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Writing after the End of the World

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In my last post, I wrote about a gen ed course I teach that introduces students to literatures of the 21st century. My overarching argument in the course is that the 21st century started on September 11th, 2001, at the moment the news broke that planes had hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. What happens to story-telling after this moment, when one version of the world (a world where the United States was inviolable, the globe’s uncontested superpower) crumbled before the eyes of a dumbfounded nation?

I make this argument in broad strokes so that we can test and complicate this idea over the course of the semester.  The syllabus is comprised of documentaries, novels, a streamable series, and a graphic novel, all chosen on the basis of quality and formal innovation. About halfway through the course, we were finishing up Ruth Ozecki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which has an ending that many readers find infuriating. I must confess that this is one of the reasons I enjoy teaching Ozecki’s genre-bending “auto-fiction” so much: it lays bare how strong the idea is that a story has a beginning, middle, and end.

One of the central characters in Ozecki’s novel is Ruth, a writer who lives with her husband on a remote island in British Columbia. While walking on the beach, Ruth finds a lunchbox that contains a diary and a set of handwritten letters. Ruth, who is struggling with writing her autobiography, starts spending more and more time with the diary, which she discovers was written by an adolescent girl who had been raised in Silicon Valley and then returned to Tokyo after her father lost his job in the tech industry. How did the diary get from Tokyo to the shores of Western Canada? And what has become of the diary’s author, Nao (pronounced “now”)?

As the novel processes, both Nao and Ruth become more and more focused on the fate of Nao’s great uncle Haruki, who was a kamikaze pilot at the end of WWII. What did he do on his one and only mission? How did it end? Did he crash into a battleship belonging to the Allies or did his take his plane to the bottom of the ocean? Both Ruth and Nao are driven by this deep, seemingly unsatisfiable desire to know what happened.  

The overwhelming majority of my students are not “readers,” as the term was understood when I entered graduate school . . . 35 years ago! This is not to say that they don’t read, scroll, skim, game, and multi-task for pleasure, but only that few of them are given to leisure time reading of extended works of fiction. But, when Ozecki concocts a way for Ruth to communicate to Nao what her research has revealed about Harucki, literally causing the words at the end of Nao’s diary to disappear and then reappear, revised to reflect Ruth’s understanding, the students as a whole suddenly discover that they have firmly held beliefs about what a writer can and cannot do late in a story. Has Ozecki “cheated”? Is her novel not a novel at all, but an ersatz introduction to Zen Buddhism? Is the ending a meta-commentary on endings that hovers above the ephemeral story that has preceded it?

This raucous discussion was still metaphorically ringing in our ears when we got the email ending in-class meetings a week before Spring Break. The students disappeared and COVID took center stage. We’d been studying the challenge of constructing endings in uncertain times when our course, as we knew it, disappeared into thin air. If this were a fictional story, the parallels would be too obvious to be believed and the ending itself disappointing (and, even, dumb).

What I’m at pains to teach my students, though, is that the future is always unknown. Narrative is one way to calm the anxiety produced by that reality. But narrative can also be used to explore that reality. Similarly, essays that have beginnings, middles, and ends can provide the calming illusion that we live in a world where clarity of argument is what carries the day and that deep truths arrive without qualifications or complications. When the mold for conventional instruction broke, none of us had a map for how to proceed or previous experience to build on. We had to make it up as we went along. And that, I believe, it one of the reasons that the writing projects I received at the end of the semester were unprecedented for me—and for the students.

I’ll discuss other reasons/forces that contributed to the final projects I received in my next post, but this reason strikes me as the most important one: we were all responding to the same unexpected event. No one—regardless of education or class or fame or any other variable or vector—was immune from the effects of the event.

If this has sparked anything for you, comment below. Happy to say more, clarify, qualify.

 

To be continued.

About the Author
Richard E. Miller has been teaching writing for over 25 years. He has blogged extensively about digital technology, the end of privacy, and the future of higher education on his website www.text2cloud.com. He’s served on the executive committee of CCCC and of the ADE; he’s been on the editorial board of CCC, Studies in Writing and Rhetoric, and Pedagogy (ongoing). He’s an essayist, social media fanatic, sometimes poet, photographer, multimedia composer, graphic novelist (he writes about the misadventures of his alter-ego, Professor Pawn) and memoirist.