Freshman writing led me into the humanities. I attended a high school known for its avowed focus on the sciences, and wanted to be a hacker, mathematician, physicist, or linguist. In actuality, I spent more time playing the cello than on anything else, and was quite serious about becoming a professional musician. For now, I will minimize the tension I experienced in weighing these multiple pursuits to say that the separate fields had a certain unity. Both music and the sciences involved the terms “genius” and “virtuosic” skill. They had intellectual clout, beauty, and rigor. Music was about technique and expression converging; computer language, similarly, was constructed language that worked with hardware to produce real effects, often beautiful (e.g., Jonathan Blow’s Braid), and mathematics of course, was the purest distillation of all that. Also, my parents thought they were cool. I believe I’ve always had a pretty strong interest in language, so implicit in my respect for music and the sciences—which as you’ll notice, are the more symbolically oriented ones, and not the physical or natural sciences—was an admiration for their manipulation of symbols. My main engagement with the more every day sort of language went into my inheritance of the school’s arcane linguistic club from a far more precocious linguistics geek. When I read, it was mostly non-fiction, and often my own private writing.
The best people, to my eyes, were working on precise problems which rendered precise solutions, by using language in the most effective and provocative ways. Beauty lay in precision and form. I consciously saw mathematical theorems as beautiful, but rarely extended the same epithet to literary or philosophical writing. Such writing—by which I mean done in “natural language”—was at best effective and provocative, but did not form part of an exact problem- or solution-space. Language was most effective when it was done by me. Not because I thought anyone else would value it, but because writing helped me work with myself. I wrote reflective essays, journals, private blogs, a few creative projects. I wrote a poetry chapbook called “My Corpulent Mass” for freshman English. These projects allowed me to learn something about my self and relationship with the world. They were not important as artifacts to be read, so much as records of processes. Reading was always secondary to writing. The extent of this can be seen in my relationship to the literary texts assigned to me in high school.
My main memory of 10th grade English involved taking multiple choice reading questions on books I hardly bothered to read. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Homer’s Iliad, and Austen’s Sense and Sensibility were among the class titles. Reading narratives from the distant past was challenging, but the deeper issue was probably the fact that I had little feeling for the social and sexual dramas going on in the stories. It now strikes me as strange that high school students would be required to read texts from the beginnings of the English language and the beginnings of Modernity and the beginnings of Writing; why not start with something contemporary and work backwards? I couldn’t relate to the masculine blood-thirst and desire for honor in Homer, although I was somewhat interested in the intimacy between Achilles and Patroclus. I understood something of the gossipy nature of Austen and the ribald sexual humor of Chaucer; Shakespeare’s wordplay was clever, but the character of Macbeth, who could broadly be remembered as “incorrect,” mystified me. In every reading there was something to grasp, but I mostly read in fear of quizzes. Besides, the discussions in that class went nowhere; students were scared; quizzing was punitive; I had no motivation to learn, and little fear of a bad grade. That class was a low point in my literary education, and anecdotally the same year I first learned to code.
Things got better from there. I had an astoundingly good English class in eleventh grade. We read a Dickinson poem and its facsimile, asking questions about dashes and capitalization, which in their apparent triviality made the poem’s meaning only more urgent. It constituted the first true reading experience, because I had to consider every word. We had open-ended discussions on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, whose dark intensity I came to admire. But mostly, I remember the process of writing for that class. The teacher was a truly dedicated and experimental pedagogue, asking us respond to standardized test prompts with narrative fiction. So I wrote stories and personal reflections, even while doing timed essays, and continued my largely introspective projects. In my final high school literature class, the near opposite could be true. I distinctly remember Seamus Heaney on blackberries and Yeats on gyres—Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment, and Native Son on the side of prose—texts which actually felt moving enough to encompass my attention in a serious way, to take me out of my quotidian world and its worries.
Whatever I wrote for critical purposes does not stand out in my memory. How could one do justice to a book well-read? The better the reading, the worse the writing; the better the writing, the worse the reading. Consider the books and stories I never wrote about at all: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, White Nights, The Kreutzer Sonata, Notes from the Underground, Waiting for Godot, The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, Kafka on the Shore, World as Will and Representation, Narcissus and Goldmund, and Demian. These provided a level of solace during my most emotionally tumultuous freshman year. I found them on a shelf at home. These books were mainly the stuff of ennui, depression, self-hatred, a pull into darkness that was as cathartic as vomiting, which lent a certain beauty to my bedtime tears, and helped me understand certain issues around language’s failure. The darkness of reading as an experience funneled into the content of what I wrote at the time, most habitually in my journal entries (which were fairly constant, if not manically monologic, and not well-written in the slightest). Maybe I didn’t care for literature as something to be written about because my books had their imprints written in me.
When I recall the processes of introspection that went on in class through writing, the pleasure of literary education becomes far clearer. I’ll add to my astringent memories of tenth grade a funny marginal comment my teacher left on a rather idiosyncratic reflection I wrote about gender roles and sexuality. I don’t even remember how this topic came to light, but it always brings to mind one specific discussion of Shakespeare’s probable bisexuality in class, and the subsequent discovery that the teacher himself was gay, in the process of some kind of divorce. At that moment, I began to see a bit of the humanity and care behind my teacher’s bitter façade. In eleventh grade, the year of greater demands on the scientific front, I wrote clinically and critically about myself as a person who suffered from impostor syndrome. I also wrote about friends I admired, working through my ambiguous feelings of erotic desire and admiration for certain talented classmates. That eleventh grade teacher was unique in that he had us write proposals for our own grades, which gave me plenty of additional time to practice self-critique and reflection. This mode of writing was my lingua franca, as I soon discovered, and I relished it to some extent. The only real “creative writing” experiment I made was early on: a chapbook of poems in 9th grade, called “My Corpulent Mass.”
Could these be the missing essays, the missing bits of writing dedicated the books of bedtime sadness? As much as my attitude towards literature was correlated with negative emotions and moods, it was almost always linked to some kind of positive attachment, some little emotional high, however fleeting. From an early age, I began to find many boys in school quite attractive, and used writing to blason them—in other words, to describe and keep their beauty under wraps, for myself, to domesticate my desire. The crushes went from being a typical experience of shame (as all attractions place one in a vulnerable state) to being a more specialized experience of shame. I felt antagonistic towards the fact that I was so attracted to so many boys for the mere chance of how their nose turned or how fast they were able to run1. The arbitrary nature of taste or attraction was as painful as the arbitrary nature of my divergent orientation. Writing perhaps led me to find the exact similarities and differences between individuals, and therefore legitimize my attachments to some over others, narrowing the field of attraction to those who had more pronounced aesthetic qualities. It also took my attention away from desiring them towards the busy act of writing; of describing; of charting the vicissitudes of my emotions; of establishing the historicity of my enamorments. Years later, I would hear about the troubadors, and connect the dots with Shakespeare. Were they not doing the same, possessing their loves through poetry?
As I slowly but surely grew out of these randomized attachments and entered my first “real” relationships, I discovered the extent to which my words were able to create joy and hurt in others. The apotheosis of this came after I met someone through a summer music intensive in the Berkshires over a period of ten weeks and came away pretty much in love, and that was the first time I actually used email and video chat in a longitudinal manner with another person. Nominally we met by playing in a string trio together, Beethoven and Mozart, but in the dorms at night, we would speak out Ginsberg, reading from some ebook I had downloaded online. On the weekends we would go to the one bookstore in town, and there I found a pink book called How to Be Gay, but because I was too shy about buying things, ended up downloading a PDF of a more soberly academic book by the same author from 1989. Somehow this historical book converged with an interest in Beat poetry, and in a kind of investigation of who was gay in the world of avant-garde composers—who was John Cage, who was Merce Cunningham, etc.—because that is how I was coming to identify, at last, and I was fascinated by everything that academics had said on the subject. The high prevalence of gay men “all of a sudden” in this music academy added to the intensity of this reading; there were older but still youthful professional singers giving the most sublime performances of Britten’s canticles. Beautiful men reciting poetry through their vocal chords in music, wearing pressed white clothes in a light wooden amphitheater, while green grasshoppers and dragonflies and odd horseflies bred outside, and my friend who was mysterious, and who would listen to me, actually listen it seemed, to my rants and my investigations and my descriptions of boys I had been or currently found attractive; but what really qualified the experience was not the chatter but the luminous silence after the final sound left the open-air amphitheater, absorbed by thousands of leaves of grass, trees, soil, earthworm, flesh.
There’s something entirely unportable about those silences and those fades, the way a concert ends on a particular summer day. The best concerts would leave me in a kind of wondrous catatonia. I would still try to write, but not after a long walk home in the dark—thirty minutes of cricket chirping, hearing the breaths of my friend. I tend to become upset with people who began to chatter and critique too early, and often find the eagerness with which some people opine completely alienating. Maybe that tendency originates from the preciousness of those moments of listening. The listening intensified by the caesura. The listening always mattered more than the writing, and that conviction persists to this day. The review for me was mere homage, testament to beauty, a marker of an important event. On a more personal level, it was a way of being with someone you love and thinking of something else—a sweet deferral of the more explicit kinds of intimacy that often lead romance astray. The expanse of nature and my love for minute insects combined themselves, and of course the thin, wooden, hollow nature of stringed instruments always reminds one of the great human skill but small material difference involved in transforming a felled tree into a valuable music-making instrument. I don’t know if book-lovers think of pages this way. I certainly appreciate good book design, but the qualitative differences between reading on a screen or paper doesn’t fundamentally change the quality of a piece of writing. The divide between the musical and the verbal is clear, in that music is certainly a finer thing.
If music is finer, then words are more portable. They can survive transcriptions and transformations and translations; they can be “adapted” into films or musical works. The blockiness of language is also its fineness, its source of precision, its fountain of constraints. Somebody once said that poems are shipping containers.2 Somebody once said on Hacker News, writing poetry is like trying to sculpt with legos.3 The coarse nature of writing probably comes from the conventionality of words. Each word carries a patina of historical precedent. Music is also fluent, as is any art-form, but the feelings of dysphoria that envelopes a poorly performed musical work or poorly written piece of writing are quite distinct. In one case, the failure is all your own—painfully close to the feeling that your body is ungainly, is the sense that you’ve failed to bow or finger a phrase properly—and along with this, the fear that your failure is somehow inherent and inescapably obvious. In the case of language, the pain is less physically obvious, but more socially insidious: you have a feeling that your words are not your own, that you are ventriloquizing a demon, that you lack education, that you are excluded from an elite, or that your writing just shows how plain normal you are, how obtuse you are inside. Otherwise, it can give rise to striking moments of originality. But whether one fails or not, the record of failure seems to fall back into language, into the dusts of society, and not onto one’s own bodily imperfections.
I think the easiness of language on the body, relative to music—where the body is in many ways everything—or math, where cognitive capability is often seen as a resources which fades away after one turns thirty—makes it more forgiving, too. I was a person who loved to run and play soccer, but never dreamt of ever engaging in team sports past the age of twelve. I’d have to play for the “wrong team,” according to my birth sex. The idea of being a “female” in math or computer science amplified my impostor syndrome to a dizzying degree, even though I had grown up around a non-trivial number of extremely intelligent women. Similarly, the image of myself on stage was so repulsive to me that I could not play solo without my eyes closed; as if to block out the world in a solipsistic refusal. Writing emails in a remote courtship was far better to me than even the most pleasurable tactile experience. Perhaps I managed to replace the sense of the body’s space with the resounding quality of words, which can vibrate best in the enclosed space of lyric poems. Poems are like recording devices; cathedrals which produce echoes through rhyme and repetition, and of course through the actual ritual of recitation. One of my favorite objects from that first relationship was a recording she sent, a whispered reading of a poem, coincidentally also written on August 10th. Maybe I could say my best contribution to the relationship was a recording of my own; an excerpt from Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which lasted for more than fourteen minutes.
The silences came after that, after Zwei Gefühle, after the strange harmonies of some Janaček string quartet, some Beethoven string quartet, some symphony by Mahler, some song cycle set to the text of Bök’s Eunoia, which we later found in the bookstore and together read. Writing back to a distant first love came after the silence of waiting, which is the period in which the other writes. I tried to become a music critic at that time, overwhelmed by the beautiful silence. It was in this experience that my first real interest in writing arose, an interest that was positive, that was in a sense not directed towards anyone in particular and not even exactly coming from the confines of my self, in the way that lyric poetry is sometimes thought to be. Soon, I gave up music criticism, because it was too quick. What use is the thought not left enough time to grow into its own truth? I didn’t want to be a commentator or a critic; I wanted to be a slow writer, a slow reader, in pursuit of some small and subtle reality.
I have just traced a narrative built of facts, some more familiar than others. These are sentences I could have written years ago, as in the style of some Bay Area blog post. The time in which the essay was an introspective act, with the kind of hard-nosed utility of self-analysis and self-knowledge has long past, and so this genre of writing is congenital and antigenic at once. Some of what I write is new. I would never have thought of poetry as a cathedral yesterday. Or simply put, I didn’t think of poetry as a cathedral until today. I didn’t think of the wood of the stringed instrument as thin yet thickly organic. I spin these thoughts out of the conventions laden in memory, in verbal choice, in sentence flow, in social knowledge of the English language. Are they false because they are new, insubstantial? My hypothesis begs to be tested, so I whip out Eunoia and recite. Do these eleven-line objects sound out as poetry? The instrument of my voice, rendered especially strained by a general lack of speech, is not the ideal one. Yet I find myself vocalizing in a way that seems interesting in its foreignness, stringent in the way I imagine Bök’s voice to be (not just imagine, but know). I said that Freshman writing led me into the humanities. What do I mean by that?
Something like what Diotima says in the Symposium—“And soon he will of himself perceive that the beauty of one form is akin to the beauty of another; and then, if beauty of form in general is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty in every form is one and the same! And when he perceives this, he will abate his violent love of the one, which he will despise and deem a small thing, and will become a lover of all beautiful forms.” (Jowett 1892 580-582) ↩︎