Archive for writing

The Hegemony of the Good Photograph: Or, an Excuse to Post More Sunset Pics

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , on December 6, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 5

I have been immersed in and happily enslaved to language my entire life, from when I first started reading. No, from when my parents first started telling me and reading me bedtime stories. When I was a kid, long after bedtime, I’d hang off the side of the bed reading my book by a sliver of the hall light. During the day, when my mother would take the book out of my hands and make me go outside to play, I’d sneak the book out and go find a tree to sit in, or a bush to hide under, and keep reading.

Nothing made me happier than to discover that places in novels were real,  like Betsy and Tacy’s houses in Mankato and the Radisson in Minneapolis, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine from so many of Madeleine L’Engle’s novels right here in New York.

I fell in love with words. I love amok, and bereft. I love fragmented, and protean, and primeval. I love fetid.

I’ve read and written for so long that I’ve learned to trust my own sense of what’s good and what’s bad and when and why rules need to be broken. (Well, with prose, if not so much with poetry.) The relationship between language and power, between literacies and power, the power relationships within communities of practice–these are things to be manipulated and challenged.

My relationship with images is less complex, less developed, less confident. I tend toward, “Sunsets ARE beautiful. The cliche had to come from somewhere!” And I want to remember every one, so I keep taking pictures of them. And I think my dogs are the cutest, smartest dogs anywhere, so I keep taking photos of them too. I occasionally take an interesting photo, I think. Usually it’s by accident. But even then I’m not sure if it’s truly interesting, creative, outside, or if it’s the Hallmark version of alternative. Something already co-opted.

What’s really behind my photo choices? A lack of creativity? A lack of experience? I wrote for a long time, in good girl ways, in accepted voices and styles and structures, before I started to try to change things up, to do something (I hope) no one else was doing. Where is my willingness, my desire, to stretch genre boundaries, to break rules, to experiment, to challenge the hegemony of the good photograph in the ways I have challenged (I hope) the hegemony of good writing?

Is this how my students feel when I ask them to identify and then challenge the discourses that are writing our lives? Does my position of power in the classroom (that’s a lot of power) and in the field (that’s just a little power, but some, nonetheless) give me the room to challenge, to subvert, to make change, with only minimal risk?

Hegemony, Quintilian to Dowd, in 470 Words

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 2

My dissertation defense is in a mere ten days. I’m already dreaming the strange dreams.

Onward nonetheless. Or perhaps not so much onward as “parallel to.”

“Good writing can be hegemonic and boring. Good writing is behaving.” This is from Kate Zambreno, in a post on Frances Farmer is My Sister, a very interesting blog, which you can find here, but also quoted in an article on The New Inquiry, called “The Semiautobiographers,” which you can find here.

I’d like to think my dissertation says this, but it doesn’t, at least explicitly. It doesn’t quite go this far. I hope, though, that my dissertation at least leans toward, in its structure and format, in its writing style, order and arrangement as well as in content, dismantling the idea that “good writing” is the ideologically acceptable, dissertation/academic/appropriate-contribution-to-the-field/accountable voice, implicitly masculine, pretending coherence, quantifiability, objectivity–think Second Wave Feminism and Quintilian’s dichotomy between order as masculine and strong and moral, and eloquence/persuasion as feminine and weak–“the good man speaking well.”

(And surely the labyrinthine sentence above begins to undo something, somewhere?)

The good man speaking well. Which is of course what/who we are asking our first year composition students to write/become, particularly in those narrative assignments that ask them to describe an event that changed their lives, something they learned, or . . . or . . . or . . . because let’s face it, folks, when we ask them to write about something memorable that happened to them, they know, and we know, that the hegemon has already ridden in and decided what is memorable and what is not, and what happens to the kid who can’t identify, tell, organize, quantify, describe, narrate and even honor what We (capital W) have decided counts as memorable.

Was I going somewhere with this? Do I have to be?

Emily Cooke, in that same article, “The Semiautobiographers,” identifies the blog post as “the ideal literary forum for a self-consciously messy performance. Never edited by an alien hand, totally under the control of the writer, the blog post refuses to be anything but what it wants to be. It will not subject itself to ‘some highly toned  artificial neat form,’ to quote Zambreno.”

Love this line, but I’d change “self” to “subject.” And that would really get things moving. Instead of self-conscious, subject-conscious. Subject-position conscious. Conscious of how you are written by your culture, your ethnicity, all of the communities to which you belong. Although now I think I’m talking about something else entirely that Cooke was getting at. Both, I think. Self- and subject-conscious. Conscious of your writing process, your choices, as well as the multiplicity of positions from which you write.

Something from the NY Times the Sunday after Election Day, from Maureen Dowd: “Listen closely and hear the death rattle of the white male patriarchy.”

Go ahead. Revise yourself.

The I of the Moment Writing, the You of the Moment Reading

Posted in The Blog with tags , , on September 12, 2012 by chateaucone

Can, and will, readers extrapolate from all the different Lizs narrating this project?

Bedtime Stories Liz—who couldn’t quite break the narrative. And the Liz who smoothed it over quite well by the end of the essay

Dear Biographer Liz, AKA doctoral student, dissertating Liz—who is having a good time playing with theory

Alternative Letters from Angel Guardian Liz—who is having a good time, too, although she then gets a bit angry, which you might not get from her writing, calmly juxtaposing fantasy identities for her birthmother with primary source material from professionals in the adoption field in the 1960s

The Chosen Baby Lizs–both of them–Little Liz reading the book, or having it read to her, and grown up Liz re-examining the book and confronting Valentina Wasson with her anger over the story and how it makes grown up Liz, with Little Liz inside her still, feel

And this Liz. Blogger Liz.

Will readers embrace that I am not limited to the Lizs represented here, all coherent and knowing only in the moment of writing I? That there are, for every Liz represented here, a million fragments of Lizs who have been left unrepresented?

Will they let Epstein’s wound stand open and bleeding? Will they look into the abyss of subjects?

Okay, that’s a bit dramatic. But it is what I’m asking.

My friend SS admits that because of her participation in, belief in, indoctrination into, and place within, the academy, she automatically credits the analysis voice, the scholarly voice, the theory, over anything personal and creative, although she does acknowledge that she does so–she acknowledges her subjectivity. She connects most strongly to a scholarly discourse community, an academic discourse community, especially if told this is a “dissertation” and not a novel, or a memoir, or whatever else. Expectations.

My friend AP, however, reading the DB letter and Bedtime Stories, relates to the creative voice, finds the most authority in the creative voice. But AP is a poet, and thinks theory is bullshit.

I want AP and SS to keep “Bedtime Stories” and its refractions in their heads all at one time, and to give it all equal importance. Accept the contradictions and the gaps they create. But AP and SS will each come away with their own closure, their own choice of authoritative voice, their own conclusions.

How do I convince my readers that the unified voice, the “I” of any single point of my narrative, exists only at the moment I type it? And is no more reliable than that?

And make them want to stay, nonetheless?

I don’t know.

Can you be a p/s in the moment of reading anything? Or do you have to choose a place to stand?

Does the genre, does coherence, always win?

The Wall

Posted in The Blog with tags , on September 10, 2012 by chateaucone

As we used to say in grad school, I have hit the wall.

Oh. Right. Still in grad school.

How do you know if you’ve finished a project? I mean, I can’t just chant “Words on a page. Words on a page,” until the deadline hits, like I could in my MA program, and expect that to work.

Although it somehow did work then.

But seriously.

How do you know, when all of your instincts are saying, “Put the pen down and back away from the desk,” if it means that:

a. your instincts are good, and you are finished, or

b. your instincts suck, and you’re not finished at all; in fact, you’re close but you need to push through no matter how tired you feel, or,

c. your just need to walk away for a few weeks and come back refreshed, or

d. you’ve been watching too many episodes of Criminal Minds?

How do you know?

I went, overnight, from being totally excited about this to feeling as though I can’t even proofread the Works Cited page without strangling someone.

Now someone will turn up strangled and I’ll be hauled into the BAU and profiled. (See d. above.)

Which would be a welcome break from writing.

Save “concise” for sports journalism

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , on August 25, 2012 by chateaucone

A few days ago, nr posted a comment that said, “Perhaps writing concisely would help “P” out. Just a small thought.”

After my writerly ego, or the lack thereof, spent a day in the fetal position on the couch, and after a lengthy conversation with my friend/therapist NS, I thought, let’s talk about the metanarrative behind this idea of conciseness.

Bear with  me.  This will be a less-than-concise post.

Let’s go back to 1995 to start this discussion. ENG401. Introduction to Graduate Studies. Dr. Woodson. Consistent grades of B++ on all of my papers. “I love your writing style, but you need to learn to pass the ball around a little more,” he says, in a comment on such a paper. “Subordinate clauses,” he scrawls on another.

I contemplate his comments, and then I go to his office for help. For the magic ingredient to move my writing from B++ to A.

This ingredient turns out to be the semi-colon.

Later, it is the semi-colon that opens up new worlds of discussion for me, but for now I resist.

Our conversation goes something like this:

“I’m not sure what your comment on my paper means, Dr. Woodson,” I tell him, in his office, during office hours.

“Do you play basketball?” he asks.

“No,” I say.

He goes on to talk about basketball at length anyway. He talks about forwards and guards and centers, about passing and dribbling. I understand that this is a metaphor for writing, but I don’t know anything about basketball so the comparison part is lost on me.

“So,” he says, “When the ball is passed to you, do you immediately put it in the basket?”

“Yes,” I answer.

“No,” he says. “You pass the ball around a little bit.”

I make a face. Not my “Oh, I get it!” face.

At some point, he gives in and says, “Look, I know you wrote for political campaigns for a long time, and that you’re used to thinking that you have to get your point across fast and then stop. But here in academia, we’re interested in what you have to say. We’re not going to throw away your writing after reading only the words in bold. You can pass the ball around a little. You can explore ideas.”

What Dr. Woodson does not know is that I am stubborn, resistant, and foolishly confident. I know my writing is clear, concise and solid. I know that academic writing is not. I will not become an academic writer.

I write my final paper for his class, and after it’s written, I go back and edit. I sprinkle semi-colons around as though I am salting french fries. I create subordinate clauses for no reason other than to show I can.

I get my paper back and it’s marked B++/A- -.

I am awarded with an A for the course. I am not sure how I am supposed to feel about this grade. I am pretty sure I have done the Calculus equivalent of memorizing the formulas, missing the point entirely.

Back to 2012.

While I still rail against theory speak, and academic discourses that have as their seemingly only purpose to guard the gates of academia, and while I’m not condoning wordiness, writing about post-structuralism, and being actually interested in post-structuralism and how to use it in the classroom, to open up new avenues of agency, has made me, to some extent, rethink my ranting.

Have the gatekeepers got me in their grasp? Maybe.

But there is something to this academic discourse. Yes, it can be pretty high-falutin’ and Judy Jargon-ish, and yes, it can keep people out instead of inviting them in. But.

But, but, but. Sometimes– (And my 1995 self is at war with my 2012 self as I type this). Sometimes, ideas are complex, labyrinthine even, delicate and nuanced, and need subtly shaded, can’t-find-in-the-dictionary definitions  to explain them. Sometimes the explanations have to be intricately woven through multiple paragraphs with qualifications and mitigations and caveats. Sometimes you have to bear with the writer, struggle to follow her as she struggles to articulate something abstract but important. Sometimes that requires multiple examples, because one of those examples might work better for one reader than for another.

There is a point at which “concise” becomes “reductive.” And writing in a concise manner–striving for concision without examination of why you are valuing concision–reduces important issues and ideas to sound bites and contributes, dangerously, to the abyss into which American communication, American media, has fallen.

Okay, that goes perhaps a bit too far. And I am sure this is not what nr had in mind. There has to be something between Jamison’s inclusion of untranslated French in his discussion of postmodernity and the celebrated conciseness of the American newspaper or news program. There has to be a place where you can experiment with language, where your readers are willing–and interested enough–to let you circle around an idea until you find the right words to describe it, where understanding an abstraction is more important that explaining it in as few words as possible.

And anyway, isn’t the American news story, that bastion of concision, meant to the beginning of one’s understanding of current events? And not the end?

Maybe concision and clarity are not all they’re cracked up to be. Maybe they’re metanarratives that we embrace without enough examination. And maybe American readers of and listeners to our media, to our politics, are living down to our expectations when all we offer them is beautifully concise reductions of nuanced, complex issues. We’ve taught them not to listen, not to read, not to devote more than 13 seconds to any particular story–and not to think too deeply about anything.

Save the conciseness for sports journalism, I say.

Let me leave you with this, from the recently deceased and wonderfully talented David Rakoff. This is an excerpt from an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

GROSS: In your chapter about your therapist, you have great description of yourself when describing your thoughts after telling the therapist that youre going to stop seeing him. And I’d like you to read that for us.

Mr. RAKOFF: Yes. This is when he he – I’m not talking about terminating. I seem to be avoiding the topic, and finally he stops me one day. I’m ranting about, I think, human rights in China or something like that. And he finally says, you know, look, weve got to talk about you terminating. This is a big thing.

Turning things around, I asked him what his feelings were about our ending things. Im incredibly angry, he responded fondly. How dare you? You should at least have to come and have coffee with me once a week. I asked if he felt this way about most of his patients. Not really, he responded.

Sigh. Should you happen to be possessed of a certain verbal acuity coupled with a relentless, hair-trigger humor and surface cheer spackling over a chronic melancholia and loneliness – a grotesquely caricatured version of your deepest self, which you trot out at the slightest provocation to endearing and glib comic effect, thus rendering you the kind of fellow who is beloved by all yet loved by none, all of it to distract, however fleetingly, from the cold and dead-faced truth that with each passing year you face the unavoidable certainty of a solitary future in which you will perish one day while vainly attempting the Heimlich maneuver on yourself over the back of a kitchen chair – then this confirmation that you have triumphed again and managed to gull yet another mark, except this time it was the one person youd hoped might be immune to your ever-creakier, puddle-shallow, sideshow-barker variation on adorable, even though you’d been launching this campaign weekly with a single-minded concentration from day one – well, it conjures up feelings that are best described as mixed, to say the least.

GROSS: I just want to point out, since our listeners dont have a copy of your book in front of them, that most of that reading was one sentence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That one very well-balanced juggling act there. So I just want to ask you, did you consciously intend to keep that one sentence?

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah. Yeah. It felt – I like, well, I like a little ranty sandwich of a sentence or a lasagna of a sentence or, you know, or (unintelligible) of a sentence, to be perfectly homosexual about the metaphor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKOFF: I like things that, you know, build in that way with semi-colons and em-dashes and things like that.

(You can find the interview in its entirety here.)

What would we do without David Rakoff and that beautiful sentence? Because aside from everything I’ve argued above, a nice, long, sentence, full of words and clauses and dashes and winding all over the place conveys so much more than just information.

In which we consider where living and writing and dissertating intersect, and don’t

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , on July 31, 2012 by chateaucone

More about writing, and life, and dissertations, and less about cats and collies.

We hope.

I just forced myself to turn off last night’s Daily Show and start writing. Writing anything–if not the dissertation then at least this blog.

Okay. The only thing I missed was my moment of zen.

Seriously, though. I’m stuck. I have no idea how to write the Official Analysis Chapter of my dissertation. No idea. And I’m running out of other things to do. Today I’m going to go through the revisions that my good friends B. and D. gave me, and note them, if not actually make them. Just in case tomorrow rolls around, and I still don’t know how to write the Official Analysis Chapter. And because I don’t like to rush things.

Here’s what else I have to do:

  1. Figure out what my second reader meant when he said, “You let memory off the hook,” and what to do about it.
  2. Write the rest of the “Hymns to the Lares” Chapter. Maybe incorporate #1?
  3. Finish the preface (which I’ll do last).
  4. Edit the hell out of the APA style that I’ve been pretty much making up as I go along because (a) I don’t know it well and (b) parts of the diss just don’t fit well, stylistically, with APA style (which I’ll do last, even after finishing the preface).
  5. Finish the Implications for Teaching chapter, because “I don’t give a crap” is neither an answer, nor long enough to fill a chapter.

Here’s what I’d rather do:

  1. Sit on the porch swing and read Cloud Atlas (which I will do, as a reward, later, if I actually get something done today.)
  2. Marinate the chicken for dinner.
  3. Read the new gas grill manual. (And anyone who knows me will know this is A Desperate Measure to Avoid Writing.)
  4. Watch replays of Michael Phelps winning assorted medals. Or the Russian women on the balance beam. Seriously–it’s summer’s answer to ice skating. All flinching, all the time.

And now, to work.

And for inspiration, Clarence Budington Kelland: “I get up in the morning, torture a typewriter until it screams, then stop.”