Surface Question 1: Why Memoir? (Part 4)

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONS, which will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will  then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 1: So I guess I’ll take the bait… I know that you’ve written about movies before, and I know that you’ve written articles, but what inspired you to write a memoir? Are there any particular memoirs that inspired you?

(Continued from Part 3) The cornerstone quote shows up halfway through The Situation and The Story, squeezed right between Gornick’s discussions of essay and memoir. It brings it all into focus.

She’s finishing a mediation on “Her and I” by Natalia Ginzburg. “‘Her and I’,” Gornick writes, “is an essay rather than a memoir because the writer is using her persona to explore a subject other than herself: in this case, marriage. If it had been a memoir, the focus would have been reversed. Ginzburg would have been using marriage precisely to explore – illuminate, define – herself. That would have been her intention. Her simple intension, I might add.”

As I read this paragraph on a Manhattan-bound R Train, my heart sunk a little. Ok. Got it. But then Gornick mentions a peculiar exception, one coincidentally – or not so coincidently – written by a pastor’s kid. An exception by a pastor’s kid wrestling with his past, with his church experience, with an unfair and upended world:

“A perfect bridge between the essay and the memoir is James Baldwin’s ‘Notes of a Native Son,’ a piece in which the writer takes a deep breath, inhaling the experience of himself in the world, then expels it through a viewpoint of such complex intentionality that the intersection between the self and the world becomes one of nearly perfect equality: neither being served at the expense of the other so that at one and the same time a subject is explored and self-definition is pursued.”

This hit me like a bolt of lightning. I knew “Notes of A Native Son” pretty well, and I knew that it would take the ego of king to presume that I could write anything nearly as spectacular. But I nevertheless realized, on that R train, that this was the sort of text I needed to write: a deep intake of my self-experience in the world and an exhalation so intentional that the text could form a permeable membrane, a permeable medium, between meditations on my developing self and thoughts about the media-saturated world in which it developed.

It couldn’t be a text in which I merely used the media-saturated world for end of self-exploration. Nor could it be a text in which I used my self for the sake of illuminating the world. It needed to be a perfectly equal intersection: world and self, ideas and experiences, theories and lived realities needed to be so inseparably intertwined, so deeply interconnected, that one would leave the book with both a greater understanding of our mediated world and an intimate knowledge of my own coming-of-age story. These elements needed to be in constant conversation, mutually illuminating and benefiting each other as woven through my linguistic loom.  The book needed to be a bridge between memoir and essay.

I’ll let you decide whether I actually succeeded in this lofty ambition. I will say that it was a riskier one than I anticipated; I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. With any step out of equilibrium between self and world, the whole text threatens to unravel. If the seesaw leans too far in the direction of my self-development, at the expense of the media-saturated world, then it’s just a memoir with a lot of dopey philosophical theoretical essayistic digressions thrown in – wastes of space at the expense of the meat of the matter. If the seesaw leans too far in the direction of ideas about the world, then it can hardly count as a memoir. It becomes either an essay or a textbook with a number of weirdly personal anecdotes wasting space. I now understand why essay and memoir are kept separate so often: the sort of “complex intentionality” that Gornick speaks of is damn hard to muster.

Yet I’ve been relieved by couple responses. I visited the Hendrickson Publishers office about a month ago to film promotional video material. The marketing coordinator asked if I’d describe a memorable story from the book. These stories exist, of course, but Carl and I sat for some time, trying to think of a good little story to extract from the fabric of the text, stumped. “The stories are just so utterly tied to the ideas and analysis and everything else,” Carl eventually said, “that it’s hard to just pull one out.”

I recently asked a beta-reader what she thought of a story that I had added pretty late in the the revision process. Did it add something significant? “Truthfully, I couldn’t imagine this book without every little piece included,” she said.

And then in her foreword, Alissa Wilkinson writes that Surface Tensions “works equally well as a small primer on media and a memoir of growing up in a thoroughly mediated age.” Works equally well. Phew.

This was a long answer to a fairly simple question, I know. But this was a far from simple book to write. Yet if you come out of it thinking and feeling in equal measure, if, while reading, you feel like you’re “having a long, deep, close conversation with a friend” – a conversation about my personal life and the media-saturated world in which we both live – then it was more than worth the effort.

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Surface Question 1: Why Memoir? (Part 3)

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONSwhich will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 1: So I guess I’ll take the bait… I know that you’ve written about movies before, and I know that you’ve written articles, but what inspired you to write a memoir? Are there any particular memoirs that inspired you?

(Continued from Part 2.) Fast forward several months. My book proposal has been submitted and approved. I stare ahead at the 50,000-word mountain that I must summit in ninety days, if all goes well. (The final product ended up containing 60,000 words – something I would not have believed one year ago.) I’m overwhelmed by the prospect of beginning. Beginning is, I think just about any writer will tell you, the absolute worst. You feel the weight of absolute absence. I run all over Prospect Park for inspiration. I go to friends’ graduation parties to drink and stall. I tease out an essayistic meditation on Facebook. I stumble into The Strand and pick up the memoirist and essayist Vivian Gornick’s nonfiction writing guide, The Situation and The Story, for comfort and guidance.

It’s only so comforting. For Gornick, the very uniqueness of the memoir, compared to the essay, is its devotion to the process of self-development rather than interest in the world beyond the self. For Gornick, it’s a matter of priority: the situation (for me, growing up as a pastor’s kid during the technological boom of the 1990s and early 2000s) is the specific circumstance in which the story unfolds. But the story, “the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer,” “is always self-definition,” and if a memoir is worth its salt, the story of self-definition must sit in the driver’s seat:

“From journalism to the essay to the memoir: the trip being taken by a nonfiction persona deepens, and turns ever more inward… The question clearly being asked in an exemplary memoir is ‘Who am I?’ Who exactly is this ‘I’ upon whom turns the significance of this story-taken-directly-from-life? On that question the writer of memoir must deliver. Not with an answer but with depth of inquiry.”

Reading this, I began to fear that by treating my memoir like an extended essay on media, I would pull the memoir away from its true formal calling. I began to fear that I would pull myself away from my role as a memoirist. Not to mention disappointing readers that would pick up my book expecting to be doused with emotional experiences and personal change-over-time. The concept of my memoir-to-be revolved around situation: the media-saturated situation in which we all live. But I began to wonder if the book’s engine really needed to be a story: my bildungsroman, my story of self-growth and self-becoming.

I came to this wondering reluctantly. I knew that if my bildungsroman were to be my train’s engine – rather than the muddy track on which it would roll but ultimately pass, full-steam ahead – my story couldn’t be trite. It would require me to self-examine harder than I had ever self-examined. I would have to wade into my most emotionally fraught experiences: to play in a sandbox mixed with shards of glass. It wouldn’t be easy. It wasn’t easy.

But I don’t wish to be all melodramatic. As Gornick describes it, decent memoirists’ “work records a steadily changing idea of the emergent self. But for each of them a flash of insight illuminating that idea grew out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience; and in each case the strength and beauty of the writing lie in the power of concentration with which this insight is pursued, and made to become the writer’s organizing principle.” I was fortunate enough to discover, as I finished Chapter One, after I finally turned to the difficult job of charting my personal experience, a flash of insight similar to the one Gornick describes: an insight tied to a steadily changing idea of my emergent self.

You can find this right at the end of Chapter One. It’s sitting there in a late paragraph, a blueprint of everything to come. It’s the sort of realization that, if pulled out of the text after the fact, would seem to diminish the complexity of my experience. But as insight realized early into the text, it provided myself (and, as woven into the text, readers) with an organizing principle. Far from diminishing the complexity of my further writing, it gave me a preparatory sketch for the oil painting, an outline I could then fill with colors and chiaroscuro and all of the messy contradictions of life. This insight pulled out a developing self that I could track, that felt – despite its relative simplicity – authentic, or not unfairly distorted, at least. It gave the story a way forward. It provided an engine for the train that would glide upon situational elements. It provided what, I steadily grew to believe, would justify the reader’s investment in 50,000+ words: an honest excavation of my own selfhood, my own life, my own coming-of-age. My plan of attack changed significantly.

Well, I don’t wish to exaggerate here. What changed was not the direction I was walking, exactly, but a shift like a pivot from my heel to the ball of my foot: a crucial shift in my center of gravity, but a subtle one. It’s not like I trashed the meditative philosophical bits entirely. Far from that: I merely realized that they were only valuable insofar as they related to and illuminated my personal experiences. And much to my steadily increasing excitement, through many hours toiling in coffee shops, natural connecting tendrils began to form between the personal and the theoretical, the experiential and the philosophical, the everyday and the academic.

I was helped in this regard by one more Vivian Gornick bit, a quote that formed a central cornerstone for Surface Tensions.

To be concluded tomorrow…

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Surface Question 1: Why Memoir? (Part 2)

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONSwhich will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will  then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 1: So I guess I’ll take the bait… I know that you’ve written about movies before, and I know that you’ve written articles, but what inspired you to write a memoir? Are there any particular memoirs that inspired you?

(Continued From Part 1.) One of my favorite forms of writing is the essay. The essay can get a bad rep because it’s associated with those dreaded things your high school teacher made you write. But that’s a shame. Those are poor, pathetic bastardizations of the essay. The essay, as Vinson Cunningham recently observed in The New Yorker, stems from the sermon. (My dad is a pastor – make the connection yourself.) The essay draws on experience and intellect, thoughts and feelings, narratives and theories. It’s both argumentative and personal, as academic as you want and as intimate as you desire. It draws on prior texts and marshals them for new purposes, situates them in the context of lived experience. It throws a bunch of different elements in a pot and stirs them until readers end up with an unusual, unpredictable stew that helps them taste the world in a new way.

It does this by tracing the thought path of an idiosyncratic, individual mind. If you can see the writer’s mind working on the page, in all of its messy glory, then you’re really reading an essay. One of my favorite things about the essay is its implicit belief that the life of the mind cannot – indeed, should not – separate itself from the rest of life. To split both parts of a person is to end up with an insufficient version of that person. We don’t just think through concepts and we don’t just feel our way through everything around us. We don’t just form opinions and theorize about the world; we live in the world while we think about it.

The memoir, as I imagined it, focused only on lived experience. Carl, my editor-to-be, was quick to point out that this wasn’t always the case. He mentioned Real Sex by Lauren Winner, a book in which Winner thought about sex and then talked to people who made her think new things about sex and then thought about it some more and then talked to more people. I recalled two conceptually-dependent memoirs, The Year of Living Biblically and The Night of the Gun, and I realized that the memoir could be bent in unique directions.

Therefore, feeling experimental, I teased out a possibility that had been swimming around in my mind at some low, deep level: I had read so many strident, idea-driven pieces about the internet and social media, but I had never read any personal pieces about life lived around and through social media. I hadn’t seen the sort of complexity and nuance that I lived through every day shine on the page. I felt like it was missing from public discourse. (This was before Master of None and the TED Radio Hour’s Screen Time, by the way.) Enough with the total naysayers. Enough with the bright and baby-faced Zuckerbergians babbling ebulliently. We needed more… and perhaps I could bring more to the table. That was exciting.

whiteboard

Ye Old Whiteboard. Some of these were crucial. Many were trashed.

As Carl and I brainstormed on Hendrickson’s whiteboard[1], this idea expanded into something more fully formed and flexible: I would think about media in a more general way, about drawing, painting, film, videocassettes, music, and so on. I would situate social media within the broader range of mediums with which I’ve spent my whole life engaged. And I would think about how these mediums helped form my emerging selfhood and shape my relationships with others.

We wrote a basic template for the memoir on that not-too-cold October day.[2] As I sat in a cracked leather seat on the commuter train back to Boston, I was pleased by a couple crucial things: (1) Carl and I seemed like we would get along splendidly. He didn’t want to cram me into some pre-made niche in the “Christian Book marketplace.” He seemed to really get my voice. We agreed that I should deliver something “in between Donald Miller and David Foster Wallace.” I could do that, I thought. I’m nowhere near as brilliant as David Foster Wallace, of course, but I’m more academically oriented than Donald Miller. (2) I could treat the project like a series of essays, strung together by personal anecdotes. I had experience in cultural studies, in theories of the image, in film. Even if my life wasn’t that exciting or moving, the ideas could stand on their own two feet. My life would form a mere structural framework for the ideas. It didn’t have to be a memoir by any traditional standards. I knew, then, that this book could be okay.

That was before I realized that this strategy would not, in fact, be that okay after all.

To be continued tomorrow…

[1] I know, by the way, that this is not how books are usually conceived––but I’d highly recommend this sort of proess. The occasional genius can whip out something phenomenal by her own, lonely self. But most of us could benefit from smart sounding boards like Carl, and I am extremely thankful that I had him.

[2] It’s funny to look at a picture of that whiteboard now: some ideas were totally dropped – several I don’t even remember – and some were are crucial in the final manuscript, but all were morphed into something deeper and richer than anything we could’ve imagined on that day.

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Surface Question 1: Why Memoir? (Part 1)

surface tensionsIn this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONS, which will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will  then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 1: So I guess I’ll take the bait… I know that you’ve written about movies before, and I know that you’ve written articles, but what inspired you to write a memoir? Are there any particular memoirs that inspired you?

A more-than-fair question! In my fantasy world, I’ve read a ton of memoirs and I’ve taken copious notes while reading them and I’ve determined exactly which writers and styles to emulate. I’ve done this all while watching cigarette smoke swirl around listlessly at my local Parisian café.

Truthfully, I’ve done no such thing. I am not Mary Karr, much to my perpetual shame. I am not a massive memoirphile – not because I have anything against the form, but because, prior to preparing to write this book, I simply didn’t really expose myself to it. Now I’ve read a selection of really great memoirs (please check out Little Failure if you haven’t), but I’m far from an expert. I was even further from an expert when I submitted the Surface Tensions book proposal.

The best comparison I can make here involves opera. I have nothing against opera as a form; I simply haven’t taken the time to really know its ins and outs. But I know musicals and pop music and pop operas like Les Misérables; I’ve had extensive classical vocal training and I’ve sung many oratorios in  several choirs. I’ve been circling around the operatic form for years. In a similar way, I knew fiction, essay, travel writing, criticism. I knew academic writing and popular writing and how to try to split the difference between the both registers. I had been circling around memoir, less like a hawk than a bird looking at everything outside of its self-made circumference. It was only a matter of time before I looked inside the circle.

But just as an opera singer needs a working knowledge of Italian, Spanish, German and a diaphragm like a knot in a tree trunk, so the decent memoir writer needs its own prereqs, I thought: experience, an interesting or traumatic history, distance from said trauma, colorful characters, profound change over time. And this is why, when the beardy editor Carl Nellis mentioned how, after reading several of my pieces online, he had pegged me as a decent fit for memoir, I balked. Well, not exactly – but I did look around at the fluorescently lit bookshelves in the office of Hendrickson Publishers and hesitate a bit. My life has been lovely. It’s been hardly extreme or traumatic. I didn’t grow up in the midst of the Liberian civil war; my mother didn’t die of a mysterious illness before my tenth birthday; I didn’t move to Ghana as a refugee. While I knew that good prose could illuminate the seemingly mundane and reveal wonder imbedded in the everyday – narrative sensationalism doesn’t make great writing, necessarily  – I am not Wendell Berry or Marilynne Robinson. I hadn’t mastered that sort of narrative tai chi, and I didn’t expect slow, deep understanding of my everyday suburban and urban life to suddenly blossom out of depth of my soul.

But after I mentioned my hesitation, we landed on something that truly excited both of us.

Continued tomorrow…

 

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Introducing: Surface Tensions

Happy new year, y’all. As I sit on my window seat, staring as the snow falls on Oxford Street, I’m pleased to share my book’s release date, title, and cover. The Trinity of Publicity Info, as I like to call it. (I just made that up.)

So: coming July 1, 2016….

surface tensions

It’ll come with a lovely, all-too-complimentary foreword by the great pop culture writer  Alissa Wilkinson. You can preorder the book on Amazon, or, for a $6 discount, here (only a $2 discount if you have Amazon Prime b/c of shipping, but, still… defy The Man!).

I’ll have much more to say about this in the near future. For now, I’m still waist-deep in revisions, trying to polish this stone until it gleams as brightly as possible. But, in closing: I’ve been working my ass off on this project, and I can’t wait to share it with you.

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Happy Birthday, From Facebook To Us

facebook birthdayFacebook has made birthdays weird. “It’s XYZs birthday!”, Facebook tells me when I jump on it in the morning. “Send them well wishes!”, or: “Help them celebrate!” I’ve learned to ignore the message, mostly, since it’s repetitive and pre-programmed and counters Facebook’s general penchant for amping up its users’ collective narcissism. Every little red notification ought to say: “Someone’s thinking about you!” “Someone else is thinking about you!”, not: “Think about someone else! Make someone else feel good!” It’s almost admirable, this interface’s attempt to work against its own programming – and, by extension, our own programming.

But it’s a little off-putting, too. There is perhaps no greater manifestation of Facebook’s desire to mechanize relationships than its birthday interface. Facebook used to (and by “used to,” I mean, “used to a couple years ago”; I don’t remember earlier versions) let you know about your friends’ birthdays, but it didn’t encourage you to do anything about them, much less make it easy for you to do anything about them. In those days, every single wall post garnered significance; every single post presented me with an individual notification. On my birthday, I used step away from the screen and let the notifications pile up. I watched them surge in number and eventually surpass 100 when they’d (somewhat disappointingly) begin again at 1. These notifications were markers of my birthday’s uniqueness: it was the only day when I’d get even close to that many notifications. It felt embarrassingly good, knowing that people went at least a little out of their way to send me thoughts. (In case you haven’t noticed: notifications were like Ego Crack to High School Nathan.)

I think, during those first couple years, I responded to the massive glut of messages en mass: “Thanks, all, for the birthday wishes,” and so on. But then, as Facebook realized that friends wanted to write on each other’s walls for birthday encouragement, they started to make it easier for us: we could send birthday messages on the upper-right corner of our homepage. It organized our birthday wall posts in one tidy column that opened up and out, away from the rest of the Timeline’s clutter, like an isolated file folder full of tax receipts. This mechanical ease seemed to perpetuate even more mechanical messages: “Happy birthday!” “Happy birthday!!!” “Happy b-day!!”

I mean to say nothing against the message-writers. I can rarely think of more creative or meaningful birthday wall posts myself. (Hell, I hardly even write on people’s walls for their birthdays, and then I feel bad about myself because I want to be liked.) The banal birthday message isn’t a bad banal: it says “I’m thinking of you,” and that’s usually enough. But when it’s folded into Facebook’s pre-programmed mechanism, it can feel like human originality and particularity and rough edges have been sanded off completely, slid like a CD-ROM into a pre-molded slot. Man and machine might as well be the same. When Facebook asks me to wish my friends a happy birthday, I almost think: well, why don’t you do it for me? You might as well. It hardly matters if I write “Happy birthday!” or whether the smart machine does it for me, on my behalf, like my own (im)personal secretary.

Or maybe this points to exactly what matters when it comes to writing birthday messages. In our mechanic age, it’s the personal will, the brain that registers another person’s existence, the human fingers on the keyboard, that matter most of all. When I get birthday messages, they’re the indexical markers of people registering my existence, thinking positively of me. The problem isn’t them: the problem is me, the selfish person that’d prefer to think of human beings as an accumulation of red numbers on the upper-right hand corner of the screen; the problem is the dude cynical enough to think that every “happy birthday!!” message might as well come from a robot.

 *****

A couple years ago, I made a decision: I would not just respond to all of the birthday messages at once, like an Internet King addressing his crowd of identical, faceless subjects below his e-Castle’s high-up Browser Window.  I would plow through the messages and reply to every single one. I would put effort into it: while I would sometimes give up and respond with the mechanically banal “thanks!”, I would try to come up with an individual, genuine message for several well-wishers.

It was hard. It took time. But I ended up starting personal conversations with people I hadn’t spoken to for quite some time. We began pleasant back-and-forths: nothing too deep, but undeniably human. (And undeniably aided by the non-human, I must add.) It felt like a good goal: I don’t give a shit how easy or brainless or automatic Facebook makes it; if you take the time to write on my Timeline, I’m going to reach out and treat you like the real-life person you are.

I no longer crave that little red notification like I used to. I don’t know if that means I’ve grown selfless or if I’m just desensitized to that particular egomaniacal thrill. (Probably the latter.) But I’ve kept my birthday message determination. And when I hold to that commitment, I feel a little thrill in the pit of my stomach derived from the steady act of turning simple, ego-boosting messages back outward, away from me, toward bilateral back-and-forths with full-on gosh-darn people.

And here’s the kicker: when I consider what I should send to well-wishers, when I sit at my computer and go through 100+ of these little things, it’s work. But the more I work, the more I try to empathetically imagine these people from California and Texas and New York and Cambridge and beyond, the more I feel the weight and gift of my many relationships wash over me; the more I consider the incredible diversity and particularities of the people I’ve had relationships with throughout my short life. When else, in human freaking history, have people been able to consider the multiplicity of their lifelong relationships in one single place? When have they been able to reach out to all of these people like a hand running along hundreds of inter-rooted hair follicles in one ecstatic stroke? Big parties, maybe. Weddings, maybe. But that’s about it. Working with, and against, the Facebook machine allows for this.

The more time I spend doing this, the more I’m awed by the teeming rhizome of humanity I’m blessed to meet and grow with, to twirl and knot around, to swell and mesh with. Deep, intimate, one-on-one relationships are a gift. But linked and networked diversity is a gift, too, and not one to be scoffed at or ignored or conflated with mechanical impersonality. (For what it’s worth, people like Jesus seemed to embrace both gifts with equal levels of gusto.)

In Essay on The Gift, Durkheim’s disciple Marcel Mauss explores the root of the sort of sweeping, Sublime feeling that washes over me when I try to respond to these many messages. Mauss, Tim Ingold explains, “showed how the gift I give to you” – i.e.: the happy birthday greeting – “that is incorporated into your very being, remains fully conjoined with me. Through the gift, my awareness penetrates yours – I am with you in your thoughts – and in your counter-gift, you are with me in mine. And so as long as we continue to give and receive, this interpenetration can carry on or perdure. Our lives are bound together as literally as two hands clasping…. And in carrying around, they wrap around each other, like the many strands of a rope.” As our lives interpenetrate and wrap around each other, they “form a boundless and ever-extending meshwork.”[1]

It can be trite and mechanical and inhuman, sure, but I stand by the (arguably naïve) claim that Facebook’s social network can both illuminate and perpetuate our social meshwork. Wrap around me and I’ll wrap around you. The gifts that began with our individual births will join and expand in the awesome hypertrophy of multi-personal life. And that’s something worth celebrating.


[1] Ingold, Tim. The Life of Lines. London: Routledge, 2015. 10-11. Print.

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What’s Going On: The Late May Rundown

graduationIt feels v 2006 to blog like this (Do normal people blog regularly anymore? Was that a pre-Twitter trend?), but I figure that I ought to supply a little rundown of some rather exciting things that have been going on – for, you know, the “fanbase” or the “followerbase” or whatever the hell we’re calling that now.

  • I graduated last week. That was fun. And exhausting. Perhaps the best part of the week (besides spending time with my lovely family and eating the [w/o exaggeration] best burger ever made) involved receiving an award for “interdisciplinary academic excellence” and, therefore, sitting on the stage at my Gallatin School of Individualized Study graduation. I sort of doubt that I deserve this award more than many, many of my talented classmates, but it was an honor to be honored by a school that I felt so honored to attend. Gallatin gave me the flexibility to explore and grow and discover my academic proclivities on my own terms. It taught me how to write and how to think in radically critical ways. I’m a proud alum.
  • This fall, I will enter a five-year PhD program in Film and Visual Studies at Harvard. This is exciting, but I’m not quite there yet, because…
  •  …beginning today, I’ll start writing a thematic memoir about growing up and growing into an increasingly media saturated culture. It’ll probably feature some potent mixture of traditional memoir stuff, media theory, philosophy, literature, theology… the whole enchilada. Here’s a brief excerpt from my very-in-process-and-subject-to-change introduction:

It’s easy to think about “The Media” as a concrete entity that will either oppress or liberate you; it’s much harder to think about many mediums. Mediums are, by their very nature, indeterminate. They’re contingent spaces. The author Zadie Smith voices our communal angst when she cries: “How persistent this horror of the middling spot is, this dread of the interim place! It extends through the specter of the tragic mulatto, to the plight of the transsexual, to our present anxiety–disguised as genteel concern – for the contemporary immigrant, tragically split, we are sure, between worlds, ideas, cultures, voices – whatever will become of them?”

In Protestant circles, we tend to ease our anxieties by resorting to polarities. We speak of sin: total disconnect between God and Man and Woman, manifest in the eternal reality of Hell. And then we do a full 180-degree turn. We look toward, and yearn for, the fruit of salvation: unmediated, communal intimacy with God and Man and Woman. While these polarities can bring spiritual reality into sharp focus (Flannery O’Conner: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures”), they can also make it harder to a cast cold eye onto the contingent spaces where we experience both communion and divorce, relation and isolation, unity and discord – and often a little bit of all that simultaneously. It’s much easier to gesture toward the solved and unsolved equations, and decry the dangers of moral relativism, than it is to engage complex ethical problems in media res.

Yet for some reason, I have spent my whole life attracted to media, in all senses of the word. As a so-called millennial, I have grown into what the pundits call an “increasingly media-saturated culture.” I have matured alongside television, video cassette players, personal computers, cell phones, laptops, blogs, iPhones, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and so on. I’ve witnessed that interpersonal modifier, “social,” welded onto “media” like a new, sequined outfit. And I’ve engaged with it all like a kid at a strange, ever-evolving candy shop.

I want to reflect on a life lived in media res, to decry reductive pulpit pounding and really get my hands dirty. It’ll be fun, I hope.

  •  I’ll still write for the web every once in a while. If you’ve missed my past pieces, you can find some of them here, here, and here. And if you’d like me to write for your publication (and if you pay at least a little bit… Smilie: ;)), I’m all ears.
  • I’ll be in Brooklyn until July 13th and then in Los Angeles until August 24th. If you’re around, let’s hang out and grab a beer or something.

And without further ado… I gotta get writing.

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If I Was In LA, California Plottin’

Inherent VIce posterHere’s 1000 words I wrote on Inherent Vice, my favorite 2014 film. There’s a lot more to say, but, this is a fun start. 

Plot is the best and worst part of cinema, and Paul Thomas Anderson knows it. On one hand, plot is unavoidable––if, by plot, we mean intentional progression from one image to another. And since celluloid (real, beautiful celluloid in PTA’s case) unspools image after image, it keeps charging onward. Some genres are particularly dependent on the velocity and direction of their charge; mysteries, for instance, are hopelessly dependent on their logical, Rube Goldbergian momentum. We’re all foremen when it comes to mysteries: pulled in to dissect and judge the quality of the motors, gears, and sprockets whirring us through time.

But, on the other hand, what could be more antithetical to the visceral, sensual joy of cinema than the manmade shackle of narrative logic? Plots can carve up the unruly, the sensual, the natural into cubits and acres. They strip mine them with utilitarian haste. Scene 4 must get X from Location B to Location C, because Y waits there with crucial info. Sometimes, mystery plots are so preoccupied with how their progressions must unfold that they’re unconcerned with what simply is. They can leave us with handcrafted resolutions and disposable experiences.

This is why Inherent Vice is so damn great. PTA turns the mystery on its head: we’re left with very few answers and a phenomenal experience. He’s performed a magic trick, overloading this film with the best that plot can offer––the whirring, cackling mechanics, via Thomas Pynchon––for the sake of cultivating the wild, the wacky, the untamable. The true pleasure of the Rube Goldberg machine, Anderson knows, has nothing to do with utility. It’s all in the whiz-bang cause-effect razzle-dazzle. PTA’s mechanics spin and spin until they blossom into something wild and weird and awesome.

Premise: it’s 1970. The Age of Aquarius has come and gone in Gordita Beach, California, and the good vibrations have started shaking things up a little too much for stoner detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). When Doc’s ex-old-lady, Shasta Fay Hepworth, asks him to examine the disappearance of her gangster boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann, Doc is drawn into a web of postmodern intrigue: real estate tycoons, Asian hookers, Aryan biker gangs, Black Panthers, straight-laced-cops-turned-part-time-TV-actors, marine lawyers, runaway teenagers, blacklisted actors, two-timing “antigovernment revolutionaries,” megacorporate drug-pushing dentists, they’re all running (and tanning and sexing and coke snorting) around this full-baked SoCal mélange. The deeper Doc dives into this knotty rhizome, the more characters we meet, the more thematic connections arise, the fewer things make sense. Doc scribbles important points onto his notepad, like: “Hallucinating?,” “Definitely not hallucinating,” and “Something Spanish.” Critics may be tempted to do the same. While Inherent Vice might melt a positivist’s mind, feebler noggins like mine might as well chill and take in the ganja for what it’s worth.

And it’s worth a surprising lot. There’s a deep logic at play here: this is a high film about a high time. Doc would probably wax meditative like Joan Didion (“The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children…”) if he weren’t so blazed. Phoenix has received little buzz for this loose, mutton chopped performance––none of the raves he got for his manic, apish histrionics in The Master––and that’s too bad. He’s a pro purveyor of loopy, low-key comedy. It’s all in the reaction shots: the dropped jowl, the indignant, furrowed brow, the muddled noirspeak, the faux-I’m-totally-tracking-with-yah “mmmhm” response, the disapproving tongue click and head nod.

But as PTA carries us into an elegiac dénouement we realize how deeply we feel for our decentered, denim-clad, sunglassed hombre. Like all PTA films, Inherent Vice’s formal razzmatazz is marshaled to illuminate primal longings––in this case, we’re drawn to the wishful mirage of companionship in an ever-fracturing world.

Doc channels this longing into imagined romance and bromance. Inherent Vice is equally anchored by Doc’s feelings for Shasta Fay and Lt. Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornson. Josh Brolin has, fortunately, received well-deserved acclaim for this (sometimes literal) scenery chewing, wannabe straight-laced/bad-boy cop. (Cops always want to have it both ways––a tension that writhes at the heart of this dead-eyed, sharp-jawed buffoon.) Geoffrey O’Brien likened Bigfoot’s flattop haircut to a granite mesa, and he’s right on the money. Bigfoot could have sprung from the rich red earth itself or come straight outta John Wayne’s big fat cock, ready to take the West with that “evil, little shit-twinkle in his eye that says Civil Rights Violations.” And yet, when Bigfoot and Doc eye each other warily––Doc’s eyes squinting, Bigfoot’s piercing––forced into unwitting cahoots, we sense The Master’s Freddy Quell/Lancaster Dodd dynamic in a lesser key: beneath the sturdy façade of mid-20th-century American essentialism, both guys just kinda wanna be each other. PTA makes this desire hilariously, movingly literal in the aforementioned scenery-chewing scene, which begins when Bigfoot not only kicks down Doc’s door, but crushes its glass panes with decisive, vertical, Godzilla-like stomps.

I won’t describe the actual scenery chewed for the sake of preserving the punch line. It’s the kind of surreal, visual gag that leaves you wide-eyed, gasping and laughing at the same time. Inherent Vice is the kind of movie that makes you want to leave punch lines unsoiled for first-time viewers. And so I suppose I should end by saying that among its other qualities, Inherent Vice is, in its purest, most visceral element, one of the best visual comedies I’ve ever seen. Pynchon lays the loco-logical groundwork and then PTA, master of the mise-en-scène, carries in the wonky furniture. Nearly every shot is bursts with explosive visual verve. The mathematical mystery-lover may frown here and there as the equation stops adding up, but she may be just too doubled over to care. It’s certainly the best bad trip I’ve ever been on, and I mean that in the grooviest way possible.

Posted in Blog, Essays, Reviews

Chewing on Good Serial

serial-social-logoI, like many others in Whitbread, NPR-Hooked Americaland, recently finished listening to a podcast called Serial. I’m not going to bore you by recalling what the show is or what it’s about, mostly because you can find out about these details in about a million places–The New York Times, Slate, The Colbert Report, The Guardian, The Verge, and on and on, not to mention NPR and the official Serial website, of course. The show has taken off, picked up steam and spawned countless conversations around the nation (I’ve had at least three very in-depth ones within the last week alone). As professional press junkets have slowly ceded their authority to less rigorous media platforms, it’s kind of thrilling to see a country hooked on professional journalism again. As much as we like digestible media tidbits, we seem to be collectively rediscovering the pleasure of wading through the weeds of an in-depth story. Forgo the cat memes for a little bit–Sarah Koenig wants us to trade out our 100-calorie airplane snacks for a 12-course meal. Unfortunately, however, the meal has finished, and many people don’t feel full. And that is what I want address.

Part of the innate appeal of Serial is its inherent relationship to hard-boiled crime fiction. By a stroke of incredible luck, Ms. Koenig found herself deep in a case as confusing and ambiguous as any John le Carré novel. What seemed fairly simple going in grew more and more complicated. Interviewed subjects were lying, but we weren’t sure who the liars were, or to what degree the liars were lying. “It sounds like a game of Clue, I know,” Sarah admitted once, sounding almost embarrassed, after she described several pieces of possible evidence collected near the crime scene. Serial was thrilling because detective fiction tropes were miraculously reified. That sort of thrill lies implicit in the very name “True Crime”; the “True Crime” label implies that crime is inherently untrue, except for true crime, which is (thrillingly) a bit different. It’s a treated like a special subcategory nestled under the overarching Crime Genre category, rather than the real-life source of the Crime Genre itself.

How bizarre. We’ve got it backwards.

Backward thinking has led many of us to treat Serial as if it were a piece of genre fiction. Emily Nussbaum, speaking for many of us, admitted: “Haven’t heard this week’s Serial, but I’ve been feeling guilty about theorizing that Adnan’s mom did it, since they’re all real people.” The genre tropes are all there, underscored by intense music, streamed through online media – it’s all too easy to fictionalize this real life situation, to project our assumptions onto charact – sorry, real individuals – just as we do with fiction. It’s an old postmodern yarn, that mass-media-saturated-culture treats truth like fiction and fiction like truth and relativizes and free plays and bla bla bla… but, well, isn’t it sort of true after all?

The best part of Serial, in my opinion, is that the show is resolutely not a work of crime fiction. Not even sensationalized drama. It’s plenty lurid, sure, and pretty sad, but it steers clear clear clear of tabloid territory. Therefore, the end of Serial  is a pill our postmodern society needs to take. It should remind us what good journalism looks like, and, more importantly, hold a mirror up to our own skewed expectations.

Immediately after I began to listen to the show, I tuned in to a Serial-related podcast on Slate. In the podcast, as Dwight Garner put it, “Mike Pesca… practically begged Ms. Koenig for closure. ‘Don’t let this,’ he said, ‘wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth.’” I found the interview to be, like many things published on Slate, rather enervating. The most aggravating aspect of this Mr. Pesca’s beg was his implied belief that Ms. Koenig could be, in fact, driving for some sort of half-assed “artistic contemplation.” Mr. Pesca should have clearly known, not only because Ms. Koenig has worked on this project for an entire year, but because she is an award-winning journalist – the kind that churns out, you know, fact-checked journalism – that that sort of mediocrity was never in her playbook. Ms. Koenig isn’t some liberal college freshman straight out of her first Derrida seminar. Serial would not devolve into some impressionistic postmodern hoo-ha. This should have been self-evident.

On Serial, we witnessed reporters doing what responsible reporters ought to do: reporting what they know, admitting what they don’t know. Not theorizing under the guise of explaining (all hypothetical imagining labeled itself as such). Not projecting their stories into some garbled stew of “possible fact.” We got a reporter who, yes, believes that the truth is out there. A reporter who spent an entire year chasing down facts and opinions in order to recover this truth.

But, just as significantly, we got a reporter willing to admit what she didn’t know. A reporter stating what she could reasonably propose, and staying silent where she felt she ought to say silent. A reporter who didn’t spin, who didn’t pull wild accusations out of thin air on the air. A reporter who did what Rolling Stone should have done months ago and, sadly, did not do.

We didn’t end up with sensationalized “True Crime.” We got journalistic integrity. And as far as I’m concerned, integrity is far more satisfying than any contrived or exaggerated “explanation” would ever be.

Many people won’t be satisfied – aren’t satisfied. These people will, in their desire to have a solid resolution, turn their anger against Ms. Koenig instead of the evidence (or lack thereof).  This is a shame. What does it say about us if we desire concrete, possibly untrue resolutions instead of honest ambiguity? It says we kinda like the spin we’re generally thrown, so long as it is simple and concrete. This is the real postmodern mess: not that we believe that truth is ambiguous and relative, but that we believe that we can all come to some sort of straight-forward truth on our own terms, by our own assumptive powers. That we can pull together shambles of evidence and make it all stick together by the power of sheer will. At least little parts of all Serial listeners (I’ll include myself here) do wish that Ms. Koenig did exactly this.

But Ms. Koenig didn’t balk in the face of this pressure. Even when Serial became the most popular podcast in history, and one of the most popular shows in the American media, period, she demonstrated what honest journalism should look like. She worked and worked and worked to try to acquire facts that would lead us to new resolutions, but she admitted when she didn’t find them. Sometimes you just come up dry. If you can’t tell whether the cat in the box is alive or dead, it’s best to avoid false assumptions in either direction.

And one of the things I liked most about Serial is how it demonstrated that, when you’re living in ambiguity, you can treat your own “Adnan Syed’ with sympathy, and, for that matter, your “Jay” too – even when Jay’s story seems fishier by the day. A special sort of grace arises when someone empathizes with people who are possibly dishonest. Persevering in the face of interpersonal ambiguity – this lies at the bedrock of any sort of relational development, I think. We can all improve in that department, and Serial gives us a chance to practice that form of difficult sympathy, with Ms. Koenig standing in as our collective avatar.

Murder fiction tends to either stem from the notion that there is an absolute truth, readily available to anyone by way of deductive reasoning, or – in its nihilistic, postmodern form – a stubborn insistence on utter doubt.

On Serial, Ms. Koenig showed how good reporting, even very entertaining reporting, can rise above both extremes. It can tirelessly search for an absolute truth that, yes, does exist. But, at the same time, it can avoid pretending that it knows what it don’t know, or suggesting that reporters can cobble together true stories with their own interpretive abilities and relational biases.

We joined Ms. Koenig; she got us hooked. Then we subjected her story to our own Hermeneutics of Fiction. But Ms. Koenig didn’t give in to our simple interpretive frameworks, and, by doing so, she challenged our naïve, fiction-formed presuppositions. Are we going to stare into the mirror she’s holding up to us? I hope so.

As much as I’d like to know the truth, we shouldn’t be happy with half-truths. (As my wise mentor Mike once said, “No half measures.”) But vigilance and integrity? I can live with that. Serially.

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10 Easy Pieces (I’ve Been Writin’, I’ve Been Writin’…)

Just as the August heat really starts to wear a Texan down, I finished my summer internship with The High Calling. Somehow, magically, I got to write a lot. One of my articles was even–to my great shock–published on TIME.com. I’ll archive the articles on this site in the near future, but, for now, here’s a list of links by publication date.

They make for a surprisingly coherent anthology, sandwiched together like this, as if they’re in dialogue with each other. This reveals my sensibility and the limitations of my neural pathways, obviously (slightly younger Nathans talking to slightly older Nathans). But I hope these also reveal broader themes that come up whenever we talk about morality, faith, and work. I think they do:

1. Is Home More Stressful Than Work? Not super exciting. Had me experimenting with the current-event-response format. I still agree with my conclusion, though.

2. Social Justice: How To Respond To Extravagance. Originally published here as How Do We Respond to the 190K Night? A New Yorkery take on Social Justice.

3. What Can Pharrell’s “Happy” Tell Us About God? (Originally posted here.) Surprise of the summer. Took me about six hours to write; if I knew that it would blow up like it did, I would’ve probably edited it for years.  Strange to see something so small grow so fast; fun to see people really digging it. And like most internet opinion pieces, it got some entertainingly boneheaded responses from Christians and non-Christians alike. We binary-oriented, over-literal Westerners aren’t really equipped to talk about nuanced relationships between physical and metaphysical properties. Inspired by some of those loony responses (one of which even made it into TIME Magazine Proper), I started an essay with the resolutely unsexy title “Trouble with Metaphysics and Exemplification.” Maybe at some point I’ll finish the piece and throw it up here. With incredibly gripping topic sentences like “Let’s do some basic semiotics,” I’m sure that TIME will go head over heels for it.

4. What Does Sin Look Like in the Internet Age? This was my favorite article to write, I think. It was a little hard to get back on the saddle after “Happy,” but only a little bit. I just love essay-length media/cultural criticism. It gets me going on all cylinders. And the Deadly Sins website is a lot of thoughtful fun, too. The best sort of object d’research.

5. On Developing A New Style of Leadership. Written for a High Calling community linkup on leadership styles that go “beyond the stereotype”. It wasn’t actually picked up, and that’s just fine by me. Apple’s not really hurting in the good press department.

7. God Has No Favorites and Light Sabers, Bank Accounts, Trust Funds. A couple of reflections on the theme “Working for Free.” The closest I ever get to straight-up Biblical exegesis and application. Thanks, Tim Keller, for helping me with these.

8. I Was An Unpaid Intern for an Oscar-Nominated Director. An memoir-ish piece for the “Working for Free” theme. It was kind of tricky and fun to weave together. Personal, theoretical, and ethical elements overlap in (genuinely, for me) surprising ways. I didn’t know exactly where it was heading while I wrote it, but I like where it ended up.

9. There’s No Such Thing As The Good Book. At last! I got to riff on Susan Sontag, shitty Bible design, and the importance of style. Every writer’s dream, right?

10. Farewell, Middle Class Morality: What Comes Next? Finally, to round it all out, a little bit of A.O. Scott and a little bit of social theory. It’s a little heady, but I had fun.

I also wrote the text for some infographics that will be published later in the fall. Stay tuned for those! And thanks to Marcus Goodyear and all of The High Calling staff for an exciting, creative summer.

Posted in Blog, Essays, Philosophy, Technology, Theology