which make writing challenging for me. 

I think if you know that you are going to be undone by rejection, and you are, in fact, undone over and over by rejection, and you keep writing anyway knowing you will keep facing that rejection, you might be a writer.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

If you can't trust a great musical to tell you what life's all about, what can you trust: La La Land and selling out

Lest I be hauled in like Aziz Ansari in his SNL sketch for not loving La La Land, I'll just say up front: this is a great movie. It reminds me of Steve Martin's line about the movie Chicago. In a year where there was a lot of controversy about cheating to gain an advantage in Oscar awards, Martin claimed Chicago pulled the dirtiest trick of all: "They made a really great movie that everyone liked."

It's a simple musical about staying true to your dreams...

The movie is bookended by two big numbers: "Another Day of Sun," and "Fools Who Dream." The first one is an exuberant impromptu flash mob of struggling entertainers in a traffic jam belting out their indefatigable beliefs that they will make Hollywood bend to their wills to become stars:

I'm reaching for the heights
And chasing all the lights
that shine
And when they let you down
You'll get up off the ground

 In Mia's (Emma Stone) big finale, she affirms her faith in the meaning of chasing her dreams as part of the audition where she finally breaks through:

Here's to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here's to the hearts that ache
Here's to the mess we make

...except that it's not

It's what's in between those two numbers that made the movie great, though. There's an almost-too-sweet love story played with aggressive cuteness by Stone and enviable cool by Gosling (as Sebastian). It's so sweet, I can't even hate it for being too sweet. After they fall in love, they attempt to understand one anothers' dreams and support each other, but both are sledding uphill for a while.

Mia, having gone through a wonderful scene early on in which she manages to summon up instant pathos from inside herself to cry convincingly at an audition only to have the scene callously interrupted in a manner destined to make her cry for real, faces the reality that she perhaps ought to give up. She posits to Sebastian that she ought to have been a lawyer. "Like the world needs more lawyers," Sebastian answers. Mia's response is forged from a thousand rehearsals with no call-backs: "Well, it doesn't need more actresses." It's these kinds of exchanges that, as the Village Voice put it, "movingly weight the film with adult loss and disappointment."

Selling out within in the La La Land universe

It's Sebastian who breaks through first, thanks in part to Mia and a friend Keith who help him to move out of his rigid conception of success. Mia first chips away at his stubborn dream to own one particular jazz bar and renovate it into the terribly named Chicken on a Stick, a jazz bar that also sells chicken. Keith convinces Sebastian to come on the road with him and play good music that just isn't traditional jazz, because what made the original giants of jazz great was their willingness to look to the future, to embrace change.

It's all going great until the movie's best scene, a classic case of two people talking past each other. Mia is wondering how long Sebastian will be on the road, when he will parley his financial success into buying his dream jazz bar. Sebastian, confused and hurt because he thinks Mia is accusing him of having sold out, says he thought he was supposed to do this, that he should have been happy to be on a stage where people were finally happy to hear him play. "The difference between selling out and breaking through is not always clear, and “La La Land” is not so hypocritical as to pretend otherwise," as the New York Times put it.

Did Sebastian sell out? Did he just make a logical course correction? The question gathers more urgency as Mia's push to live her dream by writing and performing in her own one person show ends in a humiliating failure. She goes home, convinced the dream is over.

Deus (dea?) ex cantione--whatever the Latin is for an improbable extraction from difficulty by way of a song

Mia's dream is resurrected from the dead, though, when Sebastian, against all odds, gets a call from a casting agent looking for Mia. She saw Mia's one-woman show (she must have somehow gone unnoticed among the nine people in the crowd). Mia rushes back to Hollywood, sings the big "Fools who Dream" number at an audition, and goes off to Paris to become famous. For some reason, she doesn't end up with Sebastian, even though he drove all the way to Idaho or something to bring her back to the audition and found her without knowing her address.

That might be how the movie seeks to keep its emotional authenticity. Not everything is a perfect happy ending. Sacrifices were made. Sebastian has his jazz bar, but his special song is now kept in reserve, only to be brought out one night when he sees Mia, now married to someone else, in the crowd.

So what exactly is selling out?

We never see Mia's struggling friends again after a certain point. Presumably, some have gotten jobs as bankers or teachers or married well. There isn't room for them all to succeed. I once knew a guy who worked in receiving at a crappy drug store for $8.25 an hour as he neared 40. He played bass in a metal band. Last I saw him, he still hadn't given up the dream. He lived with his mom, which is fine; there are sacrifices for that kind of commitment.

Much like Thoreau's experiment in Walden, there are certain levels of artistic commitment that just can't be sustained if a family is involved. By the end, Mia has both family and career, but the career came first, and luckily while she was still young.

La La Land doesn't try to force too many answers. It allows itself out of answering tough questions, even the tough questions the movie itself has raised, by allowing Mia to improbably luck out. It's a musical, so it's allowed to do that.

Me, I get up and go to work every day in the white hot center of what you might call plan B. I still work at writing. I've written what I think is a novel worth reading. I've written short stories, and some have even been published. But I'm a few steps beyond Sebastian playing pop funk for money when it comes to abandoning the artistic high road.

Do we need artists?

Mia sings in her big number that "a bit of madness is key/to give us new colors to see/Who knows where they lead us?/And that's why they need us." It's sort of an unexpected thesis out of no where: artists don't just do what they do according to their own lights they reach for; they do it because it is their essential social function to do something perceived as possibly useless. This very act is restorative to society, the "they" who need "us." This might be reaching a bit too far. It's enough to do it for your own reasons. No need to invent messianic, selfless reasons for what you do.

This is where I leave off. The movie is beautiful enough for me to let it have its cake and eat it too, to both present the struggle honestly and to blink at the moment of truth. Maybe it's best not to think too deeply on the possibility of deep and final failure to achieve one's dreams, to be ever like Han Solo crying "Never tell me the odds!"

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Obiter dictum: Chelsea Manning, Abraham Lincoln, and the necessity of cheap grace

This isn't a political blog. Unless, that is, I can tie something to Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War in some way. Then, I'm happy to swerve wildly to share a gratuitous opinion.

On the way out the door, President Obama pardoned Chelsea Manning for leaking tons of classified information to Wikileaks. Praise and hang-wringing both followed, following predictable fault lines. The ACLU said the move probably saved Manning's life, as she has twice attempted suicide while in Leavenworth, and seemed to be slowly dying. She is a transgender woman in an all-male prison. I don't need much imagination to guess that sucks.

Critics, who reportedly included Obama's own Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, predicted the move would have a deleterious effect on good order and discipline in the military and intelligence community. I'll just cut-and-paste comments from three leading Republicans:

"This was grave harm to our national security. and Chelsea Manning is serving a sentence and should continue to serve that sentence," Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, told CNN's Jake Tapper on "The Lead."
House Speaker Paul Ryan, denouncing Manning's "treachery," said on Twitter that she "put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation's most sensitive secrets."
And South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN that Manning "stabbed his fellow soldiers in the back" and Obama "slapped all those who serve honorably in the face."

 A more nuanced critique of Manning by way of a nuanced critique of Snowden

I have heard Edward Snowden both unduly lionized and cartoonishly demonized. I've heard calls for him to be sainted and rabid calls for his assassination. Malcolm Gladwell's "The Outside Man," from The New Yorker in December 2016, is probably the most rational critique of Snowden I have read. Gladwell reports on a meeting in Russia between Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times decades ago, and Edward Snowden.

Gladwell draws a distinction between Ellsberg, who leaked very limited information that he painstakingly reviewed first, and Snowden, who dumped (who knows how many?) tons of data he could not possibly have reviewed first. Ellsberg is the "insider" whistle blower, Snowden the "outsider," who subscribed to a hacker's ethos that all secrets are suspect. Gladwell imagined a figure called Daniel Snowberg, a combination of Snowden and Ellsberg, and how he might have handled the leaks differently. I quote at length:

Edward Snowden took a different path. He used a Web crawler (a search engine pre-programmed with key words) to roam through the N.S.A. files, “touching” as many as 1.7 million of them. Among those files was the FISC order. But Snowden also accessed, and ultimately passed on to journalists, thousands of files concerning activities that had nothing to do with domestic surveillance.

Daniel Snowberg, the insider, would have sparked a national debate that focused on the question of what access the N.S.A. should have to the private data of ordinary American citizens. And when, in May, 2015, a federal court ruled that the N.S.A.’s telephone-records collection violated the intent of the Patriot Act, Snowberg would have stood as someone who restored the legitimacy of the national-intelligence apparatus: who, in the spirit of Pozen’s notion of self-binding, embarrassed the executive branch in the short term in order to preserve the prerogatives of the executive branch in the long term.

Snowden does not belong in the same category as Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, which indiscriminately makes stolen material available to all comers. Snowden went through intermediaries; he expected his journalistic outlets to curate the material he gave them. Nonetheless, Snowden didn’t leak, in the traditional sense. He flooded, and in that difference of degree is a difference in kind. Edward Jay Epstein’s upcoming book, “How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft,” presents the hard-line intelligence community’s case against Snowden, and what is remarkable about it is how little time Epstein spends on the propriety of the N.S.A.’s domestic surveillance. Instead, he dwells on everything else that Snowden took from the N.S.A. files: details of N.S.A. methodologies, overseas operations, foreign sources—revelations that, national-security officials maintain, gravely compromised our foreign intelligence-gathering.
...No matter how well-intentioned Snowden’s actions—and there are many who see him as a hero—by violating the norms of insider disclosure, he suffered a self-inflicted wound. A much needed national conversation about the N.S.A.’s encroachment on civil liberties became sidetracked by debates about his own motivations.

Manning is kind of like Snowden

Manning could not possibly have read everything she shared. So her leak was risky, and based on the notion that it is illegitimate for a nation to keep any secrets, so any secrets shared did not deserve guarding, a priori.  She shared the private thoughts of ambassadors back to Washington, thoughts based on meetings with foreign officials and from culling the kinds of networks diplomats need to cull to know anything (kind of like journalists). Manning shared all of this, making it permanently unlikely that American diplomats in the future will be able to cultivate networks or encourage openness as easily again.

This is in stark contrast to responsible whistleblowers who shared specific information, at personal cost, but only what was needed. Manning is not a hero. Or if she is, she's a very muddled sort of hero. To be a hero, one has to at least have some ability to evaluate the possible ramifications of one's actions in a meaningful way. Manning could not have done that with information she did not even read.  

Lincoln was in a similar situation to Obama once

During the Civil War, Lincoln had to quickly build a gigantic military from zero. It involved taking hundreds of thousands of young men who'd never been off their families' farms and introducing them overnight to the harsh discipline of military life. That done, they then had to go walk into cannon fire.  They weren't all great at it. Many panicked and ran. Others, exhausted by the strain of duty, fell asleep during guard duty at night.

Lincoln, to the exasperation of his own Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, pardoned many of them. Stanton and many generals worried that Lincoln's eagerness to "not murder" boys, as Lincoln put it, would undermine the good order and discipline of the military. Without the threat of death, who would walk into gunfire?

Lincoln understood these concerns. He just couldn't bring himself to sign the death warrants of kids who had acted in what seemed to Lincoln a rather expected manner. Lincoln wasn't sure he himself would have done differently on a battlefield.

I unwisely reveal personal information

I hated the Marine Corps, which I enlisted in at age 19. I joined up as an evangelical kid from Ohio. I then learned a foreign language and read as much of some random "100 books everyone should read" list I found as I could. I read history. I read philosophy. I read whatever I could find. Meanwhile, some of the people in charge of me acted in a manner that is inevitable in a society where those in authority cannot be held accountable by those under them.

After an absurdly long run of boorish, corrupt, cruel supervisors in the Marine Corps, and at a time when I was also reading things like Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, I began to suspect I was a conscientious objector, because I suspected people could not be trusted with the kind of power the military gave them. I kept my feelings to myself and tried to grit it through the rest of my time. But I had joined on a six-year contract, and I had a long, long way to go.

One day, I got in trouble for forging the signature of my commanding officer. I know, that sounds pretty bad, but I wasn't forging it for personal gain. I didn't requisition myself a television. I had to get my C.O. to sign for my rifle. I don't know why they do this. I was still responsible for it. They just wanted his signature on the card I had to use to withdraw the weapon from the armory. Mine wasn't signed, and it needed to be. I went to the company office and was told the C.O. wasn't in. Instructions on what to do involved going to people far senior to me who I knew would yell at me. I was extremely sensitive back then to being yelled at. I'd go far out of my way to avoid being seen. I'd seen senior enlisted people forge officer's signatures on routine documents dozens of times before. So I signed it.

Nothing happened for a few months, until someone realized that the signature on my card didn't look like everyone else's. I ended up with a non-judicial punishment, also called an article 15, which amounted to a fine and extra duty.

That was a breaking point for me. I applied for a discharge as a conscientious objector within a week. It took a year for the application to be adjudicated. In the end, I was denied a discharge. Partly, the board felt that the timing of my application right after being disciplined was suspect. Rather like Edward Snowden, who has been accused of making his decision to share classified information based on an alleged "workplace spat" with his management two weeks prior to the beginning of his collection of data, I faced (understandable) skepticism based on the timing of my application, right after the only time I'd ever been in trouble.

I was basically a thoughtful young adult learning about a strange part of the adult world, and so was Manning

I ended up gutting out the full six years in the Marine Corps. That one incident was the only time I was ever in trouble. I got an honorable discharge. I went off to college for many years, staying mostly pretty far left of center in my political views, until enough time being around socialists led me to believe they were as deluded and depraved as their opposites I'd spent my early twenties slowly rejecting. Having other jobs besides the Marine Corps also made me realize that some of the things I thought were terrible about the Marines are actually things that are terrible about every job. I've settled down more or less in a left-center position, with bits of far left and center-right here and there for flavor. Maybe a few far right/libertarian ideas on a few economic issues.

Manning had a more tumultuous early adulthood than I did. She had more than just the usual early adult issues to work through, perhaps, but I'd guess some of the difference for her had to do with availability. I didn't have a whole ton of classified data sitting in front of me in my early twenties. When I first really started to dig into radical ideas, like every thinking young man does, I was limited in what I could do about it to basically just annoying my friends with my thoughts. Also, Manning's life in an internet age meant that she might not have faced as many ideas that confronted her own, an irony of living in an age of information. The world has fewer natural brakes on ideological development than it once did. 

Manning felt she had an obligation to do something. That belief was based on naivete born of being a young person just beginning to grapple with the big issues of the world. "A little learning is a dangerous thing," as Alexander Pope put it. Dangerous to the country, but also dangerous to those with a pure enough heart and an immature enough power of discernment to act rashly. If Manning had studied political science and stayed in intelligence for another decade, she might have felt very differently about many of the things she came into contact with in her job. But she didn't get the chance, because her earnestness ran ahead of the speed at which she was able to absorb the world around her into a balanced, fuller view.

Manning, I'm sure, was full of vices as well as virtues when she made her decision to leak intelligence. I'm sure my aversion to the Marine Corps was partly my own vanity as well as the many small and large injustices I saw. We all make decisions for good and bad reasons, "to the greater glory of man," as Kurt Vonnegut put it. If you wait to do something until your intentions are fully pure, you don't intend to do much in life.

Cheap grace, also known as "the world's not fair"

 I can imagine an argument being made that comparing Manning to a country boy private from Indiana in the Civil War cheapens the valor and sacrifice of the latter. I'd agree the bravery of the two acts isn't close to equal. But there is at least some bravery in what Manning did. There were Rangers fighting in Mogadishu in 1993 at the same time I was body surfing on Marine Corps Base Hawaii. I still got the same G.I. Bill benefits as them. It isn't fair. They faced death. Several did die. I never saw combat. But because joining the military shows at least some selflessness, some willingness to sacrifice, our society rewards it. Even if nothing more is ever asked of you, our society is willing to reward those who join, because it has the semblance of selflessness for country to it.

The task Manning faced was not as daunting as walking into cannon fire. Her performance of what she believed was right was not as thoughtful, reserved, and effective as Ellsberg's.

But genuine whistleblowing--actions that take courage, wisdom, and a willingness to face personal loss for the greater good--is so critical to a democratic society, we ought to honor even lesser forms of it. The true performance of whistleblowing is so sacred, so difficult, and so critical to a democracy, we have to show consideration to an ounce of its gold, even when mixed with pounds of dross.

Worth risking a little obedience to win a little devotion

The arguments for not releasing Manning are are perfectly rational. One does have to send a message that state secrets are not lightly to be tampered with, especially in an era when dealing with state secrets is considered so vital, there are now hundreds of thousands of Americans with access to classified information. The arguments for Lincoln not to commute the sentences of soldiers who had failed at their duty were also logical--up until it came time to actually carry out the execution. At that point, another logic altogether took hold for Lincoln.

In the end, Lincoln may have understood a deeper social mystery than his many trusted advisors. Whatever harm was done to good order and discipline by commuting the sentences, it was more than made up for in the personal loyalty soldiers in the Union Army felt for Lincoln whenever he seemed to understand the predicament of the common man in the field. At a time when keeping the country in one piece meant having to nearly forge an entirely new notion of nationhood, Lincoln managed to create love for the new ideal when respect alone would not have done the job.

Some will see letting Manning go as a further example of the weakening of standards in society, paired, in the minds of many, with an emasculation of the culture. Manning, the transgendered woman, is a symbol to them of that emasculation. Too much fawning appreciation for feelings, not enough concern for what is right and what is wrong. But it is precisely the ability of a culture to go beyond right and wrong, to realize that mistakes made by an idealistic young person still learning about the world are different from other, more calloused mistakes, that builds love and devotion for that culture.

I don't know if I'd have acted differently from Manning, given her circumstances. But trying to imagine if I would have is the basis of empathy. She may not deserve mercy as much as others who will not receive it. But that isn't the point. The point is that she made an understandable error--understandable, at least, if we try to understand it--and it does not serve us to watch her die from it. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

In which I place an inordinate amount of value in my ability to parse a single poem

The Spring Forecast
by Shelley Wong (Originally published in Crazyhorse; reprinted in the 2017 Pushcart Anthology)

Soon, the sea. On the city corner,
     a tree asserts I am every
          shade of pink. Like the inside.
    Dresses as transparent
as watercolor. Doors flung open

               to receive gold arrows.
    (stringing the strings)
Skirts flare into bells. Hair
    like bougainvillea.
              Once, a stop sign

before the water. Once, he traced
    the arch of her foot. Girls pack
              their illuminations 
     in butterscotch leather trunks.
The sea rushes

               from the lighthouse. What bloom
    says no? Her hand
petaling open. What you
    would do for a pied-a-terre
               with tall windows and flower boxes.

A head full of leaves.
    Too many bows to tie
              and what of them? Pluck
    the bestsellers. Sandal
ready. A pointed foot,

               pointed feet. Come out, come out,
    ripest peach, offwhite leader.
On the archipelago, you are
    almost new. Don't turn back:
              the girls are walking again. They soak

in their many perfumes.
    (strings up) Soon, the island.


In my last post, I lamented that: 1) contemporary poetry might be too difficult to be socially useful; 2) I myself, although I'm probably more qualified to read poetry than the average citizen, find a lot of contemporary poetry in leading journals too dense to make sense of; 3) There isn't really a community online dedicated to discussion of contemporary poetry that provides support to those trying to decipher poems, which itself seems like a pretty good indication that the poetry community (if there even is one) doesn't even care if it isn't socially useful.

I then assigned myself the duty of parsing a poem I find difficult but intriguing. I guess I should confess that although I might, on paper, be qualified to interpret poetry, I'm not really that good at it. A lot of times, I don't get what songs are talking about, and I have to go online for help. I then read explanations that make me go, "Oh, of course. I should have gotten that." So I know I'm going to miss some obvious things in this poem. But I'll do my best. Here we go. If I can make something out of this, poetry might still have a place in American letters. If I can't, poetry dies for all Western civilization from this moment on. No pressure.

Section One: Headed to the beach? 

Working hypothesis: This is a poem that presents and then subverts common feelings associated with spring, especially sexual excitement, by re-casting it in a dark light. 

Exegesis: Immediately, I have to start guessing. "Soon the sea." Like a lot of this poem, this line has a few possible meanings. First, in line with this being a "forecast," it can be meant to look forward, possibly to a spring break vacation. But I take it a little more literally, like we are traveling through a cityscape, on the way to the ocean. While traveling, we see a tree that advertises its pinkness, its colors symbolizing newness, but also sexually suggestive. The images continue, images of openness, both sexual and literal: transparent dresses, doors flung open (to receive phallic arrows), flaring skirts. wild hair. We then hit a stop sign on our journey, and the symbols of openness temporarily stop.

In passing, I note that the parenthetical (stringing the strings) could be the stringing of a bow meant to fire gold arrows, but there might be an allusion going on here. Wong has also written a "Fall Forecast." One wonders if there are also summer and winter forecasts somewhere out there. Is this a sly reference to Vivaldi's Four Seasons? Maybe not, but either way, feel free to play the music as you read.

  Section Two: from stop sign to self-justification

I have to admit, I can't make much of "Once, he traced the arch of her foot." I feel this might be another allusion I don't get. In any event, we have stepped back from the movement toward the sea, and are now thinking of things in a more general sense. Without understanding any possible allusion, I take this as a recollection of either an artist drawing a woman's foot or a man tenderly--one assumes--running his finger along a foot, perhaps as a form of foreplay or just wooing. The sea rushes from the lighthouse--well, obviously, water retreats, but is it possible that the strong, sexual force of the sea retreats from the light? Is this why girls pack their "illuminations," the things that throw light upon them (maybe what they were learning in school before spring break), away in leather trunks?

Rather than resist the sexual force with her own mind, the female engages in self-justification of the act. "What bloom says no?" (the woman here being equated, nearly, with the pink tree.) Her hand doesn't just open, it "petals" open. She wishes for a tiny home in the city where she can engage in sexual promiscuity with her beloved, one that has high windows covered by flower boxes so that nobody can see in--that is, so her actions cannot be illuminated.

Now fully identifying with the budding flora of the spring, the woman questions what, with her head full of leaves, the point of all her buttons is. That is, why not open up?

Section Three: fuck it, I'm going to the beach

She decides she will not fight the sexual force of the sea. Instead, she will "pluck" a few brainless novels, put a sandal on her foot--no, feet (a play on the foot of the poem, but also recalling the arch of the foot that the man once caressed).

Section Four: What's the male version of a Siren? Whatever it is, it's calling to her

Some male voice now calls to her (or is this more self-justifying self-talk?) "Come out, come out." The imagery is now changed from pink buds and leaves to raw, sexual fruit. Whoever is doing the convincing here, the argument is that "on the archipelago," that is, leading off into the sea, she is "almost new." It's meant in a positive light, but there is, of course, the corollary that "almost new" is "partly no longer new."

But the girls are walking again--maybe we've been traveling in a pack of girls to the sea the whole time? They are drenched in perfume. Here, (strings up) could mean that the Vivaldian orchestra is done playing (or about to play, following the conductor's command); it could mean that the arrows are about to be fired; or, it could also be a play on the string bikinis the girls wear on the way to the beach. In any event, the island is coming, and that means diving into the sea.


I see this whole poem as an acerbic commentary on what most people view with nostalgia as a key part of warmer weather--what, in college, we sometimes dubbed "sperm term." Warmer weather brings rising libidos. Rather than seeing spring break as a fun diversion, the narrator sees it as a time when women give away their newness, their springtime beauty, to put away all the illumination they might have picked up in college to be lured away by a sexual force they are unable to resist, a force that nonetheless ruins them in some sense. They sell their beauty and newness too cheaply, not wanting to think about what they are doing.

It's not unlike William Blake's "Infant Sorrow," from Songs of Innocent and Experience, in which all the usual sentimental hogwash about babies, including sweet cooing and good smells and laughter, is all subverted by experience: "My mother groaned, my father wept/Into the dangerous world I leapt."

I feel about 80% certainty that I'm somewhere in the right ball park with this exegesis. Is this enough for poetry to survive as a viable artistic form, capable of moving people and changing hearts and minds? Have I saved poetry by figuring out a random poem I decided to try to figure out? Who knows? Nobody is going to find this post, because it's about poetry. So I'll never know if my reading has any merit.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The social value of contemporary American poetry

"Fiction is expected to make money, and so there is a notion in it that some stories are better than others," my advisor in my graduate writing program once told me, revealing what I would later learn was a common feeling in writing schools, although one that was mostly kept politely unexpressed. She added that "but because nobody expects poetry to make any money, it's impossible to say what a 'good' poem is."

 The ruptured connection between audience reception and presumed quality in poetry has been a concern for some time in contemporary poetry circles. Adam Kirsch, in his review from the Atlantic of Ben Lerner's The Hatred of Poetry, states that there has been at least one major article bemoaning the state of American poetry every year for the past 25 years, and much of it has to do with the lack of readers.  

I originally entered grad school on a poetry portfolio. I changed to fiction partly because I wanted to have some chance of being read. But I had a more humanistic reason: I also wanted to understand and be understood. In those days, I used to read Poetry magazine--then and now considered the best poetry journal in America-- in the college library cover to cover every edition. But I felt like I didn't "get" at least half of the poems. Maybe I just didn't have time. I was busy with schoolwork and my own writing, a wife who was doing the same things in her own graduate program. But even with some of the poems that intrigued me enough to work on them for a while, I sometimes gave up  before I'd really had any breakthroughs.

I may have been guilty of two of the false assumptions about poetry Edward Hirsh lists in his "How to Read a Poem" introduction: "The first is assuming that they should understand what they encounter on the first reading, and if they don’t, that something is wrong with them or with the poem. The second is assuming that the poem is a kind of code, that each detail corresponds to one, and only one, thing, and unless they can crack this code, they’ve missed the point."

 But even given that poetry operates off of a different semantic system than other forms of writing, I could never get over the feeling that I ought to be able, after a reasonable amount of effort, to walk away from a poem with some idea of what it meant that I could express in terms other than those of the actual poem. Those terms might be incredibly banal when juxtaposed with the original poetic expression, but it would be a very rough estimate. For example, when I say that "Birdhouse in your Soul" by They Might Be Giants is a song about a boy looking up at his nightlight with an active imagination, or that "Frank Sinatra" by Cake is a song about the end of the world, I've made very rough semantic estimations of those songs.

In poetry, the restatements are going to be even rougher estimations. There are some forms of exposition that are easier than others to do. In high school, you may have gone line-by-line through poems, and your teacher may have done an "interlinear" reading--a line from the poem, then that same line in plain English. But this is more just a way of dealing with older language--Shakespeare, say, or the Romantics with their inversions no longer popular today. The teacher might proceed, "To one who has been long in city pent/That is, 'to someone who has been stuck in the city a long time...'"

But most poetic exposition comes with more work than this, particularly if the poem is contemporary. An influential idea in poetry for a long time has been for poetry to work like a painting or classical music, where the meaning is conveyed non-linearly, non-logically, almost even non-verbally through things like tone and association. It ascribes, in some sense, to be "non-discursive," as the jargon sometimes goes. So the reader has to imaginatively put herself in the place of the poem's narrator, letting the feelings evoked by the language wash over her and allowing feelings to become the guide to meanings that are merely suggested, never explicit. There are more or less extreme examples of this. With the more extreme versions, if you're looking for one of the approximation-type statements like I wrote above for the two songs, you're barking up the wrong tree.

I believe literature of all stripes ought to be primarily aimed at intelligent lay people. It can and should challenge readers, but not to the extent that a lay person of good intent and reasonable intellectual resources is likely to give up. If the work is beyond the time constraints, intellectual background and parsing capacity of too many lay people, it won't have any social utility. That is to say, I believe in the radical proposition that a text which is incomprehensible to a vast majority of its possible audience has limited social value.

There's a precarious tension here. Poetry that doesn't challenge at all isn't poetry. This is why your friend's mom's rhymed couplets about how important it is to never quit is shitty doggerel, not poetry. This is not a poem. But too challenging, and you have no audience. I would like to claim that American poetry has, for some time, been too challenging, too esoteric. I have an M.A. in English. I outscored 88% of all students taking the subject GRE for English literature in the year before I started graduate school. I outscored 97% of them in the analytic reasoning section on the general GRE. If I can't parse your poetry, it's probably too hard for too many people.

The question of how, exactly, poetry is a socially useful form of art is never more apparent than at poetry readings. Most of the poems in contemporary journals are difficult to comprehend even when sitting quietly for a long time and reading them over and over. How is anyone supposed to get anything out of hearing one of these poems read aloud one time, unless everyone there has already read the poems? In a culture where there is almost no interest at all in contemporary poetry, who will have read them? On the other hand, one might also confront "slam poetry" or other fairly predictable, non-challenging fare, because at least the audience can "get it." This isn't a good answer, either.

I don't even try anymore. The only poetry I come across is when I read the Pushcart anthology. Pushcart includes fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. I read it all. But if I come across a poem that intrigues me, like "The Spring Forecast" by Shelley Wong, one where I have some guesses about how to read the poem but I'm not fully there, I'm always disappointed that there is no place in the virtual universe where I can find these things being discussed. If I am trying to get my head around a song lyric, I can go to half a dozen sites with posts from fans about the meanings. There is one site I know of where a woman blogs her way through the Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Anthology every year, albeit in more of a personal, almost devotional way. But there is no community of poetry enthusiasts helping one another with deciphering contemporary poetry that I know of. And that really says all I need to know about poetry as a social force in America.

Next post: I attempt to decipher the poem "The Spring Forecast," opening myself up to potential ridicule for being much stupider than I realized.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

American art has failed us: when narrative doesn't do what it's supposed to do

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." -From Lincoln's second inaugural address,

"Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn't know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a Hillary flunky who lost big. For the 100th time, I never "mocked" a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him groveling when he totally changed a 16 year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media!" -Donald Trump on his Twitter account a week and a half before his inauguration

Nobody ever claimed a story could feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or cure the sick. At its best, narrative does a limited, but crucial, number of things well. It engages both our left and right brains, thereby bypassing some of the prejudices of both, to make us see things through the viewpoint of another person. Secondly, it helps us to analyze, vicariously, the moral outcomes of certain actions by examining their impacts in a hypothetical world on people who give us a simulacra of real human feelings.

That doesn't sound like a whole lot, but when it's done well, it can have profound social, even geopolitical, implications. Abraham Lincoln, as I just learned while reading Doris Kearnes' Team of Rivals, doted on Shakespeare. He loved Shakespeare so much that, aside from his well-known love of going to the theater, he would often engage in late-night readings with his secretaries, his cabinet, or people who just happened to stop by. He also read poetry and, on occasion, humor writers. Lincoln's whole rhetorical strategy was built on the power of story-telling, which he first learned from listening to travelers along the turnpike who stopped at this father's house in the evenings.

From the simple framework of story-telling, Lincoln managed to keep the Union together enough to win a war, and to provide the seed for reunification, in spite of enacting unprecedented policies like implementing a draft, introducing an income tax, fighting a war that resulted in 600,000 dead and millions injured, and claiming greatly extended powers for the executive branch. He did it by applying a power Shakespeare had, what Keats called "negative capability," which meant, among other things, the ability to "lose his self-identity," through "imaginative identification" with his subjects. In very non-poetic, very real, human terms, Lincoln was able to see the point of view of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Charles Sumner, but also those of southern plantation owners. With this capacity, Lincoln not only could find middle ground politically, he could actually sway public opinion with his ability to read fine changes in the zeitgeist and push at the right time.

Consider, by contrast, the past week in "entertainment news," the "entertainment" aspect somehow always trumping the "art" aspect. Meryl Streep, on accepting a rightly deserved award for longtime excellence, dumbly and in tone-deaf Hollywood fashion attacked a guy 49% of the country just voted for.

Other than obliviously calling rich actors and actresses some of the "most vilified people" in society, she started out rather well, pointing out that Hollywood is "just people from other places":

I was born and raised and created in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola [Davis] was born in a sharecropper's cabin in South Carolina, and grew up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Sarah Paulson was raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids from Ohio. Amy Adams was born in Italy. Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates? And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Ethiopia, raised in -- no, in Ireland, I do believe. And she's here nominated for playing a small town girl from Virginia. 

The sideswipe at the birther controversy was an unneeded digression, but she was still doing great. And she arrived at a point where she could have been even greater, "An actor's only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like."

At this point, she could have offered up an olive leaf to the many people who feel Hollywood is all wealthy liberals who hold middle America in contempt. She could have pointed out her own performances where she tried to show a sympathetic side of ordinary folks, some of whom might have voted for Trump. Instead, she launched into judgment on something Trump did where it's not even clear he did what everyone says he did. We all know this part by now--she accused the President elect of mocking a disabled reporter, something Trump denies.

People have different opinions on this. I more than half believe Trump on this one, even though I don't want him to be President and I more than half wish the story were true. But I sometimes mock people who aren't at all disabled in a similar manner, by presenting them as stating their case in a flustered way. (Maybe I shouldn't--something this whole thing has made me think of.) But even if Streep suspects him of having done it on purpose, at a moment when the whole country is looking at her, she ought to have shown a little more charity.

She could have built on her vast street cred ("ethos," in classical rhetoric) to remind us that we have to look for the best representations of one another, rather than criticizing each other based on the worst straw man depictions we can find. She could have encouraged us to take seriously the hopes and fears of our neighbors. Instead, she poked the bear.

The bear, in this case Donald Trump, predictably allowed himself to be poked. His supporters have offered up much better responses, including this one that responded with the respect and charity Streep should have demonstrated in the first place.  Instead, Trump gave us what's at the top of this post.

Trump should have done much better, of course. The following 128 characters, delivered via his favorite social networking medium, would have won the battle right out of the gate:

Congrats to Streep. One of the best ever. Understand your "Doubt" (you were great in that). I hope to exceed your expectations.

Not only does a soft answer turn aside wrath, sometimes it just makes you come off as the bigger person. Streep threw fire. Trump could have won with water, but he went with more fire. Since he's about to be President, he should be criticized for his lack of impulse control.

But I blame Streep more. As an actress, I would hope she'd be the one more steeped in practical empathy. Not only should she be better able to understand Trump and the reasons why people voted for him, she also ought to be able to understand how people on the other side of America's two-country divide would react to such a speech.

Much as I'd expect a Christian to do more to alleviate the suffering of the poor than a secularist, I expect someone who is a professional empathist to be better at empathy. This isn't just a critic, this is someone who is actually supposed to embody other human souls. After a lifetime of excelling at that, she failed to put it into practice on a very simple level when it counted. She had a chance to, in a sense, "evangelize" Trump and his supporters. Did Trump sound evangelized? What's the point of story telling, if it doesn't even do one of the few things it's supposed to do well?