"... honestly, I don't think our movies should be watched. I have no idea why we make them. All I know is this: we keep coming here after school every single day, and we just keep doing it, and, I don't know -- it's just, and then, we just do it, and I guess it feels like we should just be doing it, I guess. I don't know."
- Brendon Small, on the final episode of Home Movies (absolutely the best TV show he and/or Loren Bouchard have ever made, Bob's Burgers included)
“If you love looking at photographs, you figure out how to make them. If you love reading books, you figure out how to make those."
- Chris Walla to me in a Seattle coffee shop in maybe 2003
I mean, on a surface level, I do: before I knew how to form letters or read them, my mother would tell stories with me, and write down the things I said -- since before I could write, I believed I was or could be a writer. This feels like an inestimably valuable gift. What I don't have is a justification for it. I feel acutely that I somehow need to justify the value of writing to the students who I'm tasked to teach it to, whether they're 18-year-olds who were placed into my class because they had slightly lower-than-required English test scores to get into the university where I work, or 30-something grad students trying to figure out if they really want to continue in academia for the foreseeable future and/or the rest of their lives.
I have some pat answers: you'll be judged on this. It's important to communicate clearly. Different situations call for different genres. If you want to be taken seriously on grad school applications you need to be able to do X, Y, and Z with words.
None of these ring all that true to me when I'm saying them, because I can't get inside the heads of my students and understand what motivates them to do what they do, what will or won't make sense to them. In fact, I've written a whole book with the "reluctant writer" in mind, and it comes out (inshallah) this August from UBC Press, and here is its cover:
That's TL;DR as in "Too Long; Didn't Read." I may be overly cynical about this, but in recent years I've given up on "justifying" writing in the instrumental ways mentioned above. I assume my students won't be swayed by these things, and won't want to read pages and pages of theory about what writing is and why it matters and how to do it (hence the title). I try to get them through my class with as little pain and fuss as I can. The time in my class that I feel like I'm saying the truest thing about writing is the second or third class every semester when I say something like "Do you realize that we have an finite number of resources with language, but that we can combine them in literally infinite ways? Do you understand how impossibly miraculous this is?" I get very excited and speak too fast and repeat myself over and over for a few minutes, trying to articulate what to me seems a beautiful, transcendent truth.
I remain amazed at the human capacity for making meaning from meaning, our power, as George Steiner said: "to bless, to love, to build, to forgive and also to torture, to hate, to destroy and to annihilate" with words.
But I don't want to justify writing any more than I want to justify why I love pop songs, baseball, my wife and kids, or the true joy I experience while eating fast-food drive-thru tacos and drinking Dr. Pepper. I do these things because I can, and because they are good. I'm content to let that be enough. So I'll keep writing books, even though it's not really work, and it's not really fun, and I don't really know what it is, except that it's something I want to do, can do, and maybe even love to do.
(side note: "anyhoo" is accepted as a word by the NYT Spelling Bee, as my older son discovered yesterday), in addition to the forthcoming book, here's some other stuff I've been up to in the last few months -- well, no, I didn't actually write these in the last few months, I wrote them over the course of the last 12+ months, but they were all published around the same time:
"William Kurelek's Beautiful Tragic Christmas" for Comment; I love this Canadian artist and his children's book a lot.
"What Happened When I Made My Students Cheat" for Inside Higher Ed, in which I talk about the teaching and research I've been doing about academic integrity over the last few years. (I also did a related interview on The Academic Life podcast about this.)
"My Imperfect Offering" for Image is a piece subtitled "25 years of the Weakerthans." The Weakerthans are a great Canadian band. I really think you should listen to them. I've been trying to write something with this title for at least 10 years -- a book, a zine, anything -- and I was finally able to publish this one.
"Why Dancing about Architecture is a Reasonable Thing to Do" is an interview of me by Doug Peterson for Down the Line, a 'zine that focuses on underground Christian indie rock nostalgia, if you can believe that. (And you probably can, I'm guessing.) It's about my 2022 book of the same(ish) name and features a lot of discussion of, um, stuff you might expect me to discuss. It's pages 21-24 of that PDF.
"What Happened to Christian Music?" is an episode of the Black Sheep Podcast I did in which, among other things, I refer to the hasn't-aged-particularly-well-rap/rock single "Jesus Freak" by the Christian band DC Talk as "better than 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'" and am, unsurprisingly, chastized for it.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you are well. I would love to know what you're reading, listening to, etc!
(from Burnaby, BC)