Wordsmith Wednesday: George Saunders’ “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”

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Our words this Wednesday come from George Saunders’ 2005 novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.

The excerpt is:

“Suddenly Phil didn’t seem like quite so much of a nobody to the other Outer Hornerites. What kind of nobody was so vehement, and used so many confusing phrases with so much certainty, and was so completely accurate about how wonderful and generous and under-appreciated they were?

‘Boy oh boy,’ said Freeda.

‘He just comes right out and says it,’ said Melvin.

‘Thank goodness someone finally has,’ said Larry.

‘As for you Inner Hornerites!’ bellowed Phil. ‘Please take heed: You are hereby testing the limits of our legendary generosity, because of how you are, which is so very opposite of us. Friends, take a look at these losers! If they are as good as us, why do they look so much worse than us? Look how they look! Do they look valorous and noble and huge like us, or do they look sad and weak and puny?”

If some of the rhetoric in this excerpt seems to echo what you’re hearing in the current political discourse, that’s because the language of nationalism and it’s dumber, more violent cousin, jingoism, often rest on the vilification of the “Other.” This is the language you heard on the campaign trail and it’s the mindset behind border walls, travel bans, and threats of nuclear war. Throughout the book, Phil’s populist approach and appeal to Outer Hornerites, similar to that of Trump, is almost entirely built on expressing their superiority over Inner Hornerites, of using single incidents or accidents to generalize about “Them” and using fear to quell any dissidence among the Outer Hornerites themselves. Originally meant to be a children’s story in response to a challenge to write a book where all the characters are conglomerate objects, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil uses satire to simplify, and clarify, factors that lead to conflict, subjugation, injustice, and, in this case, genocide. This story’s cautions against blind faith in authority, national hubris, sensationalist media, and compliance with injustice seem a lesson to navigating our current sociopolitical landscape, a shifting lesson I’m learning every day. I don’t have the answers, but be careful of those who try to win your heart and mind by vehemently spouting confusing phrases with certainty.

– NR

saunders

Wordsmith Wednesday:

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is a poem from Nayyirah Waheed’s collection salt.

It reads:

“remember,
you were a writer
before
you ever
put
pen to paper.
just because you were not writing
externally.
does not mean you were not writing
internally.”

It is often difficult to remind ourselves of this. We do not stop or start becoming a writer at any point just because we aren’t physically writing. Our minds are constantly writing novels of their own, coming up with stories, drafting scenarios, reiterating our feelings and thoughts, all internally. This is the most constant and unrestrictive form of writing. In this form we do not hold back, there is no one around to judge but us. We/society is the only one that holds us accountable to this arbitrary definition of a writer. We are always, constantly, writing, do not let the physicality that is placed behind writing hold you back from being/feeling productive as a writer. We all do it in different forms at different times in our lives. How is not what is important, it’s the fact that we do that is.

– KK

Nayyirah

Wordsmith Wednesday:

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is an excerpt from Hope Jahren’s novel Lab Girl.

It reads:

“Time has also changed me, my perception of my tree, and my perception of my tree’s perception of itself. Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.”

Winter has always felt like the time of year that we are meant to look inward, self-reflect, and evaluate our surroundings. Recently, however, I’ve constantly found that to be more accurate of the summertime. When everyone is out and present and attempting to extract every bit of life they can out of every minute of the day. That is when I find myself to be searching for happiness, for what will satiate that desire to be satisfied with my own existence and what it has culminated to. It is difficult to pause in this time of everyone’s constant joyous celebration, of movement, of momentum, and reflect on our perspectives and what we have gathered over the course of this time on this planet, but it is simultaneously pivotal in shaping our understanding of our surroundings and being able to derive happiness even from the most confusing/darkest/tumultuous of times. I write to remember these times, the difficult and the prosperous. To remind myself to never forget to reflect on the entire landscape and not just the single object in my immediate line of sight.

– KK

Jehran

Wordsmith Wednesday: Rupi Kaur’s “milk and honey”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is from Rupi Kaur’s milk and honey.

The poem reads:

“you said, if it is meant to be. fate will bring us back
together. for a second I wonder if you are really
that naïve. if you really believe fate works like
that. as if it lives in the sky staring down at us. as
if it has five fingers and spends its time placing us
like pieces of chess. as if it is not the choices we
make. who taught you that. tell me. who
convinced you. you’ve been given a heart and
a mind that isn’t yours to use. that your actions
do not define what will become of you. i want to
scream and shout it’s us you fool. we’re the only
ones that can bring us back together. but
instead I sit quietly. smiling softly through
quivering lips thinking. isn’t it such a tragic thing.
when you can see it so clearly but the other person
doesn’t.”

Kaur’s milk and honey has become a companion to me. Something I carry and reference constantly. Each poem a beautifully crafted image of the daily internal and external struggles we face, pointed and direct. Though they are short and clear, I have spent hours indulging in certain poems, their words weighing heavy. I’ve read and reread them until my shock towards the raw, unadulterated realness subsides, leaving me that much more connected to my present state of mind.

In order to alleviate responsibility, we often find intangible concepts to take on our own difficulties. They act as surrogates to ourselves, relinquishing the blame of indecision and inactivity. If we leave the decision up to an omnipotent being, or “fate,” then we no longer are accountable. The reality of the matter is that we are the ones who must make the choices that propel us to where we want to be. We do not leave it in the hands of “the world” to guide us or shape us. This is much more difficult than the former. Working hard to achieve the job you want, the relationship you want to work, or the mindset you’d like to be in is not easy. It takes time, effort, and a realization that you want this change. The end result, the satisfaction received from knowing that it was your actions, you in your entirety, that got you there, is what makes it worth it.

– KK

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)”

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Our words this week come from the opening verse of Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)” off his 2012 modern classic good kid, m.A.A.d. city.

The lyrics are:

“Now I done grew up ’round some people livin’ their life in bottles
Granddaddy had the golden flask, backstroke every day in Chicago
Some people like the way it feels, some people wanna kill their sorrows
Some people wanna fit in with the popular, that was my problem”

Choosing lines to highlight off this record was not easy. I could have shone a light on the pure storytelling of “The Art of Peer Pressure” or the fresh juxtapositions of parallel yet conflicting corrupting forces being explored in each verse on “Good Kid” or the masterful fourth-wall-breaking, character-constructing introspection and self-analysis on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is a poetry collection, sparkling with wordplay, cemented in themes, and threaded with narrative. I chose these lines because they’re a beautiful example of Lamar’s ability to paint a rich picture and implant himself in it to navigate the details of that landscape. A celebration of indulgence on the surface, this song/poem unrolls to engage the social and psychological motivations for alcoholism, but that engagement rests on the foundation provided by this acknowledgement of Lamar’s understanding of the issue on a personal as well as a sociological level in these first lines. Wrapped up in a narrative of love / poverty / faith / violence / success / guilt, this song (especially the extended version) always resonates as an honest attempt to approach the causes and effects of alcoholism without being disconnected or self-righteous. It makes me think of myself, my family, and my future. It places both author and audience within narrative: at the bar, in the club, on the couch. It swirls and strikes. It weaves and breaths heavy. It’s K-Dot trying to connect the stray dots in permanent marker for you (and him) to learn from.

– NR

kendrick

Wordsmith Wednesday: Modest Mouse’s “Florida”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday comes from the song “Florida” by Modest Mouse off their 2007 album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.

It reads:

“Even as I left Florida
Far enough, far enough
Wasn’t far enough
Couldn’t quite seem to escape myself
Far enough, far enough
Far from Florida (…)
I stood on my heart supports thinkin’
‘Oh my god, I’ll probably have to carry this whole load.’
I couldn’t remember if I tried.”

Though I by no means would consider this one of my favorite Modest Mouse songs (or albums), and I know we’ve quoted them plenty of times, right now, every time I hear these lines, they resonate in an almost unexplainable, intangible way.

These lines aren’t complicated or flowery, they aren’t meant to make you think intensely about what their meaning could be, they’re pointed, they are clear, and they are a feeling that most of us have experienced but have found difficulty vocalizing.

It’s the notion that we get when we decide to create distance between ourselves and our surroundings, physically and through distractions, believing that a change of scenery will fix everything we have been struggling to face, when in reality it’s ourselves and our own mind that we are trying to create distance from.

– KK

modest mouse 3

Wordsmith Wednesday: Miriam Toews “All My Puny Sorrows”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday comes from Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows.

It reads:

“Then Elf tells me that she has a glass piano inside her. She’s terrified that it will break. She can’t let it break. She tells me that it’s squeezed right up against the lower right side of her stomach, that sometimes she can feel the hard edges of it pushing at her skin, that she’s afraid it will push through and she’ll bleed to death. But mostly she’s terrified that it will break inside her. I ask her what kind of piano it is and she tells me that it’s an old upright Heintzman that used to be a player piano but that the player mechanism has been removed and the whole thing has been turned into glass, even the keys. Everything. When she hears bottles being thrown into the back of a garbage truck or wind chimes or even a certain type of bird singing she immediately thinks it’s the piano breaking.

A child laughed this morning, she says, a little girl here visiting her father, but I didn’t know it was laughter, I thought it was the sound of glass shattering and I clutched my stomach thinking oh no, this is it.”

It’s the fears and hopes and dreams and pain and confusion all stirred up inside us. The parts that we don’t want to show to the world, but can easily cut right through us and spill onto the pavement. Onto the shoes of those closest to us. Random moments can cause the glass piano to push at parts of our skin, to stretch it to its breaking point. Those moments are terrifying. When our skin is taut and the imprint of the piano can be seen through our clothes, can be seen by everyone around us. But even worse than that is when, without anyone even knowing, without a forewarning, the piano shatters inside us. Those moments are scariest of all.

– KK

mariam toews