Oh, The Places You Will Go…

“In Paris, there are only two ages…youth and decay.”

The idea of place is something that I have always strived to give importance to in my own work.  Place can become its own character within a work if given proper space to breathe on the page, and can enhance whichever aspect of a story the writer desires.  Basically, Place is a versatile badass.  In Edmund White’s The Flâneur, a word I dutifully looked up so as to not look like an idiot, we get an exaggeration of place as a character in Paris.  We get so many details about the city, but more specifically, about the city in terms of how is affects/draws/exists for those who wander its streets.  White writes that “The variety of Paris is matched by the energy, the voraciousness and passion of its population.”  I think that’s what this piece does best, using the city, the setting, to represent the people.

It is that idea of representation that I want to take away from this piece.  My thesis project is set primarily in Cleveland, and the environment of the Rustbelt plays a big part in characterization.  I think that using the variety of places to characterize the city as White does, can be an effective and efficient way to represent the population, and its eclectic nature.  It also provides context for the state of characters with, perhaps, someone having to say gee it’s too bad that my towns rundown and it messed up my life.  I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded, or if this is even quite what The Flâneur is getting at, but this is how I’ve tried to incorporate similar-ish ideas into my work:

Past scattered empty storefronts—some closed, some deserted—Vivian glimpsed a familiar scene as she continued toward the heart of downtown.  In a narrow walkway between buildings, beside a hole-in-the-wall bar, a man fastened his pants and then reached into his pocket for a folded up bill.  He walked away with a look far more satisfied than that of the girl he left standing against the wall.  Vivian kept walking.

She kept walking until she reached Carrousel Park, which at midnight was devoid of children’s voices and cheerful organ music.  In an area that had seen revitalization and demise more times than anyone could keep track of, the carousel stood as a bright spot for over two decades.  Outside, the building remained free of graffiti, clean and polished.  Inside the wood-and-glass walls, the menagerie was always at attention, ready to act as a two-minute getaway driver.  At the main entrance, she walked between the two sculpted guardian horses.  Three police cruisers raced down Park Avenue, the sound of the sirens struggling to keep up with the pursuit.

I feel like I should address Kazin piece, although my feelings for it are quite similar to the White piece.  The biggest difference I feel between the two is that A Walker in the City carries a more personal feel to it, where it often seems more about his connection to the place as opposed to the place’s connection to the people. As I write this, I realized that this is actually much closer to my own ideas about place than The Flâneur.  Passages like: ”When I was a child I thought we lived at the end of the world.  It was the eternity of the subway ride into the city that first gave me this idea. It took a long time getting to “New York”; it seemed longer getting back” highlight the way that locations and landmarks, or in this case a subway ride, can enhance a character.

Ultimately, I think the most important thing I got, in terms of craft and moving forward as a writer, from these pieces was something I think I kind of knew, but was maybe not so confident about: the importance of place in narrative.  Moving forward, I want to revisit some of the areas where I’ve attempted to create that sort of feeling and use the forms and ideas from this packet to enhance those moments, and then carry that forward into future work.

 

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Journalistic Perceptions

“Without writers willing to take that risk, a truly open global literary culture remains imperiled.”

“Journalism is storytelling with a purpose.”

For some reason in my brain, the idea of journalism and journalistic writing has always been a completely separate entity from creative and academic writing. Whenever I think of journalism, I think of stuffy, poorly written newspaper articles (the paper from my hometown was particularly bad for the majority of my life there) and I think maybe I wanted to create as much separation from that world as possible. Somehow, I’ve never really been able to separate journalism from newspapers; I’m going to blame movies and television for that.

In going through this week’s readings, I can see that I was sorely mistaken. I may have always known that deep down, but here it is right in front of my face. Each of the pieces this week felt more like creative non-fiction in many aspects, particularly in terms of style. Through the three pieces obviously differ greatly from each other in this regard, there is a definite literary aspect to the way they’ve been constructed and presented that I wasn’t expecting to find in something called a “journalism packet.”

Kevin Young’s piece managed to be informative without me even realizing I was learning something. Sort of like a history lesson with flair. Tracing the chronology of race and music, and stopping at important examples along the way, created a narrative that makes sense and is easy to follow without falling into the trappings of straight “reporting.” On a side note, I find it interesting that the section we ended on, talking about The Grey Album, put us in a different kind of experimental territory, that being in terms of music, which we haven’t talked about at great length in our class. I think that idea is certainly worth exploring further, especially with the emphasis on appropriation we’ve had thus far.

The second piece rides a little bit closer to the line of familiarity in journalism for me, but still manages to be very much its own thing. It is clear that Taibbi indeed “afflicts the comfortable, and in no uncertain terms.” He uses, sort of like Young did, the strategy of separation through his piece, or his “bubbles.” Though we see this in a lesser degree in the Deb piece, it appears to be a sound strategy for journalism in that it provides a clear sense of organization, allowing facts and ideas to come together in logically arranged segments.

Deb’s piece felt the least “journalism-y” to me, as there was a distinct CNF feel to it. What I found most interesting about his piece, however, was the controversy surrounding it. I feel like this is something that perhaps comes up for journalist more so than any other type of writer (thought I could be imagining that fact.) I think part of that comes from the journalistic desire to seek truth.

In Preparing to read this packet, and attempting to gain my own understanding of how journalism defines itself versus my preconceived notions, I looked up the American Press Institute’s Elements of Journalism.  Not only did this serve to help put these pieces into some sort of perspective, it also contains some elements that I think are valuable to writing in general, particularly:

“It must strive to keep the significant interesting and relevant

Journalism is storytelling with a purpose. It should do more than gather an audience or catalogue the important. It must balance what readers know they want with what they cannot anticipate but need[…] Quality is measured both by how much a work engages its audience and enlightens it.”

These are ideas that I, in some ways, strive for in fiction as well, and that I think by being more conscious of them, could really serve to improve the way I approach writing. This is especially true in going for a more realistic type of work that aims to connect with the audience, which happens to be the center of my world at the moment.

 

Cultivating Communication

“I’m no more here

Than you are went

You no more there

Than when I’d gone

And yet we meet

In cross-crissed lines

Across these empty

Icons of time”

 

I love Cole Swenson’s introduction about experimentation, mainly because this is something that I’ve personally struggled with trying to define as we’ve delved into this world. He makes a lot of interesting remarks, particularly concerning language. He says:

“By highlighting language as a circuit of exchange, such works replace the invisibility of “normal” language and the illusion of “natural” language with a recognition of its always-constructed state, implicitly asking us to question the who and they why behind the language parading all around us as a natural normality.”

Though he is referring specifically to poetry, what he’s saying about being aware of how we use language is certainly applicable to all genres, and in fact, I think a necessary element, particularly in terms of trying to create something that stands out from what’s already out there, whether one wants to consider it experimental or not.

In terms of the actual poems in the packet, there is a lot at play here, particularly in the first set of poems, concerning technology and current forms of communication. I often find it funny that, despite how long technology has been such an integrated part of our lives, I personally still find it hard to write about/incorporate into my own work. Somehow, whenever I feel like it would be natural to have a text message or an email pop up in a story, it still manages to feel inauthentic, or like I’m cheating in some way. For me, technology has complicated fiction. Poetry is a different story, though. While sometimes I get really annoyed with the stilted, informal way that people communicate at times (side effect of working in the writing center), there is also something inherently beautiful about it. Bertstein’s piece “Dea%r Fr~ien%d” appears at first to be nearly indecipherable, however examining it closer provides two very different options of reading it: sadness and malice. There was a part of me that wanted to feel pity for the voice of the piece, but at the same time, there’s the constant threat of deceit when dealing with online communication. I think that’s beauty of capturing modern communication: the infinite number of interpretations a single piece of text can have. And poetry lends itself well to this, I think, because it never has to become a plot device, to say nothing of the freedom of form (or lack thereof).

The other thing I found interesting, especially getting to the Gladman pieces, and particularly with “Tour” and “The Interrogation,” was the more narrative flow and sense of story. As I read through, I found myself wanting to read it as poetry, mainly because it was part of our “poetry packet” but that didn’t quite work. But it’s not a novel. It’s not anything but it’s also everything. I didn’t know how to take it, so I googled how other people took it, and found myself not alone in my dilemma. Ron Sillman writes here that:

“I first thought of Renee Gladman’s The Activist as a booklength poem. That was before I read it. Later, I felt as though I were in the middle of a novel. But then the work also had the feel of a conceptual art project to it. In retrospect, I think The Activist is a little of all three – in some ways, one of the very few such projects that manages to resist settling comfortably into a single genre (usually, it is the novel that takes over). It has a relationship of sorts to that wonderful literary niche, the poet’s novel, but it’s not that either. Nor is it new narrative in the sense that one might take from Bob Glück, Bruce Boone, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Michael Amnasan or Camille Roy. Ultimately, The Activist is The Activist. You have to take it on its own terms.”

As someone new to whatever it is we want to call “experimental,” the hardest part for me each time I pick up a piece is letting go of control over knowing exactly what genre it is I’m reading, because I think that’s essential for truly appreciating the work. The Activist seems to be the perfect example of that.

“If anything I have done

Cancels what I feel

Then put me on a boat

Without a keel

And I will row my way back to you

Whatever else I do

Whatever else I do”

 

Truth in Perception

“We all have stories to tell…”

 

In an age where it feels like everything people say and do is documented by some variety of social media, it almost feels like everything is a sort of oral history.  As Fennessey  said: “I think the form is increasingly Web-friendly more than anything else, just because we’re in sort of this sound bite moment.”  This is true almost to the point that everything feels like a soundbite. It has also allowed for people with no “tradition” fame to become their own brand of famous.  This makes the idea that oral history is for “everyday memories of everyday people, not just the rich and famous” that much more interesting and accurate.

Also interesting to note: the lamenting of the loss of histories due to the loss of printed records and communication (who writes letters anymore).  Yet we all put ourselves out there, for better or worse, on the internet for the world to see.

I love the idea that everyone’s story is worth recording, as I think that some of the most interesting parts of history are often from those who were maybe on the outskirts, or somehow had a unique perspective. Interesting to think then about the “failings of human memory.”  Things are always true to us the way we remember them, which is part of what makes it interesting to hear accounts of the same even from various perspectives.  Personally, I’m almost always more interested in a person’s interpretation and understanding of an event than I am in the basic facts of the event.  What are facts anyway, but the specific way in which someone chose to record them.  I like the comparison between oral history and written and documented sources (newspapers, photographs).  Is there ever a truly unbiased, completely factual account of history?  I don’t believe so.  Of course, that could just be the fiction writer in me wanting to find the most interesting version of a story…

The process for creating an oral history, as outlined, is far more involved than I would have imagined.  In my head, prior to reading the steps, it was as simple as sitting down with a person and a tape recorder and letting them go.  Obviously, reading these helpful instruction, I realize exactly how naïve and unprepared that would be.  I guess, in my head, I was so focused on the conversation aspect of oral history that I wasn’t really considering the actual ‘history’ part of it.

I suppose I’ve done a bit of collecting of oral history, to an extent, for my thesis project, though this is certainly not the way I was thinking of it at the time.  It was nowhere near as structured as the suggested outline, but many of the underlying elements where there, like the central question and background research.  Incidentally, I couldn’t agree more that “Without Google you’d be lost, and so would we.”

There’s something innately entertaining about listening to someone who’s led a life far more interesting than yours recall the memories (the ones they’re able to) and stories that helped build that life.  I don’t know how I feel about reading oral histories-this packet is my first real go at it-but listening to it in person is a whole different story.  I recently had the chance to listen to the Fabulous Freebirds (you probably have no idea who they are) recall their wrestling career in terms of stories from the road.  It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.

In Underground, I like that it is pointed out “how parallel accounts of the same scene may diverge slightly…” (19).  This is something that I’ve actually been thinking about prior to this week as a story idea.  There’s something intriguing about the way people view events that really speaks to their character, and I think it’s the type of premise that lends itself well to a character-study-driven piece.

Of all the pieces we looked at, When the Water Came hit me the hardest; I’m not sure if this is because of form, language, or my fascination with the city of New Orleans.  Probably all three.  It felt strange to read these accounts and imagine walking around that city.  Deborah Green’s account of the Superdome was particularly hard hitting.  “people urinating everywhere, the old dying, children getting raped—”…I sat in that dome and jumped for joy.  I never would have imagined…

Demolition Lovers

…we’re true friends you know that’s why

I want you to be free.

Don’t want to be free want to be with you.”

…Sounds oddly familiar.

              So much of this novel/poem/thing feels like a punch to the gut that I’m not even sure where to start.  I could probably spend a thousand words channeling emo-Suze circa 2005 and talking about my deep-seeded and unresolved feelings for lost loves.  Cue the My Chemical Romance.

mcr

 

But I’ll spare you the rest of that and instead try to focus on the elements of Autobiography of Red that spoke to me on a craft level (still with the feels, though).  There are two specific aspects that really stood out for me:  the stylistic punctuation choices, and the blending of real and fantastical.

              The way that Carson punctuates, or rather neglects to punctuate, many of her lines, particularly the italicized dialogue, creates a reading that, I imagine, can vary the experience from reader to reader.  For example:

“maybe she said cakes and tea true we were drinking gin it was long past teatime but she was a highly original woman I was praying God let it have been cakes and tea I’ll tell her my anecdote of Buenos Aires those Argentines so crazy for tea every day at five the little cups but she drifted away…” (it goes on).

Or:

“It’s not the photograph that disturbs you it’s you don’t understand what photography is. (shorter, but still in the same vein).

What gets me about this is the way it beautifully captures that sort of stream of consciousness, and more so that it’s doing it through spoken dialogue.  This risk in this, at least for me as a writer, is that potential to lose the reader (and admittedly, there were a few lines I had to go back over for clarification) but the reward when executed as masterfully as this is something that manages to feel so natural in its strangeness.

Side note:  Ever since I outwardly expressed my dislike of the word “nowadays”—mainly because I hate seeing it in academic papers—it has begun to follow me everywhere.  It appears twice in this book.

              Secondly, I loved the blending of the mythical and the real.  There were moments when I was so absorbed in one aspect that I forgot about the other until Carson reminds me, with varying degrees of casualness, what kind of world we’re dealing with.  There are also moments where she throws it all on the table in one shot, like “The red monster sat at a corner table of Café Mitwelt writing bits of Heidegger on the postcards he’d bought.”

              If we’re talking about the blended world of Autobiography, I must say I appreciated the first section of the book and the sort-of history lesson it provided.  While I think there may be some merit to going into the story without knowing much about Geryon or the work of Stesichoros, I liked having that freshly stored in my brain…at least the bits that Carson wanted us to know and how she wanted us to know them.

              Also, Appendix C “Clearing Up the Question of Stesichoros’ Blinding by Helen” was my favorite section of this book.  While there are other sections that have more beautiful, lyrical language, this was by far the most entertaining.

              But back to the world.  What I love most about the idea of this blended sort of reality is the way it aids in making a connection.  As I opened with, a lot of this book hit home in an emotional way.  I could identify with Geryon, and knowing how his story ends beyond the book made each sad moment that much more painful.  The fact that he is a big red monster, well, the opportunity for symbolism there is plenty.

              Though I’ve never tried, I can only assume it is no easy feat to combine poetry and novel, particularly with this sustained and cohesive a story, and not something I’ve personally read much of in terms of contemporary literature.  The type of language she uses is something that I aspire to, and to see it carried through for 150 pages makes me want to read this again and dissect the way she’s able to do it.  I don’t know that there’s a book-length poem in my future (there’s almost certainly not) but it has definitely provided a model for manipulation of language that I will take with me.

I opened with one favorite quote from the book; I’ll close with the other.

 “There is no person without a world.”

Lessons

“We can spare the day, and report the lesson.”

     Sometimes I find it difficult to understand and define my relationship with nonfiction. There are moments where I think that the difference between fiction and nonfiction and is merely that one is true and one is not, but I think that in reality it is far more complicated than that. I love true stories; I love the history that is out there for us to learn from and to share. I also love taking that history and truth, then twisting and manipulating the hell out of it until it suits my needs. This is why I’d be a terrible long-term nonfiction writer.

     That said, this week’s readings proved to be the most challenging of the semester thus far.  While I like nonfiction, for some reason I found these two pieces (more so the Mailer) to be difficult to get through, and I’m not sure why, as I think it’s interesting subject matter.  I eventually had to stop myself from reading it for content, and instead focus on things like form and style, and see what I could get out of it that way.

     There’s a certain style to presenting the truth that’s hard to define, but it is exactly what we see in Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Likewise with Delany’s Times Square Blue.   Consider the opening of each piece:

Miami

“Some presidential election years mean more than others; 1860, 1932, 1948— different reasons all have passed into the collective memory of a nation largely innocent of its own history.”

                Times Square Blue

“Against the subway kiosk around the corner on Forty-second Street and Eight Avenue, Ben still sets up his shoeshine stand, his bottles of polish and cans of stain, his brushes and cloths.”

and then compare that to the opening of a fiction piece, in this case, Egan’s The Keep, (because I’ve just read it):

                The Keep

“The castle was falling apart, but at 2 a.m. under a useless moon, Danny couldn’t see this.  What he saw looked solid as hell: two round towers with an arch between them as across that arch was an iron gate that looked like it hadn’t moved in three hundred years”

     All three pieces look to ground the reader in world that they need to exist in to proceed with the text.  Mailer looks to introduce the reader to the gravitas of the situation and set the historical context for his content.  Delany is interested in place, and thus wants the reader to feel the scene around them.  These are things that one often finds in fiction writing, and we certainly see that in Egan’s intro, in which she attempts both, but the shift in voice and tone is clear.  This is a difference that isn’t just about the style from one writer to another, but rather from one genre to another.  For me, and I’m not even sure if I can articulate what exactly it is I mean, fiction often relays information through the eyes of another character, whereas, at least in the case of Mailer and Delany, the reader is able to be that character.  I think that factor creates a sense of truth and negates the need for suspension of disbelief, something crucial to make (most) fiction succeed.

     Speaking of that sense of truth, the idea of authority is another crucial factor for nonfiction.  As a fiction writer, I’m used to always being the authority on the subjects I write about because they’re the worlds that I’ve created.  Fiction writers (and I think to that same extent, playwrights) are used to playing god/puppet master.  This isn’t a luxury that writers of facts have.  We believe Mailer and Delany because there were there in the worlds that they are respectively sharing.  And we know this because it can be proven.  When Mailer tells us that “The National Guard was out in force,” we can look it up.  We can verify that Harem was real.  There is a responsibility that falls on nonfiction writers to represent the concrete world, regardless of whose viewpoint it’s from.  If we don’t believe that they are authorities, then the work falls apart.

     The other structure/form thing I found interesting about both of these pieces is the way in which they were divided.  Though we only looked at one section from each piece, we know that there is another part that is directly related to the other: Republican and Democratic Conventions, Past versus Present.  This particular aspect fascinates me because I love the idea of weaving different but connected narratives together to form the whole story, and each of these works does that, I think (though I’d have to read the other halves), and it speaks to the interconnectedness of everything. [that’s about as vague and existential as I get]

     Ultimately, while this was a more difficult experience for me than I imagined it would be, there is a lot I can take away from it and apply to my own work.  Studying nonfiction to learn more about use of voice and style to command authority, as well as the aforementioned connectedness, is something that can only serve to make my own writing stronger.  And as my mom likes to say, as long as you learned something, it was worth it.

 

And….we’re artists.

“I am writing a play that is going to save the world.  If it only saves three people, I will not be happy.”

              Between thinking about this upcoming reflective essay about experimental literature and taking part in a workshop that is continually asking me to think about what I want my art to stand for, the reading of How Should a Person Be could not have come at a better time in this semester.  When I read the above line, I couldn’t help but think about my own work, and how I go back and forth between thinking I’m making some grand statement about humanity, and wondering why anyone would ever want to read about some pseudo-professional wrestlers.

breathe.gif

              So what is this book actually about then?  There are a lot of different ways to answer that question, and none of them would be wrong, but for me, ultimately this was about art (all-encompassing) and its connection to humanity.  This is never more true than in the existence of the ugly painting contest, and particularly the way it ends.  The idea that it isn’t possible to judge something’s ugliness, or in turn its intrinsic beauty is the most intriguing plot point/statement of the novel.  Jon’s final comment “I don’t think they even know the rules.  I think they’re just slamming the ball around” feels a lot like the way I (perceive myself) approach(ing) writing sometimes; and, I imagine the way a lot of artists might feel about how they work.  Or that could be me trying to make myself feel less like I’m floundering.  Who knows.

              There were a couple of different things Heti did through this novel that I found extremely interesting.  I love the way she blocked out several scenes in script form.  This was effective for me for a couple of reasons. It’s fun to see the novel set up in the form that our narrator is struggling with in her own life.  The play is a source of struggle, tension, and motivation for Sheila, and at times when the book is presented this way, it works to really bring us closer to her.  It also helps the story to feel somewhat episodic, which, as I will touch on in a moment, helps to give it its own sort of faux-reality vibe­­—one of my favorite aspects of the whole piece.

              It was noted in David Haglund’s New York Times article that Heti cited The Hills as an inspiration for the show, and it definitely shows.  Not that I find Heti’s work to be banal and empty like the aforementioned “reality show,” in fact it is quite the opposite.  But there is an effect in trying to produce a sort of scripted reality, which is often what How Should a Person Be feels like, that I think speaks to the overall idea of the place and purpose of art.  We don’t watch shows like The Hills or Real World or any other such type to answer deep philosophical questions about life and humanity, but their very existence sort of does just that.  Doesn’t it?  In a novel that’s never quite completely fact or fiction, it pays to think about the way that those two ideas come together to shape our live; the way our perceived fictional selves and the facts of daily life collide into what ultimately becomes our own reality.  I’m not even sure I made sense with that, or managed get out what I’m actually thinking, but that’s also kind of the point.  I don’t know that Heti ever answers her titular question of being, but instead maybe offers a way to simply view and accept how people are.