Monday, November 30, 2009

Narrating a Family

How do you write a family? There a certain expectations with families--but is there a right way to communicate that?

Take, for instance, coming home from a long trip. You meet your parents at the airport (or, maybe, for some readers, your kids), take the car ride home, shoot the breeze, whatever. And adjectives like "comfortable," "familiar," "cozy," "warm" come to mind, and it's assumed that everyone will know what you're talking about. Like your describing a blanket. What's the point of saying it's a seven-foot by five-foot piece of cloth designed to help you retain body heat? Everyone knows that. And if the blanket isn't like that, there's something desperately wrong. And if the family isn't like that, the same conclusion is drawn.

I had to write about my family for, shock of shocks, expository writing class. We were given this assignment over Thanksgiving break, a time when all those familial adjectives are in full force. Naturally, such an environment should foster nostalgic, congenial feelings, and I suspect the turned-in papers will likely reflect that (I could be surprised).

I began with a not-so-happy subject: the death of my grandfather. As I wrote this relatively short piece out, it became apparent to me that I wasn't writing about family so much as one man's quest to avoid it, as well as another's quest to create it. It became a comparison and contrast paper, as I think about it, detailing where my grandfather and father differ. It is still a family, after all, but like the torn-up blanket, not one you would intentionally create.

Family celebrates life, but it is often created or encouraged by death. Intimacy is constantly shadowed by the suggestion of drifting apart. People on the cusp of leaving on a long trip soak in all the company and high times they can cram in. On the occasion where friends and family have lost someone (which has become so often to become darkly ironic), it is the cruel twist that I know them the better for it. I think this suggestion permeates the narration of any family: it is not just the good times that define us, but the bad. This has been a long post to an almost-trite conclusion, but the writing of this narrative encouraged it.

My professor has read it, and called it painful. Family should never be composed out of pain, but it is the unfortunate truth that it often defines it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Defending Eliot

There are times when I don't want to be an English major. These are the times when I get tired of analyzing, of theorizing, of victimizing poor novels to the whimsies of seniors who just need to get a paper done. When you find yourself incapable of reading a book without wondering about the thematic relevance or contextual meaning of some incident or some line, if you're not looking to do that, it can jolt you right out of your reading.

I can already hear some of my professors' protestations: "It's good to detect themes. To be on the look-out for those is exactly what we have been trying to teach you!" And they succeeded, in that way. But it can be disconcerting when all you want to do is lie down with a book and read for fun. Somehow there gets to be a disconnect between the two: reading for fun and English Major Reading.

T.S. Eliot is a poet you wouldn't expect to be pleasure reading. He's long, allusive as all get-out, and seemingly incapable of writing simply. And, heaven help me, I read "The Wasteland" just for kicks only two weeks ago.

To be fair, I didn't read the footnotes. I didn't read his biographical intro or any theories on the poem itself. I just wanted to read it.

Eliot is musical. I don't understand a word of Italian or French or German, but the excerpts in "The Wasteland" are integral to me. They may come across as pretentious--I don't care. In words I've just defended Eliot with, I get caught up in the imagery and sound of the poem itself. It's not that the content is unworthy: it's beautiful, too.

But that's the point: it's beautiful. And sometimes you need something beautiful to carry you through the day.