“What are you working on?” my acquaintance Chaz said, when I told him about the trees. “Aren’t you supposed to be writing about … whatever it is you do? You must be a great disappointment to your editor at McSweeney’s.”
He’d called as I was humping to campus with 30 pounds of overdue books and composing in my head: Maples are soft, sweet trees that take instruction easily—they’re the first to drop everything when cool weather comes in. Oaks are hardheads. Even when forced to take autumn’s meaning, they clutch their dead leaves like sheets of foolscap and rustle them until winter’s end …
“Maybe it’s a poem,” I said, breathless from the march to class. “About resistance. That’s why we choose oak for the hardest jobs: Whiskey casks. Gallows. Ships of conquest.”
“What are you—building an armada in your backyard? You don’t know how to tell a story,” he said. “Most people don’t. In Chicago, they have this black-box theory of theater, all that PC hooey about conflicts and relationships and blah blah blah. Listen, I was at a staged reading last night, and two actresses were making out. I was in the second row and could see their jaw muscles working. Now that’s drama. They ought to build a whole night of theater around that.”
At the mailboxes in the English department, administrator Rory demanded to know if I’d seen some TV show. “I guess I missed it,” I said, absent-mindedly flipping through junk. He’s a friend, so I offered my apology: “We only get about eight channels. Sometimes we watch PBS.”
“I’m not like you,” he snapped. “What’s so great about PBS? I don’t know if it’s my Ph.D. or what, but I can’t differentiate anymore between texts. I’m not judgmental; an episode of American Idol is the same to me as Dickens’ Vanity Fair. Call me the Postmodern Cowboy.”
My creative-writing students say they’re postmodern, too. One wrote the relativist sentiment that popsicles and crucifixions were equal; I said it depended on which you were offered. They don’t talk about social construction of the self; that’s not compatible with the teen ego. They do vaguely admire ideas of their own powerlessness and the impossibility of practical ethics, which makes for pretty sweet Thursday nights.
My back, relieved of the pack, tightened up in anticipation of Oronte’s Traveling Snake Oil and Talking-Cure Emporium. It’s been a hard sell this semester. I had asked students a week earlier to consider a Maupassant short story through the lens of an essay on dramaturgy by John Barth. Half didn’t bother, and I had given them a second chance.
They were sitting around the square of tables, looking straight ahead, when I came in. I asked if they were ready to discuss the readings now but saw instantly by their faces that they were still unprepared. Resistance is what the educational psychologists call it, and it serves a good purpose: it protects the self, like a shell. Their writing so far has been rants, set pieces, dreams, drug trips—anything but short stories, and it’s not a beginners’ class. “A story is just a bunch of stuff that happens,” one said. They get angry with me because I suggest a bit of drama with the rant, and an ear for prose rhythms. I recalled poet Robert Graves’s examiner at Oxford: “You seem to be under the impression, Mr. Graves, that one poem is better than another.”
“Our teacher last semester was nice,” somebody said. “He let us have class outside.”
We began workshop. The student story was about some kind of monster (I think) with invisible spikes in its head (?), who (somewhere) tortures and murders (various unseen) people because he sucks minds (or something). It was written to titillate—the crushing of windpipes the only clear image—a kind of pornography of violence favored by young male students who (I would guess) have never encountered real violence but love the idea of it.
“I just wanted to be weird,” the author said. “You succeeded,” a young woman said quietly. I’m paid to make suggestions, so I said: “There’s a sister mentioned on page 2. Why not use that relationship?” “You just hate science fiction,” another male student said.
My syllabus does say we won’t discuss genre fiction, such as sci-fi, romance, Westerns, and the like, in part to prevent this kind of male fantasy, or its female equivalent, the Bad-Boyfriend Story. I could have rejected it on the basis of not meeting course requirements, but I’m trying to help. There is very interesting sci-fi and fantasy. “If you want to be weird,” I said, “then don’t be banal; get weird, and make it integral to your story.”
I recalled the chapter in Moby-Dick where the crew is suddenly surrounded by concentric circles of whales—pods and pods of them—creating a still lake in the middle of the sea, and the men in these little open boats can’t harpoon them, because they’d be killed in a panicked frenzy. In this calm, whales are giving birth and suckling newborn calves. Looking into the depths, the men, in a trance, see uterine blood and whale milk and long loops of umbilical cords like coils of harpoon lines, some with baby whales still attached. “Like household dogs they came snuffling round us, right up to our gunwales,” Ishmael says. “Queequeg patted their foreheads; Starbuck scratched their backs with his lance … Yes, we were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion.” In a novel about guys out to kill stuff, those life-giving, maternal circles are significant.
Who’s to say what’s significant? the students demanded.
I told them I’d recently driven to Springfield, Illinois, to visit the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. It’s got great exhibits: one long hallway is lined on both sides with dozens of hologram faces, all talking at once about slavery and war and the Union; a waxwork Lincoln, standing dead ahead, looks down at his desk as if he were trying to think in this cacophony. But there are usual, easy stories, too: 10-year-old Abe was kicked in the head by a mill horse and lay unconscious all night, and some historians have seized on this event to explain his lifelong “melancholy.” Writers in the romance, children’s, and sci-fi genres have used it for their purposes, too:
“Abe’s long rail-splitting muscles gleamed with sweat as he whipped the mare into a froth and imagined a doomed love yet to be. Like, maybe, Ann Rutledge, who was promised to another man, he thought. That would be hot.” (Prairie Fires Burn, 1982)
“And that kid who ciphered by firelight? That kid kicked in the noggin by a common barnyard animal? It was that kid who went on to be … President of the United States! And you can be too!” (Little Book of Big Presidents, 1996)
“The horse, an evil robot from space, was sent to doom the puny humans by killing off their great emancipator. But unbeknownst to the Zarkellian programmers, young Lincoln was a robot too, invented by the real Abraham Lincoln, boy scientific genius from nearby Quisp 2, who went on to invent … an inflatable bladder for refloating grounded keelboats! Manned by robots!” (Zarkel’s Revenge, 2002)
Damn lucky robots. If the bad sci-fi writer could be a robot, too, he would; machines don’t have to feel anything. Compare those simplistic Lincolns with the deeply moral being that emerges from Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln, a weird book that tells how a lawyer saved the world. (I know. Go figure.) One scene won’t leave me, and Sandburg devotes more space to it than to the kick in the head:
When Lincoln was elected, citizens could walk in to ask the president directly for employment, favors, pardons, and business contracts. They came by the hundreds, adding to his burden. One of them was a woman whose husband and three sons were in the Federal Army. With no resources of her own, she’d lived for a while on part of her husband’s pay, but that stopped coming, and she needed one of her boys at home. Sandburg writes, “The President listened to her, standing at a fireplace, hands behind him, head bowed, motionless. The woman finished her plea. Slowly and almost as if talking to himself alone the words came … ‘I have two [sons], and you have none.’” He sat and wrote the discharge paper.
But in a few days she was back. She’d found her son dying in a hospital after Gettysburg and had comforted and then buried him. She begged Lincoln for “the next one of her boys.” Again, he went to his desk. As if it were all she could do, she followed him across the room, “stood by his chair as he wrote, put her hand on the President’s head, [and] smoothed his thick and disorderly hair with motherly fingers.”
Can you even imagine such a scene of humanity and humility at any other moment in American political life? Lincoln, with that big bony head and awkward body (“Abe Lincoln ugly” means “strangely beautiful”), so nearly alone, so reviled, denounced as an ignorant rube, soon to be shot in the head (as symbolic an act as it was expedient), in a difficult marriage, a father who’d lost two children to sickness (one in the White House), who faced what no other president has had to, yet retained his compassion.
And that mother: her son and maybe her husband dead; destitute, nearly without hope, standing in the White House, begging for and receiving mercy … She maternally pets the president’s dark, unkempt hair, comforting him as if he were her small boy, and she one of the two mothers he lost so early. Lincoln finished writing, jumped up, thrust the paper at her—"There!" he choked—and strode from the room as she sobbed. I had to be careful with my own emotion as I told it. I get invested in stories, and what would happen if students suspected we weren’t instructional machines? There was a long pause.
“I like the robot story better,” one of the young guys said. Everyone laughed, and the danger passed. Matching wits is fun but tiring, and I headed home, tiptoeing through fallen acorns that lay like ball bearings on the pavement. Students are a lot like trees, I thought, of various girths and foliage and densities, and sometimes the ones most resistant to being worked are the best.
I told Frenchy some of this on the phone while I walked, and he considered gravely. “I got a story,” he said. “I knew this Navy petty officer, an instructor at the dive school. Every day after work he’d cross the street to the Ten Foot Stop, take a seat on his usual stool, zip open his fly, pull out a little gold anchor on a chain, and throw it on the bar. The other end of the chain was attached to a ring through the head of his dick. ‘Keep ’em coming, Jimmy,’ he’d tell the bartender. ’I’m moored for the night.’”
After dinner, Starbuck and I worked on the book he was writing, called Super Heroes Save the Day Every Day. I had transcribed the story as he told it, then we broke it down into pages he could illustrate. Chapter 1: “There I was, sitting in my chair in my super room.” He drew a stylized asparagus spear. Chapter 2: “Suddenly, a big ghost ship arrived out of the fog to steal my super glasses and laser-finding glasses.”
“Should we put a pirate flag on the mast?” I asked, reaching for a black crayon. “No! No! You’re doing it wrong! DadDY!” Starbuck shouted. He stomped to the couch and hid under a blanket printed with a life-size Batman. “Are we done for now?” I asked him. “Hmph!” said Batman.
After the kids were in bed, Mrs. Churm and I sat together, reading. She favors a series of novels, each a thousand pages, and was using both hands to hold one to her face. The back cover read: “Their passionate encounter happened long ago. She had traveled back in time and into the arms of a gallant 18th-century Scot … then returned to her own century to bear his child, believing him dead in the tragic battle of Culloden. Yet … her body still cries out for him in her dreams.”
Luckily, the rascal’s alive after all, so prose like this can exist: “‘I said I didna bed with the lasses … I never said I didna look at them. That gown becomes ye …’ He cast a glance of general approval at my bosom and waved at a serving maid carrying a platter of fresh bannocks.” The stories are as comforting to her as meat pies with Branston Pickle, and every six months or so, she begins again. “I should put the garbage out tonight,” I said. “Garbage,” she said. As I left the room, I distinctly heard a bodice ripping.
I was thinking hard about the difficulties of story-shaping, as I wheeled the bin down the driveway, so I didn’t notice the wind gusting and acorns cracking on limbs as they fell. One exploded on the top of my bare head, like a shaped charge. “Eureka!” I yelled, but no insight came of it. A foreign grad student, getting out of his car at the curb, smiled sweetly at my epithet. I went in the house, nursing my hard head, more determined than ever to tell you a story about what I do, if only I can find one.