Writerly Routines

As I’ve alluded to in a past post, routine can be central to writers, or creative people in general. In an era that values efficiency and innovation–where so many want to be the next Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs–anything that encourages these traits gains an immediate capital.

[image from dorkboycomics]
[image from dorkboycomics]

For one, it can ease the strain required to enter the creative mode. As some research shows–so eloquently elucidated by John Cleese–one needs a space in time and place to innovate. Stuck with daily stresses, the creative mind can stagnate by worrying over the necessary pitfalls and backtracks required for the creative process. A set hour and a closed door pushes that stress outside.

Making set time also forces one revisit similar issues for an extended period. This helps to inspire seemingly sudden insights that actually occur through long-term reflection, the “slow hunch” as writer Steven Johnson puts it. Doing something everyday keeps one foot in the creative enterprise as the rest of the day unfolds. One never knows what may trigger the insight–a new task, an observation, or help from a colleague–but if one is miles away from an issue, they may never notice.

And at the most basic level, a routine keeps one disciplined by encouraging habits. In a reductive sense, a productive routine is nothing but a series of productive habits, i.e. of heavily ingrained actions that one does with little to no thought. If authors write everyday at 6:00 a.m., it becomes habitual. They keep writing then, regardless of other circumstances, just as one may brush one’s teeth before bed.

That said, breaking a routine can also be affective. While some thinkers, like Kant, were heavily routine and disciplined, others thrived on ambiguity and sprawling, uncertain days. Sometimes travel can be a handy catalyst, too. With it, one breaks from the daily perspectives and concerns of the routine. As one of my friend’s puts it, “Journey outward, journey inward.”

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Writing in the afternoon

Somewhere a few years ago I read in an anthology that you can’t write in the afternoon. It has to be in the morning or at night, said the author, but the afternoon was a dry landscape without inspiration. Nothing worthwhile grew there. Or if it did, it was weed-choked and gravelly, like a forgotten sidewalk.

I’ve always remembered that piece of advice. But here I am, writing in the afternoon.

What’s it like? Somewhere nearby birds chirp–robins, I think–and a drier rattles with its cargo downstairs. The day is quiet and cloudy, like a teenager not quite ready to face the sun, rolling up a gray ruffled blanket over his eyes as the sounds from the road–the sounds of people awake for the past five or six hours–filter in. Already, I’ve been to a graduation and eaten two meals. I’ve done some cleaning and exercised. I did some work and read. I still have more to do later on today: write a press release, clean more, cook dinner, do some thesis research.

And that’s the odd thing about writing in the afternoon–the part that makes it hard: you are mid-stride in your 24-hour step through life. Stopping to write, you feel adrift. You’re drowsy from a morning of tasks, and a stomach of food, but you know you can’t rest, realistically, after you write. The day must go on.

But despite these difficulties, it has a certain thrill.

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Five books that made me

As the American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote (or so the various quote websites have us believe),“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” So it is with me. books picture

A confirmed bibliophile, I may not be a surprising case, but I’ll never forget one of my co-workers at Lowes. An older man with rough hands, worn blue jeans, and work boots, he rasped contracting stories in a cigaret-stained voice about “idiots who didn’t know shit about construction.” 

But one day, during his break, when I was reading Don Quixote over a turkey sandwich, he sat down and started talking about books. Books he read in school, like Hemingway, Austen, Faulkner, and Dickens. Books his wife read, like Jody Piccoult and John Grisham. Books his father gave him, worn how-to manuals and beat-up hardcovers gathered from outdated encyclopedia sets.

“I miss reading,” he said, leaning back in his metal fold-out chair. “I miss the stories.”

Soon, I went back to the registers, thinking about it. Probably nothing would happen. But a few weeks later, he came in and pulled out a worn copy of the The Old Man and the Sea.

“My favorite,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten this book.”

Since then, I haven’t either.

Continue reading “Five books that made me”

Hiatus over

Hey all, I think I’m finally back from my hiatus. I apologize. I had a busy semester, coupled with a persistent clinical depression. But now, with summer here, I’m ready to start posting again.

Me this summer. [image from genio]
Me this summer. [image from genio]
I figured this blog will offer a great chance for me to work through some summer projects. In addition to my summer jobs and the day-to-day concerns of life, I have three things in particular I’ve been working on:

1. My thesis groundwork: I’ll be writing about composition theory, ideally focusing on critical pedagogy, and where critical pedagogy intersects with new digital concerns, like online classes, content generation, and multi-media writing (or multimodal composition, to use the fancy term).

What is critical pedagogy? Probably a good topic for a later post. But in general, it’s an attempt to use education to empower marginalized or “oppressed” individuals and populations. One of its foundational texts–if not the foundational text–is Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968, trans. 1970), where Friere argues for a more “humanizing” role for education, breaking the “culture of silence” created by traditional education and the oppression for the poor that it creates.

2. Writing about Egypt and the Egyptian Revolution: My major creative project for this summer will be an exploration of Egypt and the turmoil that has haunted it the past few years (or longer, really), weaving the personal, the journalistic, and the academic. It’s a mutual project with another friend, who also has a lot invested in the Middle East and the Arab Spring. I hope to begin by looking at some of my older pieces, reading the news in depth, and building from there.

3. Figuring out the next step: I graduate next May, with my English M.A. From there, I’m not yet sure what I’m doing. I may go straight to PhD, in either rhetoric and composition or philosophy. I may stay home, trying to make some money as I figure things out. I may also look at AmeriCorps, Fullbright, or Teach for America. As of now, these are all viable possibilities, requiring research.

How these three projects will come together remains equally uncertain. I can already see a few links worth exploring. I’m looking forward to writing again. In the meantime, have a good day.

-Brett

“There was a Boy”

Once again, other projects have consumed my weekend. Perhaps, I’ll try to find time in the midst of the week to write, so this doesn’t happen again. In the meantime, here is a link to a beautiful poem by Wordsworth and a picture I took in my own travels around his home in the Lake District, one of my favorite places in the world. Enjoy.

There was a Boy.”

The trail to the town of Troutbeck
The trail to the town of Troutbeck

“Polis is This”: Charles Olson

Hey all,

Sorry for the absence, it’s been the final weeks here at school, so I have been grading, tutoring, and working on final papers like crazy. Expect a post this Sunday, but in the meantime here is a link to the first part of a documentary about a poet I wrote on this semester named Charles Olson. The rest of the documentary is online as well.

Olson, considered the foundational figure for the “projective verse” movement and a key figure for New American Poetry, was a well-read and fascinating character. Born Dec. 27, 1910 in Worcester, MA, to a postman, Olson spent most of his life in the small fishing town of Gloucester, MA, where he wrote his most famous work, The Maximus Poems.

He read voraciously, and through his own work as a postman in and around Gloucester, he developed an intimate eye for detail. This latent curiosity and a love of history spurred his studies at Wesleyan and Harvard, where he became a critical expert on Herman Melville, prompting his 1947 book Call me Ishmael.

Besides his poetry and 1950 critical essay “Projective Verse” Olson’s most well-known accomplishment was his time teaching  at and directing Black Mountain College, a small liberal arts school near Asheville, NC, that acted as a gathering point of avant-garde teachers and students from its founding in 1933 until it closed in ’57. Some of its faculty and students included Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, John Cage, Josef Albers, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, William de Kooning, and more.

One of his most original idea is the notion of “polis.” Drawn from the Greek word for city state, “polis” for Olson constituted the ability of a certain local area to connect to and mirror the world. Olson, a historian and observer by trade, studied the records, geography, and people of his local Gloucester, and by doing so, he laced his personal memories and existence into the geography and history. Synthesizing the personal connection and history, he was able to create an overlap, where the personal bled into the historical and geographical. This was polis: seeing the “totality of the system” by “inverting” it, the macrocosm through the microcosm.

Olson, however, was a controversial figure. He was opposed to the capitalism that now directs our everyday way of life, seeing it as a “mu-sick” that flooded out and leveled down polis. And his larger-than-life personality, at 6-foot-seven, was as well known as his womanizing and dismissive attitude toward most women poets. Some also think his writing and presence at Black Mountain and elsewhere assumed the role of a high prophet or Zen master, didactic and needlessly cryptic.

While some of these criticisms may be more accurate than others, one has a hard time doubting Olson’s influence or intelligence. And taking a leaf from his own book, I encourage anyone interested in him to do their own research, this documentary providing an engaging start. Enjoy.

-Brett

Time, art, and negative capability

I found my summers yesterday, in the fall, the whole of them blue-sky bound and strewn with wind. The oak and maple leaves weaved paths like a wandering needle as they settled to the ground, sun-curled and scattered. Meanwhile, the afternoon light shimmered in the shaking leaves like a mirage or a whispered poem.railway-autumn

Legs folded, I sat on a red Adirondack chair, looking at the backyard where I grew up. A few things were different. The white picket fence wasn’t there anymore. My brother and his friends had taken sledge hammers to it some hot day years ago, celebrated with beer, and piled up the boards like felled trees. A wire fence replaced it, rattling in the wind and squaring off the yard like the lines on a chess board.

My grandfather’s old table was gone too. It was old when I was a kid, gray like the weather had bleached the life out of it, while lichen and moss filled the cracks. I used to poke my finger through knotholes and wiggle it, like a worm, legs swinging too high to touch the flagstone patio where the table rested. I don’t know where that went. Maybe firewood. Maybe the soil behind the stand of hemlocks in the back.

There, on that old table, my neighbor and I built planes with computer paper from my dad’s old Macintosh. That’s gone too, or maybe buried somewhere in a dim corner of the basement, beneath rusted wrenches and coffee cans of old nails. Those days, before the wire fences went up, my neighbor would cut through our backyards and knock on our back door. We rarely called. I’d see him on our back step, his hair like a pile of feathers cemented under a baseball cap, and I’d steal the paper.

For the whole summer day, we’d sit out at that table, folding, and cutting, and throwing our planes when the wind blew. Sometimes they weaved, crashed, and tumbled on the ground like drunk pigeons. And other times, the wind caught the frail wings of our creations and carried them up into the blue, blue sky like birds chasing the sun, and we forgot that there were boundaries, forgot that there were fences and time limits.

Yesterday, sitting on that red chair, I found that joy again. I could see the table, the paper, and my neighbor folding planes beside me. Memories pooled in a puddle that never dried up. The images had a deep resonance, like the memory had bounced back from some distant place, bringing echoes as it returned. Time dissolved.

Then, the moment passed, as a gust brought a branch full of yellow leaves sailing down like a dozen paper planes, all weaving, and diving, and settling. I locked back into time again, like a wanderer suddenly brought back to the path.

Continue reading “Time, art, and negative capability”

Starlight and renewal

Sometimes, when I’m tired or lost I look at old writing. It reminds me where I camestars1.jpg from, what has always mattered, and where I ought to go. Today, as I struggled to write a blog post, I sorted through old files and notebooks.

I found this, a reflection from fall of my junior year. It was a hard semester, as I’ve referenced before, but it many ways, it set my foundation. In the midst of that darkness, I found my passions and insecurities. I found my self.

I think this particular reflection captures a lot of that. It also hits at the seed that inspired this entire blog: the fusion of life and philosophy that makes “backyard philosophy.”

I repost it in full below, only edited for grammar. We all need reminders now and then.

Continue reading “Starlight and renewal”

Empty blue mattresses

June 24, 2011. Blue and white caps and gowns dotted the football field. From my chair in the front row, I remember thinking to myself, “I will never be in the presence of this exact group of people ever again.” 

Since then, I can count on one hand how many people from my high school graduating class I’ve gone out of my way to see since that June evening over two years ago (the answer is three –– not kidding).

But my lack of friends from high school is an entirely different matter; the real point here is that there are moments we seriously can never get back. And places, too. Physical locations are just as important.

Polka-dots galore, welcome to my freshman dorm room.
Polka-dots galore, welcome to my freshman dorm room.

I adored my freshman year dorm room. I have so many memories trapped within the walls of room 157 in Loughlen Hall. My friends and I watched Jenna Marbles videos and snuggled in my bed. We got fancy with wine the night before one of my finals and shoveled handfuls of classy taco cheese down our throats, the next-best thing to Gruyère.

It hits me when I remember that room doesn’t exist anymore. And some of those people in the memories don’t even attend the university now. We’ll never recreate that group of people or the place we once called “home.” The then-polka-dotted walls are back to their original white cinder-block state, with lonely bed frames housing empty blue mattresses.

I’m currently in limbo, picturing my dorm room from this past year instead of looking forward to a new white box to call my home. And what I’m thinking of and picturing doesn’t even really exist anymore. The frame does, the touches that made it Emily’s Room don’t.

Next time you’re in a group of friends, look around. Memorize facial expressions and laughter. Take the time to discover what each person contributes to the gathering and ponder what it would be like if he/she were not there. How do your surroundings make an impact? What if you could never return to that particular place? You’re living in a moment that may never present itself again. Cherish it.

I hope that if/when my parents sell my childhood home, the new owners take the time to look it over and imagine bare feet tearing through the different rooms and up the staircase. I know I will be.

The minute that “SOLD” sign is posted, I’ll have lost access to a portal containing countless memories; one that can never be reopened once sealed.

A Short: “Fishing”

I take my notebook, slide up on a weathered log, and look. The sunlight rising and

After sunset on the Allegheny River
After sunset on the Allegheny River

falling on the river resonates, and a fisherman inches into the water. Running his fingertips along the bill of a stained, weather-beaten baseball cap, he adjusts it. I watch him hold his line above the water with the natural, unconscious care of a mother, peering into the river.

He juggles the line, grips the pole, and catapults the lure out like a lasso, letting it sail skyward and plop in the stream. As it flashes in the sun, being tugged and buoyed by the current, the fisherman reels it in, gathering it up and casting again.

As the quaking aspens shiver in the cold wind and golden air, the sun continues to set. Hills guard the horizon, motionless blinds to the sun’s retreat. The clouds slow their silent shuffling. Nature stills. I cross my legs and wait, resting on the log.

Hearing the husky rhapsody of geese, I look up. A flock rolls over against the clouds and flies toward the silhouetted hills, over the fisherman’s head.

The sun sinks lower and lower, and I shiver like the aspens. The heat evaporates in a warm poem of lush reds and oranges. The tongues on the river cease to sway with the current; the glints against the water cease to blind. The geese calls become eclipsed by distance, and the squirrels nestle into their nooks for the night. Reeling in the bobber, the hook, and the spider-thread line, the fisherman holds the rod a bit and sighs.

Winking over the mountains, the sun vanishes, leaving the residue of its brilliance lingering like a faded photograph. Its fiery hues subside into shades of purple and of blue.

The fisherman comes to life and takes a final cast. In time, he reels it in, wades out onto the rocky riverbank, and leaves without his catch. Closing my notebook in the sinking twilight, I leave with mine.