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What did I learn at Clarion West? [3] : Unlearning English Lit

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Part of the Clarion West 2014 Write-a-thon series.
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There’s this thing they used to make you do in school — maybe they still make you do it, I don’t know — which involves reading a story, and then writing about what it means. We call this activity English Lit,. This will shock absolutely nobody, I know, but I happen to be naturally good at this thing. It comes so easily to me that, as a kid, I was vaguely astonished that they bothered to give me a grade for it. It felt like cheating. In college when all my other plans crashed and burned, it meant I could switch back to my comfort zone of English Lit and emerge, barely, with a BA in my teeth. I still do this thing, this English Lit thing, in an informal way, just for fun.

In the parlance of modern Internet fandom, English Lit is like writing a “meta” — looking at a story in terms of its themes, metaphors, unexpected symbolic connections, relationship to larger social forces, etc. And there is nothing wrong with looking at a story that way. But it meant that when I wanted to write my own stories, I intuited that what you would do is reverse the process: start with the meaning you wanted people to take away from it, and work backward.

But that’s actually not how stories are built.

It’s like trying to build a cathedral, and starting with the gargoyles.

I could sometimes write stories anyway, of course — you have to crank out at least one or two, or they don’t let you into the workshop. But I had a lot of ideas that just died right there on the page, and I didn’t know why. I had a lot of stories that seemed promising at first, but I couldn’t finish writing them. And sometimes I would manage to write a story, and finish it, but it was boring, static and limp, often for reasons I couldn’t quite figure out.

Then it hit me — I remember the exact moment, the stifling top-floor room during that very warm summer of 2006, the ugly frieze ineptly painted on the walls, so it must have been early in the workshop, before I obscured the frieze with my own pictures — that I was thinking about the process like an English major, and that this thinking was entirely backwards to how stories are made. English Lit is something you subject a story to when it’s already finished, but it’s like performing a chemical analysis on a gourmet meal — it really doesn’t tell you how to create one yourself.

Sure, the thing that originally gets you interested in telling a particular story — the idea — might be thematic. But the story itself is driven by conflict, resolution, experience, movement. A story is made out of words, but the thing that makes it work cannot always be readily put into words. It’s like you’re trying to start a fire, and you strike spark after spark after spark until the tinder ignites. But you’ll never know why that particular spark was the one that did it.

The English Lit process lies to us. We get this idea that literary geniuses of the past wrote stories in order to get across these really significant themes that we are now uncovering with our essays. Theme is a bunch of Easter eggs they hid in the text, and it’s our job to find them.

But theme is more like a side effect of storytelling, something discovered and often accidental. In fact, I now believe that theme is best left to accident — that chasing after thematic meaning is a good way to smother your little story under a wet blanket before it ever catches fire. Or, perhaps, theme is something that you can enhance after a first draft — like adding gargoyles — but you need a building first. Preferably, a building that won’t fall down right away.

Metaphor is a little different. Metaphor actually is one of the foundations of storytelling, but its importance is more structural than thematic. For example, a lot of horror movies go wrong in the third act, when they have a conclusion that doesn’t fit the metaphor they originally established for the horror element. Everybody recognizes that things went off the rails, but not everybody instantly points to the cause as metaphor drift. I think that’s because we’re not really trained to look at things like cheesy horror movies in terms of their metaphors. We’re taught — sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly — that only English Lit-able stories have metaphors. So we think about metaphors wrong.

In fact, we sometimes think about metaphors as story elements that only exist when they can’t possibly be interpreted literally. For example, on the very first day of my AP Lit class my senior year in high school, the teacher gave us Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” to analyze. Now, I had already read that story, and loved it, because I love surrealism. (In fact, I am, right now, this very minute, listening to The Beatles “I Am the Walrus,” which is one of my favorite things ever in the whole history of art produced by humans. That song amazes me. It’s “classic rock,” and yet, it still sounds really bizarre and surprising when you hear it on the radio, utterly unlike anything else. But it also has a catchy pop tune that makes me want to sing along. It’s — oh, it’s over. Now there’s a car commercial. Where was I? Oh, surrealism.)

Anyway, this ended up being a kind of trial by fire, because as much as I love that story, (vampire facial? What? Did they really just say the words “vampire facial”? Oh my God, they did! It’s really weird listening to commercial radio. I’m used to KEXP, but their terrific blues program doesn’t start until 9 am and KZOK has a Beatles program that starts at 8 am. Where was I? Oh, yeah, “The Metamorphosis”) actually trying to explain what it meant flummoxed me. It’s comedy of the absurd! It doesn’t mean anything and that’s the point! But this was early in the year and we hadn’t studied existentialism yet, so I didn’t have that explanation at the ready. (And I hadn’t yet worked at the phone company, so seeing the story in terms of Kafka’s ongoing critique of institutional bureaucracy wouldn’t have occurred to me either.) Anyway, I managed to write something, and I think I got an A, because I usually did.

We talked about Gregor’s transformation into a giant insect as if it had to be a metaphor for something — because obviously. But when people talk about genre fantasies, where (for example) a person might be changed into a giant insect by a magic spell, the English Lit bias would have us believe that it means nothing, that it’s not a metaphor at all. But in both types of stories, I believe the transformation is both metaphorical and literal. That’s how humans experience reality, right? As both the actual fact of what happens to us, and the narrative interpretation our brains automatically start trying to apply?

Not only did I unlearn something relevant to the creation of stories, I unlearned something about English Lit. I realized that the giants of the past were much more like writers today than we sometimes pretend. Basically, they wrote what it occurred to them to write, and they made it good in the best way they knew how. And sometimes they really hit it, just like John Lennon hit it when he wrote “I Am the Walrus.”

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