I frequently flirt with the idea of doing book reviews, but then I have to come to grips with the part where I am generally the Last Person To Read The Book, or so it seems. This is quite often related to a confession I hate making, particularly as a teacher: it’s been a long time since I could firmly categorize myself as a real reader. I just don’t do it all that often anymore with things that aren’t related to work. And even if I’m gobsmacked with new and exciting details every time I re-read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, doing it for class-prep isn’t the same as simply sinking into a book, as submerging myself in someone else’s words and worlds.
He already knew he could coach. All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph. Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense. Everybody suffered. The key was to choose the form of your suffering. Most people couldn’t do this alone; they needed a coach. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you. A bad coach made everyone suffer in the same way, and so was more like a torturer. (Harbach 149)
This is, of course, pedagogical. One size does not fit all. This is also the nature of the very best creative writing exercise I’ve ever been given, and when I was given it, I thought it was torture. It seemed both cruel and unusual, the task set before me.1
But to understand why it was so, I need to look at myself as that player, as that young writer. Who was I, the first semester of my second year of college? I was much as I still am: too optimistic, prone to too many words. I was also afraid of the page. Don’t get me wrong–I’m still pretty terrified of it–but the reasons are different. Now, I’m afraid to suck. That doesn’t stop me from writing (and it surely doesn’t stop me from sucking at it), but I’m not afraid of anything I write and I’m not afraid to write anything. Back then, I was afraid to write the wrong thing, the unsafe thing, the messy thing, the dirty thing, the ugly thing. And I spent all of my early creative writing courses writing “beautiful” (read: pretty and dull) crap in overblown historical settings.2 I can say I legitimately love historical fiction, but that writing was also designed to show off how well I paid attention in history courses (it was a liberal arts college–someone would approve of that) and to disguise how fearful I was of letting a story get messy (which is to say interesting) on the page because I had no idea if I could pull it back together if it got out of control.
So that’s the start of the narrative. The final assignment in that class, Fiction Workshop I, was a personalized writing assignment. The instructor reviewed everyone’s work for the whole semester and then set each of us a challenge related to the work we had done. My second story of the semester was a historical piece about a silversmith’s apprentice who followed Joan of Arc. It was saturated with detail, it was reverent, it was grim and grave and contained an epiphany that I loved that probably could have had its own army of horn-blowing zealots it was so obvious. I loved that story. I still kind of do. The apprentice’s name was Remi.
My assignment: write a love scene between Joan of Arc and this character. My folder was flipped shut and handed back to me, and there was another student waiting in the hall. I left with my assignment, feeling traumatized. I didn’t argue about it. I had an assignment. The assignment must be done. I spent most of a week in what Pat McManus would call the “modified stationary panic.” Everything about the assignment caused a separate and discrete part of my brain to fuse. Love scene. Joan of Arc, a saint and a minor. Historical setting wherein the two characters are barely acquainted. The assignment posed every possible problem to my nineteen-year-old brain: logistical, moral, technical.
I don’t remember what I wrote, not well. I do remember that I changed the setting–I made it contemporary, which was certainly cheating, but I got through it. I think I even managed an R rating. (I was told love scene; I was pretty certain that fading to black = bullshit in that case, so I wasn’t about to half-ass that part.) I was mortified at the prospect of having to show it to anyone–most particularly the instructor whose respect I wanted–but I was more paralyzed by the idea of not handing in anything, of not doing it. The day it was due arrived. I went to the instructor’s office, and I stood there with my folder, holding it out.
The instructor glanced at the folder. “You did it?”
I nodded. I had.
“Good.” He waved me out with a reminder of the date the final portfolio was due, my folder still in my hand. My suffering, my few pages, and I walked back to the dorm. It took me the length of that summer to figure it out: the story I needed to hear about myself was that I could write anything. It didn’t matter if I showed it to anyone. It surely didn’t matter if anyone else read it or liked it or hated it or responded to it. The simple fact was that I could do it and the world wouldn’t end.
I’m still trying to keep that in mind; it’s a really good starting point.
It takes me back to Harbach’s book, to Scrimshander trying to figure out what was going wrong with his disintegrating ability to make even the most simple throw from short to first: “The problem, like most problems in life, probably had to do with his footwork” (Harbach 174).
That exercise, that assignment that made me want hide under a rock, was something to help me find the footwork I was going to need later. Everyone’s got the step that makes her hesitate, everyone has his paralyzing over-think. Mine was self-consciousness, self-consciousness on the page. (Even now, I’m second-guessing every word I type here because it’s so much harder when it’s true, but I’m doing it, and even though this post has taken weeks, I’m posting it.) I’m not going to say that that exercise made the problem go away–see the previous sentence–but that exercise does mean I have a place to go back to, a place to put both feet, and it is always there. No matter what the circumstance, no matter what other problems I have with my writing, it’s not going to be because I think I shouldn’t write something, that I couldn’t possibly, that it Isn’t Done. And that’s not to say that it’s all going to be beer and skittles and sex with martyrs, either–it’s simply remembering the permission to do what the work needs one to do. Remembering that at the root of everything.
It works in the same way as the grammar of Pella Affenlight, who is “never too drunk to use whom3” (Harbach 296). Hopefully I am never too lost in my own doubt to remember this. I don’t expect I’ll forget, though. It was the story I needed to be told about myself, and stories are the reason I’m here. Thanks, Chad Harbach, for writing a book that reminded me of that, that reminded me of this moment, that reminded me of many, many good things.4
1This is the point where I knew where this entry was going. I’ve spent almost two weeks staring at this post-in-progress, willing it to finish or willing myself into enough guts to CTRL+A & delete. Neither happened. What did happen is that I also just sent a pages-long e-mail to the instructor this passage reminded me of. And here we are.
2I still love overblown historical settings, and I probably always will. Every stab at them leads to a little less pretty dullness.
3This is certainly one of the most fantastically quotable lines from the book.
4Maybe someday I’ll actually talk about the book as a book about baseball, too, but I think that’s probably been done to death already.