Wednesday, March 25, 2020

#MOC19 - Isolation and the Writer

If you think of yourself as a writer, you probably think that this time of pandemics and quarantine is just the thing you need to start that novel or maybe finish. Writers are moving into a period of unprecedented history. Writers know the value of their time and the space they need to write. The rest of the world - is anxious. Socializing and being connected to people is a part of our jobs, our friend groups, and family. As people begin to rethink their lives around this outbreak of flu, social distancing and selecting to live a quiet, remote life for a few weeks (forced or not), will be a difficult proposition for the people around you. In our culture, we have used isolation as punishment. Leaving people out or creating a cancel culture is considered terrible social terms to live in. People who violate the terms of Twitter are put in Twitter jail or Facebook prison for a period of time. This is all social isolation. We don't value sitting and reading a book for three hours (because no one really has the time anymore). In the book How to Disappear: Notes on invisibility in a time of transparency, Akikko Busch so aptly discusses visibility and invisibility in the world. It is a brilliant discussion of why being invisible is just as important and relevant as being visible digitally and physically.  "It has become routine to assume that the rewards of life are public and that our lives can be measured by how we are seen rather than what we do." This visibility that makes us public isn't just a physical space, but a technological presence of posting our food pictures, sharing social gatherings, and posts about travel. But that is changing and writers are good ambassadors to help people understand the value of reading a book that will change their perspective, share the value of working on something (anything) uninterrupted for a long time. 

Fiction, poetry, and storytelling are fostering an understanding of imaginary inter-relationships in our imagination. We know that we can be deeply moved and changed by watching a good movie or reading a book we really are excited about. Sometimes, those stories are meant to change us, and sometimes they do it slowly, without an immediate impact. Busch talks about the value of imaginative conversations, ways we talk to ourselves as a way to practice speaking at an interview, discussing relationships, or just trying out a new idea. "We can have simulated discussions with real people who are not in the room. We can be deeply affected by fiction we've read. Something that is not real can have a real impact and foster a real emotion reaction." In terms of your imagination and your ability to think and interact - these isolated practice sessions are just as important to your brain and your ability to see the world. 

Writer may feel better about thinking in terms of life as an invisible playground. They may even have a massive set of skills for this kind of interaction. Writers can manipulate and change scenes and find the moment things are relevant, important, and new. They can practice (in their minds) scene that change over and over again until they find the optimal vision that will draw out emotion and change the way people see the world. Do you have that power? I do, and I use it ALL the time. Anyone who says they have their best ideas in the shower are practicing this power in the known isolation of the shower.  

Maybe it is trite to pull out books like Love in the Time of Cholera, or Albert Camus The Plague, but it is also assuring to find writers moving through these ordeals, (real or imagined) and finding out something universal about solitude, isolation, and the human condition. In Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a short novel by Katherine Anne Porter, she experiences the Spanish Flu and the result is a significant shift in the world as she knows it. It is stunning, beautiful, sad, and perhaps one of the most moving statement of shifting from innocence to experience in literature. 

As writers, we may secretly relish this time of sequestering ourselves, more time writing, more time dreaming. It isn't the writers of the world I am worried about, it is all those who have yet to discover how enriching it can be to settle, to focus, and to create. We have to continue the process of introducing friends and family into deep reading, critical thinking, field walks, beach explorations and all the magical ways we find inspiration through solitude. From our worries and our vision of the world - will come great stories, great vision, and a sense that we are all capable of great things even in solitude and with some social distance. 

Busch, Akiko. How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. Penguin Books, 2019. 

Esoterica / Part One

Being an esoteric reader, it is common to find books that are really off the beaten path for mainstream readers. Sometimes, it makes complete sense that these books aren't consumed by a lot of people because they fall into the experimental, obscure, or disconnected genre where they may have originated. But it is from these lands of "esoterica" that some really fascinating stories, ideas, and designs emerge from writing. If there is a land of writing and thinking that is worth exploring, to me it is on the edges. It is from these places that new ideas, new approaches come into focus. And while they may remain obscure and strange, they may also push the form and act of the storytelling into new places. 

Take that vision of reading to Mikhail Shishkin's Maidenhair, and consider what you are reading and why. It isn't for the faint of heart or the casual reader. The story is based on the life of Swiss officers who guard the border and interview Russian asylum-seekers where they are subjected to the stories of the oppressed. The book is written in a long prose question and answer style that meanders and moves through ideas and connections. Some of it seems like myth and tales. Other stories are complex and dark. And it begins this complex tapestry that takes its toll on the guards. 

While reading this novel, which is not difficult to read thanks to the translation from the Russian by Marian Schwartz, it begins to feel like something else. Shishkin is doing more than crafting a plot. He is plotting to change the reader in a different way. The conclusion? What if this isn't a novel, but an ethical guide to understanding why we write, why stories are important, and the significant weight of being in possession of the stories we tell. There are times in this book when I am reading and following the life a soldier, or hearing some sad story from an orphanage. And then suddenly, there are one hundred ideas coming to mind, or the basic weight of truth as it pertains to fiction. And suddenly, you don't care about the story, but only in that, it happens to you. And you start to think about the unwritten stories you have yet to write, and you start to wonder why you haven't valued your own stories like your life depended on them. 

"Those speaking may be fictitious, but what they say is real. Truth lies only where it is concealed. Fine, the people aren't real but the stories, ho, the stories are! It's just that they raped someone else at the orphanage, not fat-lips. And the guy from Lithuania heard the story about the brother who burned up and the murdered mother from someone else. What difference does it make who it happened to? It's ways a sure thing. The people here are irrelevant. It's the stories that can be authentic or not. We become what gets written in the transcript"(24). 

Make the point that the transcript is an official document of record, making it feel important and factual, although this is all about the way things shift and move in terms of fiction, stories, and the world. What part of this do we accept? It isn't about facts, but accepting truth as it is. We know that rape, violence, war, and other terrible things happen, and it validates the story. So, what part of belief do we accept? The line between the plausible and implausible is based on the writing, the style, and the ability of the writer to tell that story into plausibility. 

"In the wee hours the interpreter woke bathed in sweat and with a pounding heart; he had dreamed of Galina Petronvna - except the boys all called her Galpetra, out of sheer meanness - and it had come back to him - the lesson, the blackboard - as if all these decades lived had never been. He lay there looking at their brightening ceiling and returned to himself, clutching at his heart. Why be afraid of her now? And what exactly was in your dream - you forget right away and are left with just your schoolboy fear. It's a nasty feeling, too. You never know what empire you're going to wake up in or who as"(26).
This paragraph relates to understanding the 

In terms of writing about writing, we find great style and how-to writing books. I think Stephen King's On Writing is a great approach to understanding a writing life. But once writers immerse themselves in books about character, plot, getting into a routine (and the hundreds of other elements to writing), the writer need a deeper understanding of the relation understanding of texts and storytelling. It is time to move out of how and why we write and move into a higher understanding of what it is we do. We might find this in something like Annie Dillard's The Writing Life * or in the essays of Scott Momaday and his culture of oral tradition. We are convinced that we can define the nuts and bolts of writing, but we need to connect to its higher plane. Some of that is seeking out people who have connected to that thought level. The other difficult part, is having the vision as a reader searching out that information.  This article series discusses the value of defining and searching for texts that change the way we think and write. They can inspire, but they can also remind us of the deeper value in the writing and thinking we create as writers. In this day of diminished word counts, technological distraction, and polarized points of view; it is important to find that place, time, and room to make the a writing life more than words on the page. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

In the Oven / Fictional Interaction

I teach a Digital Ethics and Citizenship course and some of the things we talk about is the automation of apps and the story they tell us even is it is merely to keep us busy. Tracking pizza is one of the apps we discuss. This came about as a writing piece but then with a little thought and time, I was able to move it into a visual format. While I like that I wrote it out first -- the visuals add something to the story. The timer, the tracking bar, they all move the story along. The images and the collective look was fun to make and think about. Typically, I use words, but it was nice to enhance the story by way of graphics and design. It is fun to watch the tracker move to the green, when the whole thing goes sideways.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Other Worlds and Escaping

I am reading a title called I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing by A. D. Jameson and he give a short overview of the concept (popular now in fantasy and young adult writing) known as world building. And he used Tolkien's ideas in connecting escapism and plausibility together. He said, 

"Tolkien further argued that in order for this experience to succeed, in order for the faerie to be able to work its magic, the secondary worlds must be credible enough that we fall completely under their spell, to which end authors must give them "the inner consistency of reality."" 

This is a fascinating concept that brings the idea that world building is based on things that are different, but consistent with the basic working of reality. I was more interested in the Star Wars elements of this book, however, there are some fascinating asides that really have been notable. 

In many ways, this is how we view truth in fiction. Yes, it is fiction and completely made up, but the theme, the possibility of the action, and the plausibility all come back to this idea of "consistency of reality." Can we learn something fictional and find it based on truth? Of course, we can. It is the possibility that is so compelling in fiction. It isn't how exotic the realm is, but how compelling we find the characters. We know winter is coming in The Game of Thrones because we've seen the northern wall, hell, we know people who have fought there. And winter is coming. How do I know that? Because I've seen it myself. 

In the end, world-building as an idea is vast and creative. It is attractive to writers. But to me, it feels like the most important part of world-building is that we can still find ourselves, even in the most exotic or different realms. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Interactive Storytelling: NetNarr Alchemy Lab

Very excited to be part of this dynamic and creative NetNarr 
Alchemy Lab which included creative and stunning story creators including Niall Barr, Todd Conaway, Charlene Doland, Sheri Edwards, Simon Ensor, Roj Ferman, Terry Greene, Kelli Hayes, Kevin Hodgson, Sarah Honeychurch, John Johnston, Alan Levine, Keegan Long-Wheeler, Algot Runeman, Wendy Taleo, Clare Thomson, Susan Watson and Lauren Zucker.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Image and Words: Long Form Stories Reinvented

In the New York Times Magazine this week (5/6/18), we see an innovative use of the concepts of storytelling and design merge for another stunning media blend that works as a vehicle of the stories, and creates a sense of intrigue and visual themes that is really important in our ability to comprehend complex and intricate stories in a time of quick news flashes and multimedia (picture and word) layouts that are almost expected of the media we consume. 

In an article and video, Gail Bichler explains that they brought in illustrator Francesco Francavilla, who defined his inspiration from noir-fiction and film and brought that style into the cover and the articles. Because the criminals and the actual crimes were difficult to capture in photos, it makes sense that some of the illustrations push the edge of the reporting, while unifying the concepts of crime and money. 

This is not the first time the New York Times has been on the forefront of nonfiction reporting, style, and design. Tomato Can Blues was the first acclaimed story that merged the story of Mary Pilon with the illustrations of Attila Futaki to bring the creative story nonfiction storytelling together with high-quality illustration, and an engaging computer interface that helped define this story. While other mediums can produce this kind of work, the New York Times has the readership, the vision, and the budget to make these innovations stand apart. 

As readers, in a magazine format, we expect complex stories and articles, but it makes sense to tie them together with artwork, and a vision of light and dark illustrations. Long form nonfiction is changing with the impact of Twitter, social media, and how media is consumed, yet this is another fascinating look into multimodal storytelling that meets the expectation of the reader, using illustration, vision, and thematics storytelling to make it more attractive to a variety of readers. It is exciting to see good illustrations, great design vision, good writing converge in a fast moving, hyperspace of text and images swirling all around us. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Engagement in a Time of Polarization / Thinking on Engagement

During our conversation in Engagement in a Time of Polarization, an open MOOC, we discussed a wide range of ideas in defining what engagement might be through this discourse. I think the hardest part of the discussion for me is who we are engaging - someone in a political discourse, someone in a classroom, someone in an electronic group? Engagement can be a complex, confusing issue because there is the user and how they engage and the group, class, or political group that measures the engagement. I see it like the reader to the writer -- or the reader to the text they are reading. Engagement is important to a book, but the book doesn’t measure its impact. However, the publisher measures its sales and promotion as to the success of the book.

When you consider the measurable ways to follow print readers, book people use the concept of "circulation" and "readership". It is suggested that readership is larger than circulation because of "pass-on" readers. But, we also know that print media and electronic media move differently. Page views don't mean readership, it just means page displayed on a screen. It isn't until you measure how long people were on the page that we can even define what they were doing there (and often that is not clear). 

Does engagement work that way? If we buy the book and don't read it, perhaps we are passive in the act of engagement. If we buy the book and are moved by the story (still passive?), then we've engaged the story and we have accumulated the reading experience (as interpreted through my own experience). Now, I am ready to go to a book club, teach the book, or quote that in my own writing experience. Now, I am potentially active until I unleash my ideas of the book on the book club, classroom, or article. Is there a basic threshold from passive to active engagement? 

During our discussion Elizabeth St. Clair in our discussion commented, “I think the work you put in, whether you do it with your hands, head, or heart is worthy of being considered participatory.” I think this is a really interesting place to start in terms of being engaged and what that means. And all of the book comparisons above serve in the realm of participatory - but move across a vision of passive and active engagement. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Book Review / Gods of Howl Mountain

Taylor Brown
St. Martin's Press
Pub Date: March 20, 2018
ISBN 978-1250111777

When it comes to protagonists, Taylor Brown has changed that paradigm in his novel Gods of Howl Mountain. Rory Docherty is a wounded Korean veteran, back home to bootleg liquor, clash with local factions, evade the law, and appease all his family. He is a gritty car guy who knows the long history of the mountain and the mill town at the bottom of the valley. While Rory is a cut-throat stock car racer and bootlegger, he also knows the mountain and people. A novel as much about place and time as it is story and conflict. 

Rory has returned with a missing leg. Living with his grandmother, in the mountains, they live among the herbal remedies and folklore that haunts the misty mountains. When Rory falls in love with the daughter of a snake-handling preacher, their world is pulled apart by violence, rivalries, love, and ghosts from the past.

Thinking that some evil has invaded Rory's heart, Granny May keeps her shotgun close and her distrust closer. She is mystical in her mountain herbal remedies and her shotgun judgments of the world. Her life as a matriarch and medicine woman draws people to her who want different cures for what ails their lives in town. She also is the link between Rory and the mother he never knew. 

Taylor Brown's prose is as mystical and lyrical as the ghosts high in the mountains. It is not always a beautiful place, but the mountain, the people, and the hard lives all resonant with a profound beauty that shifts from grace and wisdom to deceit and violence. Brown has masterfully crafted this world, grounding in the reader a sense of place and time in America, now long gone. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Book Review: Paris in the Present Tense

Mark Helprin
Overlook Press / 2017
  • ISBN: 978-1468314762
400 Pages

It has been awhile since a novel has changed the way I think about the novel. But Paris in the Present Tense is a lyrical novel that has empowered my faith in the contemporary novel. Let's face it, it has been awhile since A Winter's Tale, when we first fell into the world of Helprin's prose and imagination, and while this book isn't as mystical, it is formidable in his prose and his storytelling.

This novel follows the life an aged cello player named Jules Lacour a cellist and teacher who is facing the end of his days and his life in Paris. And while there is intrigue, mystery, and all the plot points that have grown tired in contemporary fiction, this novel rises above all those expectations. Part of it is the nature of this older, wise protagonist and his vision of the world. But it also sits in the root of Helprin's prose and his ability to position you in the most complex moments of life and find more than just plot point, but more.

Jules is an older protagonist who is eccentric in some ways and contemporary in others. He is suspiciously healthy and can still run, swim, and row. His routines are simple, but his life complex and fraught with pitfalls. He lives as a renter on an estate, and he has a life that has shaped his romantic and often practical vision of the world. His life proves that things like love can still fill our lives through intimacy, music, longing, and fate. It is modern in terms of the world that Jules lives in, but it is also worldly in the connections to the past - through music, personal history, and dynamics of all those relationships accumulated over the years. There were times when the use of more flashbacks may have focused a few more things, but that isn't the point of this book. What we missed is left for the reader to contemplate.

In terms of the prose writing, it is exceptional. Helprin's writing is vivid and so well balanced. As I mentioned, this book is about a lot of plot points that (if I wrote them here) sound trite and typical of a thriller novel. But this novel doesn't run on the answers to plotted questions. This novel is threaded with an emotional quality that comes from Helprin's prose.

And sometimes, the phrasing of his writing just stops you. He writes "That kept me alive. For you, they would say it was trauma, but I wouldn't. I'd say it was simpler, that like everyone else you have a paradise you long to restore, but your paradise is also hell. Although getting back is dark and dangerous, you won't be deterred. Love draws you back. You can't escape." The push and pull of ideas and words is a constant tension. Helprin is constantly playing with opposites - or in this book lyrical dynamics. Paradise is compared with hell. Trauma isn't real unless there is something to lose. And it becomes this kind of vision of pushing and pulling words apart that makes this book feel less a plotted thriller and more like an epic love story.

During a war flashback, Helprin used his descriptive art to describe the sounds of troops moving. This is relevant because music, sounds, and shaping music is thematic to the novel. "The sounds of arrival and departure were always the same: straps slapping against metal, engines starting, tripods folding, the slides and bolts of weapons exercised after oiling, commands shouted, and upon leaving, the blast of a whistle followed by the revving of engines as the vehicles rolled off." One of the hardest parts of writing about music is that the novel lacks the ability to hear music directly. And writers then have to spend time describing the nature of the music without hearing it. While this novel deals with the essence of music, it doesn't stumble with long expositions about music, in fact - like his description, he turns troop movements, thunderstorms, and cafes into music that inspires the sounds of the music.

This novel is based on the later years of an older man - a many with years of experience and vision. When his daughter thinks he is getting senile because he can't remember the name of a film, he argues, "You learn to see with your emotions and feel with your reason. If at its end the life you're living takes on the attributes of art, it doesn't matter if you've forgotten where you put your reading glasses."

This novel is a very human, a very stunning testament to the complexities of living a full and meaningful life. Even with the best intentions, the world has different plans. This novel is about hope, love, and value in our personal history. It is a rare idea so elegantly placed in a contemporary novel.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Among Those Things

In my previous post about creating Misfit Manifestos in class, it occurred to me that over the course of the semester I give a lot of writing assignments. Not all of them are a lengthy research paper, but they are intentionally designed for the continuous practice of writing. It is important in my class to understand that writing is a practiced skill and they should be writing often. And like someone learning a musical instrument, sometimes who are better off doing scales and sometimes you play the whole concerto. 

Yet, as I was writing about their experience with the Misfit Manifestos, it occurred to me that sometimes, students connect with assignments in a way that opens their ideas, and changes the way they see their own lives. The point being is that through a variety of writing opportunities, it is very hard to tell which assignments are going to connect with the students in the classroom. But what comes with experience: is knowing that something will connect with the students.  

It is clear that these writing assignment was a needed break away from writing about Virginia Woolf and modernism. And it was clear from their writing that they wanted to say something important about who they are. It reminds me of the letter writing assignment I work on with my creative writing students. They write letters to people that they can't send them too because of death, or distance, or something else. Every time I do that creative writing exercise, it is clear that they have something that need to say immediately. It is almost like writers are just waiting for the right idea, the right acceptance and permission to say those things that have been waiting their for the right moment. That is what it felt like with my students, particularly with a student who said, "This will be the easiest assignment so far, I've been screwed up my entire life." And that was the release he needed to explain it all to me. 

Are we looking for permission to write these stories about ourselves? Are these stories just waiting, just under the waves of our everyday life waiting for the right prompt or the right group to share it with? This type of writing is where your story can be a superpower. This is where you sit in class and awe at the struggles, the humanity that comes from writers, and you see something so brave in a writer - the act of writing down something that has always been kept from the world. And there it is on a desk, so common place, like a pen, a notebook. Among those things, you know what a privilege it is. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Lidia Yuknavitch and the The Misfit's Manifesto

I work with college students, more specifically, emerging college students, so they are constantly on the cusp of things that are coming to them. We develop skills, we tell them that they need to improve just to cut it in college. We also tell them about what it means to have a traditional college experience. In reality, a traditional college experience is a myth. We aren't going to live in some kind of strange 1950's vision of academics. 

Our emerging students are not traditional at all. They have had to fight, push, and work much harder than the people around them. In fact, in most cases the students are satisfied just blending in, just being around a higher education experience. They can be self-defeating, battered, wounded learners. 

I've read The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch and I admired her unabashed honesty and the focus of her writing. It was one of the first memoirs that changed the way I think about the form. More important, her writing has connections to failures and finding the most unlikely paths to success. Having followed Lidia Yuknavitch on Twitter, I received a message from her that we all should post our misfit manifesto out to the world and diminish the voice of abusive people. What a great idea. They need to do this. They need to tell me more than what could be gleaned in college writing. They need to write a Misfit Manifesto. They need to write about how improbable success is to them, and how terrifically they have failed. 

When I wrote the assignment sheet for the students, I felt like I had to give them some really good examples of this idea. I used samples from The Mistfit's Manifesto, and I also spoke about specific stories where people feel different and why they may feel this way. Not only was I asking them for specific misfit moments in their lives, I was also asking them to be introspective and thoughtful about their place in the world. 

It was really interesting to hear the reactions to this concept. Some students really didn't understand how this idea would fit into their lives. They had spent so much time assimilating that to think about those misfit moments or times was really part of their lives they didn't want to reveal. But my favorite response was, "Shit, this is going be the easiest assignment you've given us. I've been a screw up all my life." I couldn't wait for that essay. 

One thing I really wanted from them was a personal statement. Not a college application essay, but something unique to their own experience. I told them it is easy to find collective success, but mistakes and other missteps in life are uniquely their own. It reminded me of the Tolstoy quote at the beginning of Anna Karenina when he says, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." 

We also discussed what misfits look like in literature, what they felt like in words. We discussed movie characters, and experiences they saw in the world. We talked about Holden Caulfield, Of Mice and Men, and superheroes. We also discussed time and space for misfits. "Literature is the land o the misfitted." (The Misfit Manifesto).

Most of the essays were simple. They were small things that made them different. For some, it was a bully story or a changing school story. But the story I liked the most was the story from the student who said this is will be easy. And he wrote about being with a group of friends who all got along, and slowly they all turned on him. And for years he was picked on, beat up, and told that he was worthless. And through it all - he somehow, kept it together and waited out his time until he was able to prove himself to the world. That is what he is doing now. It was one of the deeper stories where something held him on a path that (amazingly) wasn't beaten out of him. He never turned. 

As we got through the assignment, I asked that he had a few minutes, I wanted to discuss his paper. He came to the office and was nervous. He asked if there was anything wrong. I showed him the grade. He smiled and said thank you. I told him earned it, from year and years of not giving in. He didn't say anything for a minute -- he flipped the paper over and said, "all that shit's behind me now." 

As I mentioned, some writers played it safe, some played it with some uncertainty, but they all considered their lives with a different slant. In one student paper, it was clear that it might've put to bed some ghosts. Yuknavitch says, "If you are one of those people who has the ability to make it down to the bottom of the ocean, the ability to swim the dark waters without fear, the astonishing ability to move through life's worst crucibles and not die, then you also have the ability to bring something back to the surface that helps others in a way that they cannot achieve themselves." This assignment is difficult because you are asking people to look at their darker side, their past, their missteps, and wrong fits. The other paper that I really admired was a letter that a student wrote to his future grandchildren - explaining how screwed up the world is and how - if they are reading this - they should be in a better place. And that he was a good person who cared and wanted to right the wrongs of the world. I thought that was a noble approach to his life. 

My students did a good job thinking about this idea. And when you read Lidia Yuknavitch explain her life in The Chronology of Water, you can get a sense of how we have all lived our own misfit lives and why they are so important. It reminds me that we need to be brave, creative, and take risks with our students. Some will feel challenged and frustrated but think of those who needed it most. They've been waiting for a long time to say these things. 

Try it in the class, try it in your writing groups, write your own manifesto. It will change the way you see the world. 

Note: Another writing prompt that taps into some significant reflections is Letter to Humanity or this project I worked on awhile back. It is a great tool for reflective nonfiction. Letters to Humanity