non-fiction

Devil Bats and Misogynist Professors

Well, more like one misogynist professor.

It started before my essay on The Devil Bat–the 1940 Bela Lugosi horror flick about a mad scientist who uses a dubious aftershave on his victims before they are mauled to death by his devil bats–but it was this piece of writing that has so cemented this unpleasant experience in my memory.

It was an introduction to creative non-fiction course, a class I had waited to take till one of my final semesters in college. I had never tried my hand at it before and I knew that anything I produced would be shaky at best. If even my own writing ended up being terrible, I was more interested in sitting in a room with my peers and a professor, talking about this avenue of writing that had not yet been a part of my undergrad studies. I wanted guidance, critique, and a list of recommended readings that were so wonderfully a part of my other writing classes at the university.

My friend Richard* and I were both in this class. Richard was a strange, chain-smoking loner who looked like a greasy Alex DeLarge minus the Russian slang and debauchery whose long meandering conversations I took pleasure in after class. He told me he had enjoyed previous classes with our chosen professor, but he said this with reserve. As the weeks went on and I had first-hand observations, I was able to pull out of Richard what he was actually holding back from me. But we’ll get to that soon.

Right from the beginning everything was all wrong. The course, which met once a week for about a three-hour block, was being dismissed around 60 minutes. I would soon learn, however, that this was a godsend for I don’t think I could have made it without first ripping out my eyes. Most other writing classes at my university were much more intimate; we usually moved desks to face each other or at least sat close together so we were in discussion mode. Not here. We were spread out, unable to see everyone and half the class became disembodied voices from across the room. The professor stood at the front for the first part and rambled on, usually about which movie he saw that weekend. The next half was dedicated to a few people chosen to read their essays aloud. A short comment by the professor was given at the end of each selected essay.

The above was a snoozefest, but that was not where my more drastic complaint comes from. Our papers, whether read aloud or not, were all submitted and then redistributed the following week with a handwritten grade scrawled atop the front page. I noticed that Richard always had a higher grade than me, but I attributed this to non-fiction being more up his alley. Yet, I started to see that the women of the class always had a lower grade than the men (grades were denoted by both letter system and numerals: A-/92).  I would have completely dismissed this until it came to The Devil Bat.

I was randomly selected to read this essay aloud, which was a weird retelling of the time I was watching The Devil Bat with an ex-boyfriend when a strange phone call interrupted our viewing. I can still remember that this was the only day that I sat in a different desk away from Richard. I handed in my paper and the following week, I received my paper–no grade, just a note that said to see the professor after class. When I spoke to him, he said he wanted me to rewrite the paper, that it wasn’t up to snuff, and that maybe I should confer with my classmate, Richard, who could tell me how to make the essay better. In short, I was annoyed with this response. After class, I told Richard what had happened.

He told me that he met with our professor during office hours and had in the past when he took other classes with him. I didn’t understand Richard’s fascination with our professor and I still don’t. This is when Richard divulged some of what our professor had said to him. Before I continue, it is wise to point out that this is second-hand, no longer my perceptions and immediate experiences, but I still have no reason to doubt him. Our professor, according to Richard, confided that he wanted to be a novelist, but failed at it. He became a literary critic and penned books on twentieth century American [male] writers (his experience with literary criticism had been a reason I chose to take his class in the first place). We all fail–I still do on a daily basis–but this wasn’t what struck me. It was what Richard then said: our professor told him that he didn’t think woman could be writers.

I went home, chopped out one paragraph from the essay, and handed it back in the next week. It was a test of my own concoction to see if anything I handed in really mattered in the eyes’ of this one professor. A grade was finally inked on it and this episode has been one I’ve told very rarely over the years. I had even forgotten the professor’s name (with a little Googling and the university’s website) I was able to determine that he had retired at some point and you know what, we’re all better off.

It was such a strange experience for me. My professors and peers, both men and women, had never shown a gender prejudice in our classrooms. It felt like we were all in it together and our faculty’s most prominent professors were women. One of them even went on to help launch Women in Literary Arts, which later became the organization we all know as VIDA and another was the first professor who really made me feel that I was no longer a student and had some sort of potential (I am always delighted when I see her vast accomplishments written about).

I complained only to Richard about our professor and at the time, I don’t think I even thought to complain about it to anyone else, especially in any official capacity. By writing this, I don’t think I’m overreacting. In fact, I think I’ve totally under-reacted. My 21-year-old self let this roll off her back completely and instead, tapped into some schadenfreude over this man’s self-perceived failure in life.

I consider this a minor blip in the overall gender bias women face, both in publishing and the other facets of our lives, but I can’t help but wonder what would have been if I hadn’t had such an atrocious guide with my first (and last) experience at creative non-fiction in school. Perhaps, something marvelous would have happened, but most likely not (but a gal can dream, can’t she?).

I wonder why Richard was drawn to him, even though he readily pointed out the man’s flaws. I searched for the professor’s name on Rate My Professor and saw that people were writing reviews who had his class two decades removed. He had somehow made an impression. The handful of write-ups were so polarized: some absolutely loved him and found him inspiring, while others, like me, found him to be a dud.

The Devil Bat is lost to time. I have no copies of it or the other essays from the class (the rest of whose topics I don’t remember). I’m sure it was wobbly and tangled, but that’s the stuff that first drafts are made of, right? I have never excelled at non-fiction writing as this uneven post can show. As a writer, my attempts at non-fiction are awkward and I usually think my writing weaker. I’ve always been comfortable in fiction, where I’ve found encouragement and support. Perhaps, the devil bat instead will find a home there.

****

*His name has, of course, been changed.

In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent

In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language was such a fun ride. It is especially interesting for language lovers, but I think the scope of the reading audience can go far beyond those of us who adore words, languages, and etymology.

Arika Okrent’s book is a journey taken through the history of a few constructed languages–those that have not naturally evolved, but instead have consciously been created by a human–as well as reported on her first-hand experience with speakers and creators of some more modern-day invented languages.

Although, she only details a handful of the approximately 900 invented languages dating back to c. 1150, the ones she does choose always seem to be conceived by creators with the notion that a universal language is needed so that no matter where a person comes from, they can communicate with someone from a completely different part of the world. This language should be easy to learn and with the premise that it is a man-made language, it should be able to avoid the pitfalls of the naturally derived languages–no irregularities. Of course these inventors are setting themselves up for an impossible task, because language would be nothing without history and evolving cultures of the population speaking said language.

Okrent includes but goes beyond the invented languages we know of like Esperanto and the television created tongue of the nerdiest of Star Terk fans, Klingon, and includes constructed languages like Volapük, which was created by a 19th century Roman Catholic priest in Germany whose unflinching grip to litter the language with umlauts was its undoing.

Invented Languages also looks at constructed languages that were conceived out of the desire to have a universal venue for speaking about theology and logic, but in doing so, their makers’ made these languages even less exacting and more confusing. Okrent even goes so far as to diagram the word shit in one of these languages,which is usually the word a language is known for even with those who don’t speak it —merdescheiße, etc. In these philosophical languages, she dedicated whole pages to arrows and word groupings that you might as well pick your own adventure.

Another particularly interesting invented language is Blissymbolics, which was constructed in the 20th century by Charles Bliss. Born Karl Blitz in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was trained as an engineer and survived multiple internments in Nazi concentration camps. Influenced by his post-war time in Shanghai, Bliss created a symbol language that could express thousands of ideas through combining a few symbols. He was completely ignored until the 1960s when a Canadian school teacher who worked at a school for children with special needs and disabilities came across his book. She applied the symbols to their curriculum and saw the students flourish; they were finally able to express themselves. However, Charles Bliss was a total nutter. I will reserve that story for the pages of the book, but Okrent went to Canada to speak with the teacher and others from the school, as well as read through Bliss’ various correspondences.

The writing style is very personable, but still retains its highly researched quality. Okrent travels to various conferences to meetup with speakers of Klingon and Esperanto, and interviews members of these language clubs. She finds them interesting and engaging without falling into the trap of dismissing and making fun of them. Their personal stories telling how they came to these invented languages are charming and not always expected.

All of the languages Okrent expounds upon have their own unique origin stories, but many of them, no matter which century, often have similarities. The majority of the languages written about in the book are created by men–often quite learned–who are seeking a language that will be simplified and rid of irregularities that can be spoken by the world to easily express meaning. They want that unifying language that built the Tower of Babel. However, many of them, in plain English, are bonkers. They are strange men (many Germans) whose languages ultimately fail because they can’t allow their creations to evolve like natural languages do (their odd personalities don’t help either).

In the Land of Invented Languages was just the perfect book to satiate my language-loving appetite. At one point Okrent attempts to try her hand at a translation utilizing one of these invented languages and she writes, “Only one word into my translation and my solid understanding of English was unraveling in my hands.” Besides the book, Okrent has a website with more info on 500 invented languages sorted by date.

The Trip to Echo Spring; on writers and drinking by Olivia Laing

In Olivia Laing’s newest book, The Trip to Echo Spring, the writer chooses to investigate “why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself.” She takes us through a trip that weaves between six writers of 20th century American literature and her own ghosts of growing up in a home where alcoholism played a strange and erratic part.

Laing has chosen literary lions F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver, whose drinking habits are as well-known as their canonical works. The book explores the many aspects of their lives, which seem to echo with each other. Their upbringings and domestic lives could easily be swapped and no one would know the immediate difference. At the beginning, Laing writes about her decision,

Most of this six — or saw themselves as having — that most Freudian of pairings, an overbearing mother and a weak father. All were tormented by self-hatred and a sense of inadequacy.

Along with investigating these six writers, Laing details a train journey she takes throughout the continental United States, leading her to the hometowns or adopted way stations of the writers. Her intent is to explore how these men experienced and thought about the disease and their relationship to alcohol.

Dealing with childhood experiences of growing up with an alcoholic in the household, it seems only natural that the author would find momentum in taking on such a hefty and well-documented theme: writers and alcohol…and especially American writers and alcohol.

The book begins quite elegantly with Laing outlining her plan and hopeful desires. Her words and sentences lull forward giving the reader a sense of untrustworthy calm when describing clearly troubling past memories. Like the authors she’s chosen, Olivia Laing’s own writing is so effected by alcohol, albeit, not her own disease. These clipped memories envelop the reader and a favorite moment is when Laing writes that she only recently began thinking about the past,

For years, I’d steered well clear of the period in which alcohol seeped its way into my childhood, beneath the doors and around the seams of windows, a slow, contaminating flood.

Unfortunately, she has chosen six authors that so many people are aware of, both of their writing and their lives. No new information was really presented. Although, I did find myself more engrossed with the portion about the poet John Berryman. I wondered if this was because I knew the least about him, or was it because his life was described somewhat differently? His troubles, at times, stuck out in the book, whether it be his drunken college instruction or his tendency to fall down all of the time. However, these are more anecdotes and the way alcohol effected his writing is similar to the other five.

As the book progresses, we regrettably move further away from Laing’s initial trip and closer to a regurgitation of well-known facts culled from biographies and diaries, although, still retaining the notion that alcoholism is rampant in the authors’ writings. Echo Spring was enjoyable to an extent. However, Laing’s beautiful writing that swam around the opening pages began to drop-off and the idea behind her train journey a baffling one beyond getting a publisher to pay for a trip to Key West. I liked her idea of travelling to these birth places and homes, but the reflection was lacking.

Questions circled around my mind as I read on. Was this book, perhaps, meant for an audience not familiar with 20th century American writers? Laing writes that she was most interested in these six because their lives mirror each other, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting to investigate writers who alcoholic lives are less known to us? This is her book, of course, but without new information presented, my mind wandered to Marguerite Duras or Patricia Highsmith, just as two examples.

The Trip to Echo Spring was a personal endeavor that felt less personal as the pages went by. Laing’s writing is top-notch but the lovely prose that populated the beginning chapters began to fall away as the reflections became more direct excerpts from outside works than to Laing’s own train journey and bits of her childhood experiences. She was strongest writing about these latter moments than offering up well-known information about these flawed great American writers.

*photos from Wikipedia.org and The Guardian

About a Mountain by John D’Agata

Regardless of one’s personal opinion about John D’Agata, his book–About a Mountain–is truly gripping. I couldn’t put it down; in my first reading session, (which lasted about an hour) I read approximately 100 pages.

John D’Agata terms himself as a “lyric essayist” opposed to a “non-fiction writer.” He sees a difference and it’s up the reader to either put their qualms aside and enjoy or have a conniption and dismiss his book. To dismiss and disregard would be a shame.

The book is focused on environment and suicide in Las Vegas. As D’Agata is helping his east-coast mother move to this strange city, he finds himself enthralled with the horrific topic of nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain. He writes about his own experiences and the opinions of local residents; D’Agata delves into facts and politics surrounding the proposed storage facility.

At the same time, he is also interested in the extremely high suicide rate in Las Vegas (perhaps, the highest in the country). He focuses on a sixteen-year-old named, Levi Presley, who committed suicide by jumping from the Stratosphere Tower. Recently, I attended a talk which featured D’Agata. What first made him interested in all of this was when he was staying with his mother in Las Vegas and had volunteered with a suicide prevention hotline. One night, he had a hang up and the next morning, Levi’s death was all over the news. He convinced himself that it must have been Levi who phoned him. Although, it had not really been Levi, this was the impetus for penning About a Mountain.

After reading this book, I can see how D’Agata refers to himself as a “lyric essayist.” He seamlessly moved between much different topics–environmental issues and suicide–and somehow has made them connect. The prose is clear and crisp and the book is long-lasting.

Publishers Weekly Review : Empire of Shadows : The Epic Story of Yellowstone by George Black

The most recent book I reviewed was definitely a giant! [576 pages] Although it was non-fiction, it flowed very well like a novel and the author definitely had a sense of humor. For those interested, it could be a snow day read.

Publishers Weekly | Amazon

Black (The Trout Pool Paradox) takes the reader on a momentous and bloody ride through the terrain of the unconquered West. Black warns readers against “presentism”—“the danger of relying on contemporary values to pass moral judgments on people of a different time.” Divided into five sections and beginning with the familiar expedition of Lewis and Clark, the book spans nearly the entire 19th century. Lewis and Clark were “uninvited guests in an unknown land, and any tribe they encountered were assumed hostile until proven otherwise,” while the Indians were “driven by fear or superstition to avoid the upper Yellowstone.” Of course, the dangerous myth surrounding Yellowstone accelerated the explorers’ desire to conquer it. As the book continues, the government enters with paleontologists, entomologists, botanists, and mineralogists, among others. Black’s clear and concise prose offers some humorous moments; names from a Montana population record include Whiskey Bill, Bummer Dan, Old Phil the Man Eater, and Geo. Hillerman, “The Great American Pie-Biter.” Though his book is highly readable, Black must remind the reader of all the players using a dramatis personae that is almost as daunting as the wild landscape itself. Agent: Henry Dunow, Dunow, Lehrer and Carlson Agency. (Mar.)