Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Manifest: And Idea with a Writing Prompt

The Manifest: an Idea with a Writing Prompt

So anyway, I’m trying to work up an essay on teaching, one that also has a writing prompt. I’m posting what I have so far, because it’s been very helpful to my thinking in the past to have responses from whomever happens to stumble across this blog, both in the comments stream and thought email. So here goes:

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Since, at the base level, all writers write the same way—they put something down and then have to come up with a strategy to put something else down, all conversations of form and content can be distilled down to a conversation about how one decides to begin and to continue to set things down. One can remember things from one’s past. One can imagine a story unfolding. One can cut things from dictionaries. One can randomize lines from one’s journal.

A lot rides on the moment before one is going to set things down. How one’s imagination is going to work. You see some people on the street approaching. Say you want to write about that. You might think, “why are they coming?” And then it becomes the story of destinations. But what if you imagine them dancing—it could be a question of “why are they dancing,” yes, but it could also be a question of “what is their dance like.” You see them and it’s a question of unity and form and surprise.

So, what if the way one looks at an art object (the dance, the poem) were to be the way one looks at some aspect of the world (two people walking along a street)? It’s a question of stance before the poem. It’s a question of how one sets oneself up to receive language. Rending into art from an art consciousness might be a nice way to conceptualize things. This might also be a good way of approaching the work of art before one, so that when experiencing that work, our questions of who/ what/ where/ when/ why/ how might be replaced by a less clinical and more playful environment of inquiry.

But how might one go about it?

Behind what I’m thinking is my distrust of the New Critical readings and the modes & strategies approach of the usual creative writing workshop method. That we’ve not come up with a better way of going about the workshop does not mean the workshop method as currently practiced is the best way to go about the conversation of the work of art. For one thing, and for me a very large thing, it privileges the object, at least for the time being. The object (the poem, in this case) is not really the point. Much more important is the possible to say around the object, and the possibility of objects in the future.

Perhaps a useful workshop conversation could center on the stance, the place upon which the poem is standing. What does the world look like from that place? What suppositions is the language of the poem revealing about the world?

One cannot enact the world in art. There’s already a world. What one enacts is a human relationship with the world (or with language itself, but that might be a little fussy and lead a conversation in unmanageable circles—but then again maybe not). That relation (or those relations), enacted in a work of art, can be as primary as any other thing in the world, though, as it will also exist in the world.

Description, then, is not the key to art. Nor is realism, as there is nothing inherently real about language. It’s only noises the body makes. Nor are metaphors of form and content in the work of art. It all has to finally simply be something. Human relationships within the world are necessarily abstract and complicated, but they are only visible through specific events and images presented in language. They are composed of description, yes, narration, yes, but also with an awareness of themselves being composed, because to ignore the composed nature of a composition is to betray oneself to the fallacy that one is actually enacting the world (or the past or the authentic story). As the work of art is an event over time, the elements of word art: openings/ endings/ epiphany—are not so much in error as they are arbitrary and chance outcomes of how one is conceptualizing things. In the end they are beside the point (close, but no cigar). The point is the stance itself. The possible to say. The relationship of the world to the world that is us. The conceptualizations of craft are only to gain one access to a kind of forgetting that hopefully brings one into a more elemental position in regards the human relationship with the world, of which we are already always a part (and apart, as per the example of the brain thinking about the brain).

That said, there are stances and conceptualizations about the art act that do not help things along. Or perhaps to say it better, there are some ways of doing art that appear to be helping things, but in actuality bear false witness to the world by reducing the complexity of things and events, leaving the receiver to feel a sort of solace in the way things are, and a feeling that all connections are solid and meaningful. That has not been the case in my experience of the world. Most connections, in my experience, are delivered by chance operations and their meaning is situationally bounded. Therefore the art object itself can’t really say things outside of itself, but it can participate in the reader saying things.

Anyway, the goal of the artist, I hope, is to get oneself to a position where whatever one does next in a work of art belongs. That one’s method of propulsion down a poem equals the poem itself. What matters then, before the writing of the poem, seems to be of as much importance to the poem, as what happens during the writing of the poem. That’s one way of looking at it. There are, of course, others.

A very basic writing class prompt along these lines of inquiry could be a formal poem that uses invisible form. Here’s an example:

1. Visualize a scene for a minute or two without writing anything down (imagined or recalled, though at first it’s better to imagine a recalled scene so that one doesn’t have to work very hard). For a creative writing class (at any level) it’s often good for a scene to be dictated. One I’ve used is camping, as it seems it’s something nearly everyone has done.

2. Title. Dictate the syntax of the title. Something like “The ______ of _____,” where the writers, of course, fill in the blanks. Unless they’re feeling antic and write something like “The Blank of the Blank.” In that case, it’s fine as well. Now they’re just writing an antic poem is all. The point to a prompt is never the rules of the prompt, but the action of distracting oneself from working one’s imagination too hard on the surface of the poem.

3. The first sentence will be centering on an image of the natural world located in space. Something like “There are trees in the distance” or “One of the boys hid behind the others.” It’s important that one doesn’t work on trying to sound poetic.

4. Try an action sentence now. Some movement across the landscape. Maybe a camper. Some birds.

5. “What are some things the people there have brought with them?” Answer this question in proper short-answer exam style, as in, “describe and discuss.”

6. Quote something someone says. Attribute or don’t, depending.

7. More scene. What might be happening that you’re not aware of? Something to do with the engine, maybe, or the types of trees. Or the light through the trees.

8. Write a sentence starting with “All along.”

9. Two sentence fragments. “The world at large.” “We tell each other.” “The spilling waterfall against the snow.”

10. A sentence of desire. Desire something.

End there or repeat any of the above for as long as you feel like it. For number 8, if you’re going to repeat it, you can change the “all along” to “just like” or "let me" or any other snippet from a title of a Bob Dylan song.


At 1/21/2009 9:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


As a teacher of writing, I especially appreciate your piece. It's interesting because Carolyn Forche's teaching statement, available on line, refers to the idea that the traditional mode of the workshop has a lot of frayed fabric and might be re-hemmed or revamped. In large creative writing classes, I've used a small group workshop method that, once trained, the students use productively. I put the students in groups, collect and comment on all of their work, but make the rounds rather than moderate a workshop directed at the entire class. Also, we read and discuss a lot of poetry and do numerous exercises in and out of class, much like the one you describe.

Best with the project.

At 1/22/2009 3:13 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Small groups. I had never thought of that. Much more of an artist's "workshop". Fascinating. I would be very interested in doing a survey on how students feel about that. I can see how it might be much better (as smaller is always better in such things).

At 1/22/2009 10:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great thoughts, John. I really like that prompt and will try it out later this semester with my students!

Personally, I'm about fed up with the workshop experience from the student perspective. I tire of being told that this or that is unclear, that the poem doesn't really work, and then have my professor tell me that it's really strong. If the students know how to workshop effectively, it works great--especially with small groups. But things seem to go south when the instructor is listening in on another group. Just my $.02!

At 1/23/2009 7:04 AM, Blogger Matthew Thorburn said...

Nice poem on Verse Daily today, John!

At 11/20/2011 12:32 PM, Anonymous best essay writing service said...

I think the writer needs to tailor style to the situation. For example, the same person writing a letter to the same reader would use a different style depending on whether it is a letter of complaint, a letter of condolence, or a business letter.


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