Posts Tagged ‘reading’

Know Your Audience

Monday, September 18th, 2017

Of Water and Melons

Chapbook Of Water and Melons

“Truth is a great flirt.” Franz Liszt

A few decades ago a short novel came out in America that became a huge bestseller. I won’t name the novel because I think it is a bad book, poorly written, and with a terrible message; but because tens of millions of people loved the book, I don’t want to sully anybody’s happy memories of that novel. Because I am a fiction writer, several people urged me to read this novel, and three people gave me copies. I soldiered through the first few pages, skimmed the rest, and despaired for humanity.

A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.

“The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.

On one occasion I performed for a large audience at a community college in California. I read several short stories and concluded my performance by reading one of my most popular stories Of Water and Melons, which you can listen to on YouTube.

Of Water and Melons takes place during the Great Depression, long before I was born. The story is narrated by a man looking back on his life and remembering what happened when he was twelve-years-old and living a hard scrabble life with his family in the hills of North Carolina.

When I finished reading the story for that community college audience, there was a moment of silence followed by generous applause. Then came the question and answer phase of my presentation and many hands shot up.

My first questioner was a woman who said angrily, “Why wasn’t your wife more supportive of you after everything you had to overcome to become a college professor and a successful author? I think you’re lucky she left you.”

I was staggered. What was this woman talking about? I hadn’t mentioned anything about my wife, nor was I a professor. “Um…”

The woman continued angrily, “Why would she want to undermine you after you’d worked your way up from nothing to where you are now?”

And then it dawned on me that this woman had interpreted and intermixed all the stories I’d read that day as chapters of a life she imagined was my life.

“I’m very sorry,” I said, “but as I tried to make clear at the beginning of the reading, all these stories are fiction. I didn’t grow up poor in North Carolina, I never finished college, and I am not a college professor. So…”

“What?” said the woman, incredulously. “You lied to us?”

And with that she got up and stalked out of the auditorium, as did several other disgruntled people.

“A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.” H.H. Munro

Some years after that disquieting community college experience, I led a writing workshop for a dozen men incarcerated in San Quentin—men of many sizes and shapes and colors and ages, all of them keenly interested in me and the writing exercises I gave them.

To prove myself a credible tutor, I began the two-hour session by reading a short story entitled Poetry, which you can also hear me read on YouTube. The story is poignant and funny and thought provoking, and my reading was punctuated by loud laughter and impromptu comments from my audience of felons.

When I finished reading the story, the men gave me a round of applause; and then the very largest of them said in a deep buttery voice, “So when that happen to you?”

I explained that the story was fiction, and though some of the details sprang from experiences I’d had, the plot and characters were wholly imagined.

A fellow with tattoos covering his massively muscled arms gazed at me with wrinkled brow and said, “We know you wrote it. But he wants to know when did that happen to you?”

Sensing I was quickly losing whatever credibility I may have gained with the success of the story, I took a deep breath and said, “A couple years ago.”

“You ever see that woman again?” asked the very largest man, arching an eyebrow and nodding slowly. “She wanted you bad. And you loved her. I hope you called her. Got together.”

“No, I never saw her again,” I said sadly, wishing I had.

“That’s rough,” said a middle-aged guy with a raspy voice. “You had a special thing going there. That’s rare. Sorry that didn’t work out for you.”

“She said she was happily married,” opined another fellow, wagging his finger, “but if she was, she wouldn’t have kissed you like that. You shoulda gone for it, man. Don’t get many chances like that.”

“Amen, brother,” murmured another man, bowing his head.

“You’re absolutely right,” I said, nodding in agreement. “And on that note, let’s do some writing.”

How Stupid?

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Simon

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2013)

“Kids: they dance before they learn there is anything that isn’t music.” William Stafford

A recent phone conversation with a friend caused me to comment, “How could they have been so stupid not to know that?”

Our conversation was about a film my friend is working on, a documentary extolling the virtues of a pilot program in California called Pre-Kindergarten. I know what you’re thinking, and I thought the same thing. Isn’t pre-kindergarten just another name for pre-school or nursery school? No. Because kindergarten in America is no longer what kindergarten used to be. Why? Because Bill Clinton and George Bush and now Barack Obama have overseen a demolition of education in America that has damned an entire generation of students to ignorance and semi-literacy, and that demolition includes a tragic transformation of kindergarten.

To make a long horror story short, beginning some twenty years ago the morons (evil ones?) in charge of dispensing federal education dollars to the public schools of our fifty states, declared that America was falling behind the rest of the world because of low test scores in our public schools. The thinking of these evil ones (morons?) who had somehow gotten into positions of power in our government went something like this: “Well, heck, if low test scores is the problem let’s just bring those test scores up by making the kids memorize a bunch of useless crap so they score higher on the dang tests. Yeah. Sure. That should do the trick.”

Well, making kids memorize a bunch of useless crap without also teaching them to read and write and think and understand didn’t do the trick. In fact, it did the opposite of the trick because memorizing is not learning. Hence most Americans graduating from high school today can barely read, cannot write worth a damn, and they don’t know how to reason or think critically and creatively, nor can they speak in complete sentences, nor do they know anything about anything except what’s on television. Thus no one wants to hire them for anything except the most menial of jobs.

There are currently, right this minute, many thousands of internet technology and bio-technology job openings in the Bay Area and other techno-hubs across America that are simply off limits to most Americans because most Americans looking for work today are not even minimally qualified for such jobs or even qualified to be trained for such jobs; and so American companies continue to bring in jet loads of men and women from China and India and Russia and Pakistan to fill these positions because for some reason China and India and Russia and Pakistan have no trouble producing jet loads of literate and well-educated people.

So…back to the evil ones (morons) continuing to pursue the disastrous No Child Left Educated programs that currently hold sway in America. Confronted by the failure of trying to make uneducated children memorize useless data in order to attain higher test scores, these cretins (devils) decided: “Hey. You know what? Maybe the problem is we’re not forcing these slaves, er, children to memorize useless crap when they’re really young. How about we start the usual idiotic First Grade training in Kindergarten? You know, get those teeny kids learning their ABC’s and adding and subtracting while being forced to sit at desks and act like drones right after they learn to walk and talk so they can start memorizing useless crap pronto. Yeah. That should do the trick.”

Well…guess what? Aborting children’s natural creativity and curiosity while they try to learn to read and write and add and subtract and sit quietly at desks before their brains and bodies are organically ready to learn those kinds of things, is the surest way to produce an epidemic of dyslexia and learning disorders and behavioral problems that qualify nearly all children subjected to such insanity for, you guessed it…Special Ed!

Faced with this disastrous tidal wave of seriously fucked up children, and confronting the formidable power of the evil morons, a few brave educators and educational bureaucrats in California said, “May we make a suggestion? How about we try a little something before kindergarten, not nursery school or pre-school, but pre-kindergarten to see if that little something we want to try improves the kids’ learning abilities and better prepares them for actual kindergarten and First Grade and beyond.”

“You mean start them memorizing useless crap even earlier than we were already making them do that?” asked the evil morons, liking that idea, of course.

“Well, no,” said the brave educators. “That doesn’t seem to be producing very good results. We thought we’d try something else. Just to see. Okay?”

Though the vagueness of the educators’ plan perplexed the evil morons, they gave the California educators the go ahead to operate a number of pre-kindergarten pilot programs wherein the kids sang and danced and finger-painted and went on nature walks and listened to teachers read stories and, you know, kind of exactly like good old kindergarten used to be, and by golly those kids did do much better in the new moronic kindergarten and idiotic First Grade classes than the kids who didn’t go to pre-kindergarten.

And that is what prompted me to say, “How could we have been so stupid not to know that?”

One of the answers to my question is that over the last twenty years (and before that, too) tens of millions of people, those that could afford to, removed their precious children from the ass backward public schools, and so those millions of people were too busy earning money to pay for private schools to join in any sort of meaningful fight against the evil morons destroying our public educational system with the blessings of our evil moron presidents. Another answer is that most people, smart or stupid, don’t question how their children are being educated but get mighty upset when their children graduate from high school and can’t read or write or get a job.

“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” Somerset Maugham

I became interested in dyslexia some forty years ago when I was working in a day care center and three of my little friends insisted on signing their drawings and finger paintings, though none of the other three and four-year-olds attending our center knew how to write their names. Each of the three precocious scribes had well-meaning parents who thought if they could make their children learn to read and write when they were only three and four-years-old that their kiddies would have a competitive advantage over their classmates.

One of the three children who had been pushed prematurely to learn to write his name would labor for several minutes to sign SIMON upside down and backwards. Another of the children always misspelled her name with oddly incomplete letters, and the third child made a line of various-sized rectangles she insisted spelled SUSIE. What especially concerned me about these three children was that they all exhibited extreme anxiety about making mistakes, no matter what the activity, even when they were just finger painting or drawing with crayons or building towers with blocks.

Concerned for my kids, I began reading articles about learning disorders, including dyslexia, and was heartened to find that a number of comprehensive studies had proven conclusively that most cases of dyslexia and many other learning disorders, too, could be traced directly to children being forced to try to learn to read and write and do mathematics before their brains were ready to learn these things.

But what about my cousin Ward? He learned to read when he was two! He used to dazzle us by reading the dictionary aloud, no word too big for him to pronounce. I know this may come as a shock to the evil morons, but exhaustive research has proven that every human brain is unique, and each unique person attains his or her optimal brain state for learning to read and write at a unique moment in his or her life. Shocking but true: some people’s brains click into readiness, so to speak, to learn to read at two, three, four, five, six, on up to twelve-years-old. And if someone’s brain is not ready to learn to read and write, and that someone is forced to try to learn, there is a strong probability they will develop some form of dyslexia or learning disability.

What’s more, this cause of learning disorders and dyslexia has been common knowledge among educators for forty years. Yet our public education system has done virtually nothing to accommodate this incredibly important truth about how we learn. Waldorf education, you may know, makes individual brain readiness a centerpiece of their learning system, but our public schools and charter schools and even most private schools…well, how could they have been so stupid not to know what precipitates learning disorders?

“One cannot wage war under present conditions without the support of public opinion, which is tremendously molded by the press and other forms of propaganda.” Douglas MacArthur

The recent news that our overlords are trundling out the same old Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction ruse to pave the way for the United States to start bombing and/or invading Syria, made me snicker at first, until I realized that a population of semi-literate tweeters will believe anything if that anything is presented to them as the truth because they were never taught to think critically or logically or even just minimally for themselves. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but it certainly appears that the overlords have engineered a perfect system for creating mass stupidity to serve their needs in the short run, and short runs are all they care about.