Sunday, August 16, 2009

NOTES 1 My Fifth Grade Education, Joyce Carol Oates, Samuel Beckett's Dialectic and Re-Inventing the Light-Bulb


I'm on an overnight watching Sons of Anarchy: very well written drama. I've been reading some stuff that I want to think about out loud. This is going to be an ongoing thing that may help me put some of my thoughts in perspective.
What continually blows me away when it comes to writing and reading literature is best described by something someone had said to me when I was in fifth grade.
I was part of an experimental open classroom run by three teachers which included a husband and wife team and another dude. I miserably failed the open classroom experience. I needed structure to thrive. I was too immature emotionally to take the initiative academically but someone should have recognized my needs. When I did finally try to advocate for myself and seek assistance I was shot down and refused help. So I figured if they were going to quit on me, I would quit on them. The remainder of that school year I found a quiet corner off the beaten track and away from prying eyes and I read book after book, that's it, I did nothing else but read. But before I started my omnivorous reading regime I was part of a science study group that was learning about meteorology. The teacher, we'll call him Mr. Z was a pompous over-bearing ass who was too busy trying to intimidate and demean students then to encourage them. I did not respond well to his bullying techniques. He scared me and infuriated me at the same time. I was a bit of a braggart and I had told my fellow students that I wanted to be an inventor and scientist when I grew up and that I had a home lab. It was true, I did have what I called a home lab, but I was a kid and I played more at experimentation then performed actual experiments. Not to say I didn't learn anything in my home lab that I modeled after the child's version of a biography that I read about Thomas Alva Edison (My hero). I strongly identified with the way the author portrayed young Edison. I shared his endless curiosity. Mr. Z did not encourage independent thought and my line of questioning. He went to extremes to embarrass and make me look stupid in front of my peers. He knew that I wanted to be a scientist and instead of nurturing that ambition he tried to shut it down. What I remember most of all that even though I immersed myself in a general scientific background, my imagination had grand and wonderful thoughts about the things that I would discover and invent. Mr. Z said that I wasted my time dreaming away and that I had the propensity to be lazy and that I was a 'paper shuffler' and that I must have been an 'addled child'. He said all of these things to me in front of my peers. At ten-eleven years old, what the hell did I know, except that I was a kid in love with the wonder of the world. I wasn't the smartest kid in the class and I wasn't the dumbest, but (like today), certain concepts took me longer to grasp than others and there were some stuff where I was light years ahead of the other kids. Mr. Z wanted our group results for an experiment we had performed and had recorded on a specific document. He asked me for my results and in the sheaf of papers in my hand I could not find that form. I knew I had it, but I couldn't find it. I searched and searched. He accused me of being a slacker and that I was wasting his and valuable class time 'flipping papers' when it was obvious to everyone that I did not do the assignment. I tried to ask him if he would tell me what the paper looked like and he refused. He told me that my lack of intelligence and immaturity held back the rest of his class and that he wasn't going to waste his precious time explaining to me something everybody else already knew. I was so angry shamed that my jaw seemed to cramp and clamp up and I couldn't speak. He asked me what did I have to say for myself. I shook with fury more at myself because I couldn't talk or defend myself even though I had worked very hard on this group project and had enjoyed it. He said that if I felt the need to cry and act like a baby that I should leave the group and go to the quiet room. I could only nod my head and then hot tears did course down my cheeks as if my body responded to his suggestion to cry. He smiled an evil smile and said the thing to me that has stayed with me forever and has confirmed my adventures in literature. He said, 'That if I don't get the proper background in science and math and other academic subjects that as a scientist or inventor or whatever I wanted to accomplish in life that I would find myself inventing the light bulb or reinventing the light bulb over and over again.'
And though he meant it as an insult and to discourage me, I thought to myself, 'Coool, I would love to perform experiments that follow in Edison's footsteps and make my own light bulb.' I must have shown my pleasure at the thought by smiling and Mr. Z thought that I was being fresh because he told me if I thought being a waste of space is funny that I should be in the 'retard' room and that he had no use for me. I tried to explain to him how I thought re-inventing the light bulb would be great but he was finished with me. As I stood up to leave the group I glanced down at another kid's papers and I remembered that some of the forms were double sided. I quickly found mine and tried to hand it to Mr. Z. Mr. Z said it was too late for me and that I probably cheated and he took my paper and ripped it up. I left but not before I heard him say that now that we have cut some of the dead wood away let’s continue with today's lesson.
And that is when I started reading and reading for the rest of that year. Because it was an open classroom and an experiment, there was no pass or fail. I read and I didn't have to deal with their crap and they didn't have to put up with my imagination and endless questions. It was a good arrangement. I learned more from reading books in that corner than their three collectives asses could ever have taught me. I devoured everything.
Still, Mr. Z's insult of reinventing the light bulb thrills me.
There are moments as a writer that I have little epiphanies that are later re-confirmed when I read the works and ideas of those who came before me. I'm not re-inventing the light bulb the way Mr. Z meant it as a bad thing, instead my feelings and thoughts are given validation as an artist and craftsman of the living sentence.
Thank you Mr. Z; for being a close-minded prick and unintentionally giving me a philosophy that I have applied throughout my lifetime. Yes, you did something good and yes, you were a prick.

So, let's re-invent the light bulb together:

I'm reading The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982

Excerpts from her journal as follows...

January 7, 1973


...'Dreamt just before waking of a teenaged girl who wept miserably. I was half in and half out of her personality. She sat with a couple at a kitchen table, a young married couple who were friends of hers. The girl said 'this is the most wonderful place in the world,' weeping uncontrollably...
Woke, and went to work composing the scene, trying to flesh out the circumstances. Who is the girl, who are her friends, why is she crying, what happens next? (though perhaps this is the very last scene of the story& I must not tamper with it)

The emotion propels the dream-images forward, into the waking consciousness. Without that emotion they sink back, they disappear. Like all of us.'

December 1, 1974 ...'A huge manila folder, of notes--tentative scenes--character sketches, descriptions--interiors--stray thoughts written in great intensity months ago...the intensity mysterious now, and how to recover it?--that self?--how, really to remember that certainty? But if one cannot remember one can invent. The work that goes into a novel, the conscious work, is beyond estimation; the novelist should assume that, should not be immodest enough to claim he has actually worked hard. That has always struck me as self-pitying, childish, a coy plea for sympathy and praise...Or am I wrong, have I always been wrong, should I perhaps have said nothing at all rather than give the impression that writing is 'easy'? For in a sense it is easy, it is utterly the same time it is not easy at all, because it requires constant thinking, worrying, puzzling, arranging and rearranging...The immodesty of 'confessing' one has worked hard, at anything. The bullying--arrogance--shamelessness.

The desire for approval; the demand (implicit) that everyone applaud, that the audience cheer the hardworking suffering artist simply because he has suffered, or so he says. If it took me twelve years to write a book, I would not admit it. 'It took me three days to prepare this dinner for you,' someone said. 'It took me all day to scrub these floors, and now look!--you don't appreciate me!' The writer who speaks candidly of his suffering is really begging for love. He is blackmailing the rest of us. Love, acclaim, success. Blackmail.'

October 18, 1975 ...'The pleasure in critical writing: quite different from that one experiences in 'creative writing'. (Impossible term.) Where the critic can state the writer must suggest, must hint, must dramatize; one can use word directly, the other can use them as a kind of medium through which the reality of the work will be evoked in the mind of the reader. Considerable difference, a crucial difference. Which accounts for my delight in 'critical' writing as a kind of contrast to the other. A good critical essay, of course, a work of art and may be even more difficult to write than fiction. But it is never valued highly. Though I worked very hard on both my books of criticism, and it it's obvious that many long hours went into them, reviewers occasionally note that the critical pieces are 'naturally' in the service of my novels and short stories, that one would read them mainly to get insight into the fiction...How ridiculous! As if any sane person would spend so much time writing books to illuminate other books. Critical writing grows out of an intense desire on the part of the critic to and of another writer; it's a kind of collaboration, a synthesis of voices. It should not be downgraded...Yes criticism is an art form, at least when it is governed by a truly creative, generous spirit, and not by the critic's envy of 'real writers.'

July 29, 1976 …'The secret of being a writer: not to expect others to value what you've done as you value it. Not to expect anyone else to perceive in it the emotions you have invested in it. Once this is understood all will be well.'

And more light bulb re-inventing:
From Vivian Mercier' 1977 book Beckett/Beckett, I gleaned the following about the imperative of the dialectic…
(And thoughts about my playwriting and scripting. I’m not calling myself a genius, but I have been thinking exactly along these lines.)

“…In Beckett's writing: 'In reviewing the entire work of a writer of genius, the critic has no right to say, 'He is this and no that,' even where this and that are polar opposites. There is always, I believe, a dialectic at work in the minds of the greatest writers: perhaps their greatness consists precisely in the power to hold two equal and opposite ideas in the mind at once. David Helsa has written a whole book-- an excellent one-- to prove that 'the shape of Beckett's art is the shape of the dialectic.' Each of the major works is, in Hesla's opinion,
a synthesis of the positive and the negative, the comic and the 'pathetic,' the yes and the the no...Optimism and pessimism, hope and despair, comedy and tragedy and counterbalanced by one another: none of them is allowed to become an Absolute.

Unfortunately, despite Beckett's own insistence that 'the key word on my play is ''perhaps''' too many of his critics proclaim that they have found one.”

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