Creative Writing 101

Posted by @ 11:32 am on October 17th, 2009


Tuesday, 10/13. Shredded Text Day.

For Tuesday we read a few brief excerpts from Naked Lunch (Dr. Benway’s “aesthetic surgery,” and “have you seen Pantopon rose”) plus four selections from Gentle Reader! a collaborative book of poetry written by Joshua Beckman, Anthony McCann and Matthew Rohrer. If you’ve never heard of this book, it’s because it was privately (or, if you want to be a dick about it, self-) published by the three poets, and hence is not generally available. (I cadged a copy from Rohrer.) The poems are not written collaboratively–I don’t think–but they’re all unsigned, so you have to guess who wrote what. Also, each poem is an erasure of a Romantic-era text. There’s a key at the back. Since I don’t have the materials ready-to-hand (I’m posting this from a writers’ retreat in Breckenridge, CO, where I’m serving as writer-in-residence for the weekend) I can’t tell you much about the poems, other than that the one called “I Was Alive” is an erasure of Frankenstein, and that it was written by Anthony McCann–both of which things I know because McCann first published the poem non-anonymously in the Agriculture Reader.

Anyway, we didn’t do a lot of textual analysis, and so you won’t be getting the usual slate of close readings. I was more interested in presenting a variety of non-narrative forms, and in talking about the technical aspects of the processes used to create the works. Then we busted out the scissors, Sharpies, and photocopies, and got down to the good work of fucking shit up.

But back up a minute.¬†At the end of last class, when I handed out the “Shredded Text(s)” packet, I had suggested that the class think of some non-literary analogs to the work as they read it: specifically, collage and remix. Basically, I wanted the class to understand that art derived from a (or several) source(s) is still original, and their own work. I encouraged them to think of the texts we would use as raw material. So on Tuesday we followed that up with a discussion about why people might experiment with these processes: to create the sensation of confusion or disorientation; to try and know a beloved work better by exploring it in a physical, generative way; to use chance and process to create juxtapositions and sequences that we would never have thought of on our own. We didn’t have time to talk as much as I would have liked about non- or anti-narrative literature in general, which is something of a shame since the Burroughs and the GR! poems really do represent a kind of hard break with the material we’ve been reading up to this point. I gave a short talk about texts that “mean differently” than we as readers might typically be accustomed to–a wide category which ranges from texts that decline to disclose their narratives in a typical fashion, all the way out to texts that may not contain a single discernible narrative at all. It’s a topic I hope to do a more focused lesson on sometime in the future- I was thinking of some excerpt from William Blake’s prohetic books, maybe a Barthelme story (“Sentence”? “Bone Bubbles”? “The Indian Uprising”?) and who knows what else. But for now, I thought, we were sufficiently comfortable with the major concepts involved to get down to business.

I came prepared with an armload of materials for the students to work with, but I had also encouraged them to bring materials of their own, and they did not disappoint. I brought several randomly photocopied pages each from the following: Sabbatai Sevi, a biography by Gershom Scholem; The Oxford Book of Letters (edited by Frank and Anita Kermode–I know one letter was Dickens, another was Wilde, I forget the others); The Art of Memory by Frances Yates; The Philip K. Dick Reader; and finally, How ’tis Done: A Thorough Ventilation of the Numerous Schemes Conducted by Wandering Canvassers, Together with the Various Advertising Dodges for the Swindling of the Public, by Bates Harrington (published in 1890).

The students brought newspapers, printouts from websites, chunks of books they were reading or had read, assigned reading from their other classes, and in at least one case–the student’s own creative writing. Most people opted for erasure, I think, but there was a good amount of cutting going on, and everyone was good about sharing supplies. For some reason I had anticipated that this would be a talkative experiment, but once people got involved with what they were doing, silence reigned. We all worked for about twenty minutes, then had the usual sharing session. I felt like there were a lot more sharers than usual this time, and I wondered if people felt less nervous about reading their work since in some sense they could think of it in some sense (correctly or not) as “somebody else’s.”

And that, more or less, was class. Owing to this retreat, our class didn’t meet on Thursday, but we’ve got a regular full week next week. There was no new assigned reading given out on Tuesday, but those of you playing along at home are reminded that we are all reading Cymbeline right now, and planning to discuss it probably Thursday of next week.

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