Andrew Tonkovich is the co-editor of the anthology “Orange County: A Literary Field Guide,” published by Heyday, and editor of the Santa Monica Review. To ring in the new year, we’re presenting in its entirety his essay “Understanding, Misunderstanding, and then Sitting Down to Write” from ZYZZYVA No. 111:
The following is an edited version of the closing talk given at the Community of Writers Workshop at Squaw Valley in July, 2017.
“I live in terror of not being misunderstood.” —Oscar Wilde
I’m proud of at least the title of this talk, and the epigraph. If the rest of it falls at, I may revisit each, encouraging you to imagine that there was, early on, some weak hope or unlikely promise of revelation, insight, affirmation, encouragement. The title—which represents, alas, perhaps .002 percent of the actual lecture—offers elements that a title should, including action verbs, gerunds, some gentle wordplay, and direction, instruction, or expectation.
As further caveat or invitation, those who know me or can easily identify a living, breathing near-cartoon stereotype when they see one (the socialist-anarchist, peace-and-justice, pro-labor, anti-racist, anti-fascist, eco-feminist, vegetarian, hippie-punk, readerly-writerly, literary type) will be unsurprised that I take this opportunity to speak not only to writing but adopt a position, perhaps present a manifesto, rant or polemic (what we on the Left used to call an analysis) of how these might be understood just now. Although I expect buy-in on the title, I’ll understand if you argue with, reject, or ignore the balance of my spiel. All good, as the young folks say, notwithstanding the obviously difficult circumstances of life-art-politics, which are not all good, and why would we expect otherwise, in reality or in its fictional or nonfictional responses from or engagement by writers?
I have something urgent to share, however calmly delivered as a pep talk, congratulation, bon voyage into the everyday oblivion of writing, back home, alone, and away from the airy and elevated psycho-topography of generous workshop encouragement and stunning natural beauty. This tradition of mild provocation as send-off has been practiced by favorite writers with big ideas, Peter Mathiesssen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and each has undermined—as I will—formal expectations or, yes, tried to go those expectations one better. Indeed, that’s one of two options for the writer, and it’s pretty much my big and perhaps only observation and advice this morning. So, if you’d rather get up now for more coffee, care instead to stroll this indeed gorgeous, rugged alpine site for about seventeen more minutes, if you generally prefer trailers to the movie or, better yet, if you are off to organize a powerful grassroots direct-action campaign to take down a criminal political regime, here’s the takeaway:
As writers we can either produce a startling reiteration of a terrific story we’ve read before and somehow improve on it, or we can respond to, answer, undermine, and challenge other writers’ true and recognizable methods and strategies, and as a result produce strange, difficult, new ones. Both options are difficult, brave, require reading and hard work, sitting at the keyboard, but are worthwhile in their own ways, and might be considered in a helpful title, which I offer here, as promised.
This talk is titled “Understanding, Misunderstanding, and Then Sitting Down to Write.”
And, from his essay, “The Critic as Artist,” my hero, Oscar Wilde: “I am but too conscious of the fact that we are born in an age when only the dull are treated seriously, and I live in terror of not being misunderstood.
Don’t degrade me into the position of giving you useful information. Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. Indeed, I mean to review easy understandings, celebrate the risks and virtues of popular misunderstanding, stand in front of you with illustrations and, finally, encourage you to return home to understand, misunderstand, then sit down to write and, we hope, and an audience of other misunderstanders, invite or dragoon new readers into your project, invent if necessary a citizenry of readers needed to succeed at one of the two strategies adopted toward cultivating or coercing or insisting your way into realizing something of a writer’s dream: to be appreciated for both what is obvious and apprehensible in what we have created and, perhaps something more. To be better than what came before, even just a little, or be different.
My own two favorite, much-employed rhetorical poses are the mock- heroic and the self-deprecating. They get laughs, partly because they are misunderstood. You clever people know that. Today I am being completely sincere, or at least mostly. The misunderstanding upon which Wilde insists refers to a useful awareness of the limits of comprehension, the un-freedom of formal or expected thinking. Of course, he’s not attacking education, or teachers, but resisting the often limiting definition of what is taught, of predictable and quantifiable teaching or, for our purposes, of writing. Being misunderstood here means a purposeful and deliberate, elegant and artful undermining of the cruel status quo and creating something like, to put it loudly, solidarity between writer and reader, practiced in a new, different, arguably larger or more ambitious cooperative project.
Just now, a growing cadre of writers has achieved readerships due to their insistence on being misunderstood: Rebecca Solnit, Roxanne Gay, Arundhati Roy, perhaps George Saunders. It’s worth arguing about who’s on that list and, to my mind, very much worth being on it. They depend on construction of a dialectic, not just political or philosophical, but an artistic one, in storytelling and voice and in the Wildean sense. It’s exciting, engaging, immediately recognizable even if perhaps I do not quite accurately define it. In political terms, it echoes advice from Antonio Gramsci that we artists might embrace—especially now—a “pessimism of the intellect and an optimism of the will.”
I mean that writers have a chance just now to sneak up on too-easy mimicry, on fatalism and retreat, timidity and cowardice, on symptoms of a zeitgeist we are asked to accept or interpret and instead knock it on the head, goose it, tickle it, shock it into startling self-recognition with a broken-mirror image of itself, summon the harsh weather, better angels, and eager multitudes, all or any of that, and insist on stubbornly being misunderstood, and celebrating it.
I read and was buoyed by Timothy Snyder’s excellent short manifesto, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, a compendium of cautionary examples and advice on resistance. But what struck me as much as the book’s urgent message was Synder’s use of a gorgeously awkward, stirring phrase, one you don’t hear enough: “free person”—a righteous ur-assumption and ideal, so refreshing and revitalizing to hear spoken that I nearly wept with joy at hearing it. I keep coming back to it, sometimes saying it to myself and occasionally out loud, wherever and whenever I please—“free person!”—because it so informs what I am thinking about in terms of the choices we make, audiences we seek or create, communities we assemble, obligations we undertake toward being purposefully, actively, gratifyingly, joyously misunderstood in the way Wilde demanded and which might make us “free persons,” too, as writers, free to attempt to meet the best of one or, who knows, even both imperatives: Write even a better story than your favorite storyteller has written so far, or write something nobody has quite seen before.
Free-person writers are my favorites, some amazingly accomplishing both: reiterating the best of an existing style or form, and inventing, undermining, exaggerating to make a new one.
Beyond those I lauded earlier, these might include language-subverters and experimenters, idiom elaborators and celebrated purposeful misunderstanders like Grace Paley, Stanley Crawford, Donald Bartheleme, who themselves answered predecessors Kafka, Thomas Bernhard, Nathanael West, and then influenced Nell Zink, Aimee Bender, Junot Diaz, Percival Everett, Jim Krusoe.
Or how about prose stylists who compel favorable comparison to their own mentors, traditions, narratives; authors who write a story worthy of their creative hero or heroine, and so add in a different way to this big roster of free persons insisting on the verity and strength of an inheritance of freedom?
Free persons are sometimes outliers and weirdos, activists or artists, or only neighbors and fellow Americans. It’s sometimes as hard to identify freedom in artists as in the citizenry. Many people seem not to apprehend reality, garishly costumed just now as a gangster clown elected because too many people were afraid, finally, to be misunderstood, that is, afraid to be free. Now it’s as if we’ve collectively launched into space a confused satellite that, sent to the heavens to photograph stars, planets, the cosmos, instead takes selfies, transmitting them home as punishment. Responding back on Earth to the circumstance of illiberal illiteracy, I started a book club, hoping for mass enrollment in my local freedom project. My ironic math was correct regarding participation in this irresistible opportunity to be advised on what to read by, well, me. I, after all, have excellent taste.
Yet, indeed, the free person activist I am knew that if the organizer of any event does not know exactly how many people are attending in advance then nobody is showing up. Of five members of the book club, one was an actual reader. I’ll foreground him, to both make my point and cheer you up, then return to what passes for reality and its challenges. He read widely, offered comparisons to other books, quoted passages. I wish he were always around, sitting near me when I read, write. I’m not sure my wife would accommodate him as in-home avatar of my political and creative subconscious, or if he has dietary restrictions.
Another book clubber identified herself as an “avid reader,” but when asked about one of our standout texts, offered that she’d “read it on the plane,” and it was “okay.” I considered asking her to reread the book, an emotionally heartrending and intellectually gorgeous achievement in empathy and misunderstanding by Jessamyn West, in a car or on a boat, perhaps on the back of a motorcycle, to discover if these experiences might jettison the novel out of the impossibly useless confines of only “okay.” One cheerful fellow read, but so confident was he of every possible connection of each selection to his own life that instead of discussing them, he reviewed his favorite topic, himself, and his apparently infinitely far-flung family, who seemed to have been involved in some way in every scene, moment, or episode of each book. Finally, The Philosopher, a college instructor, questioned the entire notion of fiction, unwilling to accede to the willing suspension of disbelief. Finally, there was the faithful attendee who arrived at each meeting not having read at all—a confusing if brave reinterpretation of the concept of a book club, unburdened by arguably the most descriptive or suggestive part, endorsing clubs, but books not so much.
That was the reality. I’d wanted to reread important books, to compel others to read, value, celebrate, and appreciate them. The syllabus reflected my agenda: smart books, necessary, urgent, provocative, artful, experimental, hilarious, sarcastic, politically honest, and even mean—in other words, stories that might be misunderstood, and so valued by truly free persons. And although not what I had hoped for—impossible, yes, finally—each book clubber had purchased the books, thanked me, integrated something of Jessamyn West, Joan Didion, and others into their liberated misunderstanding, their associative conversations and, I noticed afterward at public meetings and social occasions, instead of talking about trips to Costco or a neighbor’s barking dogs, damn if they didn’t stand around bragging about the book club, telling others about their reading, attempting to recall sections, all in imitation of my excellent outlier, Mr. Ideal Reader, and so improving the civic conversation or at least changing the topic, redirecting the course of that satellite.
I’ve taken seriously Oakley Hall’s advice that we write what we want to read ourselves, by which I assume he meant not only what others might also want to read, but also what we want them to read, to consider, talk about. I will share, insistently, for weeks to come, the thesis of Krys Lee’s remarkable opening talk challenging, reinterpreting, undermining the Tower of Babel myth, making it a call for emancipation, solidarity, and liberation, imagining that where free people proselytize for freedom, exercise it, model it, sometimes against all odds, against authority, against presidents, against religion, freedom happens.
I recently found myself in yet another instructive situation in which I, seated at my assigned table with a dozen revelers at an incredibly big, loud, boisterous, wedding dinner sat observing, critiquing, and, as one does, offering the sort of tempered, reasonable, prudent, patriotic, cheerful, life-affirming, positive, and empathetic remarks about the other guests assembled at yet another robust subcommittee meeting of the wider human circus. Admit it, you’ve done the same. It’s what writers do, and not just smart-asses like myself, otherwise lost or bored in the uncomfortably chafing and proscribed hoorah and sincerity of the occasion. Sitting with guests at my particular table, I quickly divined an invisible line, a schism among us, manifest thusly. With every well-delivered, witty, and resonant observation I shared, exactly one half of those at my table, a group sitting to my right, laughed uproariously, clearly delighted and amused by yours truly. I could do no wrong, and took real satisfaction in receiving their attention and winning their affection. To my left, however, they were not buying it. After each brilliant observation about our circumstance, after each winning bon mot, I turned from a warm reception on my right to confront on the faces of otherwise pleasant, thoughtful people at my left, only blank stares, vigorous chewing, puzzled glances. Friend, has this happened to you? I hope so! To starboard of my vessel of comic transport: smooth sailing, full speed ahead. To port, I had crashed upon the rocks. And how did Captain Free Person, navigator of storms, vanquisher of sourpusses, respond? My voice got louder, my jokes better, my hands outstretched farther to those at one side of the grand table, struggling to persuade diners to that point unwilling to accept my loaves and fishes or plotting, as at another difficult dinner, to eat up quick and join Judas. Freedom is hard, folks, and, yes, the mock heroic and the self-deprecating, the everyday absurd and anarchic, the purposeful wreaking of havoc-inducing misunderstanding—all are useful, whether to wedding banquet attendees, writers, readers, radio show hosts, editors of magazines, perhaps also free people trying hard to be misunderstood in a democracy, against that which is all too easy to understand, accept, accommodate.
Here, in conclusion, I’ll presume to offer you practical advice, or at least preferences.
Take yourself seriously, or sincerely, enough to imagine, in advance, the scene or circumstance of somebody else, not you, reading, apprehending the first page, first paragraph, even first word of your work, somebody who does not need to read your work—unlike fellow workshoppers, spouse, writing teacher, best friend, Ideal Reader—and make every element count—title or epigraph, part of speech, indentation, punctuation, joke—so that readers cannot help but keep reading.
Think about style, and start with style. Oakley Hall writes in The Art and Craft of Novel Writing: “Novels of serious intent are what I write, and it is to would-be authors of serious intent that this book is addressed.
Probably novels that are not of serious intent are constructed and written in pretty much the same way, with the same necessities to be provided for. Indeed, it may be that the novel that is not of serious intent is a contradiction in terms.”
Read it a few times, and that passage is actually funny, stylish, and not serious at all. But, yes, serious intent. Be not afraid to favorably compare your work to the work of those you admire. Somebody else is going to do that anyway. Finding yourself on the shelf, your work near someone else’s, is easier than building the shelf. But that’s okay, too.
Experiment with form. Try one strategy, then another. Write a short story ostensibly about not very much at all but using the most precise, elegant, evocative, detailed, compelling language possible, with long sentences and digressions, big words and elaboration. Then write an equally compelling story, the same story, using as few words as possible. You might write two amazing stories, and be doubly successful, doubly free.
Create conditions, material and imaginative, which invite readers to misunderstand, to complicate, to reach for more.
Stay with the problem, and don’t let go. Don’t easily reconcile myths of ethnic identity, political alienation, love lost, a parent’s misbehavior, the circumstances of our cultural rift. Take a position, make a perspective inviting, cause a ruckus.
Be funny: be unclear and perverse, or use too much clarity itself as a kind of misunderstanding, as against the overwhelming homogenization, assumptions, and co-optation of language, behavior, an entire lazy nation persuaded to adopt certain dumb phrases and too-easy ideas, tropes, whatever, and see what I did there, and awesome, awesome, fuckin’ awesome.
Read a lot. I read work from beginning writers, incarcerated writers, established authors, agents, friends, non-writers, writers with three or four or five stories out there. Everybody wants to be published. Who wants to be read? The political economy of publishing means that publication credit means something. But make sure you can be proud of what you get into print.
The famous advice about the “moral obligation to be intelligent,” from a John Erskine essay, its title adopted by his most famous student, Lionel Trilling, means something, especially now. It most likely means that you’ll be misunderstood, worth critiquing, subverting expectations, challenging readers, coaxing them to be better readers, if also offering them the helpful tools, good taste, and funny hat required to join you in membership of the party of those living in terror at not being misunderstood. It’s a Wilde party, get it?
Write, always, live, engage, as, yes, a free person and offer others the chance also to be free. Free as in liberated, but also of cliché, too-easy and overly familiar stories, received wisdom, perspectives, and under- complicated narratives. Imitate only the best, then try for more of what they did. Advocate for obscure, vital, underappreciated authors. Talk about books. Insist on art that encourages misunderstanding and, so, brings free people together.
My credentials or qualifications are both questionable and impressive, exactly that contradictory blurb I hope for if and when my own collection ever arrives. Indeed, you might, as I promised early on, challenge the quality or substance of my actual talk, but what it might lack in those departments I trust it has made up for in digression, giddy enthusiasm, or what is sometimes called (politely) eclecticism or (impolitely) complete disregard for the occasion.
Finally, you don’t have to be a radical like, say, Bertolt Brecht, though lately, it couldn’t hurt. Art, he said, is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it. But why not use the hammer on the mirror? Build a hammer out of mirrors, or a mirror out of hammers? Why not write the best, most Brechtian story, which, were he here today leading a workshop, would make old Bertie weep at both his successes and your success at outdoing him? Or why not bewilder, fascinate, and confound the old dead guy, who for some inexplicable but no doubt terrific reason finds himself here, alive, in Squaw Valley, California.
Understand? Thanks, and good luck.