Stephen Swanson avoids the dangerous pitfalls of genericity (It’s a word he made up. Deal.) and refuses to look forward or backward.
Temptations & The New Liturgical Calendar for Writers
The fear of the blank page/screen holds a deal of sway in our daily lives. Like any common cultural experience, we’ve constructed systems to help deal with it. Shelves of books on how to write (some of which are quite useful) and myriads of places to lose ourselves in the writings of others provide “inspiration”. Websites serve us with distractions we HAVE to check (“But I HAVE to harvest my farm now, or it will rot.”). To be productive, even on a personal level, we need to break the cycle.
To answer to these fears, we’ve constructed templates to follow that take the mystery away, while celebrating the appearance of “mystery”. This “liturgical” calendar outlines a cycle of “worship” that guides our public conversations. Look at the cover stories on those magazines at the check-out, the commercials on TV, the “lead” stories on MSN or CNN, and the products in the “seasonal” aisles.
August warns us of the impending school year by article upon article discussing “Ways to Help Your Child Succeed” or “The Area’s Best (and Worst) Schools”. The banner ads for tutoring companies increase, and phonics is shown in every break of Yo Gabba Gabba with magic wands that will read to your children for you. This merges into preparations for Halloween with the obvious decorations and candy displays, but there are also scary movies, books, and Yahoo tells me about “haunted” romantic trips. This morphs into Thanksgiving’s recipes, family advice, and subsequent beginnings of increased liquor ads and then transitions into the ubiquitous Christmas’ obvious place in the cultural milieu. Then, one cannot avoid the New Year’s calls of “to resolve or not to resolve”, weight loss, eHarmony pimping of perfect mates just waiting for you to log on, and beginnings of tax advice/warnings, which are followed my Valentine’s Day, etc, etc, etc…
This is not a surprise. On one level, we believe it makes “sense”. The school year revolves around the periods where the kids are most needed on the farm. The taxes are due on April 15th, and the year starts in January, marking a 1-2 month period of mad scratching on misdated checks. However, in the contemporary moment, these periods are rather arbitrary. How many kids are still needed in the summers? Why not start the year in the middle of the summer? These are arbitrary and increasingly connected by someone telling us that we MUST think of X at Y time of year and conveniently have the perfect things for us to help ourselves.
Life in >140 Chars
For us, writers, we dangerously fall into paths of ease that function retrospectively or predicting the future. This is not a challenge or really effective. Go to any literary function, and views of the past and future abound. What we need to work on is the ability to write and produce in the now. What is our current plan? What do we say at this moment? While these are rooted in the past and future, our struggles, and thus our resolves, need to break out of the cycle and express the meaningful moment in more than 140 characters. Otherwise, we continue to allow the meanings of life to be predicated by the Snuggies and Chia Pets of the world. Did that planning into the “10 Perfect Drinks for your New Year’s” article really make your New Year’s Eve?
Stephen Swanson teaches as an assistant professor of English at McLennan Community College. Aside from guiding students through the pitfalls of college writing and literature, he spends most of his time trying to remain reasonably aware of popular culture, cooking, and enjoying time with his wife and son. He holds degrees in Communications, Film, and Media and American Culture Studies from Calvin College, Central Michigan University, and Bowling Green State University, respectively. In addition to editing a collection, Battleground States: Scholarship in Contemporary America, he has forthcoming projects on Johnny Cash and depiction of ethics in contemporary film noir.