Friday, March 27, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Walden: The how-to book

(What is Borrowed Fire?)

Here's the text of Walden from Project Gutenberg.

Having escaped the clutches of Dostoevsky's Underground Man (at least for the time being), must we really now turn to Thoreau, the ultimate bane of high school English students, past and present, across this great land? Must we endure the musings of this "inestimably priggish and tiresome" writer, as Bill Bryson has called him? Especially given that Walden, strictly speaking, is not even fiction?

Well, yes. We can at least dip our toes into this sometimes turgid, sometimes glorious pond. I think we can create some interesting variations on Thoreau's techniques and themes--particularly keeping in mind the idea of the sentence as found object.

First off, I'd like to consider Walden as part of that indestructible American genre, the how-to book.* We're the DIY nation, or we like to think of ourselves that way--until, say, we get caught in a Ponzi scheme or invent rococo financial instruments that should by rights sink our company; then we say YDI! (You did it--and You do it!). Anyway, what is behind this urge to document one's experiences so that others may learn from them? Is it selfless or selfish, or some odd combination of both? Why is it so important, when giving advice, to "walk the walk," as Thoreau did (although not to the satisfaction of many critics, like Bryson, who point out that he often availed himself of the conveniences of downtown Concord as well as Emerson's house)? In short, what sort of person takes it upon himself to tell others how to live--and then how does he actually do that?

You begin, it seems, by explicitly stating your credentials and motives, as Thoreau sets out to do in the first couple of paragraphs. Of course he doesn't give us a standard CV (I'm a certified construction engineer with degrees in bean genetics and Classics), but a sort of spiritual resume, based on what he's observed about the human condition. Many of his famous aphorisms ("the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation") come from this section.

So, for an exercise, we can try creating a narrator who's examined the human condition--perhaps in a rather small petri dish, such as Concord, MA or his or her own immediate family--and diagnosed a problem. Have this narrator come up with some carefully styled (perhaps overly styled) aphorisms for the problem, and then begin to lay out a solution. The narrator may or may not have actually lived this solution.

There's no reason why this exercise should turn into a conventional short story with an "arc," although it could. You could, for instance, just fixate on the problem of establishing the narrator's authority. Or you could come up with increasingly absurd diagnoses of the problem that the narrator seeks to address.

Personally, I don't think I could write a completely straightforward, un-ironic version of Walden, so I'm suggesting parodic modes here. But others can and have written their own contemporary Waldens, often to much acclaim--so have at it, if that's your thing. I definitely feel the quiet desperation on occasion, and the lure of the bean-field.

*In the American context, memoir is part of this genre, as a spiritual how-to book.

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