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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Authors! In My Navel!

This has been percolating for months and changing all the while, unsurprisingly. Feel free to skip this, as it could not possibly be of interest to anyone, even me (perhaps especially me).

I was supposed to go to Santa Fe at the end of February/beginning of March to present a poster at a conference. I did not go to the conference, but the poster—eventually—did, in the capable hands of my colleague, J. For reasons related to why I did not go to the conference, the research underlying the poster limped along and ended in an all-nighter. (Ok, I'll come clean. The all-nighter was probably inevitable, but life was not helping at the time.)

I sent the finished product off to a Kinko's in Santa Fe, then collapsed into bed. Moments later, I leapt from bed back to laptop in a single motion (no small feat, as this involved two sets of stairs and four 90-degree turns; plus, you know, my innate grace). Was this inspiration gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door? No. Indeed it was the Spirit of Paralyzing Fear of Inadvertent Plagiarism.

I realized, just as I was drifting off to sleep, that I'd forgotten to put a caption underneath one of my figures acknowledging that it was a modification of one from someone else's work. I fired off an e-mail to my intrepid colleague asking him if he could scrawl in the acknowledgment when he picked up the poster. (He pointed out to me that the text on the slide appropriately cited the work in question, so I was probably safe anyway, but still . . .)

At the time these gripping events were occurring in my life, plagiarism seemed to be everywhere in the news. It was around the time that Madonna Constantine published a statement condemning the investigation of accusations of plagiarism on her part by Columbia's Teachers College, and I finally realized why her name was ringing such a bell for me. (It's a magnificent name in its own right, of course, but the swinging and the ringing/ Of the bells, bells, bells for me personally resulted from my having edited some articles by her.)

And then everyone and his famous, one-quarter Cherokee grandparent seemed to be outed as having written a fake memoir. Incidentally, I don't mean to link Constantine to two substantiated cases of faking in any way other than temporal coincidence that connects them in my mind. I know very little about her case, and obviously I have no basis even to begin to judge. But other than the mild, "How 'bout that?" personal connection to that unfolding drama, it's the other two cases I linked up there that have really been snagging on my grey matter.

Margaret Seltzer cobbled together her faked memoir of a Native American/White girl growing up gang banger in LA from the stories of people she met doing anti-gang outreach (although even this much appears to be in question). As to why she did this, Seltzer has famously said, "For whatever reason, I was really torn, and I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don't listen to." It's an appropriational nightmare and a crisis of ethnographic theory in a breathtakingly compressed package. Eisa Ulen covers a lot of this ground better than I can in this NPR interview.

As for Monique De Wael/Misha Defonseca's decade-old not!memoir of going feral during World War II . . . well, at least she has come out and said that it represents an internal reality and admitted that she can't reliably distinguish between that created reality and the one in which the rest of us live. But even with that nod to mental illness, there is her statement that actual truths of her childhood led her to "feel Jewish," which no doubt fueled (but certainly do not excuse, as Bruno Waterfield and Blake Eskin ably address) her deconstructionist issues.

And then I think of Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face. Of course, it's a different kettle of fish, as Grealy is telling no one's story but her own. (However, it's worth considering that sensu stricto Grealy could only be claimed to speak for the 1 in 1 million who get Ewings Sarcoma, but sensu lato, her memoir is about normative beauty, which changes the stakes considerably.) But I also recall a memory of Lucy that Ann Patchett shares in Truth & Beauty: A Friendship.

Lucy's memoir had just come out to great success and acclaim. Ann's novel, Taft, had come out to deafening silence (which is terrible, it's a wonderful, wonderful novel and probably my second favorite of hers). Lucy suggested they turn Ann's book signing into a double bill, so Ann got to see first-hand what a typical crowd gathered for Autobiography of a Face was like. I'm going to skip around a bit in quoting from Truth & Beauty here.
There was a lot of cancer in the room that night, cancer in the process of being defeated and cancer in the process of defeating people. There were the ravages that cancer, long gone, had left in its wake, including the damage it had done to Lucy.


Of course, in thinking about voice and Voice, I hadn't remembered to think of Grealy as the Voice of Survivor. It seems that she didn't care too much for being that Voice, though.

After the crowd was able to control their weeping after hearing the passage she read . . . she opened the floor for questions.
"You were so incredibly brave," a woman began "If it were me, I wouldn't have been able to survive it."
"Meaning what, you would have died?" Lucy said. "It doesn't work that way, unless you kill yourself."
People said it to Lucy all the time. . . . My brave and heroic Lucy made it clear to the audience that she had no interest in being anybody's inspiration. She was not there as a role model for overcoming obstacles. She was a serious writer, and she wanted her book to be judged for its literary merit and not its heartbreaking content. (Emphasis added.)


But the point that stuck out enough in my mind that I went and found the book, then found the quote (then found all the other morsels that are on point here) is this:

"It's amazing how you remember everything so clearly," a woman said, her head wrapped up in a bright scarf. "All those conversations, details. Were you ever worried that you might get something wrong?"
"I didn't remember it," Lucy said pointedly. "I wrote it. I'm a writer."
This shocked the audience more than her dismissal of illness, but she made her point: she was making art, not documenting an event. (Emphasis added.)


In college, I had the good fortune to take a class called "American Lives." It was taught by Amy Kass, one of the five best teachers I have ever had, and certainly someone who strongly shaped my thinking and approach to teaching. In it, we read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and The Education of Henry Adams. As it turned out, we were all—except for one guy, and he was, you know, that guy—in it for Ben. (In my defense, I was in it because I wanted to take a class with Amy Kass.)

What's not to love about Ben? Of course he's a liar and a cheat, but a brilliant mind, a character, and one hell of a writer, too. We all loved Ben. Henry Adams, not so much. As far as we were concerned, he was denser than a dining hall brownie, probably amoral, and he marked his wife's suicide with a chapter break, picking up the thread of the narrative 20 years later. Man, did that piss us off. How dare he deprive us of the creamy, eviscerated center of his life?

I was hard-pressed to get the intart00bz to admit it, but in 1995, Mrs. Kass published a book of paired autobiographies, American Lives: Cultural Differences, Individual Distinctions, An Anthology of American Autobiography. The book was in progress during the time I took the class, and you may notice that Mr. Adams does not make the list. So great was our hatred for him and his autobiography, so feeble was the defense of the lone Adamsophile in the crowd, that she took him out. I'll forever feel guilty about that.

It's not that my dislike for him or the Education has softened. It's matured, in fact, and I now dislike him for the dirty modernist and hopeless positivist that he is. But it's his autobiography that I pick up again and again, his autobiography that I leaf through while chuckling, and it's him that I find myself wanting to call and say, "You see, Henry, the problem is that you're full of crap, and here's why . . ." Benjamin Franklin is pretty unanswerable. What would a schlub like me have to say to Ben?

If you're asking where I'm going with all this, I'm pleased to meet you. This started, lo! those many months ago with me thinking about plagiarism. Then I realized that I was really thinking about voice and Voice for a number of reasons, not least among them that I was about to embark on my first songwriting class. (That particular realization led me to wonder when, exactly, I'd offshored my subconscious, but from January 1 to about March 1 of this year, I had exactly zero time to devote to subtext.)

And then the Spirit of Coincidence and Leprechauns visited me in the form of a comment by "Anonymous" on my long-ago entry about our very first foray into Robbie's Secret Country. I don't have any means of asking for Anonymous's permission to quote from him or her, but s/he did make a public comment, so I'm hoping s/he won't mind.

"I very much enjoyed your piece on Kevin Gordon. [Well, thank you kindly, A!—Ed.] In doing some searching on Jimmy Reed, I came across the KG song and was moved--well, as moved as a person my age can be about an artist (KG) with whom he was was not familiar. In trying to find out why on God's Green Earth a poet/singer-songwriter from Iowa (albeit via Louisiana) would have written a song about Jimmy Reed, I came across your blog and, as I mentioned above, enjoyed it very much. What prompts me to comment, however, is that your remarks led me to Webb Wilder's version (complete with the haunting guitar) of the KG song. In short, I doubt that I would have found that version, save for your pointing me in the right direction. So, thanks, and keep up the good work.
PS: If you gleaned any insights into why KG would write a Jimmy Reed song, pass them on in another blog."


I found the comment gratifying in a number of ways. Even I—neurotic old "please don't actually read anything I write, no matter how much time I've spent writing it" I—must admit that it's nice when someone says something nice about one's writing. And even neurotic old I—"is there something more 'I' than 'I' on the Myers-Briggs?" I—regret from time to time that I don't often have the chance to share things that I love with new people. But even through the warm, fuzzy glow of gratification, I wondered about a couple of things in A's comment.

First, this: "well, as moved as a person my age can be about an artist (KG) with whom he was was not familiar." Interesting! I've no idea how old A is, but isn't it fascinating that s/he either sees him/herself as beyond the age of being easily moved? Or maybe not yet having arrived at such an age? Or maybe the real core of that idea is that it takes intimacy, familiarity, and knowing the artist before their art can really dig in, undo,change, and move the audience? And A's was already an opt-in audience: S/he was interested in the Jimmy Reed first, and sucked in by Kevin Gordon and Webb Wilder second.

But another part of A's comment that got my gears grinding was this: "In trying to find out why on God's Green Earth a poet/singer-songwriter from Iowa (albeit via Louisiana) would have written a song about Jimmy Reed, I came across your blog." My anthropologist self leaps on the designation "from Iowa." Where is Kevin Gordon from? Well Kevin Gordon seems to think he's from Louisiana (which A, of course, allows parenthetically, and you know how much I love parentheticals, so I'm not knocking it), but A clearly sees Iowa—more specifically, I suspect, the Iowa Writers' Workshop (which, incidentally, also gave us Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy, as well as Ann-and-Lucy)—as the place that gave us "poet/singer-songwriter" Kevin Gordon.

And, finally, A wants to know, why would this Iowan, this refugee evacuee (and that joke's no good, as Kevin himself pointed out in the very interview in question, that he's not from the Gulf Coast, and there's nothing swampy about him or his Louisiana-tude), this poet/singer-songwriter write a song about Jimmy Reed (I Did Not Know that he was buried in Blue Island! I feel a Macabre Pilgrimage coming on!) of all people? Obviously, I'm a tax-and-spend liberal with regard to the surplus of subtext that built up earlier this year, because I'm once again about to read things into A's question.
Again, I know nothing about A, which makes this all the more fun, but I don't think it's too much of a stretch (and I'd love it if A weighed in on any and all points) to say that A is wondering what led a white boy from a hoity-toity edumacated background to write about a man whose life drew so heavily on the Stereotypical Tragedy of the Bluesman (son of a sharecropper, killed by epilepsy misdiagnosed as the dts).

As much fun as it is to have a one-sided, perhaps completely unfair, conversation with poor, beleaguered Anonymous, I thought it might be even more fun to just ask Kevin Gordon about the Jimmy Reed song. So I did. And not only did he actually respond with flattering promptness, he also gave me permission to share some of the answer.
"I don't really know where to start. The title for the song came from a memory I had--I was riding back from a gig in Ottumwa IA, I think, when I was in Bo Ramsey's band(ca.1988-89). It was just me and him in the van for some reason. The sun was coming up; we'd stayed up all night. He had Jimmy Reed on the stereo. He said, in his characteristically understated way, "you know, Kevin, Jimmy Reed's the king of rock n' roll". (He may have actually said "father of rock n' roll"). It was just a moment, but it stuck with me--and the song itself came from thinking about several related things at once: the memory described above, the general experience of playing with Ramsey and scenes from those days, and, Jimmy Reed himself, and what I knew of his life, that he was quite the late-night man himself, to say the least. So the song is sort of about Bo Ramsey, sort of about Jimmy Reed, sort of about the experience of touring in less-than-prime situations, and the self-destructive element that's very much around . . . and ends up (hopefully) being about all those things."


Gold. Awesome. Can't you just hear Bo Ramsey? Can't you just taste that hyperalert, completely exhausted, barroom-grit-behind-your-eyes feeling? I also love the casual acknowledgment that the entire song might be built around a misquote of Bo Ramsey. He didn't remember it, he wrote it. He's a writer.

One of the most stunning, important, revelatory things that Steve Dawson (he's not just a great teacher, but an incredibly gifted singer-songwriter, one I really admire) said in the songwriting class: "When you write songs, you have no obligation to the truth." I'm deliberately leaving that untouched, unqualified, because it's been important to me over the last couple of months.

But really, my gentle reader wants to know, what the fuck am I on about? Well, it's like this: I would like to make my living by writing. On the one hand, that is up there with "And I want a pony and the power of teleportation." On the other, as J pointed out recently, I do make my living by writing, for extremely broad values of "make," "living," and "writing." BUT NOT THE RIGHT WAY as a drunken me once said. (Hey, L: Have I mentioned recently that I'm really sorry about that?) Whatever (not "Whatever" to L, I really AM sorry about that!). The truth is, I'm not proud enough of myself or my writing to be overly particular about what it means to "be a writer," but I've had some interesting brushes with surrendering my amateur status lately (interesting to me, not really to anyone else, and in any case, I can't bear to talk about some unresolved aspects of it at the moment).

At the moment, I'm having a struggle with voice and Voice in an increasingly bizarre context. I am being paid to do some technical writing, not really what I picture William Goldman picturing when he first read "Richard Cory" and set off on the road to Writerdom. But, like I said, it's bizarre. It's been bizarre from minute one (and minute one happened long before I was involved), and it just keeps on trucking down the bizarre highway.

There are a lot of things that need doing in the production of this piece of work, but the most challenging is getting an idea out of someone else's head and on to paper. That "someone else" happens to be Black, which I suppose could be an obstacle in the path, given my Whiteness. That "someone else" happens to be a man, and again, maybe my innie genitalia complicates or outright disqualifies me from doing the job. But the real problem, in the beginning, is this "someone else" is brilliant. I mean crazy, terrifying, inconceivably brilliant.

I am not stupid, but I have a lazy, plodding little mind. I've never been more aware of that than I have been on this project. I met with this guy several times over the last year and a half, and J and I have met several more times than that to work things related to the project. I've read his notes (in so far as my pointedly not brilliant mind can read anything he's written). I've read patent applications. And every time, I've been left struggling, gasping, panting, daunted, exhausted. But also invigorated, challenged, determined, and interested.

Do I have an obligation to the truth? If so, I've fallen down on the job, because I've been writing about this "someone else" in the present tense. He died last week after almost 5 months of struggling to speak after a car accident took no one knows how much of his brain from him. It certainly stopped up irrevocably the conduit carried his incredible mind out to the rest of us. J and I, in the midst of our sadness (because, make no mistake, we both liked tremendously, even when he was driving us completely mad with his crazy, string-theory nonlinearity and quantum communication style), have long been aware how screwed we are in being left with the task of bringing this into the world. But it's worse now.

But leaving that tragedy-wrapped-in-a-technicality aside and heading for Big W Writing (but for the record, most of the time I think that making some kind of absolute distinction between writers and Writers is as bogus as the one between Fine and Folk art), it all comes back to the issue of voice and identity. Say I did convince someone to pay me to be a Writer: What would I write about? Obviously I do a lot of reviewing, but I hope that it comes across clearly that I do that because I am interested in how people create their art, whatever medium it's in. Maybe it doesn't, and I fall into the dread dual trench filled with those who cannot do. I'm down with that.

But in Big W terms, I'm very much aware that Oprah is never going to ask me to draw my breath in pain to tell my story. I'm down with that, too. I am aware of the extent to which my story is the watery, boiled down, generalized, abstracted story of any given American. It's a dominant, hegemonic story and one that many rightly and justly point to and say, "That is not my story and it sucks more every time that it's told as a universal truth." But what are you going to do? 'Tis mine own, and in case I wasn't clear, these crazy, lying, appropriating fake memoirs leave me sputtering.

But whatever better part of my nature might advise me to keep quiet, whatever shoulder angel might gently hint that it's time for People Like Me to shut up for a while, I still would like to write and to make my living by writing. Once again with the offshoring of the subconscious, I've just realized that I resorted to good old Henry Adams in pursuing that goal, I wrote a cover letter that at least got me an interview (and we'll see if it goes anywhere [oh please, oh cat fud]) drawing on this from dear Hank (and a hat tip to Manybooks.net, which saved me the trouble of hunting through my well-worn copy for the context):
"[E]ducation should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the energy, and should train minds to react, not at haphazard, but by choice, on the lines of force that attract their world."


Also of note to me, if to no one else, in the songwriting class I struggled and I struggled and I struggled some more. (Still struggling. I'm right now trying to decide whether to take the first class over again or move on to the second level.) One of things filed under "Tentacles, wrestled," was snark. You may have noticed that it's my default. Yeah, I've noticed that, too. I've also noticed that the handful of things that I've written that (a) have raised any appreciable reaction (we disqualify, for obvious reasons, the story about the toddler grabbing my boob in a coffee shop) or (b) that I have been able to reread even once without wanting to throw myself under the nearest heavy vehicle are low on the snark.

One of our assignments was to write a "list" song (there are millions upon bajillions of examples, but the two examples that Steve gave me were "Can't Take That Away From Me," and "California Girls"). And I had a brilliant plan! I would devour my own navel and write a song called, "It Comes Out Funny," in which I could lay out my feeble, faltering steps towards conveying the real emotion underlying things that I feel deeply about, but then I could scurry back for cover, because it always comes out funny! GENIUS! You may have guessed that this never got written.

Instead, I got hung up on a handful of very, VERY strong images from my childhood home. Actually, it was a lot more than a handful of images, but one of the really fascinating things about songwriting, and poetry, too—please don't disown me for admitting that I've been dabbling in that dark art: instead, blame Stephen Fry—is the ruthlessness it forces on you. You might be in love with every image that pops and flashes and burns itself on to your authorial retina, but some of them have got to go. Last-minute slackerness also focuses the mind wonderfully, and I wound up choosing just three things. (And, sheepishly, I realized that these were the very images that made it into one of those very few things that I've written that I will grudgingly say isn't entirely terrible.)

The specter of snark still threatened, though. One of the things I need and want to work on in the songwriting class, whichever I end up taking this time around, is thinking of music and lyrics as a more intimately related whole. In the first go-around I tended to lean heavily on writing the lyrics, then scramble at the last minute to do something musical with them. In this case, I had a vague, bouncy, sarcastic melody in the back of my mind. I came up with a chord progression, tried playing an out-of-the-box 4/4 rhythm under the vague melody, and it wouldn't come.

Desperate to get at least something out of the time spent with guitar in hand, I finger picked through the chord progression, and suddenly there it was: a sad, sincere little song. Not earth shattering, certainly not a great song, probably not even a good one, but a song, and not a terrible one, either. And it's made up of nothing more exciting, tragic, or triumphant that me and my childhood.

One of my very favorite fictional Hoydens (created by one of my very favorite real-life Hoydens) has a way of delivering the most trite advice ever given to a writer (or a Writer): Write what you know.
"What do you think is my latest activity, Daddy? You will begin
to believe that I am incorrigible--I am writing a book. I started it
three weeks ago and am eating it up in chunks. I've caught the secret.
Master Jervie and that editor man were right; you are most convincing
when you write about the things you know. And this time it is about
something that I do know--exhaustively. Guess where it's laid?
In the John Grier Home! And it's good, Daddy, I actually believe
it is--just about the tiny little things that happened every day.
I'm a realist now. I've abandoned romanticism; I shall go back to it
later though, when my own adventurous future begins."—Daddy Long-Legs, by Jean Webster (available via Project Gutenberg)

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