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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Importance of Being Affected
Not too long ago, the world of writers was a haven for affectations. It is common knowledge that as a young man William Faulkner walked with a cane and pretended to be suffering from a war wound that was the result of his nonexistent combat service in WWI. But did you know that he also ate his coffee with a spoon like it was soup? Did you know that Robert Frost was addicted to bee stings or that D.H. Lawrence was a self-identifying warlock? The tradition of absurd, affected behavior surrounding the act of writing has been an important part of literary history, and yet the vast majority of contemporary writers seem to have turned their back on it. Due to the prevalence of MFA programs, writers nowadays are predominately a bunch of hard-working, craft-centric nerds. Instead of forcing bees to sting them or dabbling in the occult, they all talk about their favorite books and have spouses. This lack of eccentricity among writers today is upsetting in the only way that something in a first world country can be upsetting. By which I mean, it is boring.
Those who argue against affected behavior tend to make the claim that it can distract writers from the actual craft of writing. Of course, this could not be further from the truth. There are many instances in which affectations have played a crucial role in a writer’s creative process. Ford Maddox Ford wrote the first draft of The Good Soldier by repeatedly shooting a bow and arrow at a typewriter, whereas John Dos Passos completed his U.S.A. trilogy while he was high on owl urine. Lawrence Ferlinghetti also wrote some of his most beloved work while wearing a mask. Conversely, he often insisted on tending goal in ice hockey while equipped only with a steno pad and a pencil. This prevented him from developing an otherwise promising career in professional hockey due to the fact that The Berkeley Slapshots could no longer afford to insure him. Therefore, Ferlinghetti’s affectations actually forced him to write full-time.
Others may try to make the argument that the self-indulgent behavior associated with writerly affectations can end up being socially irresponsible or even dangerous. There is of course the unfortunate incident in which Ayn Rand terrorized a small town in upstate New York by circling it for several hours in a helicopter. Rand spent the better part of a day dropping down bricks and occasionally buzzing the locals. According to several witnesses, one could hear Rand’s laughter even over the deafening thump of the helicopter’s main rotor. However, it is important to distinguish between an affectation and a rampage. If Rand had been wearing a monocle or if she had written witticisms on the bricks, one could possibly consider this episode to be an affectation. As it stands, it was just a senseless act of heli-terror.
It is also worth mentioning that many writers have adopted affectations in an attempt to give back to society. Gordon Lish was a volunteer firefighter for a short spell in the 1970’s. Though his tenure as a firefighter was brief, Lish went on to wear the helmet for years, thus helping raise awareness about firefighting. Toward the end of his life, Ernest Hemingway also founded a free summer camp for all the people he had ever punched. What’s more, Marquis De Sade once famously attempted to develop a social program that would provide free spankings for the elderly. This plan was ill-received, but from De Sade’s point of view the endeavor was clearly full of good intentions.
Whatever the case, the simple truth of the matter is that affectations are a healthy and essential part of the literary experience. With that in mind, some potential affectations have been listed below in the hopes that any writers reading this column might decide to take them up:
1.) Chewing Tobacco: While tobacco of all sorts has been popular fodder for affectations in the past (pipes, cigarette holders, snuff), chewing tobacco has been strangely underutilized. For writers with weak stomachs, it should be mentioned that chewing tobacco is equally effective both as an affectation and as a stimulant if you rub it in your eyes.
2.) Polygamy: Few writers have had the courage to engage in this controversial practice, except of course for Shel Silverstein, who had upwards of 30 wives by the time federal agents finally raided his compound. For this reason, it is important to remember that there are two distinct types of polygamy. There is polygamy that is exciting and provocative, but, as Mr. Silverstein proved, there is also polygamy that is cultish and creepy. For your arrangement to resemble the former and not the latter, you should make sure that your spouses all have access to the internet and at least three pairs of shoes each.
-If someone points a finger at you, slide an onion ring onto it.
-Play chess using human servants as chess pieces.
-Train komodo dragons to perform household tasks. Alternatively, just release feral komodo dragons into your house while shouting instructions at them.
-Wear a cosmetic back brace.
-Replace each book in your personal library with an e-reader that has that one book on it.
-Throw your friend an elaborate birthday party. The party should be lovely in every respect except that the cake is inexplicably in the shape of a revolver.
-Whenever you hear a flute, scream as if you are being burnt.
-Instead of going through the trouble of walking down a flight of stairs, just stand at the top step and then chloroform yourself.
-Be difficult to work with.
All the affectations mentioned above are so safe and easy that they could be incorporated into any writer’s daily routine almost immediately. Granted, some of them are safer and easier than others. Keep in mind that chewing tobacco is dangerous for your health, and that if you chloroform yourself with komodo dragons in the house they will almost certainly eat you before you wake up. That is, after all, how the entire Algonquin Round Table died. Their death was a tragedy to be sure, and a great blow to the practice of affectations everywhere. But the fact remains that they died in the service of something truly great. Because even though affectations seem silly and precious to most contemporary writers, it is important to remember that most writing seems silly and precious to everyone else. So if writers are taking a step away from affectations it is a step in that direction, in which writing itself is considered an affectation and in which all human behavior is expected to be practical, conventional, safe, and nowhere near as much fun.