Category Archives: From the journals

Message-Writing Versus Mind-Writing

In my personal writing, I’m not usually responding to existing texts (by reviewing books or responding to others’ arguments or making pointed allusions), and I’m also not usually making new texts that present an idealized, heightened reality or consciousness (such as poetry that uses language intensely, or novels that depict some mythic struggle). Instead, I’m usually trying to take my text-making into the world, writing about where I am and what I’m seeing, hearing, and thinking (examples here, here, and here).

Yesterday at school, as I was writing my own poem as my creative writing students made theirs, I’d thought of an earlier poem of mine, and how it was good — it was special, it felt poetic — because it used language intensely. Poems could be thought of as having a certain intensity of language that one doesn’t hear in most daily conversations. That’s why poems are fun to read — they’re heightened, intense, just as stage plays and fiction show characters and situations that are more heightened and intense than daily life. And that’s the attraction — I enjoy O Brother and Jesus Christ Superstar and “The Raven” and Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird because these works show things that are stylized, that go beyond my common experience of reality. Even certain nonfictions, too, are heightened — breathless news stories, gloriously polished literary essays.

But I’ve also questioned the values of thinking of my own life in this heightened way — seeing my life and thinking it should be more dramatic or funny or whatever. I suppose one could try to live an intense life — one could cause drama, live outside the law, do drugs, hitchhike.

Literary works (and maybe art works generally?) that convey a sense of a world heightened, a reality made fantastic — this is generally considered a sign of “good” poems, fictions, and nonfictions. It’s a world that values artifice and revision-unto-perfection as a way of pushing texts away from real life.

It wasn’t that long ago that I questioned the need to revise — there’s a whole other value system, I’m learning, that values artifice less and spontaneity more — not improvisation, exactly, but particularity. How did a person (each person?) live? What did someone do and think at the time, from in the midst of the action, or soon after — It’s a value system in which the daily journal is preferred over the end-of-life memoir.

Literary texts are often judged by a standard of how heightened they are, how well a novel compresses life, or gets to the story. My objection to stories (such as here and here and here) has been that stories are artificial and arbitrary. Even when I make a story of some experience from within my lived life, that’s not a necessary story but merely one interpretation by my mind at that time.

In “good” texts, the writer is supposed to hide the effort required to make the text (as a Taylor Mali poem puts it: “I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.”) But if I’m writing as myself, about the particulars of my recent experience, I am going to discuss the work of writing — as Steinbeck kept a journal of his process of writing The Grapes of Wrath.

When someone writes an intense poem, others can sense the quality, perhaps intuitively — maybe because we are trained/acculturated, from an early age, to appreciate language and stories — and we must be trained to appreciate new art forms. And I feel the writings I’ve done from particular places and dates , these don’t feel as valuable. Maybe I need to train my readers to see the value (as no doubt people had to be trained or taught to appreciate Ulysses). I’ll sometimes read to my students segments from my journal writings done in particular places as if these segments depicted something intuitively funny. I’ll read a quote or something I think is funny or absurd, etc. — for example, the discussion of dog-mating in my writing done at Washington Square Park. That’s OK, but it reduces the rest of the freewrite to excess writing that could be cut. I told a student to edit some things out of her recent essay, as these things seemed unrelated to her essay’s thesis. But in a place-writing, in any particular writing-as-myself freewriting, there is no thesis to guide the writing, so there is no off-thesis material!

There’s no organizing principle but the writer’s mind, the writer’s consciousness. This is what I’ll refer to as mind-writing, as distinct from message-writing: a discrete text, containing its own introduction/beginning, conclusion/ending, message, and justification for that message being important or entertaining. The mind-writing doesn’t need or imply the existence of readers the way message-writing does. The mind-write doesn’t seek money or approval. It may seem standoffish but it’s independent. As a blurting of the writer’s mental voice onto paper, it’s actually more intimate than the message, which is prepared for — and may pander to — readers. The mind-write is just the author talking (and before I would publish one of these, I may edit out the parts I don’t want to share — which option I need to have in order to be open and honest during the writing — but I also don’t need to revise the mind-writing, so the text stays as close to what was originally written as possible).

Several years ago, I read part of a writing-advice book that said aspiring writers should not write journals, as these are too self-indulgent, but should write letters, as these are written to a reader. At the time, that advice felt right, as if this advice were from the only correct perspective on how to write. But now I’m better at seeing the arbitrariness of judgments, or, let’s say that judgments made by comparing any particular piece of writing to a certain standard aren’t arbitrary, because judgments made in accordance with standards are necessary — what’s arbitrary is accepting any particular standard.

Mind-writings aren’t trying to impress readers or make a case that they’re important or that they have a “good point” to make. But when I have a message, I gotta explain why the message is important/valuable, or how entertaining my movie or novel is. I don’t need to hype my mind-writing — the most I could say to advocate someone read a piece of my mind-writing would be, I guess, “spend some time with my mind” — which doesn’t make any promises to improve anyone else’s life.

I have posted to this blog texts that I think make “a good point” — heck, even this post now, which appeared largely in this form in my journal this morning, is making a point, spreading a message. But my criteria of what’s valuable are, as explained above, arbitrary. I do sometimes tell my students certain ideas or methods that I think will help them as writers — and I don’t think my advice is bad, though I know it may not be what each of my student-writers needs to hear.

But I find it kinda cool that it’s possible to step aside from the normal standards by which we judge most creative writings. I now see that I’ve tended to judge my own journal-writings (mind-writings) by message-writing standards, so in considering this distinction, I’ve freed myself to see my mind-writings on their own terms. I can see that I don’t need to make points, or to boil down my writings to summary messages. I don’t need to argue for my ideas or defend ideas against others’ argument. I’ve felt that was right for a long time without understanding why that was OK.

But if I’m not writing to anyone else, why would anyone else read my mind-writings? I’m not sure, though I still feel there’s value in reading them, even if I’m not sure what that value would be. My answer at this point: People could read my mind-writings to get a sense of what it’s like to be alive in a particular time and place as a particular writer, a particular mind in this world of particulars. I’d love to find the mind-writings of those who lived as settlers in my home state 200 years ago, for example — and hear what it was to walk through unplowed prairie or ride a stage coach. And I hope to find journal-writings done by these people. When I’ve read some of Thoreau’s journal, the writing there seems so much more intimate and up-to-date — like he’s a real, relatable person — than he seems through Walden.

And even if readers don’t find mind-writings all that compelling, I will keep writing them because, well, it’s a fun part of being alive.

Saying things can influence other people

It’s B.S. to declare things, like, for example, those people who declare they’re not gonna eat meat any more, or they’re gonna bike to work every day. But the attraction to doing this — I’ve felt it — is in having something bold to say. To make such a declaration is an act of artifice, of course; you don’t need to declare something like this — you can just do it. But I’m also thinking of all those writers who do stunts — The Year of Living Biblically guy, the Paper Lion project.

And this brings me back to the point about everyday living. Why not describe the normal world around you? Let’s find the words, the forms, that will convey this — the beauty of a calm world, the non-magical thereness, which is itself kinda magical, of every real thing in your there-place: the wood of the table I’m writing on, each scratch and worn spot and stain (there’s now a strawberry-colored circle-stain, apparently from where I set a tea cup on a pink Post-It note).

I put on my Byronfest “SECURITY” t-shirt and I thought of the lady at my Pensacola hotel pool who shouted “security” as a joke, but in her accent it sounded like “seh-KYER-tee,” and I thought that it’s not just that she said it that’s funny — it’s that it was really happening around me — and readers won’t have that sense if I, as I did in my 3rd hour creative writing class last Wednesday, merely repeat what I heard. I need to convey to readers something else, maybe that I was there in that real palace on an average day, and suddenly this weird event breaks thru my expectations, breaks thru my consciousness, draws my attention, disrupts my calm mind filled with expectations. And the world is so often interrupting/disrupting.

And now in these two paragraphs above, I’ve created a spectrum, a pair of opposites, a paradox, or something. I’ve talked about wanting to convey the (how to name it: the calm magic? the blunt thereness?) of the things around me, and I’ve also talked about the disruptions of these expectations. But these aren’t actually opposites at all but versions of the same thing — things that are real, are really happening, near me. That’s a terribly dull, vague way to say this exciting thing (this type of writing that excites me, anyway). I’m trying to convey to readers who aren’t present what’s so amazing about here and now — maybe what’s really amazing is my mindset when I’m looking and writing [see here and here for examples], and that mindset would not be shared by the person reading my words. That reader would be in an abstraction (words, ideas) mindset while reading, not looking around himself/herself.

All I can do thru ideas is point out that one could be looking around. Write a text where you say “stop reading this text! Take five minutes — a full five — to look around you! Then come back later” — a text that points away from the text. It’s possible to do that, sure, but it’s dull as a text?

It’s easier to say anything than do it. Saying’s still valuable, of course, as it can influence others. I write to an audience of people like myself — like my younger self. But my younger self would eventually go on to learn these things anyway (as I have done just today). Well, if I give a leg up, then that next young person could surpass my learning, and that’s kinda the goal, I guess. Each teacher, each creative artist, would, if being honest, like his/her followers (audience) to surpass his/her accomplishments? Else it’s just an ego wish to be loved.

I thought this morning, while doing my daily back-stretches, that it doesn’t matter exactly how many reps I do. It’s not like if I count to 15, then suddenly my body is triggered to, say, do some reset of all bones and muscles to perfect alignment, like resetting a computer to get back to a clean slate.

Words — no physical thing in the world responds to words. There’s no “open sesame” or “abracadabra” (though I guess there’s starting to be — you can talk to your Siri, your Echo, and it’ll do some things for you) by which things react. Words only work on other consciousnesses — people, dogs, and computers, which, OK, are not exactly conscious, but they approximate consciousness when they respond to voice commands or to keystrokes, for that matter. Printers do things in physical world when we press keys — so do computerized cutters, robots — maybe that’s not conscious awareness but it’s a form of consciousness?

Of course, conscious beings don’t need to be told what to do, either. Responding to verbal commands is only one of our handy features.

Why I normally tell stories is because the story relates something unexpected happening. So why would I tell something that’s not surprising? Well, maybe to establish a baseline? or to be calm, convey calm? I’m not sure.

Be skeptical of stories

This is an uncertain time, and it’s scary for that reason.

People may prefer the certainty of stories from the past over the scary uncertainty of the non-story of the present.

Traditional stories — satisfying stories — are always moral. When a bad guy wins, or when a random event happens to a main character, that’s not a traditional, satisfying story. My dad’s death wasn’t a good story at all — he died in a car accident though no fault of his own. There was no lesson for me to learn from this accident, except that sometimes in real life, people get killed and it’s not their fault. Bad things happen to good people. Real life isn’t a satisfying story.

Religious reasoning seems to fill the role of explaining the inexplicable for some people. I’m thinking here of those religious leaders who say natural disasters are caused by God’s displeasure with human behavior. That’s a cop-out, of course. Why do random and bad things, and randomly bad things, happen? Well, God’s either not all-good, or not all-powerful (which would include not existing).

These times feel uncertain. Of course, every time, every present moment, is uncertain. There’s certainty only in looking back at stories of the past. But stories can be told only about the past! We tell stories mainly to teach each other for the benefit of the future.

But stories don’t serve us well in a time where we can’t really figure out what’s going on, and where the old stories, the old expectations, don’t seem to apply. What I learned from watching the first episodes of the Vietnam War last week was that stories — the stories the U.S. war leaders told themselves — can be bullshit.

I used to think that “be skeptical of stories” was a content-belief, but last night I thought that being skeptical isn’t a content statement but a process statement.

We may not need stories. We use them to guide (in some sense) our actions, our behaviors — don’t do what bad guys do.

Being skeptical of stories is a valid process, a valid orientation to the world, a useful way to live, it seems. If you hold on too tight to any belief, you’ll be let down, led astray.

Creativity is like stretching

A creative experience is like a stretching session: if it’s not a big of a challenge, you’re not doing it right, not getting anything out of it.

Having new ideas is fun

It’s possible to leave behind one’s old ideas and have new ones, see the world anew, and it’s fun to do this!

This is the message I have to share with the world: It’s fun to create! It’s deeply satisfying! It shows the world to you in new ways — it reveals new aspects of the world. It shows that there’s more to the world than we know. It has shown me that ideas are not the truth — ideas I thought were real I now see as arbitrary. A lot of my new worldview has come from creative experiences.

It’s a wonderfully simple message! But it’s one that was a long time in coming to me, perhaps because so much of our culture is now provided by and accessed through commercial means — bookstores, art galleries, TV, movies, magazines — all these commercial forums — and we see art as having the purposes of getting us fame and money (or career).

Maybe my message, what I model to the world, is that I like my life even without getting published! I’m not perfect, not the only model to follow, but my way of living — which includes the daily creative act of freewriting my journals — is pretty fun and interesting and worth trying.

I don’t want to define myself as someone who writes about only a certain topic, or who writes in a habitual style or tone. I want to share my work style, my process, and then go on to create my own particular things. I want to demonstrate creativity in its least-restrictive form, which is that I’m not trying to make any product to sell. If you, as an artist, decide that you’re gonna make something for someone else, you’re already limiting your creativity — you’re abstracting whom your audience is from your limited experiences with other people, with the result that you’re condescending to others, assuming to know what others want or need. And then there’s the problem of there not being really all that many ideas within the range of tellable stories — whereas in my writing, I go well beyond stories. I may be limited by words, by thinkable thoughts — not all experiences can be easily described — but I can look at words as merely a medium, as the tools I use to have the creative experiences I enjoy.

The types of texts that get published — novels, nonfiction reports, celebrity interviews — are so narrow compared to all the types of texts there are, including diaries, conversations between non-famous people, descriptions of regular life, real places. There’s the bias toward the spectacular that seems to leave regular lived life in real places largely unexplored.

Kerouac’s On the Road is a book that captivated me when I read it at age 19 — I think I understood it as instructive, that I could perhaps view my life as he viewed his. But now I see that book was the telling not about Kerouac’s regular life but about his vacations, essentially — he wrote his scroll as a story told to impress and/or amuse others. What remains is the challenge of how to live daily life in a rewarding way.

So what interests me now is escaping narrow definitions of what life is or could or should be and instead dipping my toes into the unknown, into what’s beyond the definitions. I want to have my own ideas, do my own thinking, and if I never feel like advocating my ideas to others, that’s fine — maybe I can advocate my process!

Everything I publish might be read as an exuberance — defined in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate 11th as, in part, “joyously unrestrained and enthusiastic,” “plentiful.” I’d never thought of myself as exuberant before — maybe this is just a positive spin on the “intense” adjective others have used to describe me.

Over time, I do come to new ideas that seem to solve my problems, increase my understanding.

And when I publish, I don’t need to have everything nailed down and tidy. I don’t have to fret whether I seem a respectable, authoritative-type voice. I don’t need to post — my experience is already had; I’ve already had the joy and satisfaction of the earlier journal-writing session! So publish whatever! I don’t need to publish — there’s some good freedom. And once I’ve realized that, it gets easier to publish!


Posting Exuberantly

I thought this today: I’d like to share here on the blog ideas that pop into my mind, but not because I think the ideas themselves are all that valuable. Some of these ideas may be useful, at some times, to some people, but what I’d really like to show is how cool it feels to be open to new ideas and how rewarding it feels to practice creativity daily (mostly in the act of freewriting my journals). I don’t want to formulate some argument in support of these feelings — I think I may just post exuberantly.

Water-splash and deep-fryer fat: Freewriting at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, lakefront

My right knee at the lakeshore. Photo shows lakewall and view east. 16 June 2017

Sky boat headed to the lake north of where I was sitting at the picnic table. Brick apartments/condos are to left side of photo. 16 June 2017.

Friday, 16 June 2017, 1:43 p.m., Lakeside at Geneva Lake — it’s about 15 feet in front of me, east of me. To my right is a little tented sales counter for Jerry’s Majestic Marine (whose sign has these bulleted points: boat sales, boat storage/service, pontoon boat rentals, waverunner rentals, parasail rides), and slightly to my right are boats at Pier 4 (near where my wife, M, and I were sitting an hour or so ago, before she went to her meeting at the Abbey a couple blocks west). I took pics of Lake Geneva/Geneva Lake — a dead fish with algae — for my blog post “Famous things close up” (approximate title, from 2015) — and there are two women in bikinis at the back end of a boat off Pier 4. And before coming to this spot, I went to my park spot a bit north of here, where I sat and wrote a few years ago — jeez, several years ago by now — but the benches weren’t in shade. This was the little park across from public (I think) boat launch, and next to the 5-story brick apartments/condos. I was reading while sitting here for 20 mins or so, reading about politics-as-identity making compromise hard, and Trump tweets, and etc. But it’s too damn nice here. I heard something like splashing over the concrete lake-wall. Writing left-handed is slowing me down (as it usually does) in a way that seems fitting to this lovely day: sunny, a few puffy in-the-distance clouds, a light breeze from behind me. If I lived within walking distance of a big lake, I wonder how often I’d come down and sit. Once in a while I get a smell of deep-fryer fat from the restaurants across the street behind me (Gordy’s Boathouse  and, south, Chuck’s Lakeshore Inn).

There passes, from my left to my right, a big sightseeing boat, perhaps the boat that delivers mail to piers, as I saw years ago on CBS Sunday Morning, I think it was. This boat passed right at about 2 p.m. I think I saw it about an hour ago, too, when M and I were here together. Yeah, I’m not hearing the Big Ben bell sounds, and we heard those at 1 p.m. And it really is nice — the water splash sometimes sounds like Gulf waves (We were in Florida just under a year ago. I talked to that UK couple about Brexit vote, I think.) It felt silly to read while outside here but writing feels OK. When we heard bells last time, M told me that there were mindfulness bells at the conclave (the annual religious gathering she went to when young) every half hour: when bells sounded, everyone was supposed to take a moment of quiet for mindfulness.

There are some young (late teen? early 20s?) women in a Jeep behind me, and there have been others. I look but then I remind myself that it’s not cool.

I never quite got into the writing mood this morning.

By the way, I’m at a picnic table that’s covered with a vinyl-canvas cover. The next picnic table has bench covers, too, with snaps.

“The pineapple never made it,” said one girl in a group walking past. “We had TWO pineapples,” said another. Someone in a second group of girls walking past said, “we had a joke that her hashtag was ‘Kate’s vagina.’”

These young women now could be — I’m old enough for them to be — my own children. I have a book bag. I’m a dad-nerd writing out here at a marina, near a beach, on a lovely day — though not quite as uncool as that 60-ish dude in black suit and carrying leather briefcase.

It’s easy, while sitting here, to let go of my fretting about publishing — which fretting is kinda dumb, anyway.

Gordy’s has a Boat Sales storefront, and a Proshop, and the Boat House, and Cobalt Lounge and Surf Shack — Gordy’s has quite the presence. Each Gordy’s business has a navy-blue with white-lettering awning.

I had a thought this morning while sitting in our car, just outside of our garage, that I’m alive and I can observe, and if I died then, no more observations would be made, and that my writing could reflect my being alive — my writing can be new every day (something like that, which now feels banal).

Down the street, a woman in a black bikini strides into one of Gordy’s businesses.

“Travis, why? … You were swimming and I thought you were a girl,” said one dude to another dude who seems to have his hair braided in 2 lines down the back of his head. A yellow dog shakes off water and then gets leashed.

Sunbathers out on Pier 4 boat seem gone. Here’s a white-haired man carrying a bag of ice by its drawstring. He’s very tan in the chest.

I’d like to talk about being here. I wanna talk about the brick apartment building — it’s not all that special-looking but it seems special just because I remember it from previous visits, because I associate it with this particular place, which is a particular place.

I hear a squeaky cranking sound–a dude at Pier 4 cranks down a jet ski platform.

Last thing before I walk back to meet M: It’s 2:47. I hear the dull roar of boats out a ways, the wind in my ears, slap of water. And I keep thinking that what I write about this place is still writing about this place — it’s not the same as being here and not-thinking, not analyzing at all.

And I want to tie this up by saying something about how I’m experiencing things. I experience things and I can write about them and this may not seem profound to write but it feels profound. I can experience new things each day I’m alive. I can have new ideas each day — each moment of crystallized consciousness — that I’m alive.

And yet, this too is just an idea, and the brick building and the lakeshore and the biting fly and trespassing spider. And even I, at this place on this day, don’t need ideas!

And so I leave off — not having written something that satisfies. But that’s OK, too, of course.