On Sunday, Carson Beker and I attended Anna Deveare Smith’s Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education. The one-woman show was a breathtaking compilation of voices and histories and visions of professors, teachers, school principals, judges, teenagers, prison inmates, a Yurok tribe chief, and a number of other vivid and brilliant individuals whose lives have all been impacted by our deeply flawed criminal justice system, sometimes referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. Smith dissected and brought to light diverse voices and their unique stories, revealed their individuality and, most importantly, their humanity.
One of Smith’s portrayals was of a distinguished UCLA professor, Pedro Noguera, who questioned how we, (“we” meaning the educated, generous, and well-meaning class of individuals who attend or teach at a world class university), can step over sleeping bodies on the street every day to get to the auditorium where he gives his lectures. How we can exist in the world with such jadedness to human suffering that we would point at a homeless man who is clearly suffering from mental (and physical) illness, and say simply, “That’s where he sleeps.”
Noguera acknowledged that this jadedness is a common form of survival, that we often need to be blind to the suffering that we encounter on a daily basis in order to not succumb to the weight of the world’s grief. But, he argued, when we as a society can simply step over the sleeping bodies on the street without a second thought, he asks: who is really mentally ill?
Before this turns into a diatribe on society and policy and ethics, I want to connect this back to writing, by adding to Noguera’s question, and asking: What do we notice in the world? And how, as writers, can we train our minds to keep noticing and to notice more? What will happen when we truly notice that sleeping body on the street? When we notice our shared humanity…our shared right to be on this earth, upright and healthy, wandering and hopeful?
In asking these types of big questions, one might turn to Charles Baxter who says:
“The estrangement of the unfamiliar: One of its forms is soul-theft…If this is the pathetic fallacy, whose pathos is it? Where is the fallacy?”…in a state of extreme emotion, when objects really begin to speak, the categories of ‘false’ and ‘true’ no longer make the same kind of sense.” ~Charles Baxter, Burning Down the House, p82
The profound and gaping and painful hole in my consciousness that Noguera ripped open with his questions about suffering and mental illness and society, seemed to relate back to the idea of writing into the unknown, what Charles Baxter calls the uncanny. Baxter says:
“When greed, violence, and the various other human vices begin to make the home planet unhomelike…the uncanny erupts out of things that were silent. Objects are forced to speak, to become visible when the home is endangered…Freud worried over it in his “On the Uncanny” and saw it, in part, as the estrangement of the unfamiliar…When humans are oppressed to the point of madness, objects take on the humanity that humans lack…Feeling, disposed by humans, moves quickly into the nearest receptacle willing to house it.” ~Baxter, p81, 84.
As a writer, I can fill in this gaping mental wound (i.e. try to fathom society’s greed and violence) and work to notice the world around me, in close and closer detail. I can attempt, with compassion and humility, to give voices to the voiceless people who do not choose to be voiceless. This seems like both a civic responsibility as well as an artistic one.
But there are a number of other important questions that come to mind when I try to answer that last question, such as: Who can I speak for? What right do I have to speak of/for/about those who I do not personally know or am connected to?
I would like to share with you one final Baxter excerpt that shows the beauty and power in giving voice to voicelessness without explaining or trying to translate or own what we are “voicing”:
“During the time I worked on this essay, I tried to explain its subject to my wife and son…My son…let it be known that he did not understand what I was talking about and when he did understand it, he didn’t like it and thought I had gone off the deep end. ‘The inner life of objects?’ he’d ask. ‘Is that like…uh, talking forks?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, that is what it’s like. Those odd moments when things seem to say something…
“Outside the window is an apple tree. It is August as I write these sentences…For the last few days a squirrel has been foraging in the tree, and sometimes it descends low enough on one of the branches…to take a good look at me….During the time that I’ve been writing this essay, the apples have been falling to the ground in the backyard. Every now and then, writing a sentence, I have heard the sound of an apple hitting the earth. Before the sound of that impact, there is a breath, a swish, as the fruit drops through the branches and leaves. It is not a sigh but sounds like one. This sound has nothing to do with my current moods, but I listen for it, and I have been counting the number of apples that have fallen during the last ten pages of this essay. There have been eighteen.” ~Baxter, p85-6
In the upcoming Escapery workshop (which begins on Sunday, August 9th), we are going to begin by adventuring into the powerful world of silence and stillness (a la Baxter). So, I would like to leave you with a writing exercise that speaks to this subject:
Imagine stepping over a sleeping body on the sidewalk. Imagine the clothes that the person is wearing, the soiled blankets, the bags of clothes…anything. Now, imagine giving life to the objects. How would the objects sound, smell, feel? How does this change your imagination of the sleeping body, now? Don’t worry about falling into that writerly “trap” of running away, screaming from the “pathetic fallacy.” Just see where this imagining takes you, dive into that moment “When humans are oppressed to the point of madness, [and] objects take on the humanity that humans lack…when things seem to say something.”