Title: The Pilgrimage of ’61
Subtext: How many roads, etc., etc.
Date: 11 Oct 16 (Tuesday in the AM)
Time: 12 minutes
Replies: 72
Revisions: 9
Publicity: Workshop

I couldn’t understand what it meant to be a pilgrim; I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I sat in front of the largest dictionary I had ever seen and read its definition of the word “pilgrim” again and again, but for some reason I couldn’t grasp it. This was in the Allen Memorial Medical library; I was at Western Reserve University to become a hematologist.

The trouble, I began to see, was in the dictionary offering two definitions for the word. The first definition was “a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons.” The second definition, which stood directly below the first, was “a person who travels on long journeys.” I couldn’t understand how something — in this case, a pilgrim — could be stripped of a defining characteristic — in this case, traveling somewhere “sacred” and doing so for “religious reasons” — and still be the same thing.

In India some Buddhist monks travel hundreds and hundreds of miles to take part in particularly potent religious festivals. They don’t fly, though, or drive or travel by train; they don’t even do something as simple as walk. They take three steps, fall to their knees, prostrate themselves, then rise before taking another three steps, falling to their knees, prostrating themselves, and rising. It takes some monks years to reach their destination.

They’re pilgrims.

One time I flew from San Francisco, where I’m from, to Cleveland then onto New York City where, a day later, I flew to Paris. After four hours in Paris, I took a thirteen-hour train ride to Berlin. It was a very long trip and not especially interesting, but my grandparents had bought me the necessary tickets because they felt a young woman should see the world. I ended up staying in my hotel room most of the week I was in Berlin because I didn’t know the language, and the sad, broad faces on the streets made me nervous.

Nevertheless, I suppose I was a pilgrim, too.

The dictionary was chained to a table at the far end of the large, open reading room that stood to the left of the library’s lobby. Two rows of eight tables filled the rest of the room, which was lined with shelf after shelf of reference volumes. The dictionary was as tall as my upper body and, when open, as wide as my arms held out. It was impossible for all but the strongest person to close.

*          *          *

When I checked my watch, I saw that I was in danger of being late for a meeting I had scheduled with Doctor Spandau, a hematologist at the Cleveland Clinic. I was required to interview three physicians for Biology 202, and Doctor Spandau was the second. Doctor Weiss, an anesthesiologist at Fairview General, had been the first, and Doctor Samuels, an otolaryngologist at Forest City, would be the third. It was late March.

The Western Reserve campus was filled with leafless, wind-whipped white elms. Every sidewalk, every street, every interior path was hidden under identical rows of the same tree. As I left the university on Euclid Avenue, the trees were replaced with buildings — department stores, pharmacies, card shops, the Haddam Hotel, Keith’s Theatre. There were more people on the sidewalk, and the street traffic had thickened.

The Cleveland Clinic was two miles away, on 89th Street and Carnegie Avenue. Had I taken the bus, I would have been there in a matter of minutes, but I was walking because I had lost my student bus pass and didn’t want to pay the fare. This meant it would take me nearly half an hour.

Did that also make me a pilgrim? The Cleveland Clinic wasn’t a sacred place, and I certainly wasn’t visiting Doctor Spandau for religious reasons. But compared to taking the bus, walking there was much longer.

I walked with my head down and attempted to untie the knot that had formed between my eyes. Removing the “sacred” and “religious” properties from the word “pilgrim” caused it to evaporate into the subjective. It might as well have meant nothing.

At East 105th Street, I breathed into my hands as I waited for the light to change. It really would be half an hour.

*          *          *

My roommate Elizabeth had lived in Cleveland all her life. When she learned that I was visiting the Cleveland Clinic, she told me that in 1929 it had caught fire and killed 123 people. A stack of nitro-cellulose x-ray sheets had mysteriously combusted, sending ginger-colored clouds of phosgene gas racing through the halls. The Clinic was subsequently renovated, and other buildings were added, but the disaster building remained in use.

“To this day there are people who refuse to use the Clinic,” Elizabeth said. “Some won’t even look at it. My mother, for instance.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” I said. “It’s superstition.” But when I checked, I was displeased to find that Doctor Spandau’s office was on the disaster building’s third floor.

*          *          *

The Clinic’s lobby floor was divided in two. On one side, the tile was brick red; on the other side, it was gold. The room’s wood paneling was dark, and a line of matching wood chairs stood against each far wall. At the back of the lobby was a circular chamber marked “INFORMATION” in brass letters. There was a window, and inside the chamber I could see an older woman.

“Doctor Spandau, please,” I said to the woman. “I have a one-fifteen appointment.”

The woman telephoned ahead to Doctor Spandau then directed me to the elevators, which were outside the lobby. A minute later, I pushed open the door to Office 319.

The office was paneled with the same dark wood as the lobby, and its floor was the same gold tile. Against one wall was a row of short bookshelves; in the opposite wall were two tall windows, their blinds drawn. A large desk and, in front of it, a pair of leather guest chairs occupied the far half of the room. Standing behind the desk was Doctor Spandau.

“Miss Dorchester. Please have a seat.” Doctor Spandau watched me sit then retook his own seat; as he did, he gestured to the telephone on his desk. “I’m afraid I’m expecting a call within the hour, which means we might have to cut the interview short. But let’s start and see how far we get.”

Doctor Spandau’s answers to the questions I had prepared were clipped and perfunctory. As he spoke, he carefully straightened a fistful of paperclips, which he then placed, one at a time, along the edge of his desk. I found myself pausing after each question to quickly assess my performance. The pauses grew longer and longer until, finally, I couldn’t think of anything to say.

After a moment of silence, Doctor Spandau sighed. “I’d like to ask you a question now, Miss Dorchester,” he said. He put away the paperclips then leaned forward. “Why hematology?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” I said. “Do you mean why did I choose to study hematology?”

Doctor Spandau continued to stare at me.

I flushed. “Well, I think blood is the most interesting thing about the human body,” I said. “In a way, it’s both the waterway and the cargo on that waterway. And because it’s liquid, it’s always changing.” I paused. “I don’t know, Doctor Spandau. I’ve always found blood to be extremely fascinating.”

“From a young age?”

I hesitated. “I suppose so.”

“Around twelve or thirteen?”

“I’m not sure.”

Doctor Spandau relaxed into his chair. His eyes, which had narrowed, continued to hold mine. “There isn’t anything exciting about blood, Miss Dorchester, nor is there anything exciting about ensuring its health,” he said. “It’s very serious and very important, and that’s it. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you have another question?”

“No, sir.” I drew a breath. “That is, I did want to give you a chance to talk about anything important I might not have brought up — if that’s all right.”

In response, Doctor Spandau slowly swept his office with his eyes. He wore a slightly critical expression that remained unchanged for each object in the room, including me. When he had finished, he exhaled then opened the top drawer of his desk. “Here,” he said. He handed me an issue of TIME magazine that had been paperclipped open to page 68. There were two large blocks of text that were headlined “Blood from the Dead.” “There’s a physician — well, there are two of them, but I’m only familiar with the one — in Michigan, Doctor Kevorkian, who has started extracting blood from the recently deceased.”

“For transfusions?” I said as I handed back the magazine.

Doctor Spandau looked strange for a moment. “Yes, of course for transfusions,” he said. “Why else would he want blood from a corpse?”

Doctor Spandau shook his head then replaced the issue of TIME in his desk. “Never mind. I’m bringing it up because I’m strongly against the practice. It’s inane, what they’re doing.” He folded his hands on his desk. “I’m not a moralist, and I’m not particularly religious, either,” he said. “I’m a pragmatist. For instance, I support the harvesting of donor organs because we need them. We don’t have kidney banks or cornea banks or artery banks. We do, however, have blood banks, and the fact is our blood banks have more blood than they could ever need.” He leaned over his hands. “Did you know we can only store blood for twenty-one days? After that, it becomes unusable. Blood banks throw out blood by the gallons — the gallons. There’s no shortage of donors. Why we would ever need to drain the blood from corpses is beyond me.”

Doctor Spandau shook his head. “There’s nothing particularly scientific about it, either,” he continued. “As the article states, we already knew it could be done; it seems a surgeon in Chicago, Leonard Charpier, did it in 1935. And the Russians have been doing it since 1930. Perhaps they need to do it — I don’t know. But I know we don’t. The only reason Doctor Kevorkian and his partner are doing what they’re doing is because it’s shocking and modern. It’s someplace new to go. That isn’t pragmatic; it’s the opposite. It’s frivolous and impractical, and that’s why I’m against it.” His face had achieved a flawless rigidity. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I didn’t know what to do. “I can see where you’re coming from, sir,” I said.

Doctor Spandau stared at me for a moment then sighed. “Is there anything else you’d like to ask me?” he said. “Anything at all.” He glanced at his telephone as he spoke. “Anything.”

“No, sir.”

There was a pause.

“Did you know,” Doctor Spandau said, “that during her first two trimesters a pregnant woman will increase the amount of blood in her body by fifty percent? It’s for the uterus, mostly, but also for all the extra work the heart has to do for a pregnant system.”

There was another pause. After a moment, I thanked Doctor Spandau for his time, gathered my things, and left.

*          *          *

I felt distracted and lightheaded as I stepped out of the Clinic onto East 96th Street. It was a distraction I had felt before; I knew that somewhere, some part of my brain was working to process my interview with Doctor Spandau. Perhaps process wasn’t the right word — scrub, maybe. Or detoxify.

I knew that my Biology 202 paper would be very short.

A block north, I turned east onto Euclid Avenue. It was approaching two o’clock, and traffic was intermittently heavy on both the street and the sidewalk. After twenty minutes, I was nearly to Stearns Road; I could see the Western campus a short distance ahead. It was at that moment that I heard a car horn, followed quickly by a terrifying metallic thump.

When I turned, I saw that a Ford Galaxie had collided with some unfamiliar model of Chrysler. The Galaxie’s engine was crumpled around the Chrysler’s front left bumper so that the two cars were a brutal checkmark in the Euclid turn lane.

There was smoke, which poured from under the Galaxie’s hood, and there was blood, too. It was on the Chrysler’s windshield, where the driver had struck his head. And it bathed the passenger’s leg. Somehow the door on her side had come loose and fallen away, and she had tumbled out onto the street. Her right leg was red, and every part of it — femur, patella, tibia, fibula, talus — was at opposite angles. Her dress had bunched at her stomach, and there was a pool of blood growing under her head.

She was screaming. Despite the noise of the city, her voice was as clear as a bell. She wasn’t forming any words, however — only a fierce, keening vocalization that made my teeth hurt.

To myself I shouted, God, please, help that woman! But she was still screaming when the ambulance arrived twelve minutes later.

*          *          *

On the last day I was in Berlin, I headed into the city to search for souvenirs, which I had promised my family. I was determined, however, to stray no farther than two blocks in any direction from my hotel. A block east, the strap on my purse broke. Behind me was an older man, who quickly stopped, knelt, and gathered from the sidewalk both my purse and the things that had spilled out of it — my wallet, a compact, a street map of Berlin, tissues, a notepad, a retractable pen. He then stood and offered it all back to me. The moment I took my things from him, he pushed his hand forward and, with the tips of his middle and index fingers, tickled the inside of my right wrist. He then stepped around me, smiling as he did.

I immediately returned to my hotel.

The entire trip back to San Francisco, I tried to think of an excuse for not buying souvenirs. But I couldn’t, and everyone in my family was disappointed.


Mako » Authorship
Mako » 9:36 PM 18 Oct 16
Rooster » 7:00 AM 18 Oct 16
Mako » 2:35 AM 16 Oct 16
Mako » 7:17 PM 14 Oct 16
Mako » 2:56 AM 13 Oct 16
Mako » 2:51 AM 13 Oct 16
Elk » 6:26 PM 11 Oct 16
Mako » 11:41 AM 11 Oct 16

The Thread (72)

 Author's voice in grey. 

  1. Haven’t read this yet – just reformatted the stars so they adopted The Land’s pre-formatted convention (there’s a button in the editor that will drop in the pre-formatted stars).

  2. Boy this is one where the site’s new progress bar came in handy. I wonder about length all the time. Here we have renewed cause. Let’s see if this piece gets read and thoroughly vetted.

    Couple of things. I liked finding out the narrator is a woman by some grandparental sentiment about women generally.

    I think you might want to use the word physician over and above doctor — not that there’s no place for doctor, just that physician should be the default when it’s a medical student talking about doctors.

    Phosgene gas is reportedly colorless. Does ginger fall within the realm of reality? Is the gas combined with combustion, throwing a ginger concoction into the air?

    More to come — I’m only halfway through, according to the progress bar.

  3. Yes, it is much too long for Rooster Land. I went back and forth about whether or not to post it, but the reason I did is because, to be honest, I wanted it to be read. Sometimes you just want to put your stuff in front of eyeballs, you know? Or even just put it somewhere that isn’t your hard drive. And there aren’t always too many places to do that.

    It’s also an honest-to-god short story rather than a vignette so I’m really on thin ice here. I have another longer piece I’ll probably finish this weekend that I’d like to post, but if everyone decides I shouldn’t, or that this one should be removed, I’m completely fine with that.

    As for your comments, Elk:

    I didn’t know that about doctor/physician so I’ll make that change. And in regards to phosgene gas, I got my information from this link, which references a “yellow and brown vapor.” I’m sure you’re right, Elk, but since I already used some artistic license to shift “yellow and brown” to “ginger,” I think I’m okay with applying a little more and saying, well, this particular kind of phosgene gas had a color.

    Thanks for your eyeballs.

  4. Definitely post — didn’t mean to imply not to, only meant to say I wonder how animals will engage with such a (relatively) long piece. FYI, the record is still held by Puma, I believe, who posted a whole chapter of a now published book.

  5. I like how the piece zooms into Cleveland from San Fran, then zooms back out via Berlin.

    I don’t quite get anything from the story. Lots of good moments along the way, but no sum total. What’s behind it?

    Also — there’s a level of detail that at times restrains my imagination. It may be fun to write all about what a place looks like, but too many words about the same thing makes a passive reader, one who has less personal psychology invested (a kind of sunk cost that keeps one reading). As a reader, I prefer a few key details, perhaps even general, and maybe even stereotypical strokes, so that I can make the rest upstairs, just the way I might like it to be. Things become bespoke by reduction. There’s also the possibility of going too far with that, offering too little, such that a reader has nothing on which to grasp and climb.

    Twopence to ponder.

  6. Thanks for your comments, Elk, and thanks for reading.

    I completely understand what you’re saying about description, and I think it’s a tough thing to balance. As a reader, I tend to figure the writer did what s/he did for a reason, and it’s my job to discover that; as a writer, I want to make it fairly easy for the reader to make that discovery.

    I’m going to assume it’s the descriptions of the library reference room, the Clinic lobby, and Doctor Spandau’s office that you feel are too detailed. My reasons for that level of description are to 1. show how aware the narrator is of her surroundings; and 2. build in the reader the same kind of trapped feeling the narrator feels. In other words, it’s meant to provoke a certain sense of unease.

    However, if the reader doesn’t see that connection? That’s not good, and I need to think hard about what I’m doing and why.

    As for what’s behind the story, well, I’m not sure what to say really. I guess I’ve always found it sexist the way so many readers try to “solve” Salinger’s “Franny” by theorizing that Franny is pregnant; I think that’s in there. (The Way of a Pilgrim.) I’ll also reveal that the story didn’t really work for me until I landed on that last section, specifically the way the old man touches the narrator. That firmed some things up.

    Finally, I know this is a loaded question, which is why I cringe to even ask it, but is there something in particular you need from the story that it isn’t giving you, Elk? From your comments, it seems like you’d want it to resolve more—or at least be more clear and specific in its resolution. Is that fair to say?

    Is it a problem of connecting with the narrator? Or the premise?

    Is the connective tissue between the sections too thin to pull you through and/or sustain whatever emotion might be generated in those sections? Etc., etc.

  7. Yes, it was those three descriptions I had to gloss over as unduly obstructionist.

    On the what-I-get question, I read to be enlightened, hopefully in an entertaining manner. I don’t feel any wiser for having read this piece. I have some new thoughts, which come largely in the form of recombining and reordering preexisting knowledge (blood, doctors, school, Cleveland, etc.), but I don’t discern what you’re trying to communicate with this compilation of alphanumeric characters strung out in this particular order.

    I view a piece of writing as a whole, meant to express, but, like anything, composed of individual strokes that demonstrate technique. I see the strokes here, but I don’t see the whole. I assume you write not to just to depict but to emote and explain — that to me has always been the distinction between mediocre writing and writing that elucidates.

    To put it succinctly — what’s the insight on the human experience I can take to the bank here? The closest I get is that school’s a bitch.

  8. Let me also say that I think I’d have a better chance at meaningful discovery if this particular piece was cut back by 3/4.

    Other animals suggested (offline and to general agreement) that this piece is potentially a candidate for serialization — perhaps broken up into vignettes that end at each set of stars. We’ve all been surprised by how much more affecting segments can sometimes be when they’re distanced but not disconnected from their fuller context. In this case, serialization might provide just the kind of headroom the full version leaves me craving.

  9. Maybe the stranger who helps her pick up the items from her purse is an angel, sending her some kind of message about blood in the veins, making this whole thing a religious experience, thusly converting her trip from pilgrimage definition one to pilgrimage definition two.

  10. She seeks a mystical experience in hematology, or to confirm one she supposes she can describe through the study, and embarks on a pilgrimage toward that realization through medical school. That pilgrimage is the source of its own loss of meaning. Her travels here variously recapitulate and interrogate that process.

  11. Mako, I’d like to hear more about what’s funny to you. Generally because I sense an undercurrent of a sort of non-humor, which I enjoy. But specifically I’m waiting for a joke about totalitarianism, or whatever. Without it that second field of study feels like a writer’s tick, or an ostentatious key (look it up and decode the story, dear reader). Give me some Fancy Nancy spiel about what it means.

    I echo the discomfort felt by @elk, about the level of description in those two passages. I’d say give me more or less. What’s interesting about it? What’s the hypertext to follow? Or what’s the gesture of the room? These are some of the things I look for in a writer’s or a character’s eye.

    I had a mentor who described the “imitative fallacy”, that tactic of making a scene of a boring scene, boring. Or a scene about sexuality pornographic, etc. The only genre I know for which it works as a rule is horror.

    I appreciate the form, and I love the first paragraph. It’s a vignette. I’d also suggest breaking it up and tagging it. I bet you’ll find improvements.

    Also want to hear more about souvenirs!

    Great to see you back on Land, old shark.

  12. Excellent thoughts, Falcon.

    Perhaps a most affecting and surprising outcome for me is Mako’s citation to The Way of a Pilgrim in a reply – the idea of praying without stopping, as blood might flow. This is going to be my new thing until it’s not. Watch out.

  13. I enjoyed this piece once I got into it. The descriptions in and of themselves didn’t seem overtly obstructionist but given the forum here (writing vignettes) I can see that they might be considered unnecessary. There’s a premium on economy in the Land, but in the outside world, it would likely pass as you’ve described, Mako.

    I really like the Dr. Spandau character – menacingly practical. A symbol for America, perhaps. When Dewey said that the American philosophy is pragmatism, I don’t think he meant it as complimentary.

    There are definitely some screws to be tightened, I think, with the writing. “I” comes up six times in the first paragraph. Minor stuff like that could be sifted out with a good shake.

    I like Falcon’s interpretation of the narrator’s spiritual journey. The car accident shows her exactly what blood is. I couldn’t help but picture Anton Chigurh.

    As for the ending – I don’t know. It didn’t add, but changed the story quite a bit. I’m not sure what to make of it. Maybe that’s the point.

  14. I hadn’t seen Elk’s suggestion that the stranger at the end is an angel. That I don’t see. The tickle is more disturbing (to me, at least) than the accident. That the narrator goes home souvenir-less seems to support she was disturbed as well.

    It’s a good attempt, though, to connect the ending to the pilgrimage thread.

  15. “[T]his compilation of alphanumeric characters strung out in this particular order.”

    Elk, honestly, you don’t have to sugarcoat your criticism for my sake. Please feel free to say what you mean!

    Well, first, thanks again for everyone’s time and attention; I appreciate it on a thousand levels. I agree that if I were tailoring this piece for Rooster Land, I’d probably edit it down or make it a serial. But as I made reference to in my previous comment, I put this up here because sometimes I like the things I write to be read. It’s a 2,300-word short story; that’s what it is. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be trimmed, of course, but it does mean that the trimming should be on the basis of merit, not context or form.

    (I do want to make clear that I respect the boundaries of Rooster Land, and I do feel guilty for posting such a long piece here. It was, in many ways, a moment of weakness. But what’s done is done, I guess!)

    Second, it seems like the most pressing fix I need to make is in the last section. Bear is, I think, the only one who read the narrator’s encounter with the old man as wrong and predatory. That’s an important thing for the reader to understand. It isn’t a matter of interpretation or whatever; the reader needs to know this was an invasion. So my question is: if I gave the old man a leer rather than a smile, would that be clear enough?

    Let me know.

    Those issues settled, I guess at this point I should just explain what I was trying to do with the piece. At the root of it is the issue of transcendence. A pilgrim is either someone who goes on a journey to an important place for metaphysical reasons or someone who simply goes on a long journey. In that first definition, the pilgrim transcends his/her journey. Well, if life is a long journey (and it’s nothing if not that) then we’re all pilgrims of the second definition; the question is, can we become pilgrims of the first definition?

    That’s the question the narrator struggles with, as per the first scene of the story. The conflict is that, as a woman, she’s denied transcendence by almost everyone and everything around her.

    (Note: this takes place in 1961 — did everyone catch that? Should I make that obvious somewhere other than the title and the fact that Western Reserve isn’t Case Western? Hasn’t everyone memorized the history of midsize Rust Belt colleges and universities?)

    Doctor Spandau denies the narrator transcendence by barring her entrance into “real” medicine. (Life equaling blood, and blood equaling life.) First, he blows off her interview, jeopardizing her grade and staunching her education. Second, he crudely insinuates that the only reason she’s interested in hematology is because she experiences menstruation. Third, he suggests her real function in life is being a mother by quoting her that fact about blood production during pregnancy.

    In the car accident section, the narrator is denied transcendence by God; she prays for the woman to be relieved of her pain, and she’s not. In the last section, the narrator is denied transcendence by the old man, who treats her simply as a body there to please him.

    Ultimately, she can only be a body; she can only be flesh and blood.

    A few secondary notes: The description of the lobby is important, I think, because 1. the floor is divided into red and gold tiles, representing blood and spirit (or transcendence); plus, the chairs are pushed to the edges of the room, suggesting there’s no middle ground here. And 2. Doctor Spandau’s secretary is an old woman trapped inside a chamber. Finally, the Clinic fire section is there for color and foreshadowing. If this were a short-short, that section could be removed, and the patient would live.

    Now, all this stuff is how I see the story, and that’s why I was initially reluctant to go into detail about it. You might — and do, I’m sure — see things differently. Which doesn’t really matter, I don’t think.

    If this is a successful story, it’ll grab you on some level; if it doesn’t do at least that, well, maybe it’s not a successful story. For instance, I read “Hills Like White Elephants” when I was in the ninth grade; it wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I found out it’s about abortion. That didn’t stop me from liking it in the ninth grade, though. At that time, I liked it because of its style and how oddly strong the woman is and how pathetic it is the way the man tries to match her strength and how the train never comes. When I found out the rest of it, it made me more interested in the story, but it didn’t affect the things I liked about it originally.

    I guess what I’m saying is if the story didn’t excite you before I “explained” it, it probably won’t excite you now. And that’s a problem I need to address as the writer.

    If I want people to like my stories, that is. Maybe I’ll decide to be a difficult writer! It’s so much easier that way.

  16. And since you asked, Falcon:

    My sense of humor is wide but specific, I think. Like anyone, I like Will Ferrell, but my favorite sketch comedy show of all time is SCTV (followed closely by The Kids in the Hall, the first season of The Eric Andre Show, Mr. Show, and Key and Peele, in no particular order). I don’t like a lot of comedy movies because, for whatever reason, they never try anything interesting with their plots or structure (with the enormous exception of Rushmore). And although there are parts of books I think are funny (every scene with the twins in Murakami’s Pinball, 1973; Chip Kidd’s The Cheese Monkeys; Myna’s first John Handshy story), I think comedy in writing tends to come off like it’s trying too hard. I don’t know why that is; maybe it’s just me.

    I find myself laughing the most at television and comic books. My favorite television comedies are the first three seasons of Arrested Development; the first season of Community; Parks and Recreation; Phil Hartman Newsradio seasons; Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; Regular Show; Batman ’66; Documentary Now!; and did I mention the first season of The Eric Andre Show? (Its season finale is the most brilliant fifteen minutes of television I’ve ever seen.) My favorite funny comic books are Hawkeye; Eightball; The Superior Foes of Spider-Man; the most recent Jughead series; Nextwave; and Young Liars. The funniest comic books of all-time, though, are Ryan North’s Adventure Time run, followed closely by his issues of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

    The Comedy Bang Bang! podcast can be funny, especially if Andy Daly or Lauren Lapkus is on, but it can also be a dreary game of yelling and obtuse references. The Andy Daly Podcast Project is unassailably wonderful.

    I don’t think it’s funny when people are pranked, but I do find it funny when people react with absurd confusion to strange situations.

    I’m not a fan of Seinfeld.

    As for the story I wrote, I think I only meant to make a couple of parts funny, although not really ha-ha funny. The size of the dictionary is one; the narrator’s reaction to her interview being in the disaster building is another; Doctor Spandau’s response to the narrator saying, “For transfusions?” is the last one. No jokes about totalitarianism, as far as I know.

    Hope that helps! And I’d love to know what everyone else finds funny. I think laughter is a human being’s only honest emotional response.

  17. Word, Mako. Thanks for sharing.

    I think you can apply the thing to the forum and still find its substance. Try writing music for classical ensembles one day. But I for one would rather have you flipping the rooster at the rules than not posting. So there you have it. Do with your pass as thou may. But keep moving, killer ray.

    The bit about Spandau’s misogyny. I felt it but didn’t get those specifics. I might have if I wasn’t reading on the train in between paragraphs of my own, but I would have liked to enough that I ask you take a cold look at how you might make that stuff a teensy-weensy bit more obvious. ‘Cause it’s good stuff.

    I knew you liked comedy. You just listed about a hundred of your favorite comedies. Mine start and end with Man and Superman. I’m very boring. Actually, I’m a Dice Clay fan too.

    I didn’t think you were making a totalitarianism joke. I thought you were having a b.s. moment of looking up a new word and using it, or feeling like you needed something esoteric sounding to make your narrator seem authentic. That’s how the whateverologist comes off to me. Suggesting you temper it with a dumb joke.

    Fascinating to hear all these details about why what is what and where. The red and gold: cool. If you had more fun with it, I could play there with you and maybe pick that up.

    The tickle is an obvious enough transgression not to have called it out as such. Skeevy on its face.

    Give us the next one and consider, just consider, dripping it out.

  18. On the issue of transcendence: we see that she is concerned with the idea from the outset, but do we learn why? There’s maybe not enough grounding of her character in that regard for readers to fully grasp that she is truly interested in being a pilgrim. It coincidentally comes across a little as the b.s. moment referenced above by Falcon – she has just looked up the word in the dictionary. What prompts that? We don’t need to find out there, necessarily, but we do need an inkling somewhere along the line. Otherwise, I don’t think we’re totally invested in the character – meaning, importantly, we don’t realize she’s seeking transcendence. It seems like something she just read about. Maybe try rounding out this flat area.

  19. One thing’s for sure – Mako never leaves so much as the trace of a typo, not even when his formatting gets complex (see the serial lists of italicized titles separated by semicolons, for example). Thank you very much for that level of care.

    Do note that stylistically The Land requests spaces before and after your em dashes, however. I made the fixes in this piece, no trouble.

  20. Are these in fact em dashes? They look more like en dashes with space filling out the em length.

  21. The site prints them as en dashes, but the unicode input is for an em dash, so if the raw content was transferred to another medium it would print as an em dash. For that reason, en or em is ok, but em is preferred. We are always preparing this content for publication in another medium, hopefully print.

  22. I’d have never gotten any of that stuff out of this piece, Mako. I’m a poor reader, and even poorer writer – nonetheless, I do believe it’s all far too plainly stated to have any subsurface effect.

    I’m going to demo an example from my own work, Choice.

    Here’s my version of something:

    His parents were the type no one could seem to know anything about, not even Cal himself. They were all but absentee — in and out, short on resource, and selfish I think. I was jealous of his freedom before I knew enough to pity him.

    To me, it’s as if you’d write it without those last digs beneath the surface, so that it’s just the facts, like this:

    His parents were the type no one could seem to know anything about, not even Cal himself. They were all but absentee — in and out and short on resource.

    You want us to take a boatload away, but your longshoreman are ghosts. If I have one overall suggestion at this point it’s to be less afraid to say it all – to not “hide the ball” (as professors used to say in my classes) – or said another way, to not play the shell game of, “Look here, but the ball’s over there.” I’m reading because I want to know, not because I want to play.

    Of course, I am one animal, and a very stupid and particular one at that.

  23. The most direct of writers are covert on some level. They have to be. And they are also susceptible to being read on a subsurface level. Even your bit of story there, Elk. There are questions to be asked – about Cal, his parents, the narrator. There are questions you haven’t even considered as a writer and there a questions that have no definite answer.

    I think that’s what makes it literature.

    That Mako was good enough to spell things out for us was an obvious shortcut for all parties. Generally, if we felt the work warranted the time, and the story was written well enough, we would have gotten there ourselves.

  24. I guess the question is, did we not devote the time or was it not well written? I’m going with the former. Despite my earlier critique on character motivation, I think most of us would concede on some level that the conceptual pilgrimage was important to the narrator. We may have found the doctor to be condescending and found our way to misogyny. And on and on. Certainly it would be a messy process, and obviously we wouldn’t reproduce word for word Mako’s understanding of the story, but I think we’d have come pretty close.

    This is what we almost never do in replies – discuss meaning.

  25. I agree we don’t do it enough, and that we tend to focus on style and technique. But here, actually, you’ll notice I was specifically frustrated by my inability to penetrate the surface of this piece. I wanted to, but couldn’t get at any meaning, though I did try, with the stranger/angel theory.

    But yes, a 50/50 breakdown of technique/meaning would be a nice pace for The Land.

    Do it up – be an offsetting factor.

  26. Right. I find discussion is a useful tool to discerning meaning. Falcon gave some great insight, which I hadn’t seen, but then built upon a bit. And I may have disagreed with your angel idea, but it’s not without merit.

    That’s the mess you get into with meaning. But it’s interesting for readers and useful for writers.

  27. Continued great thanks to everyone involved in the conversation. I appreciate you being here and sticking it out.

    (First: sorry about my screwing up the dashes. I’ve tied a string around my finger so I should be okay now.)

    I don’t know where to start really. Maybe with meaning? I’m not sure how important a particular meaning is to a story, especially as it applies to the author’s intent. For instance, I love Ender’s Game for ultimately being an argument in favor of pacifism and compassionate understanding. But given who Orson Scott Card is as a person, I can’t be sure that was the statement he meant to make. (And I truly don’t care, either.) So I don’t think it’s necessary for you, the reader, to see in my story the same thing I, the writer, do.

    Except meaning often goes hand in hand with worth, as it has at various times in this comment thread. This is where it gets tricky. Because I believe it’s hard to not find meaning in a story — any story. That’s just how language works; throw two words together, and you’re establishing a relationship that, on some level, possesses meaning. It might be a shallow meaning or an absurd meaning, but meaning is meaning.

    The tricky part arises out of expectations, either the ones the story applies to itself or the ones the reader applies to the story. It’s the fulfillment or non-fulfillment of expectations that determines worth.

    In reverse order: a writer can’t do anything about the expectations a reader brings to his/her story. Those expectations are formed by likes, habits, reading skill, context, mood, time, format, et cetera to infinity. If a reader brings traditional expectations to an experimental story, for one example, it’s almost impossible for that reader to like that story — c’est la vie.

    The expectations that a story applies to itself, however? Those are within a writer’s power to alter. If a story sets the reader up to expect a certain level or type of meaning — through style, structure, tone, foreshadowing, character types, irony, on and on — and then doesn’t come through, that’s a failure that has nothing to do with the reader and everything to do with the story.

    The question is, what does that mean? And the answer is a hundred thousand question marks because who the hell knows? I’m just asking questions here.

    There’s another issue: expression, which we might as well call the author’s expectations. I made it clear with my Ender’s Game example that I don’t think authorial intent matters once a story is in the hands of its readers. I do, however, think authorial expression matters. I think authors should be free to express what they want as they want.

    That said, what if a story doesn’t “work,” especially in the eyes of its readers, but it expresses exactly what the author wants to express in the way s/he wants to express it? Is the author obligated to reshape the story? And is an artistic idea depicted one way the same as that idea depicted a different way?

    Is someone who walks across the street for spiritual reasons the same kind of pilgrim as someone who, also compelled by spiritual reasons, travels halfway around the globe to get to that identical spot?

  28. I’ve been writing seriously for a little over twenty years, and I can count on one hand the number of times there’s been a positive consensus about a story I’ve written. People generally think I “write well,” but they rarely know what I’m “trying to say.”

    My low point was at the end of my first semester at graduate school. It was my fourth story that was being workshopped, and each of my three previous stories had been met with the same criticism: “well-written but what are you trying to say?” I had decided to write something Surreal in order to bypass the issue of meaning altogether; I was inspired by Memoirs of A Shy Pornographer, one of my very favorite books.

    In retrospect, this was a dumb move. For one thing, Surrealist works are chockfull of meaning — it’s just the meaning isn’t stated as it usually is, and it’s located in strange places. (Which was true for the story I wrote.) For another thing, I was setting myself up to get the “what are you trying to say?” criticism, except this time probably without the “well-written” part.

    And that’s exactly what happened. I had written a story about how hard it is to become a man without a competent father for a guide, and no one got that. Instead, everyone was strangely fixated on what a caracal is. (At one point in the story, a character summons then scares away a caracal, which is a type of wild cat.) Of course the reason for that fixation is because what I had written didn’t engage them. I had done the exact same thing — focus on the details! — with stories that didn’t engage me.

    Later in the workshop, when I got a chance to respond, I didn’t want to really say anything, and my professor, sensing some discord, said, “Well, Mako, I think you’re going to have to compromise some.”

    At which point I shouted, “I will never compromise!”

    (The weird part? My professor actually called me “Mako.” How strange is that???)

    Of course I didn’t really mean I wouldn’t compromise; I wasn’t expressing a shocking level of egoism, I swear. What I meant is that I didn’t know what I could compromise.

    That entire semester — and the entire ten years before that — I had been trying to compromise. I had been trying everything I could to write something that people would, you know, understand. I switched styles a dozen times: minimal, maximal, first-person, third-person, formal, idiomatic, etc., etc. I switched genres and subjects two dozen times: horror, science fiction, literary, experimental, Surrealist, slice-of-life, epic, etc., etc. At one point, I even gave up writing and decided to start making graphic novels.

    But it wasn’t until graduate school that I finally realized the flaw in my tack. See, no matter what I wrote or how I wrote it, it would have to come out through the filter of who I am. Like wearing glasses with blue lenses: everything you look at is blue.

    (I’m very afraid that, in this next section, I’m going to come off as arrogant or egotistical; that’s not my intention. Please call me on it if I slip up.)

    There’s a reason this particular idea, “The Pilgrimage of ’61,” emerged from the filter of my brain in the way it appears on your screen. I’ve spent enough time writing that, at this point, I can safely say I’m in control of my words. And I used that control to create this story, which looks the way I want it to look; it looks on the screen the way it looked in my brain.

    That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, of course; for God’s sake, I’m far from perfect so why would it be perfect? And it doesn’t mean I don’t have leeway to compromise. (I made a change to Doctor Spandau’s dialogue to make it more obvious that he’s referring to menstruation.) But essentially it is what it is. The point of my explanation isn’t quality or better than or less than; it’s beingness.

    This is obviously a very long comment, and I’m sorry it got so personal. (It’s especially strange, I know, appearing as it does on an anonymous online “preserve” where we all have animal alter egos. Are you sure you aren’t here because you want to play, Elk?)

    But you know what? This is all a part of writing, too. I’d bet that each of you has felt something similar to what I described in the above six-thousand paragraphs. Writing is one of the weirdest activities a person can engage in, and we’re all here because we all do it. More than that, we can’t stop doing it.

    Do it long enough, and it forces you to ask unanswerable questions. But at least here we ask them to each other, right?

  29. So I don’t think it’s necessary for you, the reader, to see in my story the same thing I, the writer, do.

    See here’s where we’re going to break. (But touché on here to play.) I view the practice, or the art, or whatever you make of writing, as one of communication. We’re how many millions of years into this, and I still can’t just hold all your thoughts in mine?

    So we talk, or we paint, and more than any of that, we write. It’s the closest we’ve come and the furthest we’ve gotten – to trying on each other’s thoughts.

    I want you to experience being me. That’s why I write. And I want you to get it like I get it. I want to share my life in that most intimate way. I want to be understood. I want to communicate.

    I can’t imagine being human and not caring about that. It’s half the social aspect of Animalia – the other half being the desire to listen, to experience others, to understand them, and to share their lives, if not at least bear witness.

    So yeah, I gotta disagree with the general tenor of the statement that opens this reply. Not on an absolute level – certainly no one has to do anything. There’s plenty of room in one’s life to screw with the universe. I rather succumb.

    Sling your epithets and clinical diagnoses, though if this turns out to be anything like my happy marriage those’ll be one and the same.

  30. Yes, writing is an incredible tool for communication. But capacity doesn’t guarantee fidelity, if that makes any sense.

    Communication depends on expression and understanding, and either one of those can easily break down. Just watch any episode of Frasier; that show wouldn’t exist if communication couldn’t break down.

    Crucially, however, that breakdown can occur in a way that communication still occurs but with degraded fidelity. In other words, although a message is received, it might not be the one that was expressed. (See: the Telephone game or, again, any episode of Frasier.) Sometimes that results in absurdity or hurt feelings; however, sometimes it results in real meaning, albeit a meaning different from the one that was intended.

    Of course a communicator’s tolerance for these breakdowns is dependent on the context of his/her communication. A writer of experimental short stories could most likely accept a wide range of reader interpretations, whereas a military official receiving nuclear launch codes would want to make damn sure s/he understands every last letter.

    The point I was making in my comment is that for a story to “work,” to be effective, to impart meaning, it isn’t necessary that you, the reader, see it the way I, the author, see it. If that weren’t true, no one would write because it would be an impossible task. It might be a noble dream to want union with another’s thoughts, but the truth is we’re all going to stay inside our own heads, hidden from others, forever and ever.

    Doesn’t mean we can’t come close to that union. Doesn’t mean we can’t fail and still provide something great to the world.

    Elk, I respect the reasons you write. They’re great and worthy and worthwhile. In a lot of ways, they’re why I write. But they’re not the only reasons to write; they’re not even the only reasons to make art with writing.

    One of the reasons I write is to put beautiful, interesting things in the world. Before I sit down to write, whatever I’m going to write didn’t exist; after I’m through writing, it does exist. I’ve altered the world in that nearly microscopic way.

    Another reason I write is because it’s something I have to do. It’s just how I was made. If I didn’t write, I’d go crazy. I’d be like that sludge monster in Spirited Away, the one with the bicycle wound; my whole being wouldn’t work right. There’s something inside me that needs to come out in writing so I let it out.

    And, yes, a very important reason I write is to communicate.

    But to kind of nod in the direction of the original discussion, if what I try to communicate — what I express — is received and understood as something different than what I intended, I’m perfectly fine with that — so long as that something has value and meaning to the person receiving it. What’s tough is when your reader doesn’t receive any kind of message; you’re saying, “Hello? Hello?” on one end, and they’re hearing a dial tone. That’s not a great feeling.

    One last point:

    “So I don’t think it’s necessary for you, the reader, to see in my story the same thing I, the writer, do.”

    If that weren’t true, we couldn’t have Mystery Science Theater 3000. And what a dismal thought that is.

  31. Elk, I think your reasons for reading and writing as stated are idealistic and preclude you from attempting deeper interpretation. I’ve met many people who share the same mindset. It might be that you don’t really care for fiction. If you are an admittedly “poor reader”, I’m not sure why you would say, “I’m not getting anything out of this story.” Perhaps you should work on it.

    If we began our conversations with questions rather than statements, it would likely help each and every situation.

    I apologize for being blunt but it’s 6:09 in the morning and my crankiness is at about an 8.5.

  32. I’ll be back later this morning, EDT. And because I prefer to leave little to interpretation, let me tell you that I say that menacingly.

  33. We’re how many millions of years into this, and I still can’t just hold all your thoughts in mine?

    That’s a funny thing to think and says a lot about your expectations.

  34. I look forward to the battle.

  35. This is all quite obviously a to-each-their own topic. All I can do is tell you about me and listen to you tell me about you. But this line in particular needs to be addressed:

    It might be that you don’t really care for fiction.

    I don’t view fiction as a medium, particularly not one specifically defined by obscurity. I view it as a tool for communication. There are as many things that can’t be best articulated outside of fiction as there are not. I don’t ply at fiction to dance in shadows or obscure my thoughts. I pick up fiction to tighten a screw on my walkie-talkie.

    “Can you hear me now?”

  36. I typed out a typical Bear response to the above, but I’d rather just say this: if you learn to leave your expectations at the door, you’ll likely get more out of this stuff. Cliché, yes, but I can offer you no better advice.

  37. Not buying what you’re selling, @elk.

  38. I’d stand behind the statement “writing is communication,” if only because the definition of communication is so broad as to encompass the whole of human experience. (Information that is emitted is received: communication.)

    However, as soon as you add qualifiers to “writing is communication,” I’m going to remove my support. Because no matter how you contract that statement, I can find an example to contradict that contraction.

    But, to be honest, Elk, it seems like you aren’t talking about what writing is so much as you’re describing what you like writing to be. And that’s fine and interesting; we all form our own relationships to the things in the world around and within us, and writing is both around and within us.

    Plenty of people do use writing to dance in shadows. Plenty of people also use writing to obscure their thoughts. Plenty of people use writing to create funhouses in which they and others can play. Plenty of people also use writing in exactly the way you use it, Elk. These are just facts, you know?

  39. Let me come at it from a new and reductionist angle. Here’s a short list of words and one idiom I’d use to describe Mako’s style:

    1. Subtle
    2. Understated
    3. Opaque
    4. Quiet
    5. Still waters run deep

    I think what’s important here is that we haven’t reached good or bad, right or wrong, absolute value — important inasmuch as maybe we should confess to something objective. I’ll never avoid going there if invited or reciprocated. To this point we’ve only described our experiences and perspectives. That’s tremendously useful — but we’re skirting some very real issues here.

    I’m not saying this piece is good or bad. I’m saying I believe in good and bad writing, and will take that debate any day of the week.

  40. Are the real issues we’re skirting our judgments of the piece? Is that the “something objective” to which you refer?

  41. Clearly this is a well written story. It is evident that a great deal went into not only dotting the i’s (impossible not to, actually), but into every other aspect of its being (again, my own critique on character notwithstanding). So there’s that. It’s good. It was written good and says good stuff.

    Now the exact nature of that stuff is debatable, but clearly it’s saying something. Again, impossible not to.

    As to readers’ ability to discern that something – it certainly depends on the reader. I don’t think it’s an easy story. But it’s not impossible. Falcon made headway into a strong wind. I believe I followed and advanced his position. Mako then cast down lightning from on high.

    But we were getting there.

  42. We don’t have to judge this piece — but we certainly could.

    What I mean is that it seems we’re dodging whether there is such a thing for writing as good/bad, right/wrong, absolute value (that is to say, positive value even if bad — for example, the upside down urinal).

    I think Mako’s taking a relativist position about writing. I’ll never be a relativist — not here, not anywhere. I’ll even get quantitative if I have to.

  43. @falcon — Is there good art and bad art, or just art?

  44. But I’m not dodging. I just judged, and in judging decreed that there indeed is good and bad writing. My standards for good are different than yours – that’s the disagreement.

    You believe that good fiction is straightforward and enlightening. I believe that good fiction can be that but can also be other things, as enumerated by Mako.

    I don’t think that’s relativist. I think it’s broad-minded.

  45. Fair enough. Though I do believe there is something (possibly plural) necessary to good writing beyond what’s obvious. There is something objective about being human, and good writing touches that and becomes it via transitive properties.

  46. Boy, we get to some crazy fascinating places, don’t we?

    Honestly, I’m not sure how anyone who’s read more than one story and spoken to at least one person about that story can think there’s anything as objective as “good” writing and “bad” writing. Similarly, I’m not sure how anyone who’s lived more than, say, four years as an adult can say there’s “good” writing and “bad” writing.

    Why? Because different people find different art good and bad, and because art that was once considered bad is often redeemed by a different audience at a different time.

    Do I need to provide examples? Well, I want to because it’s fun:

    The Batman ’66 television show was considered good when it premiered, bad when it was cancelled, awful throughout the next three decades, then a mistreated classic very recently. Moby-Dick was published to, at best, crickets then was later recognized as a towering work of unimaginable genius. The Velvet Underground continue to grow in esteem and listeners from a low of, like, twelve fans in 1965. Jack Kirby’s monster comics from the 50s and 60s were considered filler for kids when they were published and are now being reprinted in $100 mega-tomes.

    I love Andy Samberg’s first movie, Hot Rod; most people very much do not. Most people love Seinfeld; I very much do not.

    I think the Nintendo Worlds of Power series of novelizations are well-written hidden gems, and I bet you couldn’t find more than a dozen other people who feel the same way. I couldn’t make it through a Cormac McCarthy novel if you paid me yet he tops list after list after list of best living authors.

    Etc., etc., etc.

    I mean, at best we, the consumers of art, can come to a majority opinion about certain pieces, like The Great Gatsby or Michelangelo’s David or Ozu’s Tokyo Story or whatever — but you’ll never get to one hundred percent. At which point the question becomes, are the opinions of those holdouts worth less than the opinions of the majority? I’ll go ahead and make the assumption that none of us here are comfortable saying one person is better than another person.

    (But maybe I’m not seeing any of this correctly? I will admit that this conversation has been incredibly slippery for me, to the point where, at times, I haven’t known what we’ve been discussing.)

    Finally, in regards to my story, I will say I’m fine with someone not liking it. I’m fine with someone not “understanding” it, and I’m fine with someone thinking it doesn’t hold anything for him/her. I think, as Bear pointed out, there are some clear observations that can be made about it — the carefulness of the writing, for instance — but, in true relativist fashion, I think those observations can lead the reader to any number of conclusions, all of which are valid.

    Why? Because I disagree with the idea that “there is something objective about being human.” There are currently seven billion ways to be human on the planet, not one of which is closer to an objective human experience than any other. Just like with the idea of “writing is communication,” as soon as you start narrowing that definition, you find examples to contradict your contraction.

    The human experience is one of constant expansion; efforts to contract that experience will always, always, always end in failure. Which I think is lucky for all of us.

  47. There is something quite objective about the human experience — and that is death.

    Everything you cited above has some merit. There is most certainly bad writing that doesn’t. Here’s a block for you if you’ve never come across one before. And now that you have, your relativism is debunked this instant.

    Gyu fitly fud. I eat “Pizza. Pizzas good) Geting pizza so I!m getting it. Here is mee Janice went to bed”

  48. I’m for Superfeeding that last bit. Second?

  49. Death is the least objective thing about being human! There’s this great New Madrid song, “Find My Blood,” that has the lyric “Six-point-seven billion ways to die.” Totally true. (It really is a great song; it even references Slaughterhouse-Five in an interesting, non-eye-rolling way.)

    And I guarantee you there’s someone out there who would find that line of writing — whatever it is — incredibly brilliant. Superfeed it and I promise you it will be very popular. (I like how the narrator uses the word “eat” as a verb of communication. That seems appropriate for this comment thread.)

    Relativism encompasses everything, including objectivism. Objectivism is a bottle of air, but relativism is the atmosphere. And the bottle. And the air inside the bottle.

  50. I agree with that last metaphor — and relativism has a definite cosmic place in that regard (holism). But not when it comes to something people do for each other.

    To try again at making the point obvious, is it ok to walk up to a stranger and grab her? Trump aside — your piece, about which all these replies revolve, says not.

    There’s objectivity in every corner of the universe, and it starts for us in particular with those things we do for each other. That is bound up with my religion; that is bound up with all of law; and that is writing. We do it for each other. If we do it for ourselves, we can go right ahead with relativism.

    So there, perhaps, is where we break most cleanly — you say you have to write, as if for yourself. I write to communicate, as in the prefix co-.

  51. I have a crack team of scientists, attorneys, and poets deep in an ancient inverted pyramid turned intelligence bunker deciphering this thread. They’re stuck on what death has to do with anything and the symbolic significance of the open parenthetical in Elk’s bizzaro quote. Await further reports.

  52. One might say that objectivity encompasses relativism as well and suddenly we’re playing philosophy and semantics – an interesting, somewhat unproductive stage of the conversation.

    But isn’t that always the way? Within seconds of discussing the concrete matter of Rooster Land responses, we are suddenly and abstractly occupying the space between matter, peering across ontological borderlands, imagining how flamingos feel. (They’re generally happy, I’m guessing, but only in a way analogous to a heron’s happiness. And don’t get me started on sandpipers.)

    I believe that’s why we write. Because we think. And there’s not much else – certainly nothing practical – to do with such thought. It has no application to lawn care, and can only be occasionally employed to improve one’s bowling average.

    It’s 6:26 and I’m cranking low at four and a quarter.

  53. Let’s cut to the chase. Mako, you are dealing with distrust. The readers of this piece don’t trust the author enough to let go of their own agendas. It’s because you start us off with a hackneyed look into the dictionary. Your point about the two meanings of the word is fascinating. It’s worth the whole piece. But to simply invoke Webster’s? That’s what called up Cthulhu here.

  54. Also, I second the superfeeding of that pizza reverie. Vign it and let’s get it up on the board.

  55. I gotta be honest: I don’t know what the hell is going on anymore. “Gyu fitly fud” indeed.

    I will say that my opinions about relativism and objectivism — and I don’t think I’m using those terms correctly, by the way — come from a place of observation. Clearly I don’t have any great insight into the nature of the universe; I only know what I see. And I see a lot of ways to be/live/think/make art out there.

    To your point, Elk, I don’t think anyone should ever grope anyone else without explicit consent, and I feel very, very, very strongly about that. But, as you mentioned, we all have one big dumb example of someone who feels differently. That’s my observation.

    I don’t know how to put those two viewpoints together and have the world make sense, which is actually a near-minutely source of anxiety for me. So I retreat into observation — “Well, I exist, and this person exists, and I guess that’s how things are.”

    Now I’m sad.

    But then, swooping aptly in — Falcon! Here to rescue me with a comment about a concrete part of my story!

    I honestly doubt that the primary reason people have sincere problems with the fundamental nature of my story is because I start off with the narrator consulting a dictionary, but I do acknowledge it’s a cliché. I taught Composition 101 at one point; I’ve seen my fair share of “Webster’s defines loyalty as…”

    I don’t think I can defend myself. If it bothers you that I quote the dictionary (not an actual dictionary; the definition is an amalgamation of three or four different dictionaries) then all I can say is, “I totally understand.” What else could I say?

    In my defense, I think I mitigate the cliche by providing a bunch of specific details before getting to the actual definitions: the nature of the dictionary (“the largest I had ever seen”), which university library it’s in, what the narrator is studying, etc. Plus, I state the narrator’s problem first so that the definitions support the dramatic tension rather than the other way around; in those Composition 101 essays, the tension emerges from the definitions, which is ineffective rhetoric.

    Finally, by making the dictionary absurdly huge, I sort of acknowledge and make fun of the cliché.

    But all of that is beside the point because your critcism remains valid, Falcon. I’ve been thinking about how I could introduce those two ways of being a pilgrim as efficiently and directly as using the dictionary, but I’m drawing a blank. Any ideas?

  56. It is funny that the dictionary is monstrous and chained like a beast to the table.

  57. Super interesting that you use the word efficiently aspirationally because earlier today I was telling Falcon that that’s exactly what, in my view, was wrong with relying on the dictionary — that it was inefficient. Seems contrary to reason, that the source of meaning could be inefficient, but that’s precisely my point about writing as communication, and fiction in particular — if done well it tightens a screw on the ever-inefficient and therefore eminently perceivably subjective system. It can bring us closer to the objective. Telepathy is a story away, quoth The Rooster.

  58. Intriguing thesis, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to explain why the dictionary is inefficient.

    Also, I can’t help but feel that my using a dictionary to, you know, explain the definition of a word wouldn’t be such a big deal if the story ended in a perfectly explicable moment of emotional satisfaction. For instance, Murakami’s Hear the Wind Sing starts off with the narrator talking about how hard it is to write. That’s both a cliché and one of my pet peeves. But because I find the rest of the novel so brilliant, I don’t mind. More than that, I don’t really even think about it.

    Maybe this story simply fails! After all, there’s a lot more to it than the dictionary part.

    Ask yourself this: if the story started out with the narrator having a conversation with her roommate Elizabeth, and Elizabeth says, “Hey, you know what’s weird? Like, people think of pilgrims as religious globetrotters, but pilgrims can also be people who just travel a long distance. Isn’t that strange?” and the rest of the story stays the same, would you understand it any better? Would you like it any better? Would that be a more efficient way to write the story? Would it be a more efficient way to open up the story’s ideas?

    These are all honest questions I have. Because I feel like the answer is no, but I reserve the right to have missed something important.

    Plus, I feel compelled to point out once more that the narrator goes to the dictionary because she’s already been disconcerted by the idea of a pilgrim. The opening line of the story is:

    I couldn’t understand what it meant to be a pilgrim; I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

    I’m not sure it’s either hackneyed or a cliché to have a character use a dictionary in a story. Please convince me.

  59. I’ll re-pose my critique: why is she at the dictionary in the first place? Why “pilgrim”? Where has that come from? If anything seems like a conceit, it’s that we’ve opened up on a character whose existential concern, whether or not she’s a pilgrim, is already in progress and never (unless I’ve missed something) explained. It could be a minor nothing – she was reading a novel and an idea stuck in her mind. But that, to me and above all else, is the issue. We don’t know the origin of her disconcert with the idea.

  60. That’s an interesting critique, Bear. My opinion: I don’t think it’s necessary that we know how the narrator got to this point because her concern isn’t really the contradictions in the definition of the word pilgrim; rather, it’s her experience as a woman. Like anxiety expressing itself as hives, the pain of her existence has manifested itself as a preoccupation with the word “pilgrim.” So in a way, in a broader sense, we do know why she’s in front of that dictionary.

  61. You’re right – it’s not important that we know why, but it is important that you know why. I can live with that explanation.

    Another thought: if the story pivots on the narrator’s womanhood, should we know she’s a woman earlier?

  62. @bear — See the second paragraph of my second reply, conveniently linked here (this thread is so long it’s impractical to scroll).

  63. Yes, scratch that. It’s earlier than I thought.

    I’m done nitpicking here. I still think it’s well written and that were it a story in a collection or anthology, we’d be praising its ambiguities. Funny how that works.

  64. I have a question of grammar to which I’ve long desired an answer:

    were it a story in a collection


    was it a story in a collection

    Story is singular, so why were?

  65. From Purdue OWL:

    When you express a wish or something that is not actually true, use the past tense or past perfect tense; when using the verb ‘to be’ in the subjunctive, always use were rather than was.


    If he were here — implies that he’s not.
    I wish I had something to eat — implies that I don’t.

    It would be better if you had brought your books with you — implies that you haven’t.

  66. I’m with you on this one – it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

  67. I spoke to a colleague of mine who knows about such things. He suggested that “were” has replaced “be” as a subjunctive over the last 1500 years, though he too was unsure of why it’s become “were” and not “was” in this case.

    He also suggested that the subjunctive in English is “withering” and not much used in today’s fast-paced world. This I confirmed through a hasty Internet search.

  68. Indeed — to close one particular circle of this olympic thread, look up subjunctive in the dictionary and there ye shall find an acceptable answer.

  69. At one point I thought me might have stopped at 61 replies and called the whole affair a pilgrimage of our own.

  70. To riff on a text notification I just got from an altogether different thread, “I am way, way late to the pilgrimage, but this is gold.”

    Mako, you a Frasier fan? I wonder if you can have communication without miscommunication. While I’m sure a submarine commander wouldn’t be wondering that, I’m not convinced there’d be much storytelling (or Frasier) without it.

  71. Headline reads: “Fresh Blood Continues Record-Breaking Comment Thread; Rooster Land Experiences Existential Pandemonium.”

    (Newspapers still exist in Rooster Land.)

    Welcome, Horse! Great to see you here. I think you’re right about miscommunication being a part of all communication, if only because, contrary to Elk’s fondest wishes, telepathy doesn’t exist. There’s always going to be some amount of fidelity that’s shed during communication.

    I do think we can come close. For instance, when our dog does something she isn’t supposed to do, and we say her name in a certain tone, everyone involved knows exactly what’s happening. But even in that case, certain subtleties are (obviously) lost.

    As for Frasier, well, I have kind of a complicated relationship with that show. I experience a lot of fairly intense anxiety, and one of the only somewhat effective methods I have for relieving that anxiety is distraction. So I own a lot of DVD box sets, mostly television comedy, because nothing distracts like powering through an hour of focused comedy.

    I own the complete Frasier on DVD because, one day, Amazon was practically giving it away. And it’s an interesting show, I guess; the characters aren’t ones you often see on television, and the acting is uniformly great. It distracts me, and not every show does, which means I’ve made a connection on some level. (For instance, I watched a couple of Everybody Loves Raymond episodes, and I was forced to take twelve showers — scalding hot showers; the kind that are meant to scour.)

    It’s just that it all sometimes wears down to meaninglessness. Frasier was made before it was okay for characters on network comedies to learn and grow, and that becomes very, very obvious. The final season is better about that, but for the most part that’s the prime weakness of the show. And it’s especially noticeable for characters that are supposed to be — are, in fact, extensively trained to be — perceptive and inherently self-questioning.

    But it’s funny enough, which is all that really matters. I do like, to bring this back around a bit, how characters that are so fantastically articulate can experience such an incredible amount of miscommunication. It’s a great, cynical take on how humans interact.

  72. I started watching Frasier (the whole series is available on Netflix). It is best described in a word – comical.

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