On the Passing of Michael Crichton

Like many of you, I imagine, I was very saddened by today’s announcement of Michael Crichton’s passing away of cancer at age 66.  I first encountered Crichton’s books when I was in junior high, and my English teacher told me about Jurassic Park (this would have been in 1993, well before the movie).  I found a copy of the book later that evening on my Dad’s bookshelf, which was itself enough to make me intrigued—he wasn’t the biggest reader, at least not of fiction.  So I started reading before bed that night, and by three a.m. that morning, I was hooked…and not just for the night.

I’d always been a recreational reader, but that experience—at about twelve-years old—was the first time my heart actually pounded as a result of reading a book.  I was amazed at the imagination, the tension, and the clarity.  The science was fascinating, but not as much as the sense that an entirely new and vivid world had been created, yet was still akin to our own.  Over the next six months, I read Sphere, The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, Travels, The Great Train Robbery, and Five Patients.  My first major writing project—a full length play adaptation of The Terminal Man that was probably 80% plagiarized dialog from the book—was completed about a year later, and although I literally never showed it to anyone but my mom I remember being too excited to eat dinner one night because I just so close to being finished.  Over the course of that year, I discovered the joy not only of reading but of writing.

As often happens, one writer gave way to another.  Crichton begat Stephen King, who begat Dean Koontz, and these gave way to English class love affairs with John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, Ernest Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut.  Six years after that first secretive three a.m. reading binge (the first of many, over the years) I enrolled as a Writing major my freshman year of college, and followed that all the way to graduate school and my current job as a college instructor.  I haven’t read Crichton’s most recent books (I stopped after The Lost World) but I’m still understandably sentimental about those early, exciting times.  In fact, though my areas of study and my material as a writer have come a long way in the intervening fifteen years, you can still trace the trajectory of my life as a writer directly back to that initial experience.

On my shelf at home, near Harry Crews and Anton Chekov, is that old copy of Jurassic Park I pilfered from my Dad’s library.  It’s missing its cover, its pages have yellowed, and there are more creases on its spine than on any other book I own, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to get rid of it.  And I’m very glad for that… because it just got a lot more precious to me.

My condolences to Crichton’s family.  May he rest in peace.

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The Master Butcher’s Singing Club

MBSCI’m working on a novel right now dealing heavily with music, and was originally attracted to Louise Erdrich’s The Master Butcher’s Singing Club based on its content–I wanted to see how another writer handled music, in both its description and technical aspects.  I quickly discovered, however, that MBSC was only about music on the surface; it is actually a multi-generational family saga.  The  novel takes place in a developing North Dakota town between the two world wars, following Fidelis Waldvogel and his four sons as they move through their lives with Delphine Watzka, the strong, progressive heroine who befriends the boys’ mother.  I also discovered, quickly, that MBSC was fantastic, a fact that many other people already seemed to know.  For example, while I was carrying MBSC around the AP English reading, matronly high school teachers kept grabbing me enthusiastically, even violently, by the arm and exclaiming, “Isn’t it incredible?!? I thought it was INCREDIBLE!!!” I nodded in agreement and self-preservation, but now my accolades are more sincere.

The story in MBSC is both grand and intimate, creating moments as periodically pulse-pounding as they are emotionally dense.  The characters–Delphine especially–are complicated and rich, their beauty conveyed by lush, supple prose. Furthermore, the book is remarkably deft in its handling of time; Erdrich can devote pages to an instant in the character’s mind, and then propel time forward for years in the very next chapter—and if that sounds disorienting, I assure you it’s not.  I’ve read some books recently that had very little effect on me, and so it was fantastic to be moved, multiple times, to chills or tears.  So while the book is not perfect (a great deal of early attention is devoted to episodes with only scant influence on the overall plot, and Delphine enters a kind of emotional stasis towards the beginning of the third act, which makes the narrative sag) there is much more to applaud here than to nitpick.  I liked the book so much, in fact, that I’ll put it in a course someday.

In the meantime, the book fulfilled its purpose of teaching me something about writing music, in that it mostly doesn’t write about music.  The singing club (which was founded by Fidelis, a butcher, and attracts many of the men in town) is predominantly an artistic motif and occasional plot device, providing unity between the three decades and bringing together otherwise separate characters.  It never takes center stage until the end, however, when it becomes an almost –almost– heavy-handed metaphor.  Otherwise, the singing is in the background, which lets Erdrich put appropriate attention on other elements of the story.  Songs are named, but described only when scene or characterization merits the attention—and even then such description wears thin surprisingly quickly. Also, nowhere were there any theoretical or technical discussions of music, which makes sense, based both on the character’s level of actual knowledge and on the fact that many readers find that kind of thing tiresome.  Erdrich’s restraint in this respect was a useful reminder.  So the book, without question, provides some helpful bits of instruction—although that isn’t why I recommend it.  I recommend it because, for the first time in a while, a book reminded me why I wanted to be a writer.  That’s some of the highest praise I can offer.

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It Smells Like Noise in Here

Fasten your seatbelts, folks: it’s science time.  As a writer, I’ve long been familiar with synesthesia as a literary device, but not so much a literal phenomenon.  That was before I saw a Discovery Channel documentary on literal synesthesia a few days ago.  Simply put, literal synesthesia occurs when the experience of one kind of sensory perception (such as sound) triggers the simultaneous experience of another kind of sensory perception (such as taste).  In a way, two senses become inextricably linked to one another, and EKGs have actually mapped the different areas of the brain firing despite the lack of any direct stimulation—the experience of a smell triggers the node for a color, for example.  Over the course of the program, they presented people who could taste different flavors on hearing certain words, or who saw different colors for different letters, or who saw—actually saw—grids of numbers arranged in three dimensional space when doing math.  It’s not a new thing evidently (as many as 1 in 23 people have some form of the condition) but as I was watching the program I was hit with an overwhelming sense of: “how have I never heard of this before?”

It was, of course, fascinating.  My wife  was born without a sense of smell, and I’ve always found that literary synesthesia was one of the most effective ways of communicating what things smell like, however clumsily.  It was therefore fun to watch her watch the program, especially the part about the blind man—that’s blind man—who sees flashes of color when he hears numbers or words that fit into a sequence (days of the week, for example).  At that point in the program, my wife got this adorable glimmer of hope that one day a random synaptic misfire triggered by, say, a bagel might allow her to really know what something smells like.  Alas, we did not pick up any tips on how to make that happen.

Another interesting part of the program talked about the possible connection between synesthesia and creativity.  Since the root of the condition involves an unusual connection between portions of the brain usually kept separate, some scientists believe that synesthetes are inherently more creative. Creativity, as these scientists present it, is all about unanticipated connections—whether on global levels, like the intersection of plot points in storytelling, or on local levels, such as in metaphors.  It’s possible, these scientists claim, that the unusually dense neural pathways of a synesthete’s brain make them more prone to such connections, and thus more creative.  I looked into it, and several famous artists are indeed reported to have been synesthetes, including jazz legend Duke Ellington and composer Franz Liszt, who (thrillingly, I think) is reported to have seen music as color, saying enigmatic things to orchestras like “A little more blue, please!”.  My favorite example of a synesthete is Vladimir Nabokov, who has this to say about the condition in his autobiography Speak, Memory:

[it is] a fine case of colored hearing. Perhaps ‘hearing’ is not quite accurate, since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind farther on unless otherwise stated) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag bag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites. I am puzzled by my French on which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass. Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl. Adjacent tints do not merge, and diphthongs do not have special colors of their own, unless represented by a single character in some other language (thus the fluffy-gray, three-stemmed Russian letter that stands for sh, a letter as old as the rushes of the Nile, influences its English representation)…In the green group, there are alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, and pistachio t. Dull green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do for w. The yellows comprise various e’s and i’s, creamy d, bright-golden y, and u, whose alphabetical value I can express only by ‘brassy with an olive sheen.’ In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h. Finally, among the reds, b has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, m is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at last perfectly matched v with ‘Rose Quartz’ in Maerz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color.

That’s right everyone: just when you’ve reconciled yourself to the idea that you’ll never be able to do the things with words that Vladmir Nabokov can do, he lets it slip that his library comes in living color while yours is still stuck in the fifties.  Jerk.

If you want to find out more, here’s a link to the American Synesthesia Association.  Happy browsing!

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AP Reading Two: Once More Unto the Beach, Dear Friends

For the second year in a row, I am spending time in Daytona Beach, Florida grading the AP English Language exam with around 900 distant friends and colleagues.  This year, we’ve got around 300,000 essays to grade (gulp) and about one week to do it.  It’s the largest volume of essays AP has ever contended with, but we’ve compensated with a higher percentage increase of raters this year, which means we should hopefully be finished in time to enjoy the sand, racing nostalgia, and (from the perspective of this jaded Chicagoan) comically cheap beer.

The AP Reading, of course, is actually beneficial in ways that have nothing to do with inexpensive booze.  It is a chance to reconnect with old friends from grad school, and make some new ones from other colleges and universities.  Additionally, as a freshman comp instructor, it provides a good opportunity to chat with high school instructors, who will no doubt be sending me some of their students in a year or so.  That kind of perspective is quite valuable in the world of first-year writing, as is the appreciation for the wide range of skill levels that actually take the AP exam nationwide.  And they come in all shapes and skill levels, I have to say.

Before heading out to the beach, however, I’d like to share this delicious new bit of counterculture: evidently, some student somewhere got it in his head that students should write “THIS IS SPARTA!!!” in the interior of their AP essays, so that raters would keep encountering the randomly inserted phrase and have no idea what was going on.  Ha-ha! Those wacky student antics sure do cause us to laugh with delight, yes sir!  Well . . . I find it entertaining anyway. But the trend was widespread enough that scoring leaders had to make an announcement saying that raters should neither reward nor penalize the phrase.  In the first day of grading, I’ve already found one Sparta reference and my table has already found five.

In the interest of honesty . . . if I were an high school AP student I totally would have worked in “This is Sparta.” So check back at the end of the week for the final tally, as well as other notes from the week.  It should be fun.

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A One-Hour Tour

My parents came into town from St. Louis to see the new house this weekend, which went a long way towards making it feel like a completed home.  And since, like most residents of Chicago, I view out of town relatives as a handy excuse to do touristy things, we decided to take an architecture boat tour of the city’s main river.  My wife had taken one years ago, and said it kept the attention of most of her high school classmates–high praise.  Since the company that boasted finishing their excursions with a thirty-knot speedboat ride along the lakeshore didn’t seem quite our speed (my mother has a rule about not engaging in any activity prohibited to women who are pregnant) we opted for the more leisurely folks at Shoreline Sightseeing, who did not disappoint.

Some highlights of the tour included learning how and why civil engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River, as well as what styles of architecture speckle the skyline.  We saw the architecturally insignificant home that now stands on the spot where Abraham Lincoln was nominated for president, and saw some early construction for the Chicago Spire (which, at 2,000 feet, will be one of the tallest buildings in the world upon completion in 2011).  There was history about the John Hancock building and the Sears Tower, as well as a fresh little fable about the Great Chicago Fire–that the famous cow has been exonerated of all charges, and there is now a theory, evidently, that the fire was actually started by meteorites.

I know–it was new to me too.

The most literary aspect of the tour came towards the end, when the guide mentioned Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which tells the tale of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.  I’m currently reading the book, and many of the architects in the 1893 fair–such as Daniel Burnham, John Root, and Louis Sullivan–were key in designing the city itself.  It was fun getting a more vivid picture of how Chicago has changed in the past 100 years.  I know very little about architecture, really, so a novice like me got a lot out of it.

The tour was also a nice way to get a fresh start to the month.  May was surprisingly hectic, which took a toll on both my personal life and writing productivity.  I’m glad to say, however, that this past week I was finally able to get some work done on the novel I’m writing,  and that I cracked 60,000 words last Friday.  There is much revision to be done, but I also have no shortage of things I still want to write.  So here’s hoping that June, in the spirit of the afternoon, brings calmer waters.

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I have a Facebook Page Now

In keeping with my pattern of catching up to trends about six months after they hit their peak,  I started a Facebook page yesterday.  I’ve already made contact with some people from college and high school that had vanished into the distance long ago, and in the coming weeks will be working to integrate Facebook and my website here more thoroughly.  But if you’re on Facebook in the meantime, drop me a line.  Maybe we can be friends . . .

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Andrea Lunsford’s Talk at DePaul

Last Friday, as part of an on-going program for professional development, made possible by a shiny new departmental budget, DePaul University’s Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse Department hosted Andrea Lunsford, author of (among other things) The St. Martin’s Handbook for Writing. I’ve used the SMH for about six years now (editions four through six are on my bookshelf, and edition seven is in my backpack), so I felt like I was meeting a bona fide celebrity in the world of rhetoric, and a serviceable one in the world at large. Andrea Lunsford’s most immediate claim to fame is as the Writing/Rhetoric Director at Stanford, but despite that lofty title she was pleasantly down to earth, a trim woman with graying hair and a disarming smile that (in the words an NYC cab driver once used to describe her) has “English teacher written all over [her]”.

The meeting was billed as a discussion, and some of my First Year Writing colleagues and I were initially unsure what that meant. My own joking plan, if pressed for a question, was to whip out the handbook, point to a random sentence, and test her acumen for diagramming. Lunsford, however, was more than capable of extemporaneous lecturing, and over the two hour discussion described her thoughts on all manner of things regarding rhetoric, academic life, and the role her own handbook plays in her teaching. There was WAY too much to go into here, but these are the highlights from my perspective:

The Stanford Writing Center

The Writing Center at Stanford University that Lunsford described was unlike any I’d ever heard of, in that it seemed to be a resource for student development in addition to being a place where student’s could come for help. When I worked at Evansville’s writing center in college, we would read over student’s papers and then send them (the students) on their merry, hopefully unbaffled way. The Writing Center at Stanford, by contrast, seems almost like a social club. They have been responsible for helping start four journals and an oral club, and regularly host open mics, readings, and staff events on writing that are quite well-attended (even on Friday nights). According to Lunsford, this demonstrates that Institutions have a large number of students dedicated to learning writing, but who have minimal outlets available for expressing this interest. If run lovingly and well, a writing center can be a nexus for disciplinary advancement in addition to a place to pop by and get your grammar checked.

Writing and Families

Early in the discussion, a colleague of mine asked why an industry that makes its living on children (college academics) is so inhospitable to members of that community who want to have children of their own. Lunsford agreed that this was a paradox, and shared stories of several people she knew, women mostly, who had to give up tenure track jobs because of family obligations–geographically or otherwise. It’s a fault on my part, but as a man without children I’d never given thought to how hard it would really be to raise a child in circumstances where you were also required to publish a book in four years, among other things. Lunsford said that departments have an obligation to accommodate for the personal lives of their employees, and says that Stanford fulfills this duty by doing things like not scheduling meetings during pick-up times, scheduling all evening activities well in advance, and making a play area available in the writing center. I was glad to hear of these efforts, even if I was ashamed that the problem, like I said before, had never occurred to me. But that’s why I attend these discussions.

Responding to Disinterested Students

Lunsford was asked what she said to students that didn’t think they needed to take writing, and gave the following responses. (1) Writing is Developmentally Slow. Students will need practice refining what they learn in high school, and nobody at eighteen, regardless of how much writing they’ve done, is the best writer they are ever going to be. (2) Writing is Changing More Now Than in the Past 2,300 Years. With the advent of the internet, and increasing obligations to integrate visuals into writing, students need to become familiar with updated discourse modes and conventions. (3) There is a Great Connection between Writing and Thinking. Recent research has suggested that the human brain, at seventeen, has not yet reached its highest level of cognitive ability, and skill at writing has proven quite effective at helping shape the ability to interact with the world. (4) The Best Twelfth Grade Education in the World Cannot Fully Prepare You. The gap between high school and college is simply too great, and the requirements of the two arenas too different, to think that you can make the transition completely on your own. Required writing classes can make the leap easier.

Those are all good ideas, and I plan on making them part of my opening day spiel.

Incidentally, I mentioned to some students that I’d met the author of The St. Martin’s Handbook, and their jaws invariably dropped, as though I’d said that I spent last Friday morning just chilling with Timbaland. Their astonishment threw me, but my working theory is that from their perspective the SMH is this ridiculously dense and comprehensive tome of archaic knowledge, and it is strange to think that it all came out of one person. She must be, like, a genius or something.

I don’t know about that, but she certainly leads one heck of a discussion group.

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Calvin College Catch-Up

I’ve now returned from Calvin Festival of Faith in Writing held in Grand Rapids Michigan, which I found to be a pleasant little town about the size of Evansville, Indiana, only without the funny smell and economic desperation.  It’s possible, though, that my impression of Grand Rapids was altered by its seventy degree outside temperatures (I haven’t experienced that in over six months) and the fact that conferences put me in a good mood, which usually makes me like the city that hosts them.  This conference, especially, was full of pleasant people enthusiastic about their craft, who lacked that jaunty pretension I get from so many writers at, say, the AWP convention.  It also didn’t take too long to have Relief’s decision to attend the conference be confirmed as a good one.

First of all, our reception was overwhelming positive.  I was delighted by how few people (a) were finding out about Relief for the first time, and (b) were thrilled by what the journal was all about once they heard.  Over and I over, I received excited nods when I explained that the journal—though it explored Christian themes and experiences—valued authenticity over comfort, and literary craft over religious preachiness.  People seemed entirely on our wave-length, and my suspicions that writers were hungry for a journal that bridged the secular and Christian writing worlds was confirmed time and again through conversations with writers and presentations by speakers, making it an absolutely joyous experience.  So while it took a while to find my groove, (the first time I tried to pitch Relief I got as far as “It’s a Quarterly Christian Journal,” then didn’t know what else to say and had to be rescued) by the end had the pitch down to a lithe two minutes.  The conference was good from a sales perspective—we arrived with over one-hundred and fifty journals, and left with seven—but it was even more gratifying to meet so many wonderful and like-minded people.  For the first time, all the work I’ve been doing with the journal felt legitimate and good.

Since we mostly wanted to publicize the journal, I snuck off to panels only rarely.  The ones I attended were hit or miss (they often are) and had an annoying trend of not actually talking about what they claimed they’d talk about.  There were some highlights, though—Mary Gordan gave a perceptive opening talk about whether fiction could be moral, and Chip MacCalister (a former publisher and current agent) gave a talk about book proposals that was equal parts theoretical and practical.  The best lecture for me, however, came from Michael Chabon, who I’ve had a mixed response to over the years—I thought Wonderboys and Werewolves in Their Youth were both great, but got bored by Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Summerland.  But Chabon’s talk on place and myth was fantastic, and while the structure was as meandering as that of Summerland (sorry, Mike) the terrain he covered in his talk included the role of setting in literature, the sanctity of language as identity, the merit of genre fiction as a medium, and his own journey of discovery as a writer.  The talk accomplished the curious rhetorical trick of never telling its listeners exactly where they were going, while simultaneously making them grateful to be invited along.  It was marvelous stuff, and if you ever get a chance to hear Chabon speak I highly suggest you take it.

So it was a pleasant weekend, overall.  It was my first time attending a conference as an editor rather than a writer, and I found it easier to be on the presenting side than the attending side.  And in the end, talking to a bunch of Christians wasn’t nearly as daunting as I’d thought it might be, which I probably should have anticipated—along with the time change upon crossing into Michigan.

And speaking of change, it’s time to get back to teaching and to grading—so I’ll see you next time!

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Madcap Michigan Mayhem

For any parties interested, let it be known that on the back end of this week I will be attending the Calvin Festival of Faith in Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  There is some pleasant anticipation for this little trip, but not in the same way that going to the AWP conference breeds anticipation.  Mostly I’m eager to find out what other people are talking about when they discuss “Christian” writing, since I’m finding out that the term doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to me that it does to other people.   Hopefully the various panels, readings, and conversations will broaden my mind a bit to both the term and the literary culture (which is always fun, of course).
For the record, I will be traveling in the company of my fellow editors of Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression.  We’ll have a table in the main bookfair area, and look forward to meeting some of the folks who have submitted to us over the past roughly two years, as well as introducing the journal to Relief newbies.  If you’re attending the conference stop by and say hello; we’d love to see you.  By the way, if you’re unfamiliar with Relief, where I work as fiction editor, just click the link to left to find out everything you need to know.

Once I get back I’ll post an article describing my reactions.  Check back soon!

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Fast Food Nation

Fast Food Nation CoverI don’t usually focus on non-fiction, just like I don’t usually mention million-seller books.  But Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, warrants an exception.  Part of this posting is sentimental–my wife and I resolved to read more books together, and this is the first we’ve completed–but it is also out of respect for a well-crafted piece of literature, which I’ve been curious about since teaching an excerpted chapter (“Why the Fries Taste Good”) for freshman composition at Arkansas.  That chapter was a lighthearted romp around the New Jersey flavor industry, which fast food requires since freeze-drying destroys its natural flavor. The chapter’s relative escapism implied that its parent text would be similarly toned.  Fast Food Nation, however, is a scathing critique of fast food’s impact on landscapes, property values, cinema marketing, politics, human rights, and cultural imperialism (to name only a few aspects), and Schlosser’s portrayal is honest and horrifying in sometimes unexpected places.

For example, the poll describing how Chinese grade-schoolers love Ronald McDonald because (to use the kid’s words) “he understands what’s in children’s hearts” was almost as disquieting as the bloody description of America’s slaughterhouses, many of which, Schlosser claims, exploit a poorly educated, frequently illiterate workforce with the same boldness that they flaunt health and safety codes.  Schlosser has an axe to grind—and grinds it well.

That isolated chapter, however, also did not reflect the rhetorical sophistication of Schlosser’s argument.  His opening chapters recount the infancy of fast food, evoking car hops and bubblegum, when fast food was novel and joyous.  He then describes how fast food targets children, so readers remember how much they loved Happy Meals, sparking tremendous affection that Schlosser then manipulates.  The scope of his anger sneaks up gradually, so by the end of the book, when he describes how fast food populates all corners of the globe, the reader is seething along with Schlosser, begging other countries to maintain their own identity (“Pick up your Schnitzel, little German!”, I wanted to scream) instead of settling for the quick and easy choice.  Beyond this, the book is engaging on a sentence level, with marvelously well-turned phrases and conceptual transitions throughout.

It’s also, apparently, effective.  With my good metabolism and shaky impulse control, I’ve always had a weakness for fast food.  Since finishing this book, however, I haven’t eaten at a fast food restaurant once (as of this writing).  This isn’t a conscious choice; I simply haven’t wanted it.  That’s powerful writing.

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