Rather Long

One delightful thing about being a writer is stumbling upon things you’ve already written and forgetting you wrote them. (That’s also a warning to us all: unless you stay organized, it’s easy to misplace essays or stories either in your apartment or on your desk).

Once, I called UT-Austin to protest their requirement that I pay an additional fee that I thought was unwarranted. After going back to their records, the UT admissions office found that I had written a bad check 10 years ago. Impossible, I insisted. I had never even applied to UT before. Two hours later, the customer service rep from the Admissions Office called to say she had found a letter written by me long ago.

“I have never written such a letter,” I insisted.

“But I have the letter right in front of me,” she said.

“Then it can’t possibly be mine!” I insisted. “It must be from a different person with a similar name.  Look, if you have the letter in front of you, can’t you at least read to me what the letter said?”

The woman paused. “Well, I can,” she said, but it’s….rather long.”

My heart sunk at those words; “Rather long” is how everybody described my letters. She read it aloud, and sure enough, it was by me.It read something like this:

Dear Sir or Madam:
Perhaps you are wondering why I have not paid the returned check fee that resulted when my application fee bounced. In fact, there is a simple and logical explanation.

I had decided to apply to the UT Comparative Literature program this year and had arranged to send recommendation letters, GRE score and transcripts to the appropriate department. Along with the check I did send the general application minus the statement of purpose, the department application and writing samples. The returned check was returned immediately to me, along with a notice to send the application fee plus a returned check fee.

Strangely enough, I later figured out that I had not in fact met the language prerequisites for the program, so there was no point in submitting the rest of my application. Shortly thereafter I received a rejection letter from the Comp Lit program — which is funny given that 1)my application check had bounced and 2)I never sent the complete application.

So I am writing now to tell you that I am aware that this money is due — and if I later decide to apply to UT, I will certainly pay it. But because I technically never applied to your program and I already know what the outcome was or would be, there is little reason for me to pay right now.

I hope you will understand my reasons for deciding not to pay the application fee or returned check fee. It is not because I planned to disregard my financial obligations (in fact the bank had also charged me a returned check fee — which I promptly paid). It is because I don’t see the point of paying for an application which was never actually made.

Sincerely, Robert Nagle

It was yet another instance where I simply don’t remember things I’ve written down. I’ve come to the conclusion that writers write because they are born with crappy memories.

Postscript. The good part about being a writer is rediscovering old sentences. Here’s a longish footnote I wrote in my longish essay about Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain:

Samantha Brown has written a less than enthusiastic review of Soul Mountain (to put it mildly). Calling the book misogynistic, obsessively focused on sex, and “teetering on the edge of superfluousness,” she feels that the work “fails to make any coherent statement.” Her charges are not entirely off the mark (and in many ways I think she gets to the heart of what is happening in the novel), but I should address one: The author intended the book as a Notebook or sketchbook for his thoughts and ideas, and it is not exactly fair to charge it for lacking a coherent plot. It is just as silly to criticize a weblog for darting from link to link without saying anything substantial. Well, that is the point, isn’t it? Our reaction to this rambling, brooding literary form depends on what expectations one brings to this kind of novel. I admit to feeling frustration on many occasions throughout this novel, but part of the problem is that the modern reader is too stressed out to have the patience for this modernist/postmodern kind of narrative. We are always on the move; we have to read such-and-such essay on the Internet or watch this film or play this video game. It is no longer possible to spend blocks of time contemplating an author’s contemplation of his novel, no matter how many prizes he or she may have won. That is one reason I particularly enjoyed listening to the novel in the car rather than sitting down and reading it. When you are driving, you are just thinking about how to forget  the traffic and  keep your mind busy. Philosophic ramblings on the car cassette player don’t seem as odd or as tiresome as opening a book and then realizing that you can’t figure out what is going on, what has happened or what is going to happen. Reading a modernist stream-of-consciousness work or a long poem can be hard work. But when you are listening in the car, you are not working; you are simply listening in on a writer’s thoughts and travelling to the grocery store at the same time.