Page 7 of 7

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.

Newer posts »

© 2018 Will Ludwigsen

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑