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Posts Tagged ‘college’

Pride and Prejudice

August 22, 2013 | by

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“You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices.” —Ray Bradbury, the Art of Fiction No. 203

 

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Night Class

January 10, 2013 | by

In the spring of 2002, I signed up for a night class in existentialism. The choice was an emotional one. College was off to a rocky start. My education had no clear purpose; my friends were more like acquaintances; the whole country was careening toward an abyss. Meaning, in other words, was elusive, and I wanted to hear from the people who’d explained its elusiveness best.

The instructor was Tom Meyer, only a lowly University of Pennsylvania graduate student, though I didn’t know it at the time. We arrived at the first class to find him sitting at a conference table, folding and unfolding a paperclip. To my immense satisfaction, he looked just like I thought an existentialist should: gaunt, pasty-faced. Black hair standing up from his skull. His clothing ratty at the collar and cuffs. For a first-day icebreaker, he had us go around the room and say our name, the name of an actor, and a type of deli meat.

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Free Verses

December 10, 2012 | by

The online forum was empty when I submitted the essay, my first for Modern & Contemporary American Poetry. It was still early—a few minutes before the midnight deadline, when peer evaluators would then be assigned to post feedback. But not knowing who that peer might be, nor how their public evaluation might portray my work, made the quiet unsettling. Expectant, I awaited review on this naked, vertiginous stage.

Our assignment for ModPo, as this Coursera version is known, was to close read the Emily Dickinson poem identified by its paradoxical opening line, “I taste a liquor never brewed.” In the poem, ubiquitous intoxicants are absorbed literally out of the moisture in the air. They unhinge our debauched speaker, who before long is “Reeling—thro endless summer days—From inns of Molten Blue.” Describing the scene I invoked soaked clouds crossing the summer sky, befitting a heavy drunken stupor. “Clouded,” I titled the essay.

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Memories of the Kennedy Administration

June 30, 2011 | by

Rose Kennedy with President Kennedy.

I graduated from college in the late 1980s with a degree in English literature and no real idea of what to do for a career. One afternoon I wandered out of Harvard Square after a movie at the Brattle Theater and saw the grand yellow Georgian mansion where the nineteenth-century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had lived. A sign said that it was open to the public for tours; they must hire tour guides, I thought. I imagined it would be pleasant to work in a dusky, book-filled house, tucked away in a quiet pocket of the world. I went inside and filled out an application.

When I got a call a few weeks later, it was to interview for an opening at a different, affiliated historic site: John F. Kennedy’s birthplace, a not so grand, actually kind of poky early-twentieth-century house in the nearby suburb of Brookline. I was a little disappointed, as I didn’t have much interest in the Kennedys. But I didn’t have any other employment prospects either, so when an offer was extended, I accepted. My parents were pleased, at least. I had grown up hearing from them about the shock of the Kennedy assassination, how they had gathered with friends in front of the television set and mourned for days—for four days, to borrow the title of a commemorative book my father had on our shelves back home.

The National Park Service maintained both Longfellow’s and Kennedy’s houses, and I was surprised to find that my title would be “park ranger,” something I had never thought I’d be. On my first day I was given a catalog from which I was to order a ranger’s uniform: flared pants and a shirt with epaulettes, both dull green and made of stiff, scratchy, nonbreathable polyester; and a broad-brimmed campaign hat, the kind that Smokey Bear wore. I was at war with my uniform and its hopeless lack of coolness from the beginning. When my half-hour break came around each noontime, I did a quick change into my civilian clothes in the bathroom before going to pick up lunch in nearby Coolidge Corner, where I might run into someone I knew, and another quick change when I got back. There was barely time left to eat.

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There Are Books a Young Man Should Read

September 17, 2010 | by

A lesson on how not to get laid.

George Bataille

There are books a young man with literary pretensions should read if he wants to get laid—see the other entries in this department—and then there's Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille. This slim little packet of social anthrax was delivered to me six weeks into my freshman year at college by another very nice young man with literary pretensions who purported to be my friend. Let the record state that this individual wore a cinnamon-colored beret around campus and listened to exactly one album, Einstürzende Neubauten's Haus der Lüge, on repeat on his jet-black Sony Discman. Let the record also state that this individual had (or seemed to have) a lot of sex. As far as I could tell, the world had gone insane: where I'd grown up, my new friend would have been beaten into a quiche-like gruel every Saturday night as a trust-building exercise for the rest of the community. But I was only too happy to accept his reading recommendation, if only because my first month at school had been a washout. If talking in a fake Scottish accent and brewing non-alcoholic absinthe in your dorm room had sexual currency in this new world, after all, there might actually be hope for me.

Story of the Eye, for those of you who may not have attended a militantly freaky liberal-arts college in Ohio in the heady, uninhibited early nineties, is a dirty book by an unhappy Frenchman. It chronicles the amatory hijinks of a nameless but extremely open-minded narrator, his girlfriend Simone, an English voyeur named Sir Edmund, and Marcelle, a suicidal, mentally ill sixteen-year old. A staggering amount of mirthless sex is had by all, much of it in front of Simone's middle-aged mother, who is not amused. Fornication is indulged in alongside of, on top of, and eventually with corpses; various oblong and/or spherical objects are inserted into sundry cavities; a priest is seduced, corrupted and finally murdered at the moment of orgasm, after which one his eyeballs is recycled in a manner I blush to recount. Then things proceed to get a bit risqué.

Not what girls back in Buffalo had been into, broadly speaking, but who was I to judge? Within my first week at college, I'd been mocked for my Allman Brothers bootlegs, yelled at by a beautiful lesbian for holding a door open, and generally exposed as the terminally unsophisticated yokel that I was. I was farther than ever from my top-secret goal of convincing one of my fellow students to take off her clothes in my presence; I was painfully out of my element, whatever "my element" might be. What could Story of the Eye possibly do but make me seem, however fraudulently, a more profound and cosmopolitan person than I was?

Lots of things, as it turned out. The author of such notable works as The Pineal Eye, Slow Slicing, and The Solar Anus turned out to be the worst conversational topic imaginable for the handful of dates I managed to line up in those first few hapless months of my adult life. Whatever it was that drew the ladies to my beret-sporting friend, it seemed, Mssr. Bataille wasn't it. Carla K. was instantly disgusted by my description of Story of the Eye; Stephanie T. got bored so quickly and absolutely that she seemed to have had a small stroke; and Liz H. became so engrossed in the book that she forgot about me altogether, which devastated me (and, to be honest, kind of creeped me out). I was not to be discouraged so easily, however. I'd resolved to become a flagrantly alienated person, a filterless cigarette-huffing degenerate, and nothing could sway me from my chosen calling. Not for a few months, at least. I cringe to think of it now, but I pressed ahead with my plan long after any sensible person would have seen the fatal error in his strategy. Common sense reasserted itself eventually, but by then the novel had long since done its evil work. To this day I feel a subtle thrill of revulsion at the sight of hard-boiled eggs, and I try to avoid traveling to France if I can possibly help it. I've also recently decided to stop having sexual relations with my girlfriend, at least when her mother is looking. A modest step forward perhaps, but an important one.

John Wray's most recent novel is Lowboy.

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