Monday, April 16, 2007

Virgina Tech And After


After I taught my last class today I saw CNN reporting that 7-8 students had been shot at Virginia Tech. When I got home forty-five minutes later the number was 22. By five o'clock the toll was 33 including the shooter, if there was in fact only one. Now after ten o'clock at night there still aren't any answers and there won't be for months.

At this hour the only things I'm sure of in the coming days are the following:

Experts will sit at roundtables with coffee mugs in front of them and blame scary musicians and violent video games, clips from Hollywood blockbusters with more explosions then dialogue will scroll before commercial breaks, and weeks later the same talking heads will begin to blame themselves for sensationalizing the tragedy.

While this is going on politicians and activists will debate gun control laws. One side will argue that firearms make our citizens unsafe and that there is no legitimate need for semi-automatic pistols in the realm of hunting or sport if they pose a danger to our children. The other side will say that only law-abiding citizens obey laws and that if more of the students had been armed the number shot would have been lower as someone could have shot the shooter. They might add that no one holds up a gunstore before the commercial break.

During all the talk celebrities and public official will weigh in on each side with one organizing benefit concerts and television specials, and the other trying to pass legislation to prevent this ever happening again.

As the answers come slowly over the months, each less satisfying than the next, people will grieve the fact that they missed important clues and some will apologize for not recognizing the potential for this to occur sooner. Lawsuits will come on the heels of these confessions while black armbands are sewn onto football uniforms and memorials are dedicated.

College campuses will begin to look more like high schools years from now, with metal detectors and armed guards. Concrete barriers will stop cars from parking too close to dormitories and professors will be required to report writing which might hint at potentially dangerous students.

The time of an open college campus in the heart of a community, one in which you can now wonder about freely watching squirrels or passing afternoons in the library, will become as foreign an idea as the time in which you could smoke cigarettes in high school.

In the end all that can be done will be done. The answers gained will continue not satisfy, and we will continue to live in a world that is often cruel, unpredictable and tragic on occasion because in the end there are no answers for these events. There is no prescription from which these terrible days spring. The best we can do is comfort one another, try and be a little smarter, and hope that we don't build walls too high to remember what it was like before they existed.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Breakdown Blues

First the confession. At this point I have not written a completely new short story for over four. I am embarrassed as I write this because being a writer is more than saying you are a writer. Being a writer is not the same thing as being a water skier where in the winter months no one has the expectations that you are out chipping ice away from the lakes so that you can ski. To be a writer requires an amount of constant unrewarded doggedness to do the title any justice, since after all, a writer is nothing if not someone who writes.

I have never been of the mind that being a writer is anymore important than being say a plumber or someone who seals driveways. After all, in the final analysis it might be less practical an endeavor than either as no one ever looks at their home in disgust and says, "Get the Yellowpages. We're going to need a writer." But since the term (the word title seems unfit for my present level of accomplishment and productivity) is one that I use to define myself, I do feel a certain sadness that I have done little as of late to earn it.

My descent into sloth has been a gradual one. When I graduated from my M.F.A. program a little over a year ago I had the makings of both a novel and a short story cycle. I spent the year after the program re-editing my novel and submitting it to publishers and agents. At this point it has been read and passed upon by two publishers, both of which had good cause. While I'm proud of the novel thus far, it is at best seventy-percent of the way finished. It's written in first person, which doesn't hold up well over two-hundred and fifty pages and also serves to limit the novel as I can only tell what the protagonist knows. With this in mind I began to re-edit the book, and though I was pleased with the start of the new draft it felt as if I have lived too long with the misfits I had created so I decided to take a break.

On this break I submitted new versions of short stories to journals, and re-edited the work I have into a short story cycle which I submitted to publishers. This was over four months ago and while I have been collecting scraps for new work, I haven't been able to practice the most important writing exercise of all--keeping my ass in the chair.

This breakdown is not an uncommon one. It has happened to most writing students I have met. They say when their time in the program ends all the late hours they poured into trying to please their professors and peers are eaten away by the concerns of making a living, raising a family, and the other more practical dilemmas of the world. The creative vein slowly scabs and flakes away if left unscratched.

It would be unfair to say that my disinterest in writing, or maybe it would be more appropriate to say my putting off writing, is due to the concerns of real life as these only play a part in my procrastination. I am not the most practical person after all. My inactivity is also due to my lack of success if I am to be honest with the universe and candid. Japanese Shinto priests have a term for work for which their is no immediate or practical reward (they call it spirit training) and lately my spirit is weak. I do recognize though that without the hours spent without reward or encouragement I will never be able to be successful in my work.

I also realize their have been others before my who have had it much worse than I do now. Flannery O'Connor who is failing health most of the time she forced herself to write three hours a day. The poet Li-Young Lee worked in a factory at night and wrote his poems alone in between shipments. The desire of the writer, the spirit, has to be strong or else nothing will ever come of their work.

The reason I write this confession, the reason I choose to set here in my basement and confess the fact that I haven't even tried of late, is to in a small way get moving again. I don't want to be at some Christmas party years from now talking about how I used to write. I am at this moment practicing the most important writing exercise known to man--I am in the chair and the keys are moving.