The Things We Carry

Class assignment: Take an inventory of your bag, pick three telling items, and let them tell.

1. Pencil

In the back pocket, a green Michigan State University pencil, sharpened at a steep angle, with a fresh eraser the color of a garden pot. It came in a pack of fifty, bound with a thick rubber band, purchased at the campus surplus store, and given to me by a student named Harold. It was our last day together, and pencils were needed for course evaluations on mark-sense forms.

Harold was a Vietnam vet with a slim build who wore wire-rim glasses and held a job on campus. He often brought me small items of the sort needed by those of us who work on paper—erasers, pens, paper clips.

I wasn’t the only recipient of his gifts. He gave little things to his fellow students, too. He baked cookies with macadamia nuts and brought them to class in a special tin. He was always thinking of ways to encourage the others.

One afternoon the class was discussing the writer’s voice. A compelling voice, I said, isn’t always pretty. Behind a strong voice is the character and power of a lived life. It’s a sound you want to listen to, but it doesn’t have to purr. “Like Bob Dylan,” I said.

The students, decades younger than I, groaned. En masse they agreed that Dylan’s voice stank. Once they got up a head of steam, they couldn’t say enough about just how awful it was.

Harold spoke up: “If you think Dylan can’t sing, listen to Nashville Skyline.” The next day he arrived with Nashville Skyline burned on a CD.

Harold’s own voice expressed a self-deprecating humor with the softness of a dove.

“You walk into the room with a pencil in your hand,” sang Dylan in “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Years later, Harold’s pencils still roll when I pull open the top drawer of my desk.

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2. Chalk

The assignment was to write a poem in imitation of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

I wanted students to write their imitations on the blackboard, have them cram together at the front of the room, fitting their lines between others. How stuck we are in our seats! Wedged into little desks hour after hour, looking at screens, while all our energy drains down to our feet. I wanted to get back to basics, to chalk and words, to the slant and length of the letters, the indentations of lines, to scraping the letters onto the blackboard, like a wet, black bough.

I wanted to read the poems out loud again and again, until the students became poets, accustomed to hearing poets’ voices in a classroom, speaking their poems—to fill the boards with the electric colored words, and to leave them there for those who came next.

My plan required colored chalk, so I went to Office Max. I found the stubby kind for sidewalks, but not the thinner sticks that are easier to manipulate. After searching in vain, I located a clerk and asked where I might find chalk.

“Chalk,” he said, as if dimly trying to recall his days in second grade. He led me to an aisle I had already searched, and examined the shelves, filled with the accoutrements of digital techno-wizardry. He soon gave up, pulled his phone from its holster, and called back to the stockroom. Another clerk came out to help.

“This lady is looking for chalk. Do we have any?”

“We don’t carry much chalk anymore. People aren’t using it because, you know, PowerPoints and whiteboards,” the second clerk said. He walked me back to another aisle I had already scoured and pointed to a small, solitary box hanging from a display hook. The box was empty. Someone had stolen the chalk.

“I’ll check the storeroom,” he said.

I looked at Pilot V5 fine-point pens for a long time. At last the clerk reemerged, carrying the jewel in the Office Max firmament—a tiny box of chalk.

“It’s the last,” he said, “the very last.”

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 3. Book

Wild is Cheryl Strayed’s story of saving herself from addiction and despair by hiking a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. In preparation she stuffs her backpack, which she calls Monster, with thirteen books, including four of my own favorites: The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor, and Dubliners by James Joyce. After finishing a book she burns it, shrinking the Monster on her back.

But the Dream she carries all the way to the end, reading the poem “Power” at night like a prayer (“her wounds,” says Rich of Marie Curie, “came from the same source as her power”).

Cheryl carries the Dream all the way because she cannot reach the end of her venture empty-handed. Her bag must not be exhausted. There must be something to find at the conclusion, something to discover, the journey’s revelation and truth, the truth of her story of rescue, the conversion of wound to power: a book.

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Raylan! Raylan, Come Back! Mother Wants You!

The sixth and final season of Justified has begun. I’m not happy about it. The final part, that is.

The show’s creators say they’re breaking it off because they don’t want to overstay their welcome. I say take your shoes off, stay as long as you like. The creators say they don’t want to repeat old tricks. If they don’t make new episodes, I’ll watch the old ones. What do I care if they repeat a few tricks?

But like it or not, the producers have made their decision, and I’m left with wondering how Justified will end. How will the battle between U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and his childhood friend turned criminal, Boyd Crowder (Walter Goggins), be resolved? Raylan chose the law, Boyd chose to blow things up, but the line that separates them is thin. They are pitted against one another, yet they often join forces against a shared enemy.

There are women involved, of course. There’s Ava (Joelle Carter), who had a romance with Raylan and then took up with Boyd. She’s going to be pivotal in the resolution to come, whatever it is. Raylan might join his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) and his baby daughter in Florida after he completes his last task—put Boyd Crowder behind bars.

Catching Boyd may mean Raylan gets himself killed. It’s hard to imagine Boyd going down without pulling Raylan with him. The question for this last season is Who will get out of Harlan alive? Many viewers seem to want a shoot-out, a final duel between Raylan and Boyd. Many believe it will be Raylan whose luck runs out, as his past wrongs catch up to him.

What are the possible resolutions of the plot?

  1. Raylan puts Boyd in prison with help from Ava, or Boyd is killed, maybe hoist with his own petard. Then what? Raylan could ride out of Harlan and settle down with Winona. But this can’t be. For one thing, I don’t want Boyd to get caught in one of his own blasts, even if poetic justice would be done. And we haven’t seen anything of Winona lately except on Skype. She can’t hold her own against the claims of the flesh-and-blood characters. And really, is Raylan going to start changing diapers?
  2. Boyd kills Raylan, and he and Ava head off into a fresh start. Can’t get invested in that one either. I don’t want Raylan buried in a plot out back of his father’s house. And redemption for Boyd after all the killing and blowing shit up? Can’t see the show giving him the last word.
  3. Ava sets up a deal in which she gets rid of both men and takes over as queen of Harlan County. There’s some justice in this scenario. Both men have used her for their own purposes at times. But would the show end pleasingly with such a bitter tableau? I don’t think so.
  4. Raylan and Boyd kill each other, and Ava dies too. This is a variant on number 3, except no one gets out of Harlan alive. As for the men, one can’t live without the other, just like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty going over the falls together. This may be the actual conclusion. It stays true to the story lines of the five seasons beforehand, and to a core story—how their fathers doomed Raylan and Boyd.

I don’t like any of these endings.

Here’s what I want. I want Raylan and Boyd to live. The show must end, but the characters don’t have to. They must depart Harlan after all the harm they’ve done. I accept that. But if the show wanted me to take seriously a domestic future for either man, the writers had to do a whole lot more with Winona and Ava. The screen goes blank when I imagine Raylan or Boyd in some kind of home life, even with a half-empty bottle of bourbon on the table.

What if we look to the law of genre for help? Justified is a late western. Raylan’s a marshal and wears a cowboy hat, shoot-outs are part of his job description, and Harlan is the law’s frontier, a modern-day Dodge City. So maybe the final scenes in iconic westerns will lead us to the right conclusion.

There’s John Wayne framed by the doorway at the end of The Searchers, restless and alone, but with a measure of peace that he has won by completing his quest. There’s Paul Newman and Robert Redford in freeze frame in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, seconds before their death, in their own way as immortal as figures on a Grecian urn.

Justified needs a combination of these, a mash-up of restless motion without satisfaction. I think we need to add another western model, Shane.

Shane picked up the gun he had vowed to holster forever, rode into town, and killed the hit man and every other bad guy. He made the town safe but killed his last chance for domestic companionship and peace. His brand is violence. He must ride into the mountains, alone. I am the kid who ran after him, calling, Mother wants you . . . Shane, come back.

That’s how it must end, Raylan and Boyd, in eternal, restless wandering, but together, moving into the fog of an uncertain future.

Or is there a more satisfying outcome I haven’t thought of?

No matter how it ends, I’ll mourn Justified. The hills of Harlan County will echo with Raylan! Raylan, come back! Mother wants you!


The New Empathy

In conversations with new acquaintances, Paul Ford asks plenty of questions and lets the other people do the talking. He tries not to ask what they do for a living, but if it comes to that, he responds with “Wow. That sounds hard.”

If anyone wants to come over, we’re here. If not, reach out. I can use all the support I can get. I’m hurting.

Parole was denied for John Lennon’s killer in his eighth appearance before the parole board. An earthquake of 6.0 magnitude struck the northern San Francisco Bay Area.

42 people like this.

A dozen parents and children killed a shark for a selfie.

Aww hun, if I lived on the west coast I’d come visit. Sending lots of love.

A massive fish swallowed a four-foot shark whole off the Florida coast. Kathy Griffin is sick of some middle-aged white guys on late-night TV.

Hun I am so sorry for your great loss! Big Hugs.

A mysterious giant crack splits the ground in northern Mexico. It runs nearly two-thirds of a mile, measures close to thirty feet deep.

So sad I can’t go but you know I love you.

A thirteen-story Gaza building was leveled in an attack after Egypt-mediated ceasefire talks broke down. A British woman vowed to become the first female jihadist to kill an American captive.

I’m so sorry. I’ll stop by in a week or two.

J-Lo says she doesn’t whore around. Obama ordered a review of police militarization. After Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, his body was left on the street for four hours in the summer sun.

I hope you get all the support you deserve!!!

Iggy Azelea fell off the stage at the Pre-VMAs concert plus Nicki Minaj’s VMA dancer was bitten by a snake.

Oh Darling.

Poachers killed an estimated one hundred thousand elephants across Africa between 2010 and 2012.

If you ever need anything please let me know.

Thousands marched peacefully through Staten Island to protest the chokehold death of Eric Garner.

I’m coming over tonight, if that’s OK with you.

James Foley, a missing American photojournalist, was beheaded by ISIS.

I know that this is going to be hard for you and I wish I could be there to help but I can’t.

Kim Kardashian has issued an invitation to see her without makeup.

It’s been years since I’ve seen you and you’re writing for my love and support.

Starting when she turned twenty-nine, Lucy Hilmer has taken a self-portrait on every birthday for forty years wearing nothing but a pair of Vanity Fair underpants, shoes, and socks. She says, “Armed with my camera and tripod, I found a way to define myself on my own terms in the most open, vulnerable way I could.”

There’s nowhere to park where you live.


Waiting

On Wednesday I asked the students in my class to describe what they’d been doing earlier in the day, before our afternoon session began. While they scribbled I wrote alongside them, producing a dull summary of actions and toil—until I came to waiting

There is always waiting. It begins in the still-dark morning when my dog barks at a sound I can’t hear. I wait for R. to get out of bed and take her outside so I can go back to sleep. But really so I can go back to waiting.

If you want to write, there’s no way around waiting. Over waiting the writer has no control. Oh, I’m in charge in the sense that I can follow a routine known to be helpful to the production of words. Keep to a schedule is one common suggestion. But there is mystery in writing. Who can say why one day, seated before my screen at seven in the morning, nothing but verbal clutter comes, and the next day, seated at seven, I put together words that have never before been arranged in just that way. Both days are born out of me and my life, and yet I don’t have control over them. I can only put myself in a position from which something good may come. And then I wait.

If you’re a writer, there is always waiting. Send off a submission and bide your time until the results come in. I used to print out my work, meticulously compose a cover letter, prepare my SASE with a stamp that seemed right for the occasion, slide it into a larger envelope so there were no creases, take the assembled whole to the post office, and hand it to the clerk, all with the seriousness of great expectations. A deliberate and time-consuming process. After counting a few days for transit in each direction, I began to wait for an answer in the mail, which meant attending on each afternoon’s delivery. Each day the truck with little tires would make its stop at the end of my driveway. There was something deliberate about walking out to the mailbox, pulling out the envelopes, magazines, and catalogs, flipping through to see if an editor had replied. Most often there was nothing, each day a little death. (How many jokes did Shakespeare make about that? “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes.”) And then the rebirth of waiting, until at last rejection or acceptance came, sometimes signed with a real signature. Sometimes there were real words on the sheet of paper, written by pen and hand. The verdict had heft, a weight that matched the seriousness of the waiting.

Nowadays submissions are handled by Submittable, that anonymous and efficient online service. I log into my account and upload my essay, maybe pay a fee, and my process is done. I still wait, but the waiting is not the same. It has no cycle, no order determined by the earth’s rotation. Waiting is a continuous hum of the nerves that can continue for months or even years, as if one were a hunger artist.

Or there can be no waiting at all. I once submitted online to a journal and was rejected twenty minutes later. I uploaded my essay at 7:30 p.m. and by 7:50 p.m. had been repelled without comment. I shot off an aggrieved message to the editor, doubting that anyone could evaluate an eighteen-page essay in so short a time, certainly not with care. The editor replied that she had given my essay every consideration.

So there are things worse than waiting. One must be patient, I tell myself. Worrying won’t hurry the process along, and the outcome, or verdict as I prefer to think of it, is more likely a resounding no than a joyful yes. I think of myself as a defendant standing in the courtroom, listening for the jury’s decision. Whether the verdict is a yes or no, I have no power to direct its course. Someone else has presented my case, and I must remain silent and stoic. That’s why they call it a submission—you submit to another person’s power. Depending on the verdict, I will either turn and embrace my supporters, if there are any, or be led from the courtroom and back to my cell.

Some mornings I feel sure a no is barreling toward me to lodge in my inbox. Perhaps it was delivered overnight while I slept and is now coyly poised to spring at my unprotected eyes. Sometimes, unsuspecting, I innocently open my email, but sometimes I sense, like a barking dog, that something troubling watches me, even though I can’t see it.

Some people are crestfallen when the cake comes out heavy or the pizza slides off the stone or the zipper won’t zip, but those failures stun me little. They roll off because I have invested nothing in them to begin with. But writing is another matter. To write is to give with all of myself, to feel that what I am doing matters, even if the subject is small, invisible, unmoving. Writing is entire. And so I react with the entire self when word comes back from the world.

I crave nightfall, the end of the day, when waiting is over, and I am wrapped in the fur of dogs, the touch of love, and sleep. Waiting is the condition of our birth, our waking, what we’re born into, this lovesickness or homesickness, the lump in our throats that will only clear when we can wait no more.


Confessions of Ineptitude; or, How Not to Blog

Hi! My name is Marcia Aldrich and I am an inept blogger. Here is my story.

Before I started Backhand Blog—a name that turned out to be surprisingly prescient—I had some concerns. I was embarking on a kind of writing, topical, occasional, friendly, that I had never been invested in. This lack of devotion seemed to me a bad sign, perhaps an omen about a venture that wouldn’t go well. If I distrust water, should I take up kayaking? If kitchens get me claustrophobic, should I channel Janette Desautel?

Permanent Status Update

I can’t get to the books I want to read or the literary journals I subscribe to or all the writing published by my friends. My daily workload, like most academically employed writers, consists of reading and responding to piles of student writing, and a range of other obligations too numerous and time-consuming to mention. I should be finding ways to focus my reading, not further my distractions. So too with my own writing. I have a file cabinet with drafts of essays I haven’t managed to complete, drafts of books I’ve abandoned in boxes that block movement in my study. One might say I have a real problem finishing what I’ve started.

So why take time away from my primary pursuits to write a blog? Wasn’t I going to contribute to the problem, writing more stuff no one has time to read? And yet blogging was one of the crucial elements I was advised to undertake in the service of promoting my book.

Backstory

When I began my blog, Companion to an Untold Story was coming out, a book I had labored over for years. I felt as if I had written it in my blood. Since I had published my prior book, responsibility for promotion of such a work had changed—firmly shifting toward the author. Truth be told, responsibility had already started to shift by the time of my earlier book; I just didn’t know it. Now I did. I couldn’t entertain the illusion that someone else, a team of cunning publicists, would take care of creating buzz, setting up a wardrobe malfunction, getting me attacked by the right types so I could stage some faux outrage. The University of Georgia Press was publishing my book, a sober institution, and not a major commercial press. UGP has one publicist for all its books. That can’t be true, you might say, but it is.

As a self-reliant writer-publicist, I received from UGP a short guide full of steps I should take to promote my book. Many (hypothetical) readers will already be familiar with them. At the annual AWP Conference, where creative writers affiliated with postsecondary educational institutions gather, sessions on such matters occupy more and more slots on the program. Innumerable websites are available to consult, as well as hundreds of articles detailing the well-rehearsed steps authors should take, all written in the optimistic pep talk style of self-help. The steps are mostly about social networking: join Facebook and create a book page, join Twitter, create a personal website, create an author’s page on Amazon and anywhere else you can, and start a blog—oh, and make a trailer for YouTube!

I am going to focus on my experience with the blog. I am not going to go into my experiences with all of these strategies except to note that the guides imply that if you follow their simple steps, news of your book will spread like wildfire. Okay, maybe not like wildfire. But they do not tell you your promotional efforts will have the effect of a wet match.

On Not Picking a Topic

According to the guides, successful blogs have a theme, a topic they consistently return to. It stands to reason that an identifiable, consistent subject is a good strategy. People on the prowl for a word on that subject will find your blog and then follow it. Each new post adds more readers, like lint on a sweater. Many publicists advise picking a subject related to the book you are promoting, blogging before its release date to drum up interest.

Targeting a subject seems like sound practice, yet I did not follow the advice. That was my first big mistake (or maybe my second, depending when you start counting). I decided my blog would be eclectic and not confined by a focus. Perverse, right? Do I have an oppositional disorder? Possibly. That and a grand notion of the panorama of topics on which I had things to say. In my “About” description of the blog, I said: “Most blogs have an announced subject: a sport, yoga, a dog. I don’t intend to follow that pattern, despite my title’s reference to tennis.” One sign of my deep confusion, or opposition, or whatever it is, is the name Backhand Blog, when I had no intention of talking about tennis. I even had a subtitle—returning servers—to maximize the bafflement. There was a pun on “returning serve,” but I was serving off the wrong foot, so to speak.

I went on, “I envision my blog in the shape of a spider with its jointed legs and the hair on those eight legs picking up scents, sounds, vibrations, and air currents. In other words I want a blog with an abdomen that moves in all directions and an exoskeleton that is periodically shed.”

Good God! What does that even mean? What was I thinking? Was I thinking? Was I practicing the art of self-sabotage? If so, I was talented. Who would know what to expect from such a description? If a person roaming the Internet wilderness stumbled upon my blog, would that individual ever come back? From the statistical evidence, I’d say no.

On the one hand I sounded like a tennis freak, and on the other I sounded mighty literary, pretentiously so, the kind of literary to be avoided. My blog had no identity and no identifiable focus. I had gone out of my way to say I would operate like a spider ratcheting around to see what fell into my web.

Another Problem with Taut Focus

One of my problems in blogging my book to fame was that it concerned suicide. Need I say more? I think I wrote a compelling book on the subject, but I am not a credentialed expert in the field and did not want to set up shop as one. I am a contrarian, as I’ve said, but it’s not just that—there’s something disturbing about me opining on that ultimate subject. Don’t you see the promotional possibilities? my friends asked. I could become an authority, create a publicity persona, speak knowledgably about my insights, give advice. Many writers have carved out a niche for themselves doing just this, and very profitably, I was told. My friends named highly visible writers who were also gifted entrepreneurs. There was just one little problem with this scenario: once the book was finished, I’d rather go all Oedipus on my eyes than say more about that suicide, reliving my friend’s death and the involuntary role I played in it. I’d rather have the book languish on the dustiest shelf in the world emporium of remaindered books if to sell it I had to perform his death over and over. I had done that in writing the book, and it was all I could do.

So let’s review. With no intention of focusing the blog on tennis, I nonetheless began with a post called “The Drop Shot,” about Roger Federer and his deployment of that trick late in his career. Naturally it attracted people interested in tennis. They were probably genuinely confused to read such a literary consideration of the topic. I should add that my post came in at 2,204 words, not the recommended 300 or so. And when I say it was about Federer’s deployment of the drop shot, I’m not drawing the accurate shape of the twists and turns it took as it went about picking up scents, sounds, vibrations, and air currents—including a sweep back to my thorny relationship with my father. One of my smartest students told me she couldn’t figure out what I was up to, writing about drop shots. Of course, she knew nothing about tennis. Thus, people who knew nothing about tennis but knew me as a writer visited the blog and were taken aback. And people who knew about tennis visited the blog and were also taken aback.

I had scored a double own-goal, a two-handed knockout punch on my readers. (Federer, by the way, is one of the last of the one-handed backhanders.)

Did I follow up that first post with more on tennis? No, I did not. The next post was about a young buck that was severely injured when he was caught on a fence down the road from where I live and ended up in my yard in a terrible crumble. It was a sorrowful post with no silver lining. Even I can’t reread it. After that I veered to a humorous post about literary rejections called “The Art of Saying No.” That post, tagged as it was with the words rejection and literary journals, attracted the most visitors of all my posts. On March 29, 2012, 136 people visited “The Art of Saying No.”

If I had been smart, which I obviously was not, I would have carried on with that theme. But I did not. Of course not. I did not continue with literary themes, or tennis themes, or the heartbreak of deer themes. I posted nothing at all for a long time. Another poor move. You aren’t supposed to drop out of the blogging hemisphere for months—you lose all momentum. But momentum is not something I had achieved. I was the antiblogger, who created reverse momentum. I had to start from the beginning over and over.

In Before the Topic Fades

Why such inconsistency, you ask? Well, the answer leads me to one of the other oft-stated formulas for popular blogs—the writing is tossed off rapidly, triggered by the occasional, resembling a diary. I have never been a successful keeper of a journal or diary. I do scribble notes to myself, which I later find painful to read. The few times when I’ve attempted such a thing for longer than two days, I’ve discovered depressing truths. I repeat myself. Actually that’s too kind a way of putting what I do. I get into an emotional rut in journal entries, going over the same well-trod ground. A journal is private, or pretends to be, even the ones written for publication. But my entries really are written for me, private in the sense that no one should ever read them. In my journal I tend to take stock—that’s what I called it—of where I am in the looping narrative of my lot in life. Reading the entries is as enlivening as watching my elderly Aunt Virgie unload the contents of her fancy salt shakers after Christmas dinner, unto the last grain. I am not a good candidate for a school of writing that is diaristic.

Tossing something off sounds appealing—a stark departure from my ordinary painstaking rigor (not quite mortis). But could I transition to an informal, off-the-cuff mode? This seemed doubtful, even at the outset. And I will say that none of my posts were tossed off in a spontaneous manner. They were not flung onto the page. They were personal essays that I ended up trying to perfect, just as I do all my writing. I was not capable of changing a lifetime’s habits just because I was writing a blog. Someone commented on my first post that my entry wasn’t at all like blogs she read. It was meant as a compliment, but I should have read it as a warning about a problem. And that problem was never resolved.

Evidence of said unresolved problem is the post you are reading, which isn’t finished yet but just passed 2,000 words!

Conclusions or Takeaways or Maybe Just Questions

My experience may be the result of gross incompetence. Perhaps I live and write too far outside the social networking culture in which blogs have prominently figured, and can’t grasp how they operate, what purposes they serve. The student who didn’t understand why I was writing about drop shots asked, Aren’t blogs just self-publishing? It’s hard to get around that essential fact. That’s exactly what they are. No one asked me to write a blog, and no one vets the entries. I am the author, editor, and publisher, and perhaps audience, too. And even if I attempt to maintain self-imposed standards of writing, will anyone notice that the posts are well written—or care? So far I don’t see any evidence they care. Readers of blogs read for reasons other than tasting literary quality—making connections with others, sharing an interest, gleaning information, advice, solace. All good reasons to read.

Digression

By way of example of the point about literary merit: I blogged on thanking those who helped the writer on her way, a post called “Cordelia Does Acknowledgments.” It came in at 2,292 words. Yet another personal essay, quirky and twisty, but also filled with information I had gathered and sifted. Soon after I posted it, an article on the same subject appeared on a much-visited site. It was economical, informational, tried to add a pinch of controversy, but it was not memorable. Thousands read it, no doubt, stripping from it whatever copper they could get. (Maybe my post wasn’t memorable either, but I hoped it would be. That was my aim. That is always my aim.) There was nothing in the writing that stopped the popular article from being consumed and forgotten. A throwaway. That is what I fear blogs are, unless they can be collected and shaped into something else, like a book.

My long view (forgive a wild leap here), unsupported by anything factual, suggests that blogs will be defunct in time, perhaps soon. Perhaps they are already going defunct, replaced by other media. Perhaps people will grow sick of blogs. Perhaps if they are going to read something, they’d prefer to read my book on suicide rather than my blog posts about writing the book on suicide. Not my book necessarily—someone’s book. This could be wishful thinking. We do seem absorbed by writing about writing, writing about writing about grief, rather than the real thing. Reading about dieting rather than dieting. As home cooking declines, we have an explosion in cookbooks full of recipes we won’t make—we’ll just read them.

The annual report of stats for my blog arrived the other day. I had 1,300 visits for the year. In 2012, I had 1,500. My busiest day for 2013 was March 16, when I posted “I’m Not Writing about Trees.” That post was visited by 95 people. WordPress, the host of Backhand Blog, helpfully suggests I “consider writing about these topics [the topics that drew the most visits] again.” And who could argue? Should I heed that advice, having learned something about blogging, or should I call it a day?

In rereading my first post, on Federer’s faulty drop shot, there are words applicable to my blogging experience: “Maybe I have to accept Federer’s defeats at the hand of Nadal and accept, too, that his strengths are his weaknesses. None of us has absolute control over whether our shots will make it or not. Does that mean we shouldn’t try? We do have to be prepared to accept the consequences of our attempts, those failures and successes, and sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other.”


Self-Portrait: Questionnaire

(First posted at Bending Genre and since revised.)

1. What category do your bad dreams fall into?

a. Car troubles
b. Faulty machinery in general, including computers
c. Being chased
d. Falling
e. Trapped

2. If you chose trapped, where were you trapped?

a. In a closet in the library of your elementary school
b. In a corn combine on your neighbor’s farm
c. Under the weight of the neighbor boy
d. Under the ice on a river
e. Behind the doors of the yellow school bus that wouldn’t open

3. What do you dislike about your current job?

a. The pay
b. The hours
c. The people
d. The workplace
e. The work
f. All of the above

 4. How do you cope?

a. Yelling at strangers in the car
b. Going ten miles slower than the speed limit
c. Putting chewing gum on walls and under seats
d. Reading about extinct species
e. Dancing when the local football team loses

5. What is your least favorite activity?

a. Yard work
b. Meetings
c. Paying bills
d. Cleaning the gutters
e. Overseeing children’s homework
f. Filling out annual reports

6. What word describes your view of mankind at this point in your life?

a. Joyful
b. Enlightened
c. Robotic
d. Bankrupt
e. Whiny
f. Trapped

7. What issue most concerns you?

a. The state of the economy and your children’s future
b. The state of the economy (I have no children)
c. Yard waste
d. Won-lost record of the local football franchise
e. The disappearance of bees
f. Trapped

8.  If you had it to do over again, what describes your attitude about having children?

a. I’d have more
b. I’d have exactly what I have
c. I’d have some for others
d. I’d adopt
e. I’d get an aquarium

9. If you have a partner, which of the following describes your current feelings?

a. Faded admiration
b. Resignation
c. Indifference
d. Hostility
e. Suspicion
f. All of the above plus trapped

10. At what point did your feelings for your partner change, if they did?

a. Shortly after the start
b. After the first child
c. After the second child
d. Recently
e. Before you began
f. All of the above

 11. For a holiday gift, which would you prefer to receive?

a. Scrooge Mini-Nutcracker
b. Bavarian Santa Nutcracker
c. The Bob Cratchit Nutcracker
d. Animated Musical Toy Chest playing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
e. Policeman’s bullhorn

12. Which of the following wouldn’t you like to receive?

a. The Horticultural Institute’s Tiered Floral Display
b. Handmade Kathe Kruse Margretchen Doll
c. The Lorenzi Cigar Rest with Continuous Burning Wick
d. Chinese rickshaw

13. Which of the following objects suggests your essence?

a. Cordless insect vacuum
b. Body fat analyzer
c. Step-on garbage pail
d. Long-reach bulb changer
e. Stop-Mud-in-Its-Tracks Slippers
f. Washable leather potholders

14. How would you describe your experience taking this questionnaire?

a. Excited, like seeing a strange new butterfly
b. Expectant, like seeing a kiss quivering inside your partner
c. Bored, like taking notes at a meeting
d. Angry, like required counseling
e. Sad, like reading the obituary of someone you once loved


Bad Writing

This last spring I tried an experiment: in the last weeks of the semester I asked my introductory students in creative nonfiction to consciously write badly. To carry out this effort, we returned to an in-class exercise from the beginning of the semester, one I had created to target observation and description. The windows of one wall of our classroom look out to the Red Cedar River, which runs through the campus at Michigan State University. It’s a busy spot and rich for observation. In the original exercise, all twenty-five students crowded to the window for some minutes of visual research and then wrote about what they had selected to describe. Then we read the impromptu writings out loud and grouped them by subject matter.

We were all curious to see what others had selected to write about and how they approached their material. Who would gravitate to the spot where on frequent nights some individual or group spray-paints the ROCK? Who would write about the river, or focus on a human figure instead of the landscape?

We found that even when the same subject was chosen, approaches were individual and unique. One writer might take a humorous tack, while another was philosophical. One writer narrated a scene heavily, while another became invested in fresh description. Subject matter was not defining, approach was.

I hoped that springing this simple exercise on apprentice writers might make the experience fun and spontaneous, that they would enjoy the benefits of ungraded exercises. I also hoped we might create a sense of community in the classroom. The results exceeded my modest hopes. I learned once again that I do best when I turn my classroom into an exploratory writing lab, and that giving students something to do is energizing.

From that early day in the semester we practiced the dissection of bad writing to move incrementally into new skills and awareness. But toward the end of the semester, we all needed a boost of fun, a twist in our method, and so I came up with the idea of returning to that earlier exercise in looking out the window, but this time with the intention of writing badly. We could gauge how far we had come because it requires skill to consciously write badly. By now it was April, not January; however, last April in Michigan was a lot like January. We were still trudging through wet snow. The instructions were the same as the first time: pick something to describe from your view out the window. The added twist now was to target an element of style the student had come to identify as bad writing, and compose in that style using that element.

We read the results out loud. This time we identified the style elements. I did not predict the splendor of the results. Some of the students had so mastered writing poorly that their writing was good. It was something like turning a sock inside out. Reading them out loud was so much fun, so entertaining, that I thought we should record the result.

I spoke to Peter Johnson, the new and extraordinary digital specialist who had already begun filming our events to post on the department’s website. I had the idea of roughly modeling our video on the sequence of Bob Dylan displaying and discarding a series of cue cards bearing selected words and phrases from the lyrics of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary film Don’t Look Back. The students would write out on construction paper an announcement of the element of bad writing being demonstrated—for example, melodramatics, malapropism, run-on sentences, mixed metaphors, clichés, or detachment. That was the plan. Peter asked if there was a student who would want to work with him in the filming and production. Brandon Lee enthusiastically volunteered and did a terrific job.

A few students who had been engaged in a chalk drawing contest each day before class began, volunteered to create something on the blackboards as a backdrop for the video Bad Writing.

I did run into a stumbling block I had not foreseen.  I thought the whole class was on board for the filming, but some were not. One student thought he was supposed to be learning how to write well and he didn’t see how this exercise in writing badly was accomplishing that.  In short a handful of students wanted to opt out for a variety of reasons.  At first I was taken aback by this mini-revolt and then I saw that filming each student would risk tedium.  The overall results were enhanced by reducing the number of performances.

The filming was great fun. We figured out the order of readings, where each person would stand, and each student did his or her thing twice. The trick was having the performance pieces move forward at a good clip. All the students who participated were incredibly good in their own way. They put their pieces over.

Brandon showed the video on the last day of class. You never know what might result from an idea. It might fail, fall flat on its face, or it might take off. This time the experiment took off, and part of the reason it worked was because so many students put energy into it. It’s a balancing act, this teaching business, and sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don’t.

The undergraduate chair asked me if I’d be willing to show the video at the department’s end-of-the-year awards event. We did, and it was again a much bigger hit with students and faculty than I had ever imagined. Now Bad Writing is up on our departmental website.


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