20 January 2017

Ruminations, continued.

IV
 
 
 
This second professor starting out seemed mediocre.  He was always a little cagey on his qualifications, never quite telling us what they were, only informing us that he had taught this course for many years.  The made me a little wary, but I decided I would try and gut it out.  Besides, all the other classes were full.  It was either this guy or nothing. 
 
In retrospect, I should have gone with nothing.  It took a while to come to this conclusion, and by then it was too late to withdraw, but we eventually realized what and who it was who was teaching us.  He wasn't the editor I had hoped he would be.  He wasn't even a writer.  He was the worst thing possible: a would be writer, teaching a group of younger would be writers.  The blind leading the blind.  And it got worse. 
 
You can tell a lot about would be writers from the authors they choose emulate, the ones they pattern themselves after.  In his case, the author he sought to emulate was James Joyce.  The choice was not without its consequences.  Joyce was a polarizer, like, say, JRR Tolkien, or Melville's Moby Dick.  Readers' reactions to these authors and their works tend to be extreme- either the readers have their eyes opened by these books and have the sense that this author or this book is the one they have been searching for all their life without knowing it, or they loathe it.  There is no in-between.  My new professor worshipped James Joyce, and couldn't understand why everyone didn't worship James Joyce, and saw no point in writing unless you were trying to write like James Joyce.  I, on the other hand, and most of the rest of the class for that matter, loathed James Joyce.  We regularly faced his criticism for not being Joyceans, particularly the guy who wanted to write like JRR Tolkien, and kept bringing in novelizations of his Dungeons and Dragons campaigns.  And yes, those were as bad as they sound.  In his case, writing a bit more like Joyce might have been an improvement.
 
It is fair to say that few, if any authors and especially would be authors write as well as their heroes.  Those who wish to write like Joyce, as did this professor, give themselves a particularly self defeating task- namely, writing like Joyce.  If you look at Joyce's output, it is actually fairly small for someone who wrote for as long as he did.  That is because, in a sense, Joyce did not write as much as he rewrote, restruck, revised, re-edited, searching for some elusive perfection, trying to crush his language into a chemical purity.   
 
He was so bad about this, his works are nightmares for modern editors. Those who edit his works have given themselves a nightmarish task.  Ulysses, for example went through I believe thirteen or so separate editions in Joyce's time, and he made alterations and emendations to each and every one.  So upon which edition is an editor to base any new edition? The first? The last? Even worse, Joyce kept copies of his own books at home, and he would pull out those copies and scratch out the lines written here and there and write in new lines in marginalia.  Should those be put into a new edition?  And so on. 
 
What this means for a would be writer such as my professor who is seeking to emulate Joyce is fairly simple and unfortunate.  It means that they have, somewhere in their home, a manuscript that they have been working on for years, often decades.  They are going over it again and again and again, and, usually, whatever readability it possessed was squeezed out of it long ago.  And so it was with this guy.  Years after I took the Joycean's class, I was drinking tea with another professor to whom I told the story of my time in the creative writing program, particularly under this professor.  "Oh, him," he said.  "Did he read any of his manuscript to you?" I told him no.  He had never mentioned his manuscript to the class. Unlike the first professor, this one would never deign to show us any of his writing, submit his work to our judgment.  "You're lucky," this professor said.  He went on to explain to me that my old professor had in a desk drawer somewhere a magnum magnum opus he had been working on for decades, and occasionally he would show portions of it to those whom he believed worthy of his genius, such as it turned out, the professor with whom I was now talking.  The work, he said, was the worst thing he had ever read, completely and utterly unreadable.  But of course he had to tell that would be writer that it was wonderful, provocative, eye-opening, etc. 
 
And that was the man who was now teaching me how to write.  It got worse from there. 


19 January 2017

Ruminations, continued.

III
 
 
After the complete waste of the first year in the program, I actually contemplated leaving the program  Here I had achieved the dream of getting into the program and learning to be a writer, gone through my first class, and it was an utter waste of time.  I had sat at the feet of an award winning author, so to speak, and I had learned absolutely nothing. 
 
I decided to stay, and hoped I would have better luck in the coming year. I began to think about what kind of teacher would be best for a Creative Writing Class.  I came to the conclusion that perhaps a writer is not the best person to teach writing.  Maybe what would be best was an editor, someone who knew how to take an idea or a manuscript and mold it, or perhaps slash and bash it, into a better work.  Someone who knew how to make a good idea better, who could say "this is good, this is not," and perhaps explain why. 
 
That is what I hoped for.  But, in the days before the internet, we could not look up our professors online and see what others said about them or what their experience was.  And, besides, we were stuck taking the classes that we could fit into our schedule.  Even if I had been able to look up the professors assigned to the classes, it still would not have helped me as the teacher listed for my class was simply a TBA: To Be Announced.  I signed up for the course- prose writing- and hoped for the best.   
 
'The best' was not what I got.  Actually, it was quite the opposite.

18 January 2017

Ruminations, continued.

II
 
My time in the Creative Writing program was, after my anticipation, my dreams and my desire to embrace my magnificent destiny, a let down.  The story of it can be told quite briefly. 
 
The first 'professor' I had in my chosen program was  a published author, which seemed only fitting.  More than fitting.  I was excited.  'Oh boy, a writer!' I thought.  She could lead us into her profession, show us the ropes, give us a few tips.  So the big day came, and it was with great anticipation that I awaited her arrival in class. 
 
She was something different from the usual professors.  She had disheveled iron grey hair, and her clothes were mismatched second hand, and a pair of glasses perched down on the tip of her nose.  As I got to know her I found she was a very nice woman, slightly dotty- and I liked my professors slightly dotty- but she had one tiny drawback: she had absolutely no idea what she was doing in that classroom.  It was the first time she had ever taught, and she was completely out to lunch. 
 
Allow me to explain. A Creative Writing class, at that time, ran like this: The students gather.  They hand out samples of their writing, or the piece they are writing at the moment. The students take these samples home and read them.  The next week, lead by the professor, the class goes over the pieces one at a time and critiques them for the authors.  Note the important phrase there: "lead by the professor".  This was her downfall: she did not know how to lead or critique.  "That was... nice." she'd say.  It was all she ever said.  She once privately confided in me that she was 'philosophically opposed' to telling people how they should write, which was somewhat in conflict with the whole 'teach people how to write' thing she was supposed to be doing. 
 
Not that we were an easy class to teach.  We were filled with would be poets.  Lots and lots of poets,  because, you know, that's where the money is.  And not just any kind of poets.  We had a large group of would be poets in that class who would, shall we say, chemically alter their perceptions in order to aid their writing. Those people were a challenge to critique.  Critiquing is, by a large, a technical exercise. We would comment on the hows and whats- the techniques, in short- that the other classmates employed in their writings. What on earth does one say to people whose techniques began and ended with 'get stoned'?  "Your use of marijuana takes away from the intensity of your writing.  You should try and mix in some cocaine or meth to give your writing some focus and energy, and perhaps some heroin for visual imagery."  I will take to my grave one guy's contribution to world literature: 
 
Oh Lotus leaf, you free my mind
You make me old before my time
Only with you can I be me
So blow my mind, and set me free.
 
These guys thought they were doing something new, but, of course, the relation between writing and various forms of inebriation go back to the very beginnings.  Even the newer chemicals have been done.  William James, in his work on the varieties of religious experience, sought to mimic the mystical experience through chemistry.  His drug of choice was, as I recall, ether.  He tried it, and found his mind widened with the experience, and the thought incredible thoughts, but the thoughts escaped his memory when the ether passed.  Determined to capture his chemically enhanced genius, James repeated his ether experiments, but this time with a pad and pen ready at hand so he could record his new found brilliance.  Upon coming out of his ether binge, James discovered he had written the following: "Higamous pigamous, man is polygamous./ Higamous hogamous, woman is monogamous." 
 
The professor, as I said, was of no help to us.  Far from her guiding and influencing us, we influenced her.  She came to class one day and announced that she had been so inspired by us and our poetry  she had decided to try her hand at her own.  She handed out her poem and read it to us immediately.  I only remember snatches of it- it wasn't terribly good.  But she had an expectant look on her face as she finished.  "What do you think?" she asked.  We found good things to say, or we made something up.  Useless as she was, she was still nice and we liked her, and we didn't want to hurt her feelings.  Plus, she was still going to be giving us our final grade.  It would be unwise to crush someone who was grading our papers. 
 
Some years later, I read an announcement that she had been awarded the Governor General's prize for her first book of poetry.  I don't know if we should be praised for setting that in motion, or held accountable. 
 
If I recall correctly, I got a 'B' in that class.  It was a nice grade. 
 


17 January 2017

Oh, heck no.

I interrupt the Ruminations to register a hearty "Heck No!" to this news: Kevin O'Leary will entering be entering the Conservative Leadership race. 

He is almost literally the last man I would support for the job.  One famous name who thinks their first political job should be Prime Minister is enough.

Ruminations

As threatened- er, promised- I will over the next few days publish some of the deleted sequences from the Ruminations of a Miserable Failure.  (For those who wish to see what it was deleted from, here is the link to the ebook and the book book.  Also, I have published 27 and 1/2 Short Plays about William Shakespeare, also available in ebook and book book.  And so, without further ado, here begins the deleted series.  For those of you who recall, I had just finished telling my Father's war stories.  It was time to pick up my own parallel (only not really) stories.

I
 

 I was supposed to die in war, but my war ended up not happening.  When growing up in the seventies and eighties, we were constantly told the Third World War was coming, and most predicted it would happen by 1986 at the latest.  There were almost weekly specials on the television explaining to us what would happen:  within minutes of the beginning both sides would go full nuclear.  The armies, the regular ground pounding grunts, had the life expectancy of a corpse.  So did everyone else.  All life would be wiped out.   
   
We grew up with a sense of fatalism and foreboding.  We would not live. But as we edged closer to what was supposed to be the ultimate limit of all our spans, something odd happened: nothing.  It became more and more apparent that nothing was about to happen.  Now a different kind of gloom settled upon my generation.  We were going to live and sweat under the weary burden of the future after all.  Our deaths were shipped backwards and it seemed we might even have a normal lifespan. It left us with just one little question: Now what?