“What’s an ‘MLA?’” I asked. The person I was asking was William Baer, a graduate student poet in The Writing Seminars of Johns Hopkins University. He stood in my office doorway. I was nearing the end of the first semester of my year as a lecturer there. Bill, who was older than I though a year behind me in the program, had asked me, “Going to the MLA?” In 2013, Bill retired from the Creative Writing Department of the University of Evansville where he had taught for nearly 25 years. “The MLA,” he said, “is where you go to interview for creative writing jobs.” I did not know then what an MLA was. I had no idea, then, that there was a way to get a job teaching creative writing. My teachers at The Writing Seminars had not mentioned it. The one piece of vocational advice had been from John Barth who suggested I teach remedial English as he had done when starting out at Penn State. In the fall of 1979, I hadn’t given the future much thought at all, had barely thought of 1980. Grammar, I thought, would be the end of the road.
The airliner is nearly empty. I am flying from Alabama to Indianapolis for this year’s Great Lakes Bookseller’s Association meeting on one of the first flights once they resumed after the attacks a week before. There must be four of us scattered around the main cabin. The grim attendants sit down with us, chat about anything but. We all had been searched—cars, luggage, self—three or four times before boarding. The only joke had been how the joke was on those not flying as this flight would be safest trip ever now that… The attendance at the conference would be down, everyone expected. The demographics already skewed by the disappearance of independent bookstores, the consolidations of the chains and distributors, Amazon. There were many more vendors now—exhibitors and authors with new books—than curious customers. I had a new book to peddle, The Blue Guide to Indiana,
a fake travel guide, the joke being that no one, not even folks from Indiana, toured the state. Jonathan Franzen was there too. The Corrections
had just been released. We sat together with a dozen other authors making a show of it in the signing room, signing copies of our books for the few buyers that did appear for the promotion but mainly for each other. The hit of the conference however was Lynn Sherr’s America the Beautiful,
about the song. Returning home, I waited at the hastily constructed checkpoints at the airport while the new security agents looked through all my signed complimentary books.
I am having my first and only coffee ever—it is an espresso—at an outdoor café in Asheville, North Carolina, with Angela Barrett. My heart instantly chatters within its chassis behind the breastbone. She is amused and attends fully to the data emerging from this experimental trial. She is more of a scientist than a writer though we are here in town to teach writing not science at Warren Wilson College’s low residency MFA program. We had been wondering how a writer, me, had survived this long without the elixir of coffee. What was a writer anyway? The greater culture seemed to be moving to clearly define the role through certification, an MFA degree and course of study, though neither one of us had the papers our students would soon possess. As I idle and thrum at high, pidgins circle the obelisk, dive bomb the crumbs scattered on the adjoining plaza. We conclude that we are the last or maybe the first of an old order or a new phylum, the schooled writer, the writing school. We contemplate visiting the nearby Riverside Cemetery and searching for the grave of the writer O. Henry, his stone we hear covered with pennies. But I am wound so tight I am unable to move.
I gave up tenure at Iowa State and moved to Boston to teach undergraduate creative writing at Harvard for five years. The position is not tenure-track, which means I will travel through the next several years never really able to settle into Cambridge, walking dead. Theresa and I do strike up a friendship with David Rivard and his wife Michaela Sullivan, an in-house graphic designer for Houghton Mifflin. She shows us the new powerful Apple computer in her office and the tools onboard that allow her to create the covers and page layouts. She shows me the cover of a new annual series—Best American Essays
—published under the Ticknor and Fields imprint in a boxed set with the established series of Best American Stories.
She manipulates the mouse to fan an array of Pantone colors, saying that in subsequent years the publisher will run the spectrum.
Though the Apple computer was invented in 1976, Apple the company goes public this year. The share price is $22.00. At the same time Steve Jobs is convinced, after seeing it first at Xerox, that a graphical user interface would be the design of all future computing. I am typing this now, in 2015, on a 2012 iMac running OS X 10.8.5 with graphics NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M S12 MB. The machine creates the illusion on the screen in front of me that I am mechanically typing this “this” on a white, eight and a half by eleven piece of paper. I am still using the hobbled QWERTY keyboard designed purposely to slow my typing on the typewriter so as not to jam the keys.
The bulletin boards of the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, bulletin boards of most campuses, are scalloped with neatly typed sheets of paper, the lower edge fringed with tear-away tongues printed with contact phone numbers, advertising typing. Theses, dissertations once accepted, are bound by the university and stored in the library. Their pages must be perfect. Correction fluids or tapes cannot be used, so if a mistake is found, it often means the retyping of the entire page and sometimes subsequent pages as the correction spills letters or words forward, confounding the previous spacing. I tell my students today about this arrangement, mention that I received my degree in one year or really in nine months of the two semesters, but really really in six months because the book of stories I wrote for my thesis had to be completed by February in time for it to be typed perfectly, its format reviewed and accepted by the graduate school. I want to include pictures too—two color reproductions of postcards depicting Fort Wayne. Color xerography was brand new, and, I thought, lovely with its melted wax crayon colors. After much discussion, a special dispensation is granted and the thesis was received with pictures.
Elizabeth Spires, a poet in my class at Johns Hopkins, receives an IBM Correcting Selectric II for her birthday. The machine was and still is the paragon of electric typewriters and serves as the transition to the “word processor” and computer-based platforms of the future what with its binary programming and minute data storage that allows the machine to remember the mistake and type back over it with correction tape. I am using, and I still have, a Smith Corona typewriter to create the worksheets for my fiction seminar, the basket of keys (not the spinning ball element of the Selectric) striking the stencil of the mimeograph sheet hard enough to record its negative in wax on the reverse. There is always the razor blade to correct. Rolling the page out, separating the stencil from the waxed backing and shaving off the offending adhered type. Even then, I swear I could tell the difference of writing produced by one machine over that of another. The electric machines hum as you think. Their “touch” too is all different even as the arrangement of the letters remained the same.
The day before pick-up in Syracuse, I poke through the discarded trash piled on the curb of the streets in my neighborhood. I find many Smith-Corona typewriter cases, portables mostly, but some standard desktops nestle in the grass. Smith-Corona’s last American factory in the Cortland suburb has just closed, the works shifting down to Mexico. I am using then a Macintosh LC with a page display I opted for instead of a new color horizontal screen. I have just hooked the machine up to the university’s electronic mail and have begun receiving messages and memos at home by means of a dial-up modem. I can only access the World Wide Web from a machine in my office at school. Every house in Syracuse, it seems, had a typewriter, and everyone seems, overnight, not to need them anymore. What to do with the old machines? Take them to the curb. Over time, I bring a few of the carcasses home with me. Walking the streets looking through the heaps for a new model, a different color, a better box, I see a few others scavenging. I tell myself the surplus would be for parts if nothing else, unable to image writing without a typewriter in the uncertain future.
I return to Johns Hopkins in 1984. I visit the current seminar class, gave a reading. I ask my former teacher, John Barth, how things are going. In four short years the number of creative writing programs has grown from two dozen to over one hundred. I have been teaching at Iowa State University those four years, growing a graduate program, an MA, so as not to conflict with Iowa’s MFA program down the road. In the last four years, Iowa State has hired four new writers—Steve Pett, Jane Smiley, David Milofsky, and Mary Swander—adding to a staff of five already there. “It is more and more difficult to attract students,” Jack tells me. I ask him where they are going. “To Syracuse,” he says, “to work with Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff.”
I live in Story County, Iowa, teaching at Iowa State University. Theresa Pappas and I start a small press, Story County Books and bring out our first edition, a one-story chapbook by Michael Wilkerson titled “Can This Story Be Saved?” We want to take advantage of this new technology, the Macintosh computer’s desktop publishing. We do not want to do something finely printed like Allen Kornblum’s Toothpaste Press over in Iowa City but discover what the new machine could do. It would be several years before I owned a Mac. There are only a few on campus. We rent one from at an early print store, that has several, on Lincoln Way across from the university.
I start work on a book called Townships
, an anthology of essays attempting to define the Midwest. I have this crazy idea that the geography of the American Midwest is characterized by the telltale checkerboard pattern of its landscape generated by the township grid. I ask twenty-five Midwestern writers to write an essay about the township—the 6x6 square mile jurisdiction Thomas Jefferson dreamed up to grid the entire country—in which the writer grew up. I had just read David Foster Wallace’s Girl with Curious Hair,
curious about the homage to John Barth and the story, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way. He was living in Boston too, and I ask him if he would like to contribute. “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” his essay, comes with graphic depictions of the geometry of the subject—empty boxes, blacked in squares, and elongated rectangles. In the essay, he takes my abstract idea of very concrete grid and literally literalizes it.
In Maine, we are playing Mafia. Jonathan Lethem leads us in this party game, teams of insiders and outsiders, the Mafia and the Innocents, and through sustained periods of deception and discussion. The teams are made up of writers and participants of the Stonecoast Writers Conference, an evening’s entertainment after the nightly reading. I met Jonathan the year before. He visited the University of Alabama to do a reading. Afterwards, we played Mafia. This was at Andy and Sydney Duncan’s house, writers, who had met Jonathan years before at an independent workshop in North Carolina, interested in transgressive forms, bending genre.
There is a great unease with the complicated communities the great sorting engine of the university tolerates. Writers, I think, think of themselves sometimes as individual agents, unique, original but at the same time long for inclusion, connection. Jonathan moves in circles that occasionally touch or intersect the interlocking rings of the university, the maturing genre of a writing program. In the game, there is “night” and “day.”
I am invited to be a visiting professor at The Ohio State University. It is called a “sprint semester,” a week of classes on any subject and I choose “collage.” I choose collage, a non-narrative form, just to push back a bit against the bias of realistic narrative that has dominated prose workshops in the 20 years I have been teaching. John Gardner’s [1
] The Art of Fiction
, published in 1983 had been wired into workshops and emphasized transparency and unselfconscious storytelling. This aesthetic insists that a text not call attention to itself, that it create a sustained dream. Its conventions are clear and teachable as craft, and its message coincides with the rapid and vast expansion of writing programs. Ironically, the principle of transparency becomes enforced at the very moment that the machine writers use to compose their writing becomes expansive and expressive. Writers in workshops are encouraged to rig their powerful typesetting machines, now connected to the Internet, to produce finished copy that looks exactly like the product of an early 20th Century typewriter. E. J. Levy is in the class, composing prose from prompts of paint sample strips, photo booth photos, and other graphic interruptions. The time is ripe. The writers in that sprint semester class have all grown up with the computer, with cable TV and remote controls. They are comfortable with the lyric and the non-narrative, with comic books and video games.
The Best American Essays
of 2005 is an anniversary issue, the 20th, and the series editor, Robert Atwan, looks backward to the book’s inception in 1986. I consider my contribution, “Contributor’s Note,” the only time I have ever appeared, to be a fictive essay. I was surprised that it was considered. The piece, in the form of a contributor’s note, traces the biography of a “Michael Martone” and his life performing public readings of his own work or attending similar literary readings by others in the vast network of creative writing programs and conferences that have emerged in the preceding twenty years. As the piece of writing attempts to defamiliarize the author’s note, the whole volume makes me re-see the history of creative writing program culture. My whole life turns strange for me. In order for a life to have meaning, one must get outside of that life to see what matters in all the stuff that happened. The memoirist, I think, often draws a closed parenthesis, simulates a death, so that the time before can begin making a sense. Think my junior year abroad. Think my childhood. The book for me draws such a parenthesis. I can look back over the cultural shifts and aesthetic arguments I lived through and survived. The 2005 edition also balances on an edge of another era, marking, perhaps, the moment the essay was changing. In what way would the essay and its practitioners enter into an academic setting as the new discipline there—“creative nonfiction.” The inclusion of my “essay” makes me look back in another way. It was originally published in Flyway
, a journal still published at Iowa State University and one I edited in the early 80’s when it was known as Poet & Critic
. It was my first job right after graduate school. I inherited a format from an even earlier time. Poets who had pieces accepted for the magazine were given other poems also to be published there. They were then to write a round robin of critiques that would be printed on the pages facing the poems, a workshop in print. But even by 1980 this device had no novelty left in it, and almost every contributing poet had already done time in a workshop for real. I changed the format. I thought then, and think now, that 1980 marked the complete naturalization of “the workshop” for American poets. Fiction writers would not be that far behind. Twenty-five years later, I find the essays in this volume poised on a similar threshold of the schoolhouse door and the workshop seat at the very same moment that academic programs begin once more to entertain other forms of prose besides that of the narrative and the realistic.
] John Gardner is diagnosed with cancer in December of 1977 and enters The Johns Hopkins Hospital where he remains for nearly two months. His future wife, Liz Rosenberg, is a student in John Barth’s Seminar. Barth invites the convalescing Gardner to visit his class and there, before Barth’s students, Gardner insists that the experiments of the past twenty years were “morally” wrong and that writers should now embrace and promote a non-ironic realistic narrative. Present that day were writers Fredrick Barthelme, Mary Robison, and Moira Crone who soon afterward began teaching in programs at Southern Mississippi, Houston, and Louisiana State and writing in a raw minimalist and realistic style, turning away from the formalistic and fabulistic experiments of the 60s and 70s.
Michael Martone's new books are Winesburg, Indiana,
. He is the series editor for Break Away Books at Indiana University Press.
What an enjoyable essay. More proof that prompts work? Applying to nonfiction John Gardner's urgings to effect the fictive dream in technique and achieve morality in purpose is something I'm going to think about for a while.ReplyDelete