Relationships, resistance, AWP

This year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference vibrated with emotional content, resistance, persistence, and truths through facts and lived experiences–a host of perspectives and a sense of excitement enhanced by the host city: Washington, D.C., where the recent transition to a new government administration has been controversial, particularly among citizens who value social justice, education, the environment, and the arts. Some citizens feel that they are themselves outsiders, outliers, critical observers of the social norm, square pegs, immigrants, misfits, name your descriptor here:_______.

Maybe no surprise, but many of those who are not-quite-the-social-norm also happen to be writers.Adversaries 1

About 15,000 writers, teachers of writing, publishers of writing, promoters of writing, and lovers of writing showed up in D.C.; and I’m guessing a very large percentage of us feel we have, in one way or another, a little trouble “fitting in” with society and social expectations. We happen to write, also. What gives good writing its jazz is that there are zillions of fascinating, off-beat, marvelously creative perspectives a human being can write on just about anything.

One sense that came through to me as I listened to authors and teachers is that writing is almost automatically resistance. Resistance usually connotes against, as against a “negative” behavior, objective, rule, law, or person, for example. We can resist silence, though, and silence on its own is not negative; it is only something to resist in relation to an event or law that might be better spoken about. We write in relation to, and often that looks like against. But it isn’t that black and white (of course). Even when the ink is near-black and the page is near-white and the resistance feels like “writer’s block”–resisting the very act of revealing, speaking, communication.

Relation makes resistance and writing happen. Relationships make community and communication develop. Relationships connect the virtual world, and relationships link the long-dead writer to the living reader in a quiet room or on a crowded train.

~

This past week, thousands of (largely introverted) writers convened in a convention center in the nation’s Capitol; several square blocks hummed with interconnections that spanned far beyond those city streets, those bland conventional multi-storied buildings…into the social world and social media, into the range of the arts, the hearts of fellow human beings. The crowds could be overwhelming, but the energy was palpable and exciting (even to this introvert, who did need to retreat from the throngs now and then–thank goodness for “quiet lounges” and hotel rooms).

Did I mention the slightly off-the-cuff passion and stirring intensity of Azar Nafisi‘s speech, and the resonant coincidence of how relevant it was to have a naturalized American citizen, born and educated in Iran, as a keynote speaker? [The decision to have her speak was made over a year in advance of the conference.] Did I mention the honest and often amusing conversation between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Adichie, who is a dynamic one-person cultural ambassador, much as Nafisi is? What about poet Terrance Hayes‘ brilliant alliterative rhythmic sonnets that were sometimes-brutal take-downs of a president whose motives and values he mightily questions? Did I mention Rita Dove‘s transcendent reading? My discovery of a hugely famous Pakistani writer, Intizar Husain? Marvelous writing on The Body Electric, in three excellent essays–why, yes, I could say more, but I’m tired now and “still processing,” and post-conference life resumes…

~

Given some long-running, almost chronic adversity the beloveds and I are facing, before I close I want to give a thumbs-up to Emily McDowell. Emily McDowell’s line of Empathy Cards are really worth looking at when you have no words.

Sometimes, there isn’t a card for that.

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Do we change? Can we?

I have blogged about the Myers-Briggs personality inventory–a tool that may or may not be useful to psychologists, depending on whom you talk to. Because my father used the inventory in his studies of people in groups, he “experimented” with his family, administering the inventory to the five of us. I was 17 years old the first time I took the survey; my type was INFP (introvert, intuitive, feeling, perceptive), heavy on the I and the F. Has that “type” changed over the years? The “brief” version of the test now shows me moving in the last category, still P but slightly more toward J (judgment). That makes sense, as I have had to learn how to keep myself more organized and ready for difficult decisions. After all, I am a grownup now.

The personality type does not indicate, however, what sort of thinker a person is. Certain types may tend to be more “logical” in their approach to problem-solving, and others tending toward the organized or the intuitive, but what do we mean by those terms? For starters, logical. Does that mean one employs rhetoric? That one thinks through every possibility, checking for fallacies or potential outcomes? Or does it mean a person simply has enough metacognition to wait half a second before making a decision?

Furthermore, if personality type can change over time (I’m not sure the evidence convinces me that it can), can a person’s thinking style change over time? Barring, I suppose, drastic challenges to the mind and brain such as stroke, multiple concussion damage, PTSD, chemical substance abuse, or dementia, are we so hard-wired or acculturated in our thinking that we cannot develop new patterns?

There are many studies on such hypotheses; the evidence, interpretations, and conclusions often conflict. Finally, we resort to anecdote. Our stories illustrate our thinking and describe which questions we feel the need to ask.

~ A Story ~

high school.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-large

This year, I did the previously-unthinkable: I attended a high school reunion.

We were the Class of 1976, and because our city was directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia–the Cradle of Liberty! The home of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall!–the bicentennial year made us somehow special.

Not much else made us special. Our town was a blue-collar suburb of Philadelphia, a place people drove through to get to the real city across the river, a place people drove through to get from Pennsylvania to the shore towns. Our athletics were strong, our school was integrated (about 10%  African-American), people had large families and few scholastic ambitions. Drug use was common among the student population, mostly pills and pot. There were almost 600 students in the class I graduated with, although I was not in attendance for the senior year–that is a different story.

But, my friend Sandy says, “We were scrappy.” She left town for college and medical school, became a doctor, loves her work in an urban area. “No one expected much of us, so we had to do for ourselves,” she adds, “And look where we are! The people here at the reunion made lives for themselves because they didn’t give up.”

It is true that our town did not offer us much in the way of privilege or entitlement, and yet many of us developed a philosophy that kept us at work in the world and alive to its challenges. The majority of the graduates stayed in the Delaware Valley region, but a large minority ventured further. Many of these folks did not head to college immediately, but pursued higher education later on in their lives; many entered military service and received college-level or specialized training education through the armed forces.

ann1975-76?

Does this young woman look logical to you?

I wandered far from the area mentally, emotionally, and physically; but then, I was always an outlier. One friend at the reunion told me that she considered me “a rebel,” a label that astonishes me. I thought of myself as a daydreamer and shy nonconformist, not as a rebel! Another friend thanked me for “always being the logical one” who kept her out of serious trouble. It surprises me to think of my teenage self as philosophical and logical. When one considers the challenges of being an adolescent girl in the USA, however, maybe I was more logical than most.

I find that difficult to believe, but I am willing to ponder it for awhile, adjusting my memories to what my long-ago friends recall and endeavoring a kind of synthesis between the two.

~

The story is inevitably partial, incomplete, possibly ambiguous. Has my thinking changed during the past 40 years? Have my values been challenged so deeply they have morphed significantly? Have I developed a different personality profile type? Are such radical changes even possible among human beings, despite the many transformation stories we read about and hear in our media and promote through our mythologies?

How would I evaluate such alterations even if they had occurred; and who else besides me could do a reasonable assessment of such intimate aspects of my personal, shall we say, consciousness? Friends who have not seen me in 40 years? A psychiatrist? My parents? A philosopher? It seems one would have to create one’s own personal mythology, which–no doubt–many of us do just to get by.

I have so many questions about the human experience. But now I am back in the classroom, visiting among the young for a semester…and who can tell where they will find themselves forty years from now? I hope they will make lives for themselves, and not give up.

 

 

Quiet earthiness

The beloved life partner of a long-time friend was interred in a green burial today, a glorious May morning full of flowers (she loved gardening…); and I find myself with little to say.

It’s been that way for the past two weeks. Not exactly writer’s block, as I have in fact drafted several poems, but an extreme sense of turning-inward. My nature is reflective–I’ve always fallen into the introvert category (INFP for those who are familiar with the Myers-Briggs assessment)–but my job requires pretty constant interaction with other people, students and colleagues for the most part, and quite a bit of listening and talking. I enjoy my job and find it rewarding; but the stressful weeks just before exams, when term papers are due, can be challenging for a person whose inclination is to read books and putter in the dirt.

I planted seeds in the earth, and picked flowers. And then placed flowers on a coffin woven of reeds which was lowered into the earth.

Returning home the quiet overcame me. I’ve been reading poetry today instead of the Sunday New York Times.

Also, I’ve been reading books on “good death” and “mindful dying,” and the guidance of some sensitive and experienced authors seems appropriate and grounded.

But grief is hard. It’s probably one reason we invented philosophy, religion, and poetry.

Shadblow, also known as serviceberry.

Shadblow, also known as serviceberry.

One of my go-to anthologies for sorrow is Pinsky’s The Handbook of Heartbreak, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post. In addition, I opened Christian Wiman’s book Every Riven Thing at random and came upon his poem “From a Window“–

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving…

 

The poem comforted me (and I read other poems today, by other poets, that also comforted me). This one ends with the following stanzas:

 

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

 

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow

 

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,

 

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

 

~
The joy comes in, somehow, through the quiet and the dirt and the trees.

AWP conference 2013

I am heading up to Boston next week with about nine thousand other writers, writer-educators, writer-publishers, academics, and business people. The annual Associated Writing Programs conference will be in session March 6-10. I posted about the conference briefly last year...and last year’s conference introduced me to Brian Boyd’s work on cognition and storytelling. So I am hopeful that this year’s programs and panels will prove equally enlightening.

The conference offers a chance to meet or at least hear some of my favorite writers and to talk with interesting colleagues. Best of all, there are thousands upon thousands of books and literary magazines to browse. If I feel shy, I can interact with books at the Bookfair and “meet” my fellow writers through their polished texts instead of face-to-face (or body-to-body in the packed bar). The main problem with any event of this kind is the lack of places for introverts to regain equilibrium. At AWP, there are quite a few introverts; and people tend to claim a spot by a window, balcony, or corner somewhere in the conference area and send out “don’t disturb me, I’m recharging” body-language signals. Or they eat alone in the restaurant without looking too uncomfortable about the status of solo diner.

Writers understand.

~

Lori A. May offers her insights on the conference here, with a focus on people who are considering graduate school programs. I will be participating in a panel on that topic: the Low-Residency MFA. My main interests, however, remain bibliophile-oriented: discovering poets whose work I haven’t encountered before, finding new books by favorite poets, learning who is editing which long-running journals, and finding new journals to peruse.

By contrast, here’s a lovely, very funny article by Kay Ryan that appeared in Poetry magazine in 2005. The second paragraph sets the tone:

Once, when I was about twenty-five and not yet entirely aware of the extremity of my unclubbability, I did try to go to a writers conference. Thirty minutes into the keynote address I had a migraine. It turns out I have an aversion to cooperative endeavors of all sorts. I couldn’t imagine making a play or movie, for instance; so many people involved. I don’t like orchestral music. I don’t like team sports. I love the solitary, the hermetic, the cranky self-taught. Make mine the desert saints, the pole-sitters, the endurance cyclists, the artist who paints rocks cast from bronze so that they look exactly like the rocks they were cast from; you can’t tell the difference when they’re side by side. It took her years to do a pocketful. You just know she doesn’t go to art conferences. Certainly not zillion-strong international ones, giant wheeling circuses of panel discussions.

How, then, one wonders, can it be that I have just come back from AWP’s annual conference in Vancouver, treading upon a lifetime of preferring not to?

I fear I am rather in her camp. I do like orchestral music, but I prefer chamber ensembles. I don’t care for team sports. I love the solitaries, the St. Simeon Stylites of the world; there’s a bit of the hermit in me. Crowds–shudder! Yet a conference of writers at least offers the promise that I will be among others who understand how I feel and who feel that way themselves now and then.

St. Simeon Stylites

St. Simeon Stylites

Another advantageous aspect to this event is that I get a chance to talk about poetry and creative writing with people who are as passionate about it as I am. I can discuss the logic and music behind free verse line breaks and learn contemporary writers’ opinions about the sonnet. Is the metaphor dead? Does symbolism have any place in modern writing? Is hypertext the new L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry? Does anyone understand the significance of the tattoo that says “December 10, 1830” on that young woman’s arm? (It’s Emily Dickinson’s birthday). I can talk about my book Water-Rites with people who are working on getting their own poems published and discuss current projects with folks who are sure to have ideas and advice to share.

So the event is worth a bit of discomfort on my part. If I get too overwhelmed, I can go back to my room or walk the chilly Boston streets or have a chat over coffee with just one person at a time.

Or maybe find a pillar in a park somewhere. I think I recall one at Bunker Hill….

bunker-hill-monument

Introversion as character?

Holy pop-psychology, Batman! Introverts are asserting themselves all over the place! At least, you might think so based on current media trending. There was that insightful and rather humorous  2003 article called “The Care and Feeding of Your Introvert” in The Atlantic magazine. More recently, Susan Cain has brought us the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. When popular culture embraces an idea, parodies and simplifications and misinterpretations spawn in the stream of cultural consciousness. Some of these are charming, such as Dr. Carmella’s Guide to Understanding the Introverted, with its hamster-ball analogy. Mostly, the chatter masks any actual usefulness of categorization. Categorization as a method of understanding has had its pros and cons going all the way back to that master of the process, Aristotle.

Batman is copyrighted by DC Comics

Batman is copyrighted by DC Comics

Recently, I’ve been participating in discussions, virtual and face-to-face, around the topic of introversion and extraversion as personality or character traits, and the value or lack of value of the categories as well as the definitions of these words. Popular culture, which perhaps ought to be called majority culture, as usual flattens and simplifies the concepts. “Introverts” are shy and quiet, “extraverts” are sociable and talkative.

Or not. The current psychological meaning of introvert is based on the work of Isabel Briggs Myers and her colleagues and means, broadly speaking, a person “predominantly concerned” with his or her interior thoughts or sensations and less concerned with “external things.” An extravert (sometimes confused with the non-psychological, more general term extrovert), by contrast–naturally–is more concerned with life’s “practical realities” and gains more gratification from what is outside the self.

A friend of mine recently blasted the Myers-Briggs type indicator assessment as being responsible for promoting stereotyped ideas of introverts and extraverts and claimed the assessment is worthless (she used an earthier term). I don’t agree that Myers-Briggs is worthless; like any assessment tool, however, it cannot provide anything more than a snapshot of a personality. It can provide useful insight when combined with careful observation, professional knowledge, and other methods of determining character and personality. Just because Myers-Briggs is probably the most-applied or most-trusted personality assessment tool in the world does not mean it is always accurate or can be interpreted by laypeople…or even by experts. Brief forms of the test online are just that: brief forms, less complex, and therefore–as human beings and the mind and consciousness and personality are exceedingly complex–considerably less reliable as to results.

Then there is the whole concept on which the test, and others like it, are based. Carl Jung posited the notion of two dichotomous pairs of cognitive functions operating in the human psyche, and the test is derived from his initial explorations concerning those dichotomies. Well, that works–if you are a dualist. Not all of us buy into the categorization program, and many skeptics suggest that the world is far more interesting than just pairing opposites can explain.

Yin-Yang

I love the idea of harmony the taoist symbol represents, but my sense of the universe’s fractal and relational saved-from-chaos-by-a-thread “reality” tells me things are not that simple. We simplify them to attempt understanding at the human level, but oversimplification leads to stereotypes and fallacies, outcasts and enemies. Introverts and extraverts can face off and talk about how different they are; but Jung and Myers would remind us that these “types” exist on a continuum, despite the dichotomous origin of the concepts. Some people test out right near the middle of the two; some are only partway between the extreme ends of their type. Furthermore, how one defines these terms makes a big difference in how the types are perceived…and people do change as we develop along our own continua.

My father was an early proponent of the Myers-Briggs assessment and has administered the test to me three times (when I was 17, about 26, and in my late 30s). As I matured, my introversion factor changed slightly. Of course, I could have told him that without the test! I had more time for daydreaming at 17, and fewer external responsibilities. By the time I was nearing 40, I had to deal with some significant external realities: my young children and all the practicalities of external life that child-raising entails. The other aspects the indicator assesses changed a bit less, but there was movement; human beings are not stone carvings, and even stone carvings wear down, break, and change.

My own definition of what it means to be an introvert is that I “recharge” best when I am alone or with another person who is quietly reading or walking or daydreaming alongside me. I do not like being lonely; loneliness can occur even when surrounded by society, however, and solitary hours aren’t necessarily accompanied by a sense of loneliness. After spending a day at work, talking with students and colleagues–activities I enjoy–I need to go up to my room and get out of my work clothes and unwind without immediately chatting about my day. Parties can be fun, but afterwards, I need to spend a little time by myself. Concerts and tourist-clogged beaches can overwhelm me, yet that doesn’t mean I find no joy in attending them. I just need to pad the experience with some quiet time before and afterwards. Some of my family members, though, feel drained when they are quiet for too long. They recharge by socializing, or by making and doing things (ah, those “practical realities”!).

I was considered shy as a child and adolescent, but few of my current friends would say that shyness is one of my most obvious characteristics. These things are matters of environment and perception, not merely of some implacable temperament. In fact, I have several friends who appear much “shyer” than I am but who are extraverts, because they feel a sense of increased energy after social interactions or going to concerts or cities, whereas I need to retire, book in hand, to my quiet chair for recuperation. Ask anyone who knows me and you’ll learn that I love to talk and can be quite gregarious. Sometimes. And after awhile, my need to transmit and receive sort of slows down. After that, I don’t need to have anyone attend to me, converse, or ask me if I need anything. I don’t need interaction anymore–I’m like a cellphone nestled in its charger.

Even a cellphone needs a few minutes when no one is talking. That doesn’t negate its role as a conduit for communication, does it? As any reader can tell from this blog, I am concerned with “interior” thoughts and sensations but speculate on and relate these thoughts to the wider world, which is also my main impetus for thinking these thoughts in the first place.