Fillip

Fillip 6 — Summer 2007

Hand-drawn illustrations of the original Mechanical Turk as submitted by a user of the Amazon’s <a href="https://www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome">Mechanical Turk</a> service. The original Mechanical Turk was a chess playing machine designed by Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770. Over the late eighteenth century, the apparatus was demonstrated in Europe and the Americas, playing and defeating many challengers, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. The machine was later discovered to be a hoax.

Reading Notes for Don't Take Any Jobs
Matthew Stadler

Note One

E-mail sent to Matthew Stadler from his editor.

hi! thanks again for your patience. i appreciate it. deadlines for this issue have been interesting... i was finally able to connect with my colleague about the piece, and sit down with it quietly myself afterward to be able to convey our thoughts about it to you.

firstly, i really enjoyed it.

It’s a great and complete piece, but as it stands right now, i’m not sure it’s right for this opening section of the magazine, the tone of which is difficult to convey, but which i’d like to talk with you about, maybe on the phone. i actually think the piece as is has a premise that would work really well for the section, so i have two propositions for you, and am wondering if either of them appeals, as i know you’ve already put time and energy into this draft.

one: working from the title and first several paragraphs you have now, retooling the focus of where it goes. i know that i encouraged (suggested?) the focus on what you’re doing with alternative ed, and i think it might still work to have that be the predominant theme, but reading the piece with this section in mind, i think what would work better would be for the piece to progress from the rhythm you establish in the beginning (police station, new job, sex offenders coincidence) into a specific story/anecdote/truth (lie?) rather than a description of the class, even though i like what you wrote about it. maybe it wouldn’t even have to do with the class, i’m open to other ideas as well. i don’t want to seem too abstract here, so would be happy to talk through all of this over the telephone today or tomorrow.

Note Two

The conclusion of Matthew Stadler’s original draft.

Sadly, paradoxically, as much as I liked writing, I truly loved teaching. I even felt a kind of civic duty, a calling, to be a teacher in service of a greater public good. Nothing irked me more than the spoiled complaints of other writers in town who had landed teaching jobs at the big public university. “...the classes are a drag, but I’m on leave every third year, and there are the summers...” These smug shirkers were to me the worst kind of robber barons, pillaging the commons at the expense of people who simply wanted an education. But so it was in this, my new life.

In 1989 Seattle was full of what photographer Charles Peterson called “screaming life.” The pooling magma of my childhood—all those bored teenagers teasing their hair for Battles of the Bands at suburban roller rinks—had come to a head and erupted in trashy little halls all over town: Mountaineers Club; The Crypt; Danceland USA; St. Joseph’s Church basement. There were nearly a dozen places where a band could put on a show for the cost of a PA rental and a thousand flyers. The effulgent flora of this thriving ecosystem were the colourful, overburdened telephone poles onto which every band stapled every bright new flyer announcing every fabulous show. The city finally banned the stapled flyers, in the 1990s, in a brief, misguided attempt to pinch the flower tops off what was, by then, the most ravenously extensive cultural Blackberry plant Seattle had ever seen: “grunge,” as it became known.

It was inspiring, especially the ease and boldness with which these bands declared their earth-shattering importance. A crucial band of the period, Mother Love Bone, was just then passing, as their genius glam singer—a wonderfully deluded rock god, Andrew Wood, a.k.a. “Landrew the Love God”—died of a heroin overdose that spring. A common version of the scene’s history takes Andrew’s death as the expulsion from paradise, the beginning of exile to the corrupted lands east of Eden (with heroin as the snake in the garden). The surviving members of Mother Love Bone went on to form a band with a young guy from San Diego named Eddie Vedder. They called their band Mookie Blaylock. (When the eponymous NBA star objected they changed their name to Pearl Jam.)

I didn’t go to many shows, being a scholarly, tweedy kind of guy, but I loved the flyers. One day, while admiring the bee-stung lips cut-and-pasted onto Mark Arm’s horsey face on a Mudhoney flyer, it occurred to me that I could make one too. But for what? Then it all fell into place—I would teach a class in my apartment. I had a table that could seat eleven people, and if I pushed everything else out of the way, it would fit right down the middle of my studio apartment. I went to Kinko’s to cut-and-paste a flyer announcing a ten-week writing class with a “published author” (well, nearly), for $250, at 1020 East Denny Way. My offer was astonishingly simple—give me $250, and I’ll welcome you into my home for ten Wednesday evenings. We’ll have a real good time. We’ll “learn about writing,” whatever that means. It’ll be a fair exchange.

Though I didn’t know it then, I was initiating a practice that would endure in my life and grow to have more in common with what is now termed “relational art” than with any kind of normative pedagogy or theory of art education. The landscape of my artistic invention was opened up by the huge gap that separated two essential elements: The class had to be social; while writing—by which I mean the serious, long-haul work we call “writing”—isn’t. In that breach, my plans took shape.

We were a funny little group. I had eighteen students! One was a stripper who’d done undergraduate work at Princeton. Another was just emerging from a marriage where her husband had sexually abused the kids. (That again.) Another was a poet/surfer who was straight but only enjoyed poetry by gay men, especially John Ashbery. Another was the research scientist, Leland Hartwell, who later won the Nobel Prize for medicine. I made class plans based on things I actually did with other people that seemed to help me write. We played pass the typewriter. One night, everyone wrote words on scraps of paper that we then put into bowls, one bowl for nouns, one for verbs, one for those tiny words that connect things. We composed by drawing words out of the bowls, in a kind of bingo/madlib game that came to be called “word salad.” Another night, I brought vacation slides I’d found in an old box at Goodwill and pulled random selections from them. With each slide, I asked a class member to make up a sentence. And on the next, the next student repeated what had been said and added a new sentence. Around and around the table, two or three times, until we had a good story’s worth. Then I made everyone mash-up a text from his or her recollections of what had been said. (A kind of makeshift, domestic enactment of Rem Koolhaas’ “culture of congestion.”) The resulting mis-remembered versions of what the slides had triggered were among my favourite compositions.

We drank, ate, and played a lot of games. Class made us happy. The other thing we did was read together. But we never read our own work. “Workshop critiques”—submitting your own work for critique by the group—had only ever confused me, disastrously so in graduate school, where the workshop was full of articulate, educated people who knew a thousand ways to describe failure. I think great writing is, de facto, indefensible. It’s great because the writing is its own only argument—nothing further can be said to explain the pleasure it brings. Throw that kind of meat in front of a pack of hungry wolves, and the results will be predictable. Instead, we read great work by other people and marvelled at their successes. We read closely, desirously, word by word, trying to understand how the writing we admired did what it did to us.

These practices—having maximum fun with words together and learning to read—are legitimate social armatures for the solitary work of writing. They’re what writing class is good for, and they are worth $250. With inflation, they might even be worth $500, maybe more.

I take for granted the fact that most writing workshops are rip-off promises to address things that can’t possibly be dealt with in a class, such as the act of writing. University programs and summer writing retreats are a welfare system for the professional writers who teach in them. I think some of it is criminal, but that’s not my subject here. Teaching matters to me. In this, my new life, it turned out that that conviction obliged me to invent new practices which had more in common with art than with professional educating.

The art in question emerged, at least in part, from the same drunken basement shows that had spawned the posters I loved. Somehow those same kids who spent the 1990s drinking and headbanging (or people much like them), also liked drinking and reading, drinking and conversation, drinking and writing, and art. Many of them graduated from the basement by deciding to Get Serious about their writing (or art) and Go Back To School. But some—who were too broke or lacked confidence or didn’t like schools—spatch-cocked their own classes, reading groups, lectures, craft nights, Xerox parties, publishing houses, critical journals, distribution networks—a whole economy. These were typically the ones I met in my class.

I always called the stuff they did DIY (which stands for Don’t Take Any Jobs), but in the last few years theoretical discussions in the curatorial and academic worlds have renamed many such projects “relational practice” or “post studio” work. The reinvention of these perfectly viable habits, like my class, as a form of art that can be historicized— and thus made into an object of both art criticism and professional training—is a potential cash cow for art schools that risk otherwise losing their grip on emerging artists and writers.

I think the policeman in Groningen gave me great career advice. I try to stick by it. And—despite spasms of insecurity and need, looking for a health plan or a secretary or an office or business card that make me forget and apply, again, to some institution that’s been doing its own ham-fisted job at supporting the things that I love (books and reading and writing)—rejections have helped me succeed. I still have no job. I’m in my kitchen, teaching a class I call the “using global media workshop.” It costs $300 and meets for ten-week sessions, and our subject is the new infrastructure of the arts and how you can make it, use it, or lose it.

Note Three

Matthew Stadler’s instructions that prefaced his editor’s notes, which were included in his Mechanical Turk post.

Here’s what my editor says (below). I have no idea how to make her happy, so your job is to rewrite the piece and make her happy.

Just GO TO TOWN! Go crazy, write some FUCKING GREAT SHIT, building from the scrap of my stuff she was into, and kind of, I guess, follow her lead about what would be great. So, she likes what you see in the linked document (also below). And, what did she say in her note...? She wants more anecdotes? Free association sort of gonzo anecdotes that zip along? She even says that lies are okay! So, like I say, go to town. I don’t care if any of the stuff is true, myself. It just needs to be crazy great writing.

So: 1) read her note; 2) open the attached document; 3) read the stuff she liked, plus her suggestions for making it better; 4) make her dream come true and complete the rewrite (1,700 to 2,000 words, total) so that it rocks.

The total word count, when you’re done, should be between 1,700 and 2,000. I’ve already given you at least 800 of those (see the attachment), so i’m paying $20 for the rest. Remember: something sucked about what I did but YOU FUCKING ROCK, so bring it on!

I admit to elaborating a little on what you were trying to tell me, but the discrepancy between your hopes for the piece and my description shows the huge breach that separated what you want from what I could understand.

Note Four

Highlights from all four submissions received by Matthew Stadler in response to his Mechanical Turk post. Stadler promises to divide any payment received from the publication of these texts between him and each of the four respondents. He also promises to take FleurDK’s advice next time, and try to understand and communicate what it is that his editor wants.

Submission One: For other people, memories are just that—memories. For me, memories are worth their salt only if they are written down and if other people buy them, thus making the writer (me) a filthy rich best selling author. But that time in Groningen I was far from being a best selling author. That time in Groningen writing was still just something I toiled away at, without financial recompense. I mean, I was a published author, and the thrill of that designation never wore off. But, thrilling as it was, being a published author (of one novel, to be precise) had somehow failed to bring any real money my way. My parents were not amused by my professional status. They had cut off the meager, but steady supply of money on which I had learned to depend just before I departed, destination Groningen. Well, Groningen had not really been my first choice of destination. I planned on being discovered as the next great writer by a filthy rich socialite in Paris.

But the rich socialite failed to materialize, and without her, Paris proved to be too expensive. Besides, the French police did not take kindly to my pecuniary status, and expressed their views [in] a most discourteous manner. One night spent in a French jail in Paris was enough to make up my mind for me. I hooked up with some junkies that hang around the greasy hotel I got thrown out of prior to the prison sojourn and set off for Holland. Somehow or other I lost my travelling companions and ended up alone in Groningen.

Submission Two: Note: Hi Matthew, this is what I came up with so far, but it doesn’t have to be my final draft! Let me know whether you like the direction it’s going in right now—it’s still a little short at the moment (1,540 words), so maybe you could give me some suggestions on how and where I can flesh it out. My mind sort of went off on a tangent on the vacation slides you used for the class—I was wondering what would’ve happened if you had, consciously or unconsciously, added some... let’s say more risky slides, more along the lines of the child abuse theme that runs through the article—or at least images that implied that; how would the students have reacted, would they refuse the assignment or would they run with it just to discover where their own creativity would lead them? This could be the “lied anecdote” for your editor, but I’m not sure how okay you would be with that.

Submission Three: As time progressed, the jobs I had seemed less like jobs. I wrote novels and magazine contributions, taught fun classes, and lived the life I saw for myself. I couldn’t have known, working on that first novel almost twenty years ago, that by taking the advice of a police officer to be broke would have led me to the fulfillment I have today. I was teaching in Manhattan, writing at night, trying desperately to flesh out the characters I envisioned for my triumphant breakthrough into writing. It wasn’t easy, but I saw myself as the obscure, toiling writer that I was at that time. New York ran at light speed around me. Taking the 6 train to the Brooklyn Bridge on beautiful Spring weekends, watching the joggers, bicyclists, and tourists dance around each other on the pedestrian bridge as ice cream vendors taunted them to indulge themselves. It was sometimes difficult to keep my focus on the bridge itself, thinking about older times, imagining streetcars and horses. I would go to the South Street Seaport, smell the fish vendors, and see the docked ships. The city wasn’t as safe then as it was later in the 1990’s, but it was still beautiful. Some days I would walk along Fifth Avenue, to the Central Park Zoo, taking in the nature oasis among the concrete and steel. And after each outing, I would return to my small, cluttered apartment and write. After all, I was a writer, and that is what I did. As my novel came to an end I began planning my move to Holland. I called myself a writer, even though I had no idea who was going to publish my novel, or even if it would get published. There is something remarkable about the human mind, that when you say something enough, you begin to believe it.

Submission Four: And that is how I became a professional writer. It’s remarkable how most of our lies eventually come true. In my case, it wasn’t a lie exactly—my poseur literary existence in Holland—but simply an utterly delusional ambition, like the kid in elementary school who actually thinks he will be an astronaut. Yeah, I played at it, and even went so far as to convince those lumpen Dutch police, but I can’t say I ever believed I would master the writerly vocation. My mother hit it just about right when she said, on the phone from Bremerton, “But, Matthew, you can’t even spell ‘literature’.”

When I found myself suddenly out of a job, I took solace in the fact that I had a book contract sitting at home awaiting my signature. It’s funny because that first book had been such a hack job—I’d actually completely forgotten that I’d even submitted it for publication. The plot of the novel revolved around a love triangle between a tweedy university professor, an intellectual, over-sexed housewife, and her proto-grunge pre-teen son. The novel climaxes when the housewife realizes that she has been used by the wily philandering academic to gain the confidence of her zombie-like man-child. She bursts in upon the mismatched pair in flagrante and kills them both with a trowel, inscribed by the Bremerton Garden Club, “To Patsy, For Fifteen Years of Pulling Weeds.”

My mother’s name is Patsy and she is a member in long standing of the Bremerton Garden Club. So, in some ways, the prospect of this book meeting the public’s eye gave me pause. Mother, who had made such protestations for my return, did not exactly welcome me back to the Great Northwest with open arms, so busy was she with bridge, and tennis, and gardening. “What did you do to your hair this time? Is that how they wear it in Holland?” was all she said when I stopped by the house to pick up my guitar and amp. But, still, she was my mother, and all the people—i.e. friends of my mother’s—who have yet to fathom the concept of “fiction” might imagine that I was writing about her.

Image: Hand-drawn illustrations of the original Mechanical Turk as submitted by a user of the Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. The original Mechanical Turk was a chess playing machine designed by Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770. Over the late eighteenth century, the apparatus was demonstrated in Europe and the Americas, playing and defeating many challengers, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. The machine was later discovered to be a hoax.

About the Author

Matthew Stadler is a novelist who also writes about art and architecture for various publications, including Frieze, Artforum, Volume, The Organ, Domus, The Oregonian, and Nest Magazine, where he was the literary editor. He is also the co-founder of Clear Cut Press.

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