Liminal Spaces

“Liminal Space” is one of those concepts that literature majors like to bring up all the time so that we can sound profound, confuse the freshman in the class, or believe that we can tease deep philosophical meaning out of every mention of a doorway or a staircase in a book.  It is defined as a kind of no man’s land between two spaces, a place that has no definition in its own right.  In this, it differs from merely transitional spaces, like hallways.  If you’re in a hallway, you’re not in a room, but you most definitely are in a hallway.  A truly liminal space, however, cannot be described other than being between A and B.

The presence of a character in liminal space is supposed to suggest that the character feels adrift, does not fit in, or is undergoing a transition.  Usually this is construed as uncomfortable for the character.

But don’t we all exist in liminal space?  Or is it just those of us who grew up singing along with Rudolph and Herbie the elf on that Christmas special, wishing we too could find the Island of Misfit Toys?

Recently I’ve found myself saying quite often that I’m feeling stress/distress¹ because I feel like I’m existing in some liminal space.  I feel like I am the only one who is not A or B.  Or I feel like, if only I could be fully A or commit entirely to B, I could be happy, but being caught in between two phases of my life, two different options, or  two different paths leaves me feeling lost.  We all probably feel like this sometimes, because dichotomies are based on stereotypes.  Anything that tries to polarize people completely, into gay or straight, masculine or feminine, liberal or conservative, is going to miss some of the subtleties that make humans a gradation instead of a rainbow of diversity.  But sometimes I think we feel even more caught in the middle because society refuses to acknowledge that there even is a middle ground between two extremes.  There is no accepted way of being both A and B, and therefore our desire not to complete give in to either one, not to completely give up on either one is a constant tension in our lives.  The opposing options that pull us apart are different for each person, but here are the ones I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

Introvert vs. Extrovert

I hate being alone.  I hate being in large groups of people who know me, like at parties.  I like when people are around, as long as it’s only one or two.  I love being alone, anonymous in a crowd of strangers.

Mainstream Culture (traditional view of success) vs. Counter Culture (nontraditional view of success)

I couldn’t really come up with a better way to name this one.  What I mean, is that a lot of my friends are artists, either trying to make money off that or holding down some random job to supplement their income while they do art for a pittance.  And then there are the people I admire who followed the traditional road to success, like having a respectable job that they got by getting a respectable degree.  I have a decent office job, but I’m at a point where I either need to resign myself to sticking around in this entry level job so that I have time to pursue my art, or striving to go to grad school or work my way up the ranks to get financial security, which may leave no time for my art.  If I do one or the other, I could count myself successful to some extent, but sitting around and not doing either of those is definitely not success.  It’s also the fact that I fit into a world of hippies, vegetarians, environmentalist, gay rights activists, people with nose rings and tattoos, that just feels the complete opposite of the “corporate” world, but there are many punk/hippie/alternative people whom I question for their inability to ever reign it in and act appropriate to a more serious occasion.  And, despite my great fascination with body art, I have always been too wishy-washy to ever commit to anything more risky than multiple earrings.

Adventurous vs. Cautious

On the one hand, I have tendency to over-analyze things, but on the other I have a tendency to be impulsive.  I agreed to go on a week-long canoe/hiking trip with some individuals I wasn’t very close to, even though I had never once been camping in my life.  I also have avoided taking yoga classes for years, even though I’d really love to, because I’m too nervous at the concept of walking into the studio and not knowing what to expect. I’ve bought several Groupons and passes to a yoga studio near my house, but let all of them expire without going.  If you gave me a hypothetical situation and asked me if I would do it, I’m not sure even I could give you the right answer, because I’m nervous when I least expect it and bold when I least expect it as well.

1. Linguistic puzzle of the day: since adding “dis-” typically creates a word meaning the opposite of whatever you add it to, should “distress” not be stressful?

Overcoming POV Prejudice

I used to heave a metaphorical sigh of frustration every time I saw the word “I” on the first page of a novel.  Now, I no longer count first person point of view as an automatic strike against a book, but I do still think that there are several pitfalls to which this point of view is particularly susceptible.  Though I still think that it’s the POV (well, common point of view…I’m not really counting second person since it’s so rare) most often done badly, I do think that there are some great examples of it done well.At first, I guess I didn’t really have a particular reason to dislike first person, other than a personal preference for third person limited (don’t even get me started on the strangeness that is third person omniscient).  Then, I began to gather a series of assumptions about the way it was typically used: first person was used for contemporary novels, while third limited was used more often in the sci-fi and fantasy that I liked.  Partially because of this content difference, I think, first person tends to occur in books in which there is an overly-emotional narrator or in which the action is more likely to be internal than external.  This trend isn’t due to a limitation of these particular points of view, but rather to lazy authors who tend to use the point of view that they think most easily depicts internal/external action respectively.The problem with using first person in a story that involves a lot of inner conflict is that it can become too much.  Just because our character is wracked with inner turmoil and their thoughts are circling over and over the same topics does not necessarily mean that we have to be taken to every single place their mind goes.  In most cases, a taste of this is enough for a savvy reader to get the point, then we can focus on external actions, or what new thoughts or breakthroughs the narrator has.  Just like we don’t need a description of every sidewalk block our narrator steps on along their walk to school, we don’t need to see their every thought all the time.

Another difficulty with first person arises when switching between the viewpoints of multiple narrators.  With third person limited, the voice and tone of the book can be consistent while still maintaining the individuality of the characters; perhaps different details about scenes stand out to the different characters, or their thoughts tend toward certain topics. With first person, however, the voice and tone has to shift consistently between characters because those passages are being told in their voice.  When done well, multiple-narrator first person is a great way to add depth to a story; when done badly, it makes me ask the question, “why?”  If you did not have a distinct voice for each of your characters, why did they all need to tell the story?  If you didn’t have their voice down, why didn’t you just use third person limited, where you could stick to your own authorial voice?

One final problem, perhaps my biggest pet peeve when it comes to first person POV, is when authors confuse having a good reason to tell a story in first person with having to explain to the reader why this person is narrating.  When I am reading a third person book, I do not expect, at some point, for the invisible floating eyeball to directly address why it is narrating this story.  We know that there is no such thing as a floating consciousness that can see into others’ thoughts; we accept it as a medium through which the story is transmitted directly to us, without actually passing through another consciousness that is actively distilling the story for us.  I don’t see why we can’t just accept first person in the same way.  Epistolary novels, in which the entire text takes the form of letters, e-mails, or diary entries, do need an explanation for why the narrator is telling the story; usually the explanation is clear from the letters, e-mails, or diary entries themselves.  The narrator was trying to communicate to an other (someone other than the reader),or they were writing down their own thoughts.

If it isn’t an episolatory novel, however, and the first person narrator is just relating their thoughts and experiences, either in present tense, as they have them, or in past tense, as they reflect on them, I don’t feel like we need the kind of cop-out explaination I see in many books.  The one paragraph, tacked onto the front or end of the book, saying, “hey, this thing happened, and so-and-so encouraged me to write it down…so I did.”  In most cases, books don’t gain anything from these half-baked explanations because the trope of the narrator as actual author of the book is not carried out throughout the rest of the book; if it is successfully carried out and is integral to the narrative, such an explanation does have a place.  However, we do not need an explanation for why a character is narrating with a perfect memory for detail, or in a far more articulate manner than one would expect from stream-of-consciousness; this is all part of the suspension of disbelief that is necessary to story as a medium.  We don’t question that floating eyeball’s memory or vocabulary, after all.

Finally, lest it seem that I said there are first person narrated stories I enjoy just to avoid being accused of complete stubbornness, here are some books in first person that I’ve recently enjoyed, with notes about why I think that POV works for them.

Easy, by Tammara Webber

The very personal subject matter of this book (assault, relationships, betrayals, and fear) made the first person the most appropriate point of view to use.  Even though pages are spent on internal conflict, the external action is described beautifully as well.

Wolves of Mercy Falls series: Shiver, Linger, and Forever, by Maggie Steifvater

I have a soft spot for these books, which are each told with multiple narrators.  While I feel like Steifvater’s poetic authorial voice is so strong that it might sometimes smooth out the differences between the characters’ voices (four teenagers who all think/narrate in concise, lyrical sentences?), what she does beautifully is capture each character’s view on the situation.  The vocabulary and philosophy that each character uses to interpret their world, as well as the unspoken thoughts and backstory that are revealed are a powerful part of why these novels may constitute the most beautiful YA series I’ve read in years.

Chime, by Franny Billingsley

The main character’s unique stream of consciousness and tortured views of herself are integral to understanding why she acts as she does.  The voice of the narrative is so unusual that I thought I wouldn’t be able to get through the first chapter, but the sing-song narration became one of my favorite parts of this novel.

55 miles to inspiration

There is this whole concept of a “writer’s retreat” where people with enough money (i.e., clearly not me) go to some quiet cabin in Maine or to the middle of the Arizona desert and just write.  Sometimes they go with their profound and clearly talented writer friends, because people who are intimidatingly talented and successful like to band together to maximize the amount of envy they inspire from the rest of us.  The concept seems to be that, unless you are already incredibly inspired and in a state of flow, it is kind of hard to make yourself write when you are surrounded by dishes to wash, piles of clutter that stare at you in a judgmental manner from atop your shelves, or people who seem to think that staring into space while sitting in the general vicinity of a laptop is not important work, so you should come with them to see the latest superhero movie because you clearly have nothing better to do.  In theory, going somewhere quiet takes you away from this and makes it easier for you to write.

On the one hand, I agree that getting out of your routine, that putting yourself in a space that you define as “for writing” can be very helpful to get you out of a rut.  Putting yourself into a place physically can help you to put yourself into an analogous space mentally.  But what kind of space should this be?

Scientific research has shown that when you’re stuck on a problem, going for a walk in nature helps you think of a solution, but there is no similar evidence for benefits of walking in an urban environment.  That doesn’t mean that natural environments specifically spark creativity; maybe just that a change of environments does, since most of us live and work in urban/suburban environments.  There is also ample evidence to back up the idea that novel experiences, especially travel, can be invigorating to creativity because they force you to see things from a different perspective, a tactic that you can then more easily apply to your work.  There is also evidence that the hundreds of daily interactions and intersections occurring in cities lead people to be more productive and more creative than they would have been in isolation.  Having more sights, sounds, and things to serve and nucleation points for your own ideas seems like it would logically lead to a greater quantity and hopefully thus a greater quantity of high-quality ideas.

So, where then, should a writer go when seeking inspiration?  I think all of the above work from time to time.  We don’t all have the time and money for writing retreats, so toting our laptops to the local cafe may have to serve on a regular basis.  Even if you have the money to get away, I wouldn’t want all of my vacations to be to remote areas known for their quiet and solitude; I would also try to explore, to have as many novel and perspective-shifting experiences as possible while I was away because, in addition to being valuable in their own right, they could be the seeds of creativity that I could bring home with me.  I think that the “where” of writing has as much to do with mental maps as physical ones. Maybe putting yourself in country of “just did some yoga and ate some farmers market berries” instead of “just did some dishes and ate some leftovers” can have as much of a profound effect on your work as putting yourself in the south of France versus the southern end of your couch.  If you are worn-out and doing and redoing on the routine in your life, how can you expect your writing not to reflect that?  I’m a big believer that all aspects of our lives are interconnected, from the mental and emotional to the outer, so I always clean my house when I’m feeling scatter-brained and I suggest you put yourself somewhere refreshing and energizing (wherever that is for you) in order to reinvigorate your work.

And time yet for a hundred indecisions

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before the taking of toast and tea.

~T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

I am really bad at making decisions.  I’m okay admitting it.  There are things that I’m good at, like cooking, standardized tests, and knitting amigurumi characters.  These skills are of varying utility, but I think it’s safe to say that being good at making decisions would be potentially more useful than any of them (although you would be surprised how much garden-variety absent-mindedness and stupidity people are wiling to forgive when they find out you got a perfect score on the ACT).

Most people are pretty bad at making decisions.  Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daneil Kahneman shows how the human mind is constantly tricking itself into selecting wrong answers and doing things that are objectively illogical.  The most poignant chapter for me was the one that shows that we are inherently inept at assessing our own happiness; we lose track of the differences between day-to-day happiness, moment-to-moment happiness, and life fulfillment, leaving us with an inaccurate pictures of what we really feel.  It’s a long book, full of fascinating and disheartening truths, but it is also a truth of life that people are required to make decisions every day, even when they are completely unprepared to do so.  Even though it is impossible for anyone to make all of their decisions with infallible rationality, it does appear possible for some people to at least make a decision, often, miraculously, one they’re fine with living with.

I, on the other hand, am so risk-adverse and analytical that I will agonize over my to-do list, losing precious moments of productivity while I weight the relative merits of doing my laundry before versus after going for a run.  Extensive restaurant menus cause me anxiety, so you can imagine the nausea and existential crises that ensue when I have to make an important decision, like what to do with my life now that I’ve achieved the goals {(1) graduate college (2) move out on my own, and (3) get a job} that have been driving my more quotidian decisions for years.

Ever since graduating high school, I have kind of coasted by a on a proscribed path.  I don’t even feel like the places I ended up after college were really the result of decision-making on my part any more than they were on luck.  I found a job connected to the university from which I graduated; I moved in with a friend, in the one neighborhood of Chicago where I knew someone; even my decision on what college to attend was made out of an inherent desire to avoid making a decision—it was the best local school that had the major I wanted, and smart people go to the best school they can.

They say that life can be improved by living more “mindfully” and doing things “with intention,” so I’d really like the next major move I make, whether it’s a big life change or just sort of staying in a holding pattern to be the result of a choice, rather than happenstance.  At the same time, it’s overwhelming how many and how few choices there are before me.  I obviously couldn’t possibly draft a neat list of all my options, though the lack of such a list may be fueling the illusion that they are fewer than they really are.  And, no matter how long that theoretical list may be, I’m constrained by the realities of the Great Recession, my college debt, my limited network, and the fact that writing is a far from stable lifestyle.  Seeing my high school peers now teaching English in Taiwan, toiling in cubicles, slinging lattes at chain coffee stores, wearing Superbowl rings, and working for legal non-profits, I know that I have options.  And I’m plenty grateful that with a college degree and decent job I have more options than many others do.

But I have big dreams and, when you’re a smart kid, those around you have big expectations, so it’s hard for me to be satisfied with a modest success.  I need goals.  I want something to strive for.  But I think right now, the decision that I have to make, and that everyone in my position who wants a fulfilling life, a life of more than computers, commutes, cubicles, and cable tv has to make, is how to define my goal and my success.  Do I do it by traditional standards? Do I do it by the positive change I’m imparting on the world? Do I do it by reaching for my difficult and perhaps unattainable dream?  Or do I do it by the happiness that I experience in the small moments of every day, the kind of gratification we often delay in favor of those other kinds of goals?

I once was lost, but now profound

Do you ever have times when you feel like you should be profound?

You feel like you should be in a tiny cafe listening to a poetry reading or watching a sunset on a rooftop with a guitar.  Moments when, to quote The Perks of Being a Wallflower, you should feel “infinite.”  A moment when you feel the breeze on your face and with the breeze should come that feeling that a part of you is seventeen again, listening to rock music while riding in your friends’ car in the summer evening, and you know that you could do anything.

It’s kind of like the exact opposite of writer’s block.  Instead of being in the frame of mind to create and throwing your bucket repeatedly and repeatedly into an empty well, you feel like a fountain, an endless stream of potential, if only you could achieve that “infinite” feeling, if only the humidity would drop to 50% and the mercury would hit 68 degrees just as the moon comes over the trees at the edge of the subdivision and “Boys of Summer” comes on the radio.  You know you’ve felt those moments; maybe those are the only moments in your life that you’re really alive and the rest, from the cubicles to the coupons is just a dream.  For the life of you, you don’t know how to capture that feeling.

But instead of discussing German poetry over croissants at an independently-owned, fair-trade coffee shop with friends who were philosophy majors and most get by on couch surfing and the free food at art gallery openings, you are just running around your apartment, full of manic energy alternating between having music on because it almost makes you feel profound and having it off so you can concentrate on being profound.

Or am I the only one?

(When you have to ask the question, the answer is usually, “I’m the only one”)

Welcome to My Blog

Hello, internet.

This is my blog.  The header title comes from a song by the Ataris.  The full lyric is, “on random notes of parchment, I’m scrawling my existence…dressed in white.”  The description comes from a Fall Out Boy song.  I know that twenty-somethings who graduated from prestigious private universities are only supposed to acknowledge the existence of pop culture when they engage in facebook wars over whether Batman is a paternalistic capitalist and Spiderman is really the superhero of the working class, but I have to admit a weakness for early 2000’s emo music.  There, now that that’s out of the way, what is this blog about, anyway?

I write.  I read.  I’ll be writing about writing and you can read about my reading.  I’ll write about life.  And maybe, when I’m being completely sincere, I’ll be funny.  I’m told that the less I try, the funnier I am, with the result being that when I’m at my most earnest, I’ve got my family in stitches.

So, here goes.