I’m in the office, doing a bit of planning for the week’s classes. But of course, that’s always a good incentive to do something else, so here we are.
I’ve noticed in the past that I seem in many ways to be thoroughly out of step with my time. Not in a pathetic, Miniver Cheevian way (at least, I hope not), but out of step nonetheless. I’ve been told my 2002 dissertation would have been state of the art in about 1962. My pedagogical style is rather old-school as well — although “the sage on the stage” (a term largely freighted with irony these days) is now considered terribly out of touch, I generally rely on a pretty traditional lecture format. (For what it’s worth, my evaluations from colleagues and students have always been somewhere between positive and incandescent, and I’ve won every teaching award Mondoville offers, so like an ugly tie, “It works for [me].” My biggest litcrit influences are Northrop Frye and Samuel Johnson, neither of whom are terribly hip in our era of identity-focused, politicized criticism.
It’s true of my musical tastes as well — most of what I listen to tends to be anywhere from 40 to 60 years old, and my favorite year for popular music was three-quarters finished before I turned one. While I do listen to current music, much of it carries a lot of that mid-60s feel in its DNA. (Of course, my other rock genre of choice — Prog — may have reached its peak around 1974, so even there, I’m just 50 years behind the times, rather than 60.) Likewise, my taste in country music trends toward 50s/60s stuff — I’m much more in sync with Porter Wagoner and Buck Owens than with Luke Combs or Florida-Georgia Line. I get things like Robert Crumb’s 1930s obsession and the cartoonist Seth’s fascination with vintage clothing. (As it happens, those aren’t things I need to sweat — it’s hard enough to find clothing in my size now. Vintage? “Ferrrrr-git it!”)
I’d like to think that one of the things that keeps me from being that Miniver Cheevy figure is that while I recognize my own xenochronous nature, I try not to let it lead me toward Miniver’s scorn for the present. My out-of-stepness is a Mondo issue, not an everybody else issue. They’ll go their way, and I — well, I go mine because I don’t really know any other path my feet will follow. I can’t help it, so I may as well try to make a virtue of necessity. (An advantage to having spent your formative years as the Weird Kid — you’re less surprised by your weirdness as the years go by.)
So where am I going with this? I’ve mentioned before that when I was in my late 20s, I realized that I was too old and too fat to be a rock star. But I still wanted to play music, so instead of getting discouraged, I decided to let my incongruity with what was cool serve as a means of liberation. Since I wasn’t going to be a worldly success anyway, why not be “unsuccessful” while playing whatever I want to play (and as importantly, not playing stuff I didn’t care for)?
While I’m still passionate about music (and if you’re a guitarist near Mondoville, give me a shout — there are folks I’d like you to meet), these days my principal means of expression is through fiction (and I suppose, the “creative nonfiction” of this blog). I love being a writer; it’s what I’ve always believed I was meant to be, whatever else I’ve been along the way. I’m fortunate, too, in that my work has earned the respect of at least some of my peers (and some of those I would consider my betters, who accept me as a peer).
But here too, I’m a little bit out of step, out of time. While I’ve written a novel, my metier seems to be the short story. In retrospect, I’m not surprised — many of the books and writers I loved when I was younger focused on short fiction, and when I think of the writers I love (among others, LB, Peter S. Beagle, Harlan Ellison, Heinlein, and William Kotzwinkle), all of them have shown a gift for the form.
However, short fiction is almost certainly not the path to hot- and cold-running limousines and receiving the idolatry of millions (or even dozens). While I occasionally hear prognosticators claiming that we’re heading into a new golden age of short fiction, my discussions with agents and such don’t exactly lead me to bet the house mortgage on that coming true anytime soon. Similarly, when I started my Ph.D. program 25 years ago, it was thought that tenure-track positions would be opening up any minute now. It worked out for me, but again, that was a sucker bet for a lot of folks.
No, it would appear that for the overwhelming majority of writers, the novel (or better yet, the novel series) is the career move. But what if that’s not exactly the direction in which whatever talent I have lies? Furthermore, at 57 years old, it’s not like I’d be anyone’s typical up-and-comer, and certainly no enfant terrible — although I would cheerfully be un homme de moyen age terrible. Add to that the fact that a lot of the stuff I write is downbeat, liver-flavored toothpaste and that’s another thumb on the scales.
So why not think of my fiction as I think of my music? My music hasn’t brought me fame or fortune, but I’ve had a good time making it, and there are people who have enjoyed it and listen to it from time to time. I’m always going to be musically inclined anyway, so why not just do it when and as I can?
Likewise, pressing myself to write another novel (I have written one, after all) may be chasing down a path not suited to my stride. Don’t get me wrong — I have a novel in progress, with a character that I could see visiting more than once, and if I should finish that, then terrific. But honestly, even if I do finish the thing, there’s no guarantee that it would find a happy home or an audience — the odds are almost certainly tilted the other way. So it doesn’t make sense for me to feel stressed or guilty about it, particularly when I’ve had what I think I can fairly describe as succès d’estime with my short works.
I’m out of step musically — but I love playing, and I’ve made people smile and cry with my music. I’m out of step intellectually — but I’ve made a career talking about things I love, and I’ll have taught a generation of students, many of whom come back and tell me what they got from my classes. And my writing is out of step generically — well? So far, so good?
Speaking of writing, here’s a reminder that Playing Games (with my story “Lightning Round”) is available for purchase through the usual suspects. Heck, you may even learn about games you didn’t previously know — anyone for crokinole?
Fellow music geeks will recognize the allusion to Jethro Tull in the title of this post, so it seems fitting to finish where I started. From Tull’s odds-and-sods collection of the same title, this is their 1969 single, Living in the Past.
See you soon!