Tag Archives: writing

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.

Making a text is strange: Monday 18 July 2016 journal

Lately I’ve been thinking of texts that are written to be published, written for an audience, as performances, and as performances, these texts have a level of artifice that I’d like to question. So what follows below is selections from a text I wrote for myself in my journal. It’s not organized by topic, and it doesn’t fit a typical nonfiction form, but it’s an experiment in editing, in seeing how what final shapes a minimally shaped text can take. I’m wondering why someone might choose to read such an unlabeled, unformed text, and what someone would get from having read it.

At home, a little after 8 a.m. — It’s humid. There’s still much dew-fall on the sliding glass door. More light comes in from the lower half of the door, where rivulets have run.

Just read a piece at New York Times’ The Stone that talked about how brain science seems to suggest that we use the same faculty to look into — to model, presume — our own minds the same way we try to read and model others’ minds. There is no 1st person, the writer says. This piece didn’t upset me in the way that some new theories bother me. I hadn’t thought of it before, but this idea goes along with my previous ideas about the unknowability of my own mind. For example, I don’t know where my ideas or the words that I write come from. “The Greeks” Episode Two talked about Greeks taking ideas from other cultures they met while trading and making colonies. “Ideas” is a word that comes to English directly from the Greek. It suggests that an idea is what could be taken from others without them getting pissed. An idea is not property like a ship or a pot is. Of course, you’re not taking at all but making, making your own concept of what you see others doing.

And perhaps an idea isn’t property (a copyrighted work is “intellectual property” in legal terms, but an idea-qua-idea can’t be copyrighted). But maybe the idea of “the idea” is itself Greek. The notion that we can form ideas, that ideas are things that can be labeled, identified, as much as “rock” or “tree” can be. Though, of course, we still can’t see, touch, or taste ideas.

A dog sticking out of driver's window of this van. This is from my McPerspective at my McSeat.

A dog sticking out of driver’s window of this van. This is from my McPerspective at my McSeat. (This dog is different from the the RCA dog mentioned below.)

At Oregon, Ill., McDonalds, seated alongside the wall of windows along the south side of dining room, with a view of cars leaving the drive-thru, about 10 a.m., after dropping my wife off to conduct a real estate closing —

At the diner yesterday, talked to Ashli Waitress’s husband, Jason, who’s working to demolish a building in the Chicago suburbs. There’s a steel structure for moving product inside this old warehouse, and he’s using a hydraulic shears for cutting this steel. The shears can cut steel up to 2 inches thick, he said.

Jason also told me about a former job delivering and repossessing furniture for a rental store in Rockford. How he once had to step over a passed-out dude in the hallway of an apartment building, and how he once got intentionally hit by a woman in a car and he was carried along until his feet got loose, and how he got shot at. Once sofas were repossessed, the employees had a way of opening them with wedges so as to not get stabbed with drug needles. Employees also called cops after discovering certain images on repossessed computers, he said.

“… 40 years old, dropped of a cardiac arrest … they revived her in the hospital after shocking her seven times … she passed a month ago — had her 42nd birthday” at the hospital, said a 60-year-old-ish man to an 80-year-old-ish man sitting at the table west of me.

“I couldn’t hold a frickin’ gallon of milk,” said the 60-ish man, who had slipped and fallen during a winter and thought he’d have to get rotator cuff surgery, but he didn’t.

“Could I get a discount, please?” said McSally. A dark-haired 30-ish McManager came over to a register where another McWorker was on the client side of the counter.

“I’m gonna run up to Rockford. I gotta jump on a conference call,” said 60-year-old guy. “Alright, pop,” said the 60-ish guy. “Alright, kiddo,” said the 80-ish guy as both left their table.

A certain customer will “ask for a senior coffee. He can’t hardly hold it … he should NOT  be driving,” said McSally to McKaren, who responded that the old man might cause an accident and not even get hurt himself.

Dark-haired McManager said, “lunchtime” at 10:30. She said it in a low-energy shout, like “Lunch. Time.”

I was thinking this spring that it IS hard — emotionally upsetting — to have one’s beliefs challenged, as I was challenging my high school students’ beliefs during our philosophy unit.

“Can I help you, hun, now that I’m done complaining?” said McKaren to a customer about how she thought the humidity at 6:30 this morning was bad but it’s worse now.

Not that the statement above is such a great quote. Rather, it was a little distracting, so I wanted to get it out of my mind. But also, there’s something about how she really said it — it’s somewhat banal (not entirely, since it does reveal character), but also … I don’t know. I just wanted to record it as a real statement that was really said, a small moment but now it’s recorded. It was made a “moment” by my recording it? That maybe there is something special about me writing real things down — that writing them down, that making a text, is an act that is strange — estranged from? — living life, regular life. It’s normal for me to write, but maybe I forget how weird it is to write, actually.

There was a short-coated dog hanging out a passenger window of an SUV — it looked a little like the RCA Victor dog.

“They got it off Pinterest or somethin’,” said McSally. Pinterest is a thing, now.

I try to figure things out sometimes and shut out — mentally shut out, ignore — my surroundings. Yet, why bother? So many texts are written that way. And when I read, I like to shut out outside input — like, just now, the horn solo of Little River Band’s “Reminiscing” and like McSally saying, “What are cheeseburger cupcakes?” and McDark Hair Manager saying, “They look like cheeseburgers.”

Ogle County soldiers' memorial, in front of the county jail and, further back, a church spire for the First Presbyterian Church of Oregon, Ill.

Ogle County soldiers’ memorial, in front of the county jail and, further back, a church spire for the First Presbyterian Church of Oregon, Ill.

Shutting out one’s surroundings, being able to focus on the text, both as writer and as reader, can be really nice at times. But also, it could be nice to read texts where (like this text), the writer is out in public and includes what he hears and sees going on around him while also writing whatever ideas come into the writer’s head.

A dude asks the McCounter workers — he’s new to the area, he says — and he asks how to get Internet and/or cable. They name some utilities for him, fulfilling their community-information function.

What I write — I’m of this area, this county. I publish on my own blog rather than submitting my writing to edited websites. There’d be a sense in leaving my community, of having to go away to make it big, in submitting my work to others. I saw corn plants in a certain field on the drive to McDonald’s today — Ogle County is cornfields, and is not people and culture. I’ve developed as a writer while living in this rural area, without much influence from other writers, and that lack of influence is perhaps a result of, a mark of, having developed while out here in this open place. Sometimes this place can feel desolate, empty of smart people who share my interests, but this morning I wasn’t feeling that. I was feeling that there’s something meditation-promoting about this cornfield. I didn’t feel desolate. I felt that this corn — tassling out, the row curving — was as good as any. That I could stop and meditate there.

“Do we have cookies back, Sal?” asked McKaren. “I don’t think so,” said McSal. “I’m taking the last of the chocolate chip,” said McKaren, as a client stood at the counter. The client wore pajama pants printed with what looked like heart-shapes with sashes across them, with the sashes reading “LOVE” — upcloser (I used the ruse of getting napkins), I saw that there was a sword through the red shape and a flower and that some of the designs were mirror-imaged (or flipped?) so that “LOVE” was spelled “backwards-E,” “O,” “V,” “backwards-L.”

There’s a sense that people who write about rural areas have to do so in the forms approved y city-dwelling editors — intellectuals, in other words (although right-wing propaganda, less so, I’d think).

Having my own website is less glamorous than publishing with the imprimatur of an imprint, but publishing on my own website is wonderfully direct.  These are the words coming directly from this author, without intercession.

At the Diner, noon:05, after having picked up my wife after her real estate closing and taken her to lunch — I could post this day’s writing. I don’t need to write on a topic, so I could put up whatever. But I also don’t need to blurt.

But if the point of publishing isn’t to tell a message but just to share my mind, share a text that comes from my experience, to share a bit of my mind — a mystical aspect of a text.

“I don’t think Lucinda cares for him too good,” said a 60-year-old-ish woman to another woman eating across from her in the booth behind my wife.

Back at home, 10:45 p.m. — I typed in some, not all, of today’s journal. I was tempted to cut down what I entered — I had the idea to take just one paragraph’s worth of idea out of any one day’s journal. But then I thought, I’m not sure I should cut down. Give it a try, type in a long piece. There’s no need to include everything from the journal entry, yet I wonder if I’m judging by traditional, too-narrow standards if I cut down my texts. Leave it long, don’t talk yourself out of doing it before you try it.

Of course, what I like is to write. I write for the engaged writing experience — publishing comes second as a priority. But maybe what I want is to have a text that reveals a nimble mind — maybe that’s my organizing guideline. I could even have a long version and a short version (an Abstract, or a “TL;DR” section).

My Hand, Writing

I'm layin' down some words.

I’m layin’ down some words.

So, I’ve been filming myself writing.

Yes, this is me just playing with my smart phone’s camera. And yet, when I watch these videos, I’m a little startled by the weirdness of watching my hand moving across the page and not knowing what I’m gonna write.

But it also strikes me that this is not a type of video one typically sees. When a movie shows a hand writing, there’s usually a voice-over reading the words as they’re written. And I’m used to looking at my writing while I hear my own “inner voice” stating the words that I will write next, so watching a video of writing makes me aware of how quiet it is, how unobtrusively writing fits in to even a typically non-intellectual place like a small-town McDonald’s or Jimmy John’s.

Me 'n' some people lucky enough to witness my writing, 13 Aug. 2015, McDonald's, Oregon, Illinois.

Me ‘n’ some people lucky enough to witness my writing genius, 13 Aug. 2015, McDonald’s, Oregon, Illinois.

Of course, these videos, silly as they are, might be verging on this.

I Write for Me: A Manifesto Of My Self-Importance

I write a lot, but not for other people.

I write mostly to and for myself: journals, poems, notes, etc. I enjoy being engaged in the writing process, and I want to write about what I want to write about, and these aren’t always things that I think other people would care about.

I write these blog posts to be read by others, whoever you are. I mostly write these for myself as well, but I want to let you know, Readers, that at least I’m thinking of you. The thought is what counts.

For years, I’ve wanted to turn the things I wrote into things that others would want to read. But that hasn’t been going so well. I mean, unless I’m writing to a specific person, I don’t know who I’m writing to. I suspect that I’m writing to others like myself, which could suggest that what I’m already doing is pretty great! I needn’t change a word! But do others who are like me need to hear what I’m saying, or do they already know it?

So, I’m considering changing my approach and just embracing whatever the hell it is that I do. I mean, if there are no standards — and in creative work, why would there be? — then I can do whatever I like.

I have, over recent days, been reading some emails I wrote 5 and 6 years ago to a friend, and while I was conscious of writing to him, I was also just writing to air my own thoughts, explore my own ideas. And I remarked, in an email, upon that tendency of mine. And as I read that remark today, I thought, hell, why not?

Why not come out and embrace what I have been doing, but not acknowledging to myself, all these years? For years, I’ve been thinking that I had to be something other than what I was: I still expected myself to one day write things that would be for other people, wonderful, witty texts that would impress, entertain, and instruct my readers, and that would establish my reputation as a Writer Worth Reading.

But I’m not sure I need that kind of validation anymore. Or, let’s say, I’m not sure that I want to work for that validation (but I’d take it if it came!). I’m coming to terms with who I am: a self-centered writer. I love to write about my own ideas and experiences. I want to write whatever I want to write and not worry (as I so often have) about whether a text is good enough or not to share.

Some of this worrying has prompted me to write merely charming or clever texts, and some of this worrying has prompted me to overedit the texts that I share. I’m not sure these are what I want to be doing.

I will accept that I may never sell a book, or even write one, and that such a lifestyle is gonna be OK with me. I don’t have to achieve Authorhood. I am already a writer. I don’t gotta sell nothin’. I’m willing to be subversive, as described in a recent New Yorker article by Andrew Marantz: “In our data-obsessed moment, it is subversive to assert that the value of a product is not reducible to its salability.”

My books won’t be salable, because I won’t sell them — or, let’s say, I’m not sure why I myself would care about sales, since publishing is not a creative act but is a business act, an ego-act, and it’s also a business that seems terrible for a lot of writers now. I’ll give away on this blog whatever I feel like giving away. If I feel like it, I’ll make single copies of books.

I don’t need to sell products to strangers in order to feel good about myself (or so I’m still trying to convince myself — maybe I’m not quite there yet, and maybe this mini-manifesto is pushing me to get there). How wonderful that we live in a time where we do have this Internet available for instant, world-wide distribution! I’m not gonna fret about getting paid — I’m an Artist, dammit!

Links on writing, poetry

1. Word sounds and food tastes: Small, thin things get front vowels; creamy, heavy things get back vowels.

2. An article explaining how meter for Greeks wasn’t measured in stresses but in long-and-short vowels.

3. Writing may improve health.

4. Explaining rap to U.S. Supreme Court justices.

5. Jeff Tweedy writes mumble-lyrics before putting in real words. He says he doesn’t want to have the words get in the way of the melody.

6. Rhyming in sign language.

Why lit classes should teach bad novels

Looking though a catalog of books for use in English classrooms, I saw many of the old classics. Here are the contents of a bundle of books labeled “Common Core Literature Pack for Grades 9 and 10“:

The Odyssey, The Best of O. Henry, The Metamorphosis, The Grapes of Wrath,  Fahrenheit 451, Things Fall Apart, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Killer Angels, The Joy Luck Club, Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, A Doll’’s House, The Glass Menagerie, Great American Poems, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Great Speeches

This list seems tedious — it’s hard to imagine 14- and 15-year-old humans getting excited about reading Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen, or Tennessee Williams — but this list is certainly full of books that are commonly considered to be worth teaching. These are good books, worthy of the title “literature.”

The tenth graders I’m teaching now are currently reading “Of Mice and Men,” another classic that this catalog company describes as “one of America’s most well-known naturalist stories.” As we read and discuss this book, I guide students in finding “textual evidence” to support their judgments of characters and their interpretations of themes. And Steinbeck’s novel/novella is very tightly structured; as I’m rereading this book this semester, I can see that Steinbeck foreshadows in the first 16 pages almost everything that will happen in the next 91.

The story works in the sense that readers can accept the text’s storytelling logic. Once these strongly defined characters are set together, they act on each other in ways that make sense. Curley starts a fight with Lennie because that’s what Curley likes to do, pick fights, we’re told. And once Lennie fights back and hurts him, Curley seeks revenge. This all makes sense (if maybe perhaps it’s a little too pat, too easy) and we readers are able to suspend our disbelief enough to accept this story as an entity worth discussing.

This isn’t always easy to do, as writers of fiction would acknowledge. It’s not hard to put words down on paper and say that one has written a story, but convincing readers that such a text is actually a story is a different matter. What exists on paper as merely words must build into a kind of (paradoxical) imaginary quasi-reality in a reader’s mind in order for a reader to think that there are “people” behind the words “George” and “Lennie,” and thus, to care about those people. (Perhaps psychologically, we readers think of fictional characters the way we think of our friends and family members who aren’t physically present to us. Maybe “Lennie” is a concept like my Dad, dead now 15 years, is a concept to me — it’s just that I also have a concept that my Dad was once alive, and Lennie never was. But, of course, it’s more complicated than that, because “Lennie” isn’t merely a fictional idea, either, as Steinbeck once said, “The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He’s in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn’t kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman.”)

A text that doesn’t convince readers it is a functioning story isn’t a story at all — it’s the literary equivalent of a set of car parts that can’t drive anybody anywhere. But when those car parts are properly assembled, they produce a machine that works, that functions. The physical objects, acting in consistent ways (we describe these ways as laws of physics), can produce motions that seem useful to us — namely, by moving us. But when a text works in conveying a usefully coherent story to readers, is it acting according to some psychological laws? Some thinkers, including Aristotle, this guy, here and here and here, have tried to discern the laws of making a satisfying story. But if there existed an adequate explanation of how to make stories that are effective and attractive to audiences, certainly book publishers would not make books that don’t sell. Even when a new story may follow the model of an familiar story that works, this may feel too formulaic for readers to really engage with the story. Readers may stay aware of the text as a text, not transmuting into story.

If literature students read only those novels that are good, that are judged to have succeeded, students are studying the effects produced by a text — the story — rather than the text itself. To continue the car analogy, it’s as if students experienced riding in the car but didn’t look at the parts of the car, or how the parts contribute to the car working, except as how the car parts affect the car rider’s experience. Saying “Lennie kills the girl because he likes to pet soft things and he gets carried away” is like saying “I could see out the windshield because the dashboard doesn’t rise too high” — both of these things are explicit to readers and riders (and these things are obvious to a more experienced reader, but maybe not to inexperienced students in schools. On the other hand, maybe part of what literature instruction is trying to do is to get students to make their implicit understandings explicit).

If we really want students to understand how fiction texts work, maybe we should have them read novels that aren’t good, novels that don’t really lead readers to suspend disbelief and fully engage in the story. By reading only good novels, students might see how a writer intends them to interpret the story’s text, but students might not see how the writer constructs and even manipulates the story to produce certain effects in the reader (for example, why did Steinbeck’s novel deviate from the facts of the story of real-life Lennie mentioned above? Is Steinbeck, as author, trying to tell readers what they should think, as opposed to just describing what happened? What is the point of fiction, anyway?) Students  are learning to follow the text’s decoding instructions, but maybe students should also be wondering why these instructions are there, and are the way they are.

As someone who teaches classes both in reading fiction and in writing fiction, I’m often looking at published novels by adopting the perspective of a writer, by which I mean that I want to see how the text was made, how it works. In literature classes, novels are often presented as inherently valuable, as worth the class’s time to study, and thus it’s easy to see why lit students would start to think of writers of these assigned novels as Great Writers, and thus the mythology around these writers builds (into its own story). In becoming a writer myself, however, I had to tear down this mythology and realize that Steinbeck and other writers were my peers, not my unassailable geniuses. And in a literature class, readers often treat the text as being complete, or perfect, as they find it in the published version. It makes sense for readers to approach texts this way, and yet, writers often view texts as imperfect, as infinitely revisable. This is perhaps what Valery meant by “a poem is never finished, only abandoned.” For instance, Whitman published multiple editions of “Leaves of Grass,” in which poems changed significantly between editions. It may give literature students a more realistic view of the novel to see it both as a reader and as a writer.

‘Even transcendent moments can drain you’: Pocket pages week in review

I indulge my obsessive mind sometimes in pursuing an idea. Maybe that’s why my posts (for example, here), my writing, can get a little too dense, some readers have commented.

It’s OK if I don’t have all my ideas and ideals worked out. The tension makes my writing interesting (maybe).

My town's water tower gains a crown during maintenance work this week.

My town’s water tower gains a crown during maintenance work this week.

There’s no need to speak against an artwork (like this example speaks against the movie Dead Poets Society). A person may like or love an artwork’s tone or voice, without caring too much about whether the artwork is particularly realistic or accurate or even philosophically astute.

I got upset about something I read that my alma mater did. I’m reminding myself that I don’t need to get upset about institutional decisions — there will always be ones I don’t agree with. I can disagree with things without actually getting upset about them.

My blog doesn’t need to be as timely as a news site is. I’m writing more “undated” (as the journalists say) pieces that can be read at various times. I’m building an archive, a set of stories, ideas, etc. More a book (like an anthology?) than a newspaper.

Reading in book “Jazz Poems” a poem by Frank Landon Brown that contains the line “a boy … who’d become great before he should have.” This prompts a thought that there are seasons, there’s a paced unfurling, to a life. And it may not help to hurry it. That if we get attention young, we may not be able to handle it, or we may be ignoring /sacrificing some other part of our lives. That even transcendent moments can drain you.

After seeing an ad in American Poetry Review for Bennington College M.F.A. program, an ad that said, in 72-point Helvetica,



be read.

as if readers could be delivered. What if people were actually eager to read writings? What would those writings be like? It doesn’t seem that writers should need all this machinery working toward fame — the small journals, the MFA programs, the poetry contests with entry fees, etc.

I was showing off for my fellow teachers last night, I can now [the next morning after the open house] recognize. I was telling stories in an attempt to entertain.

There’s a narrow range of responses, reactions, a person might have to something (particularly I’m thinking here of reactions to seeing, reading, or hearing something in real life or in media). This range of responses might include agreeing, disagreeing, associating something with it, mocking it, etc. To go beyond these mere responses, you gotta think a little deeper, dive in, engage, not go with your first reactions, which tend to be of that narrow range. Instead, you can use that event as a starting point, not as the whole first half, of an essay.

The midpoint of my commute from home to school (or school to home) is just a concept, the middle of a whole, a unit, a defined distance. But physical things aren’t relative to particular points. There isn’t an obvious relation or comparison between the locations of my home and my school, except that they are locations that matter to me.

I have an obsessive tendency to check a few things, in particular, to check to make sure my stove is off before I leave the house, and to make sure my classroom’s windows are locked before I leave school. I look at each thing, each burner knob, each window, and I say “off” or “locked,” respectively, as I look at its state. I wonder if having this habit is part of what inspired my interest in wondering in a more general sense how much words and perceptions match physical reality. Perhaps I say “off, off, off, off,” to confirm my perception of the stove’s real status, to make sure I am paying attention, forming a memorable idea that it’s really off (that if I say “off” at the same time I’m looking at the burner, I may remember that I said “off” and that it really was off). [My variety of obsessive thought involves being concerned that I am paying attention now to turning off the stove so that if I later wonder if I turned off the stove, I can reassure myself. But actually the goal is to not wonder later at all — it’s better to get busy doing something else. But maybe this habit of mine is partly why I’m philosophically interested in wondering how ideas and words match/reflect reality, as here, for example.]

Writers write in order to find something to say (for explanation). We don’t have things in mind that we need to say, or at least not always do we. When we do, that’s not usually as interesting.

A different way of thinking about places, about physical things: There doesn’t need to be, there is no one way to conceive of nature, including the concept of no-concept.

Weather and other physical world conditions don’t matter in the mental realm — or maybe they do. I mean, we can read and discuss, say, Plato, whether it’s cold or hot outside. We’re inside, climate-controlled — it’s hard to even read outside (it’s too bright, etc.). But if clouds shape (even partially) our mood, and mood shapes ideas … maybe I’m sensitive to my surroundings. I observe lots, and get critical of things, maybe because I feel overwhelmed and feel a need to respond, so I get defensive (and thus critical).

I did no reading online while eating today at lunch (I usually do read online, or watch TV, or even write, while eating).

[End of the school day Thursday:] Feeling too tired today to want to grade student papers. This is what I felt like much of last year, rather than the energetic mood of the last few days when I was keeping up with grading.

“Oh, well, what’s a little memory loss,” laughed one of my colleague teachers to a student.

Every time I go to Walmart, I regret it.

I think that one thing I’m searching for in my writing is some unity of consciousness and place/physical locale. I know I’ll never get to know the truth of the physical world (not talking particle physics here, but what really happened as outside of, apart from, my perception of what happened), but the particular consciousness’s voice matters. The writer’s voice is in, is embedded in, comes from, the consciousness.

In contrast to the individual’s voice, there’s the language we use when people join into groups, organizations, institutions — anonymous, role-based speech. Not unique consciousnesses at all (or the uniqueness is minimized) because the teacher in the classroom, the boss in front of a staff meeting, feels the need to play the role of teacher, of boss.

On Friday afternoon in the parking lot, one male student was telling another male student some plans for afterschool transport options. The second student said, “I think that’s your mother over there.” The first student said, “Oh. Nevermind.”