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

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Doubts in Magic: How Marquez Makes Realism and Magic Doubtful

Note: This post discusses a reading. It is linked here for reference. A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings: A Tale for Children by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

There is a struggle to understand the concept of magical realism as a mode of literature. It is allusive and often very heard to define in terms of traditional literary terms. By reading a short story by one of the legends of magical realism, we can consider how useful this device, this troupe, this idea can be in saying something very important in terms of literature. 

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings: A Tale for Children by Gabriel Marquez brings to light the duplicity that can drawn out in magical realism. It is skepticism, belief, vision, and doubt all constantly swirling about what seems like poetry, fiction, parable, and doubt wrapped into one short story. 

As for the reader, part of what Marquez does so well is adding the possible with the impossible and allow the readers to judge those things on their own merits. In the opening lines: 

"On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross he drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench." 

While this is a strange event, it is very possible to imagine this kind of event happening, particularly in a tropical climate. What is interesting in the idea that these are difficult times, rain, crabs, and fever all build significant tension. It is when the main character, Pelayo finds an old man with wings, face down in the yard that we begin to see how the magical and the realism meet each other, seeking nothing more than an active curiosity of the reader. Between the flood of crabs and the crashed old man in the yard, nothing is amazing, but nothing is normal either. In fact, the old man with wings is dressed "like a ragpicker. There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather took away any sense of grandeur he might have had." The magical becomes normalized and accepted. Every possible insight into something extraordinary is then undercut with a healthy dose of reality. When they describe his being stuck in the chicken coup, he is seen "as if [he] weren't a supernatural creature but a circus animal."

And everyone who sees the old man with wings comes to the same conclusion, that while it is different, it can't be magical. The church arrives on the Father Gonzaga realizes that he isn't an angel when he doesn't speak the language of the church (Latin) and doesn't respond to him appropriately. And he notices, "that seen up close up he was much too human: he had an unbearable smell of the outdoors, the back side of his wings was strewn with parasites and his main feathers had been mistreated by terrestrial winds, and nothing about him measured up to the proud dignity of angels." 

This story gives us a constant measure of how we perceive things and how they hold up to the skeptic, to the church, to the reality of the world. If you think of this story as magical, then everyone is a skeptic and whatever magic is happening is merely incidental to the ways the people abuse, ignore and cast off the miraculous elements happening. If this is a story about realism, it is about finding a hoax, seeing something that is possible but likely impossible. And in the end, something that may have never happened. 

In terms of the reader, it is an opportunity. If you are a realist and skeptic, you might side with the villagers and see this convoluted creature as a mere oddity, sideshow, natural oddity. There is even skepticism in the title. It isn't "The Angel with Enormous Wings" it is titled A Very Wold Man with Enormous Wings. Yet, if you are a believer in magical possibilities, this is a better read. While you are considering the scoffers, you can consider that not all magical things are what we expect. In fact, if the angel is there to take the feverish child (in the beginning) to death, it failed. But if he has come to save the child, he has succeeded. Marquez is constantly slipping back and forth through the elements of possible and impossible, magical and realism to make each sentence a puzzle to decode. 

This is a great text to contemplate the alternative ideas that are created here. For every magical idea, there is room for doubt. And the same could be said for every moment of realism, there is hope that magical things can be slightly tarnished, dirty or just a little tawdry.  

Monday, October 2, 2017

Book Review: The Old Man and the Sand Eel by Will Millard

Will Millard 
Penguin Books / 2018
  • ASIN: B06Y62BYKZ
336 Pages

Fishing in simplest terms is an obsession. It is a complicated and often fluid set of skills that depend on season, weather, location, bait, technique and hundreds of other possibilities. Then there is the adrenaline rush of hooking into a fish and the battle that ensues. It is all here in Will Millard's The Old Man and the Sand Eel. Yet, this book is about something more complicated and visionary. It is about what drives and shapes this obsession to fish. And while his adventures hooking fish are exciting to follow, there is more to this book than a guided tour.
The beginning of the book opens with the author catching a record-breaking Sand Eel, one that would put him in the record books, one that would make his mark on fishing in the UK forever. And then it literally slips away. This sense of obsession and finding the next big fish had changed the way he was fishing, changed his mindset to be more than just being there and fishing, but being there only for a big prize, a record fish. After some thought and reflection, Millard moves back to his early roots in fishing and realizes that he shouldn't be looking for the record fish, but the essence of fishing. Using his grandfather's old fishing guide, and the ghosts of his past, he begins a different quest. He begins to search for the unforgotten species and getting back to the root of his passion for fishing.

There is a clear connection in this book between family and fishing. It is this connective linage that resonates through this quest. He connects to his grandfather’s fish encyclopedia and his wisdom to rediscover why fishing is important. He mentioned the influence of the tall tale in fishing and how it related back to his grandfather. He says, "I should clarify that Grandad was no liar; he had definitely caught a big perch, but we were both fishermen after all. Memories blur and sometimes the distance between our palms can widen with time. Grandma left behind an old plastic ice cream tub filled with pictures when she departed, and right there, somewhere in the middle, I found a picture of Grandad with his most magnificent perch." Not only does this connect with the myth and storytelling that comes with time and the “distance between our palms” but it also speaks to the fact that he was an accomplished fisherman. It also resonates with his father who brought home a lamprey and held it in a tank overnight to study it. This magical moment in time is important in the curiosity and development of an emerging angler. "I remember it like it was there for the entirety of my early childhood. For the under-fives, time lengthens and memories compress in unusual ways; that one-night stand with the lamprey made a massive impression." This alien creature sparked his imagination for years to come.

There is another message in this book based on the ecology of a country that has seemingly filled most of its wild spaces. With the permits and processes to fish certain locks and waterways in the United Kingdom, it is clear that some of these locations where Millard finds fish are just beyond the glimpse of the majority of the people. These forgotten waterways and locks, home to a variety of ecosystems and connections are often overgrown, filled with debris, and beyond the idyllic fishing spot that one imagines on a perfect day of fishing. These lost places are fascinating, unexplored areas that seem just as exotic and interesting as the fish that might be under the surface.

Along with some of these lost locations comes the fascinating connections that are made when he comes across homeless people, people in business suits, criminals, and the law. These interactions are a fascinating part of fishing - with the age-old question, “any luck?” always part of the conversation. One striking moment that captured the elegance of this book is when he is fishing in an urban waterway and he pulls up a beautiful fish on the shore. “A man with a suit walks right past me without even acknowledging our presence. Even with the fish out of water the canal’s secrets remain invisible to those incapable of belief.” The suggestion that modern man is so self-absorbed that we can’t imagine this natural beauty or even see it anymore is sad and poignant in the changing world of technology and twenty-four-hour news cycles.

This book is more about family, ecology, and life in relationship to nature than it is a field guide to fishing. Yet, as we read about the hunt for the right conditions, the first cast, and thrill of the hook, it will get you thinking about grabbing your pole and heading out to your favorite spot. This is a well-written, good read for fisherman, naturalists, and anyone who has ever cast their lineout awaiting the first strike.