Tag Archives: critique

A Highschool Story: Ms. Young

I don’t often couch stories with extraneous information, but here it seems relevant. If you’re not interested, please continue on to the story, which I feel is just as good without.

My friends know (my family may not) that I loathed Plano with every inch of my being while I was there. It started with the classroom and moved further out to the manicured lawns and streets. My entire sentient life there I spent attempting to leave in one form or another. Not the least reason for my frustration was my consistent poor performance in school.

That’s not to say that I tried really hard and failed. I hardly tried and rarely failed, but I was always looking for something that just didn’t seem to be there. Who knows at this point what it might have been, but as my life has progressed, I think the desire has morphed into a search for a mentor, for somebody to believe in me or perhaps just see me for my potential. Teachers, for all their intentions, seem to me incapable of fulfilling this role. I discuss this more in an article on Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti’s Tant Mieux, but suffice to say that teachers have to concern themselves more with your test scores than your potential out of mere practicality.

Some have argued with me, saying that my English teachers’ collective challenge to my ability could have been applied reverse psychology, hoping to make me shape up by telling me that half-assing it wouldn’t cut it. Perhaps if the fact of my performance in the classroom had been limited to one or two teachers, or even to five, I might agree that it’s possible. However, I nearly failed every English course I ever took in high school, I actually failed the only English course I took in college, and the closest course to an English course in my post-grad work is the closest one in which I came close to receiving less than an A.

Another theory, posed by no one who knows me but one I have to pose just to prove the example, is that I can’t think critically. Since I don’t cover all of the angles to any given topic, I deserve my low grade because it’s symptomatic of half-assed work. Well, my work history in addition to standardized test scores disagree with this theory, and hopefully there’s ample proof on this blog alone that such is not the case.

I posit, therefore, that English teachers simply didn’t understand. They didn’t see the promise in my essays not because it didn’t exist but because their academic dogmatism kept them tied to more traditional approaches (those things very near plagiarism that was call “essays,” as much a violation of intellectual property–even if the owner is long dead–as any basic example of unsolicited remix). Call me arrogant if you want, sure, and empty of promise, but in my opinion, English rooms are sterile and stifling environments that squelch creativity and independent thought. I have no love for them at all and, as soon as I had the choice in my academic career, avoided them to what I consider my benefit.

Of course, what’s happened here is that I’ve moved from loathing Plano and it’s English departments to loathing English teachers in general. Baylor had nothing to do with the PISD, and Emerson College in Boston, MA certainly bears no connection. So what do I do with this leftover rage towards Plano, most of which was tied up in my inability to make my peers there understand either my frustration with them or merely my simplest thoughts, a basic communication dilemma that continues to exist to this day? Well–and fuck you, Mani–I still hate Plano, even if I can forgive it this slight little bit.

**

Though in the English hall and an English classroom or Jasper High School, I chose Creative Writing because Ms. Young sold me its distinct image. Her classroom buzzed with energy because of her youth and zeal; unmarried and unburdened by the relentless years of classroom experience that weather away the beautiful composite face comprised of the students who supply her reason for having chosen education as a career, she’s decided to teach a course no other teacher felt willing to shoulder but which helped Plano appear more well-rounded. I’ve never found diversity (especially of thought) in an English classroom, but I decided to give her new course a shot.

Fifteen minutes before the bell rings, Ms. Young asks everyone to stop writing and requests that someone read the work they had accomplished that day. I look around at all the other students, a few of whom keep their eyes down while others look around like I do; white faces all around. No one looks at Ms. Young while she scans the room, afraid to volunteer by eye contact. She really is quite pretty with her long, thick brown hair and her pale but hopeful eyes. Her mouth hangs slightly open as her head turns from side to side, and her body, red sweater, and brown skirt are motionless. When I look away from her, my eyes land on the inspirational poster on the door about walking in footprints on the beach; I roll my eyes, keep my head down.

Marissa leans over and puts her hand on my shoulder so she can whisper, “You shouldn’t be afraid.”

I don’t turn my head to look at her, but I smirk. “Neither should you.”

“I’m not. I didn’t write anything.” I can imagine her crafty smile, resting lightly upon her pretty but slightly scarred face. She’s allergic to her own sweat, which causes her face to constantly break out. I look over my shoulder to make sure it’s there, pleading with me like I expect.

We chuckle quietly together, and I resign to volunteer. I can’t quite claim an alpha personality, and my decision doesn’t really stem from a desire to save Marissa from potential embarrassment. I feel compelled to end inefficiency in how my class spends its time when the silence drags on vulgarly.

Ms. Young smiles at me while I tremble in front of the class, my nerves suffering under a weird mix of terror and excitement. There’s only twelve students scattered amongst the tables in the classroom. I know everyone in here by name. I shouldn’t feel scared of them.

A wizard stands on a cliff ledge overlooking a village that trusted him for protection. (Already the shaking has subsided.) The flames from the village are strong enough to light his face, scarred more than wrinkled, experienced more than wise. (I forget the classroom; only the page and my scrawl exist.) He has failed them; he wants to shoulder their burden, the weight of his failure measured out by the ashes of burnt homes and the bodies of murdered victims, but finds himself unable. (I am the wizard; no, I am his sorrow and his guilt. No, I am the world he wants to bear. No.) His arms reach towards the stars as he screams out a long, undulating cry to the heavens: “I’m sorry!” (I’d never make it as an actor; I’m suddenly conscious of the other students again.) He leans forwards, finds himself capable after all.

I beam with pride. Students applaud lightly and nervously, not really sure about what they’ve just heard. Marissa smiles, the vain Catholic. The bell rings, and she and the other students bolt. I return to my seat and shove the paper in haphazardly.

“I don’t get it,” says Ms. Young.

I answer her quietly: “I know.” I’m not sure she hears me.

I leave the classroom without discussing the story with her. It wasn’t complicated, or maybe it was, but at any rate my mind had rushed to other subjects than my creation. Ms. Young had implied a request for me to breakdown the story; she had asked for me to treat it like literature and explain it to her. She claimed that she didn’t understand, but could she really not have? I wonder briefly, Can my incomprehensibility cover my life to such an extent as to umbrella every instance of  communication, both the fantastic and the academic?

I leave the carpeted English corridor and emerge over the polished tile of the hallway. In front of me, a metal banister splits the stairway in half. I approach it and rest my right hand on it, looking at the reflection of a florescent light obscured by my head and shoulders, the floor too opaque to show my reflection in detail. The bell rings for class to begin, but I’m lost in thought and not the type of student who frets over punctuality anyway.

English teachers pose literature as my nemesis with their superficial questions and their polite challenges and impolite grading, but I know truth doesn’t reside in rebellion. I don’t want to feel the weight of the world of ideas in my mind or to criticize anyone’s arrangement of words in an educated manner, but not because I don’t enjoy reading or thinking. Actively engaging a story takes away the passive pleasure of reading it, and I’m content with the passive pleasure, aren’t I, the satisfaction of writing, of reading, of thinking abstractly without criticizing specifically? I would have to submit to my formally recognized enemy, my teachers, if I engaged a work actively, wouldn’t I?

I’ve been told that by imposing academic structure on my mind, I will broaden my understanding of the world and multiply the number of subjects I can ponder. But the fact of the matter is—as I prove when I sit in the reigning creative silence of Ms. Young’s room—that I can hardly get my mind to shut up. The last thing I need from it is coherent categorical thoughts.

I utter words and phrases that apparently only I can understand. I formulate ideas that only I can stomach, only my tongue decipher. I’m not convinced that educating myself in the manner my teachers have suggested will help them understand me. Not only do I doubt their conjectures, I feel almost certain they are wrong.

n20531316728_2397Share on Facebook
twitterShare on Twitter
del_icio_usSave to del.icio.us
digg
Digg it
redditSave to Reddit
aolfavEven more ways to bookmark

Author: Greg Freed

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Creative nonfiction, Criticism, Fiction, Humanistic, Writing

Giving Value: A practice in blogging

It’s about time I put an actual blog post on this blog. Mostly people have contacted me saying I should call it an ezine since blog seems ill-used here. I don’t often post my opinions, and I don’t cover popular topics. Is this, really, a blog?

IT IS NOW !! MUAHAHAHAHA.

**

The echo chamber

A general word of advice in blogging is to give value to your readers, to provide some service that they find worthwhile. This theory is so well accepted that I hear it at least five times a day through various social networking sites and how-to-blog services.

The very existence of such an echo chamber should serve to make the irony of a statement about providing value so stark that serious readers couldn’t ignore it. However, the statement merely provides the words which the reader should repeat as the writer so that his reader can repeat them, (seemingly) ad infinitum.

However, it is also said that, while web viewers claim to view the internet for entertainment and education, they in fact expect to learn nothing and, while browsing hundreds of pages, somehow manage to learn nothing. Also, the subjects of their entertainment are so abused as to weather away fascination, and yet they, the readers, keep plugging away at article after article waiting for some new tidbit to come up that they can gleam or meme, twist or copy as long as they can link. Millions of readers of this type exist, just as do millions (probably only thousands, but what the hell) of blogs.

To change tactic a little bit

Gold. The word looks closely related to God. For all intents and purposes, it doubles, either critically or actually, for a god. It replaced the materials in the scales of justice. It has moved countries and reshaped societies. It has single-handedly killed more men than any other artificial force on this planet, fueling wars (even [or especially] the religious ones), driving slaves, falsely empowering some men over others. In its mythic power, gold has generated false cities and idols, and even fabricated tales of glory.

One story in particular matters to us today because it shows a symptom of blogging as a means of American entrepreneurialism, which we usually hold so high. The people of the gold rush weren’t concerned with adding to the wealth of our nation, though a drive for success fueled them as mightily as any tycoon; the rushers wanted, as many of us dream, to get rich, preferably for as little effort as possible, but who’s going to complain about a few days’ worth of digging?

Unfortunately, quite a few of them died trying (for a fun expiriment, research how many actually died), and the ones who survived their trials merely settled wherever they ended up. The greatest problem they faced, as anyone playing the game Oregon Trail soon learns, was a lack of planning. The thoughts that run through your head–generated by the basic managerial imagination we each have, honed to greater or lesser extents by experience–are not sufficient to survive the trip. Even the people that did survive found out quickly that they had no idea how to look for gold or even where to find it. But the west coast looked pretty good by the time the Rockies were behind them, I bet, and you can read a brief history of Seattle if you want to see where the survivors’ remaining entrepreneurial instinct took them.

Blogging, to writers, resembles these traits. We put our ideas onto electronic drives where they appear as pixels to whatever ghostly visitor happens to stumble across them for whatever reason. Just like the ’49ers, we bloggers barely grasp the technology, hardly fully or in a way that would benefit us most, and more importantly we understand or misinterpret the tools and benefits of social media. Yet despite the technical inability of most writers and our lack of ambition to succeed in the ethereal communities of the internet (as opposed to our ambition to succeed in the commodifiable community of publishing), we press on into this dream. Why?

Blogging: A mythopoetic

Because we hear tales, of course, great tales of success. The recent movie Julie and Julia highlights the basic success fantasy that lies under most of our attempts: write blog, gain readers, break the media ceiling, get published. In what ways is social media most useful to us? Doesn’t matter; people will find the blog somehow, and my uneducated efforts will help. How hard do I have to work at generating compelling content, and what does that even mean, anyway: compelling content? I can write, we answer; I have thoughts.

To these arguments, I answer with an Eve6 lyric: “The liar in me says something’s gonna happen soon because it must.”

Despite our overpowered fantasies, there is no moment in which, climactic, the phone will suddenly ring, filling our voicemails with phonecalls from studios seeking our hands. In the current market, where blogs are a cute fuzzy place where MFA students and other writers post their cute fuzzy brains, there’s only one instance in which that might happen, and I promise you that you don’t want to follow that path.

Ashley sent me an email copied from her friend Steuart [sic] that addresses this hope:

I think that there are some individuals that understand social networking sites and how to leverage them effectively, but most don’t. Typically, the larger the company/corporation/label/band the more they -don’t- get it.

The power in social networking sites doesn’t have anything to do with your own individual or your group’s/company’s presence on it. You don’t need a twitter account to leverage twitter to your advantage. The power of social networking sites are in the PEOPLE that comprise it. From a marketing standpoint, twitter is best viewed as the ultimate in word-of-mouth amplifiers, NOT just another place to plaster plugs for yourself.

Marketing over social networks and the internet, as things sit now, is not about yelling the most and yelling the loudest yourself; it’s getting other people to do the yelling for you. As it pertains to the music business, people will be happy to start ‘yelling for you’ IF your music is good, with very little extra effort on your part. But if that takes up 95% of your efforts…well you’re doing it backwards and doing it wrong.

The only way in which Steuart’s breakdown of social marketing rings true is through viral marketing. It works one way: you produce something so astounding that it constitutes a freakshow, it doesn’t matter whether it’s genteel or actual freakishness. Child prodigies, the “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE” guy, Shamwow… the list goes on quite a while and is mostly comprised of multimedia, not text. Companies trying to break into viral marketing attempt to break it down to a list of rules, but really it flows from this basic socio-instinct: one thousand quirks snap quite suddenly and almost inexplicably. That’s all it takes to generate a meme, as irrational as it is unpredictable.

Social networking as marketing

If you’re serious about your work and the work you make has value on its own, people are less likely (in my own, brief experience) to take the effort to spread it around. If anything, they’ll expect you to succeed on your own without their help outside of their continuing to view what you produce.

So what’s the right answer here? Buy a spambot that will get a thousand other spambots to follow you so that you have a thousand viewers, none of whom are listening to you because they’re all just bots that help you feel cozy at night? Well, no; the answer is work hard and do your research, even though I know that doesn’t sit well with some of you.

My strategy for maximizing my Twitter experience is relatively simple and, if I knew how to code, could be mostly automated.

  1. If the tweep have over two thousand followers, it’s unlikely we’ll be friends.
  2. If the tweep has a follow ratio larger than 1.5, same goes.
  3. New tweeps are found only by crawling retweets from friends and follow fridays, though some friends prove their recommendations more worthwhile than others.

I’m beginning to add people by channels, but it’s proving largely unnecessary as I’m fairly aggressive about following the tweeps my friends retweet. I use several websites to aggressively cleanse my list of followers and followees (contact me if you want a list, but I’m not certain I’ve got the best tools). If you don’t follow back after a few weeks, toodles. If you follow me and you’re a spambot, you get BLOCKED. If you follow me and I’m not sure I want to follow you back, you have three weeks to respond to any of my posts via mention or retweet or get blocked. I strictly maintain a near 1:1 ratio and keep Twitter bloating to a minimum.

Also remember that despite the upgrade in technology, this basic axiom still applies: You will be your greatest supporter. Connections through a network will amplify your advertising, but if you don’t speak out on your own behalf, how can you expect that of others? Rather, even if your fans/viewers are inclined to send out a message on your behalf, it will generally be in the form of a repost/retweet, which necessitates that you have something fresh in the stream for them to repeat when the mood strikes.

But such a force will strike rarely and in full force only on others who are paralleling your struggle. You have to work hard and work reasonably. You have to sing like an angel and then shout like a demon about it. If you’re not prepared to do this, you’re not prepared to succeed. If you’re not prepared to do this, you’re setting out on the Oregon Trail without a shovel. If you’re not prepared to do this, you’re chasing the myth rather than living the dream.

And for those of you who are prepared to tread down the well-worn path of celebrity and political gossip rather than make the psuedo-tantalous trip up the path of creativity, fair you well with your immediate success, and may you keep your viewers. May you carry your banner into the mudpits that might’ve been fields, and may bugs sting your ankles forever.

n20531316728_2397Share on Facebook
twitterShare on Twitter
del_icio_usSave to del.icio.us
digg
Digg it
redditSave to Reddit
aolfavEven more ways to bookmark

Author: Greg Freed

12 Comments

Filed under Criticism, Humanistic, Journalism, Publishing

Starbucks: The third place

Dear readers, commentators, and friends,

I cannot begin to express my surprise and gratitude at the readership surge in this blog. I passed several important new-blog milestones Friday night, a claim followed by boring stats that you can skip past if not inerested: having more than a hundred visitors in one day and breaking a thousand views to the site total. Further, breaking one hundred in a day was itself a caveat: the highest day before had only seen ninety-seven viewers, and the day afterwards [sic] had seen just over sixty. Friday, though, I have one-hundred and sixteen views, followed by a Saturday of exactly one-hundred and sixteen views. Even on Sunday, with no new post for days and very little advertising from me, I reached what only a week ago would’ve been stupendous. Thank you, seriously, for supporting the effort.

I have spent so much more time developing this site than I thought I would, and I have so many plans now for the future, long before I ever thought that I would need them. Soon, though, you’ll see the first item on my to-do list, a Featured Fan story about Kate Barkhurst, an old friend from highschool and faithful Facebook friend. Thank you, everyone, and look forward to more stories from me, more guest posts, featured fans articles, and more… you know… as I get around to doing it.

My best,
Greg

**

They don’t understand, they haven’t listened to me. They called me arrogant. They’ve had all semester to see who I am, to see how I resent that label, and yet they called me arrogant. Not only said it, but spit it in my face, an accusation that seemed to say, “You can never succeed as a writer.” They read it, and they missed the point. All of them.

No, not all. There was Jenny. Jenny understood the torment of miscommunication; of course she knew what it was like to speak and yet not be heard. So sweet and so deep, she writes about moving from China to Boston as an experience of change, a flowing river of time and philosophy that soaks and bathes her mind. But writers as audience largely gloss over grammatical mistakes (as they should), and ink-on-paper doesn’t communicate in accents.

I think, and the other students notice it, too, that her writing is permeated by beauty over frustration. She writes so well, one might assume because of passion and integrity. But I have passion and integrity, too, and where does that get me? Labeled as arrogant is all, and alone. I suppose it’s about as lonely and isolating as not speaking the language of the land you’re in, but you hope in that other circumstance there remains the mysticism of discovery, or at least the obvious route of escape. For me there’s only years of letdowns, my adolescence into my waking life, of conversational successes mired by literary failures.

The cold wind of Boston winters blows through the Public Gardens and against my wool coat. I can feel its malevolence despite scientific objectivity having drowned out the world; the wind wants to bite my skin, wants to punish me for protecting myself from its harshness. Nature wants, like all life, love, to receive love as it exists, to receive without bending. My coat speaks for me my refusal of the unspoken request. My hands hide inside my pockets’ cashmere lining, helping the buttons to hold the coat in place. I had felt so sexy the day I bought this coat, had looked at myself in mirrors to memorize the way it weight and thickness complemented my girth rather than hid it, the day I thought there might be something to expensive designer labels after all. I remember the deflation upon coming home, of Sarah meh-ing her apathetic approval.

The wind cuts through my khakis instead since they’re exposed underneath the three-quarters coat. I’ve worn my Starbucks uniform to class for the last few weeks, thin-material long-sleeved block polo with dark khaki pants. Since money from Fidelity finally ran out and Sarah started asking me to pay her back for mostly legitimate expenses—to which I did not contributing but neither, really, did she—I had to get the job, and now I’m at class and at work, never at home. Sarah misses me, comes to Starbucks sometimes to sit with me, but I’ve had years to resent her attention, loath her presence. The absence of both in preference to her laptop drove me into romantic despair. World of Warcraft didn’t help on that topic, though it did relieve some of the years’ boredom.

The reading of my colleagues has broken my heart. I take criticism well—I write and people talk about the writing, and I love them for pointing out errors and paths I haven’t noticed—but like lay readers, my fellows decided to psychoanalyze me. They had done it before, when I wrote about my relationship with Sarah, talking about how sad I must be instead of the impact of the piece on the abstract reader and how that impact could be improved. The saying goes that these days everyone’s a critic, but that’s not quite the case in my experience; everyone is a psychologist, everyone thinks that they understand you by slapping their archetypes onto you, especially the ones who tell you (not ask you) not to judge. Not “Please don’t judge me until I’ve told you the whole story, or perhaps until you’ve researched it yourself,” but, “Don’t judge me, you don’t know me!” Of course, the latter ones are right; I don’t know them and never will.

I walk under the monument to ether, the world’s first anesthetic, used first at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846. “We have conquered pain,” it reads. If only the words spoke truth. The wind blows again, cuts again at my shins savagely like a rusted and knocked razor.

I want to speak with someone about the disappointment. No one thought the writing was poor; the professor spoke its praises in that regard. The students merely wanted to ask me who the fuck I thought I was, in the nicest phrasing possible. But on that ground, I thought the piece stated rather clearly exactly who I claim to be.

I can’t talk to Sarah about this. She’d listen, but she’s cold, lacking in empathy. Or she has empathy and doesn’t show it. In four years, or in six if I count our friendship, I haven’t figured out which is the case.

I could go to Starbucks. It’s almost on the way home, less than a block from Sarah’s Back Bay condo, but I opened this morning and sat at a table once I got off shift until I had to leave for school at five. I literally sat there all day, and now I’d go back to do what, to stew? After all, who would I talk to? I’ve been there three months, but I’m not really friends with anyone. I go to work, I do homework, I play World of Warcraft; that’s me condensed. And when I got home, what? Sarah will already have gone to bed, not that I’ve joined her in months, and I’d stay up all night—til four, maybe five, maybe six—playing World of Warcraft, trying not to talk on the microphone so that I can relish in secret human contact in my home.

The churches at Berkeley Street, the Lutheran one with the homeless person (gender unidentifiable; I default to male) in the wool coat that I pass every night as I sing along to my iPod, so separate from his condition and just as vague a character to him as he is to me—but I’m not listening to music tonight, fuming instead; tonight, for the first time, he watches me, but I don’t mind—and the other one with the largely ignored cement hole. Clarendon, the rundown yard with the painted-black metal staircase and the door to the garden. The Newbury Street sidewalks, bricks that speak of old money, the townhomes broken into condos that lament the money’s loss. The plasma screens, shining vibrant blues and greens off beige walls, reflected off faux crystal chandeliers except that one home with the library, the dusty old tomes and the ladder on the right side; their crystal shines legit, reflecting white light off white walls.

But I have a friend at Starbucks, Ashley. But not quite a friend. She’s attracted to me, she told me so. Why would I call her? For an ego fest, so I can gain some pride off of how attractive she finds me? I don’t think so. I told her that rainy day that she walked me to Emerson that I wouldn’t turn her into a ’50s cliché, some girl hanging onto a man who says he’ll leave his wife (girlfriend) but never will, and I won’t. We had sat on the steps outside the piano shop, and she had told me that she couldn’t play the piano—not well, anyway. She had looked at me and told me she liked me, confessionally. She waited, seeing what I would do with it. I watched the automatic piano play a tune, and then I rubbed my hand down her cheek and told her that I wouldn’t abuse her. There she is; she is there.

She won’t be, though: she told me that the schedule marked her off at eight and it’s almost ten. She’ll have gone home, have left for the day, and I’ll be just as alone and just as forlorn as I feel now.

Call Mani instead. Call Steve. Call Justin and Mom and Dad. Consider calling Allison, and really feel like an asshole. Resent the way Murphy’s law applies to people answering their phones when you actually need human connection.

“Hello?” she asks.

“Hi, Ashley. I’ve got a strange question for you.”

“Yes?”

“You wouldn’t happen to still be at Starbucks, would you? I mean, I know you’ve probably left for the day.”

“No, actually. I’m here.” A thrill hits my spine between the shoulders and shivers its way down, the thrill of success; necessity or fortune falling into place I can’t tell, but it doesn’t matter and this is what I wanted, what I needed, to cut short the onslaught of despair. “Someone didn’t show up for their shift, and I stayed late to cover.”

Pause. Blink. Consider.

“I need—” But do I really want to do this to her, to rely on her when I don’t know how things are going to go with Sarah, when I can’t even pin down my feelings for a girl I just met at work, not to mention the girl I’ve loved for four years? Do I really want to be that asshole?

“I need someone to talk to.”

“I’m here.” She laughs, and weight falls away.

“Do you have anywhere you need to be? Do you need to go home?”

“No, I’m here, and I can stay. You should come. I want to listen.”

I turned left and walked down Dartmouth to Boylston, along the broad brick pathway of the private school, across the tree-lined Commonwealth Mall, and passed they dying Newbury Street. If I had gone to Exeter, Sarah might have seen me and asked where I was going. No, I turned left, kicking a pebble in the process.

n20531316728_2397Share on Facebook
twitterShare on Twitter
del_icio_usSave to del.icio.us
digg
Digg it
redditSave to Reddit
aolfavEven more ways to bookmark

Author: Greg Freed

5 Comments

Filed under Creative nonfiction, Writing