Am I the only person who wondered to herself writing papers in, say, 10th grade: Who am I writing to? My teachers always suggested a kind of faceless academe. One developed an objective, deliberately impersonal voice, which assumed no shared knowledge, only that whoever might be reading was intelligent, mildly interested and largely benevolent. But don’t push it. One was not to be humorous. One was presenting an objective literary viewpoint.
Here I was, alone in my room at 10 pm, typing away (and that was when I put down my diabolical Papermate erasable ballpoint, the Erasermate, and discovered the electric typewriter), collaborating in this absurd farce of although I am only 15 I have some interesting insights about Shakespeare that I would like to present to the committee.
Okay, maybe, this coming from a person who didn’t understand what a car coat was until last year (see last post), you handled this dichotomy with more aplomb than I, but even when I taught English 10 years later I was still plagued by that absurdity: Who are you writing for? Who am I asking you to write to? Am I grading your paper on behalf of the academy? Are we training all English students to get Ph.D.s in literature? Why not just teach them to write, to respond honestly and with clarity but assume that most of them are going to be writing to more specific audiences in their future lives?
Around the same time, a friend who is now a renowned person of letters and I are MFA students. We are young, voluble and have flexible schedules. We are happy to sell our time and opinions to marketers. We have been hired as fake jurors in a mock trial set-up for a big budget Wall Street court case. We spend a week attending trial sessions in a hotel ballroom. One day at lunch another juror, male, 60s, responds to the idea of a creative writing program as absurd given that, in his opinion, young people were incapable of composing a simple business letter. They ought to have been teaching us business correspondence. (In an MFA program? I think he meant earlier on in one’s education.) Friend and I are inwardly groaning and rolling our eyes. Those of us in the program could write kick-ass business letters. We were probably already doing it to make rent when we weren’t selling ourselves to focus groups. But his point, about writing for a purpose, not writing to imaginary audiences, was valid.
I used to be a person who always carried a notebook, who would walk and write in the subway, on the street, anywhere. Mostly I wrote overheard conversation and epiphanies about the people I scrutinized on the subway. This began on the Brooklyn-bound IRT so long ago that I remember middle-aged ladies in cat glasses and tweed coats, before that was retro; men in disco-cut polyester trousers in burgundy or forest green with matching polyester shirts; VD posters and speedreading ads.
I write this blog as a letter from the exotic wilds of Alabama to my friends in London, to family, to the Northeastern friends of my youth, to carry on an unfinished conversation in my head–Where am I, Who am I? What is home? What is happy? What does it mean to live somewhere? I know specifically who most of my readers are, but other people come here from websites offering auto loans or through search terms that are a strange little mirror held up to me by the google search spiders.
The wordpress dashboard informs me that some people found my site using the following terms.
• “mr. leo” “soul food” “new york”
• modern living in a medieval tower
• bed bath beyond scarface wall art
• alone pregnant girl in hallway
• meanwhile back at the bmw
• mournful gust
• matching tattoos for mother and daughter
• lab rat plus man
• sad suburban backyard garden
I hope that you eventually found what you were looking for.
What if my 10th grade English teacher had left his bag on the train? (Like my 10th grade history teacher did.) He gets off, leaving behind a ratty canvas Channel 13 tote bag stuffed with our essays on the use of microcosm/macrocosm in Julius Caesar. The doors close and he feels its absent weight in his hand. Too late! The train is rumbling off into the sooty blackness of the tunnel, sending our naive literary analysis out into a world that may be less patient, less benevolent, less interested than we imagined.
What if one passenger shrugs and solemnly tips out the contents of the bag. He distributes the papers to everyone in the car and they in turn get out their pens. They make tick marks for a point well made, pose questions in the margins, tell anecdotes, recommend other plays, offer political opinions, quote scripture. Some of our readers are more informed, or more interested in Shakespeare, some less. As they get off the train, they return their essay to the tote bag and when the last passenger gets off at the end of the line she gives it to the token booth clerk, who finds a piece of paper with the name of the school on it, and a week later we receive our papers, graded not by Mr. S., but by members of the public.
You never know, who is reading your paper, he says.
He is talking to me.
And I am writing to you.