With apologies

For the three people actually reading this, I’m sorry: It’s been a long day. My morning started — after very little sleep — with my witnessing the motorcade of someone famous (I’ve yet to learn who) pulling away from the Fox News headquarters, and ended with some brilliant and engaging conversation about the creative process with my old college friend Isaac Byrne, who is now a rising stage director here in Manhattan and who was generous enough to invite me to a showing of his new off-Broadway play staring Meryl Streep’s daughter. Between these events, I attended several fantastic panels, endured a fire alarm, rode the New York subway — twice — and drank way too many beers. So now I’m off to bed, with the promise that I will post the longest entry yet — to include today’s events (which I recorded in my handwritten journal) — sometime tomorrow evening.

On friends, lions, and Friends again

This morning, I woke early and walked the dozen blocks to the conference hotel so I could hit the first session of panel presentations on the schedule. The panel I attended was a discussion about creative writers and their careers as teachers. Strangely, every member of the panel managed to utter at least one withering statement highlighting the futility of everything I do as a writer and/or every ambition I have as a teacher, effectively undermining my exhilaration at being here. After that disheartening experience, I decided to make an appearance at the monstrous bookfair here (more on that later) and then abandon the conference to get a little sightseeing done. The first day is always fairly light, anyway, and the weather was only good today, so I had to get my photography in while I could.

Fortunately, at the bookfair I met a fiction publisher who invited me to a reading and reception this evening, which immediately preceded the keynote address by author John Irving (my students will know him as the author of The Cider House Rules, though he was first famous as the author of The World According to Garp). I planned to attend the keynote address — why would I pass up a chance to hear John Irving speak? — so I agreed to attend the earlier reading as well, partly because the publisher who invited me prefers more experimental fiction and, though it’s not my normal milieu, that could be one way to describe my latest novel and some of my recent shorter fiction. Besides, as a promotional gimmick, the publisher had printed loads of “Kiss me” buttons, each with a different punchline, and I found on rooting through the basket a button that reads “Kiss me — I’m a vampire.” I took it as a small sign: while I’m in New York, I’ve been tinkering with a novel that opens in this city, and it happens also to be a new, semi-experimental take on the vampire genre.

When I got back to the conference hotel this evening, I bumped into my friends Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly in the hotel bar. While Tommy balked at his eight-dollar Budweiser (I nodded at the tab and said, “Welcome to New York”), Beth Ann hugged me and said, “Well, okay — if the first person we see after getting to New York is Sam Snoek-Brown, then this should turn out to be a pretty good conference.” (We’re not as close as I sometimes like to make out, but I do love Beth Ann and Tommy — they’re both brilliant writers, and because they’re far more generous friends to me than I’m able to be to them, I always feel like I owe them a lot. Still, they manage to find this small excuse to cheer me up.) That brief encounter — and the John Irving speech later (more on him later, too) — served as the perfect bookend to my conference day; it managed to undo the damage done this morning and set a much better tone for the conference. To paraphrase Beth Ann, if I end my day with a hug and a passing compliment, this will turn out to be a good conference after all.

After I left the conference this morning, I took a long walk through Times Square to 42nd Street ( a full ten blocks south of the conference), then headed east to 5th Avenue and Bryant Park. The park was awash in long white tents that swarmed with black-shirted set-up crews like ants from a disturbed nest. I stopped to read one of the flyers tied in a row down the low wrought-iron fence: “Please excuse our construction as we prepare to reestablish New York as a fashion city.” Anyone who watches Project Runway as religiously as my wife does will know they were gearing up for Fashion Week. But that wasn’t what I’d come to see. On the back side of Bryant Park, across a wide patio from a stubby bronze statue of Gertrude Stein, is the rear of the New York Public Library’s humanities & social sciences branch. It’s only one of many NYPL branches, really, but it is the most famous: this is home to Patience and Fortitude, the huge marble lions that guard the front entrance and serve as the Public Library’s official mascots.

I have made a habit of visiting the public libraries of every major city where I attend a conference. Or, I try to anyway. I missed Atlanta’s, because the conference wasn’t close enough. And I skipped San Antonio’s because I’d been in several when I used to live there. But I have seen Albuquerque’s, where I studied a huge scale model of the Globe Theater and enjoyed a quiet cup of coffee in their small sunken garden. I have walked through Vancouver’s, a fascinating spiral-shaped building frequently featured in movies. And I have been in the hallowed halls of America’s first public library, the wide, museum-like Boston Public Library (its lions perch on either side of the grand interior stairwell). I’ve also been in Chicago’s public library, the largest in the country, though its entrances are guarded not by lions but by looming owls perched along the eaves. But New York is the crown jewel, if only for those two huge lions, which my wife — a librarian and a Leo — has come to adore as though they were distant adopted pets.

The library itself is a strange sort of sanctuary for literature, where librarians have chosen the protection of books over access to them. When I entered the grand marble foyer, a pair of velvet ropes guided me to a guard, who searched my bag with a flashlight. When I climbed the majestic staircase to the second floor, I found another guard at the top, with a third pacing the hall. On the third floor, the same. And nowhere could I find any books — only long corridors of marble, a few statues, and the cold eyes of the guards. Occasionally I’d pass a narrow door tucked away in a niche; some of the doors had brass plates specifying a special collection, and through the glass windows I could see long polished tables with little lamps and red padded chairs. I began to understand the monkish stereotype of some librarian portrayals, because here, researchers are scuttled away into corners, cloistered in tiny (though apparently comfortable) cells in which to pore over secret, protected tomes.

Finally, on the third floor, I wandered into an open lobby brightened by huge, colorful murals of Moses and his stone tablets, a mother helping her young son to read, and a medieval scholar painstakingly copying ancient manuscripts. And I found an open entryway, above which was a sign announcing a public catalog room. At last, I thought, I’ve found the books. But I hadn’t. Instead, I’d found the computers on which they keep their card catalog — a whole room, just for looking up books. (I was amused to note that the library’s acronym for their catalog system is CATNYP — a treat for the lions, maybe.) Beyond this were two separate rooms filled with desks, designated solely for reading the books (my students might have recognized the one I entered as the site of many New Yorkers’ final stand in The Day After Tomorrow). Between these room were long rows of counters and windows like tellers’ stations in a bank. There were books in the reading room, but they were separated from the readers by a railed walkway along which paced yet another guard. Instead of browsing shelves, researchers and casual readers alike need to look up a record in the catalog room, take their printed request to a library assistant at the tellers’ stations, and then wait patiently in the reading room while the assistant — not you — retrieves your book. (Those of you who’ve seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s will recognize the process.)

It was an altogether forbidding experience, especially when, having casually wandered into and then out of the reading room, I was stopped by another guard (the seventh I’d seen and third I’d spoken to) so he could search my bag. Ordinarily, I like to browse a library’s catalog or shelves to find writers I know (my usual test is to see if they carry Tom Franklin’s books, since he’s the guy I wrote my masters thesis on), but here, I gave up on trying to track down anyone because, for me, half the pleasure of a public library is the freedom to roam the stacks, to take down any book that catches my eye, to touch the spines of so many volumes of genius. Here, all I could touch was stone. So I headed back to the main entrance, where I had my bag searched a fourth time, and I left.

I grabbed a bus down to the south end of Manhattan. I wasn’t exactly sure of my directions, but I was looking for the corner of Bedford and Grove, in a quiet residential neighborhood of brownstones and small apartment buildings. I got off at Christopher and found myself strolling west, then south along Bleeker — a name I recognized from hundreds of television references, but the street was not quite residential (I passed a few internet cafes, a couple of unassuming boutiques, and a surprising number of sex shops, with inflatable dolls and tight leather lingerie in the windows). But after a short block I hit a row of brownstones and found myself on Bedford. West another long block, past racing children and a couple of young mothers pushing strollers, and I’d found it: the corner of Bedford and Grove, site of the little apartment building they used for exterior shots on Friends. I was standing outside Monica and Chandler’s place. I took only two photos, but I lingered on the corner as long as I dared (the mothers were starting to stare), basking in an almost fervent awe as though beholding a relic or holy place. That’s not quite fair, really — I certainly felt a great deal more reverential awe in the presence of Saint Nicolas’s bones or the Green Mosque on a Friday during Ramadan when I was in Turkey ten years ago — but in the sense that I am a Friends fanatic, the emotions of amazement and veneration are as close as I can come to describing my brief moments outside that building.

Downstairs, where Central Perk would have been had it been a real place, was a tiny restaurant called The Little Owl. Had it been open for lunch, I’d have eaten there, no matter how expensive it might be (it looks pretty swanky); I would definitely have ordered a cup of coffee. As it was, I could only gawk alongside a foursome of teenage girls, who were giggling at the not-quite-Central-Perk until the restaurant’s launderer arrived with an armload of white tablecloths and brusquely shooed us all away.

It’s late now — after 1 a.m. here, and I have an early start again tomorrow — so I think I’ll save my John Irving notes for later. I will offer this one observation, though: I think sometimes that the most engaging fiction writers are also brilliant storytellers, because so many of the best I’ve met are masters of the long oral story, especially the narrative joke. Tommy Franklin was the best I’d ever met until I heard John Irving tonight. That man can certainly weave a yarn.

I Heart NY

Although I’m in Manhattan, I find it amusingly appropriate that I’m currently listening to the Beastie Boys “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” on the local radio station.

Since I’m at a writers conference this week, I thought I’d try to run a couple of blog entries from New York, just to keep my students updated on why I’m ditching class. I’m sure a lot of my later comments will focus on writing, but today, all I did was get here, so I’m going to just toss out a few observations I scribbled in my little notebook at the airport or on the plane. Who knows: maybe I’ll be so enamored of the city that I’ll spend all my entries waxing romantic about New York. I am, after all, staying in a hotel on the corner of Times Square — you don’t get much more New York than that (if I wind up in a background shot on MTV’s TRL, I’ll let everyone know).

I was in O’Hare, waiting on a delayed flight to La Guardia, and despite the Metallica blaring on my mp3 player, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two women nearby. Both were younger than me by at least a few years, but one had — I gathered — just finished her MBA. The MBA-woman was engaged in a long narrative about her ex-boyfriend and some other male friends; her friend nodded and only occasionally broke in with a “Really?” or a “Then what happened?” The interesting thing — the quirk that made me shut off my Metallica and start consciously eaves-dropping — was that despite the MBA-woman’s allegedly advanced degree, and therefore despite her supposed level of higher education, she insisted on filling her monologue with the word “like,” to the extent that “like” made up somewhere near 30% of her vocabulary. Stranger still, she was using it as a conscious replacement for dialogue tags, as in “So, I was like, ‘You didn’t even think about that did you?’ and he was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ and I was like, This guy is such an idiot.” Which prompted me to wonder: At what point did we replace “said” or “thought” with “was like” in our everyday storytelling? In some ways it seems to signify a shift in narrative intensity or involvement — the words we speak no longer merely represent our dialogue or our thought processes but somehow embody them. Or, we cannot merely speak or think; we must exist in a physical state approximate to our speech and thoughts. Perhaps it’s an added note of seriousness: Anyone can say something witty or interesting, but I was like the wit itself — I personified “interesting.”

Flying into New York at night, I craned my neck to see the city lights from the plane window. I didn’t expect much beyond a real-life version of all the Manhattan skyline fly-bys I’ve seen in countless movies and TV shows over the years. Really, New York in general is probably the most photographed city on Earth, at least in the popular media; I’d guess that the skyscraper landscape of lower Manhattan has been represented on film, either in real life or through movie magic, in every stage of its existence — somewhere we have seen a version of Manhattan for each year since it first sprang from the swampy forest and Native settlements of the island. (Several months ago, I read an article about a new book documenting, through archived photos and digital manipulation, what the island looked like before Europeans arrived to found New Amsterdam, so in theory, we now have all visual representations of this city that we could ever have.)

I was surprised, then, to discover how enchanting the skyline actually was. Perhaps it was because I first caught site of the Statue of Liberty, diminutive from that distance but remarkable and unconsciously symbolic despite its pop-culture commonality. But I think it was more than that “perfect” introduction to New York: The skyline itself truly is charming and unexpectedly warm, inviting even. To me, it looked a bit like a toy set, as though some giant child — probably a boy, at least in my mind — had built it from Legos and Lite-Brite boards.

Then, in the cab from the airport into the city, I found myself marveling at the reality of the city from street level: the apartments, first old brick and chain fences and bright, sweeping graffiti, then taller, newer, with New-York-modern furniture stark and clean in the bright open windows; the swarm of cabs and limos and dark Lexuses crowding down the highway and then through the city streets, beeping horns at every corner, every lane change, fighting each other with an almost passive comfort in the whole jumbled mess; then the brash digital billboards of Times Square, a lighted Coca-Cola sign thirty feet tall and a movie poster for Rambo the size of a building–the size, in fact, of the Pioneer Tower on our campus back in Wisconsin.

After I’d checked into my hotel, I walked down to the bowtie of streets that is Times Square and found — because it was easy and I was tired — an Olive Garden in which to grab a quick dinner and a beer. I sat at the bar and watched the TV there; the waitresses were engrossed in the Bravo marathon of Project Runway. The episode just ending as I settled in involved the team of designers constructing dresses entirely from materials they pilfered from the Hershey’s chocolaterie on Times Square, and I turned in my seat to look out the window — there, across the corner from me, was the very same Hershey’s store. I laughed. The crush of life here is intense, and I don’t think I could ever live anywhere near this city, but as long as I’m here, I think I’m going to love New York.

Spider-Man becomes Single-Man?

This semester, as we study pop culture and critical interaction with a “text” (really, any medium), I’m making my students write a series of short, informal response essays. And I figured, what’s good for the goose…. So, this is the “sample response” I’ve written for them, in all its shabby inglory:

Last fall, I read an article in The Journal of Popular Culture titled “‘With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility’: Cold War Culture and the Birth of Marvel Comics.” The latter half of the title is misleading; the article is less about the Cold War and more about the ways in which Stan Lee single-handedly revolutionized the comic book industry and forever changed our idea of the superhero. Not to get too into the article itself, my own favorite section of it dealt with Peter Parker and the invention of the teenage hero.

I wasn’t as obsessive as the stereotypical “comic-book geek” (I was certainly no Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons), but I read my share of comics in high school and college (I hung out with Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons), and I still have my collection. Spidey was always a favorite of mine, for most of the same reasons this article points to: He was my age — a teenager/young adult — but he was a hero in an adult world and could handle adult villains easily; he was a geek in the world but secretly cool, shy and unsure around his love-interests but hip and sarcastically eloquent as his alter-ego; and, though he was super-strong and super-agile, he often relied on his wits and intelligence to defeat his enemies. Better still, he was troubled: He burdened himself with worries and responsibilities beyond the capacity of normal people and even beyond his own capacity sometimes. (We’ve long acknowledged a mental condition of involved self-sacrifice, wherein a person believes he or she is personally responsible for the salvation of the entire world; Buddhists call it bodhicitta, the compassionate desire to help all sentient beings; psychologists have long called it a “messiah complex”; but I wonder if we ought to start discussing, for my generation on down, the “Spider-Man Syndrome.”)

Anyway, I started thinking about this article a week or so ago when I heard, much to my shock, that Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson-Parker are splitting up. I caught the announcement on a brief news item on WPR, and for me, it was as earth-shaking as the death and resurrection of Superman, as surprising and intriguing as the assassination of Captain America. And I can’t help wondering, now that Spidey (who is technically in his 40s but who ages slowly) and I are both older, leaving our youth and eying a not-so-distant middle-age, what the ramifications are going to be of Spidey’s new “mid-life crisis.”

I remember following the love affair of Peter and Mary Jane with the same zeal and personal investment with which my grandmother watched her soap operas. Mary Jane was my generation’s ideal woman, for the comic book set anyway. She is smart, self-assured, outrageously sexy, just flirtatious enough…. We all wanted to marry Mary Jane. When I watch the second Spider-Man film (in my mind, the last, because film 3 was a rotten mess), I actually erupt in grinning tears — even now, after multiple viewings — every time Kirsten Dunst looks proud and glassy-eyed at Tobey McGuire and says her character’s iconic love-phrase: “Go get `em, Tiger.”

Strictly speaking, Peter and Mary Jane aren’t breaking up or getting divorced. In a classic bout of comic-book silliness, they’ve lost their memories. Apparently, Peter’s Aunt May was dying, and to save her life, Peter and Mary Jane jointly made a deal with the devil (okay, the comic-book character Mephisto, but it’s the same thing), agreeing to erase their entire relationship. They haven’t fallen out of love; they’ve just forgotten the last twenty-one years. So, Spider-Man is now a swinger in a multitude of ways, free now to engage in more dangerous, more exhilarating adventures, to take on greater responsibilities (though, really, what responsibility is greater than marriage?). And we readers, straight men and gay women alike, ought to be rejoicing: Mary Jane is available once more. But to be honest, I don’t want her available. I prefer them both in love. As my heroic surrogate in super-literature, Peter Parker needs to stay with my ink-colored red-headed icon of sex and romance. Otherwise, I’m left with just another celebrity marriage gone awry, just another undoing of my carefully deluded adolescence.

Typing vs. Writing?

In my composition classes, we’ve had several conversations about the difference between typing our drafts and handwriting them. As romantic as I tend to be about writing — and as much as I love my little journals and notebooks — I have become a convert to the keyboard to such a degree that I almost can’t think unless I’m typing. A lot of my students agree, but that may be a generational thing; some of my students, for instance, seem unable to think unless they’re texting. But there are a few hold-outs, a handful of traditionalists for whom writing necessarily involves a spiral notebook or a yellow legal pad. So we’ve had a few discussions in my classes about what difference our method of writing makes on our texts.

Some of us — myself included — prefer typing because we have trouble making our pens keep pace with our thoughts (to say nothing of the atrocious script our frenzied writing produces), and we enjoy the satisfaction of seeing our text already “in print,” as though the bulk of our work was already finished. It’s a delicate self-delusion, because most of us are aware that a draft is a draft no matter how we produce it, and the hardest part — revision — still lies a long way out in front of us; but for us, this happy delusion sometimes works.

Others prefer the handwritten draft for much the same reason: because the pen slows down the writing, they argue, it also slows down their thinking, and they find their prose has a more deliberate, carefully considered air. They get to do a lot of the initial revisions — word choices, premise developments, and so on — in their head while they’re waiting for the pen to catch up.

Also, these writers fear the printed page because, even on screen, the typed text feels too final, so that their mistakes appear indelible and all the more a mar to their writing for that; they feel typing removes the excuse of poor handwriting and fast scribbling for the errors they naturally commit in drafting.

I was reminded of these conversations today as I opened my iGoogle homepage on my office computer. One of the “gadgets” I’ve added to that page is a daily literary quote, and today’s comes from Dylan Thomas (one of my favorite poets): “Don’t be too harsh to these poems until they’re typed,” he writes. “I always think typescript lends some sort of certainty: at least, if the things are bad then, they appear bad with conviction.”

I’m fascinated by Thomas’s ability to synthesize our conflicting perspectives; he has acknowledged both the strength and the frightening finality of a typed text, and he has made both appear positive, an empowering sort of excuse.

A good omen

That’s right, I believe in signs. I’m speaking in the written sense, mostly: Whether they’re manifested messages from some divine authority or inidicators of universal synchronicity a la Jung or just psychological revelations based on a personal symbology, I enjoy finding coincidental meaning in seemingly mundane events.

In my novel, the narrator spends much of her spiritual journey rambling around the afterlife in a beat-up white Dodge Ram touring van. It’s how she begins her journey immediately after death, and while she abandons the van in a fit of independence, it makes its way back into her journey through “coincidence” and becomes the literal vehicle for her descent into a nightmarish “hell” and evetually is the scene of her rape. When she kills her rapist and wanders into a desert alone, she finds the abandoned van broken and stripped, and she leaves it where it is to rot in the desert, so ultimately, it comes to represent her soul.

This morning, when I walked outside my motel to look at the dreary rain here in North Texas, I found a beat-up white Dodge Ram touring van parked in the parking lot. Scrawled with a fingertip on its rear windows was the message, “Hi, Elijah!”

I couldn’t have written a more convenient spiritual metaphor, and I’m hoping it serves as a sign that the universe is conspiring in favor of my defense.

My new grading policy

This was my “Buddhism quote” on my iGoogle homepage today:

“Wise men don’t judge: they seek to understand.”

Pretty much sums up the ways I grade and the reasons I don’t like assigning grades. As a writer who insists on treating students like fellow writers, I don’t want to “judge” their work–I want to understand it.

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