The Writing Disorder


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It’s Important to Be Regular and Fail Better
in the Reflection of the Funhouse Mirror:

It was a stark and dormy night at the University of Central Arkansas when the poetry workshop cornered Artist in Residence Davis Schneiderman behind the Starbuck’s. Schneiderman (a millennial Surrealist/Burroughs scholar/postbeat posterboy for postmodern aesthetics) had just purchased a chai latté and collected his meager check from the College of Fine Arts and Communication, when the irate class accosted him. A security camera recorded it all―from the duct tape to the purple rubber chicken, the slightly sautéed Ken Doll, and the eventual involvement of Campus Security.


Pavel Rubin: I’ve seen your poorly produced videos on YouTube about deconstruction.

Davis Schneiderman: Did you say “poorly produced”?

Rubin: Yes, and I was wondering ... I know your approach to deconstruction, but how would you reconstruct something?

Schneiderman: You mean, how would I construct something that I would deconstruct?

Rubin: No, the opposite.

Schneiderman: What is the opposite of deconstructing?

Rubin: Reconstructing.

Schneiderman: Reconstructing. So something has been constructed, then deconstructed, then reconstructed ... and after that reconstruction, it has been deconstructed again? So at what point do we get ... let me see if I can follow you ... we got something reconstructed, then deconstructed, then reconstructed ... following the reconstruction or deconstruction ... how would you know where the transition point is between the first deconstruction and reconstruction and then the reconstruction and the second deconstruction, how would you know that you have stopped one phase and are into the other phase? So it’s already been constructed? But why would I reconstruct it then, if it’s already constructed?

Rubin: For shits and giggles or the sake of art or whatever...

Schneiderman: But if I take something—let’s say it’s like a Lego tower—let’s get specific here ... here’s my Lego tower and I want to reconstruct it ... but it already exists and I’m not going to deconstruct it ... if I’m adding a new Lego to it, is that part of the construction or is that part of the reconstruction?

Rubin: Part of the reconstruction.

Schneiderman: But how would I know, would there be some sort of like ribbon-cutting ceremony with the Lego tower so that we would know that it was done with its construction phase?

Rubin: Yeah, we could take a nice picture of it.

Schneiderman: So, taking a picture of something signifies its being complete?

Rubin: Sure, let’s say so.

Schneiderman: Okay, I think our time is up.

Amber Scott (stepping up with the rubber chicken and waving it menacingly): Some people would say that a specific literary device, like rhyming, would be considered an “old-school” thing. Is there anything like rhyming you just throw out the window or do you embrace everything?

Schneiderman: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. So I’ll start with rhyming. I’ll say that if you write a poem in rhyming iambic pentameter, it will sound like it’s coming from the Renaissance, yet there is a grand tradition of rhyming in postmodern literature: rap music. Right? If you listen to any really interesting rap like Gil Scott Heron in the early days or A Tribe Called Quest, kind of that native tongue rap, it’s full of really inventive rhymes. Even hip-hop that isn’t that interesting is stuffed with really interesting rhyme and wordplay.
      So, as a kind of roundabout way of coming to your question ... No, there’s probably nothing you should throw out completely. I can imagine a day and age, say America-2100, where the rhyming poem and heroic couplets becomes the most radically innovative inventive device in the world, because no one’s done it in centuries. Still, there aren’t literary devices that exist up here in the Platonic universe. I am raising my hands in the air—that exist up here in the Platonic ether. They all exist in opposition to what’s going on at the time. Anything hackneyed can become interesting and anything that is interesting can become super played out. So no, there is nothing to be thrown away. The nice thing about postmodernism is everything is ripe for parody. You could produce an epic poem, and if you do it the right way it’s not going to sound earnestly 1600, it’s going to seem radically 2100.

Carter Fliss (grabbing the chicken and commencing the actual physical abuse): You have a video on the Internet of you boiling a book in a pot of noodles, and I kind of like that video, but it made me wonder, “If you had to prepare a book to eat, which one would it be and how would you prepare it?”

Schneiderman: Well, it speaks to my culinary experience. The book that I boiled for the video was a novel called Double or Nothing by Raymond Federman. It was about a guy who locks himself up in a room for a year with a year’s supply of noodles. He writes story about a guy writing a story about a guy writing a story. And when Federman came to visit us, we boiled his novel in noodles. So, there is a Danish writer that I like named Isak Dinesen. It’s a pseudonym for a woman named Karen Blixen. She’s known for Out of Africa, among other works. She wrote a great story called “Babette’s Feast,” which follows this very Protestant religious order in the nineteenth century, all about privation and eating bland food and general guttural frigidity. The sect’s chef, Babette, is a French woman who is fleeing counter-revolutionary Paris, and yet, after many years, she wins a 10,000-franc lottery back home. As a gesture of gratitude, she wants to cook them a feast that the sect assumes will be her going-away meal. Now, the sect eats bland: bran muffins and things, but they let Babette prepare a sumptuous feast prepared with exotic, imported ingredients, resulting in turtle soup, buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream and the like. The sect decides they will eat but not enjoy the meal, so as to escape its apparently sinful-wordly-sensuous trappings. There’s more, of course …. yet, to answer your question, I would take “Babette’s Feast,” and I would make it into a bran muffin. And I’d eat it for colonic health. It’s important to be regular.

Ariel Moore (taking the rubber chicken away and tossing the weapon into the bushes): My question is about punctuation. I’ve read some of your stuff and I’ve heard you read, and it sounds like you use parentheses sometimes. Around here, our teachers tend to have a stigma against punctuation, so what is your opinion on it?

Schneiderman: Stigma? They don’t want you to punctuate anything?

Moore: No.

Schneiderman: So, they’re saying write, with no periods?

Moore: In poetry, at least.

Schneiderman: Oh, in poetry … No commas?

Moore: In general.

Schneiderman: Poetry has a type of punctuation built into it. Poetry has the natural punctuation of the line break, and perhaps that’s what they’re talking about. When you break a line, you automatically have that stoppage. So a lot of people misread poetry. To take a familiar example: there’s that Robert Frost poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” People who read it wrong, and maybe there’s no wrong way to read it, go “Whose woods these are I think I know his house is in the village though he would not see me stopping there to see his woods fill up with snow.” But really the line breaks suggest “Whose woods these are I think I know (pause) His house is in the village though (pause) He would not see…” So, the line break is a type of punctuation.
      Now, you can use enjambment, where you break the line at an “unnatural” spot: “Whose woods these … (pause) … are I think … (pause) … I know” and then you get a double break. If you use enjambment and also the natural break at the end of a line—“Whose woods these (long pause) are I think I (long pause) know/ His house/….”—you might manipulate the punctuation even more. If you were to put in a comma or other caesura on top of this, you could have three breaks at once, and maybe that’s what your professors are saying: they don’t want you to overbreak. Probably what they’re suggesting is that students depend too much upon the characteristics of prose—commas, semicolons, colons—that they are not attuned to the kind of deliberate turning of the line one might use in a certain type of poetry.

Kevin Black (brandishing the Ken doll): What makes writers important to culture, and vice versa?

Schneiderman: There are a lot of people who would suggest that the arts are secondary to culture; we are not doing rocket science here, we are not curing cancer, and “What is this you are doing? Spending your time dabbling with words?” I would take a lesson from science fiction where we have to imagine things before we build them. If you’ve read Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, that’s the first literary representation of a submarine, before submarines were invented. If you’ve ever seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, with that great barbell-like spaceship that is rotating, well Skylab, one of the first space stations, is of similar inspiration. There is some evidence that people in the 1800s, when they saw UFOs, did not see our modernist flying saucers, but instead saw what might look to be airplanes. Of course, this pre-dates Kitty Hawk.
      I’m not saying there’s a collective unconscious where we imagine everything together and then we make it, but writers are sometimes the generative engines of physical ideas. Also, the type of writing that I do often works as social critique, and I think that is where culture comes into play. Writing is certainly conscious of culture, but it’s the distorted fun-house mirror that allows the culture to look at itself and reveal—not necessarily its flaws—but how it’s assembled. We often forget that things are not as they are because they were deigned by a cosmic demiurge, but that we live in a world we’ve assembled together. We agree murder is bad, and incest is wrong, or that we don’t want this kind of pesticide sprayed on our tomatoes … and these ideas are social constructions; the interplay between writing and art is a fun-house mirror for these social constructions.

Black: Hunter S. Thompson, your impression of him? Has he has influenced you at all?

Schneiderman: I love Hunter S. Thompson. We were just talking about him in the car today. I have not read as much work by him as Professor Spitzer, who I think has an encyclopedic knowledge of Thompson, but what Thompson does well, and of which I am not usually in favor, is transform the writer into a romantic figure, into a crazed scribbler who is possessed on an inner difference/genius. This works against the idea that the writer stands as more of a DJ, and that anyone can pick the record and put it on the turntable but not everybody can be Hunter S. Thompson. Despite that, this is a guy who is weirdly inventive with language, and unafraid to piss off his subjects.
      You might also achieve a delightful vicariousness while reading Thompson, but that also implies that you—regular you—can’t write what he writes. This is a pose on Thompson’s part: I don’t think that people are born being that guy; he’s a constructed persona. He’s like a stage performer—the Gonzo with the cigarette, the holder, the hat, the drugs. This is constructed in the same way that DJ Danger Mouse is a constructed identity, in the same way that President Obama is a constructed identity. Thus, if you fall in love with Hunter S. Thompson or William Burroughs, who I do scholarly work about, or any writer ... I think you’re on shaky ground. Yet if you can appreciate what they are doing as performance, and see how that performance plays into their writing, well, that’s different.

Stacia Szechi (sautéing the Ken doll): Would you prefer to be remember as a skilled creator or someone who stirred things up? And no, you can’t choose both.

Schneiderman: Probably stirred things up, because, well, I used to go to cooking school. I went to culinary school when I was seventeen. I went to the best cooking school in North America, the Culinary Institute of America, and there I found giant stock pots. If you don’t know what stock is, you take the bones of the cow or other animal and you mix it over heat with onions and carrots and celery, and slowly, over many hours or days, you make stock; this stock is used to make all sorts of grand European sauces. The stock pots bubbled with giant oars inside their girth. We’d would be asked, often, by the large Austrian chef, Chef Faukner, who was so large—I don’t mean this as a smack against overweight people—but he was 350 pounds and couldn’t really move around, so he had a microphone and he would ask everything as a question. And my number—I didn’t have a name, my number was 11—and he would intone through the mic, “Number 11! Why are the stock pots not being stirred?” And then I would have to run over to the giant stock pot and stir the increasingly viscous goop with the oars. So, it was at that moment that I learned the pleasure of stirring things up.

Michael Garland (going to town with the Ken doll): My question is: Who was the first person or group that you offended―or the person that gave you permission to offend―who made you realize, Oh my God this is the most effective tool I can use in my writing?

Schneiderman: The first person who said it was okay to be offensive, or the first person who took offense?

Garland: Or the piece. What was that inciting point that made you realize offensive is a great way to go?

Schneiderman: I guess I don’t. Are you finding me offensive? Is that your subtext?

Garland: No! But I’m sure that there has to be a lot of people that do; I hope that there are.

Schneiderman: I don’t know if I would consider myself offensive … I mean, I don’t bathe very often.

Garland: Aggressive and innovative is another way to say it.

Schneiderman: Aggressive? What the fuck are you talking about?

Garland: Exactly.

Schneiderman: Okay, let me put it this way: I am an institutional writer, meaning that I earned degrees from accredited writing program. After I finished my undergrad at Penn State I went to a graduate writing program at Binghamton; I earned an MA in writing and a PhD in English Language and Literature, but in creative writing. So I spent a lot of time in workshops, like many of you. Now within those workshops… my writing was often on the lunatic fringe. I was doing things with narrative, not in the complexity that I hope I am working with now, but I was kind of fumbling my way early on. I didn’t have many models or, really, the Internet. And I think that I chafed at the institutional boundaries, with my peers saying, “Well, why don’t you do it this way? Why don’t you write in the realist tradition?,” when there of course as much of a non-realist from which to draw exciting work.
      If you want to read a wild novel, read Don Quixote, read Tristram Shandy, or read anything from the beginning of novels onward. Then are always the John Updikes of the world, but that’s not the only thing that’s happening, right?
      I had to give myself permission, no one gave me permission. If I had listened to other people—my parents, my professors—if I had taken their advice, I probably wouldn’t be doing the things that I am doing now. I noticed in the last class ... we were doing this collaborative poem and a few people chose not to participate and I was talking with Terry Wright afterwards. He said, “Well, why would some people not want to read?” And I guess the question is, “Did they maybe have that anxiety of influence?” like they’re thinking, What I’ve done isn’t good enough to be read out loud, or they just don’t like participating in the group. And that’s their thing. That’s okay. But, if you give yourself permission to take that monkey off your back, and say I’m not Shakespeare ... And you give yourself permission to just do whatever it is you want to do with your time, and give yourself permission to fail, then you’re okay.
      I’ll take Samuel Beckett, one of my great literary heroes, as a model here. There’s a great quote from one of his later pieces called Worstward Ho!: “Ever tried. Ever failed … Fail again. Fail better.” I’m always looking to fail better than I did the time before. You should be fearless, and I picked that up from learning to be a writer in an academic tradition and having to deal with a bunch of realists in my courses. And I don’t know what it is that makes me want to push, push, push.

Garland: Do you remember any certain first work that you really liked, that you were like, “This is going to bother people”?

Schneiderman: That I wrote? Yeah! Some people might feel that way about parts of my new novel Drain (Northwestern University Press), where characters inhabit each other through sex acts. Going back, though … there was a case about fifteen years ago in California of a girl who was molested … I can’t remember her name, but she was molested by some trusted associate—it was a horrible story, maybe a neighbor, it wasn’t an uncle. At the trial, the father was on the stand, testifying against the molester, and the molester stood up in the middle of the trial and said, “You molested her too!” and pointed at him. It was this horrible moment when the father had been accused. So I wrote a story, when I was about twenty, from the perspective of this accused molester, and I was fascinated with that turnabout. And I sent it to a journal in California—this was when I hadn’t had anything published—called Asspants. I remember the name of the journal. And they wrote back and they said, “This is an open wound.” I changed all the names, it wasn’t the same thing, but you could tell, and they said, “You can’t write about this.” And that was the moment.

And at that very moment, Campus Security swooped in with nightsticks and German shepherds. Tear gas exploded, the mob scattered, and UCA’s Artist in Residence was swiftly escorted to the county line with only minor duct-tape burns. His chai latté had cooled down considerably, but it’d still give him the caffeine boost he was looking for. It would be a long walk back to Illinois.


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