The Cult of Grad School

Last year, when I went away for my grad school residency, I posted every day about the things I was doing and thinking. For my first residency, I pushed myself to read the required reading for every lecture and presentation, and I tried to do all the recommended and suggested reading as well. Then I got here and found out that even if I hadn’t read the texts, the presenters usually didn’t rely exclusively on them for the content of their lectures. These aren’t multi-part classes where we’re being quizzed on the minutiae of a single text. These are discrete lectures of one or two hours where we’re exploring some big concept as illustrated by one or more texts. It just wasn’t that big a deal.

What I had forgotten about, though, was the physical and emotional toll residency took on me last time. It’s worse this time. What I forgot was just how much of a cult this place is. I looked at the ways that cults use coercive persuasion to bend the minds of their followers.

1. People are put in physically or emotionally distressing situations.

There are too many of us, packed into a few rooms of a corporate office building. There are no desks, so everyone either taps on a laptop (a sound that makes my skin literally hurt, so that I want to claw at my clothes as I’m trying to concentrate on the lecture) or (like I do) uses a clipboard or a notebook to take notes the old-fashioned way.  The schedule is so packed that there’s often a choice to be made about where to go next, so that anyone who isn’t careful finds themselves double-booked.

2. Their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized.

Write more. Spend more time thinking about your edits. Who are you in relation to your characters? There’s not a single, simple explanation to all our problems as writers, but the about five explanations there are get repeated ad nauseum. While that can be good if you haven’t already heard that particular solution to your writing problems, it gets exhausting after a while. Last residency, it was “question your beliefs.” It seemed that most of the lectures harped on some aspect of that theme, and it led me to go back to some of my work and think hard about my characters’ motivations, but after a while, I had to question my questioning. And what did all my questioning lead to? It led to me believing that I needed to come back and ask more questions. Back here. Where I am now.

3. They receive what seems to be unconditional love, acceptance and attention from a charismatic leader or group.

Every single person here is happy to see me. When I show up in the morning, people want me to sit by them and talk to them. They show me their websites, looking for my approval. They show me pictures of their spouses, their children or their pets. They act like they’ve waited for six months to hang out with me, and maybe they have. I do know that I am fond of a lot of these people, and it’s nice to see them after such a long separation, but I also still feel that fierce need to spend some time alone. And of course, everyone talks about the program chairman as though he walks on water, and there is always a queue of people trailing after him in the halls trying to talk to him about one thing or another.

4. They get a new identity based on the group.

Here, you are put into several groups at the same time. You are given a group name based on when you entered the program. Everyone who came in at the same time as me is a jacaranda, and our color is purple. There are blue spruces, yellow aspens, red sequoias and sycamores whose color I don’t know. Maybe they’re green. The aspens are the outgoing cohort, and a bunch of them have elected to wear yellow sparkly capes to show their solidarity and pride. That’s all fine and dandy, but a bit creepy at the same time. You are also sorted by genre: poets, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, writers of literature for young people.  They often don’t attend the same classes, so they see each other at the cohort events.

5. They are subject to entrapment (isolation from friends, relatives, and the mainstream culture) and their access to information is strictly controlled.

I’m only entrapped here by virtue of the fact that I’m such a long way from my own family and friends. My best friend lives down here, but he’s got his own life going on. The trickier form of entrapment is keeping us so busy that we voluntarily sequester ourselves so that we can complete everything that’s being asked of us. We’ve got classes, forms to fill out, evaluations, summaries, contracts, all of which has to be done at specific times in specific ways and eats up a lot of what would otherwise be free time. While we have all the access to the outside world we could possibly want, we don’t necessarily have time for it. And our access to information about this little world we’re in is limited to the intranet platform – we use separate email rather than our own email, we have a separate site that houses all the news and information we need from this place.

Given the indoctrination we’re being subjected to, I think I can be forgiven for being a little on the emotional edge. And all that stuff about it being a cult aside, there is some amazing thinking and analyzing going on here. The outgoing graduates have once again been exploring aspects of literature I had never before considered, and I now have the benefit of a brain dump of their previous two years of research. We’ll see what this residency’s themes end up being.

Gotta Be Cruel to Be Kind

In addition to my own writing and revising and inventing new literature, I do a great deal of reading and commenting on other people’s work. It’s hard revising your own work – you’ve been looking at the same words for months, or maybe even years, and by now your mind fills in all the things that aren’t there and should be, and glosses over all the things that are there are shouldn’t be.

girl with typewriter

With my new typewriting machine, re-writing every page a dozen times will be as easy as washing my 14 sister’s petticoats in my new mangler!

I have a long list of rules for my writing, and when editing myself, I can run through this very technical and mechanical list no matter how familiar with the material I may be. My computer’s “find” function doesn’t care whether the word “were” is in the proper context, is irreplaceable or is the prefix for something only half-human, it will find and display it. Also true for “had,” “seemed,” and all adverbs, including my own list of 50 or so that don’t end in -ly.

But when you’re editing for someone else, is it fair to hold them to the same standard you hold for yourself? For instance, I want to know the precise moment on the fourth page where the reader began nodding off, so I can punch up the action, but is it okay to doodle “losing consciousness….” in the margin of your editee’s manuscript? I want to know which of my jokes fall flat, but is it okay to rubber stamp “NOT FUNNY” on every failed play on words in your friend’s novel?

Frankly, I think it is. I think that not only is it okay, but it’s required. I feel that when I’m editing or critiquing someone else’s work, they’re saying to me “I want to make this work commercially viable.” Modern publishing being as competitive as it is, I feel that I would be a rotten friend, colleague or student if I soft-pedaled my opinion of things that aren’t up to snuff.

Mah Jong Massacre

The last one standing gets his blog turned into a book!

The one thing that anyone getting criticism from me has to remember, though, is that I am only one person, and a little bit warped, at that. When it comes to other folks opinions of your puns, your imagery or your use of “so” at the beginning of every other sentence, your mileage may vary. If you think that I’m being mean when I point out dozens of instances of passive voice or strike out as unnecessary an entire section it took you weeks to perfect, it’s not because I hate you and want you to die. It’s because I like you and want you to succeed. You’d be forgiven for confusing the two things, though. My kids do it all the time.

Sherlock Holmes and What Is Real

girl with fairy

Of course, everyone knows that in real life, fairies are horrible, evil creatures.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of the detective Sherlock Holmes, was often asked by readers to solve their own real-life mysteries. He couldn’t respond to their cries for help, though, because unlike Holmes, Conan Doyle was famously gullible. His most embarrassing gaffe was the Cottingley Fairies, a hoax perpetrated by two girls who took photographs of themselves next to cardboard likenesses of fairies and gnomes and represented the results as real meetings with fanciful beings. Conan Doyle embraced the photos as proof of other beings and was roundly denounced for it, but I find myself entirely sympathetic to him.

As authors, we’re always asking ourselves “what if?” What if there were a man with a mind like a computer who could solve even the most bizarre crimes? What if there were life on other worlds? What if I were another person with another life, thrown into difficulty and danger? Our ability to sympathize, to imagine, to create the reality we wish to see is at the heart of our gift, and I think that Conan Doyle wasn’t necessarily being gullible, but was opening his mind to the possibility that fairies could exist in the same world that he did.

Weird Tales magazine cover from 1934

Bringing you fabulous tales of “what if” since 1923!

I find myself opening up to possibility all the time. Back when I lived in San Jose, I would drive down Quito Drive, which had long stretches of orchards, and for months I saw a sign that read “Mary Ferguson Offered” outside a house situated in the middle of a grove of fruit trees. For months, I wondered who Mary Ferguson might be, and what she might have offered to the maker of the sign. Whatever it was, it was remarkable enough for the sign maker to want to publicize the event. It was only after I’d seen the sign for at least six months that someone pointed out that it actually read “Massey Ferguson Offered,” meaning that the owner of the house was getting rid of a tractor. It was a letdown.

I’ve seen the Sydney Opera House being carted down the highway on the back of a flatbed truck, I’ve seen a dead cat in the gutter that maintained bodily integrity for nearly a year, I’ve seen a skyshark. And none of those things is out of the realm of the possible in the world I live in. Just today, my neighbors were vivisecting a hippopotamus.

What is the truth of the things I’ve seen? It’s what it appears to be, because I accept what my mind tells me without question. If I see a foot-high man wearing a brilliant-blue vest and black trousers walking down the street toward me, I believe it. If I am looking at it, obviously, it’s possible, right? And, to tell you the truth, it’s kind of a let down to realize that it’s just one of the neighbor’s peacocks walking along the road toward me. The truth is usually less interesting than what my mind invents.

cover of Yann Martel's "The Life of Pi"

I like the Cheshire catness of this tiger

If you’ve ever read the book The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, you know that it’s about a boy who drifts in a lifeboat on the Pacific for 227 days with a Bengal tiger as his only companion (once the tiger has eaten the orangutan and the zebra that started the journey with them). At one point in the story, a pair of Japanese insurance agents question him. He tells them his story, but he also tells them a different story where, instead of a tiger, he’s in the boat with the ship’s cook, a sailor with a broken leg and Pi’s mother. The strictly human story is horrifying and grisly, lacking any of the wonder and hope of the story of the boy who survived more than half a year in the company of a tiger. In the end, Pi asks the insurance men which story they like better – the one with or without the tiger.

In my world, there is room for tigers, for Sherlock Holmes, for the Cottingley fairies, and tiny men wearing brilliant blue vests and black trousers. And there’s room for you, too.

My Revision Process

I went to the zoo recently, and while watching a giraffe walk like two men on stilts in a tent, it occurred to me that my own editing process looks much like the revision process I believe God went through in making the horse.

a rhinocerous

They pee straight backward. Did you know that?

The Rhinocerous Phase

I’ve finished my manuscript. It’s huge. It’s got bits on it that look like they were tacked on at the last minute, and the parts don’t feel like they fit together very well. Much like the rhino, perhaps the legs are a little thin for the body, the skin doesn’t look like it fits quite right, and the eyes are too small. But it’s got all the requisite parts, in more or less the right place. When I look at it, though, I think to myself “this isn’t nearly as graceful, as flowing, as uplifting as I was hoping for.” So, I start smoothing things out a bit.

a hippopotamus

When I was a kid, we called these “hippomopotamus.” Okay, I still call them that.

The Hippopotamus Phase

I’ve smoothed things out. It’s not as warty, the bits that obviously don’t belong have been taken out, I’ve made a few improvements to the flow. It’s definitely smoother, but look at it. It’s still a bit more bloated than I was hoping for. It’s not very graceful, except when underwater and all the ink begins to run and swirl, but I don’t kid myself about the way that most editors read – they don’t do it underwater. This thing needs to look wonderful and powerful and majestic on land. Time to do some cutting.

a tapir, but not the flying kind

One of my biology professors once went through an entire lecture talking about “flying tapirs.” He meant “flying lemurs,” but I have invested in a special pith helmet just in case I’m ever in the Brazilian jungle.

The Tapir Phase

I’ve cut it down. My lovely piece of writing is now about a third the size it was before. I’ve taken out long, boring expositions, lingering descriptions of scenery, pages of unnecessary background. But it’s still sort of lumpy and ungainly. It’s still not the model of effortless verbal grace I’ve been imagining. And that bit I added on the front there? I don’t think that’s working out at all. So, time to perhaps add a little back. Time to start thinking hard about what’s really important. I want my piece to be the right length, but there’s also breadth and height and all that. Color wouldn’t be bad either.

an okapi

It’s fun to look at, but stylistically, a bit of a mess.

The Okapi Phase

I’ve gone back to the drawing board. I’ve taken all the parts of my story that I felt really had something, and I re-wrote everything else. I added new characters with pizzazz and sparkle. And I gave one guy a funny speech impediment. And I added this great scene between the bad guy and his chief minion where they’re ordering pizza. And it’s really starting to look much more like what I was envisioning. The plot is all hanging together really well, but…well…it’s just not quite there. Not quite. Almost, though. I can certainly see glimpses of greatness. From a certain angle, it’s got a certain majesty to it. But yeah, maybe I’ve overdone. What am I really going for here? More The Great Gatsby, or Cat in the Hat? I have to make some hard choices.

two giraffes running

They’re every bit as graceful as a creature made entirely of knees.

The Giraffe Phase

I’m almost there! I can see it! I’ve toned it down, I’ve shaped and pared the story until its crystalline structure just sings. The plot is everything I’m hoping for, but I do have to admit, the language is letting me down in places. Too stilted in some places, too awkward in others. I’m looking for a more consistent tone and voice, and am willing to sacrifice the 17″-long purple tongue to get it. And I think that succumbing to the urge to add back the horns was, in retrospect, a mistake.

a mule

The only difference between a mule and a horse is some misplaces modifiers and too many commas.

The Mule Phase

I’ve been working on this one story forever. I’m getting sick of it. It’s beginning to smell. And yet, it’s so close! I’ve taken out the awkward bits, polished up the language, and it is now nearly everything I want it to be. Except for that place on page 68 where I typed “that” instead of “then.” And that other place where I didn’t capitalize the last name of the girlfriend. And that place where it was Tuesday at the beginning of the scene and Monday at the end. But I’m so close. I can’t taste it, but boy, can I ever smell it.

a horse

Not only is it beautiful, but it’s also fast, and can kick your ass. And it’s a vegetarian.

Success!

It’s done! It’s beautiful! No one reading this can deny that it’s a masterpiece. Yes, it took a lot of work to get here, but I’ve got a story with grace, flow, majesty…and the kind of legs that will hopefully carry me to a sequel.

Tech Raising pt 3

I handed off my documents Friday night – about a dozen nodes of text, a spreadsheet showing how they all interrelated, a text description of the expected functionality, a PowerPoint presentation showing all the functionality I wanted to have in the reader.

I felt like I lucked out in the group of folks who worked on my app. First, I had written all of my nodes with the programming interface in mind, writing them all as text files and tagging each one with the relevant character names and locations. I had used a spreadsheet with linked documents to organize my writing, so the programmers knew exactly how everything fit together. The logic was there, it just needed to be programmed into an interface. After the talks we had and the questions they had asked, I felt like they knew exactly what direction I was headed.

Saturday, I hung out at the Cruzio co-working space and answered questions and nibbled on snacks. I hovered around the guys working on my project, but every once in a while, I heard other people in other places mention the name of my project. It’s like being at a party and hearing your name from across the room being mentioned by people you don’t know – that thrill of curiosity, that hope that the mention is something good.

There was plenty of talk Saturday about what folks were working on and how the work was going. I met with a guy who would do the UI design, I talked with the engineers, it was exciting. I had to cut out early to make it to the opening night of Faust, and that was nice too.

The Big Day

Sunday was a little more involved. I got there early-ish and fielded questions from the team. Both Saturday and Sunday were a process of whittling down the number of expected features for the demo. It was important that we have a complete feature set for the demo, but that everyone involved have a good time. While I waited, Douglas Crets from Microsoft BizSpark interviewed me for his blog. Finally, my team handed me a demo already loaded with my text and, as an amazing bonus, the text of Hamlet so that we could demonstrate the ability to import existing text and manually index it for education purposes.

I gave my demo, and was told several things by the panel of judges:

  1. My hair is fascinating.
  2. I have good shoes, too.
  3. The idea of non-linear literature is brilliant.
  4. Because this is a new invention, I should be patient if people are slow to get it. People are always slow to recognize a fundamental shift in thinking.

On my way back to my seat, people high-fived and fist-bumped me. Chris Neklason, Cruzio founder who gave a lovely little talk before the presentations Sunday, told me I had nailed it.

Looking back on the whole experience, the value I got out of it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I thought that the value would be in having my idea turned into a reality and getting to show it off to people. That was certainly nice, and the first step in what will be a long process of turning this idea into a full-scale usable product, but it wasn’t the very most valuable thing. The very most valuable thing was what I did the very first night: getting up in front of everyone and asking them to confirm that this idea I had was worth something. The very best part was not just having people nod and say “Yes, I think that’s a swell idea,” but having people like it enough to spend time working to make it a reality, wanting to hang around and talk about its applications and possibilities, thinking about how to make it a reality and what all the buttons and knobs should look like.

As I go through the process of finishing what I started, I feel that the experience of having this group of smart, talented people telling me that they thought my idea was great will help carry me through the hard work ahead.

 

Tech Raising pt 2

The Runup

When I conceived the idea for the novel, I knew exactly how I wanted it to work. There would be a single story told from the point of view of six characters. It would take place in three countries equally spaced around a fictional world. As in the world we know, it would have a night and day, people would sleep and eat and all the things they do in real life, which meant that there would be several characters active at any given moment, but others who would be sleeping.

I started writing the content, but quickly realized that I had to figure out an organizational means of keeping everything straight. I settled on a fairly low-tech solution – a spreadsheet and a series of linked documents. The writing itself was fun. The less-fun part was constantly trying to explain to people what I was writing and how it was all going to eventually work.

The Pirate encouraged me to pitch my idea at TechRaising. I signed up and had sort of mentally prepared myself for explaining my vision to a bunch of people, but I have to be honest – at no point did the real difficulty ever enter my mind. The real difficulty was less about explaining my passion and vision to others, and more about standing up in front of strangers and laying bare my hopes and dreams. I was asking a roomful of people who don’t love me to validate my dreams. I can’t remember ever being quite this nervous.

TechRaising

The Pirate had prepared me for the process, letting me know that I needed to keep it short, high-level and to the point. I gave my pitch, frightened that I might literally vomit on the people in the front row. But the funny thing was that the minute I got up in front of everyone, all I thought about was non-linear literature, the possibilities for storytelling and writing, the number of people who would become re-engaged with literature through this new medium.

I got through my pitch and was received with applause and cheers, although my brain tends to blank that bit out. But the pitch turned out to be easier than the next bit. Once everyone had pitched, we were all supposed to mingle and talk. Engineers with an interest in a project were to get together with the person who pitched the project to form a team. The problem is, I don’t do well in crowds. At parties, I tend to stick to the one or two people I know, only branching out if someone I already know introduces me to someone new. Here, there was no one to help me. I knew no one except Margaret Rosas, one of the three organizers of the project. A couple of people came up to me to express admiration for my idea, but none of them was an engineer, so it wouldn’t do me any good. I finally hid in the back, and Margaret told me that if, by the end of the evening, I still hadn’t hooked up with a team, she would see what she could hook up.

But in no time, a couple of engineers approached me with questions about my idea. They were excited by the possibilities, and wanted to be on the team. They were both back-end guys, but we needed front-end guys as well. I had ideas for the logic required and for the interface, but no idea how to code any of it. The great thing about a small community, though, is that everyone knows everyone else, and these guys knew other guys at the event who were willing to help. Late Friday night I sent them everything I had, including the documents I had describing the project and a PowerPoint showing my expectation of its functionality.

Sex in Translation

Once again, sorry for being away. Okay, I’m not that sorry. Like a lot of people, I have a life that doesn’t always allow for sitting around and thinking up things I want to shout into the void. I started typing out a little of what I’ve been up to, but even I dozed off in the middle of the process, so I won’t bore you with the mundane details.

One of the things I’ve been doing is listening to the audio version of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. Haruki Murakami has never shied away from sex in his stories, and this one is no exception. There are all kinds of sex scenes between all kinds of people – willing and unwilling sex, drunken orgies, masturbatory thoughts. Sex is one of the many themes of the book, so there’s a lot of it.

I don’t speak Japanese, but I do know this about it: it’s a language spoken by human beings. And one thing I know about human beings is that they have lots of words to describe their genitals, and different words have different connotations. Prick, dick, cock, dong, shlong, manhood, sex, pussy, snatch, cunt, ladyparts, and that’s just the ones I could type without stopping to think. People like to talk about their privates without sounding like a doctor, so they come up with all manner of colloquialisms.

On the other hand, none of those fun words made it into 1Q84. In that story, no matter the circumstances of the sexual encounter, no matter how sensual or violent, no matter how happy or unhappy or confused it made the people involved, a penis is always a penis, a scrotum is always a scrotum, a vagina is always a vagina and breasts are always breasts. At one point, one of the characters says that “every couple of weeks, he visits a prostitute he knows and has sex. Like getting a haircut.” It’s a great description of every single sexual encounter in the book.

It’s one thing to know a language well enough to have a perfunctory conversation about bus schedules or restaurant orders. It’s another level to be able to listen to a news broadcast and understand it all. Yet another level is knowing the language enough to be able to tell jokes and understand wordplay. And then there’s pillow talk. It makes me wish that one of my friends who speaks Japanese and who may have read the book in its original language would tell me how the words translate in English.

My greatest fear is that Murakami didn’t use any slang at all, and that he wrote all his sex scenes using the most clinical, dry language possible, stripping them of all subtlety and sensuality, stripping the mood of the sex scenes away and leaving nothing but the physicality. In a way, it’s like inside-out Hemingway. With Hemingway, there is no interior life in his characters and the reader has to guess at what might be going on in his characters’ minds. With Murakami, his characters most intimate moments are so stripped of any nuance of language that the reader has to fill in any accompanying emotions. Actions devoid of thoughts can be hard to understand, but thoughts devoid of feeling are no clearer.

ReWrite, ReVise, ReThink

It’s the end of the month, and I’m in the same dilemma that I find myself in pretty often. I’m working on re-writes to a piece that I’m pretty excited about. I can see its possibilities, I can see it taking shape as I peel away the stuff that’s been bogging it down, fix the stuff that was a little bit broken, polish up the chrome and supercharge the…um…fraculator….you get it.

At the same time, I’ve got another piece that I’m equally excited about. This is a piece that I’m still creating. I’m only just starting to make mistakes on it. I’m still exploring, seeing what it has to offer, getting to know the lay of the land, meeting the locals. It’s a nonstop party in this new place, and I hate to leave a party! Okay. That’s an utter lie. Everyone that knows me knows that after two drinks, I’m standing by the door tapping my watch and saying that my dogs are getting lonely without me, but this is a fictional party where I’m always having a lovely time dancing and telling hilarious jokes and my hair never goes weird and my mascara never starts to run.

And at the same time that I’m supercharging my fraculator and charming everyone at the fictional party, there’s this other piece. Like most writers, I have a whole file of stuff that I’ve started writing and then sort of abandoned, half finished, or quasi-finished, or one-sentenced, in drawers and files and all over the place, and every once in a while, I dig those things up and think to myself “Holy mambo – that is GENIUS!” And I push everything else off my desk to make room for this amazing perfect idea that I can’t believe I discarded in a moment of folly.

But then something happens. Someone reminds me that I owe them revisions, or the next chunk of something, and I realize that I have to buckle down and finish something. I have to make a choice. Hobson’s choice. Sophie’s choice. Which is like Hobson’s choice, only way better-looking. Speaking of which, there’s a place called Hobson’s Choice Cleaners in my new neighborhood in San Francisco. My mother and I figure that it means that they give you the choice between putting stains in your shirts or ripping the buttons off. But I digress.

What I really wish is that I had more time, or that I had more of me, or that I were less creative. But I don’t have any of those things. I have my own Hobson’s choice to make. My own metaphorical buttons to rip off, my own metaphorical shirts to stain. And sitting here, writing this blog ain’t gonna get it done, is it?

I Love Him, I Love Him Not

I’ve been thinking about writer/performer Mike Daisey’s public demise over the story about Apple that aired on This American Life, and I am really torn over it.

On the one hand, I’m as angry as anybody else about the fact that Mike Daisey lied. I feel manipulated and betrayed. He swears that most of what he said actually did happen, just not the way he laid it out, but I don’t believe him about any of it. It makes me wonder what kind of agenda Daisey has that he felt he needed to go all the way to China to make people hate Apple as much as he apparently does. According to his interpreter, there were two things in Mike Daisey’s monologue that she could confirm: that he showed up, a fat white American guy, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and that he told her that he planned to lie to a lot of people.

I’m angry that when Ira Glass confronted him with facts and the testimony of his own interpreter, Mike Daisey wouldn’t come out and say the words “I lied.” He prevaricated, saying that he stood by his representation of things as true in a theatrical way. Which is like saying that Tom Cruise is tall in a theatrical way. No matter how many times Ira Glass or anyone else said to him “But that just didn’t happen,” he would not say the words “I lied.”

But there’s what he did say. While Ira Glass grilled him, at several points Mike Daisey had a hard time talking. His voice came out in a hoarse whisper, choked with emotion, and at one point he said that he wished that the producers of This American Life had killed the show. While I can’t say positively that he cried, it was obvious that he was overcome with emotion.

This is where my anger at Mike Daisey evaporates, to be replaced by pity and a kind of tenderness. Yes, he lied. Absolutely, no question. But who among us hasn’t been caught in a lie?

To me, there are two kinds of lies – the little social lies that we tell in order to not hurt someone’s feelings, like saying “No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat at all” because you don’t want your friend to feel awkward and self-conscious all day, or pretending not to notice that the old lady in front of you is suffering from catastrophic intestinal distress. Those kinds of lies allow everyone a little dignity, although everyone involved in the transaction knows that lying is involved.

The other kind of lie is where the teller counts on the hearer’s belief that the tale is true to manipulate. “I didn’t eat those cookies.” “This isn’t what it looks like.” “I meant to pay it back.” Where social lies have the cooperation of teller and hearer, there is no contract in a manipulative lie, and if the hearer discovers the lie, they can call the teller out.

But being called out is painful. Having your lie, and the reasons behind your lie, exposed shows your weakness. Mike Daisey is an attention-seeking guy who can’t let the truth stand on its own because he can’t depend on his own skill as a writer to manipulate people’s emotions, so he had to lie. He was paraded on talk shows, profiled in magazines, and the longer he let the lie stand, the more adoration he received. As long as everyone believed his story, they all adored him.

But now the public has turned. Mike Daisey has been vilified as a liar and everything he’s done is being called into question. Nobody loves him anymore, just like nobody loved James Frey when they found out his Oprah-selected memoir was fiction, nobody loved Jayson Blair when they found out that all his New York Times stories had been made up.

I found it painful to hear Daisey squirm and gasp – it was like watching a pinned insect wriggle and die. It was gruesome and shameful and made me feel like a bad person for witnessing his humiliation. I feel that his humiliation, his fear, his weakness and need mark him as human, and make me feel pity for him. As surely as I condemn what he did, I do pity him.

P.S. There is one thing I want to make clear: What Mike Daisey did was lie. He knew that the things he said were untrue, but he represented them as true. What Ira Glass and NPR did was make a mistake. They didn’t do a complete enough job of fact checking, and because many parts of his story checked out, they allowed themselves to believe all of it.

A mistake is unintentional. A lie is not. If you can’t tell the difference, you’re an idiot, which is something else altogether.

Between the Covers

First of all, I was gone for a couple of days (and trust me, I’ve been BUSY in that couple of days), and you all abandoned me. I feel like you and I were at a party, having a lovely conversation, really getting to know one another, then I excused myself to go to the bathroom and when I came out, you were standing with that loudmouthed guy who was telling that story about his truck and the deer and the bean dip and you waved to me, and turned back to loudmouth just when he got to the part about hitting the possum with his golf cart. And I didn’t blame you. I can’t even begin to compete with that. I’ll be honest, though. It hurt.

Anyway, back to the whole blog post thing. Books. I’m talking about books. A big part of grad school has been the enormous amount of reading I get to do. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve finished V for Vendetta, Rashōmon, Dracula, Quiet (The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking), The Woman in White, The Windup Girl, and I’ve just started Status Anxiety.

The thing that I love about “annotations,” as opposed to book reports, reviews or anything else I could write about the books I read, is that they’re personal. They’re influenced by the other stuff I’ve read, the events in my own life, the mood I’m in. When I’m doing annotations, I feel like I am at liberty to bring in every connection I think of while reading a book. I can talk about my connection to Buddhism and depression when I write about Rashōmon, or about Occupy Wall Street when I talk about V for Vendetta, or about my own dark thoughts about our world’s future when I read The Windup Girl.

When I write annotations, I end up looking at the whole thing as a kind of therapy. I can certainly look at how Hemingway created stories out of nouns and verbs and admire that, but I can also think about how racist, sexist, generally asshole he was, and how that informed the kinds of people he wrote about, and how I wonder whether that narrow worldview contributed to his depression. Sometimes, I get myself so wound up about the kind of person I should be that I can’t stand the kind of person I am. Is that what it was like to live in Hemingway’s ultra-macho world?

I think that we all look for ourselves between the covers of every book we read. We want to be the hero; we want to be the super-cool villain who has money, power and good looks; we want to be the mom everyone loves, the son everyone’s proud of, the kid who’s quiet and unassuming until she saves the world. That’s great when it’s fiction and somebody gets to win in the end (even if that somebody is the bad guy). But when the subject is human’s desire for love, as is the case in Alain de Botton’s nonfiction book Status Anxiety, I’m just as apt to put myself in the shoes of the unspoken subject of the book, the person who worries about other people’s opinion of them and how that opinion is influenced by how much money a person has, how good-looking they are, what kind of job they have.

Sadly, I’m a writer, so I have no power whatsoever. I’m not good-looking, although because I’m just words on a page to you, you can imagine whatever you want. The same goes for my finances. In short, I’m worried about what you think of me. But I guess I don’t need to worry anymore. Given the fact that you’ve chosen the guy with the truck and the dead possum and the bean dip over me, it’s pretty clear where I stand.