Play(dough)

[Image from Learning4kids.net]
[Image from Learning4kids.net]

Playdough. Tiny hands tweak, pinch, stretch the dough into tinsels, meaty threads, snakes curling into snail shells–suddenly smashed flat, “like pancakes,” and rolled smooth in young palms into spheres. Perhaps, with a few gentle, well-placed tugs, the children teas out arms and legs, or a simple face, then the fingers close, vise-like, dough peeking slightly from the spaces between, molding shaping it into a small brain, nooked and crannied, and grained with palm lines.

Then, at the end of the day, it all goes back in the plastic can, smashed, once more, into an uneven cylinder. “Don’t forget,” say the teachers, “or else you won’t be able to play with it anymore.” Sealed behind primary-colored lids and walls, the malleable plaything remains withdrawn and dormant, waiting.

II.

“Writing is revision.” A teacher I once shadowed said this a few times. So did I to own students, thinking it a properly provocative, axiomatic phrase. Something White Lotus from Kung Fu might say if he taught first year composition.

But, to be honest, I don’t really know what it means. Is it a reference to something like Linda Flowers and John R. Hayes and their “cognitivist approach to writing,” in which revision and pre-writing are part of the “writing process”? Or perhaps it’s a more political adage, on the “revision” of ideological entrenchments and social structures. Writing allows one to “revise” the state of things, both inside our heads and outside, in the world.

Or it may stretch the never-ending inventive tweaking that revision entails over the whole of writing. In other words, writing is a constant “revision” of sorts, a constant trying to get words out as best as we can. We are never done. The moment we pick up our pens, we are already revising. The moment we “finish,” we are still revising.

III.

If one mentions (or Googles) Albert Camus, the word “absurdity” is not far behind–neither is “existentialist,” which is a whole other issue. But, as with most cases of historical association, things are more complicated.

The “absurd” is the first of three philosophical progressions for Camus. During WWII, Camus wrote the trilogy of the absurd: the play Caligula (1944), the novel The Stranger (1942), and the essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). This, he said, would be his guiding process, tackling his ideas with a play, a novel, and an extended philosophical essay.

His second trilogy centered on revolt, inserting human values in the face of nihilism. Writing the book-length essay The Rebel (L’Homme révolté, 1951), Camus received a wave of criticism. For one, he attacked the French left, which included his friends Sartre and Beauvoir, because they knew about the atrocities of the GULAG and still supported Stalin.

But more pointedly, Camus also changed his thoughts. He no longer was the “prophet of the absurd,” but the spokesman of revolt. While some argue this shift was a complete rejection and others say it forms a “continuum” with absurdity, both represent a shift.

As Camus writes in his essay “Enigma,” “Everyone wants the man who is still searching to have already reached his conclusion. A thousand voices are already telling him what he has found, and yet he knows that he hasn’t found anything.”

Camus was still searching, still stumbling and exploring his ideas, flashlight in hand, but his public name was already solidified–and, in many ways, remains so.

IV.

Playdough is revision. You’re never done tweaking or sculpting it. As it’s name suggests, playdough is always “play,” never product. Pure process, pure doing, all about feeling the grainy pliant substance stick and fold with your fingertips. And each time, it goes back in the container, like an artist who scrubs away his canvas just to start again.

It’s not “art for art’s sake,” but creative construction and exploration without a clear endpoint. Like a sand box or a “sand box” game, playdough provides a space to explore the space. That’s its end and means.

In a sense, it even differs from a “game,” our usual sites of play, as playdough has no constraints. No “rules” that structure the game. For example, in soccer (i.e. football), because you can’t use hands and arms, the “game” is to use one’s other body parts to head, dribble, kick, cross, and score.

Playdough has no “rules,” except, perhaps, a parent saying you can’t stick it on the rug.

V.

Camus also wrote that writing is a “daily fidelity,” a daily act of holding onto and working one’s ideas and images into something that may take years. For some reason, Camus often latches on to five years, saying that one must have an idea five years before one starts writing about it.

Camus’ often forgotten first novel A Happy Death is a steppingstone to The Stranger. The character is a cold, detached Algerian named Mersault (a one letter difference from The Stanger‘s Meursault.). It evokes similar images, similar echoes and feelings, though the novels differ profoundly.

Scrapped and unpublished in his lifetime, A Happy Death may be a failure in some ways. Or a mere writing exercise, a book-length warm up for a new writer. But still, the question remains, how much does it stand on it’s own? How much is it part of The Stranger? And how much does the distinction matter?

VI.

I always remember that our English “essay” comes from “essai,” the French word for “trial” or “to test the quality of” (like metal in a furnace), echoing Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, which he viewed in a similar light. They were not meant to be polished, finished pieces, but “trials” and “attempts,” sketches or studies in a sense that tested his ideas.

Like Camus’ daily fidelity and playdough’s unfinished pliancy, Montaigne’s Essais were searching, roving, and unfinished–despite receiving countless edits, read throughs and revisiting. And like Camus writing, the Essais offer profound political and philosophical insights. Here, writing is revision, and revision is powerful.

Encountering most essays, however, we often see them as static and finished. We also see them as discrete and separate–or when not separate, as “derivative” or “remixed.” But technology provides a possible return to Montaigne’s Essais or a possible shift into the realm of playdough, of productive play, as our “interfaces” are often not static. Here, writing is much like revision.

Only I shudder to use the word “productive,” because it has become an instrumentally focused word, layered with nasty, anxiety-inducing overtones that make me wonder if I’m “doing enough,” and “keeping up,” and not “wasting time.”

So, in a sense, technology allows us to have interfaces of co-authorship, interaction, constant change, new mechanics of invention, etc., but we also need a culture that can explore this. We may have playdough interfaces, but we need a playdough culture, a culture that isn’t telling us what we have “found,” to paraphrase Camus, but relishes the play of the finding. Doing so, we may further liberate our technology and creativity to innovate and express. But most of all, it may bring more freedom and joy back into the creative process.

As I said above, it’s not art for art’s sake, but doing for doing’s sake. It’s about turning revision into invention and vise versa. It’s about taking our tacky, doughy language and playing with it, seeing what comes out as we stretch and flatten it into compositions.

Back to the Backyard

Hey all, it’s been a while. I have finally decided that I am far enough on work and settled enough in my life to find my blogging rhythm again, and after a long departure–Oct. of last year–I am back to posting regularly.

I don’t have a particular theme for today. Mostly, I just wanted to check in, since a few changes have taken place since October.

First of all, my thesis is “done,” and by done I mean that I have given a copy to my readers for my defense next week. By “done” I also mean that I can’t stand looking at it for some time. Though I guess I should glance it over before the defense. *cringe*

It ended up being about ecological theory and fanfiction. So a brief explanation about both of those things.

Ecological theory, as its name suggests, has environment roots, but has more recently been used to complicate our expand our view of writing. While many people still look at writing as a solitary process–i.e., the lone writer at a desk “inventing” or “discovering” some text–ecological theory takes the opposite view.

In a “writing ecology,” the writer is just one participant in the writing process, which can also include other people, historical and cultural influences, and nonhuman elements, like the environment or technology.

For example, right now, I’m using my old MacBook, sipping water, listening to Hello Saferide, and sitting alone in a (somewhat) cold kitchen near a broad window. Moreover, I’m writing through an interface called WordPress, designed by a bunch of programers. This interface has certain ideologies and capabilities, like the ability to just grab something from online to make a point, like this:

 A different writing environment–a different ecology–would affect my writing, and that’s not even considering you, the reader, and your own access and influence.

So that’s ecology. Fanfiction, at its most basic level, is fiction written by “fans” of a particular source text. It is typically about popular culture texts and is typically done by amateur writers without compensation. Moreover, it is often a social endeavor.

Fanfiction has historical roots, like Gulliver’s Travels fanfiction in the 18th century, but has surged in prominence in recent decades through digital technology. These technologies have also changed how we look at fanfiction, affecting the ecology that gives rise to fanfiction texts.

Essentially, my thesis tries to explore fanfiction ecologies, showing how looking at fanfiction like this changes what fanfiction “resistance” and “literacy” means.

In other news, I’ve also been accepted into some great PhD programs for rhetoric and composition, with full funding, so that’s worth celebrating. Overall, it is a bit nerve-wracking, but ultimately affirmative and exciting, especially after the alienating application process of the past few months. I made it through the first few gates. Now I get some difficult choices for my next one.

With these changes in mind, I imagine my usual posts will also change. While I can’t foresee what that means, I predict that posts may center more on my current research, allowing me to think through things–and share these thoughts–in a less stifling setting. But I still hope to retain some of the feel from past posts, like their connection to daily questions. I can’t say this will always be the case, but it is my temperament, and something that I enjoyed doing.

With that in mind, I’ll end this here. I’ll be sure to keep up writing and apologize for the long (but deeply necessary) hiatus. I hope all is well.

Cheers.

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.”

Continue reading “Writerly Routines”

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.

Continue reading “Writing in the afternoon”

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

I’m back (so apologies first)

Yes, it’s been awhile. I apologize. I feel as if I’ve been putting much of my life on pause–and continue to–but I’ve been wanting to get back to this, partly because it has a public sense of responsibility, partly because it may prove helpful. The last post I wrote was Jan. 26, about Zen and Everyday Life. Since then, I’ve been busy with papers, reading, etc., and haven’t felt like writing. My head’s been elsewhere.

In a way, I think I needed a hiatus. I’m not sure if I’m fully up to returning, with final papers coming up, but I felt like writing this morning, and as Thoreau said, “Write while the heat is in you. . . . The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with.”

For now, I don’t have much to say, except good morning.

“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