Tag Archives: mind

How to read a post from my journals or pocket pages

Revised (because when quality matters, time doesn’t.)

If you read texts selected from my journals and pocket pages expecting there to be a “take-away,” a clear message or story, you may be disappointed. But if you read these to get a sense of the presence of my mind (my voice, my sensibility) from these texts, you may find these valuable.

Before I realized this distinction in ways of reading, I looked at my journal texts and judged them inadequate, because they weren’t already in the form of polished narratives or essays. For years, I wondered whether I should go back and craft these raw freewritings into publishable articles, rewriting them as needed until they fit the familiar forms. But this approach didn’t feel right. I usually wrote about my experiences by describing my thoughts and feelings afterwards, rather than writing these as moment-by-moment, show-don’t-tell descriptions. Doing that seemed artificial — I don’t live by narrating everything that happens; I write only after experiences have been had. I write for myself, and not for others, who weren’t there, to understand and empathize with me. I preferred writing down whatever I thought at that time, writing honestly for myself, rather than shaping my words so that I’d be perceived favorably by some unknown reader.

I finally realized that these honest-to-the-moment journal writings had value if the purpose of reading were redefined. I thought about how reading poetry can be different from reading prose. With prose, whether novels, journalism, memoir, etc., readers tend to look for meaning — plot, story, lesson, etc. But with poetry, readers can enjoy other aspects, including the sounds of words, rhythms of lines, images-as-images, etc. I sometimes read poems, such as haiku and Richard Brautigan’s short poems, just to get a sense of mood or a sense of the writer’s voice, his or her particular sensibility. So, too, I have found value with my journal texts, and you may as well.

You can dive in anywhere, even in the middle of a post of journal text, and treat each sentence or section like its own poem, reading just for the experience of reading, of communing with another mind. You don’t have to read the whole post or all the posts. There’s no index of topics, and there will be no overarching message. I don’t wanna write as if I’m some wise person who’s figured stuff out and is ready to teach others. Maybe some text-bits are wise, but some aren’t. Some bits might be funny, and others will be serious. My journals don’t have a consistent tone because, of course, lived experience doesn’t have a single tone. My writing is more a part of my living than it is something I do to make a career or advocate an ideal.

My journals will never have an ending — they’ll just stop when I die — but because they’re not intended to become anything else, they’re also already whole, complete, fulfilled. As a writer, I am fulfilled just by filling the journal pages. And a reader can take an analogous perspective.

By the way, these journals will not be posted here in a systematic way — just the thought of that exhausts me — and that’s OK because systematic is not necessary. These journal texts are as accurate as I can make them (because I can’t always even read my handwriting!), but they are not the entirety of the journals — I’ve tried to include only the parts I think are the most interesting.

A philosophy of ghosts: How the scary unreal illuminates the real

I don’t like being scared.

If there’s a biological component to thrill-seeking, I don’t have it. (Some people, of course, may have it.) As a kid, I forced myself to go on roller coasters, and I did that, proving to myself I could face my fear, and having done that, I don’t have to go on roller coasters any more. It’s just not fun for me. Likewise, I don’t watch horror films, and I don’t go to “haunted houses,” and I even get a little anxious after seeing my neighbors’  Halloween decorations.

Pretty much all of Halloween is tough on those of us who are prone to anxiety. I get scared enough worrying about the various aspects of my present and my future that I don’t need any more reminders of death or the unknown. I much prefer those holidays were we celebrate life and have pastel bunnies and evergreen trees and whatnot.

I’m not the first to say that what’s scary about Halloween decorations like scarecrows and sheet-ghosts, is that they somewhat, but not precisely, resemble real people and inanimate objects. Like the “uncanny valley” of human reactions to robots who have near-but-not-yet-human bodies and movements, seeing levitating, wind-fluttered sheets in a tree and human forms in unaccustomed positions and places (like scarecrow decorations) perhaps causes an anxious need to resolve the differences between what we see and what we expect to see.

And sometimes it’s hard to resolve this difference. In my life, I have had experiences that seemed to be a little “otherworldly.” I have had moments of “déjà vu,” where I’d see a particular situation in front of me and feel like I’d dreamt that situation earlier. Another time, I remember having a strange, almost intoxicated feeling after talking with a person of a religious tradition little known to me. But rather than interpret these feelings as implying that there really was an “other world,” in which there could be prophetic dreams and people in contact with spirits, I just labeled these as odd, unexplained experiences, and I go on living my life in a world of regular physical things with a mind that sometimes has weird experiences.

And of course, how our minds operate, and how they interact with the physical world (for example, how nonphysical minds arise from physical brains) are themselves mysteries. But just because something is unexplained or mysterious does not mean that it can justify belief in the supernatural.

We educated moderns have mostly agreed to let science be the basis of our understanding of reality. What is real are things that many people can witness repeatedly. Rainbows and cows and electricity are real because we can observe these things under repeatable conditions. And in this world, certain things happen, and certain things don’t: for instance, objects don’t pop into and out of existence. If a pen I expected to find on my desk is no longer there, I assume that there is some physical explanation for where it went (maybe I bumped it off the desk, or my cat did, or a vibration from a passing truck pushed it off, etc.), rather than assuming that either the pen disappeared (as if by magic) or that some ghost took the pen.

We never see magical or supernatural things in our everyday perceptions of the world. (This is where it gets tricky: those who do see supernatural things, we would call mentally disordered — because brain malfunction is a more scientific explanation than assuming someone is beyond-human, no matter what a large number of fiction storytellers propose).  If we are to acknowledge ghosts as scientifically real, we would need to see them appear to groups (and not one individual) of people in repeatable ways — like rainbows do. Even if scientists were to verify by repeated observations that some of the phenomena that so-called “ghost hunters” look for — weird voices, cold spots, inexplicable phenomena — were real, scientists could not declare “ghosts” to be real, because “ghost” is a causal interpretation/explanation that requires nonphysical definition. A ghost, as commonly understood, is the soul or spirit of a dead person — and this connection cannot be made by rational argument. It must be made on faith alone.

Now, of course, some people choose to see the world through an understanding based on faith. They believe something is real because, well, they believe it’s real. Faith does not require evidence. Faith takes over where science cannot comment, which is in any realm in which there is no physical evidence. Science has no evidence into my personal, subjective experience; scientists can watch my brain scans and try to correlate those results with what I report experiencing, but no scientist can experience anything directly from or in anyone else’s mind.

But it is within one’s mind that one makes meaning from, one interprets, what one sees and feels. And so one is free to choose what one’s experiences mean. And so some people, including some of my students, assign to their unusual experiences the meaning of “ghost.” I choose not to accept that interpretation for my own irregular experiences because, frankly, I don’t want to believe in ghosts. I don’t want to believe the world is full of supernatural things. I find the idea of ghosts scary, and I choose to not be scared, so I accept the scientific view that ghosts, as a theory of what causes observed reality, cannot be justify as physically real.

However, my students who believe in ghosts often say that they want to believe in ghosts, because this belief allows them to think their deceased family members are still with them. (Mary Todd Lincoln reportedly believed in the ghost of Abe for the same reason.) One student this year told me she believes in ghosts because if they do exist, they would treat her better for having believed in them (an argument that seems silly but is pretty much the same argument made by the respected thinker Blaise Pascal.)

And I like having this discussion in my English classes because it makes clear some of the issues between science and religions, observations and theories, epistemology and metaphysics. I don’t understand ghosts as physically real, but I appreciate the ghosts as a real idea that can be discussed.

The Iliad, consciousness, reality: How I get tired this evening

I’m tired tonight, so I’m not sure how coherent this post will be, but I’ve been waiting for a chance to post some things, so here goes:

I’m reading selections from Homer’s Iliad (in a recent translation, though the translator’s name escapes me just now) and as we’re reading, I’m finding lots of weird and wonderful things that I point out to my students, and things I’d also love to talk to other adults about. For instance, there are moments in this serious work about war and grief that seem to me to be just plain funny, as when Hector says he will fight Achilles and kill him, or he will die an honorable death — and then when they meet, Hector turns and runs around the city of Troy, three whole laps.

It occurs to me that discussing artworks is one of the few things in life where many people can share the same experience and then discuss it. We can all read or watch the same book or movie, and then compare our experiences of reading or viewing. In much the rest of our lives, we have experiences separately (for example, even if two friends are each parents, they are parenting distinct children, in different houses, etc.), and while we can discuss our separate experiences, we cannot directly compare our experiences, the way we can when we experience artworks.

I experience subjectively — that is, even if you are standing next to me, you do not know what I experience. At best, I can communicate through words what I experience, but of course, that’s not direct experience. You can get my symbolic interpretation/representation of my experience, but you do not see through my eyes, or sense my mind.

So, when we experience, we are sensing (seeing, touching, etc.) and we are processing/interpreting what we sense. Much of what we experience, we forget. We may remember certain sights and smells, etc., but what links those senses to meaning is the stories we form from our experiences. For me, at least, much of what I know about my past is in the form of stories — that is, abstracted experiences, ideas of connected interpretations that often describe not the experience that was had but the world itself. These stories tend to compress time and ignore the moment-by-moment nature of our lived experience.

These stories may help us to structure and remember our experiences, but these stories may also be complete bullshit. Our memories are often faulty, but even if they are not, our stories edit out moments from continuous time. It’s so easy to look back at our own lives and think that all we were thinking about was the experience at hand — but I don’t seem to experience my waking moments that way; I’m often doing one thing now but also aware of what I should do, or would like to do, next.

I realize it’s sorta futile to discuss, in words and ideas, the limitations of words and ideas, and how words and ideas are always at best a kind of (what physical metaphor to use here?) layer, a kind of overlay, on top of physical reality.

Another of my classes is discussing the definition of “real,” and so far we have “something that exists or is proven to exist” and so far we’ve spend many minutes discussing what a “thing” is and what we’ve come up with is that a thing is a boundary we imagine around a piece of matter so that we can talk about the physical realm one piece at a time. We notice that a certain piece of matter, a fork, can be separated from another, a table. To simply be able to see pieces of matter as separate is an abstraction — and of course even words like “matter” and “physical realm” are abstractions.

No words exist outside human consciousness (or so it seems — it’s quite a generalization to make there). Or, perhaps some animals — like apes who use sign-language — can think symbolically. But the point remains — a fork can never declare itself to be a fork.

But to see how arbitrary the label of fork is, is also to see how hard it is to keep talking about the physical realm without the help of differentiating labels. We revert to “object” and “thing” and “this thing” and “that thing.”

So maybe we can’t escape words, but we can, through the ongoing process of thinking, become aware how loosely our ideas about the world are connected to the world itself (even such a loose term as “the world” starts to feel like bullshit and the word wilts, somehow — “wilting” is a pretty good metaphor).

And I asked my students how we can talk about things we don’t have labels for, and they suggested we talk about relative terms, and that we make comparisons — a platypus has a beak like a duck’s, but a body like a beaver’s, for example. So our ideas connect one to another, from these we can build whole systems of ideas, and yet, …

And yet, it seems to me lately that whole systems of ideas — Hegel’s metaphysics, histories of World War II, mathematics — start to seem deflated, as if they were held up by hot air that, once it escapes, leaves the idea-systems flat on the ground, unimpressive, step-on-able.

Taking a bit of a leap here, but it makes sense in my head to do this (and what are all writings, all texts, if not signs that there was a consciousness that produced them?), to say that fiction works and nonfiction works have in common that they are both ideas. Sure, nonfiction purports to be about the real world, but if the “real world” is itself an idea, a construct … and further, there are no facts in nature — there is no tree or rock on which facts are discovered. Facts are made by people, in the form of words, ideas, symbols, and these are what we are comparing nonfiction or fiction to.

But we have a notion of what the real world looks like. As my class has read The Iliad, I’ve become aware of how careful the story is to make most of the human-god interactions believably subjective, so that the story could be read in two different ways: as a fantasy-tale featuring personified gods who intervene directly in human activities, or as a realistic tale of human-only activities (and where the gods speak to only one person at a time, or in the guise of a human, so that the gods could be said to be the product of a particular person’s subjective experience).

That The Iliad can be approached in two ways, or as two distinct stories, seems very subtle, very wise, and it suggests that we can approach any text and decide whether it’s fiction or not based on what the text contains. I mean, if there is no truth “out there” — and where, exactly, would that be if there were? — but all ideas are products of human minds, then what exactly are we asking for in a distinction between fiction and nonfiction (or in any distinction, really — guilty/not guilty, here/there, up/down, etc.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m getting at, which to me is the beauty of the writing process — if I knew what I was saying, I wouldn’t need to say it. Sometimes I have ideas, and they seem cool, and I start to think I should write them up — but then I think that maybe they are just so much inert deflated ideas (as described above). But then I think, eh, what I write is just the byproduct of my mind’s ongoing function, and perhaps somebody else will have some of their own ideas provoked by something here.

One of the earlier discussions my class of sophomores had before we started The Iliad was about where the world began, where everything came from. I gave the case from science, that there was a Big Bang from which all matter and energy and life descend, and we also discussed the Bible’s Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, in which God creates the world. But science can’t know what came before the Big Bang (because how could there ever be evidence before there could have been evidence?), and Judaism and Christianity can’t explain how God came to exist, and so both the religion and science accounts are just stories, are sets of ideas. Yes, the science account has more physical evidence to explain the physical realm, and religion can go beyond what has evidence, but both science, in its generalizations called facts and theories, and religion, in its formal structure of creeds and theology, have little to say to inform my personal, particular, subjective experiences.

After all, my mind contains ideas from many external sources, but whatever it is that gives rise to my mind, to my thoughts, my words, my experiences — whatever it is that is me feels like its beyond explanation, beyond theory, beyond labeling. I am complete in every moment, in every thought, continuously the same through the years I’ve been alive but I experience my consciousness discontinuously, leaping from crystallized thought to the next crystallized thought, each thought whole-born. I exist only and wholly now. And now. And now again. (And even talking about “now” or “the present moment” feels inadequately abstract.)

But in my thinking, I’m attracted to discovering the limits of ideas, the boundaries of what can be known. I’m not sure why this feels more important and interesting to me than other sorts of thinking. This, too, is part of the mystery of where ideas come from. (See here for related post.)

And now, I really am getting tired, and I’m feeling that in my attempt to distance myself from abstraction, I’ve gotten quite abstract. Ah, well. Such is a mind and its chatter. The ideas come and go but the thinking goes on.  Living is more than merely figuring stuff out abstractly, of course. Living is also falling asleep in my comfy bed.

So this post may not satisfy — but writing it felt good.

‘You the smartest bitch in this place’: What if brains were sexy?

The women I love are smart women.

My mom taught English (after getting her M.A. in rhetoric) and writes and directs plays. My wife graduated third in her class at UIUC Law and runs her own law firm. My maternal grandmother and her mother recited poetry for fun, and when my dad’s mom wasn’t allowed (by her father) to go to high school, she repeated eighth grade just so she could keep going to school.

Granted, certain women’s shapes and smiles catch my attention. Thus speaks biology through my mind. But, of course, beauty fades while minds flower, and the women (and men) who are the most interesting are those who know stuff, who do things. (Of course, this implies that people should learn and do things for other people, while I believe that learning is intrinsically rewarding.)

So, I’d like to see more pop songs celebrate women’s minds rather than just their bodies. I know this seems willfully missing-the-point of pop songs, but I think the requisite bragging posture can be maintained if Robin Thicke took out “hottest” and sang “You the smartest bitch in this place.”

If this song can be performed, as here, with lots of different instruments, why not change out some of the other words as well? Let’s re-word this song’s chorus:

OK now he was rude, tried to intimidate you

But you’re an intellect; baby, it’s in your nature

Let me congratulate you

Hey, hey, hey

You’ve written many papers

Hey, hey, hey

Your job cannot contain you

Hey, hey, hey

And I’d love to see readers suggest their own songs ripe for sexy-to-brainy makeovers. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” as:

She’s got a brilliant mind

She’ll cite a legal case —

no  Shepardize!

Thinks so good,

Make a jury say “aye”!

Sweet legal mind

What other songs could be revised?

Links: 10 March 2013

Links to some things online that I found valuable, and to some things that I haven’t read yet but want to later:

1. The movie “Dazed and Confused” is 20 years old — which actually means there’s been more time since the movie came out than there was between the movie (1993) and its setting (1976). Also, the backstory on the “moontower.

3. The sound-length of words: “No” vs. “Nope.”

4. Poetry: Mark Levine writes about having had a class with Philip Levine (thanks to The Dish for highlighting this):

He seemed uninterested in interpreting poems, which was at first mystifying to a student like me, who had been trained to believe that the most valuable response to a poem was finding something clever or unexpected to say about it. He thought that the right words in the right sequence held a power that was magical and instantaneous. He read poems to us — W.B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, Elizabeth Bishop  — with a passion I had never before encountered. His voice was rough and magisterial. Words were alive in him. He read with a clenched jaw and his body almost shaking. He described John Keats’s letters and made clear his sense that the imagination was a sacred place breeding authenticity in words. He insisted that the poem be lived. One student turned in a poem that used the word “lion” a single time, to symbolize power. Levine almost blew up. “Goddamn it,” he shouted, “if you’re going to put a poor lion in your poem, I want that lion to be there.” He seemed to hunger after the texture of reality, which took many forms, but which was instantly recognizable to him. Another student’s poem began: “A window. 
A baseball. The possibilities.” It was a sparse and, in certain ways, abstract poem. He loved it. He saw a world in it: the object in flight, clean and clear; the suspension of time; the opening of   imaginative possibility, of promised lands, however shattered, within the disappointments of the actual one.

I like the idea of responding to the immediacy of the poem rather than trying to interpret it. If the poem is honest, there may be no interpretation that is necessary.

5. Reginald Dwayne Betts gives some poetry advice in his  essay “What It Is”. Some of my favorite parts:

This ain’t about risk. Risk is living below the poverty line in the worst part of town; risk is raising a black boy in a town with laws like Stand Your Ground; risk is being a single parent without family or community support; risk is what soldiers, police officers, firefighters encounter. Poetry is about language, words, about being as honest as you can on the page.

There are things you say in a room with friends. Things you hear others say and can’t forget, ’cos you spent an hour arguing with them, or laughing. The poem should be that, something worth screaming about.

Don’t write about being white.

Don’t be afraid to hate poems. Don’t be afraid to hate your own.

Don’t be the person who only notices the elephant in the room.

Don’t believe them when they say a poem has room for everything. Only the grave does.

Stop with the allusions to dead poets. You do something other than read poetry.

Don’t betray the people you right about.

Don’t strip your poem of identity. Don’t make your identity the 
poems.

Right now there is someone lying to a child, praising the work of some thirteen-year-old kid as if it were the sign of latent genius. Don’t be that person. Teaching poetry to children isn’t about discovering genius. It’s about discovering language, and discovering the difficulties inherent in manipulating it.

Work in a place where no one knows what an iamb is.

Don’t condescend. There is prejudice in calling something beautiful for the act and not the fact.

The colloquial is always musical. “You lucky I can’t breathe or I’d walk all up and down your ass.”

6. Documentaries vs. movies.

7. Nathan Rabin on the Tribe Called Quest documentary.

8. The AVClub’s discussion of perfect pieces of pop culture.

9. How we conceive of the mind — a discussion of Kurzweil.

10. Fifteen years of “The Big Lebowski.

11. Puns in the names of small businesses.

12. The much-lauded KIPP charter schools have high graduation rates but their students’ college-completion rates are much lower. I hate to be cynical about educators having the success KIPP has had, but as a teacher at a regular public high school, I do get tired of being told that certain reformers have found the perfect way forward. Students are way too unique, and I would just love policymakers to allow a multitude of ways to teach.

Nonfic: Potpourri of ideas

So, a few weeks ago, I started making notes of ideas and topics I could write about here in this blog. At first, this seemed helpful, in that I wouldn’t be at a loss when I wanted to write, but now this list feels like a burden, things getting in the way of me being able to write about new ideas. Writing about ideas I’ve already had often starts to feel pedantic (and being a pedant is my day job); I want to be surprised and learn as I write — with the thought that if the writer is entertained, the reader may be also. Last night I found this idea from months ago, in a sketchbook: that once I started to recognize what I was drawing, I would move on. That’s a little too severe perhaps, but not a bad place to start today’s round-up of ideas I’ve been eager to get off my list. And if the writing takes me beyond these ideas into new territory, all the better.

Here’s a note that’s been sitting next to my computer screen for a couple weeks. Like many of these other ideas, this one seems interesting enough that I could go quite in-depth, but I’m not feeling the desire to do that now. So here goes: Verbs are abstractions. So are nouns, of course, but nouns are at least labels: dish rag, doggy, Denver. These sounds and symbols are arbitrary, but not necessarily meaningful. (Although I’ve also been thinking about the Ferlinghetti line — “Words are living fossils.” Words are ancient relics — English words, so many of which no longer are spelled as they sound, seems to carry their histories, their etymologies, around with them. “Knight,” instead of being clarified to “nite” (or even long-I “nit,” if there were an English accent mark for long-I sound), displays its Old English origin better than a coat of arms.)

Back to verbs. So, if we speakers of English agree to call a thing with tines and a handle a “fork,” (and yes, this idea of fork is a mental pattern than a physical reality — since we can use a real fork for many uses, as my students have brainstormed, what we call a “fork” is that which matches our idea of what a fork is), that may be arbitrary, but it’s not making nearly as big an interpretive claim as is describing an action as “walking,” as in “Mom walked to town.” “Mom” and “town” are things that can be pointed to, even if their definition isn’t always as clear as we’d like. But “to walk” involves whole lists of motion — legs moving, bending, arms swinging, balance maintained, at a certain gait and pace (not to mention the specific motions of each muscle, tendon, ligament, bone, etc.) — and there are so many other verbs that distinguish “walking” from “running,” “strolling,” “perambulating,” “jogging,” “hiking,” etc. Sure, English is great for its wide vocabulary, but there is a lot of interpretive packaging going on in even a simple sentence describing action.

Moving on: Comparisons are always arbitrary. Comparing one thing to another is never necessary, is always arbitrary. If I compare myself to my peers who are more successful (by whatever definition thereof) or less successful than myself, there doesn’t really seem to be much value in that. But to even compare two, say, forks from the same silverware set is to take two things that are particular, that, while similar in abstractions such as design-shape, mass, etc., each have their own component atoms (some of which could be, for example, radioactive in one fork and not in another). And even atoms, too, are particular — each one occupies a unique location in space and time — which prompts a thought that even grouping things together — joining two particular things together in a plural noun — going conceptually from this fork and that fork to these forks is to overlook particular qualities of each thing.

This is getting abstract, I know, but this is a tendency of thinking that can lead us to abstract bullsh!t such as the Common Core, which assumes that all students are so alike that they must all be able to attain the same academic skills. Of course, every curriculum (or policy) set up by every institution does this. And the danger here is that abstractions are always perfect because they are never real. A perfect circle can be easily defined in abstraction but never created in physical reality. And of course, this distinction of “abstraction” from “physical” is itself an abstract concept. Thinking separates us from physical reality.

And this thinking is so mysterious. I was thinking (there it is, again) yesterday as I wrote my journal about how the words I write seem to come from some inner voice — it often feels as if I’m transcribing from some voice in my head. (This is what it feels like, though not exactly, of course — it’s still metaphorical. ) Perhaps some brain-region that processes aural info is involved in me being able to convert thoughts into written symbols — maybe that would even show up on an fMRI scan. But I have no sense of where the words come from before that — and I doubt a scan would indicate that. Sure, ideas may be linked to our emotions, so that I may feel a certain way, or I may feel that a certain idea is worth saying (while other ideas aren’t). I’m not a brain researcher, and I don’t really want to be, because what research would show would be external, and what interests me more is the experience of being a living person who can seem to alter my physical world — I can write all these word-symbols onto paper — yet, this process of where the ideas come from remains mysterious. As a writing teacher, I just skip over this most essential part; the closest I can get is to say, “write whatever words come to mind,” and that works for a lot of students but it doesn’t seem to happen for some students, who then get labeled as having a “learning disability.” They’re different, but we don’t really know why. But we don’t know why the rest of us do what we do either.

This mystery doesn’t lead me to despair; it fascinates me. It reminds me how little we really know about our own closest experiences. This last few days, I was a little more tired than usual, and my mind seemed to keep supplying me certain performed lines from a song (to be particular, the “Starships” remake by the Pitch Perfect cast), even when I didn’t want to be thinking about that. The ideas felt “sticky,” as we obsessives sometimes call them. I couldn’t get rid of them by willing that — I could only accept what was coming to my mind and, through accepting, let other ideas replace the repetitive ones. I took this stickiness as a sign of my tiredness, as this doesn’t often happen — though other ideas though my day sometimes seem urgent, important beyond reason — “did I shut my car’s lights off?,” for example. Other obsessives have their own triggers, of course — the classic handwashing (as in The Aviator) impulse isn’t an urgency I get.

But this is the beautiful — and sometimes, scary — thing about my mind, maybe all minds. I sit back and experience it. Even the creative endeavors — writing, photographing, sketching — I do are mostly a matter of letting things happen, rather than trying control what my mind does. Actually, controlling my mind, focusing my attention, is what I have to do for work (particularly when grading essays), and so letting my mind go and watching what it does, this is play, is leisure, and I do it even while I’m driving to work, say. And somehow the mind seems to watch itself. I think a lot of things, even as I take mostly-unstimulating rural roads to work, but only some ideas seem to interest my mind enough so that I think, I should write that idea down.

Even “idea” or “thought” seems too abstract, and too limited a concept here, but so it goes.

Links, nonfic: Writers beyond the pale

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This essay sorta exhausted me, in its exhortations to write all the time. As someone who’s somewhat obsessive in his thinking anyway, I don’t need to hear the command to pay yet more attention to my writing and my thinking. But as I read this, and also looked at this essay about writers’ spaces (and how it’s all too easy to romanticize and even worship a writer’s physical things, when we would be understanding an author much more, it seems to me, when we actually do what they did and sit down and write), these two posts got me thinking about where the words come from. I’ve written about this before, but it’s so fascinating to think about how writing fits into one’s life, how in a way, writing is more of a way or mode of living than it is a hobby. I’m also reminded of the Annie Dillard quote: “Society places the writer so far beyond the pale that society does not regard the writer at all.”

In recent weeks, I’ve been writing down on my pocket notes some of the funny, strange, or otherwise unique things my students say in class. (I’d post an example but I’m afraid that actually sharing these things publicly might make my students too self-conscious.) My students seemed to think it weird at first that I’d record what they say, but today, some students seemed pleased to have their words recorded. I’ve turned their unpremeditated utterances into long-lasting symbols on paper, and now their recorded words can be read back to them (or to third parties) at my whim. (There’s also the issue that I may not have heard their words perfectly, but how I write them is how the statements get recorded.)

I’m not recording dialogue for any particular purpose (as if it were research) — there’s just something fascinating for me both in the recording of real-life speech, in the easily taken-for-granted turning of sound into symbol, and also I really enjoy some of the funny things kids say, the particular ways they use language. It seems really simple to write down things people say, and yet, maybe it does put me beyond the pale. These aren’t the words of interview subjects who want to present themselves in certain ways, although of course we all want our speech to make us appear witty, charming, etc. The statements I write down are just glimpses, with minimal context, of the behavior of real people — and yet, somehow, some little aspect of this behavior has become more substantial — how fleeting, how unreal, is most of our experience unless and until it is written.

Our experience, of course, remains fleeting; what we write down of our experience is less a reflection of reality or of real experience, and more a record of what words and ideas about real experience came through my mind, my mind-voice, and got onto the paper. I don’t narrate my life — well, I seldom tell myself what is going on at the moment — I know what’s going on, I know what I think is happening now and what I think I should do next. But I do tend to think — a lot — during my conscious hours, and this thinking takes place mostly as words. There are images and feelings as well, but it’s a wordstream that would appear if there were some way to transcribe my … what’s even a good term for this? It’s all metaphors of course — the stage of my mind’s attention? “Interior monologue” is often used but it already implies language. The mind’s TV of words and images?  It’s funny how hard it is to describe what it’s like to be conscious, to have a mind, to communicate how that mind feels and works.

How when I’m actively doing things, I forget I have some locus directing my actions (many of which may be “muscle memories” and thus not arising to conscious thought at all). When I’m feeling a certain mood, these don’t seem to be controllable, though, like the weather, they’re frequently changing. My thinking that arises to the level of self-awareness that I am thinking (and becoming aware of my own thinking, that’s something I think I’ve gotten better at, through the practice of writing, of taking notes when a discrete idea forms) often comes when I’m driving or showering or otherwise doing things that don’t really engage the conscious mind in a way that teaching, conversing, or reading do.

This is a mess of words here, perhaps not conveying much, perhaps giving rise to some sense of identification in some readers. Perhaps not. But this post has been an attempt to describe what it’s like to be a writer. Of course, I don’t know what it’s like to not live as a writer. I don’t even know why I live as a writer — perhaps being a writer has made me a more thoughtful person towards others, or perhaps my thinking separates me from others socially. Perhaps I have shaped, through repetition, my mind to become that of a writer’s; perhaps my biology and my upbringing conditioned me at least part of the way to becoming who I am.

In a way, this aspect of being a writer — the Daily Being a Writer — is certainly not about getting published, and it’s not even mainly about connecting with others (with this rambling post as Exhibit A), or maybe it is about that, a little. And I don’t think this Daily Being a Writer is what we admire or appreciate about our favorite authors, so many of whom were jerks to be around. But Daily Being a Writer — maybe let’s call it, A Writer’s Being? — is not even what the friends and family of Hemingway and Kerouac would have known. Only the writer him/herself can know this. This Writer’s Being is natural to me, and it is obviously one way to be a human alive on this planet, and it is obviously not the only or even necessarily best way of living a human life. This way of living, this Writer’s Being, just seems so fundamental that questions of “am I a real writer?” or questions about how to create more suspense in a novel don’t even make sense in this context. I am, so I write. I exist, and how I exist is by thinking and writing. It’s not even noble or praiseworthy or pitiable or describable by any adjective. It just sorta is. And for some reason, putting words on paper feels good.