Education

The Juncture of Verisimilitude and Me

This essay, The Juncture of Verisimilitude and Me, was originally written for the Teachers & Writers Collaborative’s Bechtel Prize competition in 2014. The essay didn’t win, and it will probably never appear in an education journal because its basis isn’t data-driven, which is the current vogue in that field. (I’ve had writing-education articles rejected for that reason alone, so I know.) In it, I addressed the subject of providing a liberal education to young people through the mechanisms of reading and writing.


The Anglo-Saxon poets and monks who, over centuries, produced the epic poem “Beowulf” offer us a long-standing and easily recognizable example of how human nature doesn’t change much: people demonize what they don’t understand, and they also wait, suffering and impatient, on a hero to save them from whatever seems insurmountable. In the poem, the descriptive beauty of long-gone techniques is spent on creating a disgustingly evil and monstrous Grendel that kills and eats the otherwise-happy Danes out of sheer hatred for goodness. The monster returns to King Hrothgar’s mead-hall for “twelve winters,” until the hero Beowulf, a superman greater and more fearless than anyone has seen, comes to destroy the monster and end this constant menace with seeming ease.

Beowulf and Grendel fight an archetypal battle of good versus evil, somewhat like the ones we see in current computer-generated action films. After Beowulf has ripped off his arm, Grendel flees to die in his swampy lair, the unknown place where evil resides. On the morning after he is defeated, teeming ships full of neighboring people come to celebrate and to revel in the victory of order and righteousness over this mysterious and murderous malice. The evil menace has been subdued, and righteous order has been restored.

“Isn’t that just like people?” I ask my students. The sun hasn’t even risen very high on the morning after the deadly nighttime brawl, and people who weren’t helping the long-suffering Danes over those twelve years are almost immediately showing up in droves for the big party— now that the danger is over. The students break into furious conversations all over the room, nodding at their friends; they know these latecomers, the fair weather friends. We all do.

Roughly twelve-hundred years later, the American novelist John Gardner turns the tables, and we hear from the monster in Grendel. This time, a surly and growling narrative fleshes out a desperately curious, near-human creature trying to find his place in the world. His disgusting mother tries awkwardly to show him maternal love and affection. Grendel’s encounters with the bumbling Hrothgar show us not a tormented ruler, but a superstitious imbecile in a series of pissing contests with other local clans. Spending his time harassing animals and eavesdropping on a blind poet, Grendel is dismayed by the pettiness and futility of everything that he encounters, and his murderous rampage is urged forward by an even more cynical, treasure-hoarding dragon who teaches him how useless and expendable human lives really are.

Here, Grendel is no longer the demonic creature senselessly killing and destroying otherwise worthy and good people; by the end, he has been utterly defeated and will die as The Other, misunderstood and alone. Knowing that his time has come, his final enigmatic outcry is still reaching out to mankind: “‘Poor Grendel’s had an accident,’ I whisper, ‘so may you all.’”

Writers can bring us any version of the story that they want to bring us. The scops and monks who wove his short epic in England in the eighth through eleventh centuries had a very different purpose than an American novelist writing in the years after the modern Civil Rights movement. Their commonality though involves their efforts toward verisimilitude. The scops of “Beowulf” wanted those Anglo-Saxon barbarians to buy into their tale, to nod their heads and say, “Yep, that’s how it happened.” In a more sophisticated portrayal that invokes some sympathy for The Other, Gardner tells a more likely tale than just “he hated us for no reason.”

Writers shoot for verisimilitude, each in their own way. It’s why we write: to convince people to climb aboard our trains of thought and come along on our journey.

In Montgomery, Alabama, a city full of its own one-sided stories, I teach creative writing and twelfth-grade English at an arts magnet high school. In an environment still charged with the electricity of the Civil Rights movement, we are still wading through the mucky residue of its aftermath, even though the major events occurred fifty or more years ago. The modern Montgomery – not the one you would recognize from classic movement-era photographs – is a paradigm of late twentieth-century re-segregation and white flight, with a splash of multiculturalism that has arrived in the form of Hispanic laborers and South Korean automakers.

The city-county public school system is predominantly African-American and is also rife with the poverty and neglect that bring on Title I distinction; the plethora of local private schools have student bodies that are vast majority-white. However, the selective and thus often-maligned magnet schools are difficult beacons of harmony and balance. Our school is a success story, with placements in the rankings of US News &World Report’s and Newsweek’s best high schools and a better-than-average racial balance.

In our daily situation at the school, the teachers and students desperately need common ground, because outside the fences various narratives compete for our attention. The school’s significant racial, ethnic, socio-economic and religious diversity exists within a city-wide backdrop of black-white racial politicking and paranoid xenophobia. My answer as a teacher of creative writing and literature for college-bound teenagers utilizes the concepts of universality and archetypes to articulate our greatest needs: perceiving our common humanity and having basic human sympathy, cultural features for which Alabama is not known. Alabama’s national legacy is symbolized by celebratory treatments of the ill-fated Confederate States of America, Walker Evans’ photographs of dour sharecroppers, George Wallace’s vehement rants, and newsreels of attack dogs and fire hoses unleashed on peaceful protestors. Yet, as a teacher, I know that we can do better, and the study of reading and writing literature offers us an in-road into that improvement.

Taking the National Council of Teachers of English tenet, “Writing is a tool for thinking,” I use writing to point my students in the direction of transcending a petty focus on difference. At our school, we have our own post-Civil Rights dilemmas, and the lessons in literature – both that we read and that we write – create a space for us to contemplate the commonality that exists within disparate folkways, skin tones, accents, religions, sexual orientations, and styles of dress. Setting aside race as an obvious distinction, even in the Bible Belt, we have fair numbers of non-Christian students, including atheists and agnostics, among our four-hundred-plus often-nonconformist arts students.

Recognizing common ground by comparing our own realities to the texts we encounter and create allows young people to connect themselves to the human race. I remind my students that those pathetic, smack-talking Danes in “Beowulf” felt as helpless against the “fiend” that attacked them in their sleep as we felt against al Qaeda following the September 11th attacks, and as helpless as we feel now while we wonder if the next school shooting will occur where we are. These “demons” – Grendel, terrorists and school shooters – whose motives we fail to perceive, or even know, disallow any ability to make meaningful sense of motives or goals, leaving us to assume that they are in fact evil. Former president George W. Bush insisted to a frightened nation that members of al Qaeda hate us because they despise our happiness and freedom, just as the scop of “Beowulf” insisted the same about Grendel. However, thoughtful encounters with The Other, handled through reading and writing, can allows a more altruistic world view.

Experiences with the arts – and I include creative writing and literature in “the arts” – are proven to engage students with a fundamental altruistic empathy— something closer to actual truth. Because it is truly a “tool for thinking,” writing provides opportunities for contemplating lives unlike our own. We all know that difference exists, but mere tolerance of difference is not enough in this new global culture. Acceptance of difference is what we must achieve— not hegemony, but equilibrium. As a creative writing and English language arts educator, I have that goal as an underlying concept for the way that I teach. The American writer Henry Miller used to call himself a “citizen of the world,” and in the twenty-first century that’s what we all must become.

In my English classes, we try to figure out where the common ground exists and how to occupy it. We look for what Grendel really was before hyperbole contorted him, and we try to figure out if the Wife of Bath was a cougar like the ones on Desperate Housewives. We ask where Christopher Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd” went so wrong that it made Sir Walter Raleigh have her to refuse his proposal of love in “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” We delve into Scottish history to learn enough to do better than labeling Lady Macbeth as evil, and we ask ourselves why VS Naipaul chose to use domestic abuse to comic effect in Miguel Street.

In my creative writing classes, we dwell on the intricacies of human nature. We study Chris Offutt’s short story “Sawdust” about a high school dropout in rural Kentucky and Nikki Giovanni’s poem “We Real Cool” about an unnamed set of over-confident dropouts. We watch films and study screenwriting: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Blacula and Rocky. Alongside classic and modern works of literature, we read about politics in The New Yorker and about economics in The Atlantic. We read Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” and we discuss whether a writer who is Black must be a Black writer. We connect parallels between things as seemingly disparate sociological studies and literary characterization. And then we write!

Students in my creative writing classes read to learn what other people have to say and write to find out what they have to say. Literary study and creative writing invite these explorations of human motives, often of people totally unlike ourselves. Writing literature and writing about literature both require students to ask themselves, why would this person do that? And moreover, why would an author choose to have them do  that? Writing assignments coupled with open discussions of literary works allow students to open up to Derrida’s ideas about the subjective nature of representation and meaning, the same ideas raised in IA Richards’ Practical Criticism: we may all be reading the same text, but what we take from it changes from person to person. The empathy and altruism required of writers are rooted in the ability to realize that other people also have feelings and ideas too, and to obtain these necessary traits writers must think more like John Gardner than like the eighth-century scop.

Yet, this division of us-versus-them always manages to creep in. Use a term like evil or the enemy or them or the Other, whatever— the nondescript pejorative they pervades so much of life’s antagonism. Writers, critics and teachers must stand up to self-righteous pronouncements of this assumed us-versus-them. I only accept ideas in class discussions that can be backed up with tangible evidence, and anytime the shadowy they appears, I require anyone who conjures that notion to identify the unnamed culprit, even if it means questioning their most fundamental assumptions about life and society.

Writing teachers have to support the open-minded willingness to comprehend the actuality of a situation and we have to discourage superstition and blind fear. A dangerous assumption that young people can fall prey to is: if no one refuted me, then I must be correct. Callousness and division are the enemies of all things we as human beings value: peace, security, prosperity. So many horrors and atrocities have been committed and allowed simply because empathy and altruism were absent: slavery, genocide, war. The greatest gifts that teachers can give students, which the students in turn offer to society, are lessons that encourage “the milk of humankind-ness.”

For all of our differences, and even despite our seeming desire for xenophobia, people are very similar in many ways. Literature shows us that. For example, in the 1300s, Geoffrey Chaucer gave us a literary patchwork of off-handed indictments of corruption and abuses of power perpetrated by clergymen and aristocrats, which are similar to modern portrayals laid out on Saturday Night Live!. Will people still be looking at SNL six or seven hundred years from now, like we still look at The Canterbury Tales? I don’t know, maybe. The boundaries of the canon are constantly shifting!

Over the last twenty years, in literature and writing classes, this strong shift demanding the inclusion of varied multicultural voices in reading lists and syllabi has been met by a counter-movement of traditionalists who defend their canonical classics with the admonition that including writers of color is not nearly as important as including good writers. These tensions over representation and attention are rooted in time and space, those unavoidable physical aspects of nature: we can only spend so many hours in a day reading, and with only so many days in a school year, whose works will we read during that limited time? What messages will we expose ourselves and our students to?

In the introduction to his 1994 book The Western Canon, Harold Bloom decries the politicizing of literary criticism, pleading for the European-based aesthetic school of thought to prevail; he writes in opposition to modern multiculturalists and theorists who remind us that all actions have political ramifications. Is it even possible to leave our politics outside as we discuss something as human as literature? I say no. To me, another important question is: do we have to choose between politics and aesthetics? I say no to that, too.

In teaching young people about creating literature, I tend to side with critic and novelist Albert Murray who, in his 1997 acceptance speech for receiving the Langston Hughes Medal, wrote:

[. . .] the ambition to produce world-class literature involves the matter of processing or stylizing idiomatic folk and pop particulars, which is to say extending, elaborating and refining folk and pop material up to the level of fine art.[1]

Just before this passage, Murray stated that after coming to understand literature as something more than “academic exercises” he recognized what made great literature great— not its European roots or its politics of white privilege, but its ability to make the personal into the universal, which is what I want students to see when they read and what I want students to attempt when they write: verisimilitude.

So, do teachers have to abandon the canonical greats in favor of a modernistic sense of relevance? No, we have to locate and discuss indications of our common humanity in great works of literature, and we as writers must have that common humanity in our works. If students are only taught to see themselves in the works of writers of their own skin color, then that racialized impulse could deprive them of seeing themselves as more than their skin color, as human. We should never allow immediate temporal truths to replace an acknowledgment that we are as human as millions of generations in thousands of nations that came before us. What Bloom’s argument fails to acknowledge is the necessity of finding new jewels among the surging waves of modern writers (of all skin colors). The task never was to replace old gods with new ones. The task is a mission of never-ending discovery supported by a sense of tradition.

These discussions in the classroom only serve to enlighten the students involved in them. I want my students to see that the despair enunciated by Macbeth in his “Life’s but a walking shadow” speech may well be the same emotions felt by Okonkwo when he commits suicide at the end of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart. Or if they read Dai Sijie’s novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which fictionalizes the lives of two boys in Chinese re-education in the 1970s, or Alain-Fournier’s Le Gran Meaulnes, which has the reader following events at an isolated French boarding school in the late nineteenth century, students can see that, no matter where or when, boys will be boys.

If we are ever going to achieve anything that even resembles the world that we hope to live in one day, tolerance, empathy and altruism will be required character traits for writers who believe in a common good that ingratiates “mostpeople,” to borrow a term from EE Cummings. Xenophobia and cynicism must be addressed head-on by writers. Selfishness and the common good cannot be bedfellows. Business leaders, some politicians, and even a few writers declare that what is good for the individual is good for society, but the insistent repetition of their proclamations won’t make that rhetoric true.

Teachers of writing and literature have to proffer the integral lessons about how we live together. The discipline of history provides insights into broad trends that regard humanity from a hot-air balloon in the sky. Psychology and sociology survey how we behave as individuals and as groups, respectively. And literature gets down on the ground with the people, delving into the inexplicable and the un-quantifiable. The writers of poems and stories are the ones that cultures look to for the best expressions of their true values.

Reading and writing literary works offers young people the opportunity to grow intellectually and emotionally by setting aside inherent short-sighted selfishness, allowing themselves to be engrossed in the depth of feeling in a story or poem or play. Many of them resist, certainly, but who among us hasn’t resisted personal growth? For example, tt the beginning of The Tempest, the great Prospero has set up his enemies for revenge, but by the play’s final act, he has grown as a man. His course changes to one of forgiveness when the enslaved spirit Ariel remarks on the men’s piteous and frightened condition: “. . . if you now beheld them, your affections would become tender;” Prospero replies: “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” Shakespeare, argued to be the greatest writer the world has ever known, has his last dramatic offering to end with the lesson that eschewing selfishness in favor altruism is the proper attitude for a great and wise man.

In writing literary works, I ask my students to venture into the same difficult territory. I ask them to engage what confuses them, what annoys them, and what makes them smile. Wanting more than simple plots about trite affairs between fickle people who are easily swayed into bad behavior, I ask my students to write about love as they know it so far. I ask them to consider their families, their friends, their education, their religion, and then to use writing to delve into the most difficult questions, to play God for a little while.

Even though funding cuts that eliminate “non-necessity” programs and courses are the modern reality, writing and literature courses are utterly necessary. I keep an Amos Kennedy print on my classroom door that reads, in big block letters: “THE PURPOSE OF THE WRITER IS TO KEEP CIVILIZATION FROM DESTROYING ITSELF. CAMUS.” The poster is one part homage to one of my favorite books, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, and it also reminds everyone who passes by my door that writers are our most important cultural guardians.

Near the end of each school year, I conduct a lesson during which I ask my younger students to list all of the things in our culture that writers produce, even in the early stages of production, things that wouldn’t exist without writing. We begin slowly with books and magazines, then we get to movies and TV shows . . . and eventually we reach commercials, websites, reference works, news broadcasts, instructional manuals, pamphlets, brochures. I do this partly to show them all of the career opportunities in writing – somebody has to write all that stuff – but also to show them the immense influence of writers. What would life be like if everything that writers write were gone? Many of them understand; there wouldn’t be much left.

Many of my students won’t go on to be writers in the American sense that we define people by how they earn money to pay bills. However, I hope that many of them will live as writers; I hope they continue to write – and moreover, to think – no matter what jobs they hold. However, the influence that I can have on them during this four-year period of their lives – or for my English students, one-year – is to give them the timeless lessons in great literature: we’re all in this together; we all struggle and suffer and try to make sense of incomprehensible things; we all have joys and sorrows, and both come and go; we all want things to go in our favor.  We, as writers and readers alike, are all seeking the juncture of verisimilitude and ourselves, that point where we know that our lives have meaning and purpose and where we realize our own place in the long, grand traditions of humanity.

[1] Murray, Albert. “Context and Definition.” From the Briarpatch File. New York: Pantheon, 2001.

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