Tag Archives: texts

Interesting People Say Interesting Things: 20 July 2016 journals

Weds. 20 July — While walking my dog this morning through a nearby subdivision, I saw a state cop car pull out of a driveway and a water bottle come rolling downhill toward me, as if it’d been on the car when the cop moved it. He soon stopped and got out and I said, “good thing it’s water and not a cup of coffee or something” — or your gun, I thought but didn’t say.

After talking with colleagues about the short-story unit we’ll teach in our sophomore English class, I’m looking at this unit now as teaching kids the form, and how to analyze the form, of the short story. I want students to see the limits and the lies of that form — for example, in that story about a gang-member getting stabbed and bleeding out, we have no way to know what a dying person thinks. I want to teach students to be wary of, or at least aware of, being manipulated by fiction. Though I know some students will probably be fiction fans and I don’t want to break their hearts, and yet … I do want to wake them up.

Got an email this week from a former student from 3 years ago who said that my class opened up her mind, got her thinking. I love to hear that, though of course, I’d also like to know examples of what new thoughts she’s had because of my class. But just the fact that she thinks the class opened up her mind means she’s aware of having an open mind, and that might be the necessary first step — perhaps the only step? — to actually having an open mind, being willing to think about things in new ways, etc.

I don’t want to have to convince someone of the value of my writings. Readers will get it or they won’t.

I wouldn’t say that the texts I write can’t be changed. I know editors greatly altered certain classic words of literature — Kerouac’s, Thomas Wolfe’s, Raymond Carver’s. But there’s something OK about a text being whatever I put in it.

“Hello, it’s me,” said my wife, coming into the great room for the first time this day. “Who are you, Todd Rundgren?” I asked. She said she was about to say something similar.

Even if my edited journals aren’t compelling reads (like, say, a plot-driven thriller is compelling), these posts can be worth reading, can be interesting, at least to some readers.

Developing one’s sensibility: how teachers pick out better quotes to use from a story, and teachers find more things, and more-interesting things, to interpret from literary texts than students generally do — this could be an analogy to, and/or an example of, what I’ve been thinking about how interesting people say interesting things. Interesting people are usually older people, and so, frankly, my own younger-me writings may not be as interesting as my more recent ones are. For example, the literature-analysis essays I wrote as a high-schooler: I could’ve done more-interesting analysis, but I didn’t have the mind to do so at age 17.

Earlier this week, I published an edited part of my journal [as this post here is also]. I haven’t always felt motivated to start reading others’ journals — say, Camus’s, a book of whose journals I owned back in college, or Thoreau’s, which I looked at in recent years. But Thoreau’s actually were interesting, maybe more than Walden is. But Walden feels like A Big Work, Thoreau’s One Big Work , and so it feels more important to read that book than his journals. But of course, the book doesn’t have to be seen that way.

A mental tourist: Visiting others’ minds through their texts

2013_07_31_mh (6)_cropA text by Mark Edmundson explains well an idea I’ve heard before, that English majors read

not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?

English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought.

Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of reading, similar to Edmundson’s description, as sharing in the mind, the mental activity, of the writer.

But I’ve been thinking of this sharing in a slightly different way — that a person  reading a text is like a computer running software that simulates something (like flight) or maybe a person reading a text is like a player piano recreating music from paper.

And while this analogy is as imperfect and arbitrary as any, considering it has given me some other ideas. For one, thinking of a text as a program for a human mind to run makes it clear that the text is representing the writer’s mind-activity (the voice that the writer thinks in) rather than representing whatever the text is about. For example, when I read a biography of Lincoln, I’m recreating in my mind the thoughts that the biographer’s mind had about Lincoln, rather than recreating Lincoln himself. [And against Edmundson, I’d argue that it’s not just literary texts that do this — but that any text — nonfiction, instruction manuals, etc. — is the product of a writerly consciousness and so conveys that consciousness as it conceives those words.]

And so, we don’t have to ask whether a text accurately represents reality — as if such a thing were possible or even desirable. I don’t really know what’s happening physically when I see a rainbow, but I can use words to describe what I’m seeing and thinking, how I’m interpreting what I see, and that human interpretation is something others can share by recreating my ideas from my words. [Yes, I know scientists have an explanation of light refracting and whatnot, but that doesn’t suffice to explain my mind’s experience. Also, the science explanation, too, is just another, different kind of interpretation-by-human text.]

A photo of a rainbow can show, in a limited (two-dimensional) way, another person what the photographer could see from his/her perspective. A person who wasn’t present can view the photo image and construct one’s own interpretation from that visual data. A text cannot quite capture or convey sensory reality that way. To look at a page of text is to see ink-shapes on paper (or screen). To read the word “rainbow” is not to see colors in an arc in the sky, but one can interpret the word (using one’s own prior experiences) and imagine the visuals. And of course, through our senses, we live in a world in which there are sights, smells, touches, sounds, tastes, and we use these senses simultaneously — smelling, tasting, and seeing a raspberry, say.

We can’t do that in text. We’re down to one linear direction (sequence in time) in text, one sense at a time. And yet, there’s something about this that may match how our minds process the world — yes, our minds can take in senses simultaneously, but we don’t seem to be able to talk about our senses except one at a time. And this way that our conscious, abstracting minds think is, I’m suggesting, pretty close to how we say or write our experiences, and then this linearly described experience is what we can hear or read and share.

So, no, reading a description of someone in a cafe in Venice isn’t quite like being there; and yet, reading what someone else thinks about being there (being a mental tourist?) can be, perhaps, more of a travel-experience than being a physical tourist might be. I can drag my body to other places on the Earth, but still, it’s just me seeing these new-to-me places with my familiar-to-me mind. Wherever I go, there I am. But reading can really allow me to get outside my own mind.

And at times when I’ve been reading too much, or taking in too much other media (which “mediates” the world for me — which processes the world through others’ minds before it gets to me), I’ve felt like I haven’t had enough time to be, or to think as, myself. I often drive with my radio off for this reason. So I don’t mean to say that it’s always a good thing to let others’ ideas and experiences into our heads, but it’s not always a bad thing, either. For instance, sometimes I’ll read when I feel tired or stressed — reading lets me escape my own worries, my own familiar mindset, for a while.

So we may not be experiencing what Venice the place is, but we’re experiencing what the writer experiences in Venice, and this can be tedious if, say, the writer tells us only about the reputation and myths of Venice. So much of journalistic-type writing seems to invoke the expectations and stereotypical ideas we may have of a place — Venice: Canals! Glorious history! Art! — as a way of inducing readers to relate, but of course, no one actually experiences the myths or generalities about a place. We instead experience particularities, and the longer we live in a place, the harder it may feel to form genuine generalities about the place. I’ve lived in Ogle County, Illinois, most of my life, and it’d be harder for me to describe this place than it is a new place — of course, I have a shallow view of the new place, but I don’t know enough to feel bad about my shallow view.

I can remind myself that wherever one lives, it becomes home, with all its comforts and confines. But this also reminds me of the importance of the particular voice of the writer. And in my own writing, I often don’t want to convey just what I know. Though I may start from something I have already experienced or want to assert, I also try to, as I write, have a new idea — I want to write texts that are not static but show a sense of growth, of exploration, of trying new ideas and being open to new ideas. (For instance, I didn’t know when I started this post that it would become what I am writing now — I don’t want to know the future; I wanna have new ideas.) When I write, I want to have that open-minded, exploratory, even questioning experience (which is one way of defining creative writing?), and perhaps it is that experience that I want to share with readers. I don’t wish to adopt a tone or posture of lecturing in my writings, partly because that’s dull for me to write, and I think it’s also dull for others to read.

Now, I know that when I’m having open-mind writing time, I’m not perhaps very careful with the editing, and certainly the structure is more biological (branching out, recursive, etc.) than rhetorically familiar — which nonstandard writing can be a harder program for a reader to decode and run/follow. For another example, stream of consciousness texts may be attempting to represent a mind’s workings, and yet, stream of consciousness texts can be so hard to read that the reader never gets around to having the experience the writer intends.

That’s an argument for stylistic simplicity, I guess. But I also like the idea of spontaneous writing — giving the reader the sense of the writer’s raw mental-voice. If a writer’s voice is too heavily edited, or tries too hard to stay within the accepted forms, reading the text becomes more like visiting a chain store than going to an unexpected place.

P.S.: Another corollary would be that if one doesn’t like the mental-program one is running (that is, the text one is reading), then one can just stop running the program, stop reading. And perhaps that feeling is why some books drive us away — we just don’t feel like spending time in that person’s mind.

Amazon, bookstores, and me

This recent article from Salon points out that most people still find out about books not online but from physical bookstores, and so, as physical bookstores find it hard to compete with Amazon’s prices and go out of business, Amazon might be hurt, too.

I have loved bookstores since I first started going to them in high school — I’ve loved finding books at new-book and at used-book stores, I’ve loved sitting in them and reading, etc.

And I used to love buying books — more than I could really afford. But for some reason, I seem to be less interested in books these days, and I think there are a couple, intermixed reasons.

I’m really writing more than reading these days. Writing is what feels natural, like I have authentic energy to do it, and reading long works doesn’t feel that way. I used to really enjoy reading long works, but now I feel less inclined to read both long narratives (of fiction or nonfic) and long works of analysis or philosophy.

I want short texts, like poems, or brief nonfictions (an example by Charles Simic here) — not because I’m busy or my attention span is short, but because I’m not sure I see much value in length, in duration. I don’t know why stories have to take a long time (I don’t read, generally, to escape into a story); nonfiction histories and biographies feel like compilations of arbitrary ideas, and philosophies/”big idea” books seem arbitrary and pointlessly thorough — like the world’s shiniest turd.

The Simic piece prompts a new thought — I’m appreciating that piece for its lack of familiar structure. I’m tired of regular structure — I teach the five-paragraph essay to high-schoolers, and while it’s useful for them to know, it’s a form I want to avoid in my reading and writing.

And when I go to bookstores now, I feel like the books are dead, in a sense. They are works that are complete, that are no longer being edited (with some possible exceptions — Whitman revised “Leaves of Grass” extensively, for over 30 years, after first publishing it). In recent months, I’ve been wondering about how commerce drives publishing form — namely, why it is that most books are carefully written and edited, and then many copies are made — instead, I’ve been writing small, one-copy volumes. These books are texts I can make all at once, in a short time (an hour or so), straight from my mind, with almost no revision — in this way, these books match a writing process that has come to feel right to me: writing spontaneously, writing what comes to mind, writing without having an outcome in mind (I’ll have a filled book at the end, but not be sure what words or ideas or drawings will fill it). This is an aesthetic/artistic choice that has seemed valuable to me recently.

And the wonderful thing about the Interwebs is that, as a form, as a publishing possibility, it too allows for work to be written quickly and published quickly, and revised in an ongoing way, and shorter texts seem to fit well within a blog or other electronic format.

[An aside: As this article points out, e-books are still a fraction of paper-book sales, and

But we do read things differently when they’re on a page rather than on a screen. A study this year found that people reading on a screen tended to skip around more and read less intensively, and plenty of research confirms that people tend to comprehend less of what they read on a screen. The differences are small, but they may explain the persistent appeal of paper. Indeed, hardcover sales rose last year by a hundred million dollars.]

This is not intended to be an argument against books themselves, or against bookstores (where I spent many hours reading and finding books that shaped the mind I have now) — and I still own many paper books, and may publish my own someday.

But right now, I don’t feel the Amazon vs. bookstore thing needs to be a big deal. Books aren’t perfect, and why not question the assumptions of the publishers, of the writers, and of the readers.