Fire Starters

Fire Starters are posts that, for me, are little more than curiosities and questions. It can be a little bit of a catchall, but it’s a good place for me to think through a topic or idea.

www.george-orwell.org

In this post, I discuss the presence of classic authors on the internet and how I think they should be treated.

Him again, eh? Yes, him again. George Orwell is my favorite author and why wouldn’t he be? He was the one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, and, in my opinion, he was certainly the greatest and most influential essayist of the twentieth century. I mean, it blows my mind that Orwell is not the centerpiece of every American composition class in the United States. He makes the essay form vibrant, compelling, and convincing, and if ever I get the chance to teach composition at the college level, you can be sure that I’d bring him in.

Still not convinced that Orwell was as great as I believe? Check out a few of his quotes:

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.
All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.
Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac.
Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.
For a creative writer possession of the ‘truth’ is less important than emotional sincerity.

See what I mean?! The guy was brilliant, and his grasp on life, politics, love, hate, and the human condition is more clearly stated than any other writer I’ve read.

Ok! We get it! You love Orwell! Well, so there’s this website, www.george-orwell.org, that has most of Orwell’s works on it, yet the site itself is in terrible condition. It’s interesting, if you look up great classic writers on the web, someone has probably put their stuff online, yet, so often, the site aren’t given the proper attention or upkeep.

Now, Orwell’s stuff is in the public domain of Russia, Australia, and Canada, and I believe that the owner of this site was from Canada, but to me, that doesn’t matter (since I am not liable). It doesn’t matter to me because I think this sort of exposure actually makes people more likely to buy his books. The internet will not replace books (or book-like things), but it can complement them. For example, it sucks to read a book on a webpage, but it’s great to be able to search a book for a phrase.

So, this website dedicated to Orwell is in terrible repair. I have tried and tried to find out who owns this site and contact him or her, but I’ve had no luck. I’d be happy to redesign this site for free as a favor to my old buddy Eric (Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair), but I can’t seem to contact the owner of the site.

I wish that authors as influential and important as Orwell had sites that could be given the proper attention and upkeep that they deserve. I recognize that finding volunteers for this kind of work can be laborious, as I can’t imagine money would be involved. Still, there could be donations. The thing is, the internet is always changing and improving, and sites dedicated to the works of great authors should be updated regularly, keeping things like modern formatting, conventions, a focus on readability, usability, and typography in mind. These works, I think, should be given a fitting and appropriate place on the web, with resources and contexts and the benefit of this great human network.

So, talk to him here? Ok, I will. If you’re the owner/operator of www.george-orwell.org, get ahold of me. I want to help. And, for the rest of you, if you have any ideas as to how I can find this guy, let me know.

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My Working Definition of “Art”

In this post, I wrestle with a word that I have long struggled to define. The word “art” gets used as though we all understand it, yet it does not seem so. I will attempt to define it for myself.

Haven’t you done this before? Yes, sadly. Art is a word I have long complained about. It’s not that I am opposed to art, but it just has no concrete meaning. If you ask the artist, they’ll stumble and stammer, talking about aesthetics, craft, and a certain je ne sais quoi. If you ask Joe or Jane Sixpack off the street, they’ll point to a painting or some other obvious example.

Writers often get lumped in with artists, and I’ve never felt comfortable with that. Still, I recognize that we’re often seen that way, so I decided to figure out a definition that works across the board.

So, Einstein, what is art then? Art, the way I see it, is something that is created to express a lack of understanding in the world. So, that sounds a little postmodern, but follow me. My thinking is that artists are essentially people that struggle to understand the world. They have a hard time making sense of things that perhaps a physicist or engineer would not. That’s not to say that these people occupy a special class of people, but in my mind, they often seem to be introspective and extremely curious about the world beyond a practical sense, and those qualities lead to greater and greater questions.

Art is essentially an expression of these questions. It’s an attempt to answer something that cannot be stated very simply. So, for example, you could see Orwell’s Winston Smith from Nineteen Eight-Four as an expression of Orwell’s feeling ideologically alone in the world. Or you could see much of Flannery O’Connor’s work as a struggle to make sense of her faith against the backdrop of a prejudiced “Christian” south. Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust can be seem as a Jewish American’s struggle to deal with Zionism. And not all examples are this clear cut or simple. Some are about a specific relationship struggle or fear or pain or social difficulty.

I realize this is a broad definition, but let’s face it, art must have an extremely broad definition. And one reason I like this definition is that it does not just lump in anything that is aesthetically pleasing. So, for example, a beautiful website made for a business is not art. Not all beauty is art. Yes, a website could be art, but not necessarily. It really goes into intent and expression.

What’s up with the George Bush painting? Well, by my definition, there is proof positive that old W. is something of an artist. Actually, I do kind of like the bathtub painting. It’s interesting.

Anyway, I recognize most people don’t see or define art this way, but I worked to find a commonality behind what people call art, and this was the best answer I came up with. Writing and art to me are expressions or communications, and I’ve long felt that artists are looking deeper, digging, trying to answer questions that maybe are impractical or illogical, and yet they feel compelled to do so anyway.

I think there’s something of an artist in all of us, because the world is full of mystery, but I think most people aren’t all that interested in grappling with the tough and maybe unanswerable questions of the world … and I can’t say I blame them.

So, that’s my working definition. Thoughts?

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Podcasting?

I have always loved podcasts, and now that I have a cool new microphone, I am thinking of getting back into it. Plus, this is a great chance for me to try out HTML5′s embed feature.

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Why Do We Still Teach Poetry?

In Creative Writing departments across the country, students are still being taught poetry at the same rate as fiction or other creative genres, and yet, the readership (at least in my perception) is not comparable. Why is that?

So, is poetry dead yet? This gets talked about a lot, and no, poetry is not dead yet. It still has a lot of life left in it, but I’m afraid that if we continue down the path we are, poetry will die out sooner than it should. Thing about it is, in my estimation, poetry has been dominated and defined by those inside the walls of academia for some time. Sure, there are some bad teenage poets, lyricists, and so forth, but “real” poetry is the sort of avant garde stuff that is vomited forth by academic institutions and pushed in front of the blind (or uninterested) eyes of the public.

I’m making some broad statements here, but by and large, it seems that poetry, to the average American, is quite dead. Walk into a Barnes & Nobles or some other mainstream bookstore. Now find the poetry section. I’ll wager it’s as small as any other section of the store. Why? Does Barnes & Nobles hate making money? Is it that they’re trying to hold poetry down with their evil corporate lusts? No. It’s that people aren’t buying poetry anymore, it would seem.

Why is that? Well, I’d imagine if you looked at household bookshelves across the country, you’d see a lot of novels, some biographies, some short fiction, and a couple books of poetry. Not much though. My bookshelf only has collections of Donne and Rukeyser, sorry to admit. We want to blame the public, that they’re too ignorant or interested in easy, fast fixes to appreciate poetry, but I think that’s just an excuse. My guess is that we left the public out of the conversation. I mean, the internet is perfect for the poetic form, and yet, I don’t see a good use of it (maybe because it’s still considered a virtue among English types to be luddites).

Not only that, in my reading of academic poetry, so often it comes off as stilted, pretentious, and nonsensical. Again, this is not always true. There are some wonderful modern poets, but I think in the mind of the average American reader, we’ve got that elitist taste in our mouths about modern poets. It may be unfair, but if poets care about their form, they’ll consider this idea. You know, it’s not a shame to sell poems or books. It’s OK. It’s a pretty good indication, in our system at least, that you’ve connected with people. Embrace it.

Are you going to get to teaching? Yes, yes, I’m getting to it. So, as I research Creative Writing programs across the country, it has become apparent to me that poetry is taught with just as much weight in our higher institutions as fiction, and yet the readership does not come close to matching. I mean, at my alma mater, there was a three-person full-time faculty … all of them were poets. Should institutions consider reflecting the readership of the world outside of their very thick and soundproof walls? I’m cruel at times to academia, but it’s because I care. I care about poetry as well. I do not hate it. In fact, I started as a poet. “GASP!” I know.

I’m not here to tell schools what they should do. I just feel like there’s this desperate attempt to be ahead of the population, avant garde, shocking and new, but maybe it would be a good idea to meet common people where they are. It reminds me of when I am walking my dogs … they’re ahead of me, but I’m leading them. They pull and pull, and they guess at where I will turn next, but really, all that happens is they turn back and forth back and forth, and I have to gently pull them in the right direction.

Sum it up. I’m a very busy man. Are we teaching a dying form? Maybe. Just seems like we need to either rethink how we teach poetry, or perhaps we need to consider having programs reflect the desires of the book-buying world. Because that’s what we’re interested in, right? Making an impact? I mean, who are we trying to reach? Other academicians? Well done. We’ve captured that market. Why not the average Joe? Give him a chance … he’s not as dumb as he looks.

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Top 10 Favorite Monty Python Sketches

I like lists. I should probably write for Cracked.com because I like lists. I have long been a fan of the Flying Circus, and below are my top ten favorite Monty Python sketches. Enjoy.

Honorable Mention. Prejudice:

10. The Cheese Shop:

9. Fish-slapping Dance:

8. Woody Words:

7. Dim of the Yard:

6. Funniest Joke:

5. Bicycle Repairman:

4. Biggles:

3. The Spanish Inquisition:

2. Hitler in England:

1. The Lumberjack Song:

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New Year’s Resolutions

Easy mockery. So, it’s that time again, time for New Year’s Resolutions. It’s also time for most people to mock or belittle those that do resolve to make some changes in their lives. They’ll say things like, “Oh, you’re just going to break your resolution a week from now,” or something like that.

Why do we say such things? I mean, isn’t it a wonderful thing that one time a year, people resolve to be kinder, healthier, more considerate, more productive, and so forth? I asked a good friend of mine if he had any resolutions, and he said no, because he didn’t want to make goals and then not live up to them. Basically, if we aim for nothing, we’re sure to meet our goals. Maybe we all tend to mock resolutioners because we want them to fail. If they fail, then our laziness, fear of failure, and cynicism are validated.

Maybe a different take. So, what if we, instead of tearing down those people who are trying to be ambitious, encouraged them? Seems like a good idea to me. It’s a good way to show investment in loved ones and friends. I mean, imagine a world where people regularly were trying to improve themselves?

Seems like something worth encouraging, not ripping down.

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If I could do it all over again …

A common saying. I hear people say a lot, “If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing,” or in shorter terms, “I have no regrets.” People who say this frighten me. How is it a person can live even a few days on this planet and not regret either doing or not doing something? Has the person with “no regrets” never thrown a punch or said something cruel or broken something dear to them or stood by silently as something needed to be said?

It feels like a way of accepting one’s life, of justifying the steps taken to get to where they are now. But it also feels callous and inconsiderate. I mean, if I could do it all over again, I’d change almost everything. I could always be more clear, more kind, more thoughtful, more careful, more daring, etc.

Introspection. It’s easy to say, “I haven no regrets,” but that’s all it is … easy. In fact, more than likely, it feels like denial, or a lack of introspection. How can one evolve in life, change, improve, or learn without regret?

Maybe I’m missing something or looking at this wrong, but regret, in my mind, isn’t such a bad thing.

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Leavenworth, Kansas

So, recently, I’ve been getting a lot of traffic from Leavenworth, Kansas to this site. Usually, most of my traffic is centered in Michigan, or it’s spread throughout the country. But I’ve had concentrated traffic from Leavenworth. Why is this?

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The Author Isn’t Quite Dead!

Roland Barthes

Greatly exaggerated. Perhaps the actors in Monty Python said it best when they screeched, “HE’S NOT QUITE DEAD!” In many creative writing and literary circles, the idea that the Author (capital “A”) has met his demise is an accepted fact. What does it mean that the author is dead? Well, I’ll tell you in more simple terms than Mr. Barthes, the originator of this backward thinking (though, he would argue that there is no originator), did in his famous essay “The Death of the Author.”

Essentially, Barthes argues that the author does not have final say of truth concerning his own work. He believes that somehow a writing does not originate from the author, but transcends him, and he becomes simply the person who pens it.

… all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.

In Barthes’s (or … I’m not sure who he’d like me cite) mind, the author’s life, politics, experiences, religion, family, country, etc. do not matter, as it concerns the truth found in a book. Essentially, he believes that it is the reader that holds final say on what piece means. This sounds very democratic indeed (though his prose, in my opinion, feels rather elitist), and though he argues that by handing the evaluation of truth off to the reader, we undo the power of the critic who only seeks to figure out the intention of the author. Sadly, though, I believe his ideas have done little more than to create a new Author (capital “A”), and that is the critic, or perhaps more accurately these days, the Professor. If truth is wholly rooted in the reader, then how can we teach criticism? Isn’t that just essentially steering readers to a particular bent? How could a reader be wrong? As I once asked a professor about this issue, does it mean that I can read Barthes’s essay as a recipe for potato soup? She said, “No! Of course not!” I asked why. It became messy and confused after that.

A text without an Author is a text without a context. Certainly, the most obvious answer to the question I asked my professor would be that the text does not support a recipe for potato soup. And that’s true. I think many would leave it there (though, again, if it’s up to the reader, I feel like we do not consider that the reader can be WRONG), but the problem is, that leaves the writing with a rather incomplete understanding, and it will often lead to misuse.

For example, of late, the religious right in America has latched onto the writings of Ayn Rand, particularly her famous work Atlas Shrugged. Yes, they may agree with her economic ideas, but Rand saw religion as a joke, and believed that altruism was a vice and greed a virtue. This bears out in her writing, and yet, it gets abused by “readers.” Without the context of Rand, we don’t fully understand her work.

Similarly, George Orwell’s 1984 get used by people of every political and ideological bent. But, when we know he wrote the book in 1948 (reverse of 1984 {duh}), we know that he was writing about post-war rationing in England. When we understand the historical context of the book, we are able to achieve greater insight. And room 101, the Ministry of Love’s torture chamber, the room where Winston Smith’s greatest fear would be put on him … room 101 was the room where Orwell worked for the BBC. We’re taught 1984 in schools, in my opinion, because of its perceived anti-Soviet message, yet the detail about room 101 tells us that he was talking about England and not the USSR. Facts like that about the author allow for a deeper and more thorough reading.

So, for example … Let’s just say, we set up an experiment. In this experiment, we have 100 normal people in an audience. On stage is a panel of ten of the world’s finest readers (Critics / Professors), as well as a young man, the author, in a sound-proof booth. The readers go through a story written by the young author in the booth, and they explain the “truth” in it. They find all sorts of themes, like oppression of the middle class, questioning of gender roles, and frustration with modern colonialism. Once they have had their say, the young author is allowed to exit the booth. He is then asked what the story is about, and he says it’s about his dog, Pogo, who died recently. Who do you think the audience is going to believe? The trained readers or the author? Who will hold the final truth to the average person? I would bet lots of money that the author would be given the benefit of the doubt over the readers.

That being said, a text must support these claims. But that’s just it. Fiction isn’t some language derived from some transcendent spirit who chooses “artists” as mediums. No, fiction is simply communication. And yes, it is the author’s communication to a reader, just as an email is a communication from one person to another. We try to separate all sorts of writing, but, in the end, it all serves the same purpose. I have an idea in my head, and I want to transmit it to you. And when the idea gets jumbled along the way, gets lost, I would argue that ineffective communication has taken place. Orwell fantastically blurred the line between fiction and rhetoric, and I would argue that Muriel Rukeyser did similarly with poetry and rhetoric. The walls in academia between the various sections of English (Lit, Rhet/Comp, Creative Writing, etc.) are arbitrary and false. Writing falls along a continuum of styles, but the purpose of writing is the same.

So where does that leave the reader? I’m not suggesting that the reader doesn’t have any say. I believe that the reader is going to bring what he knows to a book, and yes, the reader can apply interpretations that were not originally part of the authorial intent (the best example of this that I can think of is Alice in Wonderland), but to understand the author, his context, his experiences, will lead to a greater understanding of a work. No, we don’t always have the luxury of asking authors what they mean or intend by some passage, but certainly, when we get that chance, it’s illuminating.

Perhaps I don’t get it. Maybe I was missing the point, but to me, fiction, and all art for that matter, is self-portrait. Or do you disagree, readers?

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Punctuation Abuse

Just Pour Quotation Mark Misuse

What does this “mean?” So, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend of late: the malicious and destructive abuse of punctuation marks. Now, in today’s post, I’m going to focus mainly on quotation marks and apostrophes, but this could easily be applied to semicolons, as semicolons are the college student’s favorite bit of punctuation to use to make his paper seem all writerly and junk.

I took the image above in a coffee shop in Asheville, North Carolina. I see the “Just Pour,” and I begin to wonder, Why the quotation marks? What does that mean? Perhaps I am prone to reading into things, but I wondered if there was some inside joke about what people were doing with the creamer pot, or if perhaps “Just Pour” was a famous saying by a local celebrity. But, no, I’m guessing it was just tossed in there. Why? Good question.

Energy Stones Quotation Misuse

Wait, that’s not a quotation mark! And you’d be right. This is an shot I took the last time I was in Chicago. People struggle enough with your vs. you’re (which I contend should sound different, with your sounding like “yore” and you’re sounding like “you-er”), but apostrophe abuse seems pretty rampant. In the image, again, the view is left to wonder, Energy Stone’s what? Is that the name of the shop owner? Maybe his parents were hippies and gave him the first name Energy. It’s not that it’s altogether confusing, because we get the point. The place sells energy stones. Yet, this sort of abuse is so common, it makes me wonder why we don’t know these basic rules well enough to even keep mistakes from the signs that represent our companies.

Don’t be so elitist … jerk. I guess I’m not trying to be critical. I’m just trying to dig down into the intentions or thoughts of these people. And maybe in a broader sense, are these signs that punctation, as we know it, is becoming more obsolete in our modern texting / chatting / emailing language?

Place Evaluations Here Apostrophe Misuse

Pegs are dropping. And just so you can feel a little more equality with those nose-in-the-air English Professor types who love to correct you on your incorrect grammar, here is a picture I shot in the English office at my alma mater, Eastern Michigan University. Place evaluation’s what here? Is it missing something? Is there someone named Evaluation? Ah, yes, I think I have the answer. I think the little image of the robot or creature on the sheet in named Evaluation. He eats student evaluations, because it’s not like professors are going to read them. They’re much too busy to bother themselves with the opinion of lowly undergrad students! I kid, I kid. This sign, to be fair, was probably made by one of the secretaries at the English office, but dozens of professors walked by this sign every day, and it’s pretty funny that none of them caught it.

So, why are you “bothering” us with this? I guess the lesson to be learned here is that we all abuse punctation, no matter what level of grammar snobbery we adhere to. I mean, I probably goofed up even in this post. I find it makes me laugh, but I think the bigger questions we should face are these: Why don’t we learn these basic rules so we can implement them properly? And is it worth it?

I don’t know if it’s worth it. Here is my advice: We all are blessed with more information at our fingertips than every generation has had available to them put together, so we’re without excuse. We can all be better self-learners, but if you refuse to learn, don’t use the punctuation ignorantly. It just comes off as trying too hard.

But then again, I could be wrong.

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