Feeding the God: What Happens When the Creation Takes Over

6 Jul 2010

I believe a poet once said, “The best-laid Essays o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” Joel Stein, at Time, recently discovered the truth of this when his humor piece, My Own Private India, went viral, and not in a good way.

It’s been covered by The WSJ, The Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, PBS, and 48,396 other web venues, and has spawned 2 apologies from Stein: a tweet which only reinforced the offensiveness of the article, and this comment, which was appended to the original piece at Time:

I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it. If we could understand that reaction, we’d be better equipped to debate people on the other side of the immigration issue.

As someone with a similar penchant for facetiousness, and a potentially tragic tendency to circle ironically around whatever point it is I’m actually trying to make, I knew what Stein was trying to do. In fact, I recently had the same “stomach-sick” feeling when I realized that, after being compelled to round out an Essay with the second half of a metaphor that I used in the opening paragraph, I had ended up with an article that was simply appalling. So while I admire Stein’s attempt to come to terms with a gut reaction that made him squirm, I have to wonder: wouldn’t it have been better had he stopped “trying to explain” his point, and simply…well…made it?

Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple.

As anyone who’s ever written anything knows (and this goes for all the Arts, I assume), at some point during the act of creation, you sense that your project is getting away from you, taking on its own set of formal needs and internal tensions. Soon, whatever you thought you wanted to say—whatever was actually going on in that maelstrom of electrical pulses we like to call “thinking”—starts to fade. In its place, there appears this stranger, this verbal body, flexing its muscles like a new god. And it’s complaining, and wants to be fed.

What’s worse, this thing (call it a Linguistic Artifact) starts to wear its own heart on its own sleeve, or, like the Archaic Torso of Apollo as described by Rilke, becomes

suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power.

Sans head, the statue’s meaning now resides in its own forms, in the “curved breast” and “placid hips and thighs,” not to mention the syntax, metaphors, and lede. It will give off this meaning of its own accord, and if you’re skillful, like Odysseus, and in the god’s favor, what you intended to say just might agree with it. Hopefully.

We writing instructors need to remember this when we complain that students “can’t think clearly,” or that they lack the much-ballyhooed “critical thinking skills.” It’s entirely possible that the students are thinking just fine, but become quickly tired out by fighting with the Language Artifact, and especially by hammering away at the unfamiliar, unyielding marble of academic discourse. To quote David Bartholomae (emphasis added):

The students have to appropriate (or be appropriated by) a specialized discourse, and they have to do this as though they were easily and comfortably one with their audience…They must learn to speak our language. Or they must dare to speak it, or to carry off the bluff, since speaking and writing will most certainly be required long before the skill is ‘learned.’ And this, understandably, causes problems.

Whenever I’m in a conference and ask a student what she was trying to say in a certain part of an Essay,  she’ll almost invariably look down, straight down, at the pages squatting sourly on the desk in front of her, and go, “Ummm….” That’s when I like to say, “Put the damned thing inside your binder—tear it up if you have to—and tell me what you want to say.” And she’ll do it, too, actually look me in the eye and say it, smooth as an arpeggio.

So the students are in there somewhere, inside each essay, just as Joel Stein, and the uncomfortable point he was trying to make in My Own Private India, are buried under the layers of irony. It’s too bad an editor, or someone, somewhere in the pre-publication phase of the article, hadn’t said, “I know what you were trying to do, but take a look at what you actually did.” Stein’s stomach, and Time, might have been spared some discomfort, and immigrant groups all over the country would not be up in arms.

If we read student Essays very carefully (given enough time, of course), we might start to put a human face back on Rilke’s stern, distant Apollo, to locate the verbal strivings and stumblings that point, however obliquely, to “that dark center where procreation flared,” where the writer first tried to attach a fleeing thought to a computer screen. And, if we read with sympathy and affection, we might see the student peering at us from behind the fence of sentences, hoping to be noticed.

I know, I know: it’s a mixed metaphor. But Who’s in charge here, anyway?

*****

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