Of course it is sad, I am sad, to know that Leonard Nimoy is gone. With unashamed sentiment, I have read some lovely eulogies, tributes that address fully what a fan should say about the man and his body of work.
This weekend, the passing of this beloved public figure intersected as an event with a public outburst of someone known to me and my group of MFA alum. Far flung from anything ever imagined or expected, this meeting of figures was a moment of observational dissonance, of petty, mean, self-serving wittering played like a bad radio behind memories of all the ways reason and reserve first appeared to me as choices for living and creating.
I have written elsewhere about the enigma of Helen, who was my mother. Since this rogue whirlwind was our mother, and since our father had his own luggage along for the trip, we, their children, tended to live our thoughts as boldly and out loud as they did, as if walking across the floor required the same audacious certainty as space travel.
In our reality, if someone annoyed you by popping their knuckles or smacking their gum, you hated them and you told them so. You wished their teeth would fall out. You wished their hands would get dog bites and leprosy. If someone spilled their tea, that dimwit got set arrow straight about how many ways they were a waste of food and water. In fact, that spilled drink was the last glass of tea this particular person should ever be allowed to have in a lifetime of thirst and regret, and if she slipped and fell in the puddle she’d made, thereby cracking her brainless skull open, that would the best, most just thing that could ever in a million months of Sundays happen.
I looked like a calm kid.
Parents yelled at children and about everything all the time. Children yelled at each other and at the air, our pets, the walls, the kids down the street (who were always appallingly eager to be mean in turn). If a moment, a flicker, a feather’s weight grazed your awareness, you bit it, hard, so that whatever it was wouldn’t try that shit again. As long as you didn’t say any known swear word, especially God or gosh (a “well known substitute for taking God’s name in vain”), you could curse the marrow in somebody’s bones, beg them drown in their own whiny tears, and wish the sun into supernova. We did. Oh, we did.
Anger was a muscle and you flexed it. If not, you heard about it: what’s the matter with you? are you weak? are you stupid?
If you live with anger, you know it has mass, you know it has intentions of its own. And you know it cannot be satisfied while you stand. You also know it never thinks ahead, not even for a second.
The winter I was 10, I was forced out of this cycle of reaction. I developed pneumonia and had difficulty recuperating, and talking, sitting upright, caring about much of anything other than the next breath. After a lengthy hospital stay, I was stuck in bed for long weeks at home. Then my ear drums ruptured, and ruptured. And ruptured a third time, a fourth, prolonging convalescence. My parents must have thought I was dying because they took the unprecedented step of renting a television for my bedroom.
The rented TV sat at the foot of my bed blaring on day after day, until I grew so tired of morning cartoons (this was back in the days of Icky Twerp and his Slam Bang Theater—half a day of Looney Tunes and Three Stooges) and the blah-blah-blah talk shows that followed, one day when I was hearing a little too clearly to tolerate another minute of hyuckhyuckyucking, I finally dragged myself out from under the covers, all the way to the foot of the bed (so…they rented the television, but didn’t spring for the remote control…makes perfect My Family sense) and changed the channel. It was by sheer accident that I landed on a show I’d never seen before, unlike anything known to me.
I came upon this new world with high drama in progress. Dynamic dun-dun music played. A softly handsome man in a tight yellow shirt was about to start a war or shoot some sneering, mustachioed guys in metal pantsuits. He was being restrained by these two other guys, both in less tight blue shirts, one who kept saying, “Dammit!” (thrilling) and another who was instantly recognizable as a whole new deal. He was alien—I didn’t need to know anything at all about the show or his character to know that—and he was beautiful.
After a few weeks of watching every episode of the original Star Trek—there were two every weekday and three on Saturday—I became obsessed, developed an urge to reach out in some way, to talk directly to or at or through these characters who were turning my fever baked head around in the most wonderful ways. I had no idea at all that the show had been off the air for years. To me, it was all happening in real time. I asked for, and got, a brand new spiral notebook (more proof the adults in my world were sure I was on my way out). I began writing.
First, I wrote a gushing fan letter. My sister, who shared my room and felt justifiably grudgy about the rented television at the foot of my bed, laughed herself into an asthma attack over the idea that I was such a baby that I thought I could write to a television character. It was the stupidest thing a big girl of 10 had ever done in the history of doing things and only a total numbskull would forget that characters weren’t real.
Then, enlightened and reformed, I tried writing to the real Leonard Nimoy, but I wasn’t sure I knew Leonard Nimoy the way I knew Spock. I couldn’t seem to think of what to say to him. I started having uncomfortable notions about the difference between fiction and the gears and pulleys that form fiction—authors, actors, readers, viewers. Must love reduce to machinery? I would go on for decades trying to answer this question.
Finally, one day, while sitting alone, watching, loving—angst (because Spock and McCoy and Uhura weren’t real) and joy (because I loved them anyway) playing together in close proximity to my heart, I picked up the spiral and starting writing what I was really thinking. Impulse turned into a screen play of twelve long pages, complete with colons after characters’ names and stage direction in parentheses. Yes, Mrs. Cooper, I had been paying attention in Pod 3 Reading Group, when you introduced The Little Beansprout in Two Acts, though I know it looked like I was hiding under my orange poncho (fair enough because I was). I was also listening, storing, and apparently planning.
My script was for Spock, of course, that resolutely solitary soul, the one who thought before he spoke, whose appeal as a role model hid in his elegant reserve. He had such power—he was physically stronger than his human shipmates, even Kirk, intellectually more astute than any character I had ever seen or read or contemplated—in my experience, “smart” was generally an accusation even at school—but here he was, a smart man saving the day by knowing stuff. Still he was gentle in his power. He didn’t hurt anyone or allow others to hurt anyone until he had the whole story, had contemplated right and wrong against criteria larger than the events of a given situation. Spock, Nimoy—himself an intellectual, an artist—as Spock, was mindful of what he said and of how his words, his voice, his aspect shaped the way events around him might unfold.
Leaving one experiential venue for another less appealing, this past Saturday, an indie news site out of Seattle, The Stranger, posted a bloggy opine by a former advisor at the school from which I recently graduated. Nothing wrong with that. I like bloggy opines. I write them. I read them. Some are like medicine, like rain, like wellies for standing in rain. Others, meh.
Note: I’m not posting a link because I really have no desire to push traffic in that direction. If you’re heaps of curious, you can Google The Stranger and find the article on that site by its obvious title.
Now, this particular former advisor was not someone I worked with, but I know people who did, some successfully, others spectacularly not so. Everything doesn’t always work out swimmingly. I graduated, continued to feel love and gratitude toward my own former advisors and forgot all about this guy.
Enter the bloggy opine.
Lidia Yuknavitch has said some great and relatively difficult things about the need for writers to get to that point of writing as therapy and then move beyond it, about intellectualism in contemporary literature, and about the personal value of an academic path to writing. Neil Gaiman has been memed seven ways from five about not letting initial failures to achieve what you want with your writing stop you and about learning from finishing what you start, no matter what. The people who hit barriers and thresholds and potholes and grand effing canyons of yuck-that-reads-like-a-soup-can and keep crossing the blank page barrier are the ones who stand the greatest chance of getting their stories on the page the way they intended. Writers who have achieved unarguable success—commercial, critical, cultural—tend to say similar things about what happens when people stop writing and what might happen when people continue to push into writing, deeper, letter by letter.
The bloggy opine said none of that. It said, summarizing, most people in MFA programs are deluding themselves, teaching them is a rare agony, certain books can be used as a litmus test of who is or is not smart—though looking smart is not necessary (I guess he threw that in because he didn’t want to look too snobby or something); once, a student made him cry with a memoir, but only once, which is significant because that is a clear sign that this student was a “Real Deal”, and finally, student writing has long bored him too much to even be civil about (I’m paraphrasing in that he said student writing bored him and he wasn’t civil about it). Then he made a truly bone headed joke about how he wishes that memoir students writing about abuse, but who have poor grammar skills, should have suffered more, myopia, myopia, ego, myopia.
Okay, that’s more than enough of that.
Power makes people act badly, we know that. But writing is so solitary, so fractal. Who has power, and what even constitutes power? The people who have it know exactly who they are and who they are not and what it looks like.
But there isn’t much of it. Between Amazon, the advent of the million dollar, poorly written, self-published book, the zillion and one literary journals and foundations that can afford to reach out with only good intentions, and the rise of published authors working in academia who are also on food stamps, power is a relative word in the literary world.
When there is only a little power and when someone feels that there isn’t enough to go around and that little drop of power that is or might be theirs is going to have to stretch further, last them longer, conventional wisdom suggests the need to insulate.
Snarky, narcissistic definitions of who can and cannot write, of what success means—and of what foolishness are desire, will, and hard work—become the gate keepers of inside versus outside. Reading that article was like a flashback: Talent is born, odds are that isn’t you, it is me, it’s not you, you’re not real, you don’t know enough, you don’t care enough, I am an authority because I’ve done things, seen things, you are fooling yourself. Who do you think you are?
Who do you think you are? I have heard that before. It’s an old, discordantly catchy song usually performed to strains of “I am more significant than other people.”
Sounds like fear. Reads like anger. Hurts people, excludes people, fails to look ahead at the fallout, and then says, “So what? You deserve to suffer. I hope you drown in your own boo hoo.”
When I was a kid, stuck in bed, watching Leonard Nimoy shape an icon out of eyebrow arches and pauses, I felt like I’d been let into something.
So I wrote a screenplay. I had my sister, who for once was obliging enough (maybe she, too, thought I was fading fast) and found me an envelope or maybe it was just paper glued together in the shape of an envelope, take the screenplay and mail it. I had no address, no concept of where it should go. I think I wrote “To: Star Trek” on the envelope or glued paper.
I remember my mother coming into the room and seeing it, saying, “That’s so stupid, who do you think you are all of a sudden?” And also, “Why are you getting all upset? You’re so stupid to think this is a real thing. You don’t even have an address. That show isn’t even on anymore. And nobody real wants some dumb thing you wrote. And that’s just the truth, honey. If you cry when you hear the truth then that’s just stupider.”
One thing I’ve learned about my mother is that she had very little. She had us to hurt. She had some pretty dresses at one point, but they were lost or she got a little too heavy for them later in life. She had lovely, small, feminine hands—hard as iron, but they looked very petite and precise.
She had looked like a movie star when she was a teenager.
She had once imagined herself the very definition of free—she had a cool job, great clothes, lots of men, a fast car. But then she had a baby. Then she got married. Then, all of us. Then age.
Right up to the last day she had the strength to form words, she did everything in her tiny little sphere of power to keep that power. None of us could ever be successfully young, pretty, free. She made sure we knew that, because if we were, she couldn’t be. It made her feel important and that feeling was all the power she had left.
There is no power in the new literary world. Maybe there wasn’t in the old one, either. The new model is cooperative, diffuse, diverse. Sucky writers who don’t know a thing about the modal tense or how to plug in a comma can self-publish and make a million. Can. Most don’t. But that’s the new model. It’s commerce-based and it isn’t going to visit most of us. And it doesn’t care about the critics or how cool you are. Mormon girls with weird fantasies can be queens in this new order.
Aside from anecdotal windfalls, success in writing is now defined by the privilege of title, invites to events, solicitations to sit on panels, ease of publishing on known web sites, in the “better” lit mags. Teaching writing, like all academic and intellectual models, as well as other modes of service, has lost all its capital—quite literally.
Now there is no reason to get an MFA. The programs are ridiculous, useless, full of wannabes and whiners.
Who was I sending that scribbled thing I call a screenplay to? How dumb.
Students who don’t perform well deserve ridicule because they are just too boring for real writers to endure.
Why are you crying? What a baby. See? You are an idiot. Who did you think you were? The Real Deal?
Some people I know were hurt by the words of this former advisor. Me, no, I’ve heard it before. While power in writing and publishing is so thin, so materially diminished, while it shifts and redistributes, expect more of this kind of thing. Fear is angry, it makes hurt, then it ridicules the injured.
Live long, writers, prosper in ways that scare the shit out of absolutely everyone who would have you give up and then deride you by saying, I never said you should give up, I was just telling the truth.
Here’s a truth: some virtues are reliable. Discretion, acceptance, patience, service, reason, respect, endurance. Look for the people who embody these, but remember that these will probably not be the loudest voices in any crowd. They’ll just be the ones that wake you up, that move you, that sustain you, and that join you as a member of a group rather than as a paragon.
And as for power, when have gates ever held? Ever? When has withholding ever created more of anything?
I hope to live and create in reason. It’s what I’ve always hoped. And I still believe there is plenty of reason and creation to sustain us all.