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Posts Tagged ‘college’

Nonfiction

November 5, 2014 | by

In_Gedanken_19_Jh

An anonymous nineteenth-century painting.

The hard truth is that not everyone has a novel in them. “I have no gift for invention,” I say to anyone who ever asks after my own ambitions—and why do people ask? For that matter, is my response even appropriate? I’m not sure what that means, “a gift for invention”: certainly I’ve never visited the Genius Bar without concocting some elaborate and gratuitous lie to explain the condition of my computer. 

Which is not to say I’ve never written any fiction. I have, under duress. It was a requirement for my degree. The instructor was an older lady in caftans and arty jewelry with pumpkin-colored hair who had at one point written an epic women’s best seller with a lurid, seventies-style jacket. She’d also written a book of cat poetry. I didn’t mind any of that; the problem was that every detail of the class was as lazy and clichéd as that constellation of characteristics. 

A few people in the class were predictably pretentious. They turned out derivative takes on macho writers and they were unnecessarily confrontational when discussing others’ submissions. One guy’s work was disturbing, but tritely disturbing. A few in the class spoke and wrote poor English. One girl was writing a fantasy novel; she was my favorite. Read More »

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Royal Quiet Deluxe

October 13, 2014 | by

Marinus Adrianus Koekkoek, In the Chicken Yard, ca. 1850, oil on canvas, 22.8" × 29.7".

In 1972, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings changed the face of country music forever with the Outlaw country sound. In 1974, the Ramones did the same thing for rock ’n’ roll. In 2000, my friend Tim and I set out to do the same for both genres with a way-out sound and a more ambitious instrumentation.

We call ourselves Royal Quiet Deluxe, which is also the make and model of the typewriter I play as percussion. Tim plays the guitar and the bass, often simultaneously. We provide the backing rhythms for two live chickens that peck out abstract melodies on toy pianos.

Every rehearsal and performance is a spontaneous improvisation, and no two performances are ever the same. The chickens are named Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline. Different individual chickens come and go, but in our pretentious barnyard Menudo they are always named Kitty Wells or Patsy Cline.

The band played two shows last year in college that we felt went incredibly well. Our former housemate lives in Japan now with a boyfriend who books bands in Osaka and Tokyo. We lied to her a little about how much we’d improved since graduation, and she lied to her boyfriend a little more on top of that, and now he says that if we can get him a solid live tape, of an actual show with a cheering audience and everything, he can book us a tour in Japan.

And you just know Japanese people are crazy about this kind of shit. Read More »

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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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