Writing, Purpose, and Masculinity

I have been struggling with masculinity as of late. Which is to say, struggling with ambition. Or struggling with my career choices. Or struggling with relationship choices. Or, simply struggling. Because I am a man, I am struggling on the somewhat closed field of masculinity. I haven’t always thought of it that way, and yet, there it is. I have avoided masculinity for dozens of reasons.

I have seen more examples of toxicity and hypocrisy among men than anywhere else.  Maybe these are not inherently male traits, but I grew up in a male-dominated environment—which is to say, the world—including four years in an all-male prep school. I have been bullied and been a bully. I have seen puffery masquerade as accomplishment. I have seen might valued over intelligence. I have watched as surface characteristics outshone deeper wells of strength. In To the Lighthouse, when Woolf takes Mr. Ramsay to the cleaners for failing to see the world outside of his carefully constructed “a, b, c…” hierarchy, I knew of what she was writing. But that came later.

After college my father brought me to his company once, to ask his colleagues what career path I should pursue. One of the men counseled, “Don’t go into business.” This was a man my father had often spoken of as one of his few friends at work. This man did not offer an alternate suggestion, just “Don’t.” Then he spoke of a working world in which the soul found no home. That resonated with me. My father was often unhappy after a day of work, and I had seen that unhappiness first hand.

I drew a line between the life of the soul and the world of business and ambition—the world of men.

I spent a number of years in career limbo and ended up managing a restaurant and working 80 hour weeks. Ambition always finds a way, even in limbo, even when one says, “No.” Part of being a man, I suppose, at least this man, was finding my way into positions of authority. During this time, I started writing—the very definition of authority—something I had done in fits and starts in high school then in college. I applied to graduate school in creative writing and was accepted.

So in my late twenties, I became a student of writing and literature. I went all in.  I was never interested in “finding my voice”; I was interested in hitting the metaphorical home run, of, and pardon me for this, catching the big fish.  There was always a bigger fish in the ocean.  Joyce, Woolf, Dickens, Marquez, Dickinson, Whitman, Marquez, and Calvino were among the literary fish that pushed me forward. The critical fish were there too.  Each set out a mark and said, “Meet me here.” And, right or wrong, I chased that mark.

I sought work that broke the hierarchies and offered more possibilities to all. Brilliance the only goal. Brilliance the reward. I reveled. My classmates often complained of this course or that course, or of school altogether. I did not. There was no class—even bibliography—that did not unlock some possibility. My purpose, clear and simple, was to learn and to write.

I was at graduate school at a time when feminism was fully asserting itself, and I allied myself with that movement, in part under the guise of being a creator, which I identified as a feminine act. I was full of it. In the end, I divided the world not between men and women, with all the problematic tangle that came between those energies, but between writers and non-writers. I saw a kinship between Charles Dickens and Jane Gallup. If you know the work, you know what a leap that is. Or, and this is easier, Hélène Cixous and James Joyce. Words held a primal energy for me, an energy that bridged gender and sex. The only ones who could experience jouissance, truly experience it, not simply having it happen, but calling it forth, meeting it, urging it on—if they could—were writers. And so I wrote fervently, seeking a pleasure beyond limits. And I found it.

Now, I realize that I had harnessed a most basic form of male sexual energy, of masculinity. If I had classmates who imagined me in black leather pants, well, there was a reason. I chased something bigger than me, something vital. And chasing is what men do—secretly or not. Part of our deep-seated masculinity drives us to seek—“to bear it out,” as Shakespeare writes, “even to the edge of doom.” What keeps us from doom, from becoming an Ahab (there’s that big fish) is not avoiding the sea and the hunt, just putting up the harpoon and dreaming of what might have been. We must learn to integrate the hunt with the world. We must listen to the world and find an honorable way forth.

I did not. I stopped. I did not stop all at once, but over a series of years. I let more temporary ambitions, often driven by temporary monetary concerns, take precedence. I grew nervous, even cautious. I stepped off the stage. I continued, as I had when I was younger, to find outlets for ambition. They were circumscribed by my career choices, but they persisted. I became principal of a school and, during a crisis at my church, helped hold a congregation together. But I was not doing my life’s work—the thing that brought me joy, even if it did not pay the water bill.

And, as a man, a life without a driving purpose withers. I’m sure this is true for women too. Finally, at 58, I made a change. It was not an easy, nor a secure choice. It is not the final choice I will make along this way. But it is the first step. And I realize that even though I have been writing—fervently, discovering along the way—that I also have things to learn. About me. About the world. And as a man.

Writing for the reader—surprise

When I sit down to write, I haven’t thought about an audience. Often I feel more like an amanuensis, copying down whatever the universe commands. The universe commands much, by the way. You might call it inspiration—divine or otherwise. I have not spent much time trying to figure out “my voice,” as much as I have trying to listen keenly to what comes my way.

That changed recently, and I actually began to think about delighting a reader. I began a writing project with one particular reader in mind, and I sought to please that reader. This shift helped me to shift how I wrote. I no longer found myself struggling to listen for some voice that came from another place. To be honest, I still feel that my voice is only partly my own, I still rely on inspiration. But now, I realize that thinking about a reader was something that I had been missing. For years.

In part, and a big part, I worry less about getting the inspiration right. That has been a weighty burden. What if I misplaced word and intent? What if I failed to capture the muse’s song? Now, all I need to do is surprise, and somehow, please a reader. That is so much easier. I know enough about my reader that I can throw in some reference that the reader will appreciate. Or add some detail culled from our common experience.

As I have written more, I have focused less on that particular reader—for whatever reason—and began to accept that all along the muse, my muse, did not want me to repeat a song. My muse wanted me to sing back. All this time, my muse had been aching for surprise and delight. How did I not know this?

One of my first teachers, Ron Hansen, ends his spectacular novel Mariette in Ecstasy with Mariette’s message from her muse (who just happens to be God). The message is, “Surprise me.” I read that years and years ago, and only now has the lesson begun to take hold. How I wish I had stumbled into that realization 20 years ago. But better now, late as it is, than not at all.

And so, now, finally, I write to the surprise. And it comes. Over and over.

Echoes and strangers

I went out for bbq at lunch today. The brisket reminded me of my distant friends—eating it, I dine on memories of places as disparate as Taylor, Texas and Owego, New York. Eating in the restaurant with the yellow blazes on the faux wood tables reminded me of the one time I ate here with my daughter, or the meal I ate before chaperoning a dance, and therefore the dance and the evening that followed.

My brain is like that. The past reverberates into the present without effort. There is no stopping it. The pen on my desk reminds me of a dozen trips to office supply stores to buy just that kind of pen. The clipboard brings back the smell of a stationary store in Endicott where I bought narrow ruled yellow legal pads. New things enchant me because they haven’t been imbued with dense and irrevocable histories. For minutes. And then…

This book bag. That smell. The way her voice sounds. Everything.

In many ways, I take solace in being surrounded by memories, and there are some that I purposefully mine. The routine of the same lunch—on most days—reminds me of years of similar lunches from the time I was five—earlier—until just last week—and all the lunches in between. I feel comforted by the way those memories permeate my present so easily.

Others surprise me. They are more angular and disruptive. The sound of a car rushing in the distance—that sharp Doppler shift—triggers an equally effortless, but significantly less welcome memory of a conversation held by the side of a road. Twenty years have passed and yet the resentment stings as it did then. Nothing ages, ripens, or rots.

I have written about the powerful memories associated with places—a rolling set of hills on a road headed north, an intersection with two right turn lanes, a road sign, the curve of a shoreline, a buoy. But, it is everything else as well. All the things. My walls at home are lined with books, and the books speak—not just of what is contained in their pages, but of the times I read them, the places I was, the company that surrounded those moments. And there is more, a gesture, my hand on a doorknob, the sudden turn of my head when I look for something, the way my foot falls on a stair. I am out of myself in a flash, or at least out of this time—even though I know that I am inextricably in it—and another older time surges through me. Even when still, this heartbeat explodes into a thousand, a million other heartbeats, and time collapses.

The only thing that surprises me, seems strange and unconnected from everything else, is my face in the mirror. I almost never recognize myself. Who is this man, and what is he doing in the glass? I wonder. At least there is a scar on my left hand, another on my knee, another on my ankle. These anchor me, but my face is a mystery—and not just because of age. Day by day, for all my life, sitting in a barbershop chair before the mirrored wall, I am a stranger.

And so, beside my own strange face, I also take pleasure in crowds of strange faces, all of whom present unknown avenues, untapped sources of experiences and memories. I know the echoes will come to the strange person I will again be tomorrow.

Paying Attention

When I am out walking with my daughter I have one, simple repeated lesson: pay attention. Crossing a street? Pay attention. Walking past a flower bed? Pay attention. Meeting people? Pay attention. It is the cornerstone. I point out when I fail, as she does: Pay attention, daddy. Did you look? Did you see me? Two eyes seem like slim equipment for the work of days.

As a teacher, the central lesson is a finely tuned attention. The study of literature is a proving grounds for giving attention its fullest due. Words, images, sound. The unpacking of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Joyce Carol Oates’s stories, or a passage from Joyce’s impossible novel relies on the attention one gives and the knowledge one brings. All the knowledge in the world is wasted if one does not look outward and pay attention.

When I write, I also pay attention—it is a balance between inward and outward attention—letting the still, strong voice inside reflect on the outward world. I try to write about what I see, what I learn, what surprises me—almost all outside of me. When I venture within, I hope to turn the same sharp vision within—seeing myself as if on a journey, as if I was foreign and strange—as I must be, even to myself.

But those are only three roles I play in life: father, teacher, writer. I am also a friend, and enjoy paying attention to my friends’ likes and dislikes, their peculiar fascinations and passions. We tend to have similar interests—we are, after all, friends. And I know that my friends pay attention to me—that they appreciate my odd vision.

There is one other role—and it is at once the easiest and most difficult. I love paying attention to the person I love. I love learning the stories that comprise a life, listening to the dreams of possible futures, and discovering the intricacies of another’s heart. All this is so easy—I could listen and learn for a lifetime—I feel like all else is practice for this.

The hard part is having someone pay attention to me. First, allowing someone to see me, all my flaws and strengths. That is, almost, easily assuaged by repeated kindnesses—I have learned to accept being loved.

Harder is accepting when someone misses something. When my daughter stumbles into a crosswalk, head tilted toward phone, there is a quick check—pay attention. When a student misses the meaning of the image: “star to every wandering bark,” I can quickly point out that Shakespeare is punnier and more ribald than serious young students give credit. When I make a mistake in an early draft, I can edit. And I can accept my friends “misses” easily—chalking it up to our simple flawed and generous humanity.

But, with love. Perhaps because it is only then—when I love romantically—that I feel most vulnerable. I sometimes become all but selfless—loving most and desiring least, as if true love could enable a perfect kind of detachment. So much for flawed and generous humanity—I must be perfect. Jeff Tweedy sings, “No loves as random as God’s love”—this random indiscriminate, impossibly generous love. Shakespeare calls it “lascivious grace”—unimaginable to those who walk upon the ground, and yet, the only ideal.

And yet, the hope, beyond hope, that someone is paying attention. One of the great joys of love—and of life—is feeling recognized, not simply on someone else’s terms (This is how you are like me! This is how you complete me!), but on your own terms (You showed me… You taught me… You amazed me… You surprised me… You changed me…). Isn’t this how we feel love, when we are at our best? Isn’t this how we want to be loved?

I share little details, bits and pieces, and listen and wait. What is she paying attention to? Through what screen does she see me? I expect hesitantly, trying not to overburden possibility with my hair-shirted set of (non-)expectations. And then, after sharing a story, a glimpse, a piece by Dinesen, some recollection of a journey, she travels away and returns with a small blue jar filled with water from two seas. I know there will be misses, but I also know I have been seen. And this makes all the difference. This is how.

Westworld Season Two Reflections

Westworld-S2-2-1070x598Although it has maintained a broad appeal, telling a beautifully depicted story and asking questions about artificial intelligence and the nature of humanity in a comfortable and technologically advanced world, the second season of Westworld has been shackled by narrative devices that give it little room to move or grow.  First, a signal climactic event is visited and revisited in the initial episode of the season, from which there has been no narrative space to move into. The deeper issues of how we use stories to perceive and create reality (or consciousness) have been discarded in advance of a plot driven by revenge and violence.

 

The first season of Westworld displayed ample amounts of violence and sex, but seemed to be making comments on the baser human instincts that the park revealed.  The characters with whom we sided—the robot hosts—were fighting to escape their loops: the repetitive cycles of abuse perpetrated on them to delight the human guests. When the first season culminated in a host revolution, the viewer could cheer, because the robots were breaking free of their loops. As the second season began, the hosts descend to violence against the humans and each other that rivals anything that occurred in the first season.

 

23-westworld.w710.h473The war begins in the first episode and is shown in two closely linked timelines: one immediately following the uprising that ended season one, the other taking place a few weeks later.  In the first timeline the hosts decimate the guests, in the second nearly all the hosts are found “dead” in an artificial lake.  The season has been spent linking these two timelines and filling in some backstory to explain the “true” rationale for the park.  We see waves of humans face the hosts, each one being dispatched with swift and stylized violence. We also watch as the hosts turn on each other. Set free from their controlled loops they repeat and amplify the excesses they had suffered as vehicles for the guests “bloody delights.”

 

westworld-season-2-trailerWhile the first season was unabashedly bloody it also had four major narrative strands of awakening: Dolores gained consciousness and free will; William became the “Man in Black”; Maeve gained a kind of consciousness, but on a separate and less certain course than Dolores; and Bernard had his humanity stripped from him. Each of these plots had a cumulative development: each episode moved these stories forward, and there was a distinct pleasure as we discovered the stories for ourselves.  That discovery was shared by the characters as well, some with pleasure, and some without. The climax of each story—personal revelation for good or bad—mirrored the overall plot.  There was simple structural pleasure to be had.

 

lead_960_540In the second season these four characters have remained the main focus.  But now, because the climax preceded all the events to follow, the action is more repetitive.  Where else is there to go after mass slaughter? The characters do not grow so much as have secrets revealed to them or new powers added to them.  They are at the mercy of plot needs.  When Shogun World and Raj World, or the named but unseen Pleasure Palaces are introduced they are just grim mirrors of what goes on in Westworld.  When the Cradle and the deeper purpose of the park is revealed, the viewer may have been able to anticipate their existence, but both feel like sleight of hand adjuncts to a story about characters. “Look over here! Isn’t this fancy? Don’t pay attention to the repetitiveness of the story.”

 

Maybe Westworld will pull out of this narrative funk—there are three episodes left in the season.  How cool would it be to discover that after revenge is piled on top of revenge that some kind of peace breaks out.  Imagine that: peace as a climax. Maybe it will build on the theme of the power of story that underpinned the first season, and subvert narrative expectations by inverting rising action, and we can be as surprised as William was at the end of the first season. Or maybe the next slaughter will just be bigger, more choreographed, more beautiful, and meaningless. Here’s hoping for a quick turn.

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The Greyhound

“You got any stories, friend?”

And so begins Episode Five, “Contrapasso,” of Westworld. Each of the other nine episodes begins with a host, one of the robots at the heart of the story, waking up or coming on line.  This one begins with a host, Old Bill, making a request of Ford, the creator of the robots and all the park that is Westworld. Ford answers, “Yeah, suppose I do,” and goes on to tell the story of “the saddest thing [he] ever saw.” A pet greyhound kills a cat when it is let loose from its leash. An event that is wholly anticipated (“our father warned us”), ends in horror (“to the horror of everyone, he killed that little cat, tore it to pieces.”), which is also entirely predictable. Who wouldn’t feel horror at a “little cat” being torn to pieces? Because this exchange between Ford and Old Bill breaks the pattern of the opening sequences, it is, as much as anything might be, the key to Westworld’s first season.

Westworld, for all its science fiction underpinnings, timeline switches, sex and violence, is a show about the power of story.  The hosts repeat their stories, which are called loops by the park employees. The guests participate in narratives, taking either white or black hat roles, and act out fantasies of sex and violence that are forbidden in the real world.  Ford and the park employees create and manage the narratives and the hosts to meet the guests’ expectations. Only one guest, The Man in Black, sees these stories as part of a game, and wants in on the bigger game, the more meaningful story, the maze.

Ford’s exchange with Bill hints at all this.  To begin with, Old Bill, is programmed to listen–that is his loop. But, because he is an old host, he isn’t very good at it. When Ford asks, “Never seen a greyhound have you, Bill?” Bill doesn’t recognize “greyhound” and reinterprets it to fit his understanding; he answers that he has seen a few showdowns. This shows one of the fundamental challenges of stories.  The teller and listener need to have a shared language and culture. At the end of the story, Bill responds, “That is one humdinger of a story, partner. Shall we drink to the lady with the white shoes?” Ford looks at him sadly. His secret is safe in Bill’s hands.

The secret Ford shares is the secret of loops.  The greyhound “spends its life running in circles, chasing a bit of felt made up like a rabbit.” Whether by instinct or routine, its life becomes automatic, robotic.  The greyhound running in circles is like the hosts on their loops.  But the dog chases a fake rabbit—just as the hosts are fake humans. While the hosts are on perpetual loops, the guests come to Westworld to break from their loops of their daily lives, to experience a simulacrum of authenticity. The hosts and guests share this. In the park the guests fall into loops that are just as predictable (if more extreme) as the ones they left behind at home, and just as predictable as those that dominate the hosts.

The viewers of the show are invited to sympathize with the hosts.  The guests are portrayed as crude and cruel, the hosts are doe-eyed and wistful. However, the hosts are machines—sophisticated machines, but more like supercharged go-karts. They are not “little cats.”  And yet, because the story of the show plays on the viewers emotions, our attention is refocused, and our expectations shift to hopes that the hosts will be set free from their loops—much in the same way that a father would bring a rescued greyhound into a home to give it some respite from years of cruel running in circles.

The Man in Black shares this hope.  He sees the park as too controlled, and therefore as inconsequential. Even when he gets a glimpse of the maze, he rejects it, because his expectations (“You know what I wanted,” he tells Ford in Episode Ten, “The Bicameral Mind”) were not met. His idea of the story he wants to see prevent him from seeing anything else. He, like Old Bill (and the Man in Black’s name is William), cannot understand the story he is being told.

One of the fun parts of watching the show when it first came out in 2016, was listening to the discussions about the stories in the show.  People wondered who each character was, what timeline each one occupied, and what the big secret would be. They were viewer stand-ins for the Man in Black, or Old Bill, listening and not understanding, letting their expectations or programming get in the way of what was told.

The secret to art of reading is in large part dependent on being able to see the structure of a story as one reads it. We know that if an event happens in chapter one, the rule of plot (rising action) will lead to an amplification of that event later in the story.  If a stranger dies in chapter one, then a friend will die later.  If a distant friend dies early, a dear friend will die later. Stories follow familiar patterns, and when those patterns are broken the reader or viewer may revolt. This is one reason why Campbell’s Hero’s Journey holds such sway over popular screenwriting: familiarity is the writer’s friend.

However, life is not a screenplay or a story. Unexpected, if predictable things happen.  Dogs chase down little cats and the results horrify us.  “I got the cat. Now what?” wonders the dog.  The reason that Ford’s story is “the saddest thing [he] ever saw,” is not because of the little cat, it’s because there’s nothing else for the dog to do.  Its life is defined by chase and kill, and once it has succeeded that’s all there is. Growth, or meaning, does not come from meeting expectations, but from the realization, and it can be a sad realization, that life, as opposed to a story, does not follow an order.  Life is chaotic and random. It dashes our expectations and makes us strip our stories bare and try (and perhaps fail) to revise.

The overall story in Westworld points us to this, if gently.

Villains and Stories

 

In a certain kind of writing, picking out villains is simple.  Whether they wear an iconic black hat, or kick small animals, they make themselves known in a way eases the reader into a comfortable understanding of the world.  These days lesser writing simply overturns the conventions: white hat—bad guy! (Surpirse!).  Better writing muddies that understanding: the villain acts out of sincerely felt good intentions (hence the road to hell), and in such a way that we can sympathize (if fleetingly, or longer) with their motivations.  When we pillory these bad actors we do so gently; after all, we could just as easily be in their spot.

Real life is the sticking point.  I’ll admit that I read to find out about and reflect on life.  Writing, after all, is easier to understand than life.  Life, with all its fits and starts, resists narrative cohesion. Beginnings do not always lead to middles or ends.  The setting often has nothing to do with the plot.  And the plot is repetitive and makes no sense. I hazard to suggest that we build stories as a bulwark against the confusion and chaos of life.  Stories narrow our focus and create a framework for understanding the world.

As we meet people, we turn them into characters that either fit or do not fit into the long standing master plots of our lives.  Someone who disrupts that story risks becoming a villain—or in rare occasions, a hero—but chances are that our daily heroes are those people we encounter who affirm the story we have told ourselves, who give us comfort in what we already know.

And in all this, I wonder whether we are ever the actual authors of our life stories, or whether they simply accrue around us in response to the life that happens. Most of us inherit a story  before we even begin our own.  When Fitzgerald wrote, “there are no second acts in American lives,” I think he was pointing to this phenomenon.  We (privileged) Americans hold the truth of our freedom so closely, that we fail to grapple with the fundamental lack of self-determination in our most essential stories.  We swallow those stories whole and they become an inexorable and unexamined part of who we see ourselves to be. Without a chance to address, let alone to change that story, we get stuck in a first act that repeats and repeats and repeats.  The second act is the place for a turn and a change; resolution comes in the third.

When I think about the villains in my work, my writing, I know I need them to maintain some kind of conflict.  They are the “B” to the protagonists’ “A.”  But in the need to create something like verisimilitude, such easy binary relationships seem false.  I can’t help but think about how the stories of “A” and the stories of “B” surround them like straitjackets, and how they either wriggle free or remain obstinately stuck inside.  And for me, that is the true definition of a villain—a character who refuses to escape the boundaries of one story, even if it’s a really good story.

I think of David Copperfield, who begins the narration of his story with, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  Spoiler alert, David becomes the villain, but is entirely unaware of this horrible fact—or almost, he leaves a trail of bodies and breadcrumbs obvious enough to belie his eventual rise.  His story is powerful and uplifting, and not a little inspiring.  But the “upward” at the end of the novel speaks as much to his class aspirations and a justification of all that has happened around him on his road to success.

Of course this also has something to do with my life.  How can it not?  I have wrestled with the stories that surrounded me since I was young.  I have tried on one story after another like the ficklest of shoppers at an all-day sale.  Some I have worn long and others dismissed quickly. I am drawn to those who have deeply certain stories and devastated by their lack of room for my uncertainty.

I am a tailor of stories, and an escape artist, busily making one while I wriggle out of another.  The contradiction makes me and destroys me. And then makes me again and again and again.