Awakening to the Overlooked: Why Boys (and Men) Should Write
The “monster on the dinner table”
To understand why I write, I should first tell you about my favorite lesson to teach: we read two Charles Simic poems and play a game at guessing their titles. I love this lesson not because Simic has wild titles, but the opposite. The two poems that we read are part of a series of object poems Simic wrote that all have simple one word titles: “Fork,” “Spoon,” “Knife,” “Stone,” “Watermelons,” and so on. And the lesson aspires to use these titles and poems to fight the common misunderstanding many of my students have about poetry: this overly-complex mush has nothing to do with me!
When originally submitted for publication, these poems not only came back with a rejection but a note from the editor: “Dear Mr. Simic… you’re obviously a sensible young man, so why do you waste your time by writing about knives, spoons, and forks?” Years later, after Simic had been recognized with almost every award a poet can win, the literary critic Michael Robbins answered the editor’s question, writing that Simic’s work “mov[es] the safety net from the everyday” and teaches the reader to “[f]orget about self-expression, kid: Learn to see the monster on the dinner table.” And when successful, this lesson does exactly that, ending with everyone heading off to a great lunch in the Refectory that is momentarily interrupted by a slight percussive pause at the sight of a fork.
Ay, there’s the rub
That percussive pause, the shock of recognition, the shock of awakening to the often overlooked, is why I read and write daily, and what I aspire for the boys in my class to experience. Ever since that distant afternoon sometime during my junior year of high school when literature took me to discover my brain, I have relied upon words (words, words), whether my own or another’s, to help figure out life, to help figure out what it means to be human, what it means to be me. To those who don’t read or go to plays or watch films or look at paintings or listen to music, the idea of learning about yourself through an artifice seems counterintuitive. But to the initiated it seems self-evident. Ay, there’s the rub: how do we get boys from this overly-complex mush has nothing to do with me! to a realization that literature is made from the very things of you?
Create (and consume)
Write (read). Paint (look). Sing (listen). Create (consume). And don’t stop. When people ask me why I still write stories and plays and poems (like they are things I should have given up along with training wheels), I answer: don’t you read or watch movies or listen to music? They are, as the poet/mortician Thomas Lynch says, “part of the same conversation.” The single best pedagogical change that I have made since coming to Avon is empowering all boys in my class, making them writers, inventors of fictions, by having every student create his own stories as he reads the work of others. Because until you create, it is easy to forget (or never realize) that all good art is made from real life: you can’t create something out of nothing. When you dedicate (or are forced to dedicate) time to putting a character into a situation and seeing what happens, you are compelled to look at life, see the details -- big and small, love and forks -- and generate your version of it. Every story I write allows me to experience life from a different perspective or frame a moment in a way that focuses on something I would otherwise overlook. For me, the process of creating, synthesizing my experience of the world into my own tiny version of it, is a perfect way any sensible young man should waste his time.
1 If you hear an echo of a great opening line, you wouldn’t be wrong; one of the true wonders for readers and writers is the realization that everything written is allusive, whether intentional or not, and it is a profound experience to hear these reverberations everywhere; they too cause percussive pauses and let you know just how many epochs have experienced that same thing as you.
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