Filed under: affect, Craziness, Detachment theory, Encounters, Mood, optimism, supervalent_thought, teaching, Theory of this Blog, writing
The days were long and the weeks were short during the term that has ended, the rhythms of which extend like a membrane across the late weeks’ email exchanges and hastily arranged furtive-seeming encounters with student beings suddenly stunned and muddled in the face of writing something now. In the middle of all that I left to give a talk, and talked with my hosts about another scene of the university ordinary that I find baffling:collegiality. On this trip I asked a former colleague to tell me how she maintains such grace when the relation of structural to affective dynamics so often induces a mess involving lots of disavowal of aggression and vulnerability. She said that there’s no helping it, collegial mistrust is structural, and therefore so are abreaction and dysfunction. But I swear it isn’t: only inequality is structural. The rest is an ineducation for which we are constantly paying intuition.
The day I returned, though, the fog lifted for a minute. My friend Sarah Schulman visited town to do a reading and promote her two new books. Her confidence in her truths thrusts me back into myself constantly, as I tend to think of multiple explanations for problems for which she has found genuinely beautiful clarities. I have only been in the same bodily space as Sarah four times in the last two decades: but each time has had an impact because she moves me, she too is constantly knocking her head against the wall of her objects so that they might move a little and she too always seems a little surprised that the optimistic returns leave her bruised and frayed. But she enjoys her victories. She is not afraid of the return, more afraid of not having the encounter than of having it. Me too. And yet, there is the question of resilience.
I can’t remember what we talked about at dinner, except that I felt like I was the child learning moral lessons and she the impatient teacher calling a thing a thing and telling my noise of “what if” speculative pleasure to shut the fuck up. She didn’t really do that, but as things unfolded my sense grew that my capacities are also defenses. As we were leaving, she asked me what I wanted out of life, and I said, at the moment I am trying to learn how to write. She said, do you have 20 minutes? I could teach you to write in 20 minutes. I started laughing, but she was serious. So we sat in the car outside The Knickerbocker Hotel and she taught me how to write. Here is a picture of what she drew.
I was a terrible, stupid, stuttering, defensive student. She very nicely pushed me to get with the program–a more or less Aristotelian program dedicated to teaching narrative causality starting with an action that leads to a consequence that impairs a desire that threatens to be thwarted after which there are consequences and then an adjustment and then a resolution. [She later told me that it’s not Aristotelian, but derives in part from Maria Irene Fornes.] She tosses questions to me: who’s your character, what does he want from another character, how does that fit into a world, how do they try to get what they want, then what happens? My point here is that I was so bad at doing the fundamental thing she teaches about character, agency, action.
To the protagonist of this story, writing is all about the drama of action in relation to objectives/consequences and in the middle the threat of a reversal of action that would take people out of the story. I kept saying, “I don’t know, I don’t know,” when she kept saying, so what do you want, what happens next? After stuttering and being utterly unimaginative for awhile, I said, I am interested in taking things slower, in watching someone veer from the impact of a consequence, in the slow story of how people unlearn and adjust and feel out their relation to intention, action, causality, and their others. Maybe what happens is that on impact our protagonist gets distracted or confused, throws himself at encounters in a passionate dissociated way, has conversations he doesn’t understand, or becomes a drama queen making the interlocutor pay emotionally for being an obstacle to his clarity, or self-medicates and creates consequences from within impaired action and then is forced to be responsible for it as if we all agreed that we are all sovereign; or maybe he talks to strangers on busses about their clothes, his childhood, the smell of fast food, and then gets to work and forgets what wasn’t yet or maybe ever much more than a passing event. Maybe it wasn’t dissociation and the drama was the distraction. It may turn out that some things can’t bear the weight of a symptomatic reading, and is writing always the elaboration of a symptom? The jury is always out even as judgments are being streamed everywhere. Splayed consequentiality may not be that interesting, or else there isn’t a genre for it yet.
She seemed exhausted by me. (She says she wasn’t.) Action drives the world: of course an activist/fiction writer thinks that. But her bad student did not think that yet, she had thought that people were in the middle of a situation for which the writing could feel out and provide new rhythms and outsides, and she never could write fiction precisely because she could describe things but couldn’t induce an action that would have just one consequence that would lead to one next one. Drama, chains; the ordinary, rhythms of cluster and spray. The funniest part was that Sarah just assumed that when I said I wanted to learn how to write that what I wanted to write was fiction. Our whole master class in the car was based on a misrecognition around what writing is, and apparently I misunderstood everything she was trying to teach me, and yet: I am still learning something from the encounter, about what’s out of control in the scene of a teaching.
More on this (impossibility of teaching) in the next post, the last one of this series.
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