Teaching Writing to the Haters

“No offense,” the email began, “but I don’t need to learn how to write. I’m a Software Engineering major,” continued the almost-endearingly misguided 19 year-old in an email to me about why he didn’t want to do the writing assignments in my writing class.

I was about to reply with lols, then deleted it and wrote up an explanation of what Software Engineers do all day (write), then deleted it, then wrote up an explanation of how Software Engineers get jobs (write), then deleted it, then wrote up a reply that just said, “ok.”

I changed plans the following class period. I asked the class, full of skeptical STEM majors just like him, that if they could create a document in the next 40 minutes that could convince me they don’t need to learn how to write any better than they do right now to get through college and get a job, I’d pass them on no work for the rest of the semester.

I thought they’d charge into typing furiously. But a lot of them, maybe most of them, just looked at me dejectedly for a while, then pecked at their keyboards mopishly.  They seemed to know it wasn’t possible to win this game. Some tried hard. A few wrote jokes, which I appreciated. One sent an AutoCAD drawing of a spiral staircase, to prove, I guess, he was all done learning anything. 185328-635537244141828293-16x9After the little nerdy polytechnic university where I teach ‘consolidated’ with (COUGHwasconsumedbyCOUGH) a big footbally state university I thought my classrooms would change, that they would slowly be overtaken by cool kids, by nursing and business majors. But it largely hasn’t happened: our campus has generally remained the STEM contingent of the university, what with all of the major STEM departments housed there.

So my writing classrooms remain STEMy, and anxiety over this fact continues to circulate in the ranks, as many of our core faculty left this campus and few new instructors having any experience teaching this type of student from the outset.

First ideas writing instructors come up with when confronted with STEM-filled Comp classes: panic, All of the Essays Will Be About Science, panic, Pretend it Doesn’t Matter, Proselytize for the Humanities. Oh I have done all of these things. They are as useless as they seem for improving students’ writing.

And yeah, I get the whole STEM-themed Comp classes, it makes sense. But are we selling our students short when we force these themes/topics on them?


not a student

They aren’t STEM Robots. They’re teenagers.

They have all kinds of thoughts and experiences and feelings and I don’t know if any of them are suffering for MORE STEM content in their Humanities classes, like they have to have 100% saturation on cell division or cascading style sheets in every classroom they join.

I think the panic comes from an old dusty division between the STEM world and the Humanities: you learn the content in the STEM classes, you analyze and synthesize the content in Humanities classes. And Humanities profs are perceived to be disadvantaged against all of the confusing science content with all of its intimidating jargon and cutting-edge research our brains are not qualified enough to comprehend.

Of course this is a false and outdated binary. Learning to write is ‘content,’ hefty content imho. And as much as STEM profs pretend writing doesn’t matter in their classes, doesn’t need to be taught in their classes, until direct brain-to-brain transfer comes along, writing still stands as the best way to prove you know something. So they begrudgingly assign writing without teaching it, thereby devaluing it as a learned skill.

There is no need to panic. There is no need to shift your topics/themes scienceward. Here are the actual things I do in my actual STEM student-filled writing classrooms that actually work.

These students want to know that there is a way to master writing, since STEM students are practical minded and they tend not to believe in things like innate talent but rather hard work and discipline when it comes to performance. This is good news, because there is a way, a way I constantly repeat in my writing classes like an anthem, like a lullaby: writing is a set of discrete tasks.

There’s invention, research, collaboration, drafting, revision, revision, revision. And there is not only the identification of these steps, but there are moments in the classroom when I teach how to actually do each one of them. Here’s how to revise. It’s not just peer review. It’s not just go home and do it. It’s a d i s c r e t e  t a s k. Writing is not a magic slot machine into which the Coin of Brilliance is passed and A+ Paper spits out. It’s can’t be faked, it can’t be crammed-for, it isn’t a gift you either have or you don’t.

Then, there’s praising good writing. Praise good writing at every possible second in the class. STEM kids don’t read. They don’t know what they’re aiming at, because they don’t know what the finished product is supposed to look like. So day one we start an activity we’ll repeat over and over in the class: reverse engineering. I hand them all kinds of lovely finished products: a memo, a lab report, a meta analysis, grant proposal, etc. and I ask them to pull them apart and figure out how they work, just like they’d do with a toaster or gear assembly.

Increasingly, I value concision and precision, considering where writing is now headed (to the ether of the digital world). Attention spans are shorter, for better or worse. To deny that is to ignore audience, Rhetoric 101. And to lift up directness and clarity over fanciness (or, as they read it, fakeness) is captivating and refreshing to these kids. So we talk about elegance in Comp, not the roses-on-pianos kind of elegance, but the kind that engineers talk about: maximum beauty in minimum space.


Ok fine that was basically a Sade quote but you get the idea.

Plot twist: all of these things I’ve said about how to reach STEM students in writing classes are basically all of the same things I use to reach non-STEM students in writing classes. There’s no Them v. Us, no Humanities v. STEM. There are humans, the end.

Writing is thinking made visible. No one is born knowing how to make it visible.


Men and Emotion

I teach at a university that was, up until recently, a polytechnical college before it was eaten up by a larger state school. That means on a daily basis, I work primarily with men. In a typical writing or literature class that I teach, there are often only one or two women, sometimes none.

And I’m working with men at, what is for most of them, the most vulnerable and emotional period of their lives—18-24, full of raging hormones, struggling through school while facing a lukewarm job market at best, the squeeze of competition rougher than ever as more and more people exactly like them fill college classrooms, with scarce dating prospects for the straight ones on campus, while the authority figures in the liberal arts classes (which are already approached with distrust and distain) are more and more often women like me.

I see a lot of feelings in my classroom.

An excess of feeling—I mean an almost terrifying excess of feeling among these men.

Of course, emotions themselves are nothing new, nothing exclusive to gender, and nothing to generally fear. Still, even just acknowledging that word—emotion—among these young men seems fraught with anxiety and danger.

The kind and quality and position of those feelings in these men are, furthermore, often dangerous.

In our World Lit class for example, students get to pick one of the universal themes we identify in works across time and cultures, things like love, heroism, wisdom, etc, for a project in which they write in depth on that theme. Over the past few years, I’ve been keeping detailed records of which themes are chosen, and by whom. I’ve been startled by one result—one theme stands head and shoulders above the others when it comes to popularity, and that theme is power.


Mr. Popular in World Lit

Sometimes more than 70% of the class would independently choose that theme in one semester. All by men. Power was never, not once since I have taught this class, chosen by a female student.

Men across the board shied away from the themes that seemed to have a superficial emotional association—love, family, friendship, even art. After power, they chose social order, heroism, wisdom.

I asked them about this. “Why is power the most popular theme in this class?”

They looked puzzled. How could it not be? The acquisition and maintenance of power is the main thing in life, many of them seemed to claim in their projects. Everything else is a minor concern.

“We’re dudes?” one guy finally offered.

“Women care more about love. Because they’re mothers,” another helpfully explained.

“Women,” another started, emboldened by the other, “struggle to contain themselves and their emotions in a man’s world.” Heads nodded.

I struggled to contain myself. “Are men less emotional than women?” I asked.

A nervous titter in some corners. “Oh definitely. Obviously. Look at ‘chick flicks,’ they’re all tear-jerkers,” one replied. There were no differing views forthcoming.

“So it’s socially acceptable for women to cry, especially in the company of other women. That’s one kind of emotion. What about the other emotions? Happiness, anger?”

“It’s all the same. Women are ‘hormonal’,” one responded, using air quotes around the word as an expression of some kind of disgust it seemed.

“If y’all want to talk about hormones,” the lone middle-aged man in the class offered, “let’s talk about testosterone.”football-hooligans.jpg

I nodded, and many of them looked at me with the oh-here-comes-the-feminism look, or turned off their listening completely. “Prisons are full of men who committed crimes out of emotion.” They thought for a beat. “Yes, our prison system is overburdened because of is forces of disenfranchisement, poverty, cycles of abuse in families, but a lot of these crimes, if you get down to it, are caused by getting carried away by feelings. Fear, revulsion, anger.” They thought and thought.

“Anger isn’t…what emotional means though,” one said. Ah-ha, I thought, now we are here. Now we have come to the place of splitting up emotions and gendering them. This, I think—besides the obvious factor of men generally being taught to subduct, to repress rather than express feeling—is why men think they are less emotional than women.BabyArc001.gif

Anger—fearful anger, aggressive anger, snarky anger, all of them—are such high-status emotions in toxic masculine culture that they are hardly considered emotions. They are almost assets in competition. I don’t mean their actual practical use on the battlefield or on a professional sports arena, where most men will never step, but something as banal as conversation.

Mansplaining does exist, absolutely, but have you have heard macho men talk to each other? The toxic masculine culture of one-upmanship, of escalation and competition even in conversation is markedly different from how I talk to my girlfriends on girls night, which often turns into rounds of listening to each other and offering support or ideas. The condescending and argumentative “actually” tactic of mansplaining has its roots, I suspect, in how many men routinely verbally compete with each other, not how they view women. I watch it unfold in my classroom daily. My male students “actually” each other constantly, on topics ranging from politics to video games. In fact, in a world of reddit subthreads and heated online comment debates it may be the central mode of competition among men at this point, dueling now no longer a respectable option.



Evidence of more serious forms of many men’s disordered relationship with emotions are all around us. Gun violence is a good example. Macho one-upmanship takes no more deadly form than turf wars and the compulsory tit-for-tat honor code of violent escalation when rival groups or individuals perceive transgressions on the street. These are feelings—invisible, inchoate—not order, not logic. But even suburban machismo harbors dangerous expressions of toxic masculinity based in irrational emotionality.

Buying a gun, for example, is not a logical choice, it’s an emotional one—for the average household, it does nothing but raise the odds for a gun-related accident or suicide in that house, especially if children are present. “I just want to protect my family,” a person adding a gun to his household might argue, paradoxically. There’s almost nothing in that reasoning but pathos. And maybe that’s fine. But I think it’s time we acknowledge what is really going on here—the fear and anger and defensiveness in an action like rushing out to buy a gun after a mass shooting in this country is a tragic expression of emotion, not rational thinking or “rights” that need be protected by generous gun laws.

I grew up idolizing male heroes just like the students in my class did, because that’s what there was, primarily. Bugs Bunny, Peter Pan, Robin Hood, Batman, and later, Hamlet. There are so many stories about special men and boys, you can take your pick. I watched He-Man, Master of the Universe. Look at those words for a minute, Master of the Universe.he_man_smash.jpg

Yes, power is the most popular topic to write about in my World Lit class full of men, because of feelings—fear and anger made treacherous by mismanagement, and what the repression of emotions does to one’s self-esteem. Power is the main thing that seems to offer a vision of stability—of final mastery over the universe to resolve secret struggles with emotion and self-esteem.

The truth is, of course, there is no master of the universe. The universe is for joining, not mastering. The old masculine narrative is a relic, useful to study, not to absorb.

I know it’s late to work on changing the men in my college classes now. Indoctrination into toxic masculine culture starts around second grade, when things like crying or even expressing joy begin to be labeled as unacceptable, tease-worthy, feminine. I try to imagine what it is like for them to live in a world where anger is the only acceptable emotional presentation. I shudder, and grieve. I plan new writing exercises for them: safe, private encouragement for tenderness and self-compassion. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I try, and I will never give up. I imagine an America full of teachers and parents doing the same for our boys and men now, and I feel hope.


Room 133 in the Atrium building is small and warm. It seems to be the only room in the building that is so warm. Air vents are broken? Pit of lava just under the floor? No one knows.

The cap on World Lit, which I teach in room 133, is 35. There are exactly 35 desks in 133, mashed uncomfortably close together. But, pardon me, “desk” is too strong of a word–I should say chair with postage-stamp-sized writing surface attached with a fixed arm.



exhibit A: Learning Area

By the time I get to class, the students are focused on intently collapsing their possessions and selves into this small cube of space allotted by this Learning Area. The brick-like Norton Anthology of World Literature is teetering on their knees while they ready their quiz paper on the tiny writing surface which does not, as you might guess, allow an entire page of notebook paper to rest fully upon it. Their papers are cresting over the top edge of the “desk” like tongues. Their elbows are squeezed into their ribs so they don’t touch their neighbors while writing.

They are concentrating very hard on not touching their neighbors, on successfully balancing the NAWL on their knees, on not falling asleep due to the heat and general atmosphere of oppression in the room.



exhibit B: the A student

Of course I’m saying here that it is hard to pay attention, then, to the main thing, to me talking about World Literature. Most dare not rest their heads on their desks, since this is so clearly rude and mostly they do not want to be rude, but the lucky ones against the wall will doze off with their heads supported nearly upright by the wall, snapping to attention only when I start talking about Sex or Love or Power, the all-time Most Interesting topics in World Literature class, or if I start yelling as I might when I get to the topic of eternity in the Bhagavad-Gita, or if I start weeping heartily as I might when I make myself recite “Boat of Cypress Wood.”

At home when I am working, writing, studying, reading, learning, whatever, I sit in bed (and no, I have no problem also sleeping in that same bed later, as some do; I am great at sleeping). I concentrate better when I am comfortable. But I know classrooms aren’t really supposed to be comfortable. It’s not that bad, I know; no one’s sitting on a pile of glass. Still, the I guess the hard chair and the difficult writing surface is supposed to keep a learner attuned. In reality, this hardly works.


exhibit C: this grey sadscape is really a lot nicer than Room 133

What would I have instead? Something between a bed and a pile of glass. In an ideal world the students could have some choice in the matter. Some might simply like bigger desk/chairs. Some would like something very sturdy and definite to sit down to, like a table. Some might like those juvenile floor rocker chairs, or just the very floor itself. That is what I would choose if I were a student with a choice.

Beyond the chairs, the room is plain and white. A plastic chair rail winds around the room, which always seemed a little insulting to me. Two huge windows in the back with the shades drawn. A white board mounted, inconveniently, on one side wall rather than at the front. Nondescript laminate floor. A utilitarian “blank page” of a space, I suppose the idea is. Nothing distracting.

Really I think the architecture and design of this room sends another message: this place is not special. Focus on the moving and noise-making person at the front of the room and nothing else.


exhibit D: la-la land

That is now how people work. People have bodies. Bodies are a fact of their nature. Except for the most impressive bodhisattva among us there is no forgetting the body. It makes its  needs known, much to the annoyance of the higher order mind so intent on getting an A in World Lit.

I wish there were trees in the room and a cooling breeze to rustle them. Some potted plants and a little fan would suffice. (Quickly downsizing one’s vision of ideal equipment is very Lecturer of me). A very long chalkboard that curved around the now-curved room I am envisioning. A skylight. Cups of icewater for everyone. A coat rack and some shelves for everyone. Mirrors. Yeah, mirrors on the walls. Millennials like a steady reminder that they exist. Also, they might behave a little better and work a little harder if they think they are being observed. And if we can’t have mirrors we could at least have some posters of eyes around the room, or some shrines for imaginary ancestors, to make sure they feel securely networked to others, which is something else I hear they like.

But in room 133, none of us have what we would like. We work hard at ignoring this.

But Why

One thing I have learned as a teacher in the last year or so is that the question why is sometimes the worst question. I mean worst like it produces the least fruitful results. Usually people don’t know why anything if you ask them.

Or, if you ask why, the reason is low quality. I mean low quality like, there’s a reason, but it’s no-good-reason.

It’s sort of arbitrary what we end up getting into, isn’t it? If I ask my students why they are Mechanical Engineering majors or Game Design majors they usually say it’s because someone close or a parent was also into this thing, or it fell “randomly” into their lap at some point, or it seemed the better of two options: essentially some answer that amounts to “this subject appeared proximate to my consciousness, and seeing nothing else interesting within easy reach, I took it up.”

This is not a criticism. I’m just saying it’s funny.

And I’m saying, yeah me too. I read every poetry book my High School library owned because it was the smallest section of literature and it seemed like an achievable task. A pretty low quality reason I am utterly committed to this genre.

Anyway, what I tell my students is that it almost doesn’t matter what you pick. And now more than ever, as professions continue splitting into finer divisions, tinier specializations, and hobbies run a parallel course.

It took him two years to plan and execute this speed run. This totally pointless thing. I know writers who’ve spent less time than that on their books. THEIR BOOKS. And this kid is talking about using memory hacking software to compile data for absolute ranges of angles on his damn controller to shave microseconds off of his time.

Is his work important? Does it matter? Why did he choose it?

Digression: true art assholes, if we’re talking about All of History, have drawn an arbitrary line between decoration and art, and this is why major fine art museums are stocked mostly with paintings, drawings and photos and not dimensional objects, although art snobs do not like to admit paintings are just decorated canvases or panels. In other words: is it a useful object? Is it a tea kettle or quilt or comb? Then it’s not high art. I don’t care what you do to it, or how it was made. It is merely a decorated object. In other other words: Art need be functionally useless. Perhaps the soul just can’t concentrate on ecstasy if  the object has some other function besides ecstasy-inducing.

By that rubric this kid’s speed run is Art.

Whatever. The point is it almost doesn’t matter what you pick, as long as your throw your whole soul into it. Perhaps because the soul’s work is amelioration? Perhaps the soul is always bored? It doesn’t matter why.

Drawing Lessons

In school we don’t often go to the places beyond cognition. Mushy worlds of senses and feelings, places you cannot think yourself out of. Places teens get stuck in. Moms and Dads tell them to just focus and get moving and buckle down and study and just get out of bed and go to class. It’s times like these we start to feel like our brains are not actually in control, since they can’t seem to actually make us do the things we should do. We know better. The knowing doesn’t help.

The knowing is there. It’s the connection to the other part that is missing. I don’t know what the word for this is. It’s like “unity” but it’s a state of being in your physical body. A feeling of having all the wires plugged into the right spots. No one talks about this in school.

In Composition class I force them to work with a partner. They HATE this. I hated this. I know this hating well. It’s an uncomfortable space, the shared one. They’ve been through 13+ years of learned passivity in school, and now they have to talk and act and work with someone in a way that involves trust and communication. UGH.

Day one I have them do this drawing activity.

One person must describe the drawing I made in sharpie to the other person, who must draw it and attempt to replicate the shape exactly. The describer can’t see what the drawer is doing. The drawer can’t see the original picture.


First of all, the reactions I get when I give the describer his/her picture: what IS this?? The fear of abstraction students have is palpable, maybe especially here at this technical/engineering school. It isn’t functional? It doesn’t represent something? It’s “nothing”?? Grounds for a different post here on how uncomfortable students are with something they’ve never seen before.



You can see where communication breaks down. In the end, they see no one is more responsible for the drawing than anyone else. It’s both theirs: listener, actor, simultaneously learning.


Another reason we do this (and other drawing/physical activities) in a class about writing is to try to stir up some of the ineffable. Sure there’s rationality at work in their hands and mouths, trying to orient the object and detail the lines and angles, but there’s something beyond that happening in their beings. A shared vision. Beyond words and writing. Movement of a body across a page: a shape. Like a word, but wilder.


And it gets them back into their body, for a minute. The body, who is probably actually the one in charge, being helped or hurt along the way by the brain, its nervous mother, trying so hard to help, but so often helpless.

Vieux Vauge

In Introduction to Poetry Writing there are a lot of vague poems. I would say the largest percentage of my “work” in commenting on poems is advising the writer to simply be more specific. Often I find myself saying this in workshop. Invariably, there is that student, though, who will say “but I kind of like it without details, I mean, that way, you know, the reader can just fill in any ideas they want there. Like, you can see what you want.”

I say this about the adjectives I hate most: beautiful, colorful, ugly, good, bad. “What do you mean by beautiful? Isn’t that just a placeholder for some other, more specific words? I can’t see beautiful.”

“WHATEVER BEAUTIFUL MEANS TO YOU,” they say. No, no, no, I say. I’m saying it means nothing.

I have been getting this comment more and more. Maybe because students are changing, becoming more competitive with each other and more demanding with their professors. Anyway I have been thinking a lot about why this comment cannot be right.

Creatures, all animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria, must cope with their environment and each other. Consequently creatures tend to become more sensitive in their evolution—most notably in animals, who, because of the nature of their reproductive technique that fuses cells rather than splits them, have marked asymmetry in gender and societal roles. There is individualism. Individuals, as evolutionary biology has proved, adhere to each other in societies, which then functions again as an individual.


An individual must be able to detect surroundings accurately not only for food and sex, but for consciousness itself, to find function in the environment and group.

One of the most sophisticated sense organs animals possess is the eye, for its complexity in design. Often it is the eye that creationists point out as a “proof” against evolution—for how could something so sophisticated evolve, step by step? What use would an almost functioning eye be, half of an eye? Well half of an eye would be of a lot of use to an animal. The ability to sense light is one of the oldest tricks cells have used, and in fact almost all creatures—plant, animal, many bacteria—can sense light. It is not so far to imagine how light data could be collected to form pictures in the brain. If it is a matter of survival, consciousness will figure out a way to do it.

Once a body has a form suitable for survival in its environment, as ours generally are, the sense organs have more time and energy to expand. Our senses are literally the edge of our consciousness. They are growing. They are growing us.

We are able to see better than our ancestors. We can taste more subtle flavors. We have names for more subtle emotions.

I feel how reading works on the edge of my consciousness. It activates the edges. At the edges, there are senses. A poem can grow me a little. It needs to have the right teeth in its gears though, and the teeth are the details.

Without them, I’m dark in primordial soup, guessing, lost to you, the writer, lost from what you want me to know.


Skeuomorphs and Future Tools

The earth is a closed system. Matter, energy—nothing is created, and nothing leaves, generally speaking. Oh neat, we’d marvel, recycling.

But most things work like this. The earth’s crust is slowly coiling under itself, all the landforms around you impercetibly melting or rising. A flux of water falls and floats and pushes around the planet endlessly. Sped up, a forest boils. Literature, too, words, writing.

Hang on. Humans, we are poor recyclers. We squander resources in hatefully grandiose displays, laying waste now and cleaning up later, and by later I mean only when the consequences demand it. Our species, we cut down every single last tree on Easter Island. The very last one—we cut it down. It’s been barren ever since.

Even now, as our longer-term future scenario building is dawning on us as being more important than the short-term one, recycling is still a novelty to us, still a smaller box at the curb than the trash bin. We aren’t mushrooms, after all. Physically, we consume as a one-way street—entropically, eating ordered things like plants and animals and excreting disordered things like shit and heat. Like all animals, everywhere we go we increase disorder with our bodies. This is how being a non-recycler works. We burn down like a wick, energy in and ashes out.

Where are we now, among them, the other animals?

Studies suggest that domesticated animals’ brains have been shrinking over the past 500 years. A wild horse, for example, has more challenges to face in his lifetime, more socializing, and a far less repetitive existence than a domestic horse. He simply has to think more. More thinking requires more synapses firing, more neural network building, more memory storage and quicker access to it: more intelligence.

Little Horse on Wheels (Child's Toy)

Interesting to note then, that another, totally unrelated study suggests humans brains are also have been shrinking. Given that brain size in anthromorphs does correlate to intelligence—and we’d certainly assume we’re more intelligent now than our pre-modern ancestors—how can this be accounted for?

Perhaps the domestication effect has changed us along with the other animals. That we have domesticated ourselves—or, it might be better to say, we have domesticated each other, in the net of civilization, feels difficult to argue against any moment you step into the contemporary world. This domesticizing net, which by all accounts has increasingly valued cooperation over competition through governance and philosophy, and through moral storytelling in art/literature, as well as just plain old social shaming, has connected and conflated our consciousnesses helpfully—but also, maybe, mollified them.

Testing this theory on a concept, a value, a word that represents novelty—something our brains should be smart enough to do regularly, and something we laud as civilization-building—creativity. Is creativity entropic, or a recycled process? Where has it been and where is it going?

Here’s something to consider.

It’s “sliding button” on my phone that turns a setting on or off. It’s designed to look like a physical sliding button—in fact it looks exactly like the “real” sliding button on my iPod shuffle.

It’s a skeuomorph.


Your computer interface is full of them. There’s a little trashcan—or recycling bin—picture that represents the trash folder on my computer. It teaches me how to use it by imitating something “real”, something I should already be comfortable using. My computer has “folders” for me to file things in and “windows” to frame things. My whole computer is one big metaphor for old stuff.

Is this recycling an example of creativity?

Here’s another thing to consider first.
Early-human-hand-axe-008An early hand tool. Its design did not change for ten thousand years. Ten thousand years, and no one could come up with anything better?

Sure, there are restraints—our ancestors had far less free time to be noodling around with design. But still. Imagine a single tool humans now use that didn’t change form at all for even a thousand years, let alone ten thousand. It’s hard to imagine. We’re so different now, we’d think, than people a thousand years ago.

We are different. And the changes work like a ratcheting force, exponentially increasing with each generation.

What’s on the horizon?

Imagine, first, metaphorically speaking, that literature is full of skeuomorphs. That it is a skeuomorph. Take, for example, a Thomas Hardy novel or an Elizabeth Bishop poem. It’s a steady symbol of something we remember, something “real”—those pesky messes of the world: events, feelings, ideas, people. Crowbarring them into a translatable code—a virtual reality—the author is recycling. The reader recognizes the old stuff of his civilization. And understands, by drawing on cultural training, what to do with it. Moreover, it shines, here, with meaning. Hand-on-the-back ushering into excruitatingly planned epiphanies and lessons and hunks of cultural values is the whole point of reading literature, it could be argued.

I mean, that’s was nonconfrontational literature does, the regular stuff. And why it pains some readers so much to read something that won’t upload their recognizable world into a code that obeys their expectations. Of existence itself.

“Reality is not simply there, it does not simply exist: it must be sought out and won,” said Paul Celan, and “Who ain’t a Slave,” said Melville.

A slave to pattern play. These discarded hats, and these pants of our dead, these are our minerals. Nothing new under the sun? Except the remixers.