The people who lived in the portal were often compared to those lab rats who kept hitting a button over and over to get a pellet. But at least the rats were getting a pellet, or the hope of a pellet, or the memory of a pellet. When we hit the button, all we were getting was to be more of a rat.
A tiny (and, by comparison to the rest of it, fairly on-the-nose) slice from Patricia Lockwood’s extended-poem-essay-memoir-thing “The Communal Mind” at the London Review of Books — an astonishing piece of writing which somehow manages to capture not only the tumultuous sense of deindividuation that led to me bailing out of the birdsite, but also many of the reasons that having done so continues, years afterwards, to ache and itch like a botched self-amputation. Brilliant, disorienting writing for disoriented times. Do go and read it.
The feature interview in this month’s issue of Now Then Magazine is the result of yours truly having a chat with the bard of Salford himself, Dr John Cooper Clarke.
Residents of Rust City can pick up a pulped-wood copy from all the usual places, while those elsewhere can peruse it in electronic form via the website. Many thanks to Dr Clarke and his publicity people for setting up the interview, and for the two Sams at Now Then for letting me talk to a legend.
INTERVIEWER: Do you really think creative writing can be taught?
VONNEGUT: About the same way golf can be taught. A pro can point out obvious flaws in your swing.
And somewhat less flippantly:
VONNEGUT: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—
INTERVIEWER: And what they want.
VONNEGUT: Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.
Here, then, is what makes all members of the species Homo sapiens cultural animals. They come into the world quite incomplete, and pick up what they need to know, and more, by learning from life, and in very large part from one another. As at the same time social animals (and for them the social and the cultural go together, inseparably), they deal with life and with each other in large part by way of interpreting and making signs, managing meaning. And this is what culture is about: meanings and meaningful forms, more or less organized into wider complexes. In an oft-cited passage, Clifford Geertz […] concluded that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” The abstraction of that formulation, however, risks making it a bit misleading. There is not just a single, solitary spider in that web, but a great many—by current estimates, over seven billion of them.
From Hannerz, U. (2016). “Reporting from the Future.” In Writing Future Worlds (pp. 113-133). Springer International Publishing.