Oct 30 2021

Some Newish Advice for Writers, with the Aid of Chris Arnade

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

The language he used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in—though he had much liking for his fellow men—and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth.

––Albert Camus, (La Peste (The Plague), trans. Stuart Gilbert, (New York: Knopf, 1957), ch. I, pp. 11–12.)

I have previously written about the work of Chris Arnade here and here. I continue to study him. He is teaching me to observe the world, as well as the people around me, better. And I hope, in turn, that that will help make me a better writer.

Arnade is teaching me that, as I writer, I need to walk, watch, write—in other words, stop looking at every occurrence as a “problem” to be solved, resolved, contemplated, pontificated upon; instead, just look and listen. I must learn to apprehend what I can accept and accept what I can apprehend. As Arnade puts it:

But walking forces you to slow down and talk to the people living there. You get to see beyond the bleh, and watch the endless string of tiny dramas that make up a city, and most people’s lives….

I also knew I would be reminded just how dramatically removed from each other the front and back row are. How little the front row gets these types of places, in a lived reality way, despite making claims to, and how little these places understand (or care about) what drives the front row, in an aspirational way….

There are plenty of very concerned articles in very serious periodicals about them, filled with suggestions that the residents themselves know little about.

But that isn’t what I want to focus on, because I walk to see beyond those problems….

To be blunt, as much as I enjoyed my brief time in Holyoke, Chicopee, and Springfield, I ultimately left with a mixture of sadness, frustration, and anger. Few, if any, outsiders care about these towns. Beyond seeing them as problems that need to be solved.

(“Walking America, part 1: Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke,” Intellectual Inting, September 29, 2021.)

As a writer seeking to improve his craft, I need to beware of any sense in my soul of squirming at so-called sentimentality, quaintness. Admittedly, no, I don’t like it when callers call-in to my favorite local morning radio show, because they slow down the pace of the show, its ongoing conversation, they try to be funny and fail, or they espouse empty insults. Nonetheless, I need to pay attention to why they make me squirm. It has something to do with what Arnade is getting at:

“Sense of place”, “elevating life above the mundane”, and “filled with soul” — Technocrats, city planners, Neo-libs, don’t like these squishy phrases. To them they are sentimental nonsense. They like terms you can define, evaluate, and adjudicate with math and science. Numbers they can jam into a spreadsheet. Like GDP growth, or commuting times, or total cycle route mileage.

I as a writer I need to learn to not laugh at sentimentality:

A good man will see that everything he says is consistent with his dignity and the respectability of his character; for we pay too dear for the laugh we raise if it is at the cost of our own integrity.

––Quintilian, (Institutio Oratoria Vol. II, trans. H. E. Butler, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1920) (VI, ii, 35) p. 457.)

Instead, I need, as Seneca puts it, to start cultivating a relationship with poverty (whether economic or cultural) by writing about and listening to those in need. For:

Hunger will make you find even that bread soft and wheaty. One shouldn’t, accordingly, eat until hunger demands. I shall wait, then, and not eat until I either start getting good bread again or cease to be fussy about bad bread. It is essential to make oneself used to putting up with a little. Even the wealthy and the well provided are continually met and frustrated by difficult times and situations.

(Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Letters from a Stoic), trans. Robin Campbell, (New York: Penguin Classics, 1969) Letter XVIII, p. 69; Letter CXXIII, pp. 226–27.)

Moreover, says Seneca:

You should live for the other person if you wish to live for yourself.

(Letters from a Stoic, Letter XLVIII, p. 96.)

And instead, as Marcus Aurelius advises, learn to live with those who have learned to live with the gods:

Live with the gods. To live with the gods is to show them at all times a soul contented with their awards, and wholly fulfilling the will of that inward divinity, that particle of himself, which Zeus has given to every man for ruler and guide—the mind and the reason…. (V, xxvii)

Adapt yourself to the environment in which your lot has been cast, and show true love to the fellow-mortals with whom destiny has surrounded you…. (VI, xxxix)

Let your one delight and refreshment be to pass from one service to the community to another, with God ever in mind…. (VI, vii)

Men exist for each other. Then either improve them, or put up with them…. (VIII, lix)

Enter into the ruling principle of your neighbour’s mind, and suffer him to enter into yours. (VIII, lxi)

(Meditations, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, (New York: Penguin, 1962.)

Finally, recall always C. S. Peirce, how: “The best maxim in writing, perhaps, is really to love your reader for his own sake.” And that part of being a merciful observer and writer means that, with regard to whatever (and whoever) one is writing about, “it is but charitable to be a little inaccurate.”

(The Writings of Charles S. Peirce: a Chronological Edition. Vol. I: 1857–1866, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1982), “Private Thoughts, March 17, 1888,” p. 9; “Think Again!” Harvard Magazine 4 (April 1858), [pp. 100–105], p. 24.)


Oct 7 2021

Tenderness: A Writer’s Tool

bookshelf

Lately I’ve noticed when reading some recent works of fiction occasional moments which can only be called (at least to my mind) “tenderness.” As a reader it seems you either catch them or you don’t. Perhaps you have to get attuned, putting your ear to the ground to see if you can hear the train coming etcetra.

Take for example the opening lines from Richard Daub’s short story “The Huffy” (2021), via New Pop Lit:

Day after Christmas, 1983, fifth grade, in the attached garage at Eric’s house—

“They got you a Huffy?” Eric laughed, referring to Carl’s new bike. “Huffys are for losers. Did they buy it at Sears?”

And also this moment from Stacy Swann’s novel Olympus, Texas (Doubleday 2021):

That day, while at school, Hap had missed his brother. He’d been excited when, after walking the quarter mile from the cattle guard, where the bus stopped, his mother met him by swinging open the screen door and setting an impassive March on the porch. “Go play,” she commanded before she went back inside. (p. 18)

Like the old legal definition of obscenity, it must be admitted that while I can’t quite define such tenderness–I can’t tell you why x is tender and y is not–but I know it when it see it. And the tenderness conveyed in these examples seems to be something ephemeral, never sustained; always momentary, never stationary.

But such tenderness isn’t limited to fiction alone. Chris Arnade’s work, which I have studied for several years now, also periodically captures this delicate humanity, this non-poisonous sentimentality at which, in a seizure of squeamishness, the jaded soul too often shrieks:

While we are talking an older regular comes in, who is blind. Not somewhat hard of seeing, but completely blind. A few regulars get up and quietly map out the lay of the bar to him, explaining where he shouldn’t sit based on who else is near by. It is a very sweet moment, that isn’t especially special. Just people being decent. It happens everywhere.

I try not to overthink stuff. I try not to be all metaphorical. But I am buzzed, and it is a blind man coming to a sports bar, something he clearly does all the time. (Arnade, “Walking America, part 2: Binghamton, Johnson City, and Endicott,” Intellectual Inting, October 7, 2021)

Tenderness is found in those so-called “cheesy,” “cornball,” nostalgia-laced moments of life on the Backrow that more of today’s American writers need to capture (and realize why they really aren’t cheesy) if they sincerely wish to shrug off the group-think elitism they acquired while sitting in the Front Row of so-called writer’s workshops that trained them into submission. As Arnade has recently pointed out:

“Sense of place”, “elevating life above the mundane”, and “filled with soul” — Technocrats, city planners, Neo-libs, don’t like these squishy phrases. To them they are sentimental nonsense. They like terms you can define, evaluate, and adjudicate with math and science. Numbers they can jam into a spreadsheet. Like GDP growth, or commuting times, or total cycle route mileage. (Arnade, “Walking America, part 1: Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke,” Intellectual Inting, September 29, 2021.)

So, as writers, let’s find the tender moments, but not metamorphize them. Don’t turn them into allegories, just learn to behold the present moment, be mindful of it. Learn to be, not do—focusing more on what is tender rather than what is travesty.


Aug 19 2020

The Brave New World of Chris Arnade’s “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America” (2019)

pencil shavings

I’m very excited to have The Fortnightly Review publish my essay review of Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (2019).

It covers not only Arnade but has plenty of Thoreau, Frederick Law Olmsted, James Agee and Walker Evans, William Least Heat-Moon, Samuel Johnson, Wesley Yang, Yuval Levin, Martin Buber, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Apr 27 2020

Pity for Poverty

typewriter

[The following was a major cut made to a book review I’ve submitted for publication. But I find the cut interesting enough.]

Even if we approve of a person who, from a sense of duty in charity, is sorry for a wretch, yet he who manifests fraternal compassion would prefer that there be no cause for sorrow. It is only if there could be a malicious good will (which is impossible) that someone who truly and sincerely felt compassion would wish wretches to exist so as to be objects of compassion. Therefore some kind of suffering is commendable, but none is loveable.

––Augustine, Confessions (3.3.3)[i]

BOSWELL. ‘Sir, I have not so much feeling for the distress of others, as some people have, or pretend to have: but I know this, that I would do all in my power to relieve them.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is affectation to pretend to feel the distress of others, as much as they do themselves. It is equally so, as if one should pretend to feel as much pain while a friend’s leg is cutting off, as he does. No, Sir; you have expressed the rational and just nature of sympathy.’

––Boswell, Life of Johnson, March 25, 1776

After reading, among other things, Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (2019), I find myself often wavering between the sympathies of Bishop Augustine, Dr. Johnson, and James Boswell above and the considerations below from longshoreman-turned-philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983):

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.

––The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)[ii]

I waver because for the past twenty years I have ridden the city bus to either school or work in Austin, Texas. As a straight white male alumnus of the University of Texas I have had on that bus the privilege to witness and encounter the less-privileged laugh, converse, fight, beg, pontificate, flirt, and sleep on buses and at bus stops. I’ve seen addicts, the unlucky, and the mentally ill ask strangers for directions to navigate the city, money for bus fares, cigarettes and lights, and even request prayer from strangers who—judging by the perplexions on their faces––seemed never to have prayed before. (But pray they all did!)

Yes, within this city I’ve stepped over a live body sprawled on the sidewalk, stiff and oblivious in a trance induced by the synthetic pseudo-cannabis called K2. I’ve handed my doggy bag full of fresh leftovers from lunch to the passerby beggar asking for something to eat. Very rarely (but not quite never) have I given a downtrodden individual a small amount of cash and a strong hug.

Occasionally I’ve traveled abroad and (again) witnessed and encountered les míserables in larger cities such as London, Paris, Dublin, and Berlin as well as smaller ones like Belfast, Oxford, Seville, and Bologna. Though I don’t recall any encounters with homelessness in Stratford, throughout my travels on the local bus and overseas I have, as Jacques says in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “gained my experience.”[iii] But the price for the “rich eyes” of a traveler means that, also like Jacques, I now possess the “poor hands” and empty pockets that so unimpressed fair Lady Rosalind. Such has been the life of writer Chris Landrum. Thus:

“We may have uneasy sensations from seeing a creature in distress, without pity; for we have not pity unless we wish to relieve them.”

––Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)[iv]

“Pity is one form of being convinced that someone else is in pain.”

––Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951)[v]

“The name of this intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention” is love.”

––Simone Weil (1909–1943)[vi]

NOTES

wood

[i] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (New York: Oxford UP, 1992) (III, iii, 1), p. 37.

[ii] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §11, p. 23.

[iii] William Shakespeare, As You Like It IV, i.

[iv] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, 18 July 1763.

[v] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001; revised Fourth Edition eds. Hacker and Schulte, 2009) I. no. 287.

[vi] Simone Weil, “Human Personality,” (1943), Simone Weil: an Anthology, ed. Siân Miles, (London: Virago Press, 1986) 92.


Sep 6 2017

Two Terrific Reads on Communities and their Myths

London - Georgian Apartments

Two Terrific Reads

Here is a pair of recent articles discussing, among other things, a community’s need for myth and counter-myth:

Hurricane Harvey: a View from a Rugged Communitarian,” by Leo Linbeck III, New Geography, September 2, 2017.

 

McDonald’s as America: A Conversation with Chris Arnade,” Sam Goldstein interviews Chris Arnade, Los Angeles Review of Books, September 5, 2017.