Words words words words. Weird words common words, fragile words and sturdy words, empty words and blah blah blah, imaginary real life, falling filing failing hiding, straight words queer words, plagiarism ecstasy clichéd agony, word games mind storms, music rhythm blossoms thorns.
You, you, you, you. Coffee coffee tea tea. Turn away go pee. Sit down ease in, tremble, panic, sweat, begin. Rub forehead stretch hand stand up begin again. Face the paper, face the screen, bleed a little, breathe steam. Relax flex smile frown, search a word wall up and down. At last at last, surprise find, secret pearl round a grain of mind.
- You: A singular intelligence and unique mind—the one and only only only one who will ever trod this earth—falling in love just so with this person in this way, suffering suffering suffering like no other. No one else will have these particular babies and not other babies, lose this mother and this father rather than another mother and father, get this scar and that one and not another, experience this ecstasy in this place with this person instead of all the other ecstasies that might have been with all the others, take on that one project and build that exact thing over there, mess everything up over here, pick up this stone on that road, choose and choose and choose and choose. You can choose to not write, choose a strategic silence as a powerful expression, a kind of resistance of stillness, choose to speak without words using brush and body to shout the ineffable. No one else can do what you can do because quite simply no one else is or ever will be just this right now you. But if you want to write you must find words and you must do work. You must.
- Words: They’re waiting to be breathed into life—to be mustered up in military formation and marched dutifully in black rows onto white fields, or to be piled into incendiary heaps, anarchist bombs and unruly explosions spreading fire and chaos on the page and then running off in all directions. It depends. It depends on what you want your words to do. Do you write to change things, to make a difference, to expose injustice, to fight the power? You decide.
- Work: The trick is to develop the discipline of the desk, to commit yourself to words on the page in a principled and predictable way. Every day is good—say from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., or from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.—or three times a week, or all day Saturday. That’s it—not perfect prose nor a sudden visit from some magical muse nor publishable pieces, but a writing routine. Sounds simple, but it isn’t. You must show up, you must nurture the habit of writing, you must put your words on the page. It’s labor. With words on the page you can rework rethink reorganize and edit and edit and edit, but without words, you are left with good intentions, grand plans, big hopes—in other words, not much.
So get to work.
“How is it,” Edward Said asks, “that the premises on which Western support for Israel is based are still maintained even though the reality, the facts, cannot possibly bear these premises out?” In a notable 1984 essay, “Permission to Narrate” Said attempts to answer his own complex question: “facts,” he writes, “do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustained, and circulate them.”
He’s right, of course. Think, for example, of newspaper headlines you’ve seen that, while the facts and the content may be upsetting, are nonetheless instantly absorbed because they fit easily into a script already written, that is, they conform to a socially accepted narrative: “Toddler Left Unattended in Southside Apartment Bitten by Rat;” “Eight City High Schools Labeled Failing;” “Two Teens Charged in Playground Shooting.”
The facts in each of these situations are supported by a familiar and, therefore, comfortable story. The story adsorbs the facts, sustains them, and circulates them repeatedly, far and wide. It often seems as if the stories are already written, resting comfortably in the back of a computer somewhere, awaiting only this or that predictable fact as authenticating detail, at which point they explode instantly onto the front pages.
Imagine the disequilibrium that would accompany a headline that organized the same facts in the service of a different narrative: Failure of City to Eradicate Vermin Claims Another Victim; City Bureaucracy Delays Childcare Benefit, Unattended Boy Sustains Rat Bite; Easy Access to Assault Weapons Puts Guns in Kids’ Hands.
Or think of the site of ritualized hyper-narratives in conflict: the courtroom. From car accident to corporate looting, from criminal case to child custody dispute, the struggle is always a fight to fit the available facts for judge and jury into a credible narrative that serves a specific outcome.
In a trial I observed years ago a large group of Irish Americans and recent Irish immigrants, all known supporters of the Irish Republican Army, had been charged in federal court in Brooklyn with accumulating weapons to send to the IRA in support of their fight with the British. The prosecution contended that the political beliefs of the defendants along with their avowed support for the IRA motivated them to conspire and to break a number of federal statutes.
The defense told a different story: the defendants, they maintained, were part of a long and proud tradition of anti-colonial struggle against imperialist powers like Great Britain, a tradition that embraced the founding of the United States itself. Further, there was no criminal intent, since the defendants were convinced that they were acting in concert with US policy and as adjuncts to a known federal agency.
It happened that the defendants in the case were acquitted. The defense apparently had an insight the prosecution missed entirely—they worked systematically to put an audience in the jury box that would be receptive to their particular narrative. The facts were only in minor dispute; the larger argument was over whose narrative was believable.
The defense succeeded in selecting a jury that was overwhelmingly recent immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, from Central and South America. The trial took place at the height of the Malvinas crisis, an ugly war that almost went nuclear between Great Britain and Argentina. The crisis didn’t register with most Americans, but it was the top story in Latin American newspapers where the undisputed bad guy was Great Britain. For these jurors at this time a narrative of independence from the evil empire was easy to hear, completely acceptable to believe.
Here’s a different, perhaps more familiar courtroom story, a parable really. But it’s true enough and it happened in April, 1989. Our own boys were 12, 9 and 8 at the time, and they’d cut their teeth on the swings, slides and sandboxes of Central Park playgrounds, jogging around the reservoir, celebrating birthday picnics at the carousel, awestruck watching West Indian cricket matches.
When the body of a 28-year-old jogger, a white investment banker, was found raped, bludgeoned, and in a coma in the underbrush of Central Park, the telling became, like the river of terrible crimes before it, an international news story with epic legal and policy consequences.
Five children were arrested and charged with assault and attempted murder and gang rape within 24 hours. The immediate language of the media was unequivocal and it resonated: “packs of bloodthirsty teens from the tenements, bursting with boredom and rage, roam the streets, getting kicks from an evening of ultra violence.” The liberal Pete Hamill wrote, “They were coming downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference, and ignorance. They were coming from a land of no fathers… They were coming from the anarchic province of the poor…And driven by a collective fury, brimming with the rippling energies of youth, their minds teaming with the violent images of the streets and the movies, they had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.”
Under interrogation, the youth confessed on videotape. Almost immediately, all five repudiated their confessions. They were tried and convicted of rape, sodomy, sexual abuse, riot, and assault, and sent to prison. The victim testified that she had no memory of the attack. There was no forensic evidence linking any of them to the assault. All there was were the videotaped confessions. And the familiar story.
But the narrative was strong. It was black and white, male and female, Wall Street and Harlem, law-abiding adults and barbaric youth, heroic woman versus feral beasts, the establishment versus Black teens, order versus terror, human versus animal, thoughtful versus mindless. It was open and shut. Each young man served six to 12 years in prison.
And now the problem: all five were innocent. The perpetrator confessed 13 years after the fact, and, after some painful re-examination, the prosecution admitted error. But the narrative, the false story, had done its work.
Every narrative is, of course, necessarily incomplete, each a kind of distortion. Reality is always messier, always more complicated, always more idiosyncratic than any particular story can honestly contain. A single insistent narrative by its nature lies.
Perhaps that’s why courtrooms are ultimately dissatisfying—sometimes profoundly, often mildly so: one of the narratives must triumph over the other. And in newsrooms, too, there seems to be little room for nuance, none at all for two contradictory narratives existing side-by-side. And perhaps that’s what makes classrooms at their best such infinitely wondrous places: not only are all master narratives and triumphalist stories—as well as all manner of orthodoxy—challenged and laid low, but whatever emerges as the new truth is then questioned, reflected upon, seen as inadequate in itself. Classrooms can be sites of curiosity, investigation, skepticism and agnosticism, narratives in play.
Whenever a single narrative takes on the authority of truth—that is, when it puffs itself up to a size and density that overshadows every alternative possibility—it becomes like a magnetic hole in space, consuming all available energy and light, sucking the air out of every room. Such is the status of the story told inside the US regarding Israel/Palestine.
The dominant narrative has transformed only slightly over half a century, its broad outline essentially intact: the site of origin for Judaism and the Jewish people is the historic land that lies from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, from Dan to Beersheeba; exiled for millennia the Jews collectively have longed to return to that specific place; the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, in which some six million Jews were rounded up and slaughtered, energized modern Zionism and catalyzed within the international community vigorous support for the creation of a Jewish state; the state of Israel, founded on the site of origin, is a spunky little beacon of liberalism, democracy, and human rights within a sea of autocratic dictatorships.
This narrative ignores certain inconvenient facts, chiefly the actuality of the Palestinian people on that same land, a people whose very existence was initially denied in the narrative broadcast to the West: “Israel is a land without people for a people without land”—this represents the rhetorical erasure of an entire swath of humankind. This kind of statement may be compelling to some, but it is also, importantly, verifiable or falsifiable—that is, its truth or falsity can be discovered. But the verifiability was never of much interest, since it became more important to insist on the historical rights of Jews to the land, and to render inadmissible any talk of native inhabitants, any narrative of Palestinian life. This sentiment had endless variations, the most persistent, that the Israelis found nothing but a primitive backward place, and that upon that rock a modern state was created—the soundbite: “They made the desert bloom.”
When the existence of the Palestinians became undeniable, when they failed to comply and exit easily, they were transformed into an obstacle to progress and peace, rubble to be removed. The dominant available images prescribe a particularly parochial set of options: a barricaded and insulated rejectionist leadership; pitiful masses suffering in teeming refugee camps or squalid, quarantined communities; and, most prominent of all, terrorist suicide bombers, fanatical malevolent creatures, bereft of normal human motivation and well beyond our comprehension.
The recurrent American story—dominant, habitual, profoundly functional—is similarly a tale of democracy and freedom, of forward motion, perpetual improvement and never-ending progress. That story, told and retold in official and scholarly and popular venues over and over and over again, echoes in our consciousness until it achieves the exalted status of common sense, a truth beyond doubt: America is the greatest country on earth; land of the free home of the brave; God bless America.
The Puritans provided one of the most durable symbols of the American experiment, a symbol that is as resilient and resonant today as it ever was: America was to be a city on a hill—an exalted place, chosen by God—whose inhabitants, themselves a chosen people, would engage in an errand into the wilderness, their task to shine their countenance upon the darkened world and thereby to enlighten it.
The project of a blessed people bearing civilization and progress and truth offers a ready justification for anything—conquest, theft and mayhem, mass murder: we come in peace, we are messages of God, we embody a greater good. Opposition must be the Devils handiwork.
Beyond political calculation and opportunism, military advantage and strategic aims, imperial dreams and desires, this foundational symbol goes some way toward explaining many misadventures, including the bullheaded and single-minded support the US offers Israel today. That nation, too, was built by a determined band of self-proclaimed chosen people who suffered and survived, arose phoenix-like to create their plucky little democracy in the midst of hostile and threatening and notably darker skinned neighbors. Perpetual but righteous war would become the necessary order of the day for the forces of goodness. And so it is.
The dominant narrative in contemporary school reform is once again focused on exclusion and disadvantage, race and class, black and white. “Across the US,” the National Governor’s Association declared in 2005, “a gap in academic achievement persists between minority and disadvantaged students and their white counterparts.” This is the commonly referenced and popularly understood “racial achievement gap,” and it drives education policy at every level. Interestingly, whether heartfelt or self-satisfied, the narrative never mentions the monster in the room: white supremacy
It’s true, of course, that standardized test scores reveal a difference between Black-and-white test-takers: 26 points in one area of comparison, 20 points in another, 23 in a third.
But the significance of those differences is wildly disputed. Some argue, as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein did in their popular and incendiary book The Bell Curve, that genetic differences account for the gap, and there’s little that can be done to lift up the poor inferior Black folks. An alternate theory, popular since the 1960s, holds that Black people are not inherently inferior to whites, but merely culturally deprived, and that fixing the massive pathologies in the family and community will require social engineering on a grand scale.
Each of these explanations has a large and devoted following, the first, while difficult for many whites to endorse publicly, carries the reflected power of eugenics and the certainty that what they’ve always secretly suspected, that whites are indeed superior beings, is true; the second has the advantage of pretending to give a bit more than a pig’s eye for the well-being of Black people while disturbing none of the pillars of white privilege. Either theory can live comfortably beneath the obsessive focus on the achievement gap.
Gloria Ladson-Billings upends all of this with an elegant reversal: there is no achievement gap, she argues, but actually a glancing reflection of something deeper and more profound—America has a profound education debt. The educational inequities that began with the annihilation of native peoples and the enslavement of Africans, the conquest of the continent and the importation of both free labor and serfs, transformed into apartheid education, something anemic, inferior, inadequate, and oppressive. Over decades and centuries the debt has accumulated and is passed from generation to generation, and it continues to grow and pile up. Chicago serves 86% Black and Latino students and spends around $8,000 per pupil per year while a few miles away Highland Park, 90% white, spends $17,000. This is emblematic of what’s going on in every community in America.
Ladson-Billings imagines what could be done if the political powers took the achievement gap seriously: immediate reassignment of the best teachers in the country to schools for poor children of color, guaranteed places for those students at state and regional colleges and universities, smaller classes, smaller schools, a Marshall Plan-type effort to rebuild infrastructure. Ladson-Billings argues that the US owes a moral debt to African-Americans, a dept that `reflects the disparity between what we know is right and what we actually do.
In “Why I Write,” George Orwell gives four reasons why all writers, including himself, write: One: “Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood… Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.” It’s impossible to deny: there’s a peculiar pleasure in showing off, in disproving doubters, in expressing oneself.
Two: “Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.”
Three: “Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”
Four: “Political purpose—using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”
Orwell elaborates: “I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.”
The Spanish Civil War “turned the scale” and for Orwell, “thereafter I knew where I stood.”
“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism,” he writes. What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention.”
Of art and politics, combining the aesthetic and the political, Orwell says, “I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly,” and concludes, “And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generality.”
In 1984 Orwell provides an unrelenting vision of the totalitarian impulses and powers around him. Neither Winston’s intelligence and memory of things past, nor Julia’s effort to escape through her own individuality and sexuality are a threat to Big Brother—both are short lived, quickly detected, and easily crushed. In fact, the only hope Orwell projects is the prole woman humming a tune in the courtyard outside the room where Winston and Julia rendezvous: “people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world. If there was hope it lay in the proles.”
Otherwise Oceania, the multinational political entity ruled by Big Brother abounds with doublethink: “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength,” as well as the Ministry of Peace which wages war, the Ministry of Truth which propagates lies, and Ministry of Love, where torture is carried out.
In the Foreword to a recent edition of 1984 Thomas Pynchon wrote: “His anger, let us go so far as to say, was precious to him. He had lived his way into it—in Burma and Paris and London and on the road to Wigan Pier, and in Spain, being shot at and eventually wounded by fascists—he had invested blood, pain, and hard labor to earn his anger and was as attached to it as any capitalist to his capital. It may be an affliction to writers more than others, this fear of getting comfortable, of being bought off.”
But at the same time Pynchon writes that 1984 is not just an angry diatribe against where the world is inevitably going: “It is not difficult to imagine that Orwell in 1984 was imagining a future for his son’s generation, a world he was not so much wishing upon them as warning against. He was impatient with predictions of the inevitable, he remained confident in the ability of ordinary people to change anything, if they would.”
Educational research, a post-World War II invention chasing federal dollars, has grown to monstrous proportions, and yet I’m hard-pressed to say what good has come of any of it. Grants are funded, projects launched, dissertations written, careers made, but for all that, not much has been accomplished for children. Academic writing is mostly dry and boring, so deadly you risk suffocating just reading the stuff. When it cloaks itself in self-referencing dogma—so smug and so sure, so proud of its ironclad conclusions—I want to throw open the window either to jump or to breathe the free air.
In fact, the language of pseudo-science that has come to dominate the discourse about schools has led to a hollowing out of our consciousness of what actually occurs in classrooms, the intellectual and ethical core of what really goes on. In the “scientific” narrative, teachers and students are reduced to an S-R relationship, standardized tests—simpleminded, deceptive, and fatally flawed—rule supreme, and everyone is asked to genuflect in front of the phrase, “the research says.” All of this becomes a bludgeon to beat educators and children and families into submission.
Narrative inquiry can be a useful corrective to all this, for it posits storytelling and story listening as important ways to understand and improve classroom life. It suits the noisy, idiosyncratic, complex, multilayered, dynamic reality of schools and classrooms. It can fit itself to that reality rather than hammering the natural messiness into a convenient if choked and clotted frame.
Narrative begins with something to say—content precedes form. You must have something to say, something you want to say, something of burning importance that only you can say. You don’t have to think that you’re better than others, or to compare yourself to John Dewey or Toni Morrison, but you do have to believe that the message you want to send is of vital importance and that you must, therefore, muster the confidence to do the work. You must nourish your own awareness, your engagement, your curiosity, and you must harness all of it with dedication and discipline.
The hallmark of writing in the first person is intimacy. But that intimacy can trap a writer into a defensive crouch, into airing grievances or self-justification. Annie Dillard argues that while personal essay is an art, it’s not a martial art, and that the personal pronoun can be the subject of the verb—I see this, I did that—but not the object of the verb—I discuss me, I quote me, I describe me. The goal of the writing is to set up a relationship, a dialog based on both identification and difference, harmony and disharmony. The assumption is that there is a unity in human experience, that within each of us is the human condition. But in narrative the universal is revealed through the specific, the general through the particular, the essence through the unique, and necessity is revealed through contingency.
Narrative writers strive for a personal signature, but must be aware that the struggle for honesty is constant. The mind works in contradiction, and honesty requires the writer to reveal disputes with herself on the page. Human beings are incorrigibly self-deceiving and self-justifying, and in order to create a reliable narrator readers need to see a writer interrogating her own ignorance, investigating what she doesn’t know, searching for and writing into contradictions—rather than running away from them with easy conclusions—as they appear.
Creating a credible narrator is the first and most difficult assignment. Honesty, yes, and also boldness, the strength to claim your position on the page, to resist undermining your own authority by constantly referencing others or refusing to take a stand on issues of real importance. Authority is established when a writer knows when to show and not tell—when to provide an instance or an anecdote or a detail that brings a scene or a person to life—and just as important, when to synthesize, generalize, and sum up. Writing is not a skill separate from thinking, and there’s nothing more interesting, engaging, and, yes, dangerous than an intelligent mind thinking out loud. That’s something shot through with discovery and surprise—a writer must free herself from dogma and self-righteousness, and she must conduct basic research on herself, anti-systemic, experimental, often accidental. She searches for understanding on the page, an investigation of something out there, but, perhaps more important, of something in here, a struggle to make sense—and the reader must actually see the struggle. It’s a journey, not by a tourist, but by a pilgrim.
The writer can never make causal claims and can never generalize—and this can be painfully difficult given the dominant narrative in education—but beyond that, she is free to theorize, to speculate, to wonder, and to advocate. Paradoxically, the inability to generalize and the necessity to stay close to the ground allows the writer to make gigantic existential claims. To do this well, she must continually stay in the middle of things, the concrete and the real, and at the same time remain up in the air, contingent and unfinished.
The Chicago writer David Mamet told an interviewer that he believed that you’re only a writer when you write the last line—before that you’re a failed writer—and that after you write that last line, you’re an ex-writer. Mostly we aspire to write, and reaching toward something mysterious and elusive is where the work actually lives. So we’re mostly aspiring and failed writers, and, as for me, I’m an ex-writer now.