Nick Ripatrazone urges more pragmatism in creative-writing education:
Creative writing should be taught as an art, and as a business. A creative writing program that only includes the former can unwittingly reinforce romantic stereotypes of writing. A young student might major in creative writing. She could become a wonderful poet, and a well-read critic. But she needs to know that poetry doesn’t pay the bills. This is the inside joke of creative writing programs in America. We know creative writing doesn’t make money, and yet we continue to graduate talented writers with no business acumen. At best, it is misguided. At worst, it is fraudulent.
He thinks it “reasonable to expect that graduates of a discipline understand the economic realities of that discipline”:
You have until noon on Tuesday to guess it. City and/or state first, then country. Please put the location in the subject heading, along with any description within the email. If no one guesses the exact location, proximity counts. Be sure to email entries to email@example.com. Winner gets a free The View From Your Window book or two free gift subscriptions to the Dish. Have at it!
Since starting our Saturday short story feature, readers occasionally have written to us suggesting we use this or that story. Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (pdf) is one of them, and when it arrived through our “Reading Your Way Through Life” thread this week, I thought it was time for a reader-contributed story to make an appearance in this space. Here’s how it begins:
With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The rigging of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved. Some were decorous: old people in long stiff robes of mauve and grey, grave master workmen, quiet, merry women carrying their babies and chatting as they walked. In other streets the music beat faster, a shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the procession was a dance. Children dodged in and out, their high calls rising like the swallows’ crossing flights, over the music and the singing. All the processions wound towards the north side of the city, where on the great water-meadow called the Green’ Fields boys and girls, naked in the bright air, with mud-stained feet and ankles and long, lithe arms, exercised their restive horses before the race. The horses wore no gear at all but a halter without bit. Their manes were braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green. They flared their nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another; they were vastly excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own. Far off to the north and west the mountains stood up half encircling Omelas on her bay. The air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky. There was just enough wind to make the banners that marked the racecourse snap and flutter now and then. In the silence of the broad green meadows one could hear the music winding through the city streets, farther and nearer and ever approaching, a cheerful faint sweetness of the air that from time to time trembled and gathered together and broke out into the great joyous clanging of the bells.
Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?
The popular thread continues, beginning with reader-love for one particular John Cheever short story:
I have returned to the work of John Cheever—especially “The Death of Justina”—more than that of any other author in my reading life. He is so alert to the spiritual potentialities of life and yet so understanding of our failure to fulfill them. The world he writes about is decidedly fallen yet can be illuminated by sudden flashes of grace—as real and rare as lightning strikes.
I guess you’d call “The Death of Justina” a serious comedy about death that touches on chaos, commercialism, nasty bosses, zoning, the necessity and challenges of loving America, and, last but not least, morticians: “The priest was a friend and a cheerful sight, but the undertaker and his helpers, hiding behind their limousines, were not; and aren’t they at the root of most of our troubles, with their claim that death is a violet-flavored kiss? How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?”
Of course, with this story, it is Cheever who sounds that alarm.
He can be heard reading it (rapidly, with his faux Brahmin accent) here.
A second reader also loves the same Cheever story:
For me, it keeps coming back to Cheever. (And, Thorton Wilder, but perhaps that will be another entry.)
There are better Cheever passages than this, but I’ve been obsessing about this story for a while now, so here it is – from “The Death of Justina,” in the Collected Stories.
“We buried Justina in the rain the next afternoon. The dead are not, God knows, a minority, but in Proxmire Manor their unexalted kingdom is on the outskirts, rather like a dump, where they lie in an atmosphere of perfect neglect. Justina’s life had been exemplary, but by ending it she seemed to have disgraced us all. The priest was a friend and a cheerful sight, but the undertaker and his helpers, hiding behind their limousines, were not; and aren’t they at the root of most of our troubles, with their claim that death is a violet-flavored kiss? How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?”
How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm? Indeed.
Parental overshare essays can subdivided into various subgenres. One of those is the very successful parent of an academically-mediocre child. The essay may be about the parent coming to terms with the fact that Junior will not get into to a college William Deresiewicz has strong feelings about. The author inevitably becomes a better person, and parent, in the process, and should be congratulated.
Another subgenre is the child with a difficulty of some kind. Not a problem so severe as to prevent the child from ever having the capacity to read the article. (Those parents suffer enough, and should feel free to share as they see fit. As should parents of adult children who are merely responding to the children’s complaints about them.) But something that’s either medical or just highly personal, that taps into whichever cultural concerns, and where the parent-writer can tell him or herself that they’re really doing a service, as if awareness-raising somehow cancels out the potential destruction of their child’s reputation. While the parents who write such pieces surely do so in part out of concern for their children and others in the same situation – it’s not just professional aspiration and a desire to write what the market plainly demands – these pieces make it so that a child will grow up with his or her identity already being associated with some biographical detail he or she might have preferred not to share, or at least not to lead with.
Rachel Simmons merged these two subgenres into a personal essay about being an academic superstar with an underachieving child. Except that the underachieving has a medical component – her child, she explains, is developmentally delayed, if still quite young. It’s ambiguous from the article whether this is a condition that will long affect her kid, or whether the tragedy is that her daughter may turn out to be of average intelligence. But one almost has to guess it’s the latter, given how much of the piece is devoted to the author’s own brilliance:
Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”
This politeness, according to Ford, can come naturally, even when socially compelled to discuss Jessica Simpson’s jewelry selection:
That’s the question Rod Dreher asks in a searching reply to my thoughts earlier this week on Christianity and modern life. Some of Rod’s response is a gentle correction to my characterization of the “Benedict Option,” which, in his original essay, he summarizes as “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.” To take one example, I described Eagle River, Alaska, as a remote village, while it’s actually in suburban Anchorage – I regret getting that wrong. More importantly, Rod argues that I created something of a straw man, portraying those who pursue the Benedict Option as running for the hills while the world burns. My rhetoric did slip in that direction, and there are nuances to the ways the Benedict Option can be pursued I didn’t capture in my original post. Not all who favor it, and certainly not Rod, argue for “strict separatism” as a response to modern life.
The deeper issue Rod raises, however, goes beyond haggling over this or that detail of the Benedict Option and its various instantiations. Really, arguments about the Benedict Option amount to arguments over the place of, and prospects for, Christianity in the modern world – how Christians should try to live faithfully in our day and age. Here’s the gauntlet Rod throws down:
The way a Christian thinks about sex and sexuality is a very, very good indication of what he thinks about living out the faith in modernity. The reason it is so central is because it reveals, more than any other question now, how a Christian relates to authority and moral order. Matt is a kind and honest interlocutor, and I sincerely appreciate his attention, so please don’t take this in any way snarky or hostile towards him or Christians who share his viewpoint … but the questions have to be put strongly: Where is the evidence for being hopeful about Christianity’s place in modern life? Why should anyone think that the message of Jesus will retain its power in modernity if a Christian experiences little conflict between his faith and the world as it is?
To get to the heart of it: What is Christianity for?
Those obviously are very big questions, but at least a few points can be made to clarify how I approach these matters.