I just came across an exquisitely postmodern sentence in the book I picked up off the floor this afternoon (Stephen Jay Gould's The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister's Pox
), full of phrases like "culturally embedded" and "just one system of beliefs" and "social construction" and even "hegemony." It, as all such sentences do, made me shiver a bit.
Natural aversion might have its part to play but mostly my reaction is due to conditioning. As an English major I beat my head against such sentences to a greater or lesser extent for four years. Even when I could decipher the texts I was asked to read, I often found myself incapable of generating such things in my required responses.
I'm not saying all was postmodernism, but all was ... something. Scholarly, dry, complex (for complexity's sake, it often seemed), referring to other papers and ideas I knew nothing about. Academia sometimes feels a lot like two neighbors arguing over whose property that big tree is on, but they're fighting it out by writing letters to their sleepy town's newspaper: this week X talks about rezoning, last week Y wrote of the sad demise of birdwatching, the week before that X wrote about the quality of garbage collection in the city, and if you didn't know what happened 600 letters ago you'll never get the allusions, the parentheticals, the innocuous cover stories for all the biting remarks. It wasn't a game I cared to follow along with, much less play.
So I was at a loss. I knew what I wanted to write was not what they wanted, so I didn't do that. But I didn't know what was wanted. My easy success in elementary and high school left me unable to cope with any real challenges or opportunities to really learn anything. I didn't know what to do when I didn't already excel. I certainly couldn't be seen to do less! To make the usual silly undergraduate mistakes! I took every criticism personally; I knew it was stupid but I couldn't help it. Still can't.
I didn't belong there, I decided. I made a stab for the hard sciences (I'd wanted to be an astronomer when I was little, and I loved physics), but I had to take Calc I first and that didn't even last long enough for me to get to integrals.
Andrew just asked me what I was writing and I told him the last paragraph was about calculus. "Oh!" he said. "Do you know where the word calculus comes from?" Pebble! I said. "It means stone," he corrected. No, pebble! I was insistent. Little stone! "Oh, calcu
lus," he murmured to himself, "you're right." He took Latin, so he can figure these things out; I love etymology but learn it all by brute force. A rare victory then, I hope you realize.
So, being the sort of person who knows the etymology of the word calculus
rather than anything else about it, I crawled back to the humanities, to jack-of-all-literature-master-of-none "survey" classes, to theory and criticism and arguments. My difficulty with them only increased. I found it hard to write essays, not because i was procrastinating or lazy — though I can certainly be those as well — but because even when I sat down with the books and papers I needed and a new word document open in front of me and the best will in the world, I couldn't write. That doesn't mean I couldn't write well
, or promptly or anything like that. I mean I couldn't squeeze a sentence out. I couldn't write. I had no idea what to do.
This started worrying me near the beginning of my junior year and things quickly got worse until the end of what would have been my senior year if I hadn't failed so many classes by then, all English classes for my major, all the things that required writing. That "best will in the world" got harder and harder to find as I got worse, but even at the end it would peek up sometimes, look around at this hopeless state and ask What's gong on? How did this happen? What am I doing? What's wrong?
I had no idea. The questions scared me because I felt so powerless to answer them.
I would've thought failing out of college would help with that
at least, but while it freed me from the need to read postmodern nonsense and write Arguments about everything, it didn't get rid of the gift this experience had brought me: sheer emptiness every time I looked at a blank word document, only a blinking cursor marking the time. The questions still scared me, I still couldn't answer them, I still didn't write.
In high school at least I wrote. In twelfth grade, for the first time in my life, a teacher asked my class to write; I still have a couple of those little essays with glowing remarks on them. I wrote a stupid little feature for the school newspaper. I wrote a silly speech for competition; a decently-written but poorly-performed thing. I wrote a couple of things just for myself, about salad dressing and the like, things that might have ended up in LJ if I'd had one then.
In fact a lot of the first year or two of my LiveJournal looks a lot like I remember them: simple, mundane things, pretty boring, usually with a punchline and/or moral tacked on at the end. Very tidy, they were, honest — always; it's a faiilng of mine — and bland and polished and safe, conscious of their audience (which is funny because my high-school writing had none and my LJ had little audience then, yet now that I've got a big one I'm writing this sort of twaddle).
At 18 I wrote for the pleasure of it; at 22 I couldn't remember there had ever been any.
I am not a flexible writer. That is why LJ is perfect for me; I only write what I want and it's not politics or restaurants or movies I saw, it's just about me. Even now, you can ask me to write about almost any subject — Andrew and his uncle have done so many times — and I will reliably flounder and end up with nothing to show them despite the best of intentions. "I don't know anything about that
!" I think (or say). "I don't know where to start!" And it's true. My brain is still blank, the cursor slowly blinking.
Except I know they never know anything when they start out either; they're happy to look things up, make things up, and to write a rubbish first draft. I know this too, but I can't do any of that.
My LJ friends include a bunch of great writers, and many of them offhandedly mention their articles or novels or poetry or short stories. It baffles me — How do they do it?
— and also made me envious. Not just for their abilities but their nonchalance; I was sure that if I managed the merest decent novella I'd be shouting it big+3 to all of you reading about holly_lama. And embarrassed: this LJ lark is no big deal for them, but it's all I've got. I can't even keep a paper journal for more than a week without losing interest or hating everything I wrote.I have no thoughts in my head.
I can't even write a review of a movie or CD or whatever without it all being just about myself.
I lack the network of facts and allusions to write the sorts I like to read, even the sort of gonzo journalism I like to read. All I know is me, and even that not very well.
Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?
Not just the reviewers or other writers, all of you. Where do you get all the things you write about: the clothes, the food, the friends, the plans for the weekend? Alan Moore has a character that's imagination personified, and indeed she says "I'm imagination. I'm real, and I'm the best friend you ever had. Who do you think got you all this cool stuff? The clothes you're wearing, the room, the house, the city that you're in. Everything in it started out in the human imagination. Your lives, your personalities, the whole world that you're in."
I know what he means — I remember when Andrew and England only existed in my imagination . But, well, I gues I'm just feeling a little lifeless at the moment. A little personalityless. My mind is still a blank screen.
I'm too old for this.