Friday, August 29, 2008

When Four Tribes Go to War

Ron has linked to a blog entry by Damien G. Walter on Scott McCloud's theory of the four tribes of artists in his book Making Comics. Longtime readers may recall my excitement about McCloud's classifications in this post that I wrote two years ago. I only call attention to it now because of the spiffy graphic, which I may print out and give to my creative writing students late in the semester, after they've had a chance to build up a small body of work and some confidence, just to promote discussion.

My own natural orientation tends toward Formalist/Classicist, the two "headiest" tribes, but I often look with longing at the greener grass of the Animists and Iconoclasts, grubbing and hooting and blazing with passion and hurling their own feces at the looky-loos. Flarf has attracted so much attention, I think, for being a counterintuitive blending of the Formalist and Iconoclast positions, whereas most of the Language and post-Language writers tend to be either strongly Formalist or strongly Iconoclast without much mixing (Michael Palmer versus Bruce Andrews, say, or Lyn Hejinian versus Alice Notley). The good old School of Quietude writers form an occasionally fractious alliance between Classicists and Animists; for a long time they had many people persuaded that their dyad was the only game in town. One could go on mapping poets and movements this way, but as a cognitive model it's probably most useful for obtaining a better self-understanding.

For a writer like me, uneasily perched between "emerging" and "mid-career," McCloud's tribes help me explain a little better to myself my own dissatisfactions with my writing, and will maybe even serve as fingerposts pointing toward new goals, new processes.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Reintroduction to Creative Writing

If you Google "creative writing" you come up with images like the one above, which serves if anything to remind me how resistant the act of writing is to visualization. A flip through the latest Poets & Writers reveals various attempts to overcome this difficulty in the selling of journals, books, and MFA programs. Images of young people in presumably intense discussion, famous or semi-famous faces, romantic landscapes and cityscapes, and abstract designs: you see all this, but the default image still seems to be the image implicit of some older mode of literary production: 1930s manual typewriters (I've never seen a Selectric in an ad, I don't think), fountain pens and inkbottles, or even just the graphic background of a yellow legal pad. You will never see a laptop so fetishized, at least not until we're all writing in the air like Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

The image of the writer is on my mind as I put the finishing touches on my third syllabus for the fall semester, which gets started this week, Introduction to Creative Writing. Last year I was preoccupied with the question of creative writing as self-expression, given that young college students are rather more concerned with self-construction. Estrangement therefore guided my thinking about how to teach the course and what texts they should read: I wanted to destabilize the "naturalness" of prose narrative and rhymed verse.

This time around, without losing sight of the need to keep my students just a little off-balance, I'm taking a more pragmatic approach which might appear to be a retreat from Thoreau's "Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense?" Partly this is because I've discovered my students don't have, for better or worse, as many allegiances as I'd expected to normative modes. I've come to accept the necessity of teaching them how to make a chair you can actually sit in before you start experimenting with the number of legs. And I've adopted a textbook with an eminently pragmatic approach to literary carpentry, Heather Sellers' The Practice of Creative Writing. What I like most about Sellers' book is the vocabulary and framework she provides for addressing creative writing—a vocabulary particularly valuable for being applicable to any mode of writing, or arguably any artistic practice at all. Rather than grouping into units on poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, etcetera, like most such textbooks, the Sellers book is organized around six principles or strategies that every beginning writer would be wise to become conscious of:
- Energy is what keeps readers turning the page. Subject matter is a big part of this: choosing a subject you know a great deal about, or are intensely curious about, will bring more energy to the writing. Leaps and gaps—what you leave out—are critical, as are word choice (concrete nouns, strong verbs) and pacing.
- Images refer not just to the visual element but to what you might call the "experientiality" of a text: its capacity for making the reader feel that he or she is there in the world of the story or poem. For Sellers the image is fundamentally opposed to "ideas" and intellection. I have some reservations about this, but really this section boils down to "show don't tell," and for beginning writers I'm on board with that.
- Tension is something many young writers neglect—I can't tell you how many stories I've read featuring a single protagonist alone with his or her thoughts and feelings, as opposed to being in actual conflict with other people. One thing I really like about the tension chapter is the strategy of "layering": images that contrast with the action, triangular relationships, and action that contrast and conflicts with dialogue (she calls this "facade," and it's another extremely useful tool for younger writers, who tend to write dialogues in which the characters say exactly what they mean, exactly unlike real human beings).
- Pattern has two divergent meanings for Sellers: pattern by ear (that is, the musical tools of verse: rhyme, meter, rhythm, consonance, etc.) and pattern by eye, which refers both to visual images created within a text (objects that form a significant pattern, characters' gestures) and visual arrangements on the page (this refers mostly to white space but is also an opening for talking about page-as-field).
- Insight—this is a category I'm really glad to devote some time to. This addresses the "So what?" question raised by any piece of writing on a deeper level than tension or energy; it refers to what we might call the truth content of any piece of writing. For Sellers, the means of achieving insight with writing are accuracy, particularly about human behavior; generosity toward one's characters and one's reader; asking questions with your writing rather than providing answers. She's careful to point out that these can be small questions as well as questions about death and the meaning of life (though one certainly shouldn't shun those).
- Structure: Elements. Sellers does another smart thing by dividing "structure" into two sections. The "Elements" section deals with the components of a piece, the moving parts of a narrative or a poem. She offers the categories of "bits," "beats," and "scenes" for thinking about prose, while for poems she focuses on words and lines. Commonsense stuff, maybe, but worth spending a chapter on.
- Structure: Forms. For poems she offers an expected handful of traditional forms: the pantoum, ghazal, sestina, and villanelle (why not the sonnet?). For narratives she breaks things into linear and non-linear structures: the former includes the classical dramatic structure we all learned in high school (rising action, climax, falling action), the journey, and the journey's inverse, the visitation (reminding of someone's axiom that there are only two plots: a young person leaves town, a stranger rides into town). I'm glad she offered some nonlinear structures to think about as well: the list, the alphabet (shades of Walter Abish!), and the braid (three or more interlocking strands of narrative).
In general I find the materials Sellers has to offer on prose are more interesting and useful than those to do with poetry, a feeling confirmed by the mini-anthology that the books effectively contains. The prose pieces include an excerpt from Amy Fusselman's terrific The Pharmacist's Mate (an example of braided narrative and an early McSweeney's production), stalwart stylists like Michael Chabon, Rick Moody, and Michael Cunningham, and some expected but nonetheless welcome contributions from the likes of Raymond Carver and Lorrie Moore. The poems, on the other hand, are almost invariably either anecdotal or precious, reflecting Sellers' simplistic division of all poems into narrative or lyric categories (though she does make space for the prose poem). This would bother me more if I weren't confident in my ability to present the students with broader poetic options. It's prose I need a little more help with, and in any case the six strategies Sellers provides are perfectly viable for describing the workings of a poem by Lisa Jarnot or Ron Silliman, say.

Sellers stresses the difference between images and "thought" to a degree that makes me just a little uneasy. She's absolutely write to point out that student writers tend to put a layer of insulation between their readers and their texts; instead, "Your images shouldn't be about describing, they shouldn't be about anything at all; they should be the thing." Well, William Carlos Williams could hardly disagree with her. But on the same page she claims, "Creative writers don't want their readers to think. We want them to see and feel." This is a false dichotomy. I can understand why Sellers puts so much stress on sensory detail and experience, because students are likely to be uncomfortable with putting their own sensual experience on the line in their writing. But I, for one, want my readers to think—it's really just a question of priority, in that I want the thinking to happen after, or maybe just at right angles, to the sensual presence of the language. Maybe Sellers just trusts that this kind of thing will take care of itself: first the elements of craft, then cognition or Geist may follow.

Sellers has another idea or first principle for beginning writers that seems useful but questionable: a stress on audience, which takes us back to the self-expression problem. In the first chapter, she distinguishes between writing for yourself and writing for others, and puts "creative writing" firmly in the second category. This is an expedient means of transmitting what we might call a "professional" attitude to students: their first and last concern is the effect they want to have on readers. It's an effective message in contradiction of a younger writer's more solipsistic tendencies, accompanied as it is by the message that the writer should never be having more fun than her reader. But it is a push toward professionalization, and the way the book is composed leaves little room for the possibility of different notions of audience, or the audience one's writing is intended to create. Maybe this is an unnecessary layer of sophistication for an introductory class, but I worry that as a strategy this passes writing too quickly out of the question of, if not self, of different sorts of community for readers and writers other than those determined by the insatiable market for sensation (tension, imagery, and all the rest).

Quibbles, really, given the usefulness of Sellers' six strategies, which provide a simple theoretical armature that I wish had been available to me when I was a creative writing student, told that certain lines didn't "work" or that I hadn't "earned" a particular image. They also provide a useful simulacrum of objective standards by which writing can be judged, which goes some way toward addressing the always vexing question of how to grade a piece of creative writing. More on that perhaps another time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Man on Wire

I don't get to the movies much these ways (see below for the reason why) but last night I saw this haunting documentary. The director, James Marsh, said he conceived of his film about Phillipe Petit's insane and triumphant endeavor to walk a wire between the Twin Towers in 1974 as a heist picture, and that's exactly how it plays (the tagline is "1974. 1350 feet up. The artistic crime of the century"). But as if that weren't pleasure enough—suspenseful in spite of knowing how it turns out—it's also a film about an artist at work, and about collaboration. Petit's obssession, and his ability to bring others into his obsession, make this one of the finest films I've seen about artmaking, comparable in its way to my all-time favorite The Five Obstructions. The obstacles in this case are not those posed by a diabolical apprentice but are simply, staggeringly logistical. Yet in both films the artist in question has to cross the black territory of the unconscious without dwelling there in order to achieve works of lacerating perfection.

The lyricism of the images of Petit on his wire take on an additional elegiac resonance given the further destiny of those towers—an event referred to not at all by the film. Marsh knows that he doesn't have to mention it, and the peculiar interpolation of History with Petit's defiant assertion of art-for-art's sake (he derides, in a friendly way, those Americans who kept asking him "Why?" afterward) for me raises anew the necessity of art's autonomy from life. But Petit's autonomy is achieved almost literally on the razor's edge of life—it's astounding he didn't fall to his death—and this perhaps reminds us that one shouldn't speak too glibly of the imagination as that which resists the pressure of reality (to use Stevens' language—I'm reading him again in preparation for my modern poetry class). Petit staked his body on "le coup" as he and his team called it, and if poets don't do the same in kind, if not in degree, their work might succeed didactically or be politically engagé without having the real savor of what is simultaneously escape from reality and the penetration of it. "Strike behind the mask"—Petit is a good-natured Ahab who neither kills the whale nor tames it—he rides, he surfs, he flies, at one point on one knee, paying homage to the spirit that's within him.

The dark and utter contrast between "the artistic crime of the century" and what Karl Stockhausen infamously termed "the greatest work of art ever" requires no further comment, except perhaps to say that when you wield a razor instead of walking its edge you pass from revelation to obscenity. Perhaps there's a dialectic here, but it's one I haven't the stomach for.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Late Summer Cuteness

More substantive and less cute blogging to follow in the not too distant future.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Forward to the Nineteenth Century

For the past couple of weeks I've been ruminating the various aspects of my pastoral project—the Olson paper, ideas for an anthology, plans for a book—trying to decide, in effect, where to plant my Archimedean fulcrum. On the one hand I've been reading a lot of poetry and criticism, particularly Olson and Oppen, and thinking about how their paths of innovation lead toward the postmodern pastoral. On the other hand I've been sunk deep in theory, most especially that of Fredric Jameson, and constructing what might be meant by a postmodern pastoral. My habits of mind lead me to get more excited about writing big-picture theory than I do about the more painstaking and empirical task of criticism. But whichever end of the fulcrum I emphasize, I'm going to need both if my dissertation ideas will be reborn as something fresh, relevant, and urgent.

But goodbye to all that, because August is here and I need to get my syllabi in shape. Today it's not the Modern Poetry course that preoccupies me but the hoary old survey class, Nineteenth-Century American Literature. This is a repeat course, unlike Modern Poetry, but I'm not satisfied with how things went last semester so I'm making some changes. The most basic change is switching anthologies from the Norton to the Heath—the latter puts more emphasis on presenting the spectrum of nineteenth-century cultural writing than the Norton, which is a canon-making machine. The representation of non-white-male authors in the Heath is much higher than the Norton, and their notes suggest a more overtly politicized approach to the material (that is to say, they don't pretend there's a politically neutral stance from which to regard these texts). At the same time, all the classics that I want to teach are still included, and often in superior versions: the 1855 version of "Song of Myself," "Bartleby" and other major works by Melville (no Moby-Dick, but the excerpts provided in the Norton seemed to confuse my students more than enlighten them), a cluster of Hawthorne stories plus the entirety of The Scarlet Letter, plenty of Emerson, Frederick Douglass' Narrative and "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?", a useful chunk of Cooper's The Pioneers, stories by Washington Irving, etc.

Last year I broke the course up into five units: Lighting Out for the Territory (we read all of Huck Finn), The Original Sin of Slavery, What Was Transcendentalism?, American Gothic (Poe, Hawthorne, Melville), and Containing Multitudes (Whitman and Dickinson). I will use units again this year, but I want them to be more cumulative this time, so that each text we read will have clear roots and antecedents in what went before, to give my students a stronger sense of literature as conversation and contest. And I'm letting go of Huck Finn (and also of Walden, another long book we read in its entirety) for the sake of greater breadth: I want to start earlier in the century and end later. Finally, I want to regionalize/spatialize this great unwieldy "American" beast—so after some initial questioning of the "American," I want to devote each unit to a different region of the emerging nation and its distinctive literatures. But I won't necessarily think of "regions" in the conventional way. So:

- Becoming American: This section will focus on the earliest moments in the American experience as they were being recapitulated, celebrated, and criticized by nineteenth-century authors. Texts will include some propagandistic poems by Lydia Sigourney, Washington Irving's scathing satire on the white campaign against Indians from A History of New York, "Rip Van Winkle," Emerson's "The American Scholar," three chapters from Cooper's The Pioneers, excerpts from Catharine Maria Sedgwick's novel Hope Leslie. The urge to separate from Europe, and the urge to at once destroy and assimilate American "wildness," will be counterposed.

- New England Transcendentalists: This unit will focus largely on the theory and nonfiction associated with New England in the first half of the century. We'll read Emerson's "Nature" and "The Poet," Margaret Fuller's "American Literature," Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government," "Walking," and some excerpts from Walden.

- Slavery and the South: In addition to Douglass's Narrative and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, we'll read some of the abolitionist rhetoric addressed directly to Southerners (particularly Angelina Grimke's Appeal to the Christian Women of the South) and two Southern apologists, Caroline Lee Hentz and George Fitzhugh (the latter is particularly interesting for his quasi-Marxist argument—saying in effect that the feudal institution of slavery is kinder than capitalist wage-slavery). We'll also read some Civil War literature: bits of Mary Chesnut's Civil War and some of Melville's Battle Pieces and Whitman's Drum-Taps (kind of a back-door into Whitman).

- American Interiors: Two parts to this unit. One focuses on women's writing and the ways in which they subtly or overtly revise the more usual narratives about American values and expansion. So that means pieces from Fanny Fern, excerpts from Caroline Kirkland's A New Home—Who'll Follow? (my mostly midwestern students will no doubt be amused by her depictions of a wild and untamed Michigan)), and Dickinson's poems. But the other part will focus on the rise of "psychological" literature: Poe stories and poems, some Hawthorne stories, and Kate Chopin's The Awakening.

- Containing Multitudes: I'm keeping this title for Whitman, but I also want this unit to address the rise of industrial-urban America after the Civil War. There's a useful section or "cluster" in the anthology titled "Literacy, Literature, and Democracy in Postbellum American" that addresses the question of which Americans get to speak and shape America. I'd also like to include Rebecca Harding Davis' "Life in the Iron-Mills," Melville's "Bartleby" and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," and finish up with Henry Adams's famous chapter on "The Virgin and the Dynamo."

This is a lot to cram into fifteen weeks, and I'm sure the actual syllabus will be more selective than this list indicates. I'm also not sure if the thematized units shouldn't be taken more loosely, because there are texts I'm interested in teaching that are hard to categorize in this fashion (where do I put Daisy Miller, for example?). I need to strike a balance between a larger narrative about American self-fashioning and the perverse individual will of each text to be itself alone.

When I've worked this all up it will be time to address the last class I'm teaching this fall, which I've also taught before: Introduction to Creative Writing. This time I'm using a textbook I've found that's not bad, principally because of the critical vocabulary it offers to young writers. But that's another post.

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