|Five Million Minutes*
April 12, 2021
How do you measure a year? That is the musical question at the heart of "Seasons of Love" from Jonathan Larson's Rent. However difficult that is, try measuring ten years? Then try it, given a pretty small container?
In a week, Southwestern Michigan College will go through its Reaffirmation of Accreditation review, a five-person review of the college through a 35,000-word Assurance Argument and 12-hour site visit (granted, mostly a Zoom visit during the pandemic). For months, in some ways for two+ years, this has been my primary responsibility at the college. Teams gathered evidence for the Assurance Argument, but I was the writer. In the end, I think I did pretty well capturing a decade with eighty-seven words to spare. After all, writing a narrative is something I enjoy doing.
The narrative came dangerously close to my novel's though. As buyers seeking a mystery may have painfully discovered, It's All Academic was never about the murder of Michael Hartley. His death happened to coincide with the short tenure of Provost Mark Carter, who never could escape its specter.
Try writing about a decade of an institution, for the most part having to ignore the specter of COVID-19, which has drastically derailed the plot. That's how this review is playing out. Institutions are told to capture COVID-challenges separately but focus on the continuing rising action of your longer story line. Never mind that you have to (virtually) step over the corpora delicti. In the end, I think I did o.k. on that front.
(Side note: COVID still merited a short story, not added on to the narrative, but provided in supplement. I feel like William Faulkner returning to Yoknapatawapha County to publish "The Unvanquished.")
However, for the last few weeks, I have now turned my attention to the visit, in which college personnel reveal that what I wrote is the truth. Or at least accurate. Or maybe illustrative. I don't even know anymore. Mostly I just pray that they can remember pre-pandemic certitudes.
I have discovered that it's one thing to be the college's narrator, the first-person point-of-view for a story that is measured in decisions, in students, in mission, in course outcome reports, in policies, in minutes, in surveys, in syllabi. When you're the story-teller, you do remember the love in watching an institution evolve.
Now I am learning the difficulty of being the college's director, as that is the role I have played the last few weeks. While the argument may have been perfectly scripted, the program will be live and mostly impromptu. At least I have a little more control than Faulkner did for the 1959 movie version of The Sound And The Fury.
God, I hope my supporting players have carefully thought about their scenes. There are no bit roles, just potentially chewed scenery, opportunities to play a leading role, without thinking through the back story.
Honestly, just as worrisome are the players who fall back into the scenery. Hesitant to speak, perhaps even to correct the mangled line from their cast mates. Generally, I will also be back in that scenery, unable to scream "Cut!" when the scene goes off rails or even "That's a Wrap!" when I hear the line most advantageous. In that way, I might as well embody the sound and the fury and Faulkner's impotence as his novel got adapted for film (if you have never seen it, Joanne Woodward plays a woman 30 years younger than Woodward's actual age. Gotta love old Hollywood; nowadays, that would be the reverse.)
In the end, I will have done all I can: centered the narrative; positioned the actors; established the set. Others will now measure the last ten years. I can only hope the screenplay comes alive in truths that we learned; in times that we tried; in bridges we built; in what we take pride. It's time now to live out our values by remembering a decade of what we can do.
As for me, my narrative after that would be pretty boring. Dave Fleming? He spend the next ten years sleeping. Good luck getting a screenplay out of that one. I recommend Al Pacino. Just ask him to conjure up his Insomnia character.
* For those who just have to be precise, it is actually five million, two hundred fifty-six thousand, two hundred and twenty minutes. But that is an unmanageable title.