Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Writer’s Baggage

          In her essay Teaching Writing Teachers Writing, Shelley Reid argues students of writing pedagogy should be confronted with inherently difficult writing—that by struggling with hard writing, future teachers will be able to better connect theory with practice and empathize with their students. This all seems like a no-brainer. But then, writing for me has always been a difficult process. This particular assignment alone had three scrapped introductions. The assignment is connected to an argument with my wife, my four-year-old with the flu, a pile of neglected dishes, and my twelve-year-old slurping loudly on a grape Popsicle. It was hard writing and a hard decision on what to write. I went through the entire process—the prewriting, the rough draft, the revision, more revision, and then the final product. I work this process every single time I sit down to write anything. And I am a highly proficient writer, yet Reid says, “Highly proficient writers in graduate pedagogy courses may see process steps and composing strategies as crutches needed by less skilled writers.” Reid seems to suggest the entire writing process is one many students haven't encountered, have avoided, or at the least resisted. But why?
            Yesterday, I picked up my daughter from her first ballet class of the academic year. One of the other fathers, Rodney, stood outside waiting. He wore a shirt that read, “Ask me about my book.” The book he had written was academic in nature, about implementing community service projects—all of it above my head—but the one salient comment he made struck me. Rodney said the review process was horrible. “It [the peer review] really affected me. It was like a personal attack. I didn't know I was that close to my writing.”  The writing process is fraught with emotion, and I believe Reid hints at the emotional baggage associated with writing, but doesn't ever really address the issue. We see this most clearly in the personal reflective accounts of Reid's students:

  •          It really messes me up –Kelley
  •          I felt a little silly –Faith
  •          Not used to failure –Alicia
  •          I struggled so much –Gabrielle
  •          Is that writer really me? –Elaine
These writerly confessional snippets are all loaded with distress and anxiety, and my argument is that any writing is a personal matter and comes with emotional baggage; that difficult writing assignments confront head on the emotional side of writing.
            Per example, this past June I published my novel Wasteland, loosely based off T.S. Elliot's poem of the same name. The book took five years to write. Wasteland contains a lot of controversial issues and topics one doesn't discuss around my parents—BDSM, heroin, acid trips, drinking cat blood, depression, eating the head off a live bird, suicide, war, religion, homosexuality, serial killers. I was afraid—really afraid—my family would get a hold of Wasteland and decide that the book is worth reading, and then what kind of repercussions would I face? When I was a teenager, my father worried I was gay. In my twenties, my mother thought I was strung out on drugs. Everyone in my family was concerned that I'd marry into an interracial relationship. I've had, to no avail, lengthy discussions with my mother attempting to explain the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Open-minded is still not a term used successfully to describe my family. If Mom or Dad or one of my siblings read Wasteland, they'd think the book was true, that what I wrote really happened. This fear of what others thought impeded my writing. The emotionality I attached to Wasteland was more difficult to deal with than what Reid describes as difficult writing: length requirements, taking a narrow stand, publication, presentation, or peer review. I had to get over myself before I could be successful at writing Wasteland. I had to realize the problems and prejudices others had with what I write are their problems and not mine.
            Even academic writing carries emotional baggage I must deal with. Every time I begin an academic paper, I am confronted by my high school English teacher. My most recent academic work, “Howl” as Keen in Form, Function, and Reaction, is currently in the review process at Essays in Criticism. Sitting down to write this behemoth of a topic—comparing an American Beat poem to a defunct Irish cultural practice—had my high school English teacher sitting on my left shoulder with a pitchfork yelling at me about dangling modifiers and vague pronoun references. This internal editor construct of my subconscious sat on my shoulder before I had even finalized the topic. The topic—let alone the thesis—hadn't even begun with Ginsberg, but Mark Twain and then maybe Poe, and I waffled between Hemingway and Faulkner, all the while Mrs. O. telling me I wasn't good enough. As a junior in high school, I had signed onto the yearbook, and to this day I remember, very clearly, an article I had written about the volleyball team. Mrs. O. told me the article was too long for the space available in the yearbook. Five hundred words too long. So I cut, and I cut and the process was painful, and after I had finished the edit, the piece was still fifty words too long. I turned in the assignment in tears. Mrs. O. then informed me I had completely misunderstood her. She had told me, supposedly, that she'd do the edits, that I didn't have to bother with the struggle, that cutting that much from an article would have been too hard for me in the first place. At forty years old, a father, a husband, a student who took twenty-two years to finish his undergrad, every time I hand in an academic paper I fear the writing is too long or somehow I misunderstood the directive for the paper.   
            Rodney, the other ballet-dad, said he hadn't realized how close emotionally he was to his writing, even though he only wrote the book to garner the prestige associated with having written an academic text in his field. Rodney explained how one of his blind peer reviewers took it upon themselves to list all of the books better written and better informed. “That hurt,” Rodney said. Rodney's experience echoes Reid's student Susan's experience:  

"Writing [the first response] didn't feel hard to me…. What was difficult and challenging   was the peer workshop and revision process…. I thought I had written a relatively well- organized and clear argument for my position, and [my peers'] comments suggested I wasn't quite as organized or systematic as I needed to be. The horror! I'm a writing tutor!"

Susan's response is one of shock. She quotes Heart of Darkness and ends with surprise at how much revision was needed for her assignment, because, after all, Susan is a writing tutor. She helps others with their writing. She does not receive, or at least, she does not seek out assistance with her own writing. The peer review and revision, for Susan, was an affront to her identity as a writer, and our identity—who we see ourselves as—is tied together with emotion and past life experiences such as how my family views the world and how Mrs. O. was a bulldog of a teacher. Reid agrees with Lil Brannon professor of English and Education at UNC and Gordon Pradl professor of English education at NYU Steinhardt. Pedagogy classes should “extend beyond the notion that writing teachers should demonstrate high competency in their filed,” but also help teachers build an identity of “who they are as writers.”

            In my English Methods I class, a large portion of the class was dedicated to developing future English teachers' identity as writers—to see themselves as actual writers. I was appalled at the fact that some of the students could not identify verbs from nouns and thought revision and peer review were unnecessary for their writing. One fellow classmate, a senior and an A plus student, admitted that she had never revised an academic paper and never reflected upon her own writing. I am blown away by Reid's encounters of resistance to difficult writing, though I shouldn't be considering my personal experience in English Methods I. These fellow students in English Methods were confronted with their emotional baggage connected to their writing. They were made to realize their own prejudices and get over themselves. They were made to struggle, and although I actively search out these opportunities to push my own writing in directions I am not always comfortable with, many people do not seek these moments of self-teaching, forgoing the idea of revision, keeping the identity of, as Reid puts it, nonrevisionists. A class devoted to difficult writing, for future teachers of writing, needs to not only address the basics such as nouns versus verbs (although I'd hope graduate students would know the difference); needs to not only complicate the assignments with publication, word length, or structural constraints; but needs to deal with the personal and emotional reasons for the resistance against difficult writing in the first place, even if to only make the students aware of that emotional baggage, and why the writing process, no matter the topic, is hard to begin with. The actual process of writing is not difficult—it's butt in the chair, one word after the another. However, the personal attachments and the closeness which is placed on one's own writing make the process difficult. If we, as writing instructors, are tasked with asking our students to write, then we must, as Reid says, empathize with our students. We must become aware of what our students face as new writers, and although I am not suggesting a pedagogy course become a vehicle for psychoanalysis, I do suggest that we as students “know thyself” in the Socratic tradition of long-established wisdom.        

Big Mom Ideology

Photo Credit:
If Sherman Alexie reads this, he will probably never talk to me.
On January 23, 2000, Alexie wrote in the Los Angeles Times a scathing review of Ian Frazier’s nonfiction travel log memoir On the Rez. Alexie writes, “Frazier’s formal use of ‘the rez’ marks him as an outsider eager to portray himself as an insider, as a writer with a supposedly original story to tell and as a white man who is magically unlike all other white men in his relationship to American Indians.” Alexie is probably more similar to Frazier than Alexie would like to believe though. I thoroughly enjoyed Alexie’s Reservation Blues. That being said, Reservation Blues is full of every stereotype and American Indian trope one can imagine: poverty, magic, drunk Indians, and sober Indians that are afraid to get drunk, and themes of loss. Those stereotypes doesn’t make the book bad. Alexie adds flare—a talking guitar, screaming horses, and nightmares—but certainly those stereotypes also do not make the story unique or original; it makes it commercial genre.
Like a steamy romance—you as the reader know the protagonist is going to eventually hook up with the sexy dude that has his shirt off on the front cover because that’s the pay-off, why you bought the book in the first place. And just as you can predict what’s going to happen in a romance, you know Reservation Blues will end badly. You read enough Native American literature, and come to expect this, but I’m also thinking of The Woman Who Owned the Shadows by Paula Gunn Allen and Winter in the Blood by James Welch that nicely complicate the American Indian stereotype. The characters are not flat: they do not tell stories because that is what Indians do; nor do they drink alcohol because that is what Indians do; nor are they just poor because that is what Indians are. The Woman Who Owned, an in-depth character study, is stream of consciousness at its best, harkening back to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or perhaps Stein’s Melanctha. Winter in the Blood is a wonderful disjointed mess comparable to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
And yeah, Reservation Blues is genre fiction. This, I feel, is in no way an insult to Alexie or genre fiction, and especially it is not an insult to Native American literature. Commercial genre fiction serves a purpose, and how many people would not be exposed to Native American thought without Alexie? I know I certainly would not have—the first Native American writing I’ve ever read was in high school: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. And it was a funny and sad story at sixteen. At forty-something, it’s still a funny, sad story. And I’d read it again, and share it with friends.
On occasion, Alexie has quipped that his hydrocephalic causes him to walk erratically, “as if he were carrying the burden of his race on his shoulders” (Konigsberg). I know Alexie is joking, but he is not magically unlike all other Native Americans in his relationship to American Indians or even American whites. I’ve heard Alexie criticized in the past for leaving the reservation, abandoning his culture and ethnicity, becoming in effect the physical and reality-based embodiment of the rock band Coyote Springs, making himself a kind of outsider. On the Rez seems to be a struggle to situate Frazier’s own whiteness with his ambivalence toward the very existence of American Indians. As I’ve said elsewhere, Frazier might be suffering from white guilt, unable to admit as much, or at the least unaware of his attitudes, and after reading Reservation Blues, I’m left wondering too how much of his own self Alexie is aware of. Many of Alexie’s characters in Reservation Blues are unself-aware until it’s too late: Junior who commits suicide, Victor who remains in a drunken stupor, Father Arnold who is confused between his loyalties to God, the Catholic Church, and Checkers, Betty and Veronica who repeat over and over like a chorus line, “What are we doing here?” And Alexie seems to be asking that same question, but I don’t believe that question is solely in relation to the reservation, but to greater, wider concerns congruent with Big Mom’s ideology. It’s your choice.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Re Membering in The Woman Who Owned the Shadows

The Woman Who Owned the Shadows is one of the first Native American books to feature a woman protagonist. Author Paula Gunn Allen has created a story mixed with Southwestern Native American creation narrative and stream of consciousness. The novel fluctuates between Spider Grandmother’s creation of the world and Ephanie Atencio’s struggle with divorce, sexuality, and her connection to her culture. Allen pushes a feminist view of Native American myth, history, and today’s attitudes toward American society.  In this way, Allen restores feminist power to her culture.  
Browsing the Goodreads reviews of The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, many reviewers commented on how difficult the novel was to read. They complained about the stream of consciousness narrative style or how ambiguous the ending made them feel, and how they felt empty after reading the book—that they had no sense of conclusion. Certainly, I don’t think Allen intended The Woman Who Owned to be easy, or necessarily fulfilling in the way many modern readers approach genre books, that is for entertainment. So certainly entertaining, one wonders though if Ephanie is totally sane, whether her struggles with homosexuality are even normal, let alone her abandonment of her children, and her abandonment of her self.
            Allen uses the word “re membering” throughout her work. At first, I thought this word construction was odd—why would she separate the prefix? But “member” suggests a part of something greater. The arm, for example, is a member of the physical body. The arm is both separate from the body and belonging to the body at the same moment. One is a member of a tribe. One is a member of a nation, or belongs to a nation. And “re” is from the Latin prefix root meaning “again” or “again and again.” By separating the prefix from the root word, Allen is able to not completely remove the idea of memory from the word, and places emphasis upon Ephanie’s becoming a member of a culture, again and again. The end of the book, Ephanie falls into a new world, just as Sky Woman is pushed by her husband through a hole in the ground to the earth.
Allen not only connects Ephanie to a religious and historical Native America past but to the present and future that includes the modern world and the European encroachment upon the land. Neither world is presented in Allen’s novel as ideal. Both the past and the present are depicted with their own fragilities. Everyone is broken: Spider Grandmother, who is betrayed; Sky Woman, who is pushed to her death by her husband and left alone; Elana, who is forced by her parents to stay away from Ephanie; Stephen and Thomas, who unsuccessfully look toward women for self-completion; and Teresa, who yearns for a spirituality that she cannot fully possess.    

            No one seems to be able to possess anything in Allen’s novel, actually. It is a struggle to figure out personal identity in relation to the rest of the world. Ephanie’s name resembles “epiphany,” and the novel’s epiphany seems to suggest there is no salvation in life, but that we must still look beyond the practicalities of life to the spiritual for a fullness that cannot be fulfilled through companionship, security, or family. We must then re member.