I Was a Teenage Republican

Twenty one years ago while a senior at the University of Florida, I wore a Jeb(!) Bush for Governor t-shirt to my Psychological Approaches to Literature class. The friend who sat in front of me clasped her hands over her mouth and shrieked into her fingers, never to speak to me again.

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She was right to do so. I was a monster, no better than anything staggering from the swamps or across the moors with its arms clawing in the air for prey.

I’d applied for an internship at The American Spectator. I’d visited the Alacuha County Republican Headquarters with my girlfriend to pick up lawn signs and watch The Clinton Chronicles, an awesome low-budget film about how Bill Clinton had probably killed a dozen people and would likely kill again. I’d underlined about half of Ayn Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. I’d called into Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.

If you asked me then why I was a Republican, I would have hopped atop a nearby desk and declared that it was the party of freedom where men of passion and creativity could achieve the fruits of their work without losing them to the leeching government.

The real reasons I was a Republican (which I couldn’t articulate then) were:

  • My girlfriend and her family were fervently conservative, and I loved them all. They seemed to live in their own warm bubble of existence and I wanted to live there, too.
  • My own family had deep Republican roots. My grandfather had tangentially known Nixon and presided as the chaplain at Tricia Nixon’s debutante ball or something. My father had campaigned for Republicans, just like Ted Bundy and for probably the same reasons.
  • I loved the writer P.J. O’Rourke and wanted to be that kind of humorist: applying what I thought was reason to the folly of government.
  • I was surrounded at college by annoying liberals who agreed so easily with each other that it struck me as scary. I definitely believe that whenever one ends up thinking like the majority, it’s time to change one’s mind.

Plus, most of all, I wanted a consistent system of thought that could hold the chaos of my anxiety disorder at bay.

I was a Republican all the way until the 2000 election, when George W. Bush’s staggering yahoo-ism made me realize that all of the things I thought were bugs in the Republican software (anti-choice, anti-gay marriage, evolution denialism, global warming denialism) were what they considered features.

What really happened was that I grew up and looked around.

When I was in college, I had a skewed idea of what led to success in the world: I figured the proportion was 99% hard work and 1% circumstance. Then I met some of the kids in school who’d gotten there through inherited wealth, and that dropped to 90/10. Then I got out of school with no idea what to do with my English degree, and it dropped to 85/15. Then I entered the workforce and saw who became managers and who didn’t, and it dropped to 70/30. Then I started voting and saw who ended up in positions of power, and it dropped to 60/40.

Now, after forty two years of observing the world, I’m pretty sure that proportion of hard work to circumstance is maybe 45% to 55%, which is why the hard work is that much more important: like advertising, you don’t know which part of the 45% is going to help so you have to do it all.

In other words, I’ve seen people work their asses off and still not transcend circumstance in the way the Republicans say they can.

I’m not quite sure what the government should do about it, though I think one of the better reasons to have governments is for a community to hedge against the vicissitudes of fate. Sometimes you’re on top to help other people, and sometimes you’re on the bottom and need the help.

I guess as time has gone on, my ideas of what people do and don’t deserve have changed, and it’s less about working longer hours and more about working at something that matters.

You know, growing up.

Appearing at Oasis 27

You COULD spend this weekend in Orlando shouldering your way through crowds of reeking tourists and their spoiled children, or you could spend it coming to see me speak on these panels at Oasis 27 at the International Palms Resort on International Drive:

Saturday, May 2nd

  • 5pm: The State of Horror
  • 9pm: Tales of the Supernatural

There are, apparently, other things going on like readings, signings, and other non-Will-related discussions, but if you want to avoid the crowds, come see anything involving me!

 

Now Let’s Blow This Class and Go Home!

The last class session of every semester I teach is dedicated to the “business” of writing: how one finds places to send short stories and novels, how one sends them, how one does or does not get paid for them.

It’s usually a grim and depressing class, and the students are all comically amazed at how little writers make or how bookstores can just send back books they’ve already bought. They look pretty gloomy at the end and I usually just say, “Well, thanks for coming. Have a good life!”

This semester, I thought I’d try to be a little…you know…encouraging.

What I tried to say was this:

I became a writer as a kid because of a movie called Star Wars (1977). Twenty years before you were born, I was running around in the yard with spaceships yelling “pew pew pew!” and whispering vast conspiracies between my action figures. What I know about morality and the nobility of friends working together, I learned there. What I know about dialogue and plot, I learned from performing my own stories with little plastic people.

hoth

A few days ago, the new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, and I watched it with all the glee and excitement of my childhood.

Here it is, so you can see it, too.

After the glee and excitement abated slightly, though, something awful occurred to me:

J.J. Abrams is making my fucking movie.

There are any number of reasons he’s getting to make my movie while I’m not. I’m guessing he might have had a more pleasant childhood, for one. He probably conducted himself better with other people, too. He also learned to work in longer concentrated bursts than thirty minutes somewhat sooner than I did. He had a clearer sense of what steps to take.

The real difference, though, is that he didn’t waste as much time wondering if he was “meant” to do it or if it was worth it or what he’d do as a back-up plan if he couldn’t like I did.

I’ve written some little stories that I’m proud of. I’ve gotten starred reviews and award nominations. I’ve entertained a few people, and I’m glad of it. But I wrote a lot of those stories because they were safe, because I could control them, because if I blew it, the consequences would be minor.

We live in a terrifying world at the mercy of oblivious or malevolent jackasses, many of them in publishing (though not as many per capita as in, say, Boko Haram). They want us to live small and be scared and buy things instead of making them.

You can work with them or against them. Maybe you’ll do that by writing, and maybe you’ll do that by doing something else. But what I hope for all of us is that we go down fighting big instead of fighting small.

Gah! Bees!

Though I understand that bees, like Republicans, have some arcane utility in our ecosystem, that doesn’t mean I’m above spraying them mercilessly with poison when they’re pouring out of my chimney.

(Bees, not Republicans.)

As with Republicans, our own bee attack started small: first one bee came in and then another. The cats leaped after them and Edgar got stung on the nose by a third. Aimee tried to humanely capture and release them outside, but then there were a lot more skittering across the bricks and my manly responsibility to KILL ALL THREATS kicked in.

So of course I hurried to Publix to buy bee spray, something that I hoped actually existed, and while I was there, a woman ran up to the same section and said, “There are a bunch of bees or wasps or something pouring out of my chimney!”

“Funny you should say that,” I said. “Mine, too.”

We wished each other luck and I returned home with two cans of what turned out to be outdoor wasp and hornet spray. At that point, though, the bees had more or less declared my house outdoors anyway.

When I got back inside, there were bees rattling against the windows and light fixtures, not to mention circling the living room. So I did the American thing: I took decisive action.

Hey, Norwegians were immigrants, too.

Hey, Norwegians were immigrants, too.

I swept the air with arcs of foaming poison, splattering the windows and the ceiling and oh, soaking the fireplace. Aimee had thoughtfully corralled all of the animals into the bedroom so I was free to essentially destroy all of our furniture.

And they. Just. Kept. Coming.

Yep. Exactly like that.

Yep. Exactly like that.

Now, I’ll admit I do have a deeply neurotic and intense fear of bees, maybe like you do for spiders or gay people. But what I fear almost as much are heights, and it was obvious that I’d have to climb onto our steep roof and attack the swarm from the top of our crumbling chimney.

So up I climbed, lodging my shoes against the corrugated ridges of our metal roof, and I took up a crouching position as close as I could get to the chimney.

(Which, by the way, was sealed long ago. The bees had found a crack.)

So I sprayed the bees zinging around the chimney too, grateful for all of the target practice from games like Call of Duty and Borderlands. A couple of dozen fell and then all was quiet.

When I climbed back down, there were no more in the house, either. They were gone. They’d given up. I’d proven once again that overwhelming irrational force can truly work.

Among our casualties on the field of battle were several pillows and cushions, a dog bed, the clothes we were wearing, and several towels and washcloths. Aimee and I had to scrub down the windows and floors and bricks around the fireplace because man, that poison is some serious shit.

Aimee discovered with some Internet research that apparently bees will send out scouting swarms in search of new places for hives, and apparently they came to our house (not to mention the other lady’s at Publix) looking for succor. They found none. We drew a wet oily poisonous line in the sand.

Do I wish there was a diplomatic solution? Of course. But with so much at stake, we couldn’t risk failure. We had to destroy the living room to save it.

I Could Not Stop for Academia, But It Kindly Stopped For Me

Twenty years ago today, I received my first humiliating sign that I really didn’t belong in academia. Given that I now have two graduate degrees and an adjunct teaching position, I clearly have yet to follow that sign, alas.

Definitely not me.

Definitely not me.

I’d scampered quickly through my undergraduate degree at the University of Florida, attending over the summers to minimize how much I’d have to pay in room and board. So when I started graduate school (also at UF), I was the youngest person in my first class, an Emily Dickinson seminar: twenty-one.

(Nowadays, it is far more common for there to be people that young in grad school, hiding from life. I like to think I helped started that trend back in 1995.)

I felt that youth acutely because during our class introductions, the other students had been teaching abroad or publishing poetry or otherwise doing cool things, and I was a terrified introvert who’d spent his entire academic career avoiding other human beings in the library like a Lovecraft protagonist.

The class went well, though; I loved Emily Dickinson and I loved the old-school literary scholarship my professor encouraged, actually reading letters and researching biography and understanding origins and context. At the end of class, we had a presentation for our research, and I was terrified.

For good reason, it turned out. On April 21, 1995, I walked to the front of the classroom with a little packet of index cards, ready to discuss what I’d discovered. I was literally sick in the bathroom all that morning, and I’m pretty sure my hands were shaking.

A key to my discussion was the theory of Friedrich von Schiller that great art is an interplay between two drives, stofftrieb (the intuitive and emotional) and formtrieb (the structural and logical) resulting in spieltrieb, a kind of artistic play. So I walked up to the board and wrote:

STOFFTREIB  FORMTREIB

There were a few chuckles from the class and my professor raised his hand. He pointed out that I’d transposed the E and the I in both words.

(In my defense, those are both words in the horrible language of German. Or as I like to call it, Klingon.)

Now, any normal person with social ability would have laughed and made a joke about being nervous while correcting the spelling. Not me. I doubled down, insisting that my sources spelled them that way. I know, I know.

I was flustered then, and the index cards got scrambled in my hands. I forgot the cogent argument I’d structured and was left to stammer and glance around the room like a cornered raccoon.

According to later reports, what happened next was that I set down the index cards and lurched out from behind the podium among the desks to pace around the room and deliver a comedy routine about Emily Dickinson scholarship. I don’t remember it at all, which is probably good. I drove home that afternoon thinking that my academic career was over.

The next day, I visited my professor in his office and asked if there was any way I could make up for the disaster.

“Disaster?” he said. “That was the best presentation I’ve ever seen! You shouldn’t be in academics. You should entertain people for a living.”

And I sort of followed his advice: that was my last semester at UF while I meandered through a teaching certification, followed by a whole host of other egregious errors in judgment both personal and professional. Plus I started writing stories more seriously.

I later went back (though to UNF) for my Master of Arts, and then I earned an MFA from Stonecoast. What can I say? I like taking classes.

Now I teach creative writing to undergraduates in a manner not much unlike that botched lecture long ago: I ramble a deranged comedy routine about some writing concept and then skulk away at the end.

I guess I still haven’t taken the signs.

Finally! Will Has Spoken!

Gee, Will, why don’t you take a principled stand in any of the burning questions of the day?

Due to a quirk (one of several, actually) in the way I grew up, I have absolutely no expectation that rational argument will change anyone’s mind. When I was a kid, all the yelling and sturm and drang tended to result in the same thing: me sneaking off to do what I wanted anyway. These days aren’t much different; I say my thing, someone disagrees, and then I quietly sidestep that person like any other inanimate obstacle to move on.

That’s not to say that I’m impervious to changing my mind. I’m often swayed by argument. I just don’t think that my arguing is particularly effective, and certainly not as effective as experience. When you walk in someone else’s skin, that’s when things change, and that’s why I think fiction can often be more useful than simple rhetoric.

So my reaction to recent events like the cadre of frustrated fedora-wearers who have stacked the Hugo awards nominations with authors and works of their choosing is to think, “Huh. That’s a flamboyant scream into the abyss of irrelevance for them, isn’t it?”

Are there things worth fighting for? Of course. But there are definitely people who aren’t worth fighting because they’ve already lost.

Are You Supposed to Be a Writer? Fuck If I Know.

For about, oh, the first twenty years I worked at writing, I had a lot of strange fears about whether I was “supposed” to be a writer (as opposed to something else better suited for me, like a kindly college professor).

My students often wonder that about themselves, too, so I made this handy chart:

supposed

Teaching Talent

Several interesting and smart people (Ryan BoudinotChuck Wendig, Nick Mamatas, Theodora Goss) have written lately about “talent” among writing students, whether it really exists as an inborn thing and whether it is worth teaching people without it.

Nobody in the history of art has ever debated these things, so I’m glad to weigh in at the forefront of an emerging issue to help solve it once and for all before we move on.

I have two sets of thoughts about it, one as a creative writing teacher and one as a creative writing student, so today, I’ll focus on teaching.

For the last four years, I’ve taught undergraduate creative writing at a state university. I’m not very good – “talented” — at it, so these observations may or may not be particularly valid.

  • All of my classes meet the basic English education requirement, so large numbers of my students take them because they think making shit up is easier than looking shit up. So lots of them don’t really care if they’re talented. Which is probably a good thing.
  • Each class of twenty contains from one to three students who seem to have both a natural facility with language AND an interest in working more carefully than the other students. By “carefully,” I mean, caring about what they could do better and trying new things to accomplish that.
  • Those students are more often psychology majors than English ones. Probably twice a year, I get one who turns out to be majoring in a completely non-writing subject like biology, and it breaks my heart when he or she says, “I’ve decided to switch my major because of you!”
  • English majors aren’t doomed as writers, but I think they operate at a slight handicap: they’re English majors partly because they see writing as something magical and important, and they’ve been taught a particularly turgid kind of writing for academic essays.
  • The only real help I offer those “talented” writers is to point out a couple of significant areas where they should think more carefully about what they’re doing. I guess I also provide a bit of structure and reassurance: when a story seems to go awry, that’s perfectly normal and here are some things you can do.
  • I worry that I’m doing harm by not being more critical (that being what I could have used as a student), but I want to encourage them to keep tinkering with and examining their own work without relying overmuch on someone else.

Are some students more talented than others? I’ve come to think that the difference comes down to the following non-innate things:

  • They tend to notice more about the world around them.
  • They tend to have an empathy for what other people might find interesting.
  • They tend to tinker with their stories like machines, noticing what isn’t working and experimenting with ways to make it work.
  • They tend not to see writing as magical or God-given or destined.
  • They don’t stop when other people would.

I tell students that art is never stopping short, that by definition it is the more-than-necessary. If I had to define talent, it is an ability to give a shit about doing something more than most people do. I don’t mean persistence – God knows there are lots of dipshits persistently mauling mediocrity like jackals. I mean an interest in doing something extra.

If I taught classes in making chairs, most of my students would hand in stumps. A few of the terrified overachievers would hand in stools: a slab of rough-hewn wood with three legs nailed into it. The persistent ones might add a fourth leg and a back.

The talented ones would run those legs through a lathe and carve something into the back, not because they had to but because they thought it would be cooler.

That’s the difference I’ve seen.

Postcard Story: Four Squares a Day

foursquares

Dharma missed the pot smoke and the bongos.

The pot smoke didn’t do much for him — he was already a fairly chill soul, as The Man with the Long-Tailed Typewriter and his friends used to say — but it made them more like cats. They slept more, they lolled more on the furniture, they ate less politely, and they contemplated the subtle vibrations of the universe.

The bongos just kind of reminded him of the soft patter of his own feet on rooftops.

It was not Dharma’s choice to be taken in by the Wilsons, and it definitely was not his choice to be renamed “Mittens.” He had no mittens, not even white dabs on his paws, but Juney always wanted a cat named Mittens and here he was.

Here he was, listening to Juney’s soft cooing, to the rasp and squeak of Mrs. Wilson’s needle through fabric, to the crackle of Mr. Wilson’s newspaper and the sizzle of his ulcer, and to the yowling of the radio box as Junior turned the dial.

While wearing a tie. A fucking tie. That made him the worst of all.

Though Dharma was aware that yes, all life was suffering if we chose to think it so, the Wilsons were a unique and trying form of it. Were they as natural as the wind and the lightning, they could be endured as signs that all things were in their order. But they were not natural: they built their mediocrity, cultivated it, gave away all their spirit to other people on the other sides of TVs and radios.

The Wilsons, to Dharma’s knowledge, had never spray-painted an old school bus and rode across the country in it. They had never thrown beer bottles at the cops. They had never given a ride to an old hobo on his way to the Capitol. They had never spread open their arms at the edge of the Grand Canyon. They had never run naked into the surf, and the only sex the elder Wilsons had was arranged with all the clanking majesty of someone jumping on garbage cans.

There really was no way of getting around the fact that the Wilsons were complete squares.

For the last three months, Dharma had been quietly measuring each Wilson in his mind. Three of them disappeared every day, perhaps on a hunt though they never returned with much, and the fourth — Mrs. Wilson — stayed in the house. She did a lot of whistling while the record player turned and her hands were often in water.

What was different about her was that she cried. Often around one in the afternoon, she’d sit on the couch with her hands on her knees, staring at the clock. About five minutes would pass, and then she would sob. Sometimes she was quiet but others she really let it out, almost a primal scream. Almost a poem, a wordless poem.

When Mrs. Wilson would write her thank you letters, Dharma would pace across the paper with his tail in her face, trying to tell her to write something else.

That was Dharma’s only sign that someone in the Wilson house had even the glimmer of a soul, and it changed his plans from simple escape to an escape-and-rescue. He had slowly built her trust over the last three months by following her through the house and curling up on her lap at the crying time, and he was pretty sure that if he ran, she’d come after him.

True, Dharma had no real idea where The Man With the Long-Tailed Typewriter had gone; it was his disappearance on another bus trip that left Dharma vulnerable to Animal Control, after all. In the end, it didn’t matter because Dharma would simply keep running, slow enough that she could still follow even in heels.

They could find the old cottage easy. And if the bus wasn’t back, Dharma supposed they could always find one of their own, along with a Long-Tailed Typewriter for Mrs. Wilson.

Tomorrow, he thought, his paws flexing on Juney’s lap with impatience. Tomorrow this bullshit was over.

Tomorrow they were gone.

[Image “Family Night: 1957” courtesy of Shorpy.com]

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