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2016

In the small town where I live, one of our nicer restaurants often has their satellite radio tuned to a station that plays exclusively soft rock from the 80s and early 90s.  Air Supply.  Foreigner.  A little Journey or, if we’re really lucky, solo Steve Perry.  But there’s one song that seems to come on every time we eat there, one song that causes my wife to reach across the table, grab my hand and whisper, “Don’t sing.  Don’t sing.  Don’t sing.  I mean it.”

 

The song I’m talking about is Chicago’s song “Look Away,” which a quick Internet search tells me was written by Diane “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” Warren.  I didn’t know this until just ten minutes ago, but I can’t say I’m surprised.  Like every other Diane Warren song I know, “Look Away” expresses its ideas about love in rather obvious, sentimental ways.  The song is written from the point of view of a young man whose ex-girlfriend—with whom he still has a friendship—calls to tell him about her new love.  In fact, the lead vocalist (whose name is not Peter Cetera) opens the song with the observation, “When you called me up this morning/ Told me about the new love you’d found/ I said I’m happy for you/ I’m really happy for you.”  Of course, things aren’t really that simple; as it turns out, our speaker is still in love with his former paramour/ current friend, but he can’t possibly act on those feelings.  For some reason.  So he assures her that he’s “fine,” but then admits that “sometimes [he] just pretend[s].”  In the chorus he tells her:  “If you see me walking by/ And the tears are in my eyes/ Look away, baby, look away… Don’t look at me/ I don’t want you to see me this way.”

 

This is not a particularly good song.  In fact, I don’t think it’s very good at all.  But I love it anyway, and feel the urge to sing along with not-Peter Cetera every time it comes on.  This desire has nothing to do with Diane Warren’s craft or not-Peter Cetera’s singing, and has everything to do with the memories this song evokes for me.

 

Imagine, if you will, your humble narrator as a 7th-grade boy.  In the dimly-lit gym, wearing his nicest slacks and a shirt with buttons, watching—sadly—as the love of his life smiled her metallic smile at or rested her permed head upon the shoulder of… well, that doofus she was in love with.  They slow-danced awkwardly, while the young me stood off to the side, heart breaking, while not-Peter Cetera assured his own love “I’m really happy for you” even though he was dying on the inside as surely as I was.  Yes, I thought, this song must have been written specifically for me.

I know that this sounds like a bad memory, but as a disciple of Joan Didion, I agree with her that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”  And the truth is, I kind of find that super-intense, comically angst-y  12-year-old good company.  I like that even now, after decades and other relationships have reshaped how I understand love and romance, I can still remember a time when I was innocent and naïve enough to believe that I could find a type of personal truth in such a cheesy song.

 

I’ve found that most people have such a song—a song whose opening bars can transport them back to a specific moment in their lives.  In fact, some of us have several.  So in my creative nonfiction classes, I begin the semester with something I call The Music and Memory Exercise.  First, I have them read Hope Edelman’s “Bruce Springsteen and the Story of Us” and Bob Cowser Jr.’s “By a Song.” We discuss the way Edelman describes the Springsteen-dominated “soundtrack” of her late adolescence, and how Cowser finds solace at a difficult time through  the music that transports him back to a time of innocence and protection.  Then, I tell my own story about young Bill Bradley, alone at the dance in the gym, and how old William Bradley loves a song he doesn’t really like because of the way it tethers him to that sad little boy.

 

And then, of course, I ask the students to write the story of their own song and the memories it evokes in a mini-essay of 3-5 pages.  We usually read their essays out loud in class, a nice icebreaker for the beginning of the semester.  In the eight years I’ve been teaching creative nonfiction writing, I have never had a student find this exercise difficult to complete.  Even the concerned student who corners me at the end of the first day of class and admits in a panic, “There’s nothing interesting about me to write about” gets into this assignment.  It’s an enjoyable way to inspire reflection, and it assures the student that we all have experiences and a point of view worth expressing in essay and memoir writing.

 

So, anybody else have an interesting—or, preferably, embarrassing—song that inspires such reflection?  Leave a comment if you do, and I’ll tell you all about the “late 80s/early 90s rap and hip hop” playlist I have on my iPod (needless to say—yeah, I totally have Vanilla Ice’s song about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on there).

 

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on January 12, 2012.]]

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching creative writing is finding new ways to break students out of their routines, getting them to look at their world and describe it a little differently, a little slant. This semester, I gave my introductory students an assignment, based on an exercise of John Gardner’s, in which they wrote 250-word sentences that might appear in a story. The assignment, I hoped, would make unavoidable a deep consideration of details, clarity, pacing, and of course mechanics. It gave them fits, in the best sense—but in the end they cooked up some doozy prose, also in the best sense. In fact, some of the best writing all semester was contained in these long, long sentences. I suspect that’s because when building and wrestling a sentence of that length, students can’t help focusing on the parts and the whole simultaneously. They see that form is content, that punctuation carries meaning, and that this sentence (and, by extension, all sentences) demands nothing less than our most considered attention.

 

I’m going to use that assignment again.

 

Next semester, I also plan to spring a “radio drama” assignment on my upper-level fiction workshop. I’m thinking that students would work in pairs, create a drama that is five minutes long, with nothing but dialogue and sound effects. No voiceover. My hope is that the assignment will cause them to pay close attention to dialogue and narrative structure. It should also be fun. We’ll play the finished five-minute recordings in class, maybe burn CDs with everyone’s work—an audio anthology of radio dramas. Perfect for long car rides.

 

So my question, as this semester draws to a close, is this: What have you got up your sleeve for the spring?

 

[[This post originally appeared on Litbits on December 28, 2011.]]

On social media, every post is an impulse towards connection. Whether you’re seeking likes, sharing new information, or looking for a discussion, everything we do on social media is in conversation with the people logging in around us. Every part of our digital footprint is a micronarrative that could be explored more. The beginning of an idea. The tip of the iceberg.

 

Author Jonathan Franzen, in his introduction to the 2016 Best American Essays, questions the essay’s current existence in relation to social media: “Is the essay becoming an endangered species? Or is it a species that has so fully invaded the larger culture that it no longer needs its original niche?”

 

The long-form essay is endangered, competing with the 140-character flash narratives of our lives, brief blips that could be investigated, but are usually left to collect digital dust, to pile beneath the other posts that will push them further down into a void we’ll likely never see again.

 

But we need to explore these impulses, blips we send out from our radars, now more than ever. Anna Quindlen, New York Times columnist, says that “first person is the connective tissue, and we live in a world where there is too little genuine connective tissue.”

 

If the essay is a writer's mind grappling on the page with a question they cannot answer, we need the essay now more than ever to understand the world around us, and the people we interact with. If the essay encapsulates live moments, then we need to essay in-depth, at length, not write one-offs that sink to the bottom of the news feed.

 

It’s no surprise that we live partially online, most of us carrying around Smartphones in our pockets or purses, checking them over a hundred times a day. We are craving a connection we’re still missing out on.

 

And it’s no surprise to find that, like theorist Peter Brooks suggests, we live in “anticipation of retrospection,” where we are always looking forward to look back. Charles Comey, in his essay "Against Honeymoons" writes of this very sensation--the looking forward to look back: "The strange thing about a honeymoon is that even while it's happening, it's already lived as a story. We sit inside it saying, ‘We will have been here.’" It’s almost as if we are posting blurbs or curated snapshots of our lives with the sole purpose or intention of remembering all of this later, rather than to examine the present life we are living in more closely, and at greater length.

 

We look forward to retrospection, reflection, or reminiscing, and sometimes this anticipation preoccupies our mind in the very moment we should be experiencing the hike up the mountain, the view of the sun melting everything around it. Instead, we grab our smartphones and start taking photos--of the sky, of our faces with the sky, of our bodies in front of said sky--so we will remember it later, and so others will know we were here. And during all of this picking and choosing of how to make ourselves look like we aren't trying super hard to be cool, easy, and free, we are missing the quiet shifting of clouds, the insects trilling, and everything else we should be looking at.

 

Comey continues: "Each moment slips through his fingers; everything is already over." The essay exists for many reasons, but one is to catch what’s happening in the present, what has happened in the past, and what could happen in the future, and to share this with readers who could make meaning, could relate, and could connect over this shared matter, the idea that’s been turned over and over in the writer’s mind.