In Praise of Fear

Recently I agreed to cover a friend’s class while she was out of town.  The night before the class, I felt a familiar knot of anxiety.  I had felt this same knot the first day I taught a class, the first day of graduate school, the first day of college, the first day of any job I ever had. This anxiety and fear has always been with me.

When I was child and teenager, I would describe places as territories. Any place that caused the knot—which seemed to physically interrupt the ebb and flow of my body, which seemed to be like a knot in piece of wood, which also seemed to be a clenched fist in my gut—was a place that was outside of my territory and most places were. The very act of driving down a neighborhood street that I was unfamiliar with was enough to cause this anxiety. Walking up to some door for the first time, I would, and still, imagine what I would do if this was the wrong house or if this was the wrong date and time. The worst for me was on family vacations. I could calm myself by saying that the places we visited were meant for tourists that they welcomed strangers, but if we stopped at a grocery store in a strange city for supplies it terrified me. Surely, the staff and other customers would recognize that we were strangers that we did not belong there, and then they would…I was never quite sure what they would do. Taunt us, throw things at use, torture us in a horror movie sort of way. Even as a child I understood that these outcomes were unlikely, but still I felt the fear.

Fear is not always bad.  You should trust your gut. If a stranger knocks on your door trust your instinct to not open it, even if the stranger becomes insulted at your rudeness and wonders why you can’t see through the peephole that he’s not a serial killer. If you find yourself at a party were you feel unsafe, leave even if your friends are angry at you for dragging them away from a good time. If something about a parking lot seems off, bug the security guard, get him or her walk you to your car. These are all good instincts that should be trusted.

But for all the good that fear does, it can also be crippling. I wouldn’t have been able get a job or go to school, if I didn’t ignore the fear I feel when entering a new building. I wouldn’t be able to leave the house, if I gave into the anxiety. Hell, I wouldn’t be able to sit down at my computer and write these words much less post them in a place where anyone can see and judge them. I would never get to try new restaurants and to explore.

When I was teenager my film tastes were different from my friends, which meant I often found myself alone in a theater watching films like The Importance of Being Ernest or The Exorcist re-release.   If I listened to my fear, I would’ve missed out. Being a girl alone is scary and with good reason. There were many moments where being alone seemed to expose me to danger. Sitting in an empty movie theater, a man sat down right behind me even though every other seat was available, even though I sat in an aisle seat (an easy escape). In a diner reading a book, some stranger saw my solitude as an invitation to sit down at my table and start a conversation, asking if I was waiting for someone, asking questions where the answers seemed to suggest the chances of people missing me if I were to disappear.  Hell, even walking down the street men yell nasty things, pull up in their cars and ask if I need a ride (even walking through a parking lot with my car keys in hand). These are all situations where fear is the necessary and the correct response.

The only way to avoid them is to never leave the house, but I have a life to live.  All I can do is try to be aware of my surroundings and even rude sometimes.  In the movie theater, I stood up, moved to the other side, sitting a few rows back, so I could keep an eye on the man during the film. In the restaurant, I was polite, but I paid my bill as quickly as possible and left—talking on a cell phone to friend. I would not hang up until I was in the car with the doors locked and the engine running.  In these situations, I would like to hope that these men had good intentions and were just oblivious to why their behavior would be a nerving to a teenage girl, but I can’t know for sure.

Fear, for all it does to keep you alive and safe, is also embarrassing. I was embarrassed that I was rude to these men, but embarrassment has little to do with keeping one safe.

I’m embarrassed that after I watch a horror movie I need to turn on the lights in the house.  Many friends who share my love of horror will point out that they can no longer be scared because they don’t believe in ghosts or zombies, as though fear is linked to belief.  I do not believe in ghosts. I turn on every light in the house not to keep the spirits at bay, but because I know how the eyes can play tricks on you that a shadow in a dark room can become a figure. I turn on the light because imagination is what scares me, and the idea of seeing something that is not really there is perhaps scarier than ghosts.

As you, dear reader, can see, for someone who is often afraid and feels anxiety whenever entering a new place or situation, I do a lot to court that fear. I watch horror films even though I know I’ll give myself nightmares. I go to new places and dare do things alone. I even subbed for a friend, though the very idea caused me anxiety.

Fear is to be trusted; it tells you when you’re entering a new territory where you’re unsure of what will happen. But not all fears are equal. When I entered my friend’s classroom, I feared that I’d embarrass myself and let her down, and while these things could have happened they were risks I can take. The time in the movie theater and the diner what I feared was much worse, so I listened to instinct. Being aware of our surroundings is not a bad thing.

In graduate school, a professor told our class that the subjects that frightened us were what we needed to write about. She was right. Only then do we become super aware of the words that we are putting on the page, become aware of what we’ve been avoiding. When we write about things we are comfortable with, we do not scrutinize the corners the way same we scrutinize the rooms in scary old house.

Perhaps my love of horror films is connected to my love of writing. In both, I face things that I could easily hide from, things that will give me nightmares. But when the credits role or I step away from my keyboard, I’m safe at home. Fear is necessary and not to be avoided. It tells us when to run, and it tells when to turn on the lights and scrutinize what once was shadow.

Don’t you hate it when you try to have a polite conversation with the living and they start screaming?

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Atrocity by Increments

This summer I taught Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” for the first time. The reactions to the story were interesting to say the least. About half the students were shocked by the end, and the other half revealed they had not finished it when they interrupted the class to exclaim “They did what?”  One student flat-out refused to read the story because her son had told her about its grotesque end, and she was still unsettled by “The Cask of Amontillado.”

As we discussed the story, what I found interesting were my student’s assumptions about the setting.  A few of them assumed that it took place in a post-apocalyptic future.  After all, the setting had no overt technology with which to place the story in time, and they couldn’t imagine this happening anytime in recent history.  (I also suspect their reading was colored by Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” which we had read the week before).  However, my students all agreed that this story was not realistic that it could not happen in our world or at least in our culture.

Jackson seems to be mainly known as a horror author and with good cause.  She has great talent for creating unnerving atmospheres where her reader is waiting for things to go wrong.  In her more famous and one of my favorite books, The Haunting of Hill House, she creates an atmosphere so oppressive and so off kilter that I when I first read the book I was terrified before anything had happened.  And lets not forget her mastery of prose, I could swoon over the first paragraph of that novel.  Without a doubt, Jackson is great horror author.

However, the thing about genre fiction, like horror, is a lot of readers (and those who don’t read the genre but are still very vocal about it) tend to treat this all as pretend, which is true to a certain extent.  After all, we know that we don’t need to worry about vampires or the elder gods. But the assumption that it could not happen in the real world is sometimes applied to more realistic works, like Stephan King’s Cujo. When in reality, it is unlikely but still possible.  This reason seems to be why my students saw “The Lottery” as fantastic.  People just don’t kill their neighbors for the bad luck of drawing a piece of paper with a black spot.

I was inspired by my class to read The Lottery and Other Stories.  Taken in the context of the collection, “The Lottery” no longer is as easy to separate from the real world as it was before.  Throughout these stories, Jackson shows people going about their daily lives and the myriad of ways that they are isolated and isolate others. The main source of apprehension I felt reading these stories is the petty cruelties that people visit on each other.  The stories are in our world, but there is still a sense of uncanny about them.  In “Daemon Lover” a young woman tries to track down her fiancé, but we are left wondering if he ever existed in the first place. In “The Renegade” we see a housewife’s growing distress as her neighbors and eventually her own children delight in the fact that her dog, who had killed some chickens, must be put down.  Jackson shows how the city allows people to grow indifferent to each other, and how they can become lost in the crowd.  Jackson also show how the country allows people to form close-knit communities that exclude and shame outsiders.  By the time the reader gets to the titular story, it’s all too clear the “The Lottery” could take place in our world.  The cruelty and inhumanity seen at the end has already been shown in small increments elsewhere.

While I have always read “The Lottery” as being about how tradition allows us or drives us to do some so pretty awful things, Jackson’s short story collection shows the many small ways that pettiness and clannishness leads to atrocity.  When we wonder how groups of people can get together and do terrible things, Jackson answers us in these short stories.  She tells us that the small and petty crimes we commit against each other everyday add up, until we, without a thought, throw stones at neighbors we’ve known our whole lives.

Write What You Read

I just received a batch of papers from my freshman composition students.  These papers mean several things: free time will cease to exist for me, I will randomly yell at inanimate objects, a lot of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will be watched, and finally my own writing will suffer.

Now depending on how long it takes to grade these papers, my writing may suffer from lack of attention, but I usually find a way to squeeze in time for writing (obviously).  No, I mean the actual sentences I write will suffer.

The more good books you read—as your English or creative writing teacher liked to point out—the better your writing will be.  Of course, someone who has spent years looking at the best writing will develop an ear for syntax and grammar.  Many of my students who admit to being horribly confused by grammar, syntax and punctuation, but who also love to read, naturally write well structured sentences.  They’ve developed an ear for how the language should sound, and when they make a mistake—they may not understand the rule only that something sounds wrong—they usually fiddle with the words until it sounds right.

Unfortunately many of my students are not avid readers, and they haven’t developed an ear for writing.  It is only natural that they make mistakes.  Verb tenses will shift; semi-colons will replace commas.  While I don’t necessarily relish these papers the way I relish the papers of my more well read students, I don’t begrudge them either.  The only way that they are going to learn to be better writers is to write and make mistakes.  I would also like to point out, just because someone is still struggling with writing doesn’t mean they don’t have great worthwhile ideas.  In fact, it is these interesting ideas that often cause me to be so frustrated with grammatical errors—those errors are keeping me from understanding my students.

The strange thing about reading is just how deeply it does affect you.  After I read my students’ papers, I find myself making the same grammatical errors as them.  Perhaps it is my subconscious trying to keep me humble, to remind me how hard writing can be.  (Though I think the hours spent writing or trying to write keeps me appraised of that point.)

That said, when I grade I try to keep myself in a good mood.  I must point out problems in my students’ writing, explain why and how they failed to communicate their ideas, but I don’t need to be nasty about it.  Being nasty, I think, is a sure way to keep students from learning. In turn, I yell at the pages in frustration then write polite comments where I point out what they need to improve and what they did well.  I keep a book of poetry or short stories nearby for breaks.  Also, I keep MST3K on in the background for a laugh, and to remind myself that as bad as the writing may be, it’s not as bad as Robot Monster. 

Robot Monster 1953

There Is A Reason—Just Not A Profound One

When I grade a stack of student essays, I will often come across one where the student just didn’t get the material.  Their interpretation has nothing to do with the work itself, as though they had an opinion they wanted to express and they were going to do it regardless of the assignment. Rarely, however, have I seen a movie do this.

As I watched Rubber, a film directed and written by Quentin Dupieux, I felt like pulling out my red pen.  Admittedly what I am about to say has probably already been said by quite a few film critics.  Unfortunately, I ignored their warnings.

A film about a tire, named Robert, that comes to life and telekinetically explodes people’s heads seems like it would be the perfect film for me.   If it was just a silly gore-fest, the horror fan-girl in me would be happy.  If it was an art house film that resisted traditional story telling and interpretation, the pretentious academic in me would be happy.  How could I not like this movie?

I hated it, because the director did not trust his audience to understand it.  The “No Reason” monologue at the beginning of the film would get points for having a clear thesis, if it were a student essay.  Film is visual medium, and that leaves some room for interpretation by the audience.  The director runs the risk of being misunderstood, but hundreds of other directors, writers, poets, painters, sculptors and musicians have faced this possibility and still created great works without having to spell out the meaning.  Creating art is an act of trust—artists put out their ideas and emotions for the world to see and hope at least a few will understand.  However, if you have to spell it out for your audience, than maybe you need go back and look critically at your own work.

Ignoring the director’s lack of trust—the opening speech makes some major errors.  The sheriff, who is giving the monologue, asks why in E.T. is the alien brown, why in Love Story do the character fall in love, why in Oliver Stone’s JFK is the president shot, why in The Pianist is the titular character in hiding, or why in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre do the characters never go the bathroom.  He answers each question with “no reason.”  If I were grading this like a paper, I would circle the word “reason” and ask Dupieux if he meant “meaning.”  We can argue that these choices are meaningless and tell us nothing about the film or the world, which apparently is also without reason or meaning.

All the things listed in the monologue have reasons, they just don’t carry deep meaning.  To take one example from the above list, we don’t see the characters in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre go to the bathroom because it’s unnecessary for the story and would ruin the tension.  What does it mean? Nothing.

Art is not like life and is created with purpose and meaning.  When artists take up their paintbrushes or movie cameras, it is because they want to communicate something.  Sometimes it is something profound; sometimes they’re just saying those trees over there are pretty.  Art always has a reason and a meaning, even if the piece is telling us that there is no meaning in the world and shit just happens for no reason.  It is, however, a mistake to think every aspect of a piece of art carries meaning. The designer of the alien in E.T. probably had some very good reasons for making the alien brown, but this does not give the alien’s color a symbolic meaning.

Without that monologue I would have thought that Dupieux was saying that a movie is only a movie.  Much like how Rene Margritte’s painting “This is Not a Pipe” calls attention to the fact that a painting is just some pigment on a canvas in the end, it is not the object pictured. After all, the audience watching the events of the film while in the film, the sheriff pulling out the script and reading it, and the army of tires finally arriving in Hollywood seems to call attention to that fact that a movie is artifice.  Hell, even most of the opening monologue could have been to draw attention to the fact that things happen in a movie for no other reason than to move the plot forward.  Since Dupieux’s thesis connects film with real life, he seems to be saying that art like life is without reason.

Maybe I’m being obtuse and the monologue was meant to be ironic, but I doubt that.

I have to admit that I’m probably being unfair here.  The films in my queue after this one were Waiting for Godot and Hobo with a Shot Gun, which satisfied both my super ego and id.

The Day Job

I’ve just made the switch from the glamorous world of office work to the glamorous world of academia.   That’s right, I switched from being a temp, and not knowing month to month if I will get enough work to pay my rent, to being an adjunct, and not knowing semester to semester if I’ll get enough work to pay my rent.  I consider it a step up, though apparently not everyone does.

At my last temp job, I was chatting with a gentlemen as he waited for his appointment. I mention I was excited about going to work at a local community college.  I focused mainly on how I would have time to write. He started to brainstorm other “better” careers for me.  I could work for some government agency, the CIA was hiring, and you can make real money working for the government.  At this point I just smiled and nodded, looking for the best way to escape.  I hated that type of work and I knew I would struggle to find time and energy to write, but I doubted if he consider those real concerns.  After all, he knew almost anything is better than teaching.

In the ever-present debate on whether MFA programs are killing or helping American literature, the fact that many of the MFA graduates go on to adjunct positions teaching freshman English is cited as evidence of their malevolent influence.  When you’re teaching five or more classes, how do find time to write or even sleep?   However, most writers, especially poets, don’t make a living off of their creative endeavors—the day job is just part of the business.  So I wonder what job actually leaves time to write, going to an office from nine to five, technical writing, maybe waiting tables.  Some are able to market their writing skills and become technical writers, grant writers, journalist, or editors.  While they may not be writing the material they love, they still are at least writing.  For others though, after spending all day writing, they are burnt out and unable to focus on their own projects.  Some writers like working in offices, and they are able to schedule their writing around their job.  However, I quickly learned during my brief stint as receptionist years ago, that it is easy to burn out when you staying up late or getting up early to write.  The truth is what day job works best for a writer depends on the writer.

Part of the reason that I like working in academia is the flexible hours.  I tend to write best in the mornings, and my job lets me have some control over my schedule.  More importantly, much of what I do I can do at home.  If decide to grade my students’ quizzes at three in the morning, no one is going to notice or care.  I enjoy having a job that helps people.  But if I ever had to choose between teaching and writing, I would drop teaching without any regrets.   I have been lucky enough to find a day job that I enjoy.

Still the world judges us by the job that puts money in our pockets.  It doesn’t matter if a garbage-man plays a mean Blues guitar and is a legend in the local music scene, most people will still consider him a garbage-man.  Only when he quits his day job and earns his living through his guitar is he considered a musician.  I am English instructor at a local community college regardless of how much I publish, I will remain so until I quit and can survive off of my writing.

On Not Reading

I have a confession to make; I am guilty of one of the cardinal sins of writing.  I started writing poetry in middle school, but did not start reading poetry until college.  That’s right, I was one of those students—the bane of creative writing teachers—I wanted to write without reading.

These type of aspiring writers have recently gained attention, as shown by The New Yorker and the Salon articles.  And as someone who has taught a couple of creative writing classes, I understand the frustration that a teacher feels when an aspiring writer rejects the best tools for learning to write—reading.  After all, why would someone want to write if they did not enjoy its results ?  Isn’t it hypocritical of someone to want others to read their work, if they are unwilling to read the work of others?

Through middle and high school I filled journal after journal with bad poetry.  I had things I wanted to say, and I enjoyed the way line breaks allowed me to play with rhythm.  However, I did not read poetry.  This was in part because most of the poetry I was exposed to was from school textbooks.  I was only familiar with the sweet floral verses of Dickinson, the two or three over-read poems of Frost, and the tedious Wordsworth.  The poems that were selected to be in the textbooks were safe.  What PTA mother would challenge “I floated lonely as a cloud”?  Some of the more daring teachers, particularly the one who got me writing poetry, introduced us to the Beat poets.  I never connected with the poets presented to me, either they were too stuffy or they were from my parent’s generation.

I took to writing because I had stories to tell and ideas to share that I didn’t see any of these poets writing about.  I think there is much worse reasons to write than realizing no one is telling the stories you’re interested in.

It was only in college that I discovered the poets who wrote about my interests.  Once I discovered them, I became an avid reader of poetry.  I suddenly knew where to look.  Hell, I remember my shock when I came across some of Dickinson’s sexy poems.

While there will always be those egotistical students, who feel they have something important to say and can’t be bothered with what others have said, some students may have simply not found the right author.  They have a type of story that needs to be heard. And since no one else is telling it, they are endeavoring to tell it themselves.  Maybe instead of condemning them for not reading, we should take a look at what they are writing and point them in the direction of similar stories.