Monday, September 29, 2008

On Journals and Journaling, Part 1

"Journal is from Old French jurnal, or 'belonging to a day.' At first, it was a sort of reference book that contained the times of daily prayers. In the 1600s, it acquired the meaning of 'diary' and later became associated with newspaper titles and lent its root to journalism." From Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac

This quotation came through to my inbox the other day, and it struck me as being chock-full of interesting tidbits:
  1. That the first journal recorded the times of daily prayers. As a Protestant Christian who, (like Kathleen Norris, whose book The Cloister Walk encouraged me in the practice), loves visiting monasteries, my "monastery geek" side comes out full force for this one. Particularly since my "diary-style" journal entries so often turn into prayers by their ends--I find talking to God so much more interesting than talking to myself.

  2. That the first journals were also reference works. I still find my journals to retain a touch of this character--I try to capture thoughts, observations, emotions, etc., partly so I can refer to them immediately and figure out what's going on in me, but also for reference later on to remember snippets of what my life was like at an earlier time. And my journals specifically used to capture writing inspirations are even more reference works.

  3. The reporting, or journalism, aspect is interesting, particularly as I don't often think of other people reading my journal. However, last week I had to do a finding aid for some of my papers for my archival theory and practice class, acting as though future researchers would be using my papers for research, and this gave me new insights into this journaling aspect (and made me feel quite vulnerable). But more on that in a day or so (hm, there really is an ancient connection between journals and what many blogs have turned into).

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Life Imitates Art?: The Debate Formats

So last night I was watching the debate responses late on MSNBC when this political analyst came on. I don't remember his name (as I was still half-dead from my week of grad school insanity), but he attributed the more loosened up format of the debates in West Wing affected Jim Lehrer's insistence on McCain and Obama talking to each other. If this is true, a fictional representation may actually have had an effect on this election.

The thing is, as a West Wing fan, I knew the thing looked familiar as I was watching the debate. I knew I'd seen something similar on the show. As someone who's studying stories, particularly fictional ones, from a rhetorical, what-is-its-place-in-society way for my PhD, I found this just delightful. But beyond academics, if it's true, it could be actually quite significant within this already-unusual election.

So much to say. First, the analyst's case for this connection between the fictional and the real debate was compelling: he said that Jim Lehrer had been asked to take part in the fictionalized West Wing debate version a few years back, but turned it down because there was a rule that PBS employees couldn't appear in fiction (and Jim Lehrer himself had written the rule). That he'd talked to Jim Lehrer after the fictional version had aired, and Lehrer had liked the fiction version. We can't know for sure, but yeah, from my viewings of both (I watched that episode again a few months ago), there's a pretty significant echo here between the fictional and the real versions, particularly considering the popularity of the show and the fact that the debate moderator tonight actually had such a close connection with the fictional version.

Anyway, if this connection is true, this is huge. See, West Wing, according to teaser quote on the back of Season 4, is, at least in the eyes of The Buffalo News and those who wanted to put the quote on the season's cover, an "hour-long fantasy about what the White House might be like if honor and intellectual brilliance ever trumped cupidity and mediocrity." So this influential, well-written and award-winning show about what politics might be like may, a few years after its airing, be changing potentiality into actuality, which is pretty mindblowing to think about (though totally familiar ground for narrative theorists such as Walter Fisher).

Case in point:
LAST NIGHT There was much made in the post-debate coverage that Obama relaxed and look at McCain as Lehrer was urging them to, whereas McCain looked uncomfortable with the whole format and never once looked at Obama. And yes, Lehrer's role as the moderator highlighted this difference, as he was the one encouraging direct interaction.

IN WEST WING It was a situation with a youthful but smart Latino Democratic candidate (played by Jimmy Smits) goes up against a much older Republican mavericky candidate (sound familiar?). In the TV show version, both sides loosen up (not encouraged by the moderator but on their own--I think it was actually the Republican candidate who started the thing and insisted on a new debating style, and the Democratic candidate responded well), putting them on much more equal footing and making the audience breathe a sigh of relief as both characters became more likeable.

IN WEST WING, then, both opened up. LAST NIGHT, in the real version, only one of the candidates loosened up.

It makes me wonder, a lot. In a few directions:
  1. Will art make a measurable difference in this election? West Wing was a very popular show, and that episode was only aired a few years ago. I can't have been the only one in the audience with narrative expectations based on the fictional version. Might these comparisons to the show's outcome actually affect in a significant way how the voting public interpreted the outcome of last night's debate? (One wishes someone had started a longitudinal study back at the original airing, so as to ask those people tonight was their reactions were. :) If so, the comparison can only be positive for Obama, it seems, and negative for McCain, which is incredibly relevant at this point in the election cycle.

    It's definitely exciting, in that the world of possibility offered within West Wing offers an antidote to what narrative theorists Bennett and Edelman say happens so often in the narratives crafted by politicians: that "stock political plots ([as opposed to] other, more useful narrative possibilities) construct meanings to counter...ambiguity," resolving "possible points of new understanding into [cut-and-dried] replays of the political dramas of the past." This means that literary representations of truth may have wedged new possibilities for the narrative genres put forth by the political culture of this country, which as Bennet and Edelman argue has difficulty achieving the sort of creativity and possibility offered by great fiction.*

    In other words, solutions that people have dreamed up and put into fiction are able to break into our polarized, highly conventionalized ways of thinking about politics in this country, demanding that candidates act in new ways, in a very literal sense.

    On the other hand, some might be disturbed that a scene in a TV show, in prescribing new ways for politicians to act, might have been able to act as a lobbyist, potentially swaying the course of the election. If you think the show's potentialities are the way candidates should relate to each other in the debate, you're likely to think it's great--if not, probably not so much.

    (By the way, I think Obama won the debate, and I'm perfectly aware that my judgment in that could be influenced by, among other things, the fact that I like the styles of relating offered by West Wing's version of political debating--they rang true to me when I first saw them, which gave me further grounds for the contrast between the two versions to seem particularly striking to me. In fact, if West Wing really had a conceivable influence on this election, I wonder whether it's possible that Obama's style is somewhat more accepted in general during this election because of some of the aspects of the "fantasy political world" West Wing laid before the American public.)

  2. For artists, including myself: Does this raise the stakes on what we do? On the ethics of what we as artists choose to write? How we write it? This case seems to illustrate that our cultural productions have some pretty powerful rhetorical oomph--perhaps even influencing who becomes president of the US. That's some pretty amazing power--something to be taken seriously. I don't think it means that we should be making our fictions heavily ideological, allowing the "shoulds" of the world trump the "what ifs" within our stories, but it certainly makes me think we should at least be asking the right "what ifs"--important "what ifs"--and seriously considering our choices of characters, as well as other ways we might think in the ethical dimension about the persuasive power of the story to influence the world.

  3. For narrative theorists and creative folks of all stripes: Not so much a wondering here as more of a WOW! Look! A pretty significant example that art, and its study, is incredibly important, and that stories are incredibly significant in how they shape our views of the world, and provide a testing ground for proving out how ideas may work in the world. Woohoo!

    On the other hand, though, it concerns me a bit. It makes a strong case for rhetorical and sociological interpretations of art, which is good, but with Santiago Ramos, I'm worried about our reduction of art to ONLY these aspects, so it makes me worry a bit about whether this kind of case could overly encourage that sort of emphasis at the expense of the other equally valid aspects of fiction, especially their aesthetic qualities as well as the ways they help us view people and the human condition in more complex and (often) sympathetic ways.
One final prediction, from a girl studying the rhetoric of conspiracies this semester: Someone in the McCain camp could so easily turn this whole West Wing and the debates thing into a conspiracy theory of some kind. I sincerely doubt that such a thing would be the result of a conspiracy--just shows that Kenneth Burke's idea in "Literature as Equipment for Living" is right--that we use situations in fictional stories to help us understand situations in the real world, as strategies for thinking differently than we are used to thinking.

* Bennett, W.L. and Edelman. L. (1985). Toward a new political narrative. Journal of Communication, 35(4), 158, 162. For more on rhetoric and possibility, see Kirkwood, W. (1992). Narrative and the rhetoric of possibility. Communication monographs, 59(1), 30-47.

Some links to stuff about the West Wing debate episode:
  1. A description of it,
  2. a blog post highlighting the political side of the episode,
  3. a Washington Post article on the effect of the episode
  4. an MSNBC post-episode report
  5. AP article asking why real debates don't work like the episode

1:39 PM:

Really have to stop researching this soon and get back to more immediate stuff, but here's some articles making recent connections between the West Wing election and this campaign from
a Minnesota Public Radio debate article from yesterday and a BBC article from 12 days ago which says Smits' character on the show (and not to be a spoiler for DVD watchers, but Smits's character won the election, by the way) may have influenced Obama's run, and another blog post mapping the similarities and connections.

Friday, September 26, 2008

In Honor of T. S. Eliot's B-Day...

I'd like to propose an interactive post here.

I'm going to loosely connect a few previously disconnected lines of Eliot poetry, and then I'm hoping a few of you will either add any Eliot lines you know of in the comments, or make up your own similar lines to add to the general poeticness?

Oh, and if anyone can identify each line quoted with the Eliot poem with which it originally belonged, you get bonus points. No prize, mind you, but bonus points anyway.

Please? It'll be fun...

Here goes (Happy birthday, Mr. Eliot, and sorry about the alterations I'm about to make to your poetry, especially since I'm not paying much attention to line breaks or exact wording):

Let us go then, you and I
In April, the cruellest month
When the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And watch the evening spread across the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table
Or perhaps be engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of our names
Or the lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender
While the women come and go, speaking of Michelangelo

(and of Mr. Eliot's birthday).

The Need for Non-Verbal Expression

I was tempted to make this post blank, but then I figured that was just a smart-aleck trick, since that wouldn't quite get across everything I was trying to say.

My thought, stemming from the musical solution to my recent reader's block, is that it's good to have a set of writing practices that don't involve verbalizing why you're blocked. Yes, I think it's good to journal stuff out, too, but things like music, exercise, and arts and crafts are good ways to not only get your brain moving, but to siphon off emotions without having to verbalize everything.

I think us word people--I know I do it--focus too much sometimes on the power of words to make things right. They can, it's true, and it's good to keep writing, for many many reasons, but it's also good sometimes to express things non-verbally, not necessarily to keep a 50-50 balance, but to make sure some of that is happening.

No one, after all, knows more than us that words have their limits.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Bit of Group Storytelling Fun... going on over at Kevin Alexander's blog. It's a fun concept--he starts a story with a first paragraph, then encourages visitors to keep telling the story in the comments. I added to it last night. What a delightful way to inject five minutes of creativity and storytelling into one's day.

And what a great way to use the participatory elements of the blog format to allow a group of people--who have probably never met in person--to cooperate in telling one delightfully silly story.

Note: Link fixed now, above. Sorry about that....

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Bad News/Good News Scenario

Bad news: I'm quite tired, having stayed up until 4:30 a.m. finishing the load of homework due today, which I was finishing up after the load of homework due yesterday. And tonight I have to annotate the notes I put together for tomorrow night's presentation, so the wave's still washing over me, although the biggest part of it has past.

Good news: It turned out that an hour spent in near-pounding out tunes on my incredibly out-of-tune piano siphoned off enough psychic blockage to let me finish everything I was supposed to finish. On time, if not with a lot of time in there for sleeping. And now that the first wave of the semester has passed, I have time to scan the horizon (er, syllabi) for future waves, so as to see where I can plan for them. I also have time to actually get the piano tuned so that I can do less violence to my ear drums next time I hit reader's or writer's block.

Bad news: I got a negative response to my novel manuscript query in the mail today.

Good news: It was the nicest rejection I've ever gotten. Not only was it very timely (just over 2 weeks since I sent the original by mail) and handwritten, but it began with the word "Alas" (in the sense that "alas, he couldn't take it"). See, some agents can be nice. And now it's time to get back on that horse and get a few more back in the mail quickly, as national events have conspired to give me a window when the topic of my novel is more pertinent than ever.

Bad news: Because I have not yet passed my big nasty exams for my PhD, I may not be able to get a reader's permit to view manuscripts and letters (pertinent to my dissertation topic and my history-ish/archives classes this fall) I've been salivating over that are held at the prestigious Huntington Library in California, when I go there next month.

Good news: I've spoken to the archivist for the collection, and she told me the procedure for asking if I can get in despite not having passed my exams. And even if I don't get a permit, she's willing to meet with me the Monday I'm in the area and get me photocopies of the items I identify as important. This means that, provided the items actually have the exciting information I think is there, I'll be able to write a potentially important paper toward my dissertation this fall. Plus, I'm getting important experience with archives that will help me with future forays into them. Yeah! Good things to temper the bad-news elements of my week!

Monday, September 22, 2008

I'm Not Posting, Just Pointing...

Just wanted to point out that there's a fascinating new post over at Good Letters about what a novel is and how the author thinks one ought not to criticize it...good stuff.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Reader's Block, Part 2

Okay, so I got curious as to whether others experienced reader's block, and found this lovely and still-relevant thread of discussion about it at LibraryThing, and another at the Guardian.

It seems that that statement the Jack character made in Shadowlands--"we read to know we are not alone"--applies to reading online threads about reader's block as well. I do feel thankful that this is not an isolated condition.

The only problem with these threads is that they refer to "reading" as spare time reading, which means that much of the advice revolves around telling people to wait out the reader's block or switch to reading something else. These are not options for me, since what I'm blocked toward is assigned reading with an imminent deadline. Although several people in the first thread said they really got blocked during grad school, they didn't say how they got around the problem.


By the way, the block is a little bit better, but still distressingly there, at least in part. I don't think the fall allergies are helping it much. Note to self: next year, wait until later in October, when the allergies ease up, to choose to make any class presentations. Except, well, I won't be in classes next fall (what a glorious thought!). I'll be studying for my big nasty exams instead, which task is big and nasty, but blessedly is more flexible in how one studies for it.

Oh, one more thing--there probably won't be any new posts until Wednesday-ish, as that's when my academic load lightens just a bit.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Mysterious Case of Reader's Block

Here's the I'm expected to produce a ton of written and oral output of the academic type in the next week. The problem is that in order to do that, I have to shovel a large load of new material into my head, but after 3 years of grad school, it feels like I've reached capacity for new ingestion of written material.

That is to say, I have reader's block.

Anyone have suggestions for practices to get around this weird problem? And quickly? I really need to dig into this stuff tomorrow in a serious way...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Human Side of Submissions

Cheryl Klein had a fabulous blog entry on Monday, touching on the difficulty some editors have with the rejection process. The entry is largely composed of a couple of paragraphs of an essay by Brian Doyle.

It's a beautiful essay, and having spent several years in the world of publishing--having worked in a publishing house and from my positions on the editorial staff of The Fieldstone Review, along with a couple of other publications--I can totally empathize with him. My favorite lines:

"So very often I find myself admiring grace and effort and craftsmanship, honesty and skill, piercing and penetrating work, even as I turn to my computer to type a rejection note.... So very many people working so very hard to connect, and here I am, slamming doors day after day."

However, as a writer who's eagerly waiting with fear and trembling, many tenterhooks involved and all that, to hear back on a novel query, I also can empathize really well with the fourth commenter to the blog post, who said:

"It's not always that a writer, especially a new one, is trying to get one up on a potential editor by sending work that is irrelevant to him/her. Sometimes, a raw inspiration to write does not come with a guide to the literary world or a guide to those guides."

It seems to me that both sides could use a bit of appreciation of the difficulties the other faces, and remember, after all, that it's humans on the other side of the desk. The editors really are looking for good work, but they're also needing to make money to stay afloat, and sometimes they have bad days.

And the writers, well, sometimes they have taken a huge amount of work just to get to this point, not to mention a huge risk and psychological oomph, just to get to where they're willing to send their stuff (I'm particularly thinking of you here, Ril--you go, girl).

There are times when both are idiots, for sure. But I'd like to think that there are--or at least can be, or should be--moments of humanity and recognition of the Other's perspective within the whole thing. I must believe so, because my writing censors work very hard to make me cynical about the whole process.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Swallowed Up...

I'm finally feeling better from my sinus infection, but have been knocked over the head and ignominiously dragged off into a cave by the assignments that were lurking outside my door while I was sleeping off the infection. They tell me, if I'm good, I can get out for Thanksgiving dinner and a few hours in October, but other than that, there's no chance of being let out for three more months. I feel like Jonah.

It's sort of warm in here, in the belly of grad school. Sort of womb-like, and comforting in a way (though there are emotions in here, they're not so frequent as in the world of creative writing). And it's not so bad, seeing around me by dim light. I know those shadows back there, in the corners, are tunnels leading to the concrete parts of the world I've left behind, along with those other worlds whose characters are waiting for me to bring them into a more concrete-ish existence in words.

I know there are people out there in the world, on vacations, getting errands instead of research for papers done on Saturdays, allowing themselves those odd distant things called "hobbies." Or at least allowing themselves to get that tire finally replaced on the car. Maybe I can stage a revolution in a week or so and bust out into the open air for some time--maybe even a Saturday--of non-grad school-related activities, maybe even some novel editing (while sitting at Goodyear, of course), once this presentation is done. It would be a daring expedition, involving much planning and diligence for me to not feel ridden with guilt.

See, the problem is that if I'm not careful, I'll be forming bonds with my captors (something to which my pattern of empathizing with my characters leaves me vulnerable). It's likely to happen any minute now...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Bits and Pieces: Poetry as Soul Food

In her new post over at the Good Letters blog, Peggy Rosenthal digs deeply into something I've known (believed? felt?) for quite some time: poetry is soul food.

This reminded me of several things (strung together below in a poetic train-of-thought-type manner):
  1. A quote I used to have up on my wall (and found again here):

    A poet is somebody who feels
    and who expresses those feelings through words.
    This may sound easy -
    it isn't.

    A lot of people think
    or believe or know they feel
    but that's thinking or believing or knowing, not feeling
    And poetry is feeling, not knowing or believing or thinking.

    Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know
    but not a single human being can be taught to feel –
    Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know,
    you're a lot of other people,
    But the moment you feel, you're nobody but yourself . . .

    -- e.e. cummings (?)

  2. Someone's (was it Kathleen Norris's?) comment a few years back at the Festival of Faith & Writing that poetry, for her, came out of word play or emotion, whereas prose came out of ideas (see my post on this idea).

  3. My MA supervisor's comment on how easy my thesis seemed to come for me, and my response that I was reading people who were writing calming things about the still point of the turning world, which made it the restful part of a turbulent year. Part of the reason I didn't mention is that I've often found Eliot's Four Quartets, along with the Psalms, particularly good poetic soul food.
Reading poetry also seems to do a good job of keeping my word play abilities alive, partly by reminding me that metaphor and symbol lives and that words are useful for more than straight exposition.

So yeah, a recommendation for those who'd like to read poetry on a daily basis: subscribe to Garrison Keillor's "The Writer's Almanac" for a daily dose of poetry in your inbox (it's also available by podcast and includes some interesting writer's bios each day as well).

Friday, September 12, 2008

New Article Up

I'm tired, so I'm going to go back to sleep now (once again--ah, the joys of allergy-induced sinus infections), but I wanted to let you know that I have another new article up at catapult magazine. It's about the ethics of our responses to other writers, etc. when we're unlikely to ever meet them.

Brenda also has an article in this issue about community and globalization--it sort of dialogues with mine (which is what good writing is supposed to do, in my book--it's all a big conversation--and the new version of catapult now has commenting available on each article, so that it becomes even more that way. I find it fitting).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Style Matters...

So Mike Hoffman reminded me of this piece: "A Visit from St. Nicholas in the Ernest Hemingway Manner" by James Thurber. Beyond its hilariousness, it's a reminder to me that writing style makes a big difference in a piece's delivery and meaning.

It's also a reminder of how much I like making fun of Hemingway. My favorite line: “'There you go,' mamma said. 'You and your flying reindeer.'”

In other news, I did come up with some material to put in my rhetoric of conspiracy analysis paper, thanks to reading the material again just before I took a nap. (I'm always amused at how much academic paper-writing process involves letting the intuitive side of my mind go to work on the material. I'm also glad for another proof that my writing practices work for both kinds of writing.) Anyway, I'm thankful it was a short piece, as fall allergies have descended upon me with a vengeance.

Or, to write it in Hemingwayvian style:

"There you go," mamma said. "You and your analyses of conspiracy rhetoric."

Just then the allergies from the river hit. They hit hard that year. I wrapped myself up in my bed and slept.

Assignments piled up outside. But I knew I'd only be able to fight the river if I slept. So I slept long and hard.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Articulation and Authenticity

I've been thinking a lot lately, as the deadline for my first grad paper of the semester approaches (on Friday--short one, but still the first paper of the semester) about the pressure of articulation. It seems, sometimes, as though with all this communication swirling around us, there's less patience than ever towards inarticulacy, unformed-ness and messiness of things.

Ironically, this is at the same time when the world has begun to accept and praise messy and less-organized written forms. The pressure, I think, is to be articulate even in our first drafts, because the pace is fast, the forms are informal, and there's much other writing that we could turn our attention to at any time. More so in grad school, where the pace is fast, but the forms are formal.

How, I wonder, to continue to be consistently articulate in this climate, while being at least somewhat authentic at the same time? It feels like a high-wire act at times...

Sigh. I'm sure I'll find something to say in my paper. It's only 3-5 pages, after all. It's not so much this one, but the weight of all the ones that will follow it this semester and next that I feel, swirling in their now-chaotic, un-thought-out state, the not-quite-right words flying around me in their yet unordered state.... Like Eliot says so eloquently in Four Quartets:
Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. ("Burnt Norton" ll. 149-153)
I've always hated the beginning part of the process. It's the middle and end for me. (Of course, talk to me again in a month or two and I'll tell you it's only the end, at least when it comes to the writing associated with the semester.)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Dictionaries and Encyclopedias, Oh My!

Nerdy confession: I've liked dictionaries and reference books of various kinds for a long time. I think it went back to my childhood poring over the flags of the world and the overlays of the human body in our "up-to-date" World Book, and then later studying for the spelling bees with my dad. Later on, I remember perusing with delight the telephone entry in my grandma's 1920 encyclopedia.

As a grad student who gets exposed to lots of concepts all the time, this love has been recently been renewed. From the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory to my trusty Dictionary of Etymology, they make for great reference points and sources of inspiration for my writing. They're essential to my creative writing as well--I would have had a harder time with my Alaska novel manuscript without my Alaska Dictionary and Pronunciation Guide.

So I was excited when, while taking a few minutes this morning on the blog circuit before digging into my homework, and found this gem of a blog. It's a dictionary-in-the-making of delightfully new words the author finds in articles online. I could find this very inspiring for the creative and word-geek parts of my brain, but feel rather sad that none of these words would go over well in academic papers (unless I were to find a way to study them--hm...).

This find, however, will balance out the Dictionary of Theories I found for cheap last week to bring myself up-to-date on the academic side. One for each side of the brain is fitting, actually. It makes me feel just the trifle bit less disappointed that I wasn't able to buy that dictionary of statistics about causes of death (which would have been helpful for my study of mystery stories--or so I tried to tell myself).

Anyone have any recommendations for inspiring or useful dictionaries or other reference works? Stories about the dictionary or encyclopedia? Or just dictionary words you've liked for a long time?

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Power of Choice

Over at the Good Letters blog, Santiago Ramos has posted about this How Fiction Works book (by James Wood) that I've been reading, blogging about, and enjoying. One comment he made is one that a lot of my classes have also been focusing on lately--the power of the author to both choose and exclude certain items from the story.

Both Ramos and Wood speak of this option in terms of the novel and speak of it as a potentially beautiful, artistic act, and I love that. The reason I love this is that the world of critical theorist academics so often speaks of all choice as negative, and arising from malign motives.

Often they are right, and have valid points--and social justice is a truly beautiful thing, highlighting the downtrodden and the oppressed. And I think that it's very important for us, when looking at something like a historical archive in the library, to be aware that how the items were chosen and what might have been excluded were important choices to analyzing the collection and towards building our view of history.

But I don't think that such exclusions are always made out of malign motives. I think that those who were building the literary canon, for instance, were simply trying to come up with a good list of literary works. And I think they did a good job of that. Sure, other things are worthy of study, and we ought not become snobby about sticking with the canon all the time, or assume those who made the choices or those included within it are unimpeachable. But I think we need not knock down these authors simply because they've been considered great. In fact, I think we should take some time to revel in the excellent choices these great authors made within their works when it came to language.

And we ought not think that choice is always a negative thing. Sure, as deconstructionist literary theorists such as Derrida famously pointed out, choice always involves both the chosen and the unchosen, but we couldn't live without making choices in our written and spoken words: in the things we choose to do each day, in the writing projects we choose, and in the details we choose to include within each line of poetry and sentence of prose.

I appreciate the attention the critical theorists have brought to the ethical significance of these choices and their potential exclusionary power, and I try to think more about these choices on a daily basis as a result, but as Ramos and Wood remind us, it's worth also remembering that these choices, on the aesthetic level, can create great beauty, and on a deeper level, can provide great meaning and dignity, helping us to appreciate how much we share in the human condition through beautifully chosen words.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Trouble with Empathy

So for the last 10 years or so, I've been noticing that my creative writing has been building my empathy muscles. Thinking from my characters' perspectives requires me to try to understand people I often don't like. For the most part, this is a good thing.

The problem is that now that I'm in the habit, I can't stop, even when I'm supposed to be maintaining some sort of professional distance from the subject matter. (No wonder I find quantitative social science difficult.)

The thing is, now I've been sensitized, I find it more and more difficult to remain untouched when I encounter difficult or dark subject matter. The problem this week is that my rhetoric of conspiracy class, despite its seemingly amusing quality (and yes, it DOES make me want to watch "So I Married an Axe Murderer" again, especially the part about the triumvirate), also has much dark subject matter. It highlights the ugly outgrowths of fear and suspicion, including much prejudice. And it doesn't help me that many of the researchers writing about often seem to thinly veil their disgust for the type of people who would feel such emotions (disgust I so easily empathize with).

Vinita Hampton Wright warned me this side effect of the creative life in The Soul Tells a Story, so I shouldn't be surprised. Still, working through my emotional responses to all of this involves a lot of emotional processing, which takes time. Sheesh, it's annoying to have to expend this sort of time during the school year dealing with this sort of thing--I expect it when I'm doing creative writing, but am always shocked, for some unaccountable reason (probably having to do with the expected academic distance), to encounter it in my academic work. The worst part is, I think, that it gives me a preview of the sort of thing I'm going to have to deal with if and when I start writing the type of novel (and I have a few in mind) that have actual villains. It's going to take courage to go there.

Some days it would be so easy to think that all of this were the result of some sort of conspiracy against me. I'm sure God's in on it, somehow--he usually has it in for any self-righteousness, anger, bitterness, etc. I try to hold on to. Hm, the Trinity--sounds triumvirate-like...maybe that empathy for the conspiracy rhetoricians won't be so hard to find after all. After all, my engagements with my faith make me realize I have all sorts of fears. It could be so easy to move into that sort of outlet for them.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Nudity, Writing, and Being a PK

So Brenda sent me this blog entry awhile ago, and I'm just getting around now to commenting on it. It's a fascinating take on the nudity analogy for writing, in an effort to explain why writing is hard for some people.

As I read this, I realized that I was always cautious in what I said to others when I was growing up, but over time, I've become more comfortable with both saying and writing, though are are still things people don't get to know.

As a kid, part of the cautiousness was my personality, but I think a lot of it had to do with being a PK (that's a pastor's kid, for you uninitiated in the initialisms of the world of Protestant denominations). We lived, mostly, in small towns, and everyone knew what the pastor and his family were up to all the time. So I lived a somewhat-public life. The frequent analogy is "living in a glass house," which is remarkably similar to the nudity analogy.

The point is, I think, now that I'm all grown up and blessed with receding to being a regular church member, this upbringing both taught me to be more and less private about what I say in both spoken and written forms. One realizes, when looking back at glass house living from a blessed distance, that it's not such a big deal if people know that you're going to the store, or if you like a certain kind of fruit.

Other things, of course, as one learns from glass house living, can be more damaging to oneself and others to let out, and one is naturally cautious about those. But the thing about glass house living is that one learns strategies, after years, to realize what's really important to keep private vs. what's somewhat personal, but isn't such a big deal to let others know about.

One realizes, when looking back, that this training prepares one quite well for the writing life and its inevitable need to disclose some things, but not too much. Incidentally, I also think it's prepared me for all the weird social modalities that come up through communicating on Facebook.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

How Much Detail?

The 3 day novelists from TextFIGHT brought up a question in Monday's post comments that I wanted to poke at further, because it seems to be one of the key questions for writing today: how much detail do you dispense and when?

They were talking about this in the context of their characters, but the same problem presents itself in other kinds of writing too. It's a question anytime you're an expert on something and want to write for people who don't know as much about the subject as you do.

How do you figure out how to include just the right number of details, and which ones your audience will be interested in? I realized awhile back that this is why I was so intrigued in the writing of the TV series West Wing--at the time I started watching, I was profoundly ignorant of and disinterested in the very detailed subject matter it portrayed, and yet it kept me interested and taught me just enough about the subject matter to get me by in the narrative. If I could find that balance myself...

This seems to be to be an even harder question to answer today than it used to be, when, as they point out over at Good Letters in the commentary on the excellent post "Maybe Google Isn't Making Us Stupid", the taste of readership seems to be undergoing a sea change, though it's unclear to me exactly what kind of sea change. On one hand, people don't read long pieces anymore so much, we're told. But on the other hand, they'll spend hours reading all the info they can find on a subject they're interested in, wanting more and more detail. By the same token, many are addicted to watching or reading the same stories over and over again, or looking for more installments to a series to get more info.

It's hard, in this climate, to know where to stop. How to write so that people want to get to that "wanting more" point, and then how to keep them happy while you're trying to engage those who also want less and are easily distracted? Finding that balance sometimes gets harder now that I'm an academic that spends a lot of time writing for academics, who are also similarly intrigued by questions that don't so much interest the general populace. But what is the general populace with so many people interested in different niche topics?

I don't know. I only know that I find test readers to be invaluable in giving me feedback on what's interesting and adequately-explained and what's not.

Anyone have thoughts on any of this?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Reading and Writing at Different Speeds

So one of my professors mentioned again in last week's class that part of our job as graduate students was to learn to read at different speeds--to learn to scan some things very quickly while choosing to spend hours reading more important things in-depth.

I feel like my ability to do the fast kind of reading in the COM field is finally coming to me. It's always a learning curve for me to master this fast reading when approaching a new genre of heavy critical tomes (the same was true when I went back for my MA in English at first), but after a year of slogging through COM theorists and quantitative and qualitative articles and essays, I finally feel like I can scan these genres when I need to, which should make this school year significantly less laborious.

The thing is, as I reflect on Ril and the others at TextFIGHT doing the slightly insane but incredibly gutsy 3-day novel thing this weekend, writing is something that can--and probably also should, at times--also be done at that fast-scanning sort of speed.

I think the key to this fast-writing, as with fast-reading, is not just in learning to do it, but learning to do it so that one does it relatively well. That calls for a facility with both the craft and the rules of whatever genre you're working in. The material you come out with is bound to be rough, but being able to do it well shows a sort of mastery over the material you're working with, as well as a lack of self-consciousness about the process.

Our media ecology is an ideal test bed on which to develop this sort of lightning speed--and I can do it in blog posts, facebook statuses, wall posts, and emails, which is excellent priming for the pump of other kinds of quick writing. I've also been known to plow out a quick poem, creative non-fiction essay or a homework assignment, and I'm getting closer to this speed for COM essays--hoping I can get closer to it this semester.

The one key place where I haven't quite mastered the speed of fast writing, however, is in my creative writing. I feel like my mastery of the generic conventions and knowledge of my characters comes so slowly that I'm not there yet. I've been known to speed-edit after the first draft, but the first draft tends to come incredibly slowly, in part because it's always a very long side project that gets easily de-prioritized. I think, oddly enough, it will take going over the hump to fast-writing COM essays before I'll get the confidence to try something similar with my novel-writing.

I do hope that I get to do one of these contests someday, however--I think it would help. Oh, 3-day novelists (or anyone else), any comments on the process?