Skin and Bones

Skin and Bones

I was really blocked-up last night, after two full days of presentations. It’s taken a while for things to sort themselves out. Too many ideas at once, I guess. Not to mention the rising conflict in me regarding my future degree track— I’ve got at least four years invested in British literature, and now I find myself increasingly interested in American lit, or more precisely, American cultural studies. I heard something yesterday that helped it make sense.

“Writing is a way of becoming more comfortable in your own skin.” I can’t recall who it was who went down this path. I heard too many smart and talented people speak to keep it all straight. But the thrust was that everyone, to one degree or another is uncomfortable with themselves. Writing raises those things into high relief, and forces us to deal with them— we are impelled into things we can’t resolve.

I’ve never been comfortable with being an “American.” My first conscious memory was seeing John F. Kennedy getting shot over and over on the T.V.. The shooting deaths of students at Kent State University, death at the hands of their own government, when I was twelve years old had a more profound impact. Up to that point, my heroes were mostly American inventors, like Thomas Edison and Robert Hutchings Goddard. Now, I can look back and see that it’s just the same old Horatio Alger trope of dedication and passion paying off— at least the way the biographies for children were written, at any rate. You didn’t learn that Edison exploited a lot of people, or that Goddard was ripped off by everyone, including his own government.

Kent State changed all that for me. When I saw the face of the girl kneeling over the body of her friend in Life magazine, I realized for the first time that what was supposed to be my government was killing people who looked just like my older brother and his friends. Gradually my heroes became foreigners— British citizens like William Blake, and émigrés like Hungarian photographer Andre Kertéz or the Swiss transplant Robert Frank. Living through the debacle of Nixon, and especially the ignorant election of Ronald Reagan, while growing up I didn’t see much to be proud of in being “American.” These cultural events and personages, up to and including the latest crop of idiots are really only the “skin” of the national identity. I’m not comfortable with my skin at all. But these flashes of cultural idiocy aren’t the bones.

I was reminded by another adjunct at the conference of a book I read before going back to school— Writing Down the Bones. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in creative writing, but to be fair about it anyone who has read the Beats knows most of the tricks presented in it: reading and writing in unusual places, etc. The book is slammed in many critical articles I’ve read, for it’s emphasis on expressivist practice. But I have to give it a lot of credit, for wanting to reach beneath the surface of the writer’s skin. That skin, is the words they use rather than the thoughts you convey. Most of the teaching exercises I heard focused on the skin first, using examples from literature to convey an idea vividly. “No ideas but in things” sums it up perfectly— no presentation of structure (in postmodern pedagogy, structure=bad). The most universally acclaimed writing prompt in our department is this one:

Now that I can only have ________ in memory . . .

The sample text that is read before this is a memoir that focuses on concrete detail, collected with elaborate vocabulary, to present an image of the Native American writer’s dead grandmother. It’s all skin. I remember when I was given it in my first writing class. It caused me to write something that embarrasses the hell out of me. I remember watching other students break down and cry as they read their papers. A prompt like this forces a student to confront loss, place it into a suitably artful skin, and satisfy the voyeuristic desires of the teacher. It avoids the issue of how to write, focusing on issues of self-disclosure and how to craft compelling images to prove your creativity to the teacher instead. Perfect for a creative writing class, yes— potentially damaging to anyone who wants to learn how to put writing to use in an academic environment, in my opinion. It demonstrates how language can move people, but to what end?

To be fair, all the teachers who use this exercise balance it with other activities that promote learning to structure writing, because like it or not most writing is structured, especially in the academic and business environments. What bothers me most about it is that it makes the “creative” writers in the class feel empowered, and the more common, practical sort of writer feel like crap. That’s the state they’re in when the enter my Comp II classroom. I work hard to give the sense that anyone can put writing to use in their lives, not just those who are “creative.”

But I’ve gone tangential again . . . The crisis regarding American lit vs. British lit has to do with my hatred of most of the American “skin” when compared with its foreign competitors. But I have American bones, and I suppose it’s about time that I owned up to it and tried to figure out how they’re put together. My interest in the practical parts of discourse grows directly from that national identity which I’ve avoided all these years, and I begin to wonder if that might be the reason why writing departments might simultaneously cling to both social constructivism and expressivism, unable to let go of either. I suspect that pragmatism is rejected in American Universities precisely because it is too damn American.