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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

#86 How You State the Obvious: Encouraging Reflectiveness in Students and Their Writing by Guest Blogger Ioanna Opidee

# 86  How You State the Obvious: Encouraging Reflectiveness in Students and Their Writing by guest blogger Ioanna Opidee




In Ioanna Opidee's essay on "How You State the Obvious: Encouraging Reflectiveness in Student and Their Writing" Ioanna talks about the value and importance of teaching the informal, reflective essay, especially to young writers. It's a problem all nonfiction writers will at one time or another face.




I have not watched the show, nor read the book, but I've heard enough about the (to some circles) notorious Marie Kondo to know that she believes in holding an object long enough to determine if it brings you joy, and removing it from your life if it does not. She is particularly infamous for her stance on books: that one does not need more than thirty.


As a high school English teacher, at the end of the school year, I employ a Kondo-like strategy as I shuffle through materials that have accumulated on classroom shelves and tables, in particular with books that either need to be stored or carried home. Some I immediately and thoughtlessly shove into cabinets, while others I hold in my hands for a few moments as I consider the next couple months without them. Will I suddenly want to reach for this text on some sweltering afternoon in July while my kids are running under the sprinkler in the front yard? Is that risk strong, or consequential, enough to make the effort to carry the book home worthwhile? I'll flip to a random page and read a couple lines, hoping it holds the answers.


This past June, one such book I performed this trick with was Stephen King's On Writing, and its answers were yes and yes. The paragraph I flipped to reads:


Informal essays are, by and large, silly and insubstantial things; unless you get a job as a columnist at your local newspaper, writing such fluffery is a skill you'll never use in the actual mall-and-filling-station world. Teachers assign them when they can't think of any    other way to waste your time.


The irony—or serendipity—of my encountering these lines was that I had been contemplating all morning the value of the reflective writing—essentially, "informal essays"—I'd asked my students to undertake in the past year, and I was thinking of new ways to formalize the process and add more opportunities in the one to come.


King's book, I know, is rich with useful insight from one of the most prolific and admired American writers. This paragraph, though, gave me pause; actually, it made me want to drop the book onto the badly-in-need-of-a-deep-cleaning floor, but then it made me smile, because it reminded me of all that I am up against when I ask students to bring their own experiences, ideas, questions, and memories to bear in writing,  expecting that I—but, more importantly, they—will find gems. When I ask my students every year to write about what King calls the "most notorious subject, of course" (emphasis added)—"How I Spent My Summer Vacation"—the last thing I'm thinking is, "What a great way to waste my students' time!" What I am primarily thinking is, "Good thing they have a place to reflect on this. Good thing I'm able to give them the opportunity."


The type of reflective writing I ask students to complete regularly in my classes are inherently essayistic in the spirit of the essay as "attempt." When I ask my students, in the first week of class, what they did and learned in the past summer, I am asking them to try to parse out the significance of their experiences; to take stock so they can retain and utilize what matters most. I want them to look back on and list the things they've done, and then see what that list adds up to, or dive deeper into a specific moment or observation that rises immediately to the surface of their memory, and then ask themselves why it did so. It is our first exercise in what I hope will become a regular practice, which will eventually lead to a skill, and to what my former colleague and mentor Cinthia Gannett likes to call a reflective "habit of mind"—the type that can lead them to deliberately choose to limit their technology use after recognizing the benefits of their month at summer camp; the type that can lead a student to draw a line between a conversation they had with an employee at the vacation resort they visited with their family, their reading of George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant," and their studies of the residual effects of imperialism in the Caribbean.


The essay, ideally, is—as Phillip Lopate writes in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay—a "mode of inquiry" in which the writer "attempts to surround a something—a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation—by coming at it from all angles . . . taking us closer to the heart of the matter . . . eliminating false hypotheses, narrowing its emotional target and zeroing in on it" (xxxviii). There is, in Lopate's words, a "vertical dimension" to the form; a tendency to "delve further underneath" (xxv). The formal, thesis-driven, analytical essays I—and, I'd guess, many other teachers—often receive exhibit the opposite: an anxiousness to preserve the initial hypothesis by polishing it up, keeping it air-tight, and sequestering any potentially disruptive elements. This, I've come to believe, is because we don't consistently offer enough formal space and time for reflection. Or, what King might call "informal essay" writing.


Valuable informal essay "freewrites" (as I like to call them in classes, for simplicity purposes) move well beyond the initial "what did you do this summer?" prompts and are not always related to personal experience; they might stem, instead, from observation, knowledge, opinion, information, or, most potently, questions—likely, from a combination of all of the above. These "freewrites" can reach into and across the personal, social, cultural, and political all at once because the objective is to remain open to digression, whose chief goal, Lopate explains, is to "amass all the dimensions of understanding that the essayist can accumulate by bringing in as many contexts as a problem or insight can sustain without overburdening it" (xl). The prompt might be a quote, or a fact, or a snippet from a podcast. Sometimes the prompt is directed by a question; other times, it is intentionally left open. With practice, students become more skilled and comfortable with the digressive mode, which allows them to synthesize what they know, think, and feel with what they've learned, are learning, or are still in need of learning. When students are invited to digress, to linger, to pursue a line of questioning, and to (as Lopate puts it) "scoop up subordinate themes" along the way, they learn to open up their subjects through inquiry, analysis, interpretation, application, and all the other strategies that move them toward critical response, and away from superficial assumptions and arguments.


I encourage students to identify the essayistic process of writing these reflections as something other than the tightly-packed, thesis-driven product called an essay that I am inclined and obliged to assign and assess at the end of almost every unit—even though it is not completely other than it; even though, in the end, I want them to see it as fundamental to it. The "trick" might be to not tell them this at the start, but rather to show them. (I believe even King could agree with that "show, don't tell" method.) I try to show them this systematically, rather than by chance, by asking them consistently to stop at the end of a freewrite, reread what they wrote, underline what stood out the most, and then save that freewrite for later. Often, I will collect all the freewrites they've done during a unit and hand them back toward the end. When they review those freewrites, they can reannotate them and recognize the progression of their thinking, rediscovering and building on their earlier ideas in a more formalized manner. They don't need to start from scratch, and ideally, they'll realize that they never actually do.


Reflective writing has a place beyond process, though, and can be skillfully incorporated into formal analytical essays when students learn how to do this well. Most commonly (and perhaps effectively), reflection is found in the introduction and conclusion. As teachers, we sometimes joke (or complain) that student essays open with obvious, lofty reflections, such as, "Every person in the world has his or her own point of view." We might roll their eyes at statements like this and encourage students to leave such claims out. We might encourage them to skip reflection all together and "get to the point." But it is easy for us to forget that we are often teaching the same readings continuously. We are encountering, in our careers, countless students at roughly the same point in their educational development, writing about many of the same topics. So yes, while we may have heard an idea reiterated hundreds of times before, it might be the first time that student has ever articulated the point in writing. The truth that every person has his or her own point of view is indeed a profound concept that we might fail to consciously recognize in our daily lives. If a student wrote a sentence like that as an opening, it might be worth writing in the margin: "Yes. And why is this significant? What are the implications and effects of this fact? What conflicts can this create?" Their answers to these questions might just teach us something new about this "obvious" truth.


A few years ago, I overheard a student in the hallway memorizing facts from flashcards for a test, saying, "The death penalty is related to issues of…" She flipped the card over: "Race and class." I was stopped in my tracks. "Yes, the death penalty is related to issues of race and class!" I wanted to call. "Do you realize what you're saying? Do you realize what you're memorizing? To what extent is the death penalty related to issues of race and class? How so? How has this played out in cases throughout history? What do you think of this fact? Does it surprises you? Upset you?" All of these questions could be addressed essayistically, by engaging with what, to so many of us, seems obvious.


As a graduate student working toward a Master's in English, I took a Great American Novels class because I had been focusing mostly on nonfiction and so-called "alternatives" such as Holocaust and Caribbean literature. I hadn't tackled the "big," canonical works since my undergraduate days, so novels by Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, and Fitzgerald became my "gaps"—a term the professor defined as the essential areas of English studies that we lack in our own training. My most vivid memory of the course relates to a paper I wrote about Henry James's The Ambassadors. While reading the book, I was struck by what, apparently, "everyone" who reads James is struck by: the deliberateness with which he crafted his narrative, the way each sentence in the five-hundred-plus page novel pulsates with significance, meaning, and provocation for the reader. I wrote an elaborate paper describing the experience of reading James's prose, and it was returned to me with a comment at the top, written largely, in red marker: "How you state the obvious!"


How I state the obvious. At some level, it gonged against one of my greatest intellectual fears: that my ideas were nothing more than cliché reiterations of what has been said by others, and for the first time so long ago that their restatement becomes utterly trivial. At some other more remote and mysterious level, I took this as a compliment. It wasn't that I'd stated the obvious that seemed remarkable to my professor; it was how.


After all, it was how Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior stated the obvious that made him the catalyst for positive change. In the introduction to the 1997 edition of Best American Essays, Ian Frazier calls King his favorite essayist and describes the experience of watching a video of King speaking. Earlier in the piece, he compares an essay to a golf swing, admitting that the outcome is often like hitting balls at a driving range, where even the best results can get lost in a mass of others. Of King, Frazier writes:



                  What he has to say is so simple: I have a dream that white people

                  and black people can live together in peace. But the purity of his

                  swing—its sweetness and the manifest fact that his whole life

                  and a people's history are in it—causes every syllable he speaks

                  to hit bone . . . The world is a little different after each sentence

                  than it was before . . . I watch the video every so often to remind

                  myself that the swing we work on when we write has the power

                   to do such a thing. (xix)



While "swings" such as Kings are rare indeed, Frazier reminds us that the "simple" truths are not always so simple for us, as a collective society, to understand; they are not always so obvious. And it is "how" we state and call attention to them that will bring them to that all-important light.


The problem with labeling anything as "obvious" is a matter of perception at best and prejudice at worst; what is obvious to you is not necessarily obvious to me, and what's obvious to you is not necessarily more valid or valuable than what is obvious to me, and vice versa. Also, what is obvious today may not be so obvious tomorrow. Assuming something is obvious conjures myths of "common knowledge" and "common sense" that have oppressive implications when value and other judgments are made according to them.


But perhaps that's an essayist's point of view—the point of view of someone who believes, as Vivian Gornick puts it, that "penetrating the familiar is by no means a given" but, rather, "hard, hard work" (Truth in Nonfiction 9); and that, as Sydney Lea reminds us, with respect to Robert Frost, by writing with a sense of spontaneity and discovery, "we discover what we didn't know we knew" (336). That's also my conviction as a teacher—that we learn by writing, sometimes about those things that seem most obvious to us, and by challenging our notions of obvious, in order to empower our individual existences and perspectives.


As a teacher and writer, I try not to fear the obvious, often branded as cliché; instead, I fear silence. Or worse, I fear the reality of voices being drowned out by those that are louder or more well-endowed (with status, power, and other forms of privilege). Because of this, I encourage my students to not just state the obvious, but to get inside of it, interrogate and challenge it, destabilize the very notion of it, by essaying their lives and what they see.  Like Montaigne, they should ask, "What do I know?" challenging the oft-heard lament of some of their disillusioned elders, "What do they know?"


King's On Writing was published almost twenty years ago, and I believe much—if not enormous—progress has been made since then in terms of the academic value attributed to nonfiction writing, both literary and informal. Still, there is more work to be done; more potential to activate; and more of a need to value and foster student's voices and reflective capacities. We can do this by sharpening our own.


Frazier, Ian. "Introduction." Best American Essays 1997. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Print.

Lea, Sydney. "What We Didn't Know We Knew." The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on

Creative Nonfiction. Eds. Michael Steinberg and Robert Root. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon,

1998. Print.

Lopate, Phillip. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present.

Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1997. Print.


Ioanna Opidee is the author of the novel Waking Slow (PFP, 2018), which was named a finalist in the multicultural category of the Foreword Indies Book of the Year Awards and called an "arresting, timely" take on sexual assault by the Boston Globe. She has worked as a freelance journalist, taught writing and literature at various universities, and is currenty a high school English teacher in Connecticut. Her other creative work has been published in The Huffington Post, Talking Writing, Lumina, and Spry literary journal, among other venues.

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Blog # 52 Addressing the Dual Selves in the "Eye and the I", Jessica Handler, Guest Blogger


This teaching blog on/about issues of genre and craft is approaching its fifth year; and while all the contributing writers, myself included, choose to write about whatever concerns they might have on/about our teaching and writing, a basic concern is --one I've noticed that keeps coming coming up regularly--about narratives and narrators. For the most part, the larger issue is about how and why personal essayists, as well as writers of memoir, personal literary journalism, and personal/cultural criticism, decide what the right fit is between our narrator(s) and what it is we're writing.

This is a matter, I believe, that's shared by most of us who teach in the genre. In her essay below, Jessica Handler approaches it in a somewhat different way. In her essay below, she explains how, both in her own writing as well as in her teaching, she distinguishes between the "Eye" and "I," narrators that she refers to as "dual selves.""


# 52 Addressing the Dual Selves in the “Eye and the I”, Jessica Handler, Guest Blogger

If we accept the fact that in the memoir and the personal essay, the “I” pronoun represents the contemporary self, the self doing the writing and the ruminating, then for me, the “eye” is that same earlier self, the self who’s experiencing past events.

The “I” considers and makes coherent narrative of what the “eye” saw, and
for the duration of the time at the desk, the making of the art, these
dual selves have to co-exist. Sometimes that desk can be a crowded place.

I’d like to address this approach to the “Eye/I” in my own work. I’d also like to offer some examples of how/why it encouraged me to use the “Eye/I” as an area of exploration for student writers new to exploring the idea of the author’s self as both narrator/protagonist.

I teach undergraduate, graduate, and adult education classes; and I’m consistently surprised by the number of student writers at all levels who struggle with the freedom and responsibilities of using that “I” pronoun.

We’re socialized to be hyper-aware that the use of “I” and “me” are bragging, dominating a conversation, and calling undue attention to the self. But if we’re writing creative nonfiction, particularly essays and memoirs, whose story is it but mine, me, I? Of course there’s balance involved, but it’s the recognition of how to welcome and best use that working area within “freedom + responsibility” that I consider that area of exploration.

We are, as Joan Didion writes in her 1968 essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be…”

I’m an experiential learner, which makes me particularly loyal to practicing experiential teaching. Writing my first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (2009), led to my first concrete engagement with the “Eye/I.”

So, the memoir: I am the oldest of three sisters, and by the time I was thirty-two, I was the only one living. My younger sister Susie died of leukemia when she was eight and I was ten. Our youngest sister Sarah was born with a rare white cell disorder called Kostmann’s Syndrome, which is, in broad strokes, the opposite of leukemia. She died at 27. Our father was a civil rights attorney in Atlanta in the 60s, so we were as a family faced with the question of how to help others when we can’t help our own.

When I was an adolescent I’d begun writing my way into my story. It was a means of verifying for myself that I was present, alive, and living through an experience or a series of experiences. I wrote in journals, recording the most ordinary moments of my family’s life and mine. How my mom and I went to the grocery store. How my sister had brain surgery and my boyfriend made a stupid joke about it. I was. in fact. creating an “I” and “eye” without realizing it.

Other parts of our family’s chronicle existed in photographs, report cards and letters-- and outside of my own resources, in newspaper articles and libraries. As an adult writer, the availability of these items led me to physically, emotionally, and in many cases, sensually re-experience the “eye” that pure memory could not provide. Example #1 is that I kept so much of those ephemera.

Another example: when I was ten, not long after my sister Susie died, my father took my mother, my sister Sarah, and me – along with another family who were his best friends - on vacation to Jamaica. When I tell this story now, people sigh with delight imagining a family healing in a Caribbean paradise. In those days, Jamaica wasn't the tourist destination it is now, and even if it had been, none of us were ready for fun.

Thirty some years later, when I wrote about my family's trip, I kept seeing myself as a child, gagging over the ackee at our Jamaican breakfast table. My “eye” came back full force. That breakfast had tasted to me like burnt motor oil, it looked like runny eggs with big black spots, and it smelled like talcum power.

Was it really as bad as I remembered? I had been in an understandably
terrible frame of mind the summer I was ten, but simply writing about a
bad taste wasn’t a narrative, or even a scene. I wanted to test the difference
between the ten-year-old me (the “eye”) and the adult me (the “I”).

So I printed a recipe from the Internet, went to an international market,
bought canned ackee (there was none fresh where I live) and cooked a
facsimile of that breakfast. I ate it. And in that act, where I compared the
“eye” and the “I,” the writer me created an experience that I could write
about not only with some depth and conflict but also with the deliberate intent of making meaning and sense out of that experience– there’s that “I” on the page, claiming what’s true for her.

I’d say that doing the research is an experiential way of entering that possibility space, re-experiencing the “eye” through the lens of the “I.”
In order to create a narrative, sometimes, while I was cooking and eating, I wrote in double-entry notebooks. On one side of the line, notes about the facts—what, for example, I had in my hand– or in my mouth at the time. And when I was researching; I wrote notes on the other side, notes that described the questions, the emotional turmoil, the joys and surprises, I was feeling--along with the free associations that arose with each item. I also collected thousands of pages of medical records; I hunted down diaries and photos; and I revisited key locations.

The “eye” of me then and the “I” of me at the time of the writing were each
deeply affected, but differently--the “eye” by living this twenty year experience in real time; and the “I” by understanding that genuine, effective, and honorable writing about the experience would require a commitment to creating a narrative about the act of self examination.

That’s the experiential aspect of the “Eye/I.” And it’s also the permission I give both to myself and to my students.

In his essay, “Looking For My Family,” Ian Frazier explains that after his parents’ deaths, he catalogued their papers and the detritus of two lifetimes; neckties, purses, postcards, into what he called “The Mom and Dad Museum.” His method in crafting “Family” was to “look for artifact that suggested narrative.”

Writers of personal essays and memoirs can take something useful from Frazier’s approach. It’s his way of acknowledging that the passage of time is less about nostalgia and, in this particular case, more of an opportunity to create friction within a plot.

“How it felt to me…” Joan Didion writes. Which me is she considering? In this case, the “eye” – the me of “then.”

How, I ask students, did “it” feel to you, that wedding, that funeral, that
Boring afternoon on the intercity bus, that time you careened down a park side hill with your brother on a red Flexible Flyer? This inquiry, along with giving them sufficient time to write, allows students to open up, look inside, and meet themselves coming round again. Still another example of how we, as writers, can develop more substantive narratives.

Writing creative nonfiction, as we know, involves much more than plot. It allows us to examine and evaluate the effects of an important subject, and in that way, it operates on two levels; a nominal level, which is the surface, or basic storyline, and a substantive level, the real pulse that runs beneath the storyline.

Knowing this can help us better understand the difference between the “Eye/I.” The “eye” shows us the nominal story, and the “I” extracts and develops the substantive story. It is in the substantive writing that the author of an essay or a memoir does most of her real work; and it’s also where the reader locates the heart of the piece.

Writing about the self means that, for the duration of the writing, you can’t really separate the two selves. Think of the Russian nesting doll, the matroyshka doll. The outer shell is the writer self, and the inner dolls are the ‘eye’ selves.

Without the inner pieces, that doll is empty.

Bio note

Jessica Handler is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief (St. Martins Press, December 2013.) Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009, University of Georgia Press, 2015) is one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Newsweek, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. Honors include residencies at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. Featured as one of nine contemporary Southern women writers in Vanity Fair magazine, she learned to never again wear couture. She teaches at Ogellhorpe University in Atlanta.

www.jessicahandler.com Read More 

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Blog # 50, Hindrance or Help: How Repetition Can Stop (or Start) Your Writing--Mike Steinberg

NOTE: Mike Steinberg’s new collection--Greatest Hits and Some That Weren’t--eleven selected personal essays and memoirs on/about childhood, baseball, place, aging, travel, teaching, and writing—is now available from Amazon, or through Carmike Press/Seahorse Books (carmikepress@gmail.com)

Blog # 50, Hindrance or Help: How Repetition Can Stop (or Start) Your Writing
by Mike Steinberg

FOREWORD: I adapted this essay from a panel talk I gave at the River Teeth Writer’s Conference on June 3 in Ashland, Ohio.

The idea for the River Teeth panel grew out of a series of emails between personal essayist, Pat Madden, and myself--over the matter of duplication and repetition in our own (and in other’s) writing.

The issue that came up most frequently in our correspondence was, and I’m paraphrasing: When we recycle/rephrase/reuse our already-published ideas, thoughts, and opinions, when are we plagiarizing, from ourselves; and when does repeating ourselves become a means by which we’re looking from a different perspective? And when we dig more deeply into ideas and issues that we've already written about, does it mean we’re going back to old material; or, could it be that these are materials and ideas we haven’t yet fully explored or exhausted?

These are, I think, important concerns, especially for autobiographical writers--personal essayists and memoirists--as well as those of us that write personal journalism and/or personal/ cultural criticism--which is, I’m betting, almost everyone who might be reading this blog post. In other words, at one time or another in our writing lives, haven’t we all had to deal with this matter?

Here then, is my current take on it.

Mostly we authors must repeat ourselves--that's the truth. We have two or three great and moving experiences so great and so moving that it doesn't seem at the time that anybody else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and humbled in just that way ever before...and we tell our two or three stories each time in a new disguise--maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
--Albert Einstein

I’ll begin with some brief back-story regarding my own struggles with this problem.

I’m primarily a memoirist/personal essayist who also teaches and writes essays on matters of genre and craft. A few years ago, I began to be more aware and then gradually more troubled by the realization that I seemed to be repeating myself in my writing--in both my personal essays and memoirs and in my craft essays as well.

This wasn’t the first time, though. For years, a voice in the back of my head had been nagging away, scolding me really, for having written too much about baseball. And, it’s true; baseball, in one form or another, had been part of most of my stand-alone and book length narratives.

In time, I began to feel, first, a little defensive, then, apologetic--and, finally, more self-conscious and defensive, especially when colleagues, friends and former students would ask what I was working on.

At a point, my self-consciousness turned into an almost inhibiting fear--a fear that perhaps I was destined to become a one-note writer, like those Hollywood actors who’ve played the same kinds of character roles over and over again. Worse yet, what if I’d literally written myself out?

Right around then, I started comparing myself (and with some envy, I admit) to other, more versatile, writers--writers, who, to my mind, never seemed to repeat the same subjects or same concerns in each subsequent work.

We all know how this goes, right? And it’s just what we don’t need
--that is; still another censor sitting on our shoulder, giving us one more reason to avoid our writing.

Up until then, the two other usual suspects (in my case anyway), were a version or variation of either, “I have nothing original or new to say,” or; “who’s gonn’a give a damn about the stuff I write?”

This is, of course, one of the things I make a point of telling my students not to worry about.

Those who can’t write, teach writing--right?
It’s way too long of a story to get into here; but, what could have turned into a debilitating writing block, evolved instead (and thankfully) into a larger inquiry on/about the reasons why some writers, like me, tend to work with persistent, recurring themes--with preoccupations and confusions—and, most especially, with obsessions--while others, as I’ve mentioned, seem more capable of pursuing multiple, sometimes contradictory ideas, themes, and subjects--and, in some instances, these same writers will even tackle other forms and genres-all -without seeming to repeat themselves.
My inquiry began in earnest with that email exchange with Pat Madden. I was kvetching to Pat one day, telling him that, lately, whenever I wrote about baseball, I felt like I was repeating same thing over and over again (Einstein’s definition of crazy, yes?). Pat’s response was, and I’m paraphrasing, that, according to Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace sometimes despaired that he was simply repeating himself. “And other writers” Pat went on to say, “have talked about this too (with varying emotional responses).”

I was thinking at the time that maybe this actually was a hopeful sign. If writers who were that high on the food chain had similar doubts, then perhaps I was in better company than I’d thought.

“Maybe,” Pat added, “a good idea for a panel might be about how we can repeat ourselves without losing hope; or, how and why, and to what end do we re-envision, or refashion, our main themes in different works?”

And since I’ve started this essay with an epigraph from Scott Fitzgerald, let me pick up on that.

While I was looking for a way into this talk, I pulled up a quote that I had stored away for a long time. And it became the epigraph I cited above, the one that reads: “Mostly we authors must repeat ourselves--that's the truth…” etc. Which then, got me to thinking.

Back when I was a graduate student, I chose to write my doctoral dissertation on Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction--the novels and short stories—all 152 of them.

While I was thrashing around looking for a central idea for the dissertation, I began to track a recurring motif, a main theme, if you will--which I referred to as “dream and disillusion.” It seemed to me that it ran through just about all of Fitzgerald’s fiction, and even a good bit of his autobiographical nonfiction.

Even now though, It’s hard to know if I came up with that recurring theme because I was looking for a unifying idea; or, if maybe, even back then, a piece of me already feared the prospect of someday repeating myself in my own writing.

But no matter; what Fitzgerald said in that epigraph seemed to support what Pat had been telling me in his emails, the ones about the other writers who worried that they too were repeating themselves in their work.

And so, I started to look for examples. It came as no surprise that I found far more than I could use in a short essay: comments, for example, by playwright’s and screenwriters; songwriters and visual artists; choreographers, directors, and critics. But because this essay is about repeating ourselves in our writing, I’ll focus on a single author.

For the past few years, I’ve found myself consistently being drawn back to P.F. Kluge’s work. Kluge, who’s primarily a novelist, has talked openly in interviews about a single fascination/attraction that he revisits in his novels.

Here’s a sampling:

About his novel The Master Blaster, Kluge says, it’s “set on Saipan. I was there in the 1960's with the Peace Corps, and I’ve returned many times since. Saipan is one of my islands, part of my life-long fascination with bounded, yet also boundless, places.”

About another novel The Edge of Paradise, Kluge writes, ‘The Peace Corps sent me to the Pacific Islands — Micronesia. The islands stayed with me and I’ve kept returning, checking on places and people I care about.”

He also says that …”my continuing interest in the love/hate relationship between America and the Philippines underlies my second novel (Macarthur’s Ghost), which spans the years from World War II to the Marcos era.”

And he describes The Day I Die, as a “ thriller set in the Pacific islands I saw as a Peace Corps volunteer.”

To which, I’d add, that Season For War, another novel, is set in the turn-of-the-century Philippines.

But that’s not all. Kluge has a produced large body of work. Three other books--Gone Tomorrow, Final Exam, and Alma Mater—a novel and two personal narratives—are not set in the islands but at Kenyon College in Gambier Ohio, where Kluge teaches.

“I love islands;” Kluge says, “Micronesia --Saipan, Palau, Pohnpei-- is full of them. Gambier, Ohio is another kind of island, a small, surrounded place where I live and teach. My alma mater, my current employer. If you live in a place,” Kluge says, “you write about it”

What I take away from his disclosures are that Kluge’s deep fascination with specific locations and geographies, more often than not, becomes the means through which his narrators are best able to explore their most insistent yearnings as well as to interrogate the questions and confusions that provoke and/or animate them most.
It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with this. But, and I’m speculating here, I first began to see things a little differently after two separate conversations I’d had with colleagues, essayist/memoirist Renee D’ Aoust and novelist Mick Cochrane, who, like me, are teaching writers.
The conversation with Renee came about when I was, once again, complaining about not being able to move away from writing about baseball.

“I wonder if we have a similar issue,” she said. “I 've tried to quit writing about dance. Years ago, I mentioned this in a college classroom, and a student asked, ‘but if you love it, and do it so well, why would you quit writing about the subject? "
That question, Renee maintains, triggered other thoughts:--such as; “how do we stay with the same subject, but not repeat ourselves? Or; is it okay to repeat ourselves? After all, isn’t writing a way of working things out?”

A while back I remember also asking Mick Cochrane why he writes so much about sports; in his case, it’s also baseball. His answer was, that “I felt permission to write about sports, because Thoreau writes about beans. Melville writes about whales. Poe writes about a bird. So why not me and baseball?”

When I asked him to expand on that, Cochrane said that"...all writers seek dense, complex material over which they have some authority" and that "all writers would probably be wise to engage their obsessive loves, whatever they might be."

In some ways both writers are talking about the same two things: permission and obsession.

I’ve since come around to thinking that a big reason why we repeat ourselves is that the things we write about are governed more by matters of sensibility (and intent) than they are by a predetermined design. In my own case, it means giving myself the permission to follow my obsessions, whatever those might be.

It’s another version of “follow the writing where it takes you,” something I also try to tell my students. And, at the same time, it’s advice I need to keep reminding myself about.  Read More 

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