Tag Archives: Stephen Dunn

I want my name back

I can share. Especially when it comes to my last name. In high school I sat next to a girl named Kristie Shields and though we had nothing in common (She was a hood, I was a punk. She had crackly, over-dyed reddish hair and crooked teeth; I had poofy 80’s hair; I’d just gotten my braces off ), I still thought it was kind of fun that we had identical last names. Same with Brooke Shields. She was a big star when I was a kid and it was a regular omission of mine to admit we were not related. In fact, my cousin played a similar trick on me of the variety that I’d play on others. He said he sat next to Brooke Shields while taking the entrance exam to Princeton as they were the same age, going into college the same year. Y’know, we sat alphabetically? I believed him. And to this day, I still don’t know if it really happened.

Really, reality, sharing last names: I had the privilege to meet David Shields, author of Reality Hunger, at Thursday’s Writers Conference. L picked him up at the train station and he slept the whole way over, and so our hopes seemed dashed that he’d make a decent presentation of himself during his creative non-fiction workshop. Since this conference started, we students huddle expectantly at the door of the classroom, amazingly high on hopes of being dazzled, blown away, awed, stupefied. We want our money’s worth. We want to be changed, altered, refined, refashioned. We want what the Buddhists want—we want to be in the presence of someone’s supernatural insight that might lead us to a Noble Truth. And when you have one bad experience like we did with Apple, [possibly more about this in a second draft] you start doubting the powers that be. You start doubting the possibility that you have enough money to buy something like that. That maybe, your needs are too wide and too vast to put a price tag on, and that you’re probably not going to get thrown that glimpse of nirvana.

But it does come. It appears in one-liners that we scrawl like maniacs into our notebooks, that read badly after the fact, because in the moment, in the context, it makes perfect sense. “Monotony can be insightful” (Stephen Dunn); “What could be sadder than a clown without a context” (Stephen Dunn); “The essay is….untrammeled access to a person’s conscience” (David Shields); “An essay is not always an exercise in ego…The self has to jump the tracks out of the self…and become bigger than the self. Complacent, self-assured people don’t make good essayist” (David Shields); “The job of an essayist is to have doubt” (David Shields); “You strike me as someone who has a compost heap” (Alexis Apfelbaum).

In the lobby of the library, when L brought him in she introduced him as David Shields, and I said, not so clumsily, but I could have done better, Yes, yes, I’ve been coming across your work all month: Tin House, Creative Non-Fiction, blah, blah, blah. And of course, I mentioned his name and mine. My name is also Shields, I said, almost with a wink like, you and me, we have a connection (I didn’t say that last bit, I thought it). But he turned, sleepily, possibly still trying to wake up from his nap from 30th Street Station, and said, “That’s not my name.”

Not your name? Forgive me for thinking that. But it’s on all your books.

[Insert here story of my name, then go on to discuss fiction and my relationship to it; ramble on about PBQ and “Reality Fiction” and my nearly 20-year belief that the I—the first person is the vehicle for all stories told. Eventually get back to DS and why Shields isn’t his name].

The story is so much more than this awkward moment of me feeling a little irked that someone would take my name and use it– on his books, no less– when clearly he has his own. He’s damn right to suggest that we are hungry for reality when so much of the world and the people in it are phony. Not to say that he… Well, the story isn’t about the vehicle so much as the message. It tells how I go from incensed to exultant in the span of a couple hours.

And it tells that his class presentation, after all, was replete with all the tingly insights and truths I had hoped for. It tells of the moment when I was changed too; when he addressed the audience during his reading, and quoted Kafka’s belief that fiction “should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us” and then INVALIDATED it by reminding us that there is far too much fiction in the world today and what we desperately seek is REALITY. The story goes on to say how my eyes welled up (that’s what happens when you believe in someone’s argument and have a connection to someone, in spite of their name). And a little moment of Cha-ching pleasantly fell upon me. I got my money’s worth. I had my religious experience. And I decided, then and there, I was switching to non-fiction.

But I’ve run out of time and can’t tell that story right now. I’ll have to log back in to tell it. But Shakespeare was right. “What’s in a name?” I’ll get over David Shields’ appropriation of Shields, but I’ve joined his movement. I’m a fan. Reality Hunger is one of the best books of 2010. I might even be inspired to change my name.

I take back everything I said…

Isn’t it ironic?

A teacher, criticized for his own work as having “limited relevancy due to…heavy usage of cultural references,” (see blurb below) criticizes a student for virtually the same thing. A comedic writer, not finding a comedic piece funny. And a classroom full of frustrated MFA students whose tolerance for argument seriously diminished due to an earlier line by line by line by line by line by line…analysis of one student’s 18-page story.

Such was our fate this afternoon, which made me want to take back everything I said the previous day.

Poor, poor Pete G____, whose story kicked ass but who got such bad reviews by Max Apple that I squirmed in my seat with discomfort (I think Prof Apple asked us not to use the word “squirm” to describe a character). This was not the kind of criticism I was talking about. I didn’t want anyone to have to hear over and over again “Your piece just isn’t funny.” “It’s just not funny.” “I didn’t find it funny in the least.”

But Pete’s piece was funny. It was subtly funny, and it poked fun at mass consumerism. Apple said consumerism isn’t funny anymore. It was funny But it’s not now. He also said that Pete never took his work to the next level. “It’s stale,” he said. “It’s not going anywhere.” Adding, “especially not for me.”

So, instead of giving Pete his fair share of a line by line analysis, he opted instead to read something that was “actually funny.”

And it was actually funny. It was “The School” by Donald Barthelme. And everyone laughed. BUt I argued that Pete’s goal was not just to offer a “farce” or a “satire” as Barthelme had done. Instead, he was giving us magic realism, farce and social criticism on consumerism. We shouldn’t compare. Max Apple’s reply? “It wasn’t funny.”

In fiction workshop today I learned several important things:

  1. Criticism can be harsh and hurtful. It’s all in the delivery. I think too little criticism on something that is obviously in need of it is not good. Nor is too much criticism to the point of the author feeling belittled. Some where there needs to be reality. As Stephen Dunn put it, “Our work here [in class] is provisional. These are poems on the way to becoming poems. Everyone wants their poems adored and that happen now and then…but not a lot.”
  2. Faces don’t “smolder like a freshly lit cigarette” (but I think I already knew that)
  3. Sometimes things aren’t always as they seem. Students can love a piece for one reason, while an instructor can find reasonable fault with it. Both side have merit. It’s your job to pay attention to both.
  4. And lastly: Don’t argue with an old man who’s written five books and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. Respect him, despite disagreeing with him.

More to come on Stephen Dunn.

“Apple has been compared favorably with John Barth, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen. Although his work has received critical acclaim and enjoys considerable popularity, some commentators think it may have limited relevancy due to Apple’s heavy usage of cultural references. However, it has been posited by some scholars that Apple’s audience is increasingly a younger generation, more sympathetic to his flashy postmodern technique and for whom written language is less meaningful than Apple’s pictographs.” –Taken from enotes