Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Interrogative Mood

My favorite literature-related blog is Scott Esposito's Conversational Reading. He recently had a post about a new book by Padgett Powell's new book The Interrogative Mood, which is described as a novel, but is really more of a book-length list poem consisting entirely of questions. Esposito cites an interview in which Powell talks about the origins of the book:

I was in the habit of receiving emails in a particular form from a female colleague at work, instructing me how to act,’ he says – he teaches creative writing at the University of Florida. ‘They would go something like this: “Is it time for our esteemed director to chat with the provost about the autonomy of the programme? Are we remembering what was promised us last week by the dean?” I started wanting something in response. So I sat down one morning and wrote: ‘‘Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable?” Within about two pages I was done with her and I was having so much fun I wanted to carry on.
And carry on he does, for close to two hundred pages. The obvious challenge, right from page one, given the severe formal limitation which the author has submitted himself to, is to somehow avoid making the reader feel bored or bludgeoned and overwhelmed by just too damned many things coming at him for too long a time.

So how do you do that? Well, it helps to be manic and it helps to be funny (this is the funniest book I've read in years) and it helps to be innovative and uninhibited and it helps to have a supercharged brain that that can get from point a to point b to point z and back again in lots of different ways.

Here's the opening salvo:

ARE YOUR EMOTIONS PURE? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato? Should it still be Constantinople? Does a nameless horse make you more nervous or less nervous than a named horse? In your view, do children smell good? If before you now, would you eat animal crackers? Could you lie down and take a rest on a sidewalk? Did you love your mother and father, and do Psalms do it for you? If you are relegated to last place in every category, are you bothered enough to struggle up? Does your doorbell ever ring? Is there sand in your craw? Could Mendeleyev place you correctly in a square on a chart of periodic identities, or would you resonate all over the board? How many push-ups can you do?

Are you inclined to favor the Windward Islands or the Leeward Islands? Does a man wearing hair tonic and chewing gum suggest criminality, or are you drawn to his happy-go-lucky charm? Are you familiar with the religious positions taken regarding the various hooves of animals? Under what circumstance, or set of circumstances, might you noodle for a catfish? Will you spend more money for better terry cloth? Is sugar your thing? If a gentle specimen of livestock passed you by en route to its slaughter, would you palm its rump? Are you disturbed by overtechnical shoes? Are you much taken by jewelry? Do you recall the passion you had as an undergraduate for philosophy? Do you have a headache?

Why won’t the aliens step forth to help us? Did you know that Native American mothers suckled their children to age five, merely bending at the waist to feed them afield? Have you ever witnessed the playing of shuffleboard at a nudist colony? If tennis courts could be of but one surface, which surface should that be? In your economics, are you, generally, laissez-faire or socialist? If you could design the flag for a nation, what color or colors would predominate?

This is essentially all by way of warming up. As Powell gets going, he keeps inventing new ways to bend sequences to new purposes and to begin connecting them so that they (at times) resonate with one another and (at times) leap off in other unanticipated directions. Sometimes there are little riffs with philosophical overtones:

Is there enough time left? Does it matter that I do not specify for what? Was there ever enough time? Was there once too much? Does the notion of “enough time” actually make any sense? Does it suggest we had things to do and could not do them for reasons other than that we were incompetents? Did we have things to do? Things better done than not? Thus, important things? Are there important things?
(The book I found myself thinking about as I was reading The Interrogative Mood is John Ashbery's A Wave. In both books, you basically are launched into a hyperstimulating verbal environment with sequences of sentences and thoughts coming at you in waves: the verbal equivalent of jazz, with many of the attendant pleasures thereof.)

Sometimes it feels as if you are under interrogation by a pyschologist attempting to assess your competencies and your character, as if in rehearsal for The Last Judgment:

Were you a thumb sucker? Would you rather argue with people or not? Can you think of a musical instrument useful in murder other than piano wire? Have you studied the soft toes of geckos? Do you comprehend with complete certainty how bonds work? Would you sail an ocean on a small boat? Do people who purport to know what a fractal is have a leg up on those who confess they don’t? If you came upon a party celebrating something or someone with a yellow sheet cake and white icing, would you partake happily? Do you remember the candies called jawbreakers and Fireballs? Do you have a cutting-edge TV? What dead person would you bring back to life? Do you favor protecting the little wilderness remaining, or do you concede that there is so little left it might as well be ceded to the tide? Would a small red balloon cheer you up? A dog?
And sometimes it's just, well, like this:

If I said to you, “I want to return to 1940 and have a big coupe with big running boards and drive it drunkenly and carefully along dirt roads never causing harm except for frightening chickens out of the road, and I want you standing out there on the running board saying Slow down, or Let me in, and laughing, but I don’t stop, because of course you don’t mean it, you think as I do that a big 1940s coupe and careful drunken driving and one party outside the car and one inside and both laughing and chickens spraying unhurt into the ditches is what life was then, is what life was before it became ruined by us and all our crap,” and if I said to you, “I have an actual goddamned time machine, I am not kidding, we can get in the coupe inside thirty seconds if we take off our clothes and push the red button underneath that computer over there, come on, strip, get ready”—would you get ready to go with me, and go? Would you ask a lot of questions? Or would you just say, “Shut up and push the button”?

So if you find yourself, as I did the other night, with your finger hovering over the keyboard as you debate with yourself whether or not a book of this kind might be worth ponying up some cash for? Shut up and push the button.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Golden Vanity

I'm teaching again this fall, one class of sophomores, and since I've been asking them to maintain commonplace books I've been keeping one of my own. Earlier this week I decided to try a second torn-paper collage (the first was the subject of my previous post on Throughlines, which it seems hard to believe was more than a month ago), and it came out, without a whole lot of planning or forethought, like this:

I don't know what you see when you look at this, a ducky or a horsey perhaps. But when I got done with it and took a step back, I know exactly what popped into my mind: it's a boat. And something in my reptile brain was telling me which one: the Golden Vanity. And therein hangs a tale.

Forty-five years ago, during freshman orientation week at Fairfield University, the luck of the draw for dorm rooms matched me up with a guy named Bill Sheehan. I had never met him before, and I did not see him much afterward, but the few evenings we spent together in that dorm room had a significant impact on my life. Because he had brought his guitar, and he could play, and he could sing, and he was familiar with a whole bunch of music I had barely heard of and certainly never heard.

It's hard to believe, listening to what gets played on radio stations today, that once upon a time there was room on the airwaves for the likes of Joan Baez and Judy Collins and Peter, Paul, and Mary. The folk music revival and the British Invasion (The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, among literally hundreds of others) happened more or less simultaneously with and helped to fuel political engagement - civil rights and Vietnam war protests among them - among high school and college students to a degree that is pretty much unimaginable today. A colleague had a conversation with his students during homeroom the other day and they apparently incredulous that such a thing as the draft ever existed.

Anyway, one of the songs that Bill Sheehan sang for me in our dorm room was a song called The Golden Vanity. It is number 286 of the set 305 songs included in the exhaustively researched English and Scottish Popular Ballads which were collected by Francis Child and published in a series of six volumes from 1882 to 1898. I bought the whole set in the Dover Paperback edition and I have it still.

As with all other ballads passed down by word of mouth over many generations, there are a lot of variations of the song. The one that Bill sang for me was a somewhat simplified and colloquialized version not unlike that recorded by dozens of folk musicians of the era. The lyrics as I learned them went something like this:

The Golden Vanity

There once was a ship and she sailed upon the sea
And the name of the ship was the Golden Vanity
And we feared she would be taken by the Spanish enemy
As she sailed upon the lowland, lowland, lowland
Sailed upon the lowland sea.

Then up spoke our cabinboy and boldly out spoke he
And he said to our captain "What will you give to me
If I swim along the side of the Spanish enemy
And I sink her in the lowland sea?"

"Oh I will give you silver and I will give you gold
And my own fair daughter your bonny bride shall be
If you'll swim along the side of the Spanish enemy
And you'll sink her in the lowland, lowland, lowland
Sink her in the lowland sea.

Then the boy he made him ready and overboard sprang he
And he swam to the side of the Spanish enemy
With his brace and auger in her side he bored holes three
And sank he her in the lowland, lowland, lowland,
Sank her in the lowland sea.

Then quickly he swam back to the cheering of the crew
But the captain would not heed him, for his promise he did rue
And he scorned his poor entreaties when loudly he did sue
And he left him in the lowland, lowland, lowland
Left him in the lowland sea.

Then the boy turned around and swam to the other side
And up to his messmates full bitterly he cried
"O messmates, draw me up, for I'm drifting with the tide
And I'm sinking in the lowland, lowland, lowland
Sinking in the lowland sea."

It's a grim little tale, no? Any way you read it, it's a downer. Perhaps the kid is a hero who gets screwed by the captain, who, now that he has what he wants, doesn't see why he should bothered to live up to his promise. Easier to let the little sucker drown. Or perhaps the kid himself is a greedy little manipulator ("What will you give to me?") who gets his just deserts, although that reading is contradicted by the cheering of the crew, who clearly see him as a hero. (In other versions of the song, however, the crew is too busy playing cards and drinking to take much notice of his plight.) But even if he did undertake the mission for selfish purposes, he has struck a blow for the home team. He deserves a better fate than a watery grave. It is, like many of the other "popular ballads," a strange song, with its little nugget of cynical wisdom, to be passing down from generation to generation.

However, as John Gardner use to say, "the passions may be terrible, but the syllables are a relief." The song, as Bill sang it, and as he sang many others, was hauntingly beautiful. I bought my first guitar two weeks after freshman orientation, and continued to play (not well, alas) for 35 years, before my shoulder basically gave up the ghost on me. But the song, and the story, and the memory, have stuck in my head, and were recalled up out of the deep by the chance fall of torn paper as it was glued down.

Friday, October 1, 2010


This is what I do. This is where I live right now. This is the dawn, the dusk, the ying and yang, the yes and do, the high and low. This is the moment. This is the thought. This is the secret. This is the dream. This is the land, the ocean, the sky. The near and far, the sound and the silence, the what and the how. The why. This is the breath, the muscle and bone, the blood. The inside. The outside. The surface. The depths. The wings. The roots. The seed. The flower. The mother, the son. The beginning of something, and all that will be left at the end.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Simple Surprises

Process Reflection: I'm starting to get the hang of the printmaking process. And one of the things I'm learning is that sometimes simple is better. At the end of last week's Tuesday night printmaking class, I had about forty-five minutes left to work after having spent most of the evening working on a big experimental print that didn't really work out. So rather than go back to the drawing board with that one, or just pack up and go home discouraged, I figured I'd play around a little bit.

I took a piece of scrap plexiglass from the drawer and rather quickly drew out some curved shapes with an x-acto knife through the contact paper that protects the surface. Then I painted the whole thing with a mixture of acrylic medium and carborundum grit. While it was drying I tore up some scraps of painted paper into small triangular shapes and painted the backs with Rhoplex, a pressure-sensitive glue which binds the papers to the print when you roll the plate through the press.

Once the medium and the grit had dried on the plexiglass, I peeled off the remaining paper backing, which left smooth plexiglass in some parts and tooth-like rough shapes in other parts. I inked up the plate and then wiped it down, leaving ink on the rough areas and no ink in the white areas. Then I put the plate on the press bed, laid the paper triangles down on the plate glue side up, put the white paper for the print on top of that, lowered the blankets that protect the roller when the press is being used, and rolled it through. I really didn't know how it was going to look, but when I lifted the print I was pleased with its musical, rhythmic quality. It's bright and lively and easy to look at. So last night I wound up doing two more along the same lines, the first with the same plate and the second with another, slightly larger piece of scrap plexiglass:

The last print has more contrast and is more dramatic, but those big black areas feel a little overpowering to me. I'm going to try another next week with a more neutral ink, maybe a brown or green, and maybe scratch back into the dark areas a little.

One thing I've got to try to figure out: the Rhoplex is a very sticky, rubbery glue and it's a bear to work with. It's very hard to get glue on the back of the paper without also getting it on the front, especially with small pieces of paper, which tend to move around when you are brushing them which gets glue on the edges that smears onto the front. Then when you go to print, the paper sticks not only to the white paper, but also to the plate, and you wind up tearing it when you lift the print. Rats.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Way to Work

I've been attending a series of Saturday morning plein-air painting sessions with George, and one of the things that he has been encouraging us to do is to draw and paint with our non-dominant hand:

"People talk about being the master of the medium and all of that, but in fact when you look at artists' work a lot of times mastery isn't just dexterity, mastery is about control over the process, it's about control over what is conceptual in the work, what is abstract in the work, what is important to the storyline. [Painting with your left hand] gives it a kind deliberateness and intentionality which I think is a critical thing..."

The point of working this way is to take yourself out of your comfort zone, out of the kind of comfortable automaticity that leads you to work more quickly because your hand seems to know what it's doing, and into a way of working which is, because it is unfamiliar and somewhat awkward, introduces a kind of vulnerability and freshness into the process.

As George points out, the problem with landscapes at a certain level of proficiency is that they all start to look pretty much the same. That's a mountain, that's a tree, that's a lake, that's the sky. You take it in at one glance, and it's an unusual landscape indeed that has the power to draw you into it and keep you there. A less self-assured, more ambiguous landscape, if it is composed well, has at least the potential to exert that kind of power.

As we've been working on this, I've been thinking about a writing exercise I sometimes ask my students to do, which has some of the same purposes and some of the same effects. I ask them to write about whatever they would like to write about, with one minor restriction: they can't use the letter "e". Writers, and not just student writers, have developed a kind of shorthand proficiency with the basic elements of written communication, and often what gets written has a kind of offhand, glib quality to it. Choosing to work without the letter "e" throws you a little off balance and forces you to pay a different kind of attention to the words themselves, how they are spelled, how they are shaped, how they are sequenced. You can't work automatically any more. You have to invent a new way of working on the fly. You may lose something (you may lose a lot) in terms of precision and fluency. But you may gain something in terms of texture. And you will definitely gain something in terms of originality and freshness and compositional interest. And it's certainly not impossible to do:

This last Saturday, up at Wa'ahila Park on looking out on Manoa Valley, all of us drawing with our non-dominant hands, I got to thinking about a task I could assign which would allow for this kind of play in both art and writing. My kids maintain journals, and I thought I'd ask for us all to draw a cross to cut our journals into quadrants, thusly:

So tomorrow — or on a day not far away — I'm going to try this out in class. With luck, kids and adults will all play around with it a bit and find it satisfying, if not scintillating. So that's a plan. Aloha, for now.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Novel No Longer?

In the March 15 issue of the New Yorker, James Wood wrote a review in which he raised the question of whether the novel can be said to be an evolving form, and if so, whether the more traditional writerly techniques associated with the form are now, in essence, old hat.

Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity—both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation. The novel is peculiar in this respect, because while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions—the basic narrative grammar—of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.

By grammar, I mean the rather lazy stock-in-trade of mainstream realist fiction: the cinematic sweep, followed by the selection of small, telling details (“It was a large room, filled almost entirely by rows of antique computers; there was an odd smell of aftershave and bacon”); the careful mixing of dynamic and habitual detail (“At one of the computers, a man was unhurriedly eating a spring roll; traffic noise pierced the thick, sealed windows; an ambulance yelped by”); the preference for the concrete over the abstract (“She was twenty-nine, but still went home every evening to her mom’s ground-floor apartment in Queens, which doubled by day as a yoga studio”); vivid brevity of character-sketching (“Bob wore a bright-yellow T-shirt that read ‘Got Beer?,’ and had a small mole on his upper lip”); plenty of homely “filler” (“She ordered a beer and a sandwich, sat down at the table, and opened her computer”); more or less orderly access to consciousness and memory (“He lay on the bed and thought with shame of everything that had happened that day”); lucid but allowably lyrical sentences (“From the window, he watched the streetlights flicker on, in amber hesitations”). And this does not even touch on the small change of fictional narrative: how strange it is, when you think about it, that thousands of novels are published every year, in which characters all have different names (whereas, in real life, doesn’t one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?), or in which characters quizzically “raise an eyebrow,” and angrily “knit their brows,” or just express themselves in quotation marks and single adverbs (“ ‘You know that’s not fair,’ he said, whiningly”). At this level of convention, there is a shorter distance than one would imagine between, say, “Harriet the Spy” and “Disgrace.”
I am willing to concede the accuracy of his inventory, willing even to extend it by making note of on the rhetorical power of devices as the lengthy inventory in the form of a list, such as the one with which the second paragraph above begins. And I understand that a critic like Wood, who has read God knows how many novels a year for how many years, may well reach a point when everything comes across begins to sound like something he's read before.

But I do not share his impatience or disillusionment with "mainstream realist fiction," and I find that I have little patience for the sort of avant-garde "experimental" writing which jettisons such hackneyed devices as plot, characterization, and the careful accumulation of details, in hopes of becoming The Next New Thing.  On the contrary, it is precisely the fact that the tools are so familiar and the rules of the game so well-defined that allows me to make credible distinctions between "Harriet the Spy" and "Disgrace," or, say,  between Jonathan Franzen and Leo Tolstoy, to whom, incredibly, Franzen has recently been compared in several adulatory recent reviews.

By way of illustration, here is a passage from a book my friend Paula loaned to me recently, The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears. This is a book I have been working my way through slowly and with full gratitude and appreciation for the authors masterly attention to exactly the kinds of narrative mechanics that Wood purports to find tiresome. In fact, I marked this passage as I was reading (and then re-reading) it precisely  because the writing itself gave me so much pleasure:

It was raining lightly and he hurried, crossing the road and putting his foot in a deep puddle that had opened up in the pavement the previous winter and had never been repaired. He stopped and looked down at his soaking foot and sodden shoe, his only decent pair of winter shoes, which he had taken out that morning and checked carefully to make sure their soles were still good. With luck they would last. This would not help them, and he cursed the war, the Germans, Marcel, the city, and the weather equally, for bringing their final disintegration that much closer. Then, more slowly and carefully, looking down at the ground, he walked the last couple hundred meters to his home, standing in the entrance, shaking himself and brushing as much water as possible out of his hair and off his clothes.

He went up the stairs, into his chilly apartment, and even before he switched on the lights he fetched a towel. He stood by the window drying his hair, staring down at the steps of the church of Saint Agricole opposite. It was nearly eight; the doors were open and the last people at evening mass were coming out, each one pausing at the door, looking up at the rain as though they could see where it was all coming from, then hunching down and hurrying away.

Only one person there was not in a rush, standing close by the entrance, faintly illuminated by the light coming out of the open doorway. Julien stiffened. The patience of the way the woman let the rain run down her body rather than trying to find cover. He could see little, but he would have recognized here in any light or any weather.

He ran down the stairs, forgetting his soaking shoe, not taking a coat or umbrella, and ran as quickly as he could across the street, bounding up the steps two at a time.

“Julia!” he called out.

She turned and smiled, and held out her arms to him. When he finally let go he was soaked to the skin once more. (257-8)

I love this passage. I love the specificity of detail in the first two sentences, and how much work Pears is able to get done with such deft, quick strokes: the puddle, the shoe, what Julien's concern for the condition of his shoe manages to suggest about the larger circumstance of his life. The way that the rain becomes not just a weather event but an efficient means of driving Julien's actions (going up the stairs, toweling off, looking out the window), characterizing Julia's state of mind (she's the only one NOT seeking shelter) and finally dramatizing, through Julien's obliviousness to what a moment ago was his greatest concern, what he feels for her. If this whole passage were to be thought of as a sort of writerly performance on the parallel bars, that last line is just a lovely, artful dismount.

Wood says,

I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters’ names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that’s focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels.

I say, I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I love stories which are told artfully and which reflect, precisely in their artfulness, the writer's deep concern for what he really cares about. I would hope that that care would extend to his characters, to his reader, and to the careful deployment of what storytelling resources the writer has at his disposal, as well as to the larger questions (Clausen: What kind of world we is this? How we should live in it?) which, as Wood rightly suggests, the novel as a form is uniquely designed to explore.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

September Song

There hasn't been a whole lot of music on the radio the last few years that I much care to listen to, so I've been happy with the rise of Pandora, which gives me the chance to put in the name of a song or an artist to create a channel which will play songs selected by some computerized algorithm that matches my song to others having some of the same tonal or instrumental or generic characteristics, or, as their web site has it, "everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony."

I've tried different channels, and some of them wind up giving back a pretty narrow band of songs just like what you thought you might get. But last week I tried basing a channel on Richard Thompson, and the thing about Thompson is that he's pretty much a category-buster all by himself: a folk singer most people have never heard of, an innovative and edgy lyricist, a rock legend who has never had, as far as I know, a song in the top twenty (or even the top fifty), and one of the most versatile and accomplished masters of the guitar ever to walk the planet. And so he seems to knock the algorithm-making machine sideways a bit, and it keeps spitting out a very weird and eclectic and surprising mix of songs by all manner of musicians across a whole bunch of decades (Thompson has been cranking out his eclectic music for 40 years), everything from Led Zep to Neil Young and Boston and Dire Straits on the one hand, to people I've never paid much or attention, like Bruce Cockburn, or even ever heard of, like Stephen Bennett or Colin Hay or Big Head Todd and The Monsters.

Anyway, the other night I was in the gym and suddenly found myself listening to Tom Rush singing "The Urge for Going," a song I used to love and had not heard in maybe 20 years. It's a great song for September, and his gravelly voice against the clean acoustic guitar lines really resonates with Joni Mitchell's lyrics. I particularly love the end of the song, where acceptance and appreciation swirl in competition with mourning and regret:

I'll ply the fire with kindling,
I'll pull the blankets to my chin
I'll lock the vagrant winter out
I'll bolt my wandering in
I'd like to call back summertime
And have her stay for just another month or so
But she's got the urge for going
I guess she'll have to go

And she's gets the urge for going
when the meadow grass is turning brown
All her empire's are falling down
and winter's closing in

I lived in New England for twenty-five years, and know only too well whereof he sings. Even though we don't have seasons in Hawaii (well, we do, but the differences between them are much more subtle), the song still reverberates with me, perhaps even more so as I approach birthday number 64, and September as begins to feel maybe a little optimistic. But that sun still feels good.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Me and Louise

During the summer I took a printmaking course at the Linekona Art Center downtown. I have for some time been an admirer of the sculptures of Louise Nevelson, many of which were essentially assemblages made up of small wooden pieces in complex architectural configurations. "Sky Cathedral" is a good example:

There's something magisterial about this piece, and many of her others, a forcefulness, a kind of authority, all of this random stuff being gathered together and composed, asserted as a unified whole. It's beautiful and impressive and even a little scary.

As I've looked around on the internet and elsewhere, I've run across a lot of other things I like, like for example this configuration of sculpted steel squares:

Anyway, during the printmaking course we were encouraged to try, among other things, using cardboard to print from, I thought I'd try make a print that borrowed on her architectural style. So I made a cut out a series of cardboard pieces and glued various shapes on top of one another and laid them out and did a couple of prints like this one:

So that was okay, but the paper-and-ink medium didn't really offer the tactile, monumental quality that I was looking for. So the other day, I took out the bag of cardboard cutouts I had made and glued them down onto a piece of plywood and then used acrylic paint and medium to make it look like it was in fact made out of weathered wood. The (12"x24") panel came out looking a lot more like what I was after, especially after I painted over it with a gloss medium that put a soft sheen over the textured surface.

So there it is, my little homage to Louise.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Writing from the Inside Out

This is the pre-orientation week at my school. Part of the preparations for the year is a series of Back-to-School Workshops for teachers, and I volunteered to do a reprise of a workshop I did during July at the Summer Lab School which I had decided to call “Writing from the Inside Out,” based on a series of notions that I have gravitated toward during my 40 years as a full-time teacher and sometime writer. Taken together those notions form a kind of architectural framework for a pedagogical philosophy that I would describe as being radically simplistic. I think that in school students are often taught, in subtle and often unintentional ways, that writing is a certain sort of (schooly) thing that is done is a certain sort of (schooly) way for a certain sort of (schooly) purpose. This indoctrination seems to start in the middle elementary grades and gets progressively more severe as students progress through school, to the point where many high school students (and adults) feel not just that feel that writing is something that is not for them, or worse, that they hate it. "Writing from the Inside Out" is my shorthand for a process which starts with what is going on inside the minds of the students as opposed to the more prevalent process of starting with what the teacher's agenda might happen to be.

There’s a book I like a lot by Danny Gregory called The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to Be the Artist You Truly Are. It includes a short quotation from Howard Ikemoto that goes like this: “When my daughter was about seven years old she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college — that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared at me, incredulous, and said “You mean they forget?”

What I was driving at today, basically, was this: Writing is — or can be — a playful activity, a self-expressive activity, an exploratory activity, with satisfactions and rewards that come from no other source. It is potentially a powerful and relevant and, to use a word perhaps too often bandied about, transformative self-teaching tool at every grade level and in every discipline. But somewhere along the line we teach kids to forget that. We make it into a compliance activity and we remove from it most of the things that make it most satisfying and enjoyable. My argument is that we have to try to reclaim and turn students loose in at least some of the territory in which writing is about discovery and craft and the revelations that can emerge from purposeful play, and to recover some of the initial joy and energy and engagement that writing held for them before they arrived at school.

So I shared a couple of radically simple writing exercises, the first of which was a three minute poetry exercise I described in a post three and a half years ago. As the other teachers wrote at their seats, I did one at the board. As often happens when you write freely with no preconceptions, I surprised myself with what showed up:

Loss. Departures. The sun
setting, long shadows singing
their song of lament. Why this?
Why now? What recourse,
what will we have left
when the new day dawns?

I’m not going to go into all of the background, the ballast, that pushed these words out onto the board in front of me. Suffice it to say that I recognize in these words a fresh opportunity, and what I would see as fertile ground. There are things to play with here: the emotion, the images, the questions, the sequences of syllables. There's a poem waiting to emerge, or perhaps an essay, or perhaps a story, or perhaps something I can only sense but do not yet have a name for.

It's a beginning. There's interesting work yet to be done. I love being in that spot. I’ve been missing that. Having the chance to do the workshop gave me the spur to start writing again.

Summer is over. Next week I’ll be back in the classroom again after two years doing admin only. I’m really excited about it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

eBook or not eBook

I've considered, from time to time, whether or not to go ahead and buy a Kindle or a Nook. There are some obvious plusses: books are cheaper if you buy them online, you don't have to carry a bunch of books around with you when you travel, and if you want to read something Right Now, you can have it in seconds. You might be saving a tree or two. And recently the prices have been falling, so that's an attraction.

But there's another voice in my head saying, basically, let's wait. I hadn't worked out the reasons behind that counsel, but the other day I found that D'Arcy Norman had been there and done that. Why do without an eReader? Let us count the ways:

They’re awkward. The digital tools that would make digital books worth the hassle, most notably copy and paste, are disabled via DRM.

And ebooks don’t offer analogs for the best parts of the experience of owning and reading dead-trees books. I can’t write in an ebook. I can’t dog-ear corners. I can’t flip back and forth. I can’t compare passages in different sections (or books) easily. I can’t slip pieces of paper in between pages. I can’t hand an ebook to my wife to read, or to a colleague. I can’t loan my copy to someone. I can’t give it away when I’m done. I can’t leave it in an airport for someone to find and read on their own trip.

Ebooks don’t feel right. They don’t smell right. They’re still not ready for prime time. I’m not sure they will be.

He's onto something there. The whole experience of having a book in my hand is a personal, textural, textual experience. I do all the stuff D'Arcy is talking about: marginal notes, crossreferences, dog-ears, flipping back and forth, passing them along. (I've got four books passed along to me on my desk right now, a little inventory of pleasures waiting to be tasted.)

I use the Kindle app on my iPhone and like that, to a degree. But the only time I really use it is as a fallback, when I'm stuck somewhere with nothing to read. I'm like having the option. I don't mind visiting. But I don't want to live there.

Followup, July 20: Here's a post by Leslie Gates doing an analysis of the pros and cons of each.

Friday, July 9, 2010

New Art

A month or so ago I went to a joint exhibition at the Linekona Art Center and saw for the first time some monoprints by Linda Spadaro. I especially liked some of the effects she created using chine collĂ©. I did not at that time have access to a printing press, but I had been doing a lot of pretty detailed doodling in my notebooks, and I thought I’d try to see what effects I could generate by combining the color glue-ons with black-and-white pattern drawing. I did a couple more or less like the one you see here, using Pigma pens of various sizes on 140 lb cold-pressed watercolor paper.

Shortly after the show, I found out about a Tuesday night printmaking course at the Linekona. I went to the first class, had to miss the second because I was attending a conference in San Francisco. Since coming back I’ve been to two more and I have to say I’m liking it a ton. This is the first print I made. It’s printed from two plexiglass plates on the surface of which there are various inscribed and superimposed aberrations. Materials include paper, cloth, masking tape, aluminum foil, watercolor crayon, and etching ink.

There are some things I like about this print. I liked the basic color pattern, the geometry of it, and some of the textures. But there are also a lot of things wrong with this print that even a tyro like me can see. The ink is not laid on evenly. Actually, you lay it on and then wipe it back dwon until there’s very little left. But one of the things I’ve learned is that any porous surface, like the cloth to the left, absorbs ink, and then when the pressure from the roller hits it the ink gets pushed out onto the paper in dark gobs, and unbalances or even messes up the print entirely. But hey, it was a start. I’m doing a series of prints from the same plate, trying new things with each print. And I’ve got a couple of other plates I’m working with as well. Eventually I’ll get a print I like.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Three Squared

Here are three panels I've worked on this week.

I began this first one by gluing down four pieces of fabric onto an 18" plywood panel. (There is also, for no really good reason other than that I decided to try it, a bodhi leaf secreted beneath the swatch on the lower left side.) Then I coated the fabric with a blue-grey acrylic mixture, to which I added torn paper elements which were placed at least partially to obscure the seams between the different pices of fabric. One it was all dry, I used a wide, mostly dry brush to drag pigment along the ridges of the fabric in the upper left hand corner, creating the brocaded effect.

This is a pretty straightforward torn-paper-on-plywood-panel collage. (Twelve inches.) I tried to keep this one simple, limiting the color range and linking the shapes and colors in a way that emphasizes balance and clarity and coherence. Right now it feels like the most fully realized piece I've done.

This is a reworking of an older 12-inch panel that felt unfinished. I added the handwritten text (readers with eagle eyes may recognize the text as part of the Saramago excerpt I posted last week, the one about the relationship between the brain-in-the fingers and  the brain-in-the-head.) This was by way of an experiment. I had some semi-transparent mulberry paper I bought last week and I wanted to check if it would a) take the handwriting in ink without tearing or bleeding and b) if it would become essentially transparent when glued down with acrylic medium on top of other materials. The answer in both cases turned out to be be yes, so that's going to become an element in future works for sure.

Each of these panels seems to me to have a sort of character, a wordless but thought-inducing presence. I'm interested in how much of one's emotional reaction to a work of art is a function of color. Last night I bought an aloha shirt. There were actually three shirts on the rack with the same design, but in different color combinations. Two of them I wouldn't wear on a bet. The third one was just gorgeous: the colors worked with the forms in a way that is emotionally complex and satisfying, sort of like the way this panel works the white-yellow-orange-red-brown-black continuum.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Got a ride a week or two ago from a friend who dropped me off at Waialae and 6th near Sacred Hearts Academy and St. Patrick's School. Called my wife to come pick me up, and had about fifteen minutes to sit on the stone wall waiting, so I did a little pen-and-ink sketch looking up into Palolo Valley past Ali'iolani Elementary. The other night I had my watercolors out so I thought I'd try dropping some color in.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The End is Near

The campus is empty today. Academy exams are over. Teachers are squirreled away in their offices finishing their grades. Outside, where there are normally people in movement all day every day, the birds have more or less taken over. The summer sun bakes down on empty fields. Over in the gym, someone is playing a ragtime recording, and the sound is carrying over to my office. Every once in a while a graduating senior will pop in to say goodbye. At the junior school, many teachers are packing up their rooms in preparation for the great migration, as all of our K-1 teachers move up the hill to the new K-1 facility.

Tomorrow we have our end-of-the-year meetings, followed by lunch at the President's house for those who are perhaps reluctant to let go of the year, or who want the chance to say good-bye before heading off to do whatever it is that they will be doing this summer.

I've always felt strange about the end of the year. The start of school is a pure pleasure, a fresh start, a time of anticipation and eagerness, a chance to renew ties and catch up. The end of the year is pleasurable as well, bringing closure and perhaps some sense of satisfaction, but it is also tinged with regret, both for being what it is (as opposed to what it might have been) and for the saying of goodbyes.

I've never been good at saying goodbye. I tend to shuffle and mumble and feel like whatever words I can come up with are inadequate to the occasion. If I can find a plausible excuse for ducking out, I'm gone. I was talking with Tim earlier today, and he was saying he likes to hold the idea in his mind that he will cross paths with everyone at some point later. I like to believe that too, even when it seems unlikely. There's a song by Eric Anderson that has a chorus that has stuck in my mind for the more than forty years since I first heard him sing it:

If it comes that our ways don't touch together
'Cause our roads you know they just don't meet again
I'd be pleased to know that you still think about me
I'd be pleased to count myself amongst your friends.
But now I only stop myself and wonder
If you ever think of all that's gone behind
Yes I wonder just how things are going for you
I wonder does it ever cross your mind.
That lyric, with its guarded optimism and its reflective wonderment,  pretty well captures my feelings at the end of the year.

Of course, the all-time mega-über-maximum-full-tilt goodbye lyric is the Donne poem I was asked by my English teacher to commit to memory when I was a sophomore in high school myself. If there's a more artful and fully realized poem in the English language, I don't know what it would be.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning         

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
   And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
   "The breath goes now," and some say, "No,"

So let us melt, and make no noise,
   No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
   To tell the laity our love.

Moving of the earth brings harms and fears,
   Men reckon what it did and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
   Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
   Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined
   That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
   Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion.
   Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
   As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
   To move, but doth, if the other do;

And though it in the center sit,
   Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
   And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
   Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
   And makes me end where I begun.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Cave

I've been reading Jose Saramago's novel The Cave, and I've got to say, it's an artful and charming piece of work. Saramago won the Nobel prize in 1998, and while I had obviously heard of him I had not read anything he had written until this one. The Cave is set in a unnamed country in a vaguely delineated, vaguely dystopian future time. The main character is a potter named Cipriano Algor, who lives with his daughter in the country and delivers his wares every few weeks to to a somewhat sinister business and residential combine in the city referred to only as the Center. The first disruptive event in Cipriano's rather placid life — Cipriano is a placid man, a ruminative man, the kind of man to befriend a lost dog, and when he has done so, to name him "Found"and check on him in the middle of the night — comes when he is given notice that the Center will no longer be accepting his wares, because customers have stopped buying handcrafted pottery, in favor of plastic containers which are cheaper and less likely to chip or break. This initial disturbance is followed by a number of others, as Cipriano begins his journey from the life he once knew toward a re-invention forced upon him by circumstances.

What I most like about the book is the loose, bemused, allusive voice of the narrator, who has a tendency to string thoughts together with only the bare mininum in terms of punctuation or writerly punctiliousness about the niceties of sentence structure. Many of the passages interweave the narrative proper with what at first seem to be the more or less random thoughts of the narrator as he tells the story. But these digression. In this passage, for example, Cipriano goes to visit the grave of his dead wife, but we are treated along the way to a) an inventory of the locations in which Cipriano no longer experiences her presence (thereby suggesting the depth of his solitude), b) a little homily on the shortness of life, spoken by the narrator as if he were addressing his own character, c) a commentary on Cipriano's actions and what they imply about the nature of time, this time directed to us as readers, which segues into d) another meditation on the nature of writing itself:

Cipriano Algor approached his wife's grave, she has been under there for three years now, three years during which she has appeared nowhere, not in the house, not in the pottery, not in bed, not beneath the shade of the mulberry tree, nor at the clay pit beneath the scorching sun, she has not sat down again at the table or at the potter's wheel, nor has she cleared out the ashes fallen from the grate, nor seen the earthenware pots and plates set out to dry, she does not peel the potatoes, knead the clay, or say, That's the way things are, Cipriano, life only gives you two days, and given the number of people who only get to live for a day and a half, and others even less, we can't really complain. Cipriano Algor stayed no longer than three minutes, he was intelligent enough to know that the important thing was not to stand there, with prayers or without, looking at the grave, the important thing was to have come, the important thing is the road you walked, the journey you made, if you are aware of prolonging your contemplation of the grave it is be cause you are watching yourself or, worse still, it is because you hope others are watching you. Compared with the instantaneous speed of thought, which heads off in a straight line even when it seems to us to have lost its way, because what we fail to realize is that, as it races off in one direction, it is in fact advancing in all directions at once, anyway, as we were saying, compared with that, the poor word is constantly having to ask permission from one foot to lift the other foot, and even then it is always stumbling, hesitating and dithering over an adjective or a verb that turns up unannounced by its subject, and that must be why Cipriano did not have time to tell his wife everything that was on his mind, apart from that business about it being unjust, Justa, but it may well be that the murmurings we can hear coming from him now, as he walks toward the gate leading out of the cemetery, are precisely what he had meant to say. (32-3)  
Throughout the book the sentences unfold in surprising and often delightful ways like this. It's not a book that seems to explicitly to be trying to be funny, but I often find myself laughing out loud, just because the story keeps taking minor, delight-ful turns. A little bit later in the book, the narrator delivers himself of a little mini-essay on a subject I've actually been thinking a lot about lately, as I have gotten more deeply involved in making art. One of the interesting things about art in particular, and innovation in general, is that so much of it occurs in the making itself, not in the planning. The brain can hatch a plan, but often the brain is better advised to step aside, let the fingers take over, and see what turns up. Saramago takes this somewhat familiar idea and literalizes it, postulating that in fact the fingers have brains of their very own:

Indeed, very few people are aware that in each of our fingers, located somewhere between the first phalange, the mesophalange, and the metaphalange, there is a tiny brain. The fact is that the other organ which we call the brain, the one with which we came into the world, the one which we transport around in our head and which transports us so that we can transport it, has only ever had very general, vague, diffuse and, above all, unimaginative ideas about what the hands and fingers should do. For example, if the brain-in-our-head suddenly gets an idea for a painting, a sculpture, a piece of music or literature, or a clay figurine, it simply sends a signal to that effect and then waits to see what will happen. Having sent an order to the hands and fingers, it believes, or pretends to believe, that the task will then be completed, once the extremities of the arms have done their work. The brain has never been curious enough to ask itself why the end result of this manipulative process, which is complex even in its simplest forms, bears so little resemblance to what the brain had imagined before it issued its instructions to the hands. It should be noted that the fingers are not born with brains, these develop gradually with the passage of time and with the help of what the eyes see. The help of the eyes is important, as important as what is seen through them. That is why the fingers have always excelled at uncovering what is concealed. Anything in the brain-in-our-head that appears to have an instinctive, magical, or supernatural quality— whatever that may mean—is taught to it by the small brains in our fingers. In order for the brain-in-the-head to know what a stone is, the fingers first have to touch it, to feel its rough surface, its weight and density, to cut themselves on it. Only long afterward does the brain realize that from a fragment of that rock one could make something which the brain will call a knife or something it will call an idol. The brain-in-the-head has always lagged behind the hands, and even now, when it seems to have overtaken them, the fingers still have to summarize for it the results of their tactile investigations, the shiver that runs across the epidermis when it touches clay, the lacerating sharpness of the graver, the acid biting into the plate, the faint vibration of a piece of paper laid flat, the orography of textures, the crosshatching of fibers, the alphabet of the world in relief. (66-7)

I don't know about you, but I think this is just apt and dead-on accurate and basically just way too cool, most especially that wonderful, surprising, disarming, elegant final parallel construction, culminating as it does in the metaphor of the alphabet of the world. This is writing which enacts verbally exactly what it is describing conceptually about the nature of invention and surprise.

Monday, May 31, 2010

May Workshop

Yesterday I finished a three-day workshop (Saturday and Sunday of last weekend, Saturday of this weekend) and wound up with four new mixed-media collages in various stages of completion. The three square ones are about two feet across, which represents a step up in scale for me.

This first one is a study in browns and blue and gold. I started with a plywood panel I had gessoed and braced. The first thing I did was sketch in some basic lines and shaded areas using charcoal. That black and white area in the upper left is the visible remnant of that first move. Then I laid down the various torn-paper fragments, most of which I had prepared previously by impressing or painting loose geometrical figures on each one. I tried for a loose kind of linkage, which resulted in the largish triangular shape that dominates the left hand side of the image. There were a lot of hard lines on the lower right hand side, and I tried to soften them by rolling some thin white paints over that area, which created another sort of eco-zone when the over there. I tried to stay loose and not get too fussy. Now when I look at it it feels a little like an imaginative exercise in plate tectonics.

The second one is the least finished of the three big panels. I had it in mind that it was going to be multilayered from the start, and was mostly going to  be about experimenting with surface effects. This is where it is now. I don't know where it's going to end up. It's a little angry and unsettled right now; but maybe that's okay. I began it by using gel medium to glue down aluminum foil over the whole surface of the panel, and then tried various ways of applying color, including paint, paper, oil pastels, and regular pastels. The honeycomb pattern of white over red was George's idea: to use some lacy paper I had brought along as a kind of stencil: laying it down, painting over it, and then peeling it back. The idea for the thin red lines also came from George. It was toward the end of the day and he was challenging me to make a move that would bring it toward completion. He suggested I look back through my materials to find something that could make a difference. By way of demonstrating, he began picking up and discarding stuff that I had on the table. He picked up a flexible plastic ruler I had there, bent it back and forth, and then pressed the curved edge against the red area, more or less where the line is now, saying, "You could use this as a stamp." Kristen had some red paint mixed on her palette behind me, so I tried that and it really helped pull the piece together.

This is the workshop piece that I was most happy with. I've had trouble working with yellow so I decided to just start out by laying out a lot of yellow on the panel, and I placed three large torn-paper elements on top. Then during the week, knowing I was going to be working with warm colors, I gathered up all the brown and orange and red and yellow paper and cloth I could find, and stamped a lot of the pieces with geometrical forms. Yesterday I just started laying them down and trying to link them together, making this more or less massive landscapy from I wound up with. The last thing I did, taking advice from the group, was to cover up some of the remaining pure yellow areas and softening some of the rest of them with darker paint. I like the overall effect, especially the way the light seems to pushing in from behind.

This last one is a smaller panel I did at home with some of the leftover pieces of paper that were on my desk from preparing stuff for the previous panel. It did it fast, and I had a very clear sense of how I wanted the pieces to link up, moving from left to right. The two yellow pieces went on next to last, and the brown-and-black torn paper, as a sort of exclamation point. Nothing fancy, nothing very daring, but I like it. More than most of what I've done, it feels complete to me.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Pizza. Or perhaps
pizzicato. A place,
(piazza), a pie, a bit
of percussive play.
Purse your lips,
and push the air out:
poof. Like that.
What does that feel
like? Not like love,
not like languor.
More like impatience,
like petulance, like
disdain. Pfff. Yeah,
right. As if. Give
me a break.

Then what? We're still
here. Waiting. Like
a play, right? This is
the first speech.
A soliloquy. Perhaps.
An overture. A prelude.
To what we are waiting
for. The purpose. The
point. The purported
punch line. But

suppose there is no
payoff. Suppose it
simply is what it is.
Like life. Like waking
up every day and thinking,
maybe today it will all
become clear. When I
asked my mom, way back
when, for a palomino,
she said, "When my ship
comes in." She said,
"When I win the Irish
Sweepstakes." She said,
"Maybe someday."

I thought a lot about
that ship. I wondered
where on the ocean
it might be, how soon
it might come sailing
into port. How little
I knew of metaphor.
How much I've learned:
Pffft. Yeah right.
As if.

Process Reflection:

It's been a long time now since I just sat down to play with words. I seem to have become burdened with the self-imposed expectation that I ought to have something to say. That's as sure a road to writer's block as I know. Today I stopped in for a few minutes to visit with Tim's Writer's Club, and since it was there last meeting of the year they had pizza. Maybe because that seed had been planted in my mind, I felt like writing tonight.

I needed a place to begin. So I began with that: pizza. The word, the sound, the feel of the syllables. I just started playing with it, pushing it. After the first four lines I had a sense of the emerging structure and the possibilities posed by the syllables. (As you can hear, once you go down that road it's hard to turn off it.) Then I just tried to follow the thoughts that the syllables pushed up at me. Funny that my mom showed up. Not for the first time, of course.

Funny too: I did get that palomino, some years later. Two actually. I rode them for two years. Between the two of them they about killed my dream of horses. Be careful what you wish for.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Variations on a Theme

Process Reflection:

I was working here within two self-imposed constraints: first that I would use exactly the same materials in each of the four collages; second that I would work on the concept of linkage, connecting one part to the next in a way that would make the development of each piece more organic and internally consistent. Two relevant quotations from my mentor:

Anyway, there’s an idea that I’m trying to develop here, which is that the forms work best when you tie them together. We call it linkage. Where it’s like you’re growing a form. So you always have to connect it, you don’t just pop it out there. The forms are always like branches on a tree, they’re always tied together. And it’s one thing you can do to help your compositions, is to link one form to the next, because it gives a sense of solidity to it, a feeling of connection. The biggest problem people have with composition is unity, is keeping the composition unified. If you just start plopping things out there, here and there, thinking that you’re balancing the composition, you may be balancing it in some way, you may be offsetting one thing with another thing in a way, but you’re also building into it opposition, and you can bring this kind of competition into the composition where the forms are fighting each other, and if you start juggling things all over the place, if you’re putting one thing over here and another thing over here, you’re going to have the real possibility that you’re going to get yourself into a bind. You’re composition is going to be caught and you’re not going to know where to go because you’ve got one thing over here and another thing over here and another thing over there and another thing over here and you’re not going to be able to connect them all, you see, it’s the connection that’s important.

I’m just trying to come up with some rules. Now these are my rules. They’re not your rules, they’re my rules. You can make your own rules. But the idea of having rules is that they give you a framework, they give you a structure to hang the composition on, to build with, so that in a way what you’re doing is you’re developing a system. And that system can be returned to, you can have some confidence in it because it works. It worked once, you can do it again.

Monday, April 19, 2010


I seem to be picking up a lot of books these days and then putting them down again and not really getting back to them. There has to be something there on the page that makes me want to return. Sometimes it's an interesting situation or a compelling narrative. Lee Child's books usually start with both, and keep me turning the pages mostly because I get swept up in the plot. If there's not much happening with plot, there's another point of entry: voice. But voice is tricky. There's no one surefire way to be successful in creating voice, and there are a lot of ways to go wrong. As a reader I find myself drawn less to stylistically flamboyant voices (Holden Caulfield, in fiction, or David Foster Wallace, in nonfiction: much as I do admire them, they feel in some ways contrived; artfully contrived, but contrived nonetheless) than to more understated voices that are more subtlely revelatory of character.

For example, one of the voices I have admired for many years is that of Robert Finch, a naturalist on Cape Cod whose work I ran across while I was living in Massachusetts. Here are the first two paragraphs from "Into the Maze," the first essay in his collection The Primal Place:

    One of the occupational hazards of living in a place like Cape Cod is not always knowing where you are. The sea fog that rolls in regularly over the mud flats and salt marshes is not entirely to blame for such chronic disorientation. Nor are the winter northeasterlies whose heavy surf and storm surges break through barrier beaches, destroy parking lots, silt up harbors, and claim waterfront property all that dislocate us.
    Change is the coin of this sandy realm, and as long as we are not too close to it, such change delights us. The seasons flow in their rhythmic variety, a little out of sync with the mainland due to the ocean's moderating influence — which pleases our sense of separateness. With them come in the streaming tides of shorebirds, migrating alewives and striped bass, pack ice in Cape Cod Bay, spring peepers in the bogs, gypsy moths in the oaks, and tourists in the motels and restaurants.
Now, I can well imagine that some readers would read thus far and no farther. But I find myself already won over, ready to read on, ready to spend more time listening to this measured and reasonable and thoughtful voice. There is a precision in the deployment of words, an evident pleasure being taken in the shaping and sequencing of the constituent components of each sentence, an attentiveness both to the natural world and to its representation in words, that I find encouraging: I'd like to read more of this.

I bring all this up because I just spent a whole lot of this past weekend listening to just such a voice, that of John Ames, the narrator of Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead. It's a book that has been around for a while. It's a book that I have heard good things about and held in my hands at the bookstore several times. But when I gathered, from reading the book jacket, that it was narrated by a Congregationalist preacher and consisted in some part at least of his reflections on the scriptures, I thought to myself that it was not really the sort of thing I was going to enjoy. (I should mention that my own experiences being raised as a Christian had rather too much to do with why I have spent my entire adult life as a Buddhist, and have been in no particular hurry to revisit the theological landscape of my upbringing.) But I recently got an email from my friend Nick recommending that I read Marylinne's new book of essays Absence of Mind. It turns out that that book is not available around here just yet, but I found a copy of Gilead on the shelf of my school library, so I opened it up to the first page and started to read and immediately got hooked on the voice.

John Ames, the narrator, is, it turns out, not just a preacher himself, but the son of a preacher, and the grandson of a preacher. He is, at the time the novel opens, 76 years old, and the father of a seven-year-old son. He has been diagnosed with heart disease, and is not expecting to live long, and has decided that he will take it upon himself to write an extended letter to his son, so that when the boy grows up he will some day be able to find out what sort of man his father was. The novel is that letter. It is written in the first person and addressed to the second person, the son, addressed as you throughout the book. There's a subtle and satisfying displacement at work here, because when I am as a reader find myself addressed as "you," I am in effect being asked to imagine myself as the grownup version of that boy, being given the opportunity to take the measure of the man, my father, who has labored on my behalf in the production of this narrative.

The great strength of the novel is in the character of John Ames. He's a thoroughly admirable man. That he is intelligent, thoughtful, self-effacing, compassionate, appreciative, and serious of purpose in a completely innocent way is evidenced by literally every word that comes out of his mouth. He is much concerned throughout the book with the attempt to understand, and to communicate what he does understand, about what his life has been, in the face of what can only be understood as deep mysteries. He's much concerned, for obvious reasons, about the whole business of fathers and sons: what motivates them, what they hope for in one another, how they fail one another:

    I believe I'll make an experiment with candor here. Now, I say this with all respect. My father was a man who acted from principle, as he said himself. He acted from faithfulness to the truth as he saw it. But something in the way he went about it made him disappointing from time to time, and not just to me. I say this despite all the attention he gave to me bringing me up, for which I am profoundly in his debt, though he himself might dispute that. God rest his soul, I know for a fact I disappointed him. It is a remarkable thing to consider. We meant well by each other, too.
    Well, see and see but do not perceive, hear and hear but do not understand, as the Lord says. I can't claim to understand that saying, as many times as I've heard it, and even preached on it. It simply states a deeply mysterious fact. You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there still might be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension. (7)
He is also a man much given to appreciative reflection, and he is often able to articulate his sense of the heartbreaking beauty of the world in language which is both sparse and eloquent:

I walked up to the church in the dark, as I said. There was a very bright moon. It's strange how you never quite get used to the world at night. I have seen moonlight strong enough to cast shadows any number of times. And the wind is the same wind, rustling the same leaves, night or day. When I was a young boy I used to get up before every dawn of the world to fetch water and firewood. It was a very different life then. I remember walking out into the dark and feeling as if the dark were a great, cool sea and the houses and sheds and the woods were all adrift in it, just about to ease off their moorings. I always felt like an intruder then, as I still do, as if the darkness had a claim on everything, one that I violated just by stepping out the door. This morning the world by moonlight seemed to be an immemorial acquaintance I had always meant to befriend. If there was ever a chance, it has passed. Strange to say, I feel a little that way about myself. (74)
The long and the short of it is that the book succeeds, even in the absence of what might ordinarily be thought of as plot, because of the authenticity and the authority of the voice. That's not to say that nothing happens in the book. Plenty does, some of it rendered as memory, some of it as action in present time, action which ultimately puts all of John Ames's hard-won wisdom to the test. But what I find most admirable in the voice is the character of the man as revealed by it. He is doing all that he can, in full recognition that it may never be enough:

I'm trying to make the best of our situation. That is, I'm trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way. When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many little things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all. I remember that day in my childhood when I lay under the wagon with the other little children, watching them pull down the ruins of that Baptist church, and my father brought me a piece of biscuit for my lunch, and I crawled out and knelt with him there, in the rain. I remember it as if he broke the bread and put a bit of it in my mouth, though I know he didn't. His hands and his face were black with ash — he looked charred, like one of the old martyrs — and he knelt there in the rain and brought a piece of biscuit out from inside his shirt, and he did break it, that's true, and gave half to me and ate the other half himself. And it truly was the bread of affliction, because everyone was poor then. There had been drought for a few years and times were hard. Though we didn't notice it much because times were hard for everybody. And I guess that must have been why no one minded the rain. There had been so little of it. One thing I do remember is how the women let their hair fall down and their skirts trail in the mud, even the old women, as if none of it mattered at all. And then the singing, which was very beautiful as I remember it, though I'm pretty sure it could not have been. It would just rise up with the sound of the rain. "Beneath the Cross of Jesus." All the lovely, sad old tunes. The bitterness of that morsel has meant other things to me as the years passed. I have had many occasions to reflect on it. (102-3)
This is a book that took me by surprise, and turned out to be, from start to finish, a more satisfying read than I had thought it would be.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Reality Hunger: The Hip Hop Angle

This Too Shall Pass

Got this link from Nick today. Gotta see it to believe it.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Writer's Workshop: Starting a Story from Scratch

On Friday we had YA author Neal Shusterman as a guest at our school. He did a large-group presentation to 375 eighth graders, met separately with three grade eight classes, and then hosted a question-and-answer session with about 40 guests at the high school library after school. I had been given to understand that he was a very good speaker and worked well with kids; that impression was certainly confirmed on Friday.

In this post I mostly want to walk through a Writer's Workshop activity he led with one of the grade eight classes. It was a fun activity, it worked well with the kids, it conveyed some valuable notions about the writing process, and it strikes me as being highly portable. It's the kind of activity any English teacher might want to try as a change of pace, and it would be easily customizable to highlight whatever other topic or theme you might be working on at a given time. I like activities like this, structurally simple but conceptually rich. I'm writing it down partly to capture it for my own benefit, and partly so that if any of you want to play with it, you will have a place to begin.

Step One

Neal began by telling the students that we were going to write the beginning of a story together, but that we would start by doing a brainstorming activity. The idea was to try to pull the idea for a story "out of the clear blue sky." He explained that we'd start by brainstorming some titles, and that there would be only three rules: 1) it can't be connected to a title or story idea that already exists, 2) that it can have no names of real people, and that 3) it doesn't have to make sense.

So he began calling on kids, and writing their suggestions down on the board as they came up with them: "Aquarius Island," "Angry Rabbits," "Goats of Glory," "The Innocent Apple," "Writing in Mexican," "The Boy in a Dress," "The Girl Who Talks Too Much," "The Pig Lady," and so on. He kept encouraging kids to come up with more, and told them that the trick was not to think too hard.

Step Two

Once he had a list of about 40 titles on the board, he said, "Okay, these are good titles. But here's the deal, we're not going to use any of them. Instead, we're going to take words and phrases from what's here, look for random connections, and come up with a new set of titles." So he took a different color marker and began studying the list of words on the board, circling certain words in one title and certain words in another title, asking the students to help him find interesting or odd combinations. (He also told the kids, "Don't shout out. I won't use your suggestion if you do. Just raise your hand and I'll call on you." That was a subtle but very effective move, I think. It immediately established an expectation of how the exercise would play out.)

He kept working through the list of titles on the board until the kids had juxtaposed pretty much every word that was in every title with words from some other title or titles. Then he looked over the board and wrote down five of the "new" titles, which turned out to be "The Yawning Book," "iPod Dress," "Skater Monkeys," "The Angry Hand," and "Sinking Up." Then he asked the kids, "Why do you think I picked these five titles?" and the kids were quick to pick up on the fact that these titles all basically raise a question in your mind, they "make you think."

Then he had the kids vote on which title they thought they would want to work with, and the vote turned out to be heavily in favor of "Sinking Up."

Step Three

Neal erased the board and writing the title "Sinking Up" in the middle, and led the students through another brainstorming exercise. "When you think of the word "sinking," what comes to mind? What sort of things sink?" He drew a circle around the word "Sinking," called on kids to answer and generated a thought map of their responses (Titanic, submarine, water) on the board in blue marker. If the kids began to slow down, he'd re-frame the question or come at it from a different angle: "What else sinks?" "What things have to sink?" "What things never sink?" "What are things where it's critical, where it's a matter of life and death, that they don't sink?" "What about metaphorical kinds of sinking?"

Once he got done with "sinking," he, he took a red marker and then went through the same questioning process with the word "Up." At one point he asked when going up,  which is usually thought of as being a good thing, would be a negative. ("You want to play against the obvious.")

Step Four

The final step was to begin translating the conceptual frame provided by the title into the specific events of a story. He began by noting that some of the symptoms of being underwater and being too high up, like on a mountain, would be similar: heart rate up, difficulty breathing, coldness, oxygen deprivation. Then he began thinking out loud, modelling the process of coming up with a story. "So let's say we have two characters. They're best friends. One is a mountain climber, one is a diver. And something goes wrong. What could the problem be? They could be stuck in a vessel. So what if we fool the reader? We get them to think they're underwater, but they're really on mountaintop."

So he takes a marker and writes a sentence:

"When we found the fuselage, we thought we had enough oxygen to get back."

Then he led the students in a brief discussion about that first sentence. "What information is given? What do we know? What do we want to know?" He continued adding sentences, and talking them over as he went along:

"Jim and I climbed in. Everything seemed exactly the same as the moment it crashed here. "This kind of cold preserves everything," Joe said. He'd done this kind of recon before. The bodies didn't bother him any more. Thinking back, I wondered if the guys who found our bodies would be bothered either.

And that's pretty much where we were when the period came to an end. Over a period of about half an hour we had gone from nothing at all to a story starter with characters, setting, action, dialogue, and questions to be explored. Along the way there was a lot of useful, thought-provoking discussion, and a lot of laughs as well. I liked how Neal modelled the act of writing, complete with the secondguessing and the crossouts and the wondering out loud. The students were left with a story they had helped to create, and they were invited by their teacher to try their hands at moving it forward and seeing where it would lead. Not bad for a half hour cold call with kids he had never worked with before.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Reality Hunger

I spent part of last week reading David Shields' provocative manifesto Reality Hunger, in which he develops a multi-threaded argument that goes something like this:

The novel as a literary form is outdated and inadequate to the task of accurately representing life in the 21st century. The whole idea of authorship and ownership of ideas is itself a relic, embedded in a set of assumptions about reality that may never have been true, and certainly are true no longer. We've been stripped of our certainties. Reality in the 21st century is cacaphonous, it's an ongoing collision of voices and points of view competing for our attention. If the characteristic postmodern genre in art is collage, and the characteristic genre in music is pastiche (as in the layer and sampling in much hip-hop music), the characteristic genre in literature is the essay, but stripped of its pretensions artfulness and egocentricity. The form of the essay he envisions is exploratory and discontinuous and multilayered and, well, a whole lot like Reality Hunger.

The book is divided up, semi-arbitrarily into 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. (I say "semi-" because each chapter is in fact a purposeful, if loose, sequence connected to a theme suggested by the chapter subtitle.) Across these 26 chapters are divided, semi-arbitrarily, 618 sequentially numbered prose passages, the majority of which were borrowed or stolen or cribbed or bent or concatenated by David Shields from other sources. I read somewhere that it was originally his intention to present these passages without attribution, which would certainly be consistent with his overall argument, but that his publisher insisted on the footnoted references which appear in the back of the text. The sources themselves serve as a sort of intellectual credentialing: he's read and absorbed and is now recycling Thoreau, Barthes, Walter Benjamin, William Gass, Jonathan Rabin, Robbe-Grillet, Simic, Ozick, Geoff Dyer, and W.G. Sebald - and that's just a random sampling from the first page of nine pages of footnotes. I often found myself flipping back and forth as I read, to see if what I was reading was coming from Shields or from someone else. The cumulative effect was to get to know the inside of Shields' head, including the stuff bouncing around in it, in a way that would not have been possible, or would at least not have been similar, if he had simply trotted out his ideas as a single, coherently shaped (and therefore inherently artificial and un-realistic) argument. Which is, I take it, his point. Or one of them.

One idea that Shields returns to often is that the lines between fiction and nonfiction are much fuzzier than most of us are accustomed to believe they are, as in this passage (#106) attributed to Vivian Gornick:

Memoir is a genre in need of an informed readership. It's a misunderstanding to read memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting. Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade him or her that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand. A memoir is a tale taken from life — that is, from actual, not imagined, occurrences — related by a first-person narrator who is undeniably a writer. Beyond these bare requirements, it has the same responsibility as the novel or the short story: to shape a piece of experience so that it moves from a tale of private interest to one with meaning for the disinterested reader.

It all makes for a fascinating but somewhat uneven read. It's not unlike a musical jam session. There a whole sequences when he will get going with a sequence of riffs that build upon and play off each other and it's like great jazz, surprising and heady and exhilarating. And there are other sequences which become too loosely connected or too random or which lead too far afield. Or maybe it's just listener/reader fatigue setting in, the feeling of being overwhelmed by too much information and too many ideas and closing down.  Again, like life.

I found myself in agreement with maybe 30 percent of what he had to say, in strong disagreement with another 30 percent, and there's another 40 percent that just slipped through the cracks in my brain. I am not convinced, for example, that fiction itself is doomed as a major literary form, or that plot, as a literary device, is itself necessarily boring. James Wood has an interesting New Yorker review in which, having established Shields' argument and methodology, he then uses Shields' critique of the artificiality of fiction as a framework within which to consider The Surrendered, the new novel by Chang-rae Lee. I think he sums up my own reaction well when he says

His complaints about the tediousness and terminality of current fictional convention are well-taken: it is always a good time to shred formulas. But the other half of his manifesto, his unexamined promotion of what he insists on calling “reality” over fiction, is highly problematic.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Free Write

I feel like writing tonight. I've been doing a ton of reading the last week or two, and I've thought at one time or another about trying to put together a post about each piece individually, but one of the reasons I haven't, and one of the reasons I've been posting more fitfully recently, is that putting together a post is of that nature is basically a lot of work. It's almost nine o'clock in the evening now. I'm nearly always in asleep at or near ten o'clock, because I've found that my biorhythms are happier if I go to bed and wake up at a regular time. When I was younger I could stay up reading or working until eleven or twelve o'clock and be the worse for wear the next day. No longer.

So anyway, I thought that rather than start working on a post with a purpose I'd do what I maybe most enjoy doing as a writer, what I used to ask my students to do back in the day when I was actually teaching (I'll be teaching a class again in the fall, thank god), what I have gotten away from doing for some reason as my sense of what I've been trying to do in Throughlines has become more formalized, which is, just write. It's not like there's ever a dearth of words. Writing, as I have come to understand it and value it, does not have to be a formal, purposeful activity. It can be, and perhaps ought to be, at least some of the time, more of a welling up, like a song.

Of course, this is not the way we teach writing in school, at least not most of us, and not most of the time. Writing as we teach it, and as students learn it, is about meeting certain kinds of formal and structural and logical expectations that have been preordained by our subject-area teachers. We're told what to do, we give it our best shot, and we get it back, most often, with a grade on it, based on somebody's rubric or standard. I had a conversation with a colleague today about exactly such a situation, about how a student she had been trying to help had given an assignment his best shot and it had come back with some dismissive comments and a disappointing grade. And as we talked about it I was feeling sympathy for the student and disheartenment about the situation itself. Why does school have to be this way? What is the point? Where else but in school is anyone ever going to hand you back something you have written with a grade on it? And why would we want to do that, anyway? And once it has been done, and the damage is evident, how do we redress it?

Just before I sat down to write I was reading Frank Smith's The Book of Learning and Forgetting, which I found out about on Wes Fryer's blog. It's a book with a lot of what seems to be to be very clear, straightforward, commonsense thinking about literacy, and here's what he had to say (well, a piece of what he had to say) on the subject of damage control:

Students who have "failed" school literacy instruction for 10 years have learned that they can't read and write, that they don't want to or expect to, that they are "dummies." They must be persuaded that none of these things is true, that they are as competent (and as worthwhile) as anyone else—and probably know a great deal about reading and writing. None of this is accomplished without skill and sensitivity in intimate personal relations.

Well, it seems my song has become less lyrical. I've somehow drifted into expository mode, which may well be my default mode. The starling croaks, the raven himself is hoarse. At lunch today I mentioned that I was waiting for someone to take the bit in his teeth and the woman I was talking to looked startled. I'm not sure whether because she was not familiar with the expression or because she knew it and was shocked that I was using it in that context. I often do not know what is going to pop out of my mouth until it has already escaped. Which is, essentially, the mode I'm modelling here. I started up there at nine. Now it's ten to, and I'm ending down here. But this, this texture, these words, these commas, these repetitions, they push themselves up from underneath, like seeds, like starts, like birds startled into sudden flight. Charming, I'm sure: Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine, and thrice again to make up nine.