I have all the symptoms:
And yet, I struggle a great deal with abstract thinking.
In my high school art class, our teacher, a crazed ginger by the name of 'Kitty', tasked us with creating a work that reflected our feelings towards the ongoing AIDS crisis.
Everyone took a different approach to the assignment: some people melted things, or appeared to have hurled uncapped markers at paper. The one kid who always made a Confederate flag for everything went ahead and made a Confederate flag.
I was at a loss. This was a time for metaphor, or poetic license, or some act of creativity described by a pretentious French word that for the moment escapes me.
Using a giant sketch pad, I layed out the lines for what I felt was a sincere expression of the horrors of AIDS.
Time has been ruthless to my memory, but my best recollection of the picture is this:
I remember that, not only did I title it "Positive", I wrote "Positive" on it in big red letters.
Each student took a turn showing their piece, talking about their artistic intentions, and then fielding questions from the rest of the class.
Kitty flitted around the room, nervously eating the macaroni from her necklace and cackling about how talented all of us were.
When I stood up and turned my drawing pad around to reveal "Positive" to the class, there was a noticeable shift in the mood. Everyone just seemed sad in their hearts; sad for art maybe, or sad about AIDS.
The great shimmy towards Relativism in our society has no greater proponents then high school art teachers; they simply will not call bad "bad".
I saw this struggle play out on Kitty's face. After clearing her throat and surveying the slumped shoulders of her students, she decided it was time at last to take a stand.
"It's really...it's really quite bad." She looked sick to her stomach.
"There's not much to it," someone offered.
"He looks like he's laughing."
"Why is there smoke underneath the big red plus sign?"
Because it's abstract, you swine.
Kitty approached me, and there was genuine discomfort in her eyes. One of her bony fingers pressed on my picture.
"If you turn this in," she told me,"you'll get an 'F'."
I did not even know she gave letter grades; usually she just glued a word onto your report card from her collection of magnetic poetry. One semester, my friend got "unyielding". Hoping for a word as cool as that one, I flipped over my own evaluation. I got 'lobe'.
Actually, I made that last part up. I am as bad of a liar as I am an abstract thinker.
I want to lie; I mean, I really, really want to deceive people. It seems so exciting.
But right after a lie, I struggle to keep it together.
I live in fear of a scenario like this one:
This lack of abstraction really impacts my attempts to write creatively.
I've even gone back to some of the old classic writing exercises to get the juices flowing. I've never much cared for the concept of flowing juice as the engine that drives good thinking. Actually, I don't have an opinion on it at all, and simply invented one right this moment because I was typing already and did not know what else to type.
I also don't like it when an author writes Listen:, and then goes on to write whatever they really really want you to pay attention to, like maybe a description of a tree or suspicious mist.
I can't stand that. It's like, oooh looka me, Ahm a story tella. Ahm part of a long tradition of story tellas going back to da dawn of man.
Gimme some candy.
Maybe I'm just jealous because I can't write a book at all.
Maybe I'd kill for the chance to write Listen:. But knowing that I shouldn't be writing a book in the first place, I wouldn't be able to keep it up, and it would become something terribly stupid, like Listen: my stomach is making hungry grumbles, or Listen: the senator farted.
So a classic writing exercise: describe a kitchen as seen by a person who has just suffered a horrible loss, WITHOUT mentioning death or dying.
I can't do it. All I get from my abstract brain is he carefully placed the vegetables on his plate in the shape of a frowny face. Discovering he had no appetite, due to...due to THE THING, he sadly put the food back in the refrigerator, and, with a heavy sigh, patted the mournfully humming appliance.
"At least you're still here, ole fridgy."
Agh, it's just wretched, too literal and unconvincing.
That's one of my problems.
The stories I write tend to dispense with abstraction, symbolism, and metaphor all together. They read like the book reports of sixth graders:
Carl was a sad white man who was sad for reasons he could not put his finger on. Maybe it was because of the adultery. His brown eyes searched the room. He also had grey hair. In the last chapter, on the plane home, he sees the sun setting over the clouds and gets a smile on his face that is sad and knowing.
My poetry is even worse. It's basically someone's grocery list.
jelly two kinds
I get to the part about chicken strips and terrible doubt creeps in. What am I even saying? I feel like all my writing is on the surface; there is nothing underneath, nothing to warrant re-readings and interpretation.
Someday I hope that a college professor will raise his laser pointer to the board and say "Which brings us to Gweenbrick. What did you think of the book?"
A young, hunky college guy will brush his bangs back behind his ear, almost dislodging the marijuana cigarette he has tucked away there.
"Um, I found the narrative to be compelling, and the central metaphor of the dynamo and the moustache to be auspicious," he says.
A pert blond girl asks, "When he speaks about donuts, do you think he's really talking about the futility of hope in the face of modern atrocity?" She has just one piercing too many, so you know there's a dash of arty in her regular.
The professor holds up a finger and looks down at his vibrating cellphone.
"Hold it, hold it...I'm getting a text from one of you now. Remember, you can always text me your question if you feel it's too stupid to ask aloud." He reads the message on his phone and chuckles to himself.
"Yes, yes, a very stupid question indeed," he remarks.
Everyone in the class begins to laugh, except one student who looks down at his phone, red-faced, and quickly conceals it beneath his copy of my book.