On Being Text

I make a little money now and then by reprinting certain of my essays in college textbooks. Most such books are simply collections of essays, stories and the occasional poem, interspersed with lessons and exercises. They are the bones of undergraduate literature and writing surveys these days; there seems to be no end to them. I have to assume it’s a happy business for all involved—writers pocket what feels like overdue royalties, and the editors don’t have to struggle through first drafts. It’s a devil’s business nonetheless.

For a time, I was content to sign contracts and bank the money. I would glance at each book when it arrived and then add it to the shelf. I started to pay closer attention several years ago when I read a brief biographical note attached to my essay: “Sallie Tisdale, a nurse, not a professional writer, doesn’t structure her essay in any formal way.” Well, excuse me, I thought, and promptly wrote to the editor, Judith Summerfield. (Judith graciously apologized, and we began a pleasant personal correspondence that lasted for some time after that.) I began to look much more closely at the long row of thick paperbacks I’d collected.

What I found in many of these texts astounded even as it bored me. They present a world of writing and reading unlike the one in which I’ve been living for more than 40 years.

By the time I got to high school, I was a back-talking troublemaker, driven to sin by my complete lack of interest in my classes. I read constantly, though without plan, and had been writing for years; I was filled with the hunger to know. I was a natural student, and natural students often don’t belong in school. By adolescence, I knew I loved learning, but I had given up on being taught.

In my freshman year, a new and hopelessly idealistic teacher saw my small grief in a way no teacher ever had. Mr. Huffman pulled me out of his English class, gave me a long list of books to read, and sent me to the school library. Day after day for that entire year, I spent an hour each morning alone in a room filled with books. I sat on the floor between the metal stacks and read work I had never heard of before and wouldn’t have chosen for myself: “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” the letters of Napoleon and Josephine, “Day of the Locusts,” “A Thousand Cranes.” All Mr. Huffman asked of me was that I come see him now and then and tell him what I thought of these books. We didn’t talk about rhetoric or syllogism or parallel structure. We talked about books the way readers do—what we liked and didn’t like, and why.

He was gone within a year. I left the year after that, essentially quitting before they could fire me. With the luck of the naive and the help of a kind professor I’d met, I talked my way into the state college near my home. I stayed for two years, happier than I’d ever been before.

It took me 10 years and three universities to get a bachelors degree. I took semantics, philosophy and ethics, physics and bacteriology, religious studies and algebra—all of which were thrilling—and I took semesters off to learn a few other things and to decide that what I wanted to be was a writer. I took only two writing classes and no literature classes at all in that decade. What I had, instead, were countless conversations and debates about writing—about books, stories, words, about poetry, voice and ideas. What I had was readerly comradeship with my peers and with teachers, in classes and over coffee and late at night—the intimate meetings of people who traded books with each other and really wanted to talk about them. Most of those books were good, some were great, and a few changed my life.

So I was never taught how to look critically at text, how to diagram a sentence or tell the difference between parataxis and hypotaxis. I learned a lot of this by experience and intuition, without knowing the terms, though I’ve picked up a lot of the terms and definitions over the years as I found use for them. But I learned to write by reading, and I learned to read well partly by writing—though mostly I read for reading’s sake.

These collections of literary criticism on my shelf have different aims, not always clear. (One does honestly state, “The text’s organizational structure facilitates easy syllabus design.”) Some are for readers, some for writers, a few for students of contemporary culture. They don’t stint on good writing, provocative ideas or strong voices. I’m usually in excellent company, in part because the same writers (and often the same stories) appear in one such textbook after another: Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and Tillie Olson’s “I Stand Here Ironing” and E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.” Where else but here and on the remainder table could I cozy up to John Berger, Virginia Woolf and Roland Barthes?

For the most part, the literary criticism here is not at the level of Lionel Trilling; it’s for beginners, often presuming certain gaps in the student’s education. (One book includes the Declaration of Independence. At the end, the editor asks: “What conclusions are readers of this document expected to reach? In what way are the truths listed in paragraph 2 ‘self-evident’?”) Most include little lessons on persuasion, “process analysis” and contrasting. Some define the essay, name its parts, and lay out the exact steps one takes in writing one; this, I read, is to help you, the student, “expand your repertoire of writing strategies so that you can adopt and use methods you encounter in a wide variety of texts.” Then there is this kind of thing: “All the activities a writer goes through before actually beginning to write are part of prewriting.” I find it hard to imagine that we really need a word like prewriting, which would have to include making coffee and playing multiple games of Solitaire. But my main objection to this whole genre is how it kills the story.

“Life Studies” includes James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a story designed to make you cringe and chortle at the same time in the uncomfortable humor that Thurber mastered. The student readers, however, are given no time for discomfort. They are instead required to explain in 500 words or less “a few implications of Mrs. Mitty’s statement, in the next-to-last paragraph, ‘I’m going to take your temperature when I get you home.’”

One of my favorite short-story writers, Toni Cade Bambara, is represented in the new book “Reading Rhetorically” by her story “The Lesson.” Bambara wrote in a child’s voice, tinged by false bravura and righteous indignation—a wonderful voice, unique. “She been screwed into the go along for so long, it’s a blood-deep natural thing with her. Which is how she got saddled with me and Sugar and Junior in the first place while our mothers were in a la-de-da apartment up the block having a good ole time.” And lots more like that of a poor black girls awakening to the vast, unfair world, enough to break your heart by the end of a few thousand words. Bambara’s observations are so devastating, her awareness of inner grief so acute, there is nothing left to say by the end. But students must answer nevertheless: “Since plots usually involve some kind of conflict, how would you define the conflicts that set this story in motion?” Oh, how to begin!

We live in an abridged culture. We are surrounded by broken pieces of meaning: vaguely familiar melodies on television commercials, classical paintings cut up for coffee cups and T-shirts. A lot of my own work, like that of many other writers, has been pirated on the Internet, where it is sliced, plagiarized, sold and rewritten, sometimes one paragraph at a time. The everyday world college students live in can seem to be nothing but parts, a world without gestalt. In such a world, the purely imagined lives of Bambara and Thurber are blessed wholeness. And the moment the students finish reading, they must start to dissect. I’m afraid that what the students of these books are really learning is what college students learn about so many subjects: how to take things apart, but not how to put them together.

The introduction to “Conversations: Readings for Writing,” edited by Jack Selzer, includes an exhaustive analysis of E.B. White s “Education.” The analysis is longer than the essay itself. Selzer aims to prove that White was not writing an “objective, neutral appraisal” of schools but a “calculated argument,” and that his voice is a “created pose, an attempt to create a genial, sympathetic, and trustworthy speaker” through “rhetorical sophistication.”

To be sure, White was a master of rhetorical sophistication. I suppose I read him for that reason, but mostly I read him because he is funny and sad and anxious and wants to be a good person, and reading him makes me want to be a good person, too. It never occurred to me that he was neutral about anything. Taking apart his choice of words doesn’t change that, and it doesn’t help me write like E.B. White. But it can spoil the essay for good.

Maybe the best thing we can hope for from books like these is simply more readers—though I doubt that is a result. There are admittedly noble goals here: better writing, better thinking. I’m all for better thinking and for helping young people to be less susceptible to propaganda—the soothing tones of the evening news moving smoothly from tragedy to farce, the panoramic seduction of advertising, the buried content below a misleading headline. To the extent literary criticism can help a young person navigate those treacherous waters, I’m in favor of it. But if that’s the hope, White and Thurber and Bambara are not the best examples. The essay is not the problem.

What I’m quite sure this kind of analysis cannot do is explain how writers write, or teach students how to write their own stories. To take apart a composition requires one to presume a kind of construction that may not actually exist. The construction may not be, as it were, discoverable. If you take apart a house to find the walls and roof, you just end up with a lot of wood. Without walls, a roof doesn’t exist. Writers find effects as often as create them; like all the arts, writing is a combination of spontaneity and technique. I write in bursts—intuitively driven torrents—followed by careful repair. Some words are discovered, others deliberate. The result is always a combination of the found and the chosen.

How does one parse intuition, outline discovery? Literary analysis begins by presuming that writing can be understood by understanding its parts. The process is, in fact, called dissection, a term usually applied to dead things.

No matter how carefully constructed a given work is, its writer will always have had more than one intention. Explaining these byways is the goal of deconstruction—to find and then surgically expose a writer’s multiplicity, his hiddenness, insight the writer himself may not have. Writing reveals the writer even when it hides her, because sometimes what it is revealing is a disguise, a mask, a lie. (Lies are also a kind of truth, for all our multitudinous intent.) We speak of “glossing” a text when we read it part by part. But when we speak of glossing anything else, we’re adding—and in glossing literature, we add our own multiplicity and hiddenness, whether we know it or not.

My work has sometimes been criticized for rambling, for a non-linearity, for structure sometimes buried a bit deep—what Judith Summerfield saw as a lack of “formal” structure. But as often as not, this criticism has been leveled precisely at the parts of a book that I had most carefully constructed to be just so. I sometimes break up direct narrative for a subtler, more layered effect. I am striving for a totality of story, made up of shifts and slips of tone and mood as much as events and plot. I am not consciously concerned with what these books call “strategies” or worried about the conventions of narrative. (Whether this is for better or worse I leave to my own readers, taking comfort in the words of Jean Cocteau: “Note just what it is about your work that critics don’t like—then cultivate it.”) Reading my own critics has taught me a little bit about my work and rather a lot about certain critics.

That is not to say that literary analysis is without entertainment value. It’s just more fun when applied to someone else.

“Life Studies: A Thematic Reader,” edited by David Cavitch, contains my essay “We Do Abortions Here.” Each essay is followed by study questions. “In the detailed description of an abortion, what does the author want the reader to recognize?” That description includes an image of the fetus as “an elfin thorax, attenuated, its pencilline ribs all in parallel rows with tiny knobs of spine rounding upwards.”

I wrote this essay a good many years ago, long enough to regret any piece of work, but I’m still mostly pleased with it. I’ve always liked pencilline, a word one hardly ever needs but which seems just right here—a single word to imply a specific, prosaic shape. “Elfin thorax” works—the word elfin all wrong for something pretty but effective in the vaguely violent context here, with “knobs of spine” attached.

Did I think these choices through when I wrote? No. I just knew they worked. And I don’t really know how I knew.

David Cavitch also asks of my essay, “What is the author’s outlook on humanity? What generalizations does Tisdale assert or imply about the human race?” I laughed out loud when I saw this. How can anyone answer it fairly? With apologies to Mr. Cavitch, there is something fundamentally silly about this question. A thousand words due on Friday isn’t going to scratch the surface. My outlook on humanity is the entire theme of my work—of any writer’s work. What else can we write about? Even if we determinedly avoid the human realm and write instead of birds and stars, humanity is our ground, our air. (One text includes Annie Dillard’s essay “Living Like Weasels.” Question 6: “This essay is not really about weasels but about ways Dillard thinks people could live. What does Dillard find attractive about how weasels live?”)

“The Longwood Reader” has an excerpt from my essay “Meat,” which is partly about the butcher in the town where I was raised, and partly about my father, and also about firefighters, summer, adolescence and justice. The editors not only removed the few sentences about sex from the essay, but also retitled it “Sins of the Flesh,” giving away the game entirely, if you ask me—which no one did. There must be some irony in the fact that the authors of a text on literary analysis feel no qualms about rewriting the texts they analyze. But it makes me tired to think about it.

“Meat” began with nothing more than a memory of my mother s freezer, filled with packages of meat wrapped in butcher’s paper, like white rocks scattered among food. There was no more to it than that at first. Only this image, and no idea what it meant or where it would go—and then I wrote around it, opened it up, found more details, a story. “Note how the verb tense changes in several paragraphs, helping to quicken the action,” the text explains. “Why does the first sentence in paragraph 7 begin in the past tense—‘Buying meat was like this every time’—and then immediately shift to the present tense—‘I am with my mother…’?” Italics and grammar theirs.

I can answer that one, in fact. The style follows and leads at once: A child opens the freezer to see the packages of meat, so the voice is ruminative, meditative, with the conditional ‘would’ and ‘could’ scattered through, and occasional repetitions, as in, “I grew wings like angel wings”—the kind of repetition editors and writing professors tend to cross out with red pens, common in my voice. Certain scenes seem to recur again and again, almost like ritual. There are unanswered questions posed, ambiguous scenes, mistakes. I want to convey the point of view of a strange and isolated child, a hidden and sensual child, who doesn’t try to explain herself to others—observing without understanding.

Most of a writer’s decisions are unconscious. A stroke of paint here, a switch to a minor key there, the use of flaccid instead of soft. At this level, expression simply appears; it is expression expressing itself, images, ideas, states of mind and feeling being acted out, evoked, displayed. An idea appears, connects to another, a layer appears and then another—suddenly there is a leap—Ah-ha! This connects to this, this idea hides under this idea, and if I move this detail to the end, then suddenly the whole tone becomes suspenseful. Later, in revisions, with careful polishing, the impulsive choice is reconsidered, sometimes rejected, sometimes improved, tightened, expanded anew. So we go on, version to version, tweaking, shifting, hemming, primping. I don’t know how one knows the right word or the right tense, how exactly I know when a sentence needs two fewer or one more syllable. I can go on about rhythm and prosody, about mood and tone, but sometimes one just has to take the gifts the world gives us.

What none of these books really does is celebrate—shout with the fun of Ian Frazier’s marvelous “Canal Street” or cry at Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Mother.” They tell the student to make an outline instead of rushing to share a passage with a friend. Critical reading doesn’t laugh, doesn’t snort in disdain or slam itself shut in frustration. When I recall those midnight coffee-shop huddles, I remember the intensity of feeling we shared. I remember how much the books mattered. These textbooks don’t ponder the way a reader ponders; they ponder the way a textbook ponders, which is ponderous indeed. And I’m afraid that, less than halfway through any of them, the benighted sophomore will be thinking of changing her major to biology.

Anything not to read George Orwell’s heartbreaking essay, “Shooting an Elephant,” and then have to answer the question, “If he had believed in the goals and values of British imperialism, would his actions have had more integrity?” Anything not to read Denise Levertov’s poetic shout of exhausted rage, “The Mutes,” and then have to answer the question, “Would you call this poet hostile to men?”

Recently, in one collection, I came across an essay called “The Miracle Chicken,” by my friend Bernard Cooper. The editor asks, “What is Cooper’s purpose here? Why do you think Cooper tells us about his father’s affairs? How do you think Cooper feels about his father?” For once I can answer these questions with some confidence, partly because I know there are no simple answers to these questions. His father has long been one of his favorite subjects and their relationship a fertile field of sometimes mutant flowers. He is a careful and patient writer, and there is much more to any story he writes than what he tells. Like all serious writers, he controls the appearance of his stories—seemingly spontaneous and unguarded here, a bit artless there—but every word “a created pose.” That’s not—or shouldn’t be—a surprise. That’s writing. Study questions about the work of friends remind me to be careful reading the work of strangers—careful to remember that much is hidden, that I can’t know what is accident and what design. Artlessness is one of the most difficult effects of all.

The plain truth is, I don’t really want to know. Reading between the lines means reading a lot of blank space, and there aren’t any words in those blank spaces. I’ve occasionally been complimented as a brave writer—but I know what I didn’t say, what I was too craven to include. Only I know how carefully I’ve held the light so that the shadows fall just so. Perhaps others can say, “Here are shadows; here is light.” But they will never know what the shadows hide. Sometimes I recognize my own lies only later, when the work is done.

How would I change college literature classes? I still think Mr. Huffman had the right idea. Read, read, read, and then try to explain how it feels. Read a book because someone you like tells you it’s a good book. Listen to other readers when they react. Read some more. I believe that one reason I learned to write is that no one ever really tried to teach me, or rather, one reason I became a writer is that no one ever tried to tell me what a writer was supposed to be like. I had nothing to rebel against and nothing to measure myself beside except the stories in my mind. Writing classes? Oh, they’re impossible. And yes, I do teach writing sometimes, and it too is a devil’s business.

I still don’t read with a critical eye. A recent textbook says, “For your writing to improve, you must learn to read like a writer.” I believe it would be better for me to write like a reader. Most of what I know about writing I know from reading—but reading whole, as a reader reads, lost and unfettered, wandering in another’s world without a jaded eye. Wandering free of all jaded things is part of the joy of reading; how dare anyone take it away? We can surrender to a master of rhetorical sophistication without any need to wonder how or why. Maybe literature lives only in the reader—born in the writer’s changing life, taking its breath in the reader’s changing life, a different story for each person who reads it. If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears, does it make a sound? Who cares? Until I open the book, there are no words inside.

About the Author

Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale is the author of six books, most recently “The Best Thing I Ever Tasted: The Secret of Food” (Riverhead Books, 2000).

View Essays