Category Archives: Random Thoughts

Introversion: A Legacy Through Poetry

Although this photo doesn't have much to do with my grandmother's poetry, I absolutely love it.  Something tells me she wasn't particularly fond of shooting a gun.  Perhaps she was humoring Granddad, also pictured.

Although this photo doesn’t have much to do with my grandmother’s poetry, I absolutely love it. Something tells me she wasn’t particularly fond of shooting a gun. Perhaps she was humoring Granddad, also pictured.

I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia.  My mother’s mother, Lucile Shanklin Hull, was a local poet and published several books of poetry about the region.  In her book, Lyrics of the Hills*, 1980, she celebrated the region and her community in Smyth County, Virginia.  Many of her poems feel designed to promote a warm and romantic version of the community, such as “The Gay Bazaar”:

Hurry, hurry, hurry
To the gay bazaar!
For just around the corner,
Where throngs of people are
All a-hustle and a-bustle,
There will be displayed
Such a carnival of color-
Mingled art and artless wonder
Eager hands have made. (48)

But in other poems, as is true of the region, there are quiet pools of darkness; she makes commentary about strip mining, rural poverty, and war casualties.  From page to page, there’s a rise and fall, mountain peaks warmed by sunlight—“From this tall pinnacle look far” (35)—to shady brooks haunted by loss: “She had come down the rocky path/ Winding along by Shooting Creek,/ And her clear young voice was mingled/ With the long, wild song of the water” (41).  In yet others, my grandmother expresses her grief and struggle with depression: “The things I fear have tentacles/ To reach the very core of me;/ They twine themselves vine-wise about/ My hidden self insistently (“The Things I Fear” 46).

While I was growing up, my family rarely discussed the darkness in her poetry; the mountaintops were emphasized, not the gloomy valleys.  I knew her as a young boy; she died when I was nine, and during years leading up to her death, her failing health had made it difficult for us to communicate.

When I was a sophomore in college, my mother showed me a folder of her unpublished poems.  As she handed it to me, a newspaper clipping fluttered out.  It was my uncle’s obituary.  Younger than my mother and her sister, he had died as an infant in 1938.  It was the first I’d heard of him.

When I asked my mother about it, she couldn’t talk about him—the pain, even after so many years, was still fresh—so I began rummaging through the poems, looking for those dark valleys in her work.  I came across a poem called “Unseen,” in which she writes frankly of her loss: “No patient toy dog keeps watch;/ No rusty soldier, staunch and true,/ Upon a seldom dusted shelf/ Waits endlessly for you.”  In Lyrics, there’s another poem which now I understand to be about my uncle: “When bugles blow/ And from afar/ The sound of war/ Shall echo near,/ He will not hear” (6).  She imagines him never having to go to war, never waking from his peaceful sleep.

I was startled by these poems; it challenged the notion I had of my grandmother as a person and as a poet.  I’d always read her poems as outward looking, whether she was describing life in rural Appalachia or making earnest objections to strip mining.  I’d not noticed the gloomy, tree-muffled streams in her poetry, the dark waters in which she reflected herself.  In her poem, “Introversion,” she writes:

I often come to you
So filled with thoughts of me
That your own finer self
I cannot see.

Perhaps you come to me
So full of you
That my own truer self
Is hidden too!

This poem is about failed communication, the inability for two introverted persons to reveal themselves to one another, how all that inward-looking can thwart connection, how our hidden-selves can distract us seeing others, from seeing the world.  Although short, this poem hits me hard because it has such clarity and because I see myself in it; I’m often captivated by my own internal world, sometimes blocking out the world around me. I am so much like her.

That her poetry, however quiet and moss-covered, tells me that my penchant for darkness, for depression kept at bay, is part of a legacy. If we’d known one another as adults, we would’ve understood each other well.

*Hull, Lucile Shanklin.  Lyrics of the Hills.  Radford: Commonwealth Press.  1980.  Print.

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Why failing gracefully deserves admiration

I’ve been thinking a lot about why taking risks is so important.  It’s actually a theme that emerges both in my profession as a teacher and my desire to be a published writer.  It’s also something which is necessary for growth.  It’s something that each of us needs in order to develop intellectually, physically, and spiritually.  If we don’t take risks, we don’t evolve; if we don’t evolve, we are static—and static beings perish; it’s a law of nature.

Often the byproduct of risk is failure.  Our society—particularly American culture—despises failure, whether it’s in the arena of sports or in business ventures or in an artistic endeavors.  This mentality rolls down from popular culture through peers, parents and even educational institutes, and gathers in many of the students I teach, filling them with anxiety and tipping them toward neurosis.

This fear of failure takes an even more troubling turn when students believe that grades—simply having A’s—is more important than learning.  In other words, seeming to have succeeded is more important than actually succeeding.  Having an A in English is more important than having learned how to write a clear and cohesive argument.  I hardly blame the students, though, when our culture is giving them every indication that this is a perfectly acceptable way of thinking.  Even our political parties are more concerned with “winning” instead of compromise and healthy debate.  They don’t want a clear and cohesive argument; they want their position of power, their A.

We need a paradigm shift where taking risks, whether the individual fails or succeeds, is respected, and playing it safe is viewed as cowardly.  We need to punch holes in superficial success, often monetary success, and define what real success is—which is, in a word, growth.  More specifically—growth of character.  You never grow more than when you fail, so in that sense, failure—at least failure born of risk—is success.

So, all pontificating aside, I must turn that theory back on myself and my professional goals.  I must take risks in my teaching.  I must take risks in my writing.  And when I fail, which I will, I need to fend off that horrible anxiety, those whispering judgmental voices, which often are only promoting or critiquing superficial success.  Of course, the best defense against those voices is the voice of a friend, loved-one, or colleague reminding me of what I believe deep down—that to gracefully fail, to learn from that failure, is succeeding.

I hope I can do the same for others.

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Filed under Getting Published, Politics, Random Thoughts, Revising and Writing Process, Teaching and Writing

Is Seeing Believing?

Ways of Seeing, a famous book by John Berger about reading art and images, begins with the statement: “Seeing comes before words.  The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”

As a high school English teacher, I’m aware that the students I’m teaching live in a primarily visual culture.  The texts that I’m asking them to read—whether it’s Richard III or 1984—are in competition with the visual stimuli that glows on their computer screens or smartphones or high-def TV sets.   They are bombarded with visuals and visual language every day—and because seeing comes before understanding, these images are incredibly powerful in shaping the way my students (or frankly, many adults) view the world.  If perception helps mold that amorphous thing we call reality, then visuals and all the editing and crafting and contextualizing that goes into making them is altering and at times unhinging reality.

Reading, of course, is in part an act of creation where the participant must visualize and internalize the text in hand; viewing images—whether in a YouTube video or a movie or a TV show—can also be an act of creation and interpretation—but very few students understand how to read visual media.  They are easily persuaded to believe what they see because they don’t understand it as an art form—that it is, in part, artifice.  In terms of news media, it’s clear to see how this is dangerous.  The degree to which the news alters the truth and changes our sense of reality is upsetting—but in some ways, that’s old news. Many teachers are already arming their students with the tools to question what they see and hear in journalistic media.  But there’s more to it than that …

Fictional visual narratives—from “Realty TV” shows to AMC’s serious dramas like Madmen or Breaking Bad—also have a powerful ability to shape our sense of reality.  For instance, I wonder how many of you who are Madmen fans are convinced that the 1960s were just as the show’s creators have portrayed them.  The show’s images and characters are so powerful (and so well crafted) that, to a certain extent, I find myself visualizing that decade based on the show’s terms, which if I didn’t question what I saw, could be problematic.

When we read a novel set in the 1960s, we’ve been trained to see as emerging from a particular perspective—the writer’s.  However, when we watch a TV show, although we should realize that we are getting a specific point-of-view, we don’t think of it that way because we haven’t been trained to think of it that way.  As a culture—and I see this in my students all the time—we give the visual narrative greater authority than the written narrative.  It seems to us to be more authentic, more believable, more real.  And this really concerns me.

As an English teacher, my ultimate goal in terms of the content of my courses is to help my students understand the craftsmanship behind of what they read.  For some time now, to varying degrees of success, I’ve been doing this.  It helps the kids to become better readers and better writers.  However, now, I’m also feeling the need to teach them how to interpret the craft behind the visual narratives they are confronted with every day.  I want them to understand and appreciate a well built film or TV show or photo story, but I also want them to realize these art forms should not have greater authority than the written word—and that if we give them that authority, we can warp our sense of what it real and what isn’t.

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Video games—Are they the future of storytelling?

For my birthday, I received a present that would make any teenage boy jump for joy—an XBOX 360 gaming system.  Yep, that’s right, this English teacher, this lover of fiction and fine art, of theater and music, this man who as a boy gave away his Nintendo because his friends paid it more attention than they did him (true story)—now owns an XBOX.  When I told my advisees (all rising seniors) about the gift, they thought it was very funny—and rightly so.  Teachers aren’t supposed to approve of computer games.  They kidded me about becoming a gaming addict:  “Sorry, kids, I didn’t get a chance to read your essays, I was up until 3:00 AM trying to beat the boss at the end of level 5!”

The reason why I intimated that I wanted an XBOX (I was too ashamed to openly ask—Thank you, Jeff, for knowing me so well!) was because of a game called L.A. Noire.  For the past two years, I’ve taught a senior seminar about crime fiction and film adaptations of crime fiction.  In the class, we focus on hard-boiled crime novels and film noir, and their social, historical, and aesthetic implications.  Obviously, the crime story, whether in film or in print, is a particular type of narrative that I find compelling.  A reviewer at VG Lounge describes the game: “Every single nuance that you can imagine from human conversation is faithfully recaptured in various scenes throughout L.A. Noire, which give interactions in the game an almost hyper-realistic quality. The technology is just icing on a well-layered cake though because the story in L.A. Noire is packed with twists, turns, and a lot of “oh $#*t” moments.”  The meticulous style and realism of the game as well as its focus on storytelling caught my attention.

All of this leads me to a bigger question about the future of how narratives are conveyed.  Although I believe that we will always need stories rich in character and complexity, stories that challenge us and our beliefs, stories that attempt to tell the truth about our lives, I’m less certain about the forms those stories will take.  Film and television took on storytelling in the 20th century, but both have their limitations.  Deeper, more resonant character building is difficult to achieve in one-hour or two-hour time frames, although serialized cable television shows, such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad (Thank you, AMC!), are offering us more novelistic character arcs.

So, I’m curious:  Do video games have the potential to provide us with rich storytelling experiences?  I’m not sure, but there are some exciting possibilities, especially in exploring how readers (or players, in this case) complete a narrative experience.  At this point, most video games seem like purely escapist, button-pushing experiences, but it seems that narrative is becoming a more important element in some of them.  EW reviewer Darren Franich writes: “At first, L.A. Noire seems to largely capture the tone of [hard-boiled novels and films] without quite grasping their deeper meaning … The streets of Noire‘s ’40s Los Angeles look great, the dialogue has a pleasantly no-bull cynicism, and the gameplay has a nice diversity …  But great noir is about more than just tough guys and boozy broads, and after a few hours of playing the game, I sort of felt like it was the videogame translation of Sin City: All the affections of noir with none of the soul.”

As I start exploring this game, I may find it more a pleasant and, at this time of year, much needed distraction than anything especially new, but I’m intrigued by its potential:  What happens when the reader begins to interact with the characters?  What happens when the narrative window becomes a door that we can step through?  What happens when we can choose our way through a narrative—what if we’re placed in the position of making difficult emotional decisions, however virtual they may be?  Who knows, but I wonder …

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“The Houses We Live In”: Historical Truth and Imagination

Using the Hipstamatic camera app on my iPhone, I took this close-up of one of the ads on the flyer.

My partner Jeff and I have been redecorating my office in anticipation of the arrival of new furniture which I purchased recently (See “Creating Space to Write”.).  On Saturday, we ripped up old wall-to-wall carpeting that had been installed over 10 years ago by the previous owners of the townhouse.  As we pulled the carpet pad back, we noticed a loose board in the pine flooring.  Curious, we lifted it up.  Inside we found a treasure trove.

The townhouse was constructed in 1901, and for quite a few years, it served as a boarding house.  It still feels compartmentalized, each room its own little bubble of life, like a dormitory.  So, it’s not surprising that one of the boarders who lived here would leave behind traces of his or her existence.  Under the floorboard and coated with fine dust, we found a letter penned by a woman named Catherine; a hand-drawing of Harold Lloyd, a famous silent film comedian; three empty Chesterfield cigarette packets; two Hershey bar wrappers; and an ad for women’s cosmetics, all dating back to the 1920’s or early 1930’s.

This is the sort of thing I live for.  The past has always held a fascination for me, particularly the first part of the 20th century, when life was rapidly, breathlessly becoming modern, the American infatuation with progress crashing into older, more conservative sensibilities.  I even set my first novel during the 1920s, and my second during the 1940s.  Finding fragments from a life lived during the 1920’s and 30’s—especially fragments which seem so unconscious (not orchestrated for posterity)—is food for my imagination.  So, I took the time to transcribe Catherine’s letter.  Here’s what I could piece together:

Dear Pal,

Please don’t think I have forgotten you I only wish you thought of me as much as I do of you.  But you know everything is with … it is quite unfors … me … to see you … then I do … wish you could … how badly I want … you I have a lot … you.  If you can a … to come to see me real soon let me know and I will be at home any day you say.  The weather have has been very hot and sulky here we haven’t … any rain for nearly three … so you know how hot … I went to the movies and saw dancing sweeties.  I mean it was a really hot picture.  I just wish you could see me now.  It is 3:00 AM and I still have my night gown … I haven’t even combed my hair … writing this letter with …  me and I got ink all … night gown and leg.  Some … [a]sk?)  We were Chapel … s Sunday. W… the water … stagesant [stagnant?] do to hot weather … [wou]ldn’t allow you to take any showers on account of the shortage of water  For there hadn’t been any rain for a long while.  Gee it surly is lonesome here all day with nothing to do … time I realy hate my self … answer soon as I want … from you—  Catherine

So, who is Catherine?  Did she live for a time in my office?  Did she smoke Chesterfields and blow smoke out the window, hiding them when the landlord came around?  She must have loved Hershey’s bars, but why hang on to the wrappers?  Why did she keep a doodle of Harold Lloyd?  Who is the “Pal” she addresses in the letter?  Or maybe it was “Pal” who lived in my office.  After all, the letter is folded as if it had been mailed.  But what would he be doing with a cosmetics ad?  Of course, there’s no reason why Pal couldn’t have been a woman, right?  One thing is certain, though, Catherine missed Pal and felt insecure about their relationship: “I only wish you thought of me as much as I do you.”  There is irrefutable residue of her emotion.

Like the letter, the lives of these people are so full of ellipses—ellipses that no amount of research can fill.  I believe it’s the job of the writer of serious historical fiction to use his or her imagination to fill in the ellipses left by time.  History is recorded almost always by those in power and most certainly with posterity in mind.  It’s up to the writer of historical fiction to see beyond the facade of history and imagine how life was lived by those not in power—women, blacks, gays, etc.

The contents of the hiding place underneath the floorboards in my office

This reminds me of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:

“For fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science my be; fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners … But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.”

Shortly after this passage, Woolf imagines the life of Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, who she invents to demonstrate how it’s only through imagination that we can begin to understand the truth of the past.

Catherine and her lover have already begun to stir in the corners of my mind.  I’m sure that I’ll write about them, and it will be 99% invention, but no less true, no less significant.  I must recreate them to say something about the past, to give a legacy for what has been forgotten or edited out of the history books.

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Creating Space to Write—or the Hendrix Desk

I crave space in every sense of the word.

When I close my eyes, I daydream about the house I grew up in, which sits at the top of a hill and looks out on the mountains of Virginia—Mount Rogers, the highest peak in the state, on the horizon.  I can’t wait to go skiing in Colorado and stare out at the Rockies, overwhelmed and freed by that great expanse of sky.  As I walk around DC, I find myself always looking up, through tree branches, searching for blue.  The ocean holds a similar fascination when I’m in Florida, particularly the horizon, a line constantly being redrawn by water and sunlight.  It’s not a coincidence that I live in a house with tall ceilings or on a wide street lined with trees.

I crave space because I feel something divine in it—or perhaps it just allows something spiritual to open in me.  I don’t know which, and I don’t think I’m suppose to know.  (In my opinion, that’s the folly of man, always trying to put God in a box.)  But this mysterious something—whether propelled toward us by an outside force or emitted from us—is the seed of creativity, and it needs space to hook its roots and grow.

This space can be both literal and figurative.  For instance, over the past few years, I’ve been writing at the kitchen table.  I have an office, but it’s cramped and full of furniture and tucked away at the top of the stairs.  I came to the kitchen, because I yearned for more space.  Recently, though, I realized that writing in the busiest room in the house may not be the best idea, so I’ve decided to buy new furniture, clean out my files, and redo the office.  You may say, “That’s so superficial, John.  Aren’t writers suppose to be, like, deep and not care about where they write?” (Cue image of a young man in fingerless gloves shivering over a typewriter.)  Let’s face it, at least in part, it’s an excuse to go shopping—and I like shopping.  I like the way the sales associate at Crate and Barrel, with gentle intonations, names each of the pieces of furniture if she were calling them into being:  The Hendrix desk.  The Paloma Sideboard.  The Pullman Chair, in Chocolate or Ebony.  But it’s not just about shopping; redoing my office is also an attempt to create a space that resonates with my creativity.

Of course, there are figurative ways of recreating space, too.  Music is one of those.  The other day, when I was commuting in a rainstorm at 7:00 AM, I was listening to “I’m on Fire” by Stateless and the bleary headlights in front of me became dashes of wild red paint—the mundane became the beautiful.  As I’m writing now, I’m listening to “Riverside” by Agnes Obel, and the kitchen has been broken and expanded to include more of the world.  I’m aware of the spidery tree limbs outside the window and then the evergreen tree that stood across the yard in my childhood home, a tree snapped in two by ice last year.  Music can transform a space and transport us to a different space altogether—and that’s very powerful, especially for a writer.

I crave the literal space of the solid world—whether it is a mountain peak or the Hendrix desk—and the figurative space of music, because they allow my mind to break free.  Without them, I would feel lost and unable to imagine any spaces of my own.  The worst of my days are when I don’t get enough of either.

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Who We Are On Facebook

Facebook was something I resisted at first.  Once I gave in, I became a bit of an addict.  Suddenly, I was connecting with friends, family, classmates, and colleagues who I hadn’t spoken to or seen in years.  I loved getting in touch and finding out how they were and what they were doing.  The world seemed smaller, and my past, a bit more present.  Recently, though, I’ve been struggling with my own motivations for clicking on Facebook, skimming status updates, and learning about my Facebook friends from their profiles.

I’m curious about other people.  Most of us are.  It’s human nature.  But my question is—what does Facebook really tell us about each other?  When I created my account, I made careful choices about the information I wanted to share.  When I write status updates or upload photos, I think about what they say about me.  In other words, what I present to others is tailored to a particular audience (albeit, a wide audience).  I do consciously construct a certain image of myself, as I imagine, others do.

Of course, you may say, this is what we do all the time in person.  Who I am when I’m with my closest friends is a more open version of myself than who I am when I’m teaching a class.  I edit my identity, so to speak, given a particular audience.  I think this is natural; we all do it to a certain degree.  The difference between connecting on Facebook and connecting in person is that interacting with someone in the flesh allows our identities to be mutable, changing in subtle ways from moment to moment.

For instance, let’s say, I’m teaching a poem that’s very close to my heart.  Although I don’t explain the importance of this poem to me, a perceptive student hones in on my enthusiasm—he intuits that this isn’t just any poem to me—and says: “I guess you like this poem a whole lot, Mr. Copenhaver.”  At that point, I say, “Yes, my dad used to read it to me.  He died when I was young.”  I hadn’t intended on sharing this, but in the moment, it came out.  Suddenly, I’ve allowed my identity—that strictly professional persona—to slip a little.  I’ve become a more complex person to my students, which often can be a good thing.

My point is, Facebook doesn’t allow for this slippage.  It’s all manufactured image.  I’ll be the first to admit that I love the control it provides, and that it’s a fantastic tool for advertising oneself, or one’s blog, or one’s novel—and all these things are important to me, believe me!  But identity is always in flux, and we’re the most human when we’re least in control.  Who we are on a social network can’t possibly replace who we are in person.

That being said, I still remain curious about what my Facebook friends choose to share about themselves—and I hope they’re curious about me—but I can’t help wanting to see them in person, so that we can engage in a richer, more human experience.

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