Dear Prison Notebooks

Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members describes the twilight of writing professor Jason “Jay” Fitger through a year’s worth of his letters of recommendation (LOR), which themselves describe the twilight of a literary culture that presumably passed noon in the last century or two. Fitger diverts his recommendations to rant with cantankerous wit and futility against “unsocialized drones who long ago abandoned the reading and discussion of literature in favor of creating ever more restrictive and meaningless ways in which humans are intended to make themselves known to one another” (88). Not communicate, but make known: self-advertise, recommend, largely in an electronic language of Procrustean brevity. Nonetheless, in letting Fitger fight his battle, Schumacher shows he has already lost.

Fitger argues that “reading and writing of literature both requires and instills empathy” (38). Research from outside the world of the novel has, in fact, confirmed this claim, and Schuhmacher succeeded in making at least me feel sorry for Fitger at times. But as much as Fitger complains about the online forms that offer only inane, pre-ordained choices of evaluation or cut him off mid-sentence, few of his letters exceed three of the book’s pages. Yes, certain people and themes span the letters—Fitger’s advocacy on behalf of his student Browles, his relationship with his ex-wife and his ex-girlfriend, etc.—but the “chapters” remain largely independent. Consequently, the book can be read amid distraction, in short bursts, stopped and started. The act of reading resembles scrolling through Facebook posts: a few moments to orient oneself, a quick laugh or tug of sympathy, then repeat another time.

Like the resistance to a Gramscian hegemon, the story of Fitger’s subversion takes the form of its oppression in order to be intelligible—or, one imagines, publishable. As Fitger laments, “the LOR has usurped the place of my own work, now adorned with cobwebs and dust in a remote corner of my office” (11).

I hereby post…


I tend to want two options where others want one, but I also tend to trust artists to lead me somewhere useful. I tend to want to write what others do not, even if maybe others are right. Eventually, I may arrive somewhere.

Punt. Max.

Punt. Max.

The Micro-Environmentalist (Makes Yogurt)

If I were building my own house, I would make it small and efficient and on a rehabilitated brownfield, but until then, I’ll maintain among other things the cloth napkins and occasional batch of solar-powered (mostly) yogurt.IMG_0608

First, if you need more details, look up a basic yogurt recipe. If you’re set, press on.

On a reasonably sunny, temperate day, bring 8 cups (or desired amount) of milk to 180-200 degrees Fahrenheit in a pot. (I measure temperature with a meat thermometer.) As the milk begins to cool, fill a large mixing bowl with cool water. Place the pot with the milk into the water, like a double boiler, but don’t submerge it. The water will heat up, the milk cool, faster if you stir it. Once the milk is between 100 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit, pour a little of it into one (or several, as needed) containers with some yogurt already in it. (I use about ½ C yogurt total for 8 C milk). Swish around to mix the milk and yogurt thoroughly. Fill the container the rest of the way with milk. Seal the container.

I then pour the warm water from the mixing bowl into a cooler without a top. This step recycles the heat. I set the containers of brewing yogurt into the water, put it all outside under a sheet of plate glass (vented slightly as needed) to let the sun keep everything around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Let stand 4-10 hours, depending on taste, and at least until the milk has thickened into—voila—yogurt.

Taste-test to make sure nothing went wrong in the process. Hot yogurt doesn’t taste great, but it tastes like yogurt. So far, I’ve never had a batch go wrong.

Maybe more fun than practical, but the solar option saves you those hard-to-recycle plastic tubs and helps you appreciate microbes and nuclear fusion more.

As teachers, as writers

Sometimes like walking up the wall

Sometimes like walking up the wall

I recently met a new crop of students who will head off to Teach for America this summer, and I was reminded of how much I like teachers for their mix of pragmatic zeal, toughness, and intellect. I wondered what advice I could distill for them, and I realized my thoughts (a) seemed a bit tough themselves and (b) could apply as well to teachers and students as to authors and fictional characters.

1) The teachers and students (or characters and authors) you meet are survivors, and you need to respect that they have survived. You may not like what they have done to survive, or how they continue to survive, but until you yourself can survive, you cannot much expect them to respect you.

2) The things you do to survive may not always be the things that help your students thrive. You might as well accept that, forgive yourself and the students as needed, and move on to make things better. Indeed, it is comforting to think that harm only results from evil, but that is seldom the case—and I don’t even mean some Arendtian banality of evil sense. You can inflict harm from ignorance, fleeting inattention, and understandable incompetence. You will inflict harm. You will be harmed. You may want to assign blame to feel better, but hesitate to assign blame to people rather than actions.

3) In case you forget it, you truly can make the world a better place, second by second, person by person, and many times that will also be fun.

“Real Men” (Return from the Holidays)

FullSizeRenderI’m not sure when I saw my first “Real men love Jesus” t-shirt, but I do remember thinking, “Hhhmmm, let’s use an essentialized notion of identity to change the essence of that identity.” Some time later, a college student-athlete told me about his favorite authority figure who, before each game, exhorted the players, “Let us not be men who hit women, but men who hit men who hit women.” Apparently, since violence couldn’t be purged from the purview of manhood, it could at least, in these Title IX times, be directed more appropriately. Recently, I’ve seen a spate of parenting advice for men that could be summarized as “Real men love changing diapers” or “Let us not be men who hit children, but men who hit men who question our love of children.” A third option seems prevalent in certain quarters: “Collapsible strollers are technologically as sophisticated as any smartphone, so it’s manly to comparison-shop baby gear.” In short, hypermasculine, essentialized notions of identity are being used to expand the realm of expected or accepted behavior for men. Odd? Or necessary?
Why not say instead, “People ought to help care for the people they helped create?” Probably because it doesn’t work as well, at least not in the short run, because you have to meet people where they are. But I’m curious to know if anyone has studied the options. After all, adding appendages to the “real man” paradigm likely won’t fix the problem that is the paradigm itself. Instead, it builds a Frankenstein of man and centipede, a Gregor Samsa of sorts. Maybe the monster eventually explodes of its own contradictions, but that’s what Marx figured about capitalism, too, and look where we are.
Nonetheless, it seems needlessly strident to dismiss any progress in outcomes (assuming some) because of the essentialist supposition behind “real men do X,” just as it would be silly to miss the fact that such sayings suggest that some men (however impossibly broad a category) are groping for a new identity. If we dismiss the confusion about “real masculinity” (merely) as the moan of the privileged having to learn to live like everyone else, we lose a chance to help shape the discussion. Real men are people, too, and they want someone to believe in them.

The Bro Foods Movement

Looking for something a little more Bro-n up or a little more Bromantic than the chips and salsa you normally bring to the party? Look no more. Hunter “Tripp” Brady “Bro-dy” James has founded Bro-Foods Market in Boone, North Carolina, to serve what he calls that “most American of niches”: dudes who can only cook so much but increasingly must come with the best.

Bro-Foods’ first product line–Desserts for Dudes on the Go, Yo–features frozen desserts in order to maximize its swift market penetration. “We want to capitalize on the cold, hard world people already know. Our first product, Bro Yo (Lo), is a little sweeter than the average frozen yogurt, just like the average bro is a little sweeter, but still low calorie. We’re launching it with our Bros-in-custard and Creme Brolee, which has that fire-hardened exterior but a smooth, silken heart, just like fried tofu. We’re also working on a Broeos & Cream and the Bro-cone, with flavors like Broberry and Bromide.”

From frozen foods, James hopes to march rapidly across the dessert table. He ticks off the possibilities on his fingers and exposed toes: persimmon nut Broaf, Broatmeal & raisin cookies, Broasted almonds, Brocalate gelaBro, Bronana splits, Bronana cream pie, gingerBrod, Bro-ck bottom pie, Broklava, Bronuts and Bronut holes, and what he hopes will mark his entry into the Asian market: “either buns with sweet Brobean paste or Broconut sticky rice. Maybe both at once if we’re lucky.”

James leans back and looks around his office. With his rappelling rope hanging behind him, he finally says, “I was just dreaming of pirBrogis. But look. I don’t care whether you think we’re in a late Broque or an early Brococo. What’s clear is, Bro-Foods is the Renaissance.”

(I thank certain unnamed colleagues for the Bro-Foods generated by them and with their assistance.)

Which Shape?

kircher peeksTwo mentalities often appear as rivals: the preservationist and the entrepreneurial. The preservationist mentality is quick to nostalgia and slow to triumph. The entrepreneurial mentality is quick to create, disrupt, and destroy in order to advance. It is slow to mourn.

Universities, of course, have long yoked together both mentalities productively if not always happily. Preserving knowledge and its lineage could lead to new thoughts—innovation—responsibly used. But as complaints mount about the price and efficacy of a college education, so do calls for more entrepreneurship within it. Libraries become learning commons and bookstores ghosts of a wireless graveyard. E-classes might proliferate like e-cigarettes, so that e(-)veryone might vape while watching lectures on tape as a prelude to the thinking that supposedly happens elsewhere. We hear a clamor to reshape the institution: i-Systems for i-People.

Logical enough. Nonetheless, I recently spoke to a current freshman at my alma mater who planned to avoid acquiring a single textbook that year. I concede the allure: textbooks are expensive and contents change. I also sensed a boast, a cheating of the system I have heard before: “Look at me—I can pass this class with the optimally minimized level of effort and cost.”

Oddly, or archaically, enough, I finally read four books last month that I bought as a student for classes I never took, let alone enrolled in. I bought them in a college bookstore at the beginning of the semester, and I bought them because of the organized knowledge they offered, not because I needed them to pass any class. I still have other books from other semesters to read. I used to wonder the aisles in bedazzlement by so many things to know. I wanted to teach myself and was grateful that someone had conveniently put their expertise in one place for me. I could get some fraction of their wisdom for the cost of the books rather than that of the class. I, too, was cheating the system—paying less, reading more. Maybe I epitomize Socrates’s fear that writing would weaken our memories, since I frequently need to stand before a colored spine to remember what is inside. Quick to nostalgia, slow to triumph.

The medium of education matters less than its prevailing perception: as a burden to survive and eventually cast off or as a tool we seek to reshape ourselves.

Some Satire for the New School Year

As students across the country prepare to return to school, those students attending Smallish College should be a little happier. “Coursework and personal relationships consistently appeared in our surveys as the top two sources of student stress,” says the college’s Acting Assistant Interim Dean of Student Social Services Felicity Fellowes. “We realized we couldn’t control who students socialized with, but that we could control the coursework. So we got rid of it.”

Indeed, students at Smallish College can now devote themselves to the gym, social media, extracurricular activities, and those troublesome personal relationships. “By being freed up to focus on their own well-being and relationships,” adds Fellowes, “we really expect to see stress levels come down and leadership skills to go way up.”

The end of coursework also permits Smallish College to save millions of dollars that would otherwise go to faculty salaries. That money can be invested in more amenities as well as more administrators. These personnel have become crucial guardians of student satisfaction, which is especially important as a recruitment tool in the current demographic slump and amid concerns about the cost of college. Fellowes explains, “Students really need to know what they are paying for at the end of the day.”

Not everyone is happy with the change. Former English professor Bartholomew Rigidson, who received his termination July 1, says, “I’m a little sad to see the students stop learning in the classroom entirely, but honestly, that simply culminates a long trend.” He went from assigning 12 books a semester in 1992 to just two last year for his Survey of American Novels, though he admits students have a lot more competing options for fun and connections than he ever had.

Rigidson also sees a silver lining in his new job stocking shelves at Target: “It gives me a lot more time to think. Besides, I no longer have to read student evaluations that talk about my teeth or my favorite sweater, and there’s not this parallel, even meaner version called ‘Rate My Stockroom Employee.’”

Now, however, students at Smallish College might have the time and happiness to create exactly that.

Fiction as Truthful Essences

In The Sciensmall gentiantific Renaissance 1450-­1630, Marie Boas Hall discusses the case of Leonhard Fuchs and his 1542 guidebook De Historia Stirpum (History of Plants.) In his preface, Fuchs writes that “there is no one who does not know that there is nothing in this life pleasanter and more delightful than to wonder over woods, mountains, plains, garlanded and adorned with little flowers and plants of various and elegant sorts, gazing intently upon them.” Presumably, Fuchs thus saw dozens, if not hundreds, of instantiations of the same kind of plant. When he and other botanists of the time hired artists to illustrate their “herbals” or “gardens of health,” however, the artist drew from but a single plant. Any defect of the individual became a misrepresentation of the type. Not until botany opted for the ideal specimen rather than an actual specimen did the guidebooks better aid identification and classification. In short, botany turned to fiction to find a clearer truth.

For a culture that seems obsessed enough with the “fun fact” and truth as “exactly what happened,” we ought to keep in mind Fuchs and his artists. Literature, especially the novel, has been a guidebook to life for so many readers because it renders not the never-to-be-repeated particular but rather the essence of people and experience, a sort of History of Humans to aid analysis and classification. Literature is designed not to call up an individual blue gentian wilting slowly on some table in the autumn of 1541, though it must alssmall sky mtno do that if it would entertain, but it enables us to name a blue gentian next time we see it and consider what makes it what it is. Fiction can organize experience in a way actual life cannot. Being someone who doesn’t scorn the didactic possibility of art, I add that organized information is easier to understand than disorganized information. Thus we have historians and physicists even if we all experience history and physics every day. We also have Fuchs, luckily for us, because his walks are probably no longer our own.

Notes on Building Character (in fiction, not your own)

I decided to make a quick summary of techniques for those writers who take notes that are typically as chaotic as mine or who missed last night’s JRW Writing Show “Put Your Characters on the Couch: Psychoanalyze Your Fiction.” I relay some exercises directly from the panel and other of their insights I have re-phrased as exercises. (But by no means have I captured everything they said. A hearty thanks to Cleve Lamison, Jon Sealy, Ted Petrocci, and Gigi Amateau for sharing as panelists and thanks to all the organizers.)

Techniques when you want to know your characters better or round them out. (Of course, you as the writer might not share all the details with the readers, but the answers should influence how you write the characters.)
1) seat your characters at a dinner table and let them interact.
2) interview them. Write out your questions and answers. Ask about secrets, shameful deeds of their past, hopes and joys, etc. Include the things we have inside us but might not always share.
3) find what you can hate in a character you love (or want to love) and vice versa.
4) steal details from real people to provide your characters a consistent personality, plausible biography, and context that shaped them. Observe what real people do with their hands, eyes, words, etc.
5) invest something of yourself in your characters so that you avoid treating them as clichés, but let them be their own people.
6) have the characters make mistakes you wish you’d let yourself make (or have them make mistakes you don’t make or stop making mistakes you make).
7) increase or decrease a character’s self-insight.
8) let another character do something that the main character could or would normally do or wanted to do.
9) keep in mind that the more time a reader spends with a character, the more likely the reader will trust that character.

Finally, an aside from Ted. Psychology tends to notice male morality as defined by whether or not an action is justified, whereas female morality tends to be whether or not anyone is harmed. Does that explain differences—and different numbers of—male and female villains in fiction?