Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Count

Okay. Last year I read and enjoyed Carlos Ruiz Zafon's ambitiously overwritten blockbuster fantasy The Shadow of the Wind, and so a couple of weeks ago I read his new book, The Angel's Game, which I liked a lot for the first half and liked less as it wound up, mostly because things kept happening to the narrator which led to certain inescapable conclusions that the narrator, an otherwise intelligent man, seemed unable to process. It was annoying me as I was reading, and it is doubling annoying me to me now, because it reminds me of another book, the title and plot of which I have been wracking my brains to remember, spoiled in exactly the same way: it was simply not credible that the main character could be so incredibly dense about the situation he was in, and at a certain point you simply stop caring. It reminds me of watching Rin Tin Tin on television when I was a kid, and sitting there in my living room watching Rusty do something really stupid that was bound to get him in trouble so that the dog would wind up having to rescue him. And I'm talking to the screen, saying, "No! Rusty! Don't go in that cave!" I eventually gave up on that show as well.

Anyway, Zafon had his narrator make admiring reference, in one or two places, to The Count of Monte Cristo, which is one of those books that I have heard about all my life without ever having actually read. So, in the wake of my somewhat disappointing experience with Zafon's attempt to don the mantle of Dumas, I thought I'd go ahead and go back to the source. And so that's what I've been reading, in huge eye- and brain-fatiguing swatches, for the last week and a half. I bought an unabridged edition that runs to something over 1200 pages and am now, after perhaps 15 or twenty hours of reading, just about halfway through it.

It's been a while since I've been this deeply involved in an extended reading experience. (Maybe the last time was with Dorothy Dunnett's eight-volume Nicollo Chronicles, which runs to something over 4000 pages and remains one of the astounding feats of storytelling in my reading experience.) Dumas is an adept and witty storyteller, and he is certainly in no great hurry. I'm sure that has something to do with the fact that he was being paid by the word, so it was in his best interests to compile a great many of them. His descriptions of people and places are lovingly detailed, sometimes overly so, but I find most entertaining are the various situations in which he has his main character engaged in dialogue and repartee with the various individuals he is in the elaborate process of undoing. It's a complex story, and I am surely not the first reader who has had to resort to drawing a character map to try to clarify the web of connections.

So what's it like, being in the middle of a pulp fiction novel written 155 years ago? It's is sort of like being in the middle of a very delicious meal. You've already eaten your fill, but there's half of your food still on your plate, dessert is yet to be served, and they keep filling your wine glass. On the one hand, you know that this kind of gluttony can't be good for you; on the other hand, the food is just too tasty to pass up, so you keep loading your fork and shoveling it in, indigestion and heartburn be damned. Often when I put the book down it takes five or ten minutes for my head to stop swimming and for my brain to catch up to where I am.

I've got literally a dozen other books waiting for me on my desk, including an advance edition of a friend's novel which I am eager to get to. But it's going to have to wait for another week or so. The count is on the move.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Found a paper supplier online that I like a lot. Small operation, run by a woman who is very friendly and interested in the work her customers are doing. Ordered about half-dozen decorative sheets that happened to fall mostly into shades of brown, some with calligraphy, others without. Wound up using pieces of pretty much all of of them in this mixed-media collage, 19" x 20", along with some charcoal, acrylic paint, tissue, gold foil, and some other scraps I had available. There's some metallic bronze paint on there as well that doesn't pick up well in a photo.

This is one of those pictures that works for me just as an arrangement of shapes and colors, but that also one part of my brain working on trying to invent visual narratives that account for and resolve structural elements. This one was fun to make, and still keeps me entertained when I go back to it.

It is also a sort of little brother to the larger (2'x3')panel below, which I was working on at a time as a friend of mine was losing his battle to cancer. Nagarjuna defines the Buddhist concept of ku as "neither existence nor nonexistence," and I remember a sensei once telling me that life that ku is the state that the soul returns to bto await reincarnation. When I began working on this piece, I didn't have any of that in mind. By the time I was done, I did. Jack, this one is for you.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Beyond Faults and Ideas

A number of factors have conspired to keep me bumping into the work of German artist Gerhard Richter. Tonight in the art section at Barnes and Noble I happened upon a book of his late large abstracts. The book was more money than I was prepared to shell out on a Thursday night, but when I came home I went online and went back to the pretty terrific web site devoted to his work, which includes a whole section of video interviews with curator Ulrich Wilmes, who has helped Richter stage a number of recent exhibitions. There was one video in particular where Wilmes got talking about Richter's way of working that interested me enough that I went to the trouble of transcribing some of his remarks:

Richter told me that for him the perception of his paintings, or the act of perceiving the painting, is always the same. It doesn’t matter if you have a realistic painting or if you have an abstract painting. The process is the same; the understanding of course is much different, because for a realistic painting we have the language, we can describe what we see, we can name the things that are on the painting; whereas in the abstract works we have no language...


Richter always says it’s pretty easy for him to start a painting. He’s not scared of the vast void of a white canvas. So he puts on a layer of some color, of some forms, that he really doesn’t much care about. And then, the process is that it’s becoming more and more complicated. In a certain way he also mentions that he is a kind of a prisoner of the painting, and the farther he gets the more complicated it becomes. You see that it’s a kind of process where he is reaching some point where he thinks, "Well, this looks pretty good." And then he stays with it for hours, for days, even for weeks, and then it’s finished. And he says,  “If I understand it completely, then it becomes boring," and he tries to change it. But the final painting is then when
he has the feeling that the painting is something that’s better than him, that’s beyond his faults and his ideas, and that there’s nothing left for him to do with the painting.

Two thoughts here. I'm interested in the question of what's going on in you in your head when you look at a painting for which you "have no language." I've noticed in the (abstract) painting that I have been doing in the last few months that while I am definitely thinking hard as I work, I am not using words, there's not even an internal dialogue taking place inside my head. There are kinesthetic decisions being made from moment to moment, guided by the eye and to some degree by the hand, but it's thinking that is not like any other thinking that I do. It's actually somewhat disorienting to enter into that mental space and then come back into a world where words - conversation and reading and writing - are there, waiting to take over.

I'm also interested in they way that Richter echoes, by analogy, one notion that the quotes I posted yesterday seemed to be endorsing, which is that at some level the artist and the writer are both trying to "set themselves afloat" in a medium which has the potential to take them someplace beyond themselves, "beyond faults and ideas", and into something more deeply mysterious and satisfying.

This is the opportunity that I fear we as teachers can so easily deny to our students if we encourage them, in our wish to be of help, to rely on formulas and rubrics. There is nothing wrong with those things, in their place. They are useful in laying the foundation and in helping student understand basic moves. But if we do not also create spaces within our course structures for exploration, for play, for the encounter with complications, for the chance to surprise themselves and produce something that goes beyond their expectations, we're confirming in them the sense that too many of them already have that writing is simply a tool for demonstrating mastery of concepts in the context of competency tests, and denying them the chance to discover that its greatest satisfactions lie elsewhere.

Image credit:http://kottkegae.appspot.com/images/richter-cage.jpg

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Seven Quotations in Support of an Argument

The essence of drawing is the line exploring space. - Andy Goldsworthy

For me, writing starts with a line, or some imagination, or some notion, and I just go with it as far as I can. You set yourself afloat on the language. - Thomas Lynch

We have to continually be jumping off cliffs  and developing our wings on the way down. — Kurt Vonnegut

Write from what you know into what you don't know. - Grace Paley

Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go. ...  Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. - E.L. Doctorow

The difference between any genre or entertainment writing and art is
that the entertainment writer knows before the first word is written
what effect it will have on the audience or what ideas or thoughts the
audience will take from it. In science fiction, there's a vision of
society, a political implication, a sociological implication; they
create a work to make a political or philosophical point, and/or they
write to produce an effect of escapism, to take the reader away. Either
way, there is a preconceived end effect or message, and the object is
constructed to achieve it. That is the entertainment writer's process. 
The literary artist works from the other end. She does not know, before
the work begins, what it is she sees about the world. She has in her
unconscious, in her dreamspace, an inchoate sense of order behind the
apparent chaos of life, and she must create this object in order to
understand what that order is. It's as much an act of exploration as it
is an act of expression.
- Robert Olen Butler

If I look back on all the crap I learned in high school,
It's a wonder I can think at all...
    - Paul Simon

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Imagine this: one day you will be able to type your homework on a thin molded-aluminum keyboard inlaid with fingertip-sensitive white plastic tablets in the same configuration as in a typewriter, using barely any physical effort at all, even resting your palms or the inside of your wrists lightly on the desktop, if you choose, so as not to fatigue your arms. The letters you type will appear within in a white rectangle, roughly the size of piece of paper, on a screen on the desk in front of you.

The keyboard on which you will type will not be connected in any physical manner to the screen on which the letters are appearing. The screen will display in the background whatever picture you have selected, from among a virtually infinite number of choices, to place on it. Appearing to hover above that picture will be little rectangles and little pictures, and, over to the left of the screen, on a sort of electronic totem pole to the left of the screen, a lengthy set of symbols of many shapes and colors.

Each picture and symbol on the screen will be a portal to other visual and aural experiences, some of which reside in electronic reservoirs within the unit housing the screen, and others of which – magazine articles, songs, movies, artwork, whatever your imagination can conjure – will be delivered to your screen via electronic cables connecting your screen with other screens very much like it all over the planet.

Access to these experiences will granted by means of a small oval device sitting to the right of your keyboard. Although it does not appear to connected to the screen either, it has great power. You will need only to note the position of a black arrow on your screen. If you move the device on the desk, you will see that the onscreen arrow will move in exactly the same direction at exactly the same speed.

If you maneuver the onscreen arrowhead so that it appears to be hovering over an onscreen symbol, and then press down with your index finger on the top of the device on the desktop exactly twice, a larger rectangle will suddenly appear at your summons, on the screen in front of you, displaying exactly the information you were seeking. You will be able to move any picture or symbol which appears anywhere on the screen any where you want it, and, once you have learned how to use the device, to resize them or duplicate them or cause them to disappear..

Anything you see on screen, you will be able to print onto paper, exactly as it appears, in black and white or full color, without leaving your seat. Anything you see onscreen, including your own face and your own voice, you will be able to share with anyone you like anywhere on earth.

Process Reflection:

This started out as a six-sentence exercise, but got away from me. It arose from an idea that came up in a discussion today at school with Chris and the others connected to our professional support group. A group of teachers was discussing Daniel Pink’s TED Talk on motivation, in which he argues that the key factors in motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. It occurred to me as we were talking that the laptops that our students carry around with them are uniquely powerful devices for encouraging and facilitating exactly these three inclinations, if only we could learn, or re-learn, to see them this way. The problem is that the students have grown up with the technology and take it for granted, using it primarily as an entertainment center and portal for everyday communication. They don’t see it as transformative, they don’t see it as a wonderful gift, they see it as a given, which is to say they don’t see it at all. Even digital immigrants like myself have lost the ability to fully appreciate the nearly miraculous power now at our fingertips. So I began this exercise in an attempt to force myself to just see all of this as if it were new, as if I had not seen it before.

The question that the discussion, and the exercise, raises for me is the question of responsibility: given these amazing tools, ought we not feel some responsibility to use them for good, or, in the words of Daniel Pink, “to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves”? If I were walking in to teach a class tomorrow, which alas, I am not, that would be the first question I'd be tempted to start off with. Followed by others: What would that look like? Have you ever seen it? Would you like to see it? If you wanted to do it yourself, what would you have to do first?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Six by Three: September Song

September Song

The air sharper, and the slant of light
more oblique. The sunrise belated,
the evening arriving ahead of time.
Yes, the afternoons still bake the blood,
the wind still ripples green grass. But
now underneath the trees the shadows
congeal, the cool breeze breathes,
leaves titter and fly. What we know,
we still know. But for how long?

Process Reflection: This is the third post in a row that has arisen out of my choice to submit myself to a very simple formal constraint: six sentences. As of August 2, I've been writing in my journal again, after gap of eight months. And that's having the effect of providing me with, well, compost. Yesterday when I sat down to my journal and wrote the date, I began with this:

September is a word, an idea, a constellation of connotations: the start of the school year, the end of summer, the autumnal equinox. If I think of my life optimistically and shoot for 80 years of relative health and productivity, then I'm just edging into September even as I write this.

So today's little poem is a sort of distillation of that idea, an attempt to bend the idea to the constraints of the form. What gave me pleasure in the writing of it were the unexpected sequences of words that presented themselves.

The picture is taken on campus, where I work. In the background, my home. In the middle, the building I work in. In the foreground, shadows in the fading light.