Saturday, July 12, 2014

“The Difference Between Writing Name the Boy and Writing Red Snow”

“The Difference Between Writing Name the Boy and Writing Red Snow”

In his essay “Narcissus Regards His Book/The Common Reader Now,” Mark Edmundson argues that readers “read for one purpose and one purpose only. They read for pleasure. They read to be entertained...diverted, assuaged, comforted, and tickled” (173). Edmundson, a cheeky academic known for his extended, bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you satirical essays, has leveled his sights at the consumer in this piece. And he’s right. Most modern readers want to read for the joy of it, the escape reading offers, not the challenge of actually learning something, of being changed by the words written by a stranger in another time and place. 

That’s inarguable. The real question is, “Why shouldn’t they?”

Edmundson’s writing throughout Why Teach? In Defense of Real Education (the book is a collection of essays, including “Narcissus Regards His Book/The Common Reader”) returns to the theme of the abandoned pursuit of intellectual reading again and again. Edmundson casts himself as a sort of upbeat Chris Hedges, portraying modern people as extras in The Matrix: they’d rather plug in, log on, and check out than probe the deeper reaches of literature. He’s not wrong.

I’ve experienced the phenomenon of readers wishing for pleasurable reading first hand through two of the book-length works I’ve written. The first, a short story collection called Name the Boy, was not the kind of book modern readers seem to want to read–at least not for pleasure. Filled with painful renditions of poverty, alcoholism, and parental neglect and abuse, it’s the kind of writing that makes superficial readers want to take a shower after plowing through it. Turns out they’d rather conserve water. And that was the point of the collection. I wanted to turn a light onto the predatory character that emerges among people fighting for survival on the edge of poverty. It was writing meant to provoke reflection, and writing those stories was a gut-wrenching experience. 

I wrote Name the Boy as my creative thesis while in graduate school. I read several of the stories to my classmates and faculty during the late-night student readings, where they were enthusiastically received. Most writers who have read my stories continue to tell me that they’re good, worthwhile. Fellow instructors at the college where I teach have taught my stories in their classes. But I wanted more from my writing; I didn’t want to toil in obscurity. I wanted to write stories for a wider audience. One night, while discussing this with my friend, the writer Chris Millis (and by “discussing” I mean “drinking excessively and hatching ridiculous schemes”), he suggested I try something different. 

“Why not write a pot-boiler?” he said. “You know, one of those books you see on the racks at airports. Some kind of adventure/thriller. Get it out of your system.” 

That second, book-length work of fiction became the novel Red Snow. It was indeed conceived as a thriller. When writing it, I had only two guiding principles: first, make sure there’s plenty of white space; second, write as badly as you wish. Writing the book has been (Professor Edmundson, please cover your ears!) fun. Fun is the word the intellectual abhors. It’s the word my parish priest scolds the flock with. It’s the thing that, as a parent, I caution against. And yet here I am, doing it. For fun. Because it feels good. 

It’s a story about an writer/innkeeper and his Basque wife who happens to be a retired French spy, only spies are never really “retired,” and her past reaches out and drags them into a global cabal that threatens to end the United States as we know it. It’s got great structure, fully plotted out before I wrote a single word. It’s slavishly devoted to the three-act structure, and in fact, I actually wrote it as a screenplay before I wrote it as a novel. That allowed me to plug into the writing whenever I had an hour or two. Given my teaching and innkeeping responsibilities, that was priceless. 

For me, as a writer, the difference between writing these two books was, as Mark Twain said, the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. While writing the stories for Name the Boy, I would often be immersed in a section of the text where I knew something was going to happen, but I didn’t know what. I would struggle with the story, trying to divine what Ernest Hemingway called “the actual things...which produced the emotion you experienced” (Hemingway). In other words, the one true thing. The effort nearly killed me, and for all the conversation it generated, I’m not sure it was worth it. What it got me was a cool distance from everyone who read it who wasn’t a writer. In other words, the superficial readers Edmundson laments, in and out of academia. 

Writing Red Snow was more of a pure experience. By pure, I mean indulgent, of course. It evoked the very feelings I–as a moral character–am supposed to shun. Feelings of exhilaration. Feelings of excitement. Feelings of infatuation, like the feeling at the beginning of a new relationship, when you can’t think of anything but the other person, the way she feels, the way she smells, the very thought of being next to her–that’s the way I felt writing Red Snow. Imagine that feeling, every day, for over a year, and you begin to get it.

Edmundson loses his cool when it comes to contemporary popular fiction. He pits academic culture against modern entertainment culture, and we know who wins. But this is nothing new. Humans have been choosing the low road forever. It’s what makes us human. The struggle to strive for the worthy describes the purpose of all religions, and it’s a struggle that plays out in every aspect of human life. Why should reading and writing be any different?

“If it makes you feel good, it must be,” Edmundson writes, his words quavering with sarcasm. “If Stephen King and John Grisham bring pleasure, why, then let us applaud them” (176). Tone aside, he makes a valid point when he focuses on the important question: What makes a book worth writing or worth reading? The problem with that question is that it takes the position that a book not worthy of this lofty goal should not be written.

Really? That sounds reversely Biblical to me, as in, “The Bible’s perfect, so why bother writing anything else?” So all the crap that was written before, during, and after Gilgamesh should not have been? Did Shakespeare simply channel his works, or did he read widely, honing his style as much by what disgusted him as what inspired him? Melville (whose works, by the way, were treated with as much contempt while he was alive as some treat authors like King and Grisham today) slogged through as much post-Colonial American codswallop on the way to Billy Budd and Moby-Dick as he did Hawthorne’s works. 

Pity that he didn’t share with us what literature is actually worth reading today. What contemporary artists are producing relevant works that should be studied and argued over? And I don’t buy the bunk arguing and all the good stuff in life happened in the past–the “Good old days” argument. That’s another mythology we can do without. What about Cormac McCarthy? Haruki Murakami? Joyce Carol Oates? And, though it pains me to say it, Philip Roth? Among their works can’t there be found astounding literature to balance the abhorrence of The Shining and A Time to Kill

I guess I know more about myself as a writer now that I’ve written two radically different works. I enjoy talking about the different processes for each one, the skills needed. I hope it makes me not only a better writer, but a better teacher. But would I have learned that about myself if I had only pursued lofty, academic goals, if I had spent a lifetime banging my muse’s head against the bulwark of canonical immortality? For me, the rich experience gained by writing both Name the Boy and Red Snow has a value far beyond anything that can be bestowed from without. 

With all that in mind, here’s a tribute to an author I read for pleasure. Sing it to the tune “Baby’s Got Back.”

I like Clive Cussler and I cannot lie
Those other writers make me sigh
When a book shows up and it’s three inches thick
That shallow writing makes me tick!
You get hooked, with a plot that shook
A story that makes you wanna look
All day! Forget about James
Joyce or Ernest Hemingway 
Cause they ain’t got that Cussler magic
Deep seas so tragic
And characters that make me roll my eyes!
So academics? Hit the road
Clive’s the dude that steals the show!

Works Cited

Edmundson, Mark. Why Teach? In Defense of Real Education. New York:        Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hemingway is Winner of Nobel Literature Prize.” New  York Times. Accessed October 30, 2011. Web.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Another Beer

It happened quickly. At the Olde Saratoga Brewery, in Saratoga Springs, New York, during a book signing party on a Friday night, the bartender leaned forward and gave me the kind of look bartenders used to give men at the footrail: “You want another beer?”

He filled the glass and plunked it on a coaster. When he found out I was from Vermont, his straight, white eyebrows went up, crinkling his wide forehead. He knew Vermont. He knew Vermont beer. He wanted to know about the famous Heady Topper. But first, he had a question: “You want another beer?”

He had been to Vermont on a beer bus. The beer bus started in Saratoga Springs at nine in the morning. Some of the younger beer bus-goers started drinking then. But the bartender held off. It was a long trip, with stops at Long Trail Brewery, Fiddlehead Brewery, Switchback Brewery, Magic Hat Brewery, and the Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington. He wanted to tell me all about. But first, he had a question: “You want another beer?”

He was going to tell me about how he acquired his knowledge of beer, how he’d been stationed in Germany when he was in the U.S. Army. He was going to tell me about the laws governing German beer, restricting it to three ingredients: water, barley, and hops. He knew all about these rules, he said, and he was going to explain the entire process to me. But first, he had a question: “You want another beer?”

He was just about to tell me how he thought many of the new, craft beers were overrated, that they lacked the solid and consistent body of traditional lagers and pilsners, that putting orange peel and dark chocolate into beer was heretical, and that over-hopping beer was not only unnecessary, but soporific. But first, he had a question: “You want another beer?”

This all happened quickly, within an hour’s time, as I returned again and again to the bar to fill up my glass. Each time I approached, the bartender looked at me with anticipation, ready to offer me another piece of his beer journey, and a glass to accompany it. And I did want another beer. And another, and another, and another. There were lots of beers to try, and since they were all served in small, 4-ounce glasses, I could enjoy them all without losing track of the bartender’s story. I told him all this and he leaned forward and asked, “You want another beer?”

Saturday, June 07, 2014

The Big, Yellow Bus

Last Wednesday, my youngest son, Brendan, made an announcement: “Well,” he said, “I’m done with school.” On an abstract level, this was startling. But then he explained that he only had one final exam the following week, then a couple of graduation rehearsals before graduation itself. Beyond all the other emotional consequences this had for Chantal and me as parents, there was a practical one as well: he would no longer be taking the school bus.

We’re school bus people. Chantal grew up in France, where there are no school buses trundling down the roads in the morning, and she loved the idea that her children could stand outside their house, or at the end of the driveway, or the bottom of the road, and a bus would come by, pick them up, drop them at school, then reverse the process in the afternoon. And so it went for us for 15 years, from Seamus’s first day of kindergarten, when he and Brendan (who thought he was going to kindergarten that day, too) were sitting on the front porch steps, waiting for “the big, yellow bus” to come, to Brendan’s announcement last week.

Each morning at our house went the same way: I wake the boys up and prepare their breakfast; the boys grouse and refuse to rise; threats are issued; cereal is consumed; the boys go back to bed; my head swells, threatening explosion; Brendan is ready five minutes before the bus arrives; Seamus is still in bed; a flurry of activity and questions ensue: “Where’s my _______? Where’s my ________? Where’s my __________?; Brendan, already outside, calls back, “Bus! Bus! Bus!”; Seamus, a Beatles fan, lives a line from “A Day in the Life”: “Found my coat and grabbed my hat/Made the bus in seconds flat”; The bus pulls up, the lights flash red, Seamus streaks out the door. I let my breath out.

And now that’s all over. 

Many people shun the bus, especially in Stowe. Some parents have confessed that they drove their children to school because they wanted to avoid exposing their kids to malefic influences (in Stowe, there’s only one bus for all grades, so seniors in high school share the bus with elementary school kids). Since I’d already taught my sons how to cuss, that didn’t concern me. And we already paid for the bus. Why not use it? The alternative was to join the queue of Volvo XC90s and Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matics at the elementary and middle/high schools, idling, crawling toward the front door. To be fair to a lot of people in Stowe, the bus doesn’t go everywhere, and many people decided that if they had to drive their kids a mile to the end of their road to catch the bus, they might as well drive a couple more and just drop them off. 

That doesn’t mean that having the boys take the bus was a carefree experience. Once, when they were in fifth and fourth grades, respectively, Seamus got off the bus holding his face. Blood was gushing out around his hands, and his front teeth were snapped off. It seems he got into a disagreement with his brother. After that, we made them walk to school for a month (the elementary school is only a half-mile away, and we usually met them to walk them across busy Route 100).

Part of my morning ritual (some would call it a neurosis) was to make sure the boys were able to cross the street safely each morning to board the bus. I drilled into them the necessity of waiting for oncoming traffic to stop before stepping out onto the road. I built a swinging gate to ensure that if they were horsing around, they wouldn’t accidentally push each other out onto the road. And I stood there, my coffee mug in a death grip, talking through the window, until they were safely aboard.

Maybe the best part about the bus was knowing that our neighbors were the ones driving them to school. Over they years we’ve been lucky to have a great bunch of folks as bus drivers. John Beecy, a retired U.S. Air Force officer, found a second career as a bus driver for several years. Joe McGovern, a driving instructor, and his wife, Becky, had the route when the boys were in high school. And before that, Sam Kaiser, a true Vermonter, drove the bus and didn’t take any guff from them, as my grandmother would say. Cathy Davis often had the afternoon route, bringing the boys home. Everybody at Percy Transportation was wonderful. 

So when Brendan announced he was done with school, Chantal and I were a little emotional. Something special was ending. And while some folks choose not to take the bus, we’re glad our boys did. It gave them some independence and us some satisfaction. But when Joe McGovern goes by every morning at 7:25 a.m., I’ll still choke up a little, remembering the two little boys sitting side by side on the porch that September morning 15 years ago. Thank you, big, yellow bus.