Thank you for not yelling at me

The mechanisms of introspection/insight are odd and fascinating to me. I spend a lot of time in integration mode, which is to say trying to make sense of the things that happen around me and drawing useful conclusions from those events.

As such, I like to use basic models or frameworks for organizing thought that can be applied across more than one topic or discipline. An odd effect of that is that I tend to find metaphorical illustrations of core concepts in some very strange places. I’ve even found gospel truths in the details of IT asset management and computer configuration control.

That happened to me in a very odd way this past month in a sequence of events involving the DMV, the offices of the Secretaries of State for Illinois and Wyoming, clock tower mechanisms, FedEx, and a trip to California for a job interview.

I apologize for the length of this, but I thought the experience itself was kind of fun and I wanted to share it in addition to the insight that I derived from it. For the “lesson learned” part of the post skip down past the personal vignette that follows.

* * * * *

As I was preparing to fly to the San Francisco Bay area for a job interview, I realized my driver’s license had just expired. Since I needed to rent a car to drive from Oakland to Pleasanton, I needed to have a valid license (I could use my passport to get through TSA).

I’ve been licensed to drive in Utah for more than twenty years, and have done my last three renewals by mail so I knew there wouldn’t be any problems. So I showed up bright and early Tuesday morning (day before the Wednesday interview) to take my picture, look at the eyechart, take the written test (if necessary), and pay my fee.

As I’m pulling out my debit card to pay the fifteen dollars, the man behind the counter asks if I’ve ever lived in Illinois. I admit that I grew up there, but hadn’t been licensed there in more than twenty years…why? He tells me the State of Illinois has a hold on my license; he doesn’t know why. He confirms my old address and phone in Illinois so we know it’s really me. Then he prints out the contact info for the Secretary of the State of Illinois and tells me I have to resolve that before he can issue a license—have a nice day. I ask if I can use their phone to call Illinois and he says no.

The DMV is about thirty miles from my house, so I’m not especially interested in blowing the gas or the time to run home for a ten minute phone call to clear up what is obviously a mistake. Fortunately, I have family within about a mile of the DMV (mother in law). Unfortunately, she’s not home, nor is she at work at the Orem Public Library when I check there. Nor is the sister in law who lives in Lehi (about ten miles north—and further away from my home).

I’ve now blown more than ninety minutes (and driven more than thirty miles) trying to avoid the hour (and sixty miles) to go home and use my own phone. Sadly, I’m one of the Luddite few who doesn’t carry a cell phone, so I’m largely out of luck. It looks like I’ll have to drive home and use my land line. Then I see a FedEx Business Center (glorified copy shop) and figure they must have a fax service, ergo they must also have a phone service.

Turns out they don’t, and they wouldn’t let me pay to use their office phone—against policy.

I’m a tad frustrated now. A clerical error is going to cost me more than three hours of my life and nearly 100 miles of unnecessary driving—all for want of a simple phone call. I explain the situation, hoping one of the employees will feel sorry for me and let use the phone anyway, but they are unmoved.

There’s nothing I can do, so I shake my head and start for the door when a tall, elderly gentleman getting a photocopy to enlarge a color photo asks if I know Tom in Santaquin; I do. He asks if I’m willing to wait a few minutes and says if I follow him home he’ll let me use his phone.

It turns out the photo he’s enlarging is of the clockworks of a tower clock down in St. George, Utah, and he and Tom have spent their spare time over the last fifty years repairing the mechanisms in tower clocks all over the intermountain West. He shows me the picture and points out where he thinks the damage is, and we chat about Tom for a moment (who died the previous year), then I follow him to his house and finally make that phone call to the Secretary of the State of Illinois.

After fighting the autoteller system for ten minutes I finally speak to a human who tells me that the problem is actually a speeding ticket in Wyoming back in 1988, so I’ll have to contact the Secretary of State of Wyoming to resolve the issue and have them contact Illinois, who will then contact Utah. I ask how it’s possible that I’ve been licensed to drive more than four times since then but this is only surfacing now, and she explains that after 9-11 the states pooled their records for security purposes and a lot of old record got dredged up that would not otherwise have been visible until after 2002 (I last visited a DMV in 2001; renewals were all done by mail).

At this point I’m extremely frustrated. I explain the situation (job interview, rental car) and ask if there’s any way this thing can get resolved today. The lady on the phone tells me there’s no way to resolve it in less than three weeks because it will require a court in Wyoming to send a letter to Illinois (on court letterhead), and based on the age of the filing they will probably have to go to microfiche to find the original ticket and court records—then I’ll have to resolve it and get the letter issued.

There’s nothing I can do so I ask for the Wyoming contact information and thank the nice lady for her time. As I’m preparing to hang up and go home, the lady in Illinois says, “Sir…I just wanted to thank you for not yelling at me.”

That takes me by surprise. I tell her I’m the one who got a speeding ticket so it doesn’t help to yell at her. We chat for a moment and she tells me that hundreds of these kinds of problems have been dredged up recently and everyone yells at her about them. I apologize for the rudeness of others, thank her for her help, and wish her a better day than she’s been having, then hang up.

I don’t want to abuse my host’s kindness by making too many calls, so I’m getting ready to go home. I thank him for letting me use his phone and offer to pay (he refuses). While I was on the phone, he’s found a photo of Tom and we chat for a moment. He shows me around his living room and points out the 44 clocks he has—all of them mechanical, and all maintained by him. He shows me a three-gear clock patented by Ben Franklin, a grandfather clock more than two hundred years old, and a little clock that uses its own weight to travel down a toothed post to maintain tension on the mechanism (instead if a spring or a counterweight). We chat about clocks and Tom and job interviews being retired, and I take my leave nearly an hour later.

I’ve now spent five hours failing to get a driver’s license and I know I will arrive in California with no way to rent a car. I decide I can take cabs and pay the exorbitant fees and get ready for another two hours of phone tag to figure out my next steps for getting my license.

It turns out that the lady in Illinois contacted Wyoming for me, so when I called them two hours later they already had the records and had determined that because of the age of the ticket they would simply clear the complaint with no additional hassle (or fees). I still had to send a copy of the letter (on court letterhead) to Illinois, but they would mail it to me the next day.

It also turns out that I was able to rent the car—she never even looked at the expiration date on my license—and made it to my interview with time to spare.

What should have been a deeply frustrating experience turned out to contain elements of actual joy. I met a kind and charitable man and had opportunity to learn things I would never have discovered by any other means. I found that low-level functionaries in the bureaucracy can be very kind and helpful if only we will not yell at them for situations they did not cause. I decided the world was a little less malign than I’m generally inclined to believe.

And I found a metaphor of literature, though I had to go the long way around to discover it.

* * * * *

One of the great challenges of a literature whose foundations come from common religion (or politics, or healthy living, or any other community that requires a conversion) is a tendency to preach.

Sometimes it’s an effort to bestow light and knowledge upon the benighted masses; sometimes an attempt to share something personal and precious; sometimes an effort to call the community itself to repentance; sometimes an effort to prove that the community matters or belongs in a larger social context.

Whatever the drive, the fact is that a great many of our stories work very hard to guide us through an argued/illustrated journey toward a very specific conclusion that permits no meaningful disagreement. Since the intent of the story is to reveal a truth about the community—with the direct implication that having been educated, we should now fix it—that intent must be accepted without question.

For many, this evangelical zeal permits no criticism of style, structure, voice, or other elements of literary analysis; since the story was written from a place of conversion it must be accepted on the power of its intentions, not its successful delivery. To pick at the vehicle is to miss the point.

That happens just as often with our literary authors as it does with our more overtly didactic authors. We pick at a point of fact or a method of presentation because more literary works demand to be more aggressively deconstructed, and find ourselves confronted with frustrated defenders who declare that such things are irrelevant and we’re just not getting the point.

Except that I think we often are getting the point, we’re just not moved by it—possibly because of arguable points of fact or methods of presentation, or possibly because the point just wasn’t that transformative. We see the narrative goal and note it (message received), then move on to analyze the vehicle of delivery. It’s part of the game of literature.

But stories told from a foundation of conversion often demand acceptance of that narrative point independent of the vehicle of delivery, something that traditional criticism cannot accommodate.

Perhaps that’s a flaw of criticism, but I tend to see it more as a flaw of authorial approach. Not because the metaphor is weak, the details arguable, or the characters poorly realized, but because some of us read stories as much to analyze the text as to receive any specific piece of information. No matter how loud the author yells about the point of the story, I will not be moved if the language, settings, structure, and other literary elements do not engage me as an individual reader.

So I appreciate it when I meet the author who is willing to go to where the story took me and discuss it on that extended (and perhaps unintended) basis. Who is willing to share a story without forcing me to read it in a particular way or to derive a specifically limited set of meanings. Who is willing to be a good host even when they want to argue.

To those authors I can only say thank you for not yelling at me, either within the bounds of the story itself or in the discussion that takes place afterward in forums like this one. Your approach is appreciated.


This entry was posted in Community Voices, Personal Narratives, Storytelling and Community. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Thank you for not yelling at me

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    An interesting point.

    I’d be interested also in some examples about writers not “getting it” when critiqued about style, especially literary authors. I’m not disputing that it happens; it’s just that the way you wrote it suggested that there were some particular cases that had struck you recently, or memorably, or something like that.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I didn’t have a specific story or author in mind; it was more a general observation of my own experiences with various texts over the years.

      I suppose the most obvious one would be Levi Peterson and The Backslider—most particularly the cowboy Jesus and Alice elements. To his credit, Levi has been nothing but open and gracious when speaking to criticism of those elements, but many of his defenders have made it clear to me over the years that I obviously didn’t understand—and by implication was neither smart nor artistic enough to get it.

      (the only subtlety in what I originally wrote was to speak of the authors’ defenders, not authors themselves)

      The problem was that I did understand (and even appreciated) the devices at the same time that I found them grotesque rather than representative. So while I both understood the use and effectiveness of them, they spoke to me only at an intellectual level rather than a personal one. But because I didn’t find them to be perfect literary devices that were accurately representative of the Mormon experience, I have been denounced by more than a few as inartistic. Keeping in mind that grotesqueries are a proud part of the literary tradition (Dorian Gray, anyone), I have no problem with their use—unless they’re represented as generally accurate descriptions.

      Without arguing the point about my alleged lack of artistificationossityousness (I freely admit to having no Art in my soul), the denunciation of my observations on the basis that if I didn’t like it as is I had no right to comment struck me as anti-literary. I’ve had similar exchanges around Brady Udall’s works (I still haven’t found one that makes me say “wow” though I accept that I’m in the apparent minority on that), Neil LaButte’s stuff, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner’s stuff, and others. I’ve argued Richard Dutcher both ways.

      Even our own recent discussion of the Book of Mormon musical (and its digressions into Angels in America) featured a number of “you don’t get its.” Not a big deal—those were good signposts that the discussion was no longer interesting or fruitful—but mildly disappointing nonetheless.

      Again, not the authors so much as their defenders. Where the author (correctly) stays out of the discussion, their defenders act as proxy voice.

      I don’t think it’s all that much of a problem. It’s just (part of) what that sequence of experiences dredged up in my own mind. Perhaps I picked unfairly at literary authors, in which case I apologize.

  2. Maybe Scott is talking about those who respond to attempts at feedback on their writing with the assertion that “this story is Inspired, so I’m not going to change it” or somesuch.

    In a writing workshop, it isn’t uncommon to encounter those who make claims to Inspiration whether it is supposed to be from a spiritual source or just from their personal “muse.” Other writers learn to not waste their efforts, though, when the “Inspired” defense comes up.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I’ve sometimes wondered why people can accept an inspired drafting process, but seem to have more trouble with the notion of an inspired revision process…

      I guess I was wondering because it seemed to me that Scott’s comment about “overtly didactic” authors was getting at the case you mentioned (which I’ve also seen, by the way). He also says, though, that he sees it with more literary authors. It’s my impression that literary authors are at least required to put on a show of being open to comments about their craft, so I was wondering if Scott could point to some specific examples.

      • Maybe they don’t like the idea of revision because it implies that the Inspiration wasn’t perfect in the first place?

        I consider that a deep misunderstanding of the writing process, by the way. The “work,” as it appears in the writer’s mind, could very well be perfect, but the interpretation of that perfection into the imperfect medium of words on paper is never going to measure up to the perfection of the “work.”

        And one of the purposes of feedback, especially of the expression as opposed to the content, is to help improve the manuscript so that it more clearly conveys the “work” to the reader’s mind.

        As you say, Jonathan, I’d think that writers who focus on expression would be receptive to feedback on improving it. But, again, perhaps they believe the expression is as Inspired as the content.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Right. There’s an idea among many inspirational writers that their works are dictated by the mouths of angels, and any criticism of either form or content is an affront against Heaven itself.

      Sorry, but I don’t buy that. Even inspired texts permit multiple and individual interpretations—thus the injunction to re-read and re-study the scriptures as we liken them to ourselves. I accept that some people are deeply moved, but I reject the judgment that if I am not equally moved I am spiritually inferior. Different stories reach different audiences, else there would only have been one parable and the scriptures would contain fewer books.

      It’s all part of the broader literary discussion. I would never dream of asking the defenders to stop defending. I just wanted to explicitly offer appreciation for those who stop short of judging either the artistic merit or spiritual worthiness of those who don’t appreciate a work the same way they do.

  3. For my part, I recognize that I need to try harder not to be frustrated when something like your experience happens, Scott. It is very easy to “yell at the messenger” and very hard to remember that the difficulties are not their fault.

    Thank you for sharing the experience. I have resolved to do better.

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