Doing Battell

3 February 2022
When George looked across the workshop space, I saw kindness in his face; he suggested that I find the internal struggles for the General in the alien short story I had written, not just action. I was furious. I resented that anyone could tell me, at 15 years old and enrolled in a community college summer program, the truth about fiction. And I could not have been more wrong.
I suppose accepting the importance of internal conflict is difficult for any American boy. After all, I was taught to be strong. To write “reflectively” about “feelings” was, in 1978, a girlie thing to do. No way. I remember pausing, then saying through gritted teeth, “Thank you, George,” as the workshop rules insisted.  The rules, too, were dumb. I knew this, even while every part of me that wasn’t delicate ego understood their necessity. The teacher (later mentor) Art had created them just for people like me. Only now do I also see the parallel between my then-writing “style” and hyper-sensitivity. Weened on army comics and Godzilla movies, I slapped together stories taut with action and suspense, explosions and alien antennae. My General, Edgar Battel (a clever pun) revealed his megalomania through the use of ALL CAPS SCREAMING and dozens of exclamation points!!!!! Who did George think he was talking to? Had he missed my daring symbolism?
(*Is it any surprise that this was the only work, also in 1978, for which I claimed a formal copyright?)

Man Boxes

It took me several years (and several writing teachers–poor Ms. Dorrian must have cried in despair over my poetry) to ready myself for internal struggles. Not just with my characters. I plowed over friends and romances faster than I did writing teachers. My gritted teeth in that workshop were a commonplace. “Play tough or go home.”  Art’s workshop rules artificially civilized discourse; they were walls that defined behavioral obedience. They were designed for the people who did not know any better, who never learned to internalize social niceties. 
I plowed over friends and romances faster than I did writing teachers.
Somewhere along the line, we move from our outward projections of self to an internal understanding. Those who do not remain as empty and unreflective as my General Battel; what I saw as his depth was merely his hollowness–and if I wasn’t careful, my own.   
Photograph by Robert Sullivan
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