Walking and Creativity

”If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.”

-Charles Dickens

In addition to his other achievements, Charles Dickens cultivated a rather splendid goatee. (AP Photo)

Charles Dickens was a man who got stuff done. “He edited a weekly journal for twenty years, wrote fifteen novels [weighty ones, at that!], five novellas, hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, lectured and performed extensively, … and campaigned vigorously for children’s rights, education, and other social reforms,” sayeth Wikipedia.

According to Merrell Noden, in his 1988 Sports Illustrated article, “Frisky as the Dickens,” he also walked 20 miles a day.  Noden and others seems to believe there’s a correlation between Dickens’ walking and his prodigious literary output. Walking was both a way to engage with his subject matter, “the teeming urban landscapes” of which he so often wrote, and a necessary antidote to the psychic torment of sitting at his desk. I know the feeling.

I was reminded of Dickens yesterday when I read that Lise Meitner, a luminary of twentieth century physics (and the namesake of element 109, meitnerium), walked ten miles a day. Apparently perambulation is good for creativity of all kinds.

So… maybe we should all step away from these screens and go for a walk. Ready? Go.

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 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.