The Unknown: The Orange Line.
  November, 1996


Class last week brought up a number of interesting questions. Questions like: what the hell am I doing with my life? I seem to have written myself back into a corner of my own brain so remote that not even you and Jason and a team of English graduate students working together with searchlights, helicopters, and bloodhounds, can find me. My writing has improved so much since I entered graduate school that there is no longer anyone qualified to read it. In class for the first time I received more sadness than hostility: a room full of blank faces, letters which read like page-long apologies, and meanwhile Jason accusing me of misrepresenting theories I wasn’t, in many cases, even trying to represent. I’ve seldom gone to so much trouble to do such a small segment of a possible readership so little good. This is quite a way to end nearly a decade of intermittent college writing workshops, and quite a way to say goodbye to the only readers I will ever be guaranteed.

Well, that was how this letter began. After working on the paper it occurred to me that I actually know what the hell I’m doing. I know exactly what I’m doing. I’m going broke and insane trying to teach the English language to dance. It’s a good life. And you needn’t worry that I am going to turn around and try to write like Carver or Updike.

The sort of bad ideas you’ve seen me try—a story with one form of punctuation per page, a story where the number of words per sentence decreases by two every paragraph, a story where every two adjacent words have at least one letter in common—have taken years to contrive. (But I didn’t do anything like that in this story and I feel kind of bad to see that you started counting the number of words in each sentence, apparently out of sheer desperation.) Though there is not yet a place for these ideas in literature (nothing ending with -ism) they are easy to understand and explain (the ideas, not the writing) and part of a world of writing practices useful in that they can force inspiration in blocked writers and constrain the impassioned diuretic flow of clichés in confident writers. In a workshop I am both. I started writing like this, in fact, because of a workshop. I needed decision-making criteria so that, when I received a flood of individually contradictory but collectively discouraging instructions about what to change, I would have the original structure as a guide to know which advice I could use and which I couldn’t. I don’t like the fact that I now write stories with Roland Barthes jokes which perhaps one percent of English speaking people know aren’t funny. This is not my new direction. What I want to do for my thesis is carry the unnameable formal ideas I referred to above to their unnatural conclusions. I want use biology, economics, the contemporary theory of metaphor, and Dr. Seuss. At the same time, unless my writing is (if not emotionally rich) readable and relevant to people, I am not doing what I want yet. Intellectual masturbation is an interesting metaphor. Only according to a conventional metaphor system which posits mind and body as opposites can it even be a metaphor. Masturbation is literally an intellectual experience. I am into formal stunt-pilotry for its own sake: not because I want to be remembered for breaking the text barrier, but because I like being high, fast, and upside down. Structures precede stories. I know when the structures work but I don’t know when the stories “work.” When you suggest that the formal structure must be relevant to the story, well, I agree, but what the hell are we each talking about? That’s a huge conversation and an interesting one. Let’s have it. Until then I’ll be in my room reading Life: a User’s Manual and trying to move as little as possible to conserve calories.

P. S. Please stop calling me “Bill.”

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The Unknown at Spineless Books.