Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Yes, Michael?

"Yes, Michael?"

I'm expecting an insightful comment from one of my youngest creative nonfiction writing students. We'd been discussing a rather stressful piece by David Mamet, "The Rake," a well-crafted recounting of physical and emotional abuse doled out to Mamet and his sister, calmly and systematically, by their mother and stepfather. Each time I sink into Mamet's words, my heart freezes as I stand a helpless witness to the thud of a slender back against a hooked shelf, the sharp crack of a brush against a cheekbone. the pool of blood amassing in a dinner plate. I wonder what the students think.

"I was just thinking..."

"Yes, Michael?"

"Well, I just remembered that if I don't call the police in the next ten minutes, there may be a warrant out for my arrest."

"I guess you'd better go call the police, then."

Blushing a bit, he bolts from the classroom, only to return a few minutes later with a smile.

"Are you going to be arrested?" I ask.


"Is this for the parking ticket you got in the Morgantown Mall parking lot?"

"Yes," again with a grin.

So,this is what I know about Michael. He got a ticket in the Morgantown Mall parking lot for failing to stop at the end of a traffic aisle. The ticket was a big one. He might have been arrested, but he wasn't.

Sometimes he looks uncomfortable in his seat, his long frame compacted into a sharp angular configuration of beige plastic and shiny metal legs. He moves around a lot, probably futilely seeking a better position. Sometimes I worry that my words aren't making their way across the classroom to him, getting stuck in the heads of the girls who sit in front of him. Are my words not interesting enough, either professorly or creative-writerly enough? Am I repeating what he already knows? Have I not blown enough helium into my ideas for maximum byoyancy? Maybe I'm not enunciating clearly, dropping a syllable here and there, so the entire message can't reach him. It's possible that he's a poet, and creative nonfiction leaves him cold. Then again, perhaps these questions are more about me and my rambling insecurities than about him.

For he is a friendly, earnest student. We all look toward him expectantly when he speaks. What might Michael say?

Yesterday, we all learned something else about Michael. We were workshopping student drafts, and I asked "So, what are you thinking, Michael?"

"What am I thinking? What am I thinking?" Pinking inward from the sides of his face, he said "Well, actually I'm thinking that my computer has 17% battery, and it's about to die any minute."

He did go on to share his useful thoughts about the piece of writing we were discussing--stopping in the middle to show us how his computer screen had indeed gone blank, but none of what he said was nearly as interesting to me as contemplating the places Michael's mind travels to while his body is sitting in room 321.

Listening to Annie Dillard

Written after reading a passage from Annie Dillard's On the Writing Life to a creative nonfiction writing class.

When I write, I often do stick to the path, careful not to step on the cracks, to break my mother's back--carefully excavating, mindful not to nick the sidewalls or hit the unstable pocket that will cause the cave-in, the moral collapse of what I know to be true.

Isn't it better to wear my headlamp and carry a backpack full of emergency measures for stopping the holes than to worry, than to turn down--fall down--the shaft with no light?

Light keeps me steady when I follow the direct, marked path. Darkness plunges me into uncertainty--do I turn left or right?--and my words become clumsy in their blindness.

If I stay centered in the floodlights, I can brick my path with molded words, all pointing dutifully to my predetermined discovery. My writer's soul is safe, moving in that predictable pattern, and I will have written well enough.