A Well-Lit Life - Aaron Rosenfeld

As a literature professor, it is only fitting that I believe I have learned much about life from literature. Of course, the corollary to this is that I have been accused of not having learned as much about life from life as perhaps I should have.

The main difference between literature and life is that literature possesses an interested, hands-on god—the author—in a way that I strongly suspect the world does not. The presence of a god in turn means that things in literature have meaning, whereas things in life are largely stupid and meaningless. Sometimes, we experience moments of life that seem like they have meaning—birth, death, marriage, great love affairs, etc.—but that is mainly because they resemble a novel.

Art clarifies life, makes it comprehensible in a way that life cannot do for itself. This is why Walter Pater advises that we should spend our days with art:

“We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passion, the wisest, at least among “the children of the world”, in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.”

What a strange claim. Art has more life in it than life. Art is life that has been curated and distilled for maximum impact, making it ideal for “getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.”

Pater’s commitment to “art for art’s sake” is thought by most people to be confusing and perverse. Art needs life; it is only an imitation, an adjunct, a helpful commentary on experience–who would prefer it to actual life? Well, life is scary. We see less of life than we ought to because we walk around blinded by sheer terror. The terror of death, naturally, but also the astounding array of terrors that hide behind the innocuous stuff of everyday-–the terror of losing our jobs, our health, our children, our sanity. So we keep our heads down and our perspectives narrow. When we turn to literature, however, as Aristotle and Stanley Kubrick knew, we feel safe to keep our eyes wide open. Then, if we are lucky, we experience catharsis, the purging of pity and fear-or at least the purging of their debilitating parts-so that we can return to the world and once again dip our toe into the stream of life.

Or perhaps we simply read to become numb to all the terrible things that might happen. In life, it is exceedingly rare to have a cage with ravenous rats attached to one’s face. Most of us would never even conceive of such a thing. But, thanks to George Orwell, now I think of it all the time and I have become somewhat used to it.

In that sense, literature provides a form of escapism in its promise of relief from anxiety. There is a more traditional, positive notion of literature as escapism; it provides vicarious thrills, even if these are not always pleasant. On the one hand there are unicorns and rainbows, magical worlds, exciting adventures. But on the other, there are grim dystopias, existential wastelands, and unspeakable tragedy, which are no less thrilling. I remember watching the 1971 post-apocalyptic movie The Omega Man as a child-one of a run of feel-bad Charlton Heston features in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s about the end of the world that includes Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes—and thinking it was pretty awesome that he could just go into a supermarket and grab whatever he wanted, then nab a car from the parking lot to drive off with his loot. The thrill of chaos, of destruction and violence incarnates a most terrible childhood fear: that our parents have been in an awful accident and won’t be returning from date night. But it does so in close proximity with a secret wish: that without their rules and prohibitions, we will be free to indulge forbidden desires. Freud calculates these as sexual; or, they may just be, as Ronald Dahl’s character Matilda puts it in the eponymous musical by Tim Minchin, to “watch cartoons until my eyes go square.”

So, this is something I learned from literature—that some thoughts are better off felt than thought about. The understanding literature provides doesn’t always make sense, isn’t always pleasant, and often isn’t particularly useful, but it is shiny and distracts us from something possibly much worse that we can’t just decide to put down. I’ll take it.

Finding Something Brilliant to Write About - Amy Stackhouse

Students often ask how to come up with a paper topic. It’s a really good question, especially when we don’t have a lot of experience coming up with our own topics — when we are used to someone telling us what to write about — it can be daunting. We want to write something profound, insightful, and “right.” We don’t want to look stupid.

So, where do we begin?

First, we throw out the idea that we are being judged. This is good advice for life, too.

When I was young, my mom used to tell me the world didn’t revolve around me. (I found myself saying that to my children when I had them.) It sounds like you’re being told not to be selfish, but, in fact, what you’re being told is that while you are the protagonist of your own narrative, so everyone else is the protagonist of his or her own. People aren’t paying as much attention to you as you think they are. Believe it or not, when a professor is reading your paper, they are thinking about ways to help you, to make your writing or your argument stronger, not about how smart or stupid you are.

Let that knowledge free you.

Forget about being profound and insightful for a minute, too.

If you are an athlete or an artist of any sort, you know that you can’t perform if you are overthinking your performance. To do well, you need to let go of your consciousness of yourself. You need to be in the groove, in the flow.

It’s the same thing with writing.

If you spend your energy trying to sound smart or trying to figure out how to get an A on this paper, you will not do a good job and you certainly will not have a good time.

A good time? Yes. A good time.

Imagine you are sitting with your friends having a conversation about something you are all interested in. This should be your model for writing a paper and it is where you want to begin to find your paper topic.

What interests you?

If you are being asked to write about a piece of literature and you get to choose the text you write about, do not try to figure out 1) what text your professor likes best; 2) what would be easiest; 3) what would be most impressive; 4) what your friend is writing about; 5) what has the best secondary sources.

Start with what interests you. What text did you like? Or hate? What got your attention, your interest? What moved you? Pick a text you find most interesting. If you’re really gushing about all of the texts you’ve read for a class, just close your eyes and point. Do not spend a lot of time stressing about the perfect text to write about. There’s no such thing. Just pick one you find interesting.

You don’t need to know your thesis at this point.

Your next step is to ask yourself what you liked or didn’t like about it. In other words, why did you pick this text? (If you tried to cheat by skipping the previous step or by choosing a text based on 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 above, you’ve already shot yourself in the foot. Go back and do it right.)

Write down your thoughts about what you liked or didn’t like. Open the book, the play, the poem, the screenplay, the graphic novel… Pick out examples of the things you liked or didn’t like. Write them down.

Once you’ve written down everything you liked or didn’t like or found curious, step back and look at what you’ve written. Is there a theme? A focus? Get creative. Can you find connections between some of the things you’ve listed? If you can, you’ve got your topic. It might not be a thesis yet. It might not be fully formed. But it’s starting to take shape.

If it isn’t obvious to you at this point what you should be writing about, show your list to someone else, preferably someone who is familiar with the text.

Your professor would be a good choice. Find out his or her office hours and show up. Bring the notes your just wrote. (By the way, your professor will be very impressed by your smarts if you do this. He or she will have plenty of good things to say about you, your initiative,  your thoughtfulness, your enthusiasm, your organization skills and all those things your future employers will want to hear about. In other words, your professor will be able to write you much better letters of recommendation if you show up to his or her office hours and talk about your thought process and ask questions.)

Often talking about your ideas with someone else will help you figure out what you want to say about your topic.

M. Forster once said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” He was right. Putting it on paper, bouncing it off another person, these are techniques for knowing what you think. Once you’ve got that, you’re well on your way to writing a brilliant, insightful paper.

On Being Reckless - Dean Defino

We live in a time where optimism, when it rears its head at all, does so only guardedly. 
We allow ourselves to be ‘cautiously optimistic’ about a potential job, or a relationship, or an upcoming election.  But optimism should be reckless. Otherwise, it is likely to fail to engender change, progress or-in its most glorious, terrifying form-revolution.  Caution is the coin of the status quo; recklessness barters cows for magic beans. 
Sure, striking such a bargain on blind faith can lead one to some pretty dangerous places, but wonders never reveal themselves to those who take a chainsaw to the beanstalk without thought of ever scaling it.

Reading Tack - T.J. Moretti

Before I could read well, I would read diagonally. I’d start at the first few words of a paragraph then coast southeast until I came to the last paragraph. I’d read pages, chapters that way. I think my first experience with this reading tactic was high school freshman year: I had to read Martian Chronicles, so I tacked through it. I haven’t picked up the book since, and I have no idea what it is about, except Martians.

I’d act like a pompous captain of a motorized schooner. Sail furled, I’d plow through a bay, leave speedboats and houseboats in my wake, and feel proud that I had sailed. When reading, I would not tack. I would not work. That was the problem.

I don’t sail, but I know what it means to tack. To move from point to point in a real sailboat, sailors sometimes face headwinds. They have to zig and zag against the wind, sometimes charting a course 1-89° from their actual destination, because of wind velocity, direction, sand bars, or other boats. Tacking is zigging and zagging. It might feel like a detour, but the destination is always clear. (Any sailors out there, correct me if I’m wrong. Correct me in person. Invite me on your boat, in the summer, for a party.)

When I read diagonally, I wasn’t tacking in the true sense of the maneuver. I behaved as if I could measure my comprehension and knowledge based on pages flipped. I mean, I got to the end of the book, didn’t I?

If you think that such a reading strategy is ridiculous, I’m glad, but reading diagonally has different degrees. If a reader skims a paragraph, yes, the reader is reading diagonally. If the reader plows through a sentence without understanding the words and phrases in the sentence, the reader is also reading diagonally. It doesn’t matter if you’ve looked at the words; if you don’t understand them, but keep reading anyway, you might just be a pompous reading captain who is too concerned about the number on the page, usually diagonal from the words you should be concerned about.

Solution? Slow down and tack, even if it feels like a detour that takes too many hours to tolerate. I had to do that when first reading Chaucer in Middle English—“The Knight’s Tale,” my sophomore year in college, spending hours in Philips Library at P.C. with the Riverside in front of me. Every word I’d sound out, every word I didn’t understand phonetically I looked up in the glossary. It took me over 4 hours. It was slow going.

I found that when I tacked slowly, I liked what I was doing. At one point, I read Lord Jim with dictionary.com opened at a computer station. The novella begins with all this nautical, seafaring talk, as if the reader is supposed to know what a jib is. I looked up every word, wrote the definition in my notes, read pages over and over, dead-eyed a guy who mocked me (“you’re using the computer for THAT?!”), and didn’t turn the page until I understood. When I finished, my eyes hurt, and I had dark bags under them. I read the book. I tacked through it.

What I didn’t do, and what I should have done, is read it with others. Talk about it with others who had to read it. Because sailing a boat all on your own is too isolating. So, perhaps some people read diagonally, rush through the pages, and get to the end without getting the ending not because they are pompous, but because they aren’t going to talk to anyone about it. They don’t plan on being social over it. But reading shouldn’t be a solitary trek.

So, welcome Spring 2018. Tack well, and tack with others.