The Line of Death (or, The Art of the Punitive Essay)

Today’s post is in honor of my brother Brian’s 40th birthday.

Once upon a time–specifically, three decades ago, around the time American aircraft were crossing Muammar Gaddafi’s “Line of Death” into the Gulf of Sidra in a willful act of antagonism because Ronald Reagan had gotten sick of his smack talk and was itching to call him on it–my brother and I got into a kerfuffle of our own.

The cause of the domestic conflict is believed by most historians to be the unauthorized appropriation of a garment by the younger sibling from the elder. (As I recall, I wore my brother’s jean jacket without asking–and I was going to return it.) Unlike in Libya, there were no fatalities. However, the exchange of hostilities involved unpleasant shouting and hitting, as a result of which the combatants were sent to their rooms by their mother and made to write punitive essays. Each was required to compose 100 words on four different themes intended to sharpen their empathy and skills of diplomacy.

Here is one of Brian’s:

BAS on Sharing-001
Note that Brian’s essay on sharing is exactly 100 words long, as a matter of principle.

There are many things to admire about my brother’s rhetorical efforts. I see it as a subtle masterpiece of verbal irony. The author–i.e. the eleven-year-old kid who did not wish to share his jacket with his little sister–would seem to be in a position analogous to Libya, a.k.a. the “loser country” that did not wish to share international water. The jacket is perhaps not exactly analogous to the Gulf of Sidra, being definitively the property of the author, who was no doubt keenly aware of this fact, and yet, he panders to the authority figure (Mom) who wishes to hear him assert that sharing is a virtuous thing to do. He thus condemns selfishness as the province of despots. But meanwhile, he undermines the very assumption that sharing is inherently virtuous with his reference to “forced sharing,” which clearly smacks of tyranny. Moreover, the inclusion of the idiotic coinage “unmean” (not a real word) in the list of synonyms describing people who share is a thinly veiled expression of contempt for this exercise. And yet, there is a stroke of sincerity in the final line that begs the reader’s sympathy for his position. Indeed, it is not always easy to share. Anyone who says otherwise is hopelessly naive.

While Brian was writing this (or, initially, refusing to write this) masterpiece, I was busy dashing off my own four essays. As I recall, I got out of my room much more quickly than Brian did. I was Brer Rabbit in the briar patch, happily scratching away.

The fruits of my labor are all the more horrifying for the fact that I actually enjoyed writing them. Consider:

LIS on Shouting
Sheer sass.

My self-defensive argument comes off as completely unrepentant, reflecting my determination not to capitulate entirely to authority. However, the fact that I also exceeded the minimum word requirement by eight words with my needless verbosity (I mean, “help or assistance”??) reflects the fact that I was, simultaneously, eager to please. This tension may be one of my defining personal qualities, to this day.

However, I have no idea what I was thinking when I wrote the following.

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 5.16.22 PM
ESP?? Blue jays?? No further comment on this utter inanity.

While the internecine shouting and hitting did not end in 1986, there’s probably a reason my mother never gave us this particular punishment again. Whether it seemed too cruel and unusual, or just too wildly ineffective at curbing our bad behavior, that was the first and last time we ever had to write punitive essays.

Still, I wonder if there isn’t a kernel or two of wisdom in what we wrote that day. Maybe we did learn something about diplomacy–or at least rhetoric–if not empathy. And for the record, Brian and I get along just fine now. In fact, as a token of good will and the esteem in which I hold him, I’m willing to let my brother have the last word today.

BAS on Kindness-001
For the record: I never stole anyone’s coat, or BORROWED Brian’s jean jacket again.

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Conferences

The first time I attended a conference of a professional organization, it wasn’t exactly in my field. It was SIGGRAPH 2003–a convention on computer graphics and “interactive techniques” (which doesn’t mean what you might think–no social skills required). At the time, I was an aspiring novelist with a day job at Sony Computer Entertainment. I was the office administrator for the research and development group, which consisted of about 40 male and 3 female software engineers who were applying their vast brainpower to figuring out how to do more awesome shit with video games. Meanwhile, I was stocking the Post-It notes, booking travel, and devising innovative ways to monitor when the last pot of coffee had been brewed. They sent me to SIGGRAPH to help man an exhibition booth where my chief responsibility was showing people how to play games with the recently released EyeToy controller. Literally a five year old could do this, but this is an industry in which many of the exhibitors hire actual Booth Babes–you know, attractive yet approachable women just to stand around as nerd bait. (Remember this is also an industry which employs balding bachelors with stringy ponytails at a rate well above the national average.) It seems I confused people at the expo. One guy asked me a technical question that I couldn’t answer, so he followed up by asking condescendingly if I had ever been to college. I was apparently not knowledgeable enough to pass for an engineer and not hot enough to be a credible Booth Babe. I made myself feel better by reciting my CV to him. Then I decided to quit my job and apply to MFA programs.

fancy diagram
This is the sort of thing engineers talk about at their conferences. (credit: Nathaniel Matter)

The next conference I attended (i.e. crashed) was the annual meeting of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine in 2006. My husband was giving a talk on the work he had done towards his PhD in electrical engineering, building a novel kind of MRI machine. I borrowed a badge from one of his colleagues so I could get in and see him standing on a stage in his suit, saying intelligent-sounding things that were not quite intelligible to me. All I can tell you is, his PowerPoint slides contained attractive graphs and tastefully arranged bullet points. This kind of conference is about a transfer of highly specialized knowledge. The people in that room (except me) were literally the only people in the world capable of understanding him, and they had an important stake in doing so, because his work could have a direct impact on their own. They all had a creditable reason for deciding to get together in Seattle for a week, beyond just drinking and visiting that market where they chuck the fish.

If Oscar Wilde were alive today, would he fancy a trip to AWP?

Contrast with AWP. I’ve attended the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs twice. The first time, in 2008, I was mostly there to shill for Blue Mesa Review, the literary magazine of the University of New Mexico, for which I served as fiction editor at the time. When I wasn’t at our table handing out back issues and importuning passersby to submit, I went to readings and panels and parties and the like. I was struck by the fact that, well, transfer of knowledge isn’t really a thing at AWP. Among the aspiring writers who make up the bulk of the attendance, there’s a little bit of hero worship and a lot of shameless self promotion, all of which mostly serves as a prelude to other shenanigans, both colorful and banal. It seemed that everyone was hoping to capture someone else’s attention, not expecting to learn anything useful. Or they were simply going wild, having been released from the solitude of their writing desk for a few days. I wasn’t inclined to return the following year. But then I was invited to be on a panel, and I succumbed to flattery. The feeling I got from the other side of the panelist table was pretty much the same, though. Enough, I thought. I don’t need to fly to Denver to self-promote and swill beer with poets. (Don’t get me wrong, poets. I love you guys. But you’ve thrown up in the back seat of my car right here in Albuquerque. We don’t need AWP.)

In 2014, I attended the national convention of the American Guild of Organists for reasons related to writing, though it is blessedly not a writers’ conference. It was held in Boston, old stomping grounds of organ builder Charles Fisk, about whom I am now writing a biography. In addition to hearing performances on landmark instruments that Fisk built, I was able to stalk/network with some people who knew him. The experience was also revelatory for me in other ways. (Before the concert at which I saw a man in a purple velvet jacket greet a friend with a cheek kiss, I had somehow been oblivious to the fact that gay men occur in the population of organists at a rate even higher than balding ponytailed men occur in the population of software engineers.) The convention seemed to serve a purpose unlike either the ISMRM meeting or AWP. I suppose knowledge transfer and self-promotion both occurred, to a degree, but appreciation of live music was the focus. Especially with an instrument like the organ, where a live performance is a significantly different sensory experience than a recording, this makes sense. It’s a wonderful pretext for like-minded individuals to assemble.

I thought I would be done with writers’ conferences until, say, I have a book out that I am obliged to promote. Until then, I didn’t think I’d gain anything by going.  But then I heard about the conference of the Biographer’s International Organization, to be held in Washington DC next month. I perused the schedule, which consisted of diverse and interesting sessions–some of which  sounded genuinely practical and informative. I speculated that it could be downright useful for someone like me, who is trying to figure out how to frame and market a biography about a guy who is not exactly a household name, but who’s got an amazing story nonetheless. I’m sure there will still be plenty of self-promotion at the BIO conference; it’s a regrettable necessity for writers in this day and age. But there will also be an entire day of sessions devoted to library research–one of the nerdiest pleasures of the biographer’s job. I am optimistic that it will be time well spent.

I hope I will not be disabused of my impression that biographers are a breed apart from other kinds of writers. I know its silly to assume that just because one has chosen to apply his writing skills to telling other people’s stories, and has committed to doing some research rather than making stuff up or simply gazing into his own soul for inspiration, that this writer might posses worldliness or moral virtue that is lacking in, say, his memoirist cousin. It would therefore be naive to expect that the biographers’ conference will be a less solipsistic affair than AWP. But then again, we are talking about a gathering of people who cite external sources in their work. It sure as hell will be different, somehow.

Poets, I want to reiterate that I love you for who you are and for what you’ve given the world. I just tend to like you better on the page, or one-on-one, rather than amassed in a convention center. But to prove there are no hard feelings, the next round is on me when you’re in ABQ. I’m just not driving you home in my car.

Biographers, I’m looking forward to seeing some of you in D.C. next month. Don’t be outclassed by the poets, please.

A Virtual Schubertiad

Publishing literary essays is not a viable way to get rich or famous, but it’s a surprisingly effective way to meet interesting strangers. No essay of mine has provoked correspondence with more interesting strangers than “Franz Schubert Dreamt of Indians,” which first appeared in The Georgia Review in 2010. The messages still trickle in, five years later. While some of these readers have reciprocated by sharing their own feelings and ideas about Franz Schubert or James Fenimore Cooper, others have just sent me examples of art (literary, musical, and visual) that they themselves have appreciated or created.

“Love and Death” by George Frederic Watts

One reader took it upon himself to mail me a print of “Love and Death” by George Frederic Watts, expressing the hope that it would cure me of the “emotional blindness” to paintings to which I admitted in the essay. While I appreciate the reader’s consideration, I regret to say that this picture–of Thanatos with his toga all in a bunch, advancing on naked little Eros–gives me the creeps. I get that there’s supposed to be symbolism here, but I can’t get past the fact that Thanatos just looks like some kind of skeevy pederast. (Apparently that was kind of a thing in ancient Greece?) I guess if a shudder was the intended emotional reaction–and maybe it was–then I am indeed cured?

Other reader offerings in response to the essay have included:

  • an illustrated calligraphy print of a W.D. Snodgrass poem,
  • a stack of newsletters about a shop class program at a high school in Oregon, and
  • an 800-page manuscript of a psychological biography of Schubert.

All these delight me. The fact that somebody wanted to share them with me delights me still more, even when the offerings are, on occasion… curious. I suspect my Schubert essay appeals to eccentrics and obsessives because it so plainly reveals that I am one of their tribe. Even when I don’t share their particular obsessions, I know what it is to be so enraptured by an arcane subject that you just want to share it with other people–anyone–who might understand.

Schubert himself enjoyed an eclectic circle of artistic friends, including painters and poets as well as other musicians. When they gathered in someone’s living room to listen to performances of his music, they called these evenings “Schubertiads.” I relish the thought that my essay has engendered such a gathering, if only in a virtual setting. Perhaps it would be cooler if we were all sitting around together, listening synchronously to the same music, instead of connected by tendrils of electrons across the ether, each of us jamming to our own private soundtrack. But a connection is a connection. And in many ways it’s better that I don’t actually have to host. We can each enjoy the sense of affinity while being eccentric and obsessive in our own living rooms, wearing pajamas.

Schubert, hanging with his friends, as depicted by Moritz von Schwind in
Schubert, hanging with his friends, as depicted by Moritz von Schwind in “Schubert-Abend bei Josef von Spaun “

This week I received the most delightful offering yet: a YouTube link to a performance by Lili Kraus of Schubert’s Grazer Fantasie, emailed to me by a pianist in Poland who had stumbled across my essay. I am so grateful that this reader was moved by his love of Schubert and appreciation of Kraus to share it with me. I was not familiar with Kraus before this, and she plays Schubert as beautifully as anyone I have ever heard. After listening to the Fantasie, I followed a link in the sidebar to a recording of her playing the B-flat sonata (D960)–the piece that inspired my essay–and I was even more delighted. Kraus’ interpretation of the sonata satisfies me more than other recording of it that I’ve heard. My disappointment with other recordings and my own inability to play the sonata as I wanted to provided the impetus for writing the essay. Would I have written it at all if I had found Lili Kraus to listen to, seven years ago? Probably. Obsession is not so easily cured. But it would have been an entirely different essay.

Today, when I look at what I wrote all those years back, it seem not half as marvelous as what Lili Kraus did, decades earlier, at the piano keyboard. So let me stop talking about the essay. Just listen to her play, and join the virtual Schubertiad. Then feel free to share your own strange artistic affinities in any way you like.

P.S. [added on October 30, 2015] : In this week’s New Yorker, there is a wonderful article, “The Trill of Doom” by Alex Ross,  on András Schiff’s interpretation of D. 960 and how his experiments with historic instruments influenced his performance of it. A great read for Schubert Obsessives.

A Pronoun of Zir Own

Dear Gender Neutral Persons,

I would like to be your friend and ally. On the philosophy that friends tell friends about stuff in their teeth, I would like to talk to you. This is not about poppy seeds or kale. It’s about the pronouns.

Last month, I read the fascinating article in the New York Times about how the University of Vermont has officially implemented a system whereby students are allowed to specify what (non)gendered pronouns they wish to use; their preferred pronouns will be recorded in a database that can be accessed by their professors, who will then theoretically be able to address them appropriately. University officials are also distributing a pocket reference card to show the correct declension patterns of eight personal pronouns, including the traditional, gendered English standards (think “he” and “she”) along with some other standard English words in non-standard usage (think “they” as a singular) along with a few more recent coinages. (Fancy an “ey,” sie,” “per,” “ve,”or “zie” as a first person singular nominative pronoun, anyone?):

Pocket reference card for gender neutral pronouns, created at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and distributed at UVM

While distributing this card might be an effective way for gender-neutral persons to befriend Esperantists and other idealistic applied linguists who invent declension patterns for fun, I believe it is likely to have the opposite effect on the average Anglophone. If you start turning every conversation into a Mad Lib where you get to choose all the pronouns, people will begin to regard you with the same contempt or indifference that they once reserved for their high school English teachers. I know. I am a high school English teacher. Correcting my students’ usage errors does not typically make them like me. Changing the rules on them really does not make them like me. So all I’m saying is: are you sure you want to wage this battle on the field of prescriptive grammar? With made up words?

I understand the power of language, and I sympathize with the desire–indeed, the need–to have a personal pronoun that accurately reflects who you are. I remember the joy I felt when I learned that in Icelandic they have a word for the color of my greyish eyes, which employees of motor vehicle departments in three different US states have categorized, variously, as blue, green, and hazel, none of which seems accurate. If we all spoke Icelandic, we could simply agree that my eyes are moleit (once defined for me as “kind of like the ocean”). Moleit would more accurately reflect the truth, and everyone would be more satisfied. I know gender is an even more critical component of personal identity than eye color, and personal pronouns come up way more often than eye color in conversation, and so I sympathize with the profound need you must feel.

Dammit, yes, we need a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and we don’t technically have one In English. But people have a hard enough time correctly using the pronouns we’ve got already, so it seems like a tactical error to think you can make up five more that people will gamely accept and attempt to master. Zie ain’t gonna happen.

Can I suggest that advocating for widespread acceptance of “they” as a singular pronoun seems like the most practical way to fill the need? Descriptive grammarians will be quick to point out that we often use it this way already anyway (eg. “Does everyone have their book?”), and some respected style manuals now even acknowledge this usage for reasons having little to do with gender politics. (It helps you evade the morass of “Does everyone have his or her book,” while incidentally helping you avoid seeming patriarchal if you say “his” or stridently feminist if you say “her,” when all you really want to know is if every person has got a damn book.)

A few hillbillies excepted, most native English speakers instinctively know how to decline “they,” even if they have no idea what the word “decline” means in this context. That said, we’ll have to develop some standards for conjugating verbs with “they” singular. In the aforementioned Times article, the mother of one of the students being profiled is quoted as saying: “This is how they presents [emphasis mine] themself to new friends and colleagues and employers and students.” This sounds vaguely hillbilly to me. “This is how they present themself” sounds better to my ear, even if it violates some other grammatical rule about verb conjugation when there’s a singular subject. We’re tearing a few pages out of the rule-book here, anyway. Why not tear out as many as we need to until we arrive at some usages that roll off the tongue? Widespread usage, without a second thought, should of course be the goal. This will happen when average speakers feel comfortable using these terms, without worrying if they’ll sound like an ignoramus or an asshole each time they open their mouth.

Just to be clear, my gender neutral friends: I long for the day when everyone can have a pronoun of their own. Just, please, let it not be zirs.

With Franz Like These

Nicodemus letter retouched and cropped
My daughter with a letter she wrote to a fictional rodent.

Yesterday my daughter sat down at the computer to write a letter to Nicodemus, leader of the rat colony in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (the 1972 Newberry Award-winning children’s novel by Robert C. O’Brien). She asked my husband for help spelling “your house,” but–being no slave to orthographical convention–she freestyled the rest. (She does take pains to enforce the correct spelling of her name. Pity I had to white it out for the internet.) While her spelling of “bcazz” is notably awesome, my favorite phonetic rendering is “franz” for “friends.”

Yes, Nicodemus is a rat.  Who doesn’t actually exist.  But what of that? Some of my own closest friendships have been with fictional characters. This was especially true in my adolescence. It would undermine my professional credibility as a teacher of literature if I were to admit which fantasy series supplied my first crush–already I have said too much–but whatever those books may have lacked in artistry, they did have compelling characters. I could protest that my first crush was about as reciprocal as your average adolescent crush, even if the object of my interest wasn’t technically alive. Compare and contrast with my second crush, on an actual human being who lived a mile or so away from me, but nevertheless was just as oblivious of my existence as the boy from the novel. Both relationships were entirely fictitious, even if one involved an actual person. I relished the conversations and other dynamic scenarios that went running through my head every day for what must have been years with those two boys. I was never alone.

As a grown-up, I still have a lot of conversations with people who are not actually present. I prefer to think of them as “hypothetical” rather than “imaginary” conversations, these days.  Now, too, I prefer the hypothetical company of real people to fictional characters. Sometimes I find myself spending time with my actual friends when they’re not actually present. Occasionally I relish the hypothetical companionship of people I’ve never met; I imbue them with the most congenial personalities that I can possibly square with the known facts of their existence. If I can’t imagine that they have congenial personalities, we don’t hypothetically hang out. I have no interest in A-list celebrities (It’s just utterly implausible. I cannot willingly suspend my disbelief that we would find anything interesting to talk about.) though I have, on occasion, taken obscure authors for my hypothetical friends. In a couple of these cases, I have followed up by writing non-hypothetical letters to the actual authors, and actual epistolary friendships have resulted. Once, the obscure author was actually as congenial as I had hypothesized.

Imaginary friendships are not a complete waste of time. Hypothetical conversations are exercises in empathy–or at least good rhetorical practice, as they force you to imagine what your audience might say, or what reaction you might elicit if you spoke what was on your mind. They’re also exercises in revision, a crucial life skill; you can have the same hypothetical conversation over and over again until you get bored of it and drop it, or until you have made it a conversation worth actually having. In fact, for any virtues I might possess as a writer or a companionable human-being, a share of the credit must go to my hypothetical friendships.

Hypothetical friends are no substitute for actual friends. Though they’re never so lost in their own interior dialogues that they fail to register what you were saying, they also can’t surprise you with their responses, or initiate conversations and share ideas beyond your ken. And even when real friends are less congenial than hypothetical ones, real hugs trump hypothetical hugs every time.

I hope my daughter will have many imaginary friends, and some real friends too. And when Nicodemus fails to actually respond to her letter, I hope she will realize that she can follow the tunnels beneath the rosebush to his house all by herself.  When she makes the journey–if she hasn’t already–Nicodemus and all her new “franz” will be waiting for her.

People Who Love Whales

"Sperm whale and Bottlenose whale" by Archibald Thorburn. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“Sperm whale and Bottlenose whale” by Archibald Thorburn.

There are (at least) five kinds of people in this world:

  1. People who have not read Moby Dick and really can’t be bothered.
  2. People who intend to read Moby Dick one day.
  3. People who have read Moby Dick and thought that it was about whales.
  4. People who have read Moby Dick and thought that it was a masterpiece of American Romanticism, exploring themes of destructive obsession, deception and the elusiveness of accurate perception, violence, race relations (and homosexual miscegenation?), or some other abstract noun that lends the novel to an array of scholarly and/or psychoanalytic interpretations.
  5. People who have read Moby Dick and thought, “Holy shit! This is not just a book about whales!” but really, really loved reading the parts about whales anyway.

If you are not in the overwhelming majority of Americans who fall into that first category, you ought to read Kamila Shamsie’s essay in the latest NY Times Sunday Review: “Reading Antarctica: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Moby Dick.

Shamsie’s account of reading the great white whale of a book aboard an icebreaker bound for Antarctica throws me back to the time when I read Moby Dick: I was in my early twenties, and I was spending two hours a day commuting aboard the Caltrain between our small apartment in Mountain View and my job in San Francisco. Having just finished a couple of serious degrees in literature, I found myself in category 2, feeling a bit fed up with the preponderance of people in category 4. Meanwhile, I was working my way through a list of classics that I assumed all literate people had read, but which, somehow, nobody had required me to read to get my English degrees (bachelors or masters). I read these books to understand why people persisted in reading them, but I also felt free to cast them aside the moment I could see no reason why I should persist in reading them. There was one train conductor who teased me when he saw me pulling tomes like War and Peace from my purse, and once went so far as to beat me (playfully) over the head with a rolled up People magazine that another passenger had abandoned, “to knock some common sense” into me. In spite of the abuse, I persisted. This was the golden age of reading. I finished books that I had purchased aspirationally when I was in high school, and found myself unable to appreciate when I had first attempted to read them–in fifteen minute increments, by the light of a bedside lamp, after finishing my math homework. Moby Dick was precisely such a book. I couldn’t get into it at all when I was sixteen. But at twenty-three, it consumed me. I loved it–loved it!–when I discovered how much there was to be learned about whales, and how literature–literature!–could be about this. I was initiated into category 5.

“Why do people persist in claiming that Moby Dick is about Ahab’s obsession with the white whale?” Shamsie writes. “Certainly it is a book about obsession, but it is Melville who is obsessed, with the need to capture the visible in a net of words.” Here, she introduces what I see as one of the book’s principal pleasures. By rendering the life of the whaler and the whale alike in such visceral and relentless detail, Melville ensnares the reader as well.  (Admittedly, some readers feel trapped in these lengthy descriptive passages, while others, like me, are “hooked” in the positive sense.)

My delight in learning about whales may have foreshadowed the shift in my own writing and reading habits. As a writer, I have moved away from fiction, which constrains me to what I can imagine, to non-fiction, which offers possibilities in subject matter far vaster than the limits of my own speculative capacities. The world is full of more strange and interesting stuff than it would ever occur to me to invent. Like the stuff inside whales.

As a reader, I now consume fiction and nonfiction with equal enthusiasm, but I read fiction differently than I did when I was younger; instead of being most interested in the internal world of the novel itself, I am now just as concerned with what fictions reveal (subconsciously or consciously) about the storytellers. It affords me a different sort of pleasure–one more like the pleasure of reading good nonfiction. And yet, the very best books are those like Moby Dick: the ones that afford the pleasures of fiction and non-fiction simultaneously. Melville supplied my first intimation that literature could enlarge my knowledge, that is my factual understanding of the actual world, while taking me from the world I presently inhabited (there on the Caltrain) by telling me a story that invited empathetic contemplation of my fellow man, and myself. We have dark and twisted depths I could not have fathomed if I had not first learned about the intestines of a whale.

The Biographical Quest – Part 3 of 3

All research is a quest–a quest for knowledge. Granted, it may seem grandiose to apply the word “quest,” with its epic connotations, given the ways in which research is actually conducted. This is especially true in the humanities. (While there’s a modest amount of romance in, say, pipetting DNA samples into electrophoresis gels until thumb cramps strike–cramps being a more recognizable form of martyrdom than the pallid complexion one cultivates beneath the fluorescent lighting of the subterranean library stacks–with a few exceptions like space exploration, even scientific research is hardly the stuff of drama.) But it is indubitably thrilling to find out what you have long sought to know. wife of bath

It’s worth remembering that some of the classic chivalric quests of old were also quests for knowledge. Yes, those old knights errant did pursue their share of grails and monstrous adversaries, but in Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale,” the dubious hero is sent to figure out “what thyng is it that wommen moost desiren”–in other words, what women want. The knight supplies a pretty reasonable answer in the end: personal sovereignty. (Meanwhile the Wife of Bath’s prologue implicitly provides a compelling alternative response: fresh action in the marital bed.) Even so, Chaucer’s canny tale failed to put the question to rest. It has continued to vex thinkers like Freud and inspire lame rom coms centuries later. I guess some questions just grab hold of us and don’t let us go until we’ve grappled with them for ourselves. That’s what makes them the stuff of stories.

As a biographer, I have to grapple with a lot of different questions. Over time, the questions evolve. One begins as a reporter (who? what? where? when?), and becomes a psychologist (or the Wife of Bath’s knight, parsing desire and motivation), and thereafter a poet (seeking symbol, significance, some way to express the universal truths that one life can illuminate), playing various other roles in between. In fact, it’s hardly a compartmentalized, linear progression. Though a poet, a psychologist, and a reporter could each take the same data and make of it a different story, somehow the biographer must speak simultaneously for all three.

Recently I have been most deeply immersed in the role of reporter, delving through documents, searching for specific facts, trying to fill in gaps in the story of who-what-where-when. Specifically: I’ve been reading letters. Hundreds of letters. Hundreds of boring, redundant letters, many scrawled in execrable cursive, which contain nuggets of valuable information mixed in with discussion of the price of pork chops and the possibility of rain.


When my subject, Charles Fisk, was nineteen-going-on-twenty, in 1944-45, he lived and worked in Los Alamos, as a member of the Special Engineer Detachment on the Manhattan Project. His parents, back in Massachusetts, sent him letters several times a week. Occasionally he’d get mail from his younger sister, an old high school buddy or ex-girlfriend, or an aunt. He filed many of these letters in chronological order and then bundled them with wire. He then he went on to stuff them in a box for, it seems, the remainder of his life. In a letter Fisk wrote to his own son, in 1980, he complained about how boring all of his father’s letters had been. Though he cherished his father, he took no joy in receiving his letters during the war, rehashing the latest news he had read of the Tunisian campaign, or musing about the robins on the lawn. No wonder he never read them again.

That task, however, has now fallen to me.  These old bundled letters came into my custody in November when I visited Fisk’s daughter.  She loaned them to me quite generously–but also, I think, gratefully. She did not just throw open her attic the moment she met me. After hours of cautious conversation on the phone, she agreed to spend some time with me, from which she (fortunately) concluded that I was not a complete ogre or idiot. Thereupon she recognized an opportunity, as well. Coming from a family of paper-keepers and dutiful correspondents, she had reams of family letters. In a way, this was a blessing; in a way, a burden.  But here was someone (me) perversely willing to read through the hundreds upon hundreds of missives, figure out which ones were interesting and important, and create a digital archive of them all. I could fill her in on the juicy bits and spare her the price of pork.

That, then, is how I’ve been spending many hours over the last couple of months. If research is a quest, a grand picaresque journey, this particular leg  feels a bit like a long road trip across Kansas, where I do a little scavenger hunt each time I stop at a convenience store. Every once in a while, I find some interesting graffiti on the walls of the toilet stall, but little of that is of consequence. But then–then!–the answer to a question that has been aggravating me for months (like how Fisk came to be a regular guest of Mr. & Mrs. Gustave Baumann  during his New Mexico years) comes to light. Suddenly, forsooth, it feels less like a gas station in Kansas, more like I have just done battle, struck a blow for knowledge, vanquished a persistent foe.