2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 10,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Interpolation: Why Writers Need to be Good Readers

This post is sponsored by Grammarly. I tried Grammarly’s grammar check free of charge because every time someone splits an infinitive, an angel in heaven sheds a tear.

As a professional educator, there is nothing I enjoy more than sitting around a table with my colleagues analyzing assessment data.  What often happens after about an hour of pouring over numbers and charts and graphs is that I begin to question everything I do as a teacher.  I feel this sense of guilt and failure that, even though I set the school record a few years back for the number of students to pass a single AP exam, a large number of my students still don’t know how to attach a subordinate clause properly to an independent clause.

The Many Hats of an English Teacher

A while back, I once again found myself in the annual ritual of sitting at a table with my fellow English teachers, staring at the latest testing data, which – on the one hand – was very encouraging: we are doing a lot of things really well to prepare our students for college.  But looking at the areas for growth brought up a lot of questions about what we teach and how we teach it.

See, part of the problem is that the job of a high school English teacher is really about eight jobs in one.  We are commissioned to teach critical reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar, literary analysis, public speaking, critical thinking, and rhetoric; so it is a constant juggling act.  How do you focus more time and energy on grammar without cutting out poetry?  Or how do you build students’ vocabulary without sacrificing a classic novel?

It boils down to the never-ending tug-of-war between teaching the art and science of the English language.  Most of us English teachers became English teachers because we love literature and want to inspire that same passion in our students.  But the reality is that we have to equip them with the reading and writing skills they will need to be successful in college and beyond.  Pragmatism would say have them read Huck Finn and Hamlet and a few Emily Dickinson poems, and spend the rest of the time on syllogisms and comma splices.

More than just Pragmatism

But we need to read good literature and we need to teach the next generation to do the same.  Yes, I know that the vast majority of my non-English-teaching colleagues and most of my students won’t ever need to know the symbolism of the great Mississippi River in Huck Finn.  Nor are they likely to engage in an intelligent debate about whether Hamlet actually goes crazy or whether it’s all an act.  And they will probably never be tested on why Miss Dickinson capitalizes seemingly random words throughout her poems.  Outside of an appearance on Jeopardy!, most of this knowledge will have little consequence in their “real world” lives.

Why We Need Good Fiction

But we need to read good literature, for a reason far more important than its “real world” application.  David Foster Wallace, author of the postmodern epic novel Infinite Jest and recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award, once said, “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”  See, it is through storytelling that we make sense of the human experience.  Ideas like love or heroism or betrayal are too vague and abstract by themselves; they seem just out of reach of our comprehension.  But illustrated through a story, these intangible concepts suddenly become much easier to grab ahold of.

This is nothing new; all throughout history, people of every tribe and nation have told stories to try to understand who we are and why we are here, to give meaning to our otherwise hollow existence.  Ancient civilizations told stories to explain the natural phenomena they witnessed on a daily, seasonally, or yearly basis.  Most all of the world’s major religions use narratives to describe the creation of our world, man’s relationship to his god, and – for many faiths – how it all will one day end.  Even today, we continue to rely on the writing and telling and reading of stories to help us make sense of this thing we call life.

Good Writers Must Be Good Readers

So while reading and discussing the great works of literature may have little bearing on test scores and may not help a young person succeed in college and may have little to do with their careers as adults, these great works of literature are essential to understanding ourselves and the world around us.  They help to provide us with meaning and purpose; they give us a unique lens through which to see ourselves.  They are an indispensable piece of the human experience, one we cannot live without.

Is this the end?

Several months ago, I decided to take a hiatus from this blog to focus on several other projects: I had a book to finish writing. I had to wrap up the school year and prepare my students for their AP exams. I had a brand new online creative writing class to maintain. And I had to look for a new full-time job. The last seven months have been incredibly busy, so I simply have not had the time to devote to this blog.

Well, that was January and now it is August. I finished my book and will be publishing it very soon. The school year is over, AP scores are in, and I have enjoyed a wonderful summer vacation with my family. The creative writing class finished well and I am looking forward to teaching it again in the fall. And I am very excited about starting my new teaching job in a little over a week.

So, in the midst of taking care of these time-consuming yet very fruitful endeavors, I have had the time to reflect on things. I have thought about what to do with this blog. I began this blog three years ago to give me some much-needed discipline in my writing and to try to find my voice. And to read and learn from one of the most incredible writers I have ever encountered, Mr. David Foster Wallace.

Over these years, I have grown so much as a writer. I have learned the discipline of setting goals and working toward those goals even when it isn’t fun or exciting or sexy. I have found my voice and learned the glorious art of footnotes. And I have enjoyed reading some of the most wonderfully beautiful and difficult literature I’ve ever read.

So, I guess you could say that even though I have not completed the task of reading and blogging my way through DFW’s entire canon, I have gained so much from this experience. It has opened up worlds to me that I never knew existed. It has introduced me to amazing people that I would have never met otherwise. Hell, it got me all the way to Antwerp and back. In-freakin’-credible.

But I also feel it is time to move on to other things. I will finish reading the rest of Wallace’s books and uncollected works. I will continue to participate in the discussion on Wallace-l and in other places. I will keep teaching Wallace’s works in my classes. But I think I need to do other things with my writing. I have ideas for three or four books simmering, one of them being the “Gospel according to DFW” that I have wanted to write ever since returning from Antwerp. So for the foreseeable future I will be devoting my time to those projects and put this one on hold indefinitely.

So thanks, Dave, for all that you’ve taught me and for all the opportunities your writing has given me. It’s been great.

Some Thoughts on Reading and Writing Fiction

Blogger Here. I recently began teaching an online creative writing class. In the first unit I share my philosophy of fiction with my students. Below is that “lecture” I posted to the class website:

Why do we tell stories?

Storytelling has been a part of the human experience for as long as men and women have walked this planet. From the earliest of civilizations to today, we have related to each other by telling each other stories. But why?

American author David Foster Wallace once said, “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

Writer and Professor Thomas C Foster said, “I suppose what the one story, the ur-story, is about is ourselves, about what it means to be human.  I mean, what else is there?”

Tom Clancy said this: “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”

Author and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

And Francis Bacon once said, “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.”

Fiction helps us make sense of the human experience.

As these writers have articulated so well, storytelling helps us better understand the world around us. It always has. Ancient societies used stories to explain natural phenomena that they witnessed on a daily or even yearly basis. They saw a large, bright light come up in the east every morning and go down in the west each evening. To explain this, they attributed what they observed to some god or divine being. If their crops failed one year, they concocted a story about how they had upset one of their gods. All these stories they told themselves, over time, were codified as myths and legends that are now only told in ancient history or classical literature courses.

Additionally, storytelling is an essential component to our religious experiences. Every major religion’s holy texts are based around stories of how men on earth relate to their gods in heaven. These narratives explain how we got here, how we are to live our lives, and how the world will one day end.

Stories make the abstract concrete.

Just as stories help us make sense of that which we can’t comprehend – like unexplainable natural phenomena or religious principles – they also help us better grasp the abstract and theoretical aspects of life. Love. Betrayal. Jealousy. Grief. How do you explain these feelings to those who have never experienced them? Through a story. A well-told story gives flesh and blood – so to speak – to these otherwise intangible concepts.

Fiction gives us a safe, vicarious experience of feelings that are foreign to us. We can fall in love, be a hero, or grieve a loss without actually risking anything, without running the risk of actually getting hurt. Fiction provides us a safe, sterile laboratory for probing the depths of the human experience.

Stories help us relate to others.

British scholar and author CS Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.”

David Foster Wallace once said, “I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a ‘generalization’ of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might also then more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”

There is no way we can truly understand or experience the feelings of another person. And the opposite is true: no one else will ever truly understand what we feel. We can imagine another’s feelings, or assume their feelings are similar to our own, but as Wallace says, “true empathy’s impossible.”

But in the words of a story, we can see a character’s emotions, his suffering and pain or joy and elation. We experience what he experiences. And if we can understand the experiences of this character – even though he is the figment of a writer’s imagination – we can imagine that someone somewhere understands our emotions and experiences as well.

What will your verse be?

The great American poet, Walt Whitman, in a poem that asks the daunting question of what is the purpose and meaning of our existence, wrote, “The powerful play [this life] goes on and you will contribute a verse.”

As readers, we attempt to better understand ourselves and those around us by reading and experiencing the fictional lives of those who inhabit the pages of our favorite books. We read the verses they contribute to the powerful human drama.

As writers, we contribute to the great human story, in the words of Thomas C Foster, the “ur-story.” Through the writing process, we gain insight into the human condition and then share that with our readers, allowing them another glimpse into “what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

So what will you contribute? What will your verse be?

It’s not you, it’s me.

Dear Dave,

I think I need a break. I’ve spent the past three years reading your stuff almost exclusively. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved it. Your writing has opened up new worlds to me and allowed me to see things in an entirely new light. I’ll never be the same because of it.

But I need to take a break. Not a long one. Maybe just a month or two or three. I’ve got a huge stack of books people have told me I need to read. And I am pretty backlogged in my own writing.

So I’m going to take a break from my blog. I may post something now or then if the spirit moves me. Or I might open it up to guest posts again (that went really well last time).

This isn’t goodbye; it’s just see you later. It’s not you, it’s me.

I’ll be back… in a little while.

 

On finally finishing Infinite Jest

A lot has taken place in the approximately 230 days that it has taken me to finish reading the nearly 1100 pages of Infinite Jest:

  • LeBron James finally won an NBA championship.
  • Barack Obama won a second term as President.
  • A tragedy of unimaginable proportions occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
  • Kanye West and Kim Kardashian announced that they are expecting a child together.
  • The world did not come to an end on December 21.

Not only has it been an eventful seven-and-a-half months in the world of sports, entertainment, and politics, but an eventful time in my own little corner of the world. While reading David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus, I also:

  • Travelled to Louisville, Kentucky to participate in the AP English Language Exam Reading.
  • Set new personal bests in my AP Exam pass rates.
  • Began my thirteenth year as a high school English teacher.
  • Endured two weeks of pure hell as I weaned myself off of a prescribed medication.
  • Congratulated my oldest daughter for earning Gold Honor Roll.

Infinite Jest is the longest novel I’ve ever read and the most difficult novel I’ve ever read. As such, it took me longer to get through than any other book I’ve read. When I reached that final line on page 981 and closed the back cover, I felt a sense of relief and of accomplishment. I had done it. I had actually finished it.

And yet, despite my feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment, I was left with a number of questions. I’ve read enough of Wallace’s stories to know not to expect closure or to expect a story to be wrapped up with a big pretty bow. But I feel compelled to ask my questions, even if they have no answers.

  • Did CT kill James Incandenza? It sorta makes sense, given the whole Hamlet motif. Is blowing up a guy’s head in a modified microwave the Subsidized Time’s equivalent of poison in the ear?
  • What’s with Don Gately’s dream of digging up JOI’s grave with Hal (presumably)? What prompts this dream? Is it an allusion to the grave-digging scene in Hamlet, which would kinda make sense given that JOI’s movie production company is called Poor Yorick Entertainment?
  • Who or what exactly is Lyle, the forehead licker in the ETA boys’ locker room?
  • Is the wraith that visits Don Gately the ghost of James Incandenza?
  • Do the Wheelchair Assassins get their hands on a master copy of “The Entertainment”?
  • I understand that the first chapter takes place after the end of the book, but how does Hal get to the state he is in in that opening chapter? At the end of the book, he is considering injuring himself to avoid playing tennis, but how does he go from that to the mute, convulsing young man who is wrestled to the ground and hauled away on a gurney?

I know there are probably answers to some of these questions can likely be found in a variety of commentaries, academic dissertations, and in the recent IJRR on Wallace-l. And I know some of these questions will go unanswered forever. But if you’d like to add your two cents, feel free.

Infinite Jest – Ken Erdedy

Dear Dave,

I’m sure you remember them, those “Partnership for a Drug-Free America” commercials. You know, that one with the guy and the frying pan: “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” Or the one where the dad is grilling his son about the drugs he found in the boy’s bedroom, asking him where he got the drugs and who taught him how to use them, to which the boy dramatically responds, “I learned it by watching you!” And then the one where some little girl says, “I want to be a dancer when I grow up.” A graceful dancer on the screen twirls around, then crumbles to the floor as the voice over says, “No one ever says, ‘I want to be a junky when I grow up.’”

These public service announcements were a regular fixture in my after-school television viewing. And they seem to have worked. The closest I ever got as a kid to any sort of drug was in middle school when the kid who lived a few houses down the street showed me an unsmoked joint someone had given him.[1] None of my friends did drugs (at least not to my knowledge). Hell, I don’t know that I would have been able to find any drugs even if I wanted to try them.

Then, to seal the deal, a few years ago I read for the first time the Ken Erdedy section at the beginning of Infinite Jest (chapter 2; pages 17-26).[2] Ten anxiety-filled pages of waiting for the woman to show up with enough marijuana to have one last binge weekend. At one point, the narrator tells us that Erdedy’s plan is to make himself so sick from the pot that he will never want to touch the stuff again (22). I don’t know how well worked for Erdedy – he is in rehab later in the book, so maybe it worked – but it certainly worked for me. If I ever had even an ounce of desire to try some illicit substance, those ten pages cured me for good. If that is what the “junky” life is like, then no thank you.

October 16, 2009. As the double period of my AP English Language class began after lunch, I felt as though I had been swept under by a wave of dizziness. I tried to take roll, but struggled to get each name out as my heart pounded out of my chest and my blood pressure shot up. There was no way I would make it through my scheduled lesson plans in this condition,[3] so I told my students to take out homework to work on while I sat at my desk counting the minutes until the bell would ring.

Long story short, a few hours later I was in urgent care in the midst of what I now realize was a massive unprovoked panic attack. While I was lying on the gurney, the doctor asked me a whole host of questions as the nurse hooked up the EKG. One question he asked me repeatedly – confidentially, of course – was whether I had used drugs recently. Through his questioning he had determined that either I was a closet drug user or there was “something seriously wrong” with me.[4]

I had a bunch of blood tests[5] done that evening, all of which came back normal. Determined to get to the bottom of things, I had a long series of doctors’ appointments with a variety of specialists. The neurologist diagnosed me with “vertiginous migraines”; and seeing that anxiety was a leading contributor to the migraine attacks, he prescribed an anti-anxiety medication for me. The drug was marginally successful in preventing the migraines, but I saw very little improvement over the next several years.

Fast-forward about three years. My employer switched insurance carriers, forcing me to switch doctors. As my new doctor reviewed my medications, he questioned me about the anti-anxiety medication my previous doctor had prescribed for me. He said this medication was for symptomatic treatment, not for prevention.[6] And it was likely interfering with my sleep and actually worsening my sleep apnea. And it was a highly addictive narcotic.[7] In other words, I’d been taking the wrong medication for three years.

That weekend I began the “detox” process, which would last about two weeks. Two weeks of nausea, dizziness, insomnia, tremors… it was pure hell.[8] I lost over ten pounds from not eating. I was stuck in a fog, disconnected from reality around me.

After the fog began to lift, I began to reflect on this experience. I was – I am – a recovering drug addict. Me, Mr. Vanilla.[9] I was one of those kids who never said, “I want to be a junky when I grow up.” And here I was on the tail end of my withdrawals and recovery. I never thought this would be a chapter in my story.

And I’m sure that in his younger years Ken Erdedy never thought he would be paralyzed by the sounds of the phone and doorbell ringing at the same time, unable to decide which to answer fearing the one he doesn’t answer is going to be the woman bringing him his drugs. I’m sure Don Gately never thought he’d be reduced to burglary to support his drug habit. And Tiny Ewell and Kate Gompert and Randy Lenz and Poor Tony Krause. I imagine none of them planned to end up where they did. No one plans this sort of thing. No one thinks it will happen to them.

And yet, here they… here we are. Recovering addicts.


[1] Well, there were also a few instances when I walked into a suspicious-smelling cloud while chaperoning Grad Nite at Disneyland. There was one time when the men’s room right around the corner from the chaperone station had a very funky smell to it. It would seem that either some of the chaperones were engaging in their own “recreational activities,” or some really ballsy students decided to get high right under the chaperones’ noses.

[2] I have made several failed attempts to read IJ, and in most of those attempts I never got much further than these pages. I was that scarred by Erdedy’s story.

[3] In addition to these physical symptoms, I was scared out of my skull. I had had a similar panic-attack-like episode a few weeks earlier, but this time was much worse and lasted much longer.

[4] Looking back, I’ve come to think that that is the worst thing a doctor could say to someone in the midst of a panic attack.

[5] The doctor didn’t tell me all of what he was testing for, which in hindsight was probably best. They were testing for some pretty scary stuff.

[6] At almost every appointment with my previous doctors, I questioned them about this particular medication, but they assured me that everything would be fine.

[7] My wife pointed out the irony that at the start of this, the doctor thought I was a drug addict based on my symptoms. But then because of my symptoms, the doctors turned me into a drug addict.

[8] After about two days, I found an online discussion forum for those going through the same withdrawals I was experiencing. And there were those coming off of much higher doses and experiencing much worse symptoms that I was, but those two weeks were some of the worst of my life.

[9] I don’t smoke or drink or chew, and I don’t go with girls that do.