Was talking the other day with a friend, high on his mountaintop, about how humor works, particularly about how a joke or witticism that some of us find hilarious can be just the opposite to others: so, about how variable and tendentious humor can be.
Take the obvious examples of jokes about sex or religion. What a man, let’s say l’homme moyen sensuel, finds funny can infuriate other men, less sensual perhaps or more moral, or women, whether consciously feminist or not.
Of course, we don’t have to be talking jokes here, just stories or discourses of any kind, written or spoken, that concern sex.
Or, as I say, religion.
I had the poor bad taste the other day to respond in kind to an inflammatory remark, with religious implications, on Facebook. It was a post about abortion, from a right-wing Catholic woman, and one of her friends said abortionists are “murderers.” To which I responded, “Honestly, can we stop blubbering over the babies and take care of those who are born?”
Now, if the author of the murder charge, or the respondent, had tried a bit harder to fudge or disguise or polish his remark that might have led to a more apparently reasonable exchange, for whatever it would be worth.
Whether they concern religion or sex, controversial discourses can be made less offensive in a variety of ways. I think of the essay by E.H. Gombrich, the art historian, who took a piece of pornography or a cheesecake photo of a naked woman and then interposed a series of filters or lenses over the image. How many filters does it take any one viewer — concealments, that is, or transfigurations — before the naked becomes the nude, the nude becomes socially and personally acceptable, even becomes art?
You could try this sort of experiment with jokes too. Take a thoroughly raunchy joke and then gradually interpose filters to see at what point individual and then general audiences find it acceptable.
I think in this regard of the film The Aristocrats, which is a collection of stand-up comedians telling variations on a very raunchy joke just after 9/11, a joke so offensive most people would run like the devil from it. (A family performs before a vaudeville agent: the father fucks the daughter, the mother the son, and all sorts of variations and perversions are tried out.) So precisely at the time when the nation was in mourning, after the terrorist attacks, and tendentious humor was verboten, voila! that’s EXACTLY the time to test the limits.)
“What do you call this act?” the agent asks when the family is done performing and is wiping itself off. “The Aristocrats,” the dad responds.
Just this morning, the phrase “writer’s blog” entered my mind, which, naturally, in my mind anyway, evoked the more common phrase “writer’s block.” The latter is a concern to just about every writer I know, denoting those times when nothing comes to the head or nothing gets down on paper anyway. Countless articles and books have been devoted to this phenomenon, but it’s not my concern here.
Probably because, at this age or stage of my life, said block is not a problem for me. Rather just the opposite, as those who know me, the way my wife knows me, for example, must surmise. Writer’s blog — sometimes blah or meh as it is — is, rather, a condition of full-bore verbal excess, or logorrhea, where the words rush out pell-mell, impelled by word associations or sound klangs, as we have here (block →blog → bug: whatever spills out of the cornucopia of sound, you use it). I drive my wife crazy, true, by singing constantly, snatches of this, that, or the other song from years ago, usually pop songs or classical Lieder, it doesn’t matter, and this material, like the material in the mind of a psychoanalyst’s patient, or analysand, must be worked through.
What I’m getting at is that the apparently formless or meaningless sounds of our language, its klangs or music, can form a large if usually unexamined part of what impels the writer to write. These are unconscious or half-conscious motive forces, it can be, but where can they lead us?
Before he or she can make much sense of these sounds, I suggest, he’d better be prepared to make nonsense — no sense for the time being — or risk making no sense ever. Isn’t the best way to loosen up for your on-stage performance, the finished product, just to get way down and loosey-goosey to begin with? If we’re talking student essays, more than a few of which I’ve shepherded through to completion, we may be talking what writing teachers like to call “pre-writing” or “brainstorming.” Before the brain can be productive, it has to be awake, even if it’s awake in a muggy way. So the writer starts humming, or singing, or committing nonsense to paper. He babbles like a child, the child he is. And refuses to censor himself before he’s gotten going.
At a recent session of a writer’s group with which I’m associated, one of the other writers brought in a tremendously detailed outline of the novel she plans to write. All this work followed the prescripts of one or another of the literary gurus out there in the self-help writer’s market. (Gurus who may or may not ever have produced a work of creative genius.) Page after page of outline and character background and analysis were poured forth. It was exhausting just listening, or looking, at this pre-production. “Now all you have to do,” I remarked, “is write the book.”
Poets, of course, aren’t held to the same high, and foolish, regard for what passes all too easily for truth as fiction writers and factual writers. There could be far worse ways to get going than babbling. Or blogging.
Blog → block → blah. And, as Webster’s gives by way of “blah” synonyms: “bunkum, humbug, hooey, eyewash, twaddle, bosh.” Be willing to risk ’em, boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen, all the rich and various ways to make no sense before you make perhaps too much. As my fourth grade nun, old Sister Peter, would say, back in the day, “Bunk! Rubbish! Fiddlesticks! Nonsense!”
I belong to two or three writers’ groups, and one of the mysteries of creative writing is how the writing arises in the first place. What is the impetus for what you write, whatever it is you write?
Some people like to pose writing “challenges” to respond to, bait to get the juices going, but I myself for whatever reasons find that annoying. These challenges force us to respond to something we may have no interest in, whether a certain topic or a form. (Sonnet? Villanelle? Are you kidding? This is not the sixteenth century! Doing good to others? How annoying! I’d just as soon run the opposite way, as Thoreau says, if I see you coming at me with your charity, or therapy, or do-goodism.)
How about you? Where do you begin if not from a sense of what is necessary? There is something within you that must come out. A response to something you’ve seen or witnessed in the world at large. In your family, it could be. Or your circle of friends.
Here’s a quick list of the origins of some recent efforts of mine, both poetry and prose:
“Show Me That Thing: A Love Poem.” Well, this unusual rhymed piece must’ve started out as a naughty response to the excessive politically correctness it’s easy to see in the arts. Not great artists, for sure, but the middling bulk of artists lean on the correct, the tried and true, so they can steer their wagging tongue the right way and make sure it’s not banded or branded by the morality police.
“Material Girl.” A poem written as a debate with a friend who tends to believe in the not-here and not-now, though she’s firmly anchored in the here and now of exercise and artistic craft. A response to something specific she said, in an email exchange, I believe, about what might come after this life is done.
“What We’re Looking For: Or the Editors Seek.” A found poem, in editors’ own words, about what they seek. The desiderata found in little literary magazines tend to be cant, that is, pious platitudes. Or we can’t be sure what the hell they mean they’re so silly or obscure. No need to comment on this stuff, really, aspiring writer. Just read it and weep.
“Rivers of Blood.” This began as a novel, a form I’ve tried several times with no success, but morphed before long into a screenplay. It began, and continued, as a response to the godawful spate of gun violence in this country. Its setting is academe, where I once worked, and its protagonist the one-time girlfriend of a guy who goes berserk and guns down his professor and classmates.
“Unko.” A long short story, in a metafictional vein, prompted by the death of my older brother a couple of years ago. As older siblings tend to be, Gerry was what I call here “a guiding and misguiding light.” Unko is the Japanese word for poop, as the story is ostensibly about installing a toilet, something Gerry would have been very comfortable with, besides his life as a wonderful artist and illustrator. (I couldn’t call the story “Toto” for pretty obvious reasons, but I do use some of Gerry’s erotic and humorous illustrations.) Since the brother is not available, the author implores the reader to help out with the task, which is not only installing a toilet, you see, but accomplishing the business of mourning.
Of course, once we have an idea, a “germ” of a poem or story, as Henry James would call it, we still have to run with it, don’t we, and develop the idea? That part is not easy, but if we believe enough in our idea, and are excited enough about it, we will persist in the development. This persistence might be fortified by encouragement and corrections we get from other writers, as in writers’ groups, but wherever it comes from it’s a completely necessary component of the writer’s life. (This topic to be continued, of course.)
Back at the blog again, today, after a hiatus of just over a year, my my my.
It’s not that I’ve been writing nothing in the interval. I’ve been pretty busy in fact, writing poems, stories, and a screenplay.
But how much energy has gone into Facebook? Your honor, I must plead guilty.
It’s an addictive pleasure — the immediate gratification one gets from almost instant responses via likes and laughs and comments.
But steadier, deeper, truer writing may not elicit comment, or laughs, or likes any time soon. It may exist, ironically enough, for the ages rather than the moment. I don’t mean that what I write will be or should be read 100 years from now or even 10 days. But that it’s more important than the passing fancy of Facebook and the museum that one keeps there, according to analyses I’ve heard, to one’s ideal self. (One chooses what to record and how to record it, what to include and what to leave out in the interest of burnishing an image.)
Sure, I can (and well might) go back to Facebook and extract what I’ve written there the last year. It might be a record of witticisms and enthusiasms. (A friend has encouraged me to collect and publish my posts.) It might be of some interest and value. But pursuing larger themes, in more ambitious forms, is something else altogether.
Learning to forego the instant appreciation is necessary for the serious writer. Who do you write for? I sometimes hear. And I can’t readily say. I don’t write, first and finally, for yucks and back or head pats. I write simply to get off my chest something that needs to be said. Or, more accurately, find a way to be said. Not everything one writes will find an instant or appreciative audience. So what. If the writing is of value, it will acquire an audience at some time or other.
The writer trusts this is so. And meanwhile works on in the silence and the dark.
Joined a writers’ group of a dozen odd people about four months ago and have read every week from a novel I’m attempting or a book of short stories I’m finalizing for publication.
It’s a good group, attentive and encouraging, whatever the merits of the particular writer or her particular story. (I’m the only guy in the group, which I sometimes call, tongue in cheek, 12 Old Ladies and 1 Old Man.) There don’t appear to be overt hostilities or agendas. They will see and say what they think about your piece.
But I read a story yesterday, written some years ago, called “The Bathers.” It’s one of a series of stories that involves male voyeurism, if you want to use that word, or, less tendentiously, a man seeing a woman naked. This man may have an artistic interest or vocation, or at least admire painters whose subject matter includes female nudes, for example, Manet, Renoir, Titian.
The protagonist in the story compares himself implicitly to Actaeon, who spied upon the hunter goddess Diana naked at her bath and was ripped apart by her hounds. After I read the story and the women reacted, I joked about the (poor) male writer being ripped apart by feminist readers, and these feminist readers chuckled.
The comments about the story were helpful, most of them. They concerned formal matters I might not have handled convincingly. In the draft I read, why does the protagonist attribute an interest in art to the wife, not himself? (The wife works for an insurance company.) Why is the goddess Diana mentioned early in the story when the reader doesn’t yet know that the protagonist has looked on his friend’s wife naked?
These and other questions of form are fine. They are occasions for learning about your art
— what you have and haven’t done to put together your discrete ideas into a seamless whole.
But questions about life values and morality tend not to be helpful, I think. One of the readers said the male is “objectifying” the female here — the friend’s naked wife is presented as a cut of meat, in effect, the usual banal feminist objection.
First, the comment is not accurate. The female character is seen naked — a plump and muscular woman — but she’s seen also as a friend and as a professional, a zoo vet who knows how to keep animals healthy and repair them when they aren’t, and that may include the male animal.
Second, and more important, objectification is a fact of daily life. We all see each other first, and maybe even last, as objects. We are subjects, and we look out on a world of objects, and that world is defined by what we see: fat or thin, tall or short, fair or dark, hesitant or bold, blonde or brunette, quick-witted or stolid — kind of like the series of choices we’re presented at the eye doctor’s during the exam, “This one? Or this one?” Not simple polarities, finally, but narrowing and defining choices that correct our vision and comprehension too about the objects we’re considering. We also make our worlds via what we hear and through the other senses, all the senses, before we can begin to make a whole of the parts, or an abstract or moral world out of all the puzzle pieces.
To call a character or author “objectifying” is a remark out of a moralistic system. And whether the system is feminist or Marxist or Christian or whatever, a system manufactures labels which are applied then, lazily, to the objets d’arts at hand — you know, those art objects that are objectified by criticism.
A system, in the hands and mouths of most adaptors, becomes rigid and derivative. It uses and reinforces cliches. If I’m a feminist, I don’t need to know more than the few standard phrases produced by feminist criticism. If I’m a Marxist, I will trot out “The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.),” to use the now rather dated examples supplied by Orwell in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language.”
But it’s Orwell who hits his bloody head against the nail of the trite and predictable. It’s politics in his view, and other forms of ideology, that corrupts language, that makes thinking in any new, fresh, significant way impossible. We belong to a political party and speak its language, its code, its cliches, its drivel. And if we do, we are in the service of that political party, in fact, not art or truth.
There’s another, prior problem too. How can any criticism of a creative piece be other than derivative? Doesn’t criticism, vis-a-vis creativity, tend by its nature to be incommensurable? It speaks another language and, in fact, another system. It appraises, evaluates, judges. But can it be creative in itself? (This is a big question, and I’ll come back to it.)
“The Bathers,” at any rate, belongs to a collection of my short stories called “Not Calling Margaret and Other Tales without Redeeming Social Value.” Redeeming social values are matters for churches and political parties to promulgate, not art. Not my art, anyway. If I want morals or politics, I’ll go to church or a party meeting. If I want art, I’ll make it — by the sweat of my brow, the blood in my veins, the pride even hubris that I take in my originality.
With this blog entry, I do a turn — not 180º but perhaps 120º, devoting this blog, and this website in its entirety, to the writing life — the life of a writer, that is, and everything he or she might be interested in, including readers.
Young Zeck or, more fully, Young Zeck Image Communications, was the name of the little corporate communications consultancy I operated for about 25 years. It was, every now and then, successful in producing corporate jobs like company brochures, annual reports, and websites — and the income that goes along with such jobs.
The consultancy was not as successful as it might have been because I never fully devoted myself to the corporate life or corporate lie, if that’s not too extreme. Let’s put it this way, rather: the institution (corporate, governmental, academic) has a belief system that prefers money or a consistent code of values above all else. As someone trained in the humanities, and from the earliest age, how could I give myself to this kind of groupthink? The focus on money, and system, mean truth was an easy prey and beauty not far behind.
Yes, companies will hire you to produce plausible representations of their business and business methods, and you can write and design attractive products that both you and the client can be proud of. But when I did so, I would always think, what now? What new job must I be hunting for? What new values in life?
Since the mid-1980s at least, I’ve been writing stories and poems, and they’ve been accumulating in my drawers (computer drawers or folders). I’ve published a few, but not many. There’s very little money in publishing in little literary magazines, and, yes, money is a consideration if not the main consideration. There’s very little ego confirmation when the stuff you’ve sweated over so hard is rejected by these magazines.
Most literary writers, I think, publish for exposure. They want their names out, their creativity on display. They want to be read and, yes, admired. They don’t quit their day jobs, most of them, and they shouldn’t. But always in the back of the mind the idea lurks that they could make it someday as a writer.
Make it, as in making a living. Make it, as in getting a life. Make it, as in doing just what they’ve always dreamed of doing but were afraid to ask or try.
I retired from college teaching and corporate communications about six years ago when my wife Jennifer and I moved from Minnesota to Northwest Arkansas. Since then, I’ve tutored kids and done a little webmastering, but have continued to write stories and poems … and now and again the beginnings of a novel.
About four months ago I joined a weekly writers’ group, the Dickson Street Writers. We meet every Monday afternoon at Nightbird Books, an indie book shop in Fayetteville that accommodates us and other groups. Our facilitator, Linda, is writing a group biography about Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, and that gang. Most of us are writing fiction, a few poetry.
We bring a printed copy of what we’re working on to the store and shop it around among ourselves. We read our own piece, that is, and the others mark and muse the typescript, then comment on it orally. More than the specific comments and directives, which are often helpful, it’s the mere example of others who are doing the same kind of thing and honoring the same direction, that is invaluable.
Yes, I’ve been in other writers’ group before, but somehow they didn’t last long. They were beset by divisions, competitions, lack of interest, ennui, lack of comprehension (I have no idea what you’re trying to say, or why you’re trying to say it). The Dickson Street Writers are older, for one thing, and more mature. (No spring chickens peck this barnyard.) They’re more tolerant of differences — one of which is that I am the only male member! (Sometimes in jest I call the group 12 Old Ladies and 1 Old Man.) Linda has remarked, on more than one occasion, that I’m brave to read what I do — a man’s fiction, perhaps, among so many women. Or fractious fiction, could be, among more conventional MOs. (I’ll take up this topic of courage in writing in more detail later.)
So here, at last, to the writer’s life. Raise your glasses high. To something of a meaning and purpose for your later years, if that’s what they’ve come down to.
In the wake of the election of President Trump, we have to acknowledge that there was great anger on the part of the electorate and great yearning too.
I think of the Emma Lazarus lines inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, think ironically of these lines, for today’s wretched, huddled masses, it seems to me, who may be counted by virtue of my education among the moralists and elitists, are the rednecks and other uneducated white working class (WWC) folks who elected Trump.
Our yearnings are theirs too. Who among us doesn’t want freedom, however we define it? Freedom from fear and want? Freedom from oppression by the government or other institutional forces who may despise and/or underestimate us?
The WWC have long disdained the long arm of the law and government that tells them what to think and how to express themselves. They can’t express their doubt or anger in their limited vocabulary (and whose vocabulary is not limited?), so they vote for the anti-PC candidate.
As Andrew Marantz writes in the New Yorker, Mike Cernovich, whom I profiled last month, became a prominent vessel of pro-Trump populism by saying unconscionable things on Twitter. “This election was a contest between P.C. culture and free-speech culture,” he told me the day after Trump’s victory. “Most people know what it’s like for some smug, élite asshole to tell them, ‘You can’t say that, it’s racist, it’s bad.’ Well, a vote for Trump meant, ‘Fuck you, you don’t get to tell me what to say.’ ”
In this yearning for freedom to say what one thinks, whatever one thinks, however “unconscionable,” whatever anyone else thinks of what one thinks, the wretched masses are like artists.
For if the essence of art is the yearning for freedom, so too the votes of the WWC. Now, the WWC may not have the skills or materials to be actual or actualized artists, but they do have human voices and human dignity and are worth listening to. Worth closing our yaps for, just a minute, and listening to. Not to worry, we’ll have our chance to talk again. And we’ll have our chance, again, at the ballot box. Our chance to vote and perhaps to vote for a candidate who’s more to the liking of a greater number of the people as a whole.
Meanwhile, it may be time to learn a little humility and bear up under the weight of what we might think of as our own oppression. For there is art in suffering, too, and learning. We don’t want to end up, after all, like Robert Frost’s runaway boy, in the first poem of his Boy’s Will (1913), who concludes, in perverse, puerile triumph,
They would not find me changed from him they knew —
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
Sleep — our need for it, our longing for it, our discontent.
When we’re young, we need sleep in order to recover from the school day and all its stresses. When we grow into adulthood, it’s the job and family that impose stress. When we’re old, as I am now, alas and alack, and retired, hooray, it would seem you can sleep as long as you like.
But that’s not my case. I’ve always been a nervous, and perhaps reluctant, sleeper. There’s so much going on — especially in the head. How can we just hit the pillow and close our eyes to it? Life whirls on, in the brain, pokes and prods us, stimulates, suggests something we might have done in the past but didn’t, something we might do in the future.
Of course, this kind of restlessness is pretty fruitless. We can’t change the past by tossing and turning, digging it up like a moldy old potato. We can’t control the future by dreaming of it as a glorious and confirming thing.
I envy those who hit the pillow and it’s lights out. Those who sleep easily, soundly, “the sleep of the just.” Maybe this old phrase, or moldy potato, suggests I am not just, or fair, or moral? Something is troubling me? Some vague sin? Some forgetfulness? Some thoughtlessness?
Or that I must keep watch, as my name Gregory suggests? (The Online Etymology dictionary glosses the name so: “from LateLatinGregorius, fromGreekgregorios, aderivativeofgregoros ‘tobewatchful,’fromPIEroot*ger- ‘tobeawake’ [cf.Sanskritjagarti ‘heis awake,’Avestanagarayeiti ‘wakesup,rouses’]. ) Whether neurotically or morally or whatever, I must keep awake in the watches of the night!
Still, I could turn myself in as a sleep study subject. They’d put wires on my head and have me sleep in a dark room. I’d toss and turn, yank out the wires, scream. Help! help! Are you kidding me? killing me? It’s not worth the measly $75 you’re awarding! Take me back home, where I love to toss and turn in my own bed, keeping my wife awake half the night!
Of course, as the Shakespeare says, “our little life is rounded by a sleep,” or as Emily Dickinson puts it, about the longer sleep we fret and worry to the bone:
A long, long sleep, a famous sleep That makes no show for dawn By stretch of limb or stir of lid, — An independent one.
Was ever idleness like this? Within a hut of stone To bask the centuries away Nor once look up for noon?
Have a right-wing friend, let’s say acquaintance, at the gym I attend. We get along fine, laughing and japing, until we get into politics.
I’ve made clear to Tommy, let’s call him, that I abhor the NRA and its bloody gun-promotion at any cost policies, but he counters that statistics prove having a gun at home protects people from intruders. (What did Mark Twain say about “lies, damned lies, and statistics”?)
I suggest that paranoia has intruded into his brain, that his fears are “projections,” much like bullets projected from a gun, which he attributes to others but which come from within. His own fears, that is, represent his fears of the unknown alien or other. (Yes, he makes many racist remarks about Latinos and blacks.)
The other day, we got into it in the locker room, both Tommy and I and a big dumb pal of his, about 6’4″, 300 lbs., a former Razorback basketball player who, at the age of 50, works as a clerk at a liquor store and for pleasure keeps a deer stand on which many guns are mounted. I suggested to Mr Razorback that I would give him a fine book of poetry which he could read in his stand, and he’d forget all about his guns. You will merge and commune with nature, I suggested, and your violent impulses will disappear.
But Tommy, entering the room, heard me inveigh against gun violence and the NRA, and shouted, “I’m an NRA member!”
Bad cess for you, Tommy.
Somehow, the argument escalated, and Tom spit out, When the food shelves run out at Walmart, you damned liberals will have nothing to eat.
Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo! I intoned, for one and all to hear in the sweaty locker room.
You just wait! Tom roared. You’ll starve to death!
Apparently, it’s the “elite” who foist such cultural products as clear, logical, intelligent writing on the masses. Therefor, of course, Tom and Razorbelly will not read such stuff, especially if it comes from political pundits of the center and left. How dare others have gifts and insights that we lack? they seem to suggest. Simply because these elitists have a gift, have studied many years, learned a discipline, including logic. The smug superior bastards!