I was pretty happy with the way my homework essay-response came together for my nonfiction course with Richard Hoffman. Therefore, I’m going to share it with you in lieu of a guest-author write up!
I can’t esteem Richard highly enough as a professor. He speaks in awe-inspiring quotes, eschewing them like so much air, as if beautiful language were a matter of nature rather than a honed skill. The assignments he has given in both his memoir workshop and the literary workshop I’m currently taking with him have been thought-provoking (obviously, see below) and enlightening. He would have had a heavy impression on what I understood an author to be if I hadn’t been of a similar mind before meeting him, and he has had a notable impact on my understanding of what the memoir genre is and can be.
I encourage you (and myself) to pick up his poetry and at least Half the House just to see what American authors are capable of when they’re not bullshitting themselves with pop culture psuedo-psychology. He’s in the top two or three of living author’s I’d be flattered to be told I was following in his footsteps.
Now, for my homework assignment.
One of the most obvious ways I have a general sense of communion with “other people” in my life is my pursuit of recognition. As you’ve seen at least in “Junior Year” [not posted here!] in addition to my general complaints about never being understood in my essays, I’ve long felt conflicted about my inability to communicate with my “teachers.” One the one hand, I want them to recognize what I’m attempting to do even if I fail. On the other hand, I’ve flourished in a continual stream of disappointment that we are both steeped in, my teachers and I.
A symptom of this comes in remarks about the inevitability of progressive failure in the face of man en masse. What I mean by this is that the pursuit of moderation and reasonability in worldview, held as a beacon by philosophers and artists alike, only takes place on an individual basis and usually stands apart from the community at large. I mentioned this last class as it was espoused by Montaigne through Cicero, two points that through time form a flat line evidencing the lack of societal progress at least between 100 BCE and 1500 CE.
Robert Louis Stevenson gives this idea some credence as well in his essay “An Apology for Idlers” when he says, “Alas and alas! you may take it how you will, but the services of no single individual are indispensable.” The context of this quote makes it clear that he lumps artists into this conglomeration of worthlessness. I don’t believe he meant that the act of personal growth is worthless, merely that any attempt to inspire men to live up to the idea of personal growth is bound to fail. As it’s said in the mouths of our contemporaries, “Innovation at the core is very slow, while innovation at the edge is happens very fast.” Note that by very slow we mean “nonexistent and (actively and passively) resisted.”
What happens when we take away the obvious artistic temperament, to sally forth with brandished passion, besieging the stasis of mankind in an attempt to rouse their sentiments and better their dispositions? We can say that writing of this nature, that bears in mind a purpose before it, is as flawed and any agenda-bearing writing, but we’ll also rob a great many writers in the world of their reason for writing. For many hope to affect change; I believe I remember you yourself saying that a level of hope must underwrite all memoirs in order to justify the author’s venture.
But perhaps I’ll side more with Nietzsche on this particular problem and ask, “Why do you think I write to be read?” I have no real commercial aspirations for my writing and am actually planning my life in such a way that I don’t depend on my writing for my income. However, I do tweak my writing in workshops and according to reader feedback. Something in me–God purge me of it–still seeks the approval of others, but something else seeks art for the sake of a true spiritual expression the likes of which no writing could ever convey. I am a human, after all, and therefore full of paradox and contradiction.
One might address this split as a contrast between the dark “romantic” realism that Stevenson addresses in “The Lantern-Bearers” and the light of life that evidences why life is worth living and books worth reading. I myself coincidentally wrote something in my blog the day before I read the essay that sounds distinctly like what Stephenson is getting at:
My written world is dark. I tend to write about people who aren’t altogether nice in situations that aren’t going to turn out in the characters’ favor. After all, why should they? The world doesn’t work that way on a mass level. We suffer every day or every hour crimes (both legal and moral) that nobody wants to suffer–murder, rape, infidelity, bureaucracies–and we have to live with the scars whether or not we solicited them. I write these stories because these are the stories of man en masse, as I see it.
but on the other hand:
The particular level in which we live sometimes proves that dark world true. Othertimes we get to enjoy moments of exception.
For example, I have a girlfriend, Ashley, that you don’t see me write about much. She’s lovely and sweet and charming. She adores me and, as hasn’t been the case for years before, I adore her back. She sings like an angel, she supports me emotionally and financially, and she loves my dog. Speaking of that, Ashley has a heart as large and powerful as my ego.
In other words, I write about what I see in mankind on the whole, which tends to show a dark world where terrible things happen and any brightness that appears is as accidental but not as commonplace as the darkness with which it contrasts. On the other hand, I consider my life fairly blessed (a strange word for me to use in the best circumstances) even in the face of my mistakes and those of the people around me.
How do I justify the dichotomy between what I write and what I live? I’m obsessed with the fallibility of life, with frailty and its place in the pursuit of happiness. I can only justify it truly with youth: I want to point out through my art that happyness is not happiness; that is, the American ideal doesn’t measure up to the philosophic and mystic lives and experiences that I’ve read about and participated in.
I know on the one hand that no amount of cleverness, artistry, or good intention on my part will get man to recognize at the foot of his endeavors that all is vanity, shadows and dust with which we amuse ourselves. Similar messages birthed in genius far greater and more primal than I can hope to achieve have existed for thousands of years without infringing on the blank slate of birth and nature. Cultures vastly more powerful to billions of people have a hard enough time reigning in their citizens let alone impacting their natural faculties in a meaningful way (which even if it is accomplished is largely accidental).
I also have that youthful fire that hopes against all odds and against all evidence that one message may spread virally through our collective consciousness and change the world forever for the better. I suppose I should focus on this zeal as my next topic of meditation, my last being manipulation, an interpersonal force I have largely left behind and a meditation that generated some of my best work to date.
I know that the endgame is an experience I have had before, to have words like fire that burn in your belly and come out as near to prophecy as mortals can hope to achieve. I do not believe in a sort of God that would ever have me as a mouthpiece, nor do I believe in the massively transitional power of prophecy or prophecy-like writing. I do, however, believe in, and I have experience words that just must get written down, creation that happens quite independently of me, as Montaigne discusses with his muses in “On Some Verses of Virgil.”
Some forces are greater than any individual will, and others have shown themselves more powerful than any number of wills combined. Virgina Woolf mentioned death as this sort of massively overwhelming power in “The Death of a Moth,” but it is not solitary in this position. Birth also overwhelms us, both with the forgetfulness and the capabilities which it plants in us. I believe that this mechanism itself is enough to nullify artists’ endeavors at upbuilding mankind.