It’s never really over

i carry

E.E. Cummings canvas over my writing desk                                Photo: Catherine Keefe

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)

 

I first met E. E. Cummings’ classic love poem as a student in a high school literature class.

What made a significant impact on me, almost as much as that perfect description of profound love, was that in a class where broken grammar rules could cost me a perfect “A” on a paper, I was introduced to a writer who not only flaunted language rules, but was exalted for it. The difference between mistake and craft, I learned, could be intention.

Why would a writer play with language like that? Literary critic Norman Friedman offers a likely answer in E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer: “Cummings’ innovations are best understood as various ways of stripping the film of familiarity from language in order to strip the film of familiarity from the world. Transform the word, he seems to have felt, and you are on the way to transforming the world.”

A writer transports a reader with language, transforms the small world within the walls of our individual human experience into a kaleidoscope as big as the universe of all the possibilities this life might hold. We construct tiny snow globes, lay them on a giant digital shelf and beg anyone to please engage with us.

You hold more power than you can ever imagine sings Sarah Bareilles in “Brave.” All you have to do is “say what you want to say / and let the words fall out / honestly…”

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

That’s another one of my favorite lines from the E.E. Cummings poem,”i carry your heart with me”.

Here is one of my deepest secrets.

I truly hate the end of each semester. I always think I’m forever saying goodbye to you students who I’ve gotten to know through words, both spoken and written. I hate goodbyes and I hate not knowing for sure that I gave you enough. I always wish I had another hour or two, another week or more, to pass along some tidbit of rhetorical technique we never got around to covering. Would you become more effective writers if we practiced spotting faulty logic? Could I have worked harder to find more diverse voices for you to read from? Should I have forced you to remember everything we talked about by adding quizzes to the syllabus?

The end of the semester for me is a torment of “All The Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas” as Shel Silverstein wrote in Falling Up.

“Layin’ In The Sun,

Talkin’ ‘Bout The Things

They Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda Done…

But All Those Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas

All Ran Away And Hid

From One Little Did.”

Oh, we had more than “One Little Did.” Actually, it was more like 10,000. Yes, we wrote more than 10,000 words. We read. We crafted. We drafted. Composed. Created. We closely observed how writers use language to write about place. We experimented with poetry and prose, with research and structure and voice. We created manifestos about our beliefs about place and our theories of writing this thing called Creative Nonfiction.

i carry your heart with me

I teach because I believe with the conviction of a person who holds a job with one of the lowest-paying ratios of salary compared to level of higher education, that there is absolutely no better way to spend my days than in the company of young minds on the cusp of taking over leadership roles in government, businesses, medical fields, educational and cultural institutions, and families. At the end of my life I want to honestly say I did all I could to pass along knowledge which might empower and uplift humans, that which might lead to justice and dignity for all.

I teach you because you always teach me. Be persistent. Try more than you will master. Succeed humbly. Be funny. Be kind because someone always has more going on behind their smile than you might ever imagine. Be brave and try something new.

You are one of 19.9 million students enrolled in a degree-granting institution, according to a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics. That number represents the population of the entire state of Florida.

And if you were born in 1994 or later, you’re part of an as-yet unnamed generation. According to a 2008 article in The Boston Globe, writer Joshua Glenn says, ” You’re a member of a generation that’s too young to characterize in any remotely meaningful way.”

You students are as unique as your speaking voice, an utterance so individual that audio voiceprints are as singularly identifiable as fingerprints.

Learning to effectively wield words, using your own unique writing voice, is learning how to construct a reality. Our words transform the world we inhabit.

Consider the possible responses to “What did you see today?”

Nothing.

A bird.

Two Sara Orangetip butterflies leaving a shadow of outstretched wings on the brown dirt of Orange County’s Bell Canyon Trail.

 fluttersWhat I Say Today                                                         Photo: Catherine Keefe

A writer can give you butterfly wings on a path, or a writer can give you nothing.

What will you do with all that power?

 

 

Go deep

Your generation needs your voice, but swimming in the shallows of written expression will get you nothing but a handful of rocks.

Shallows

                       Sugar Pine Point, Lake Tahoe                                                      Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

According to a recent article posted on Flavorwire, titled “2013’s Worst Writing About Millennials”:

The past 12 months saw more ill-founded, hysterical, condescending, and generally awful writing than ever about what so-called “millennials” are up to and why it’s ruining the country.

Writer Alison Herman collected examples of what she calls “the lowlights of this year’s coverage.” Included in her list are the “Me Me Me Generation” story from Time magazine and a New York Times piece titled “Sex On Campus: She Can Play That Game Too.” One of Herman’s biggest complaints about the articles?  “Reducing an entire generation to a series of lazy stereotypes,” and a “lack of actual statistics.”

Read the entire Flavorwire story here.

Then be inspired to set the record straight with your own truths about your own selves.  Insert your  voice into the unending conversation.  For goodness sake, go beyond stereotypes and include facts, statistics, and primary research in your work this semester.

Maybe next year’s list of “2014’s Best Writing By Millennials” will have your name on it.

“There’s a party going on right here…”

Kool and the Gang gave my generation “Celebration,” our very own 1980 party anthem.

Go ahead and turn on the music if you like; it makes an ebullient backdrop to this introduction.

Of course you might know “Celebration” if you’ve made it to the Galactic Dance Off in Kinect Star Wars, or if you happened to catch the 2011 Parks and Recreation episode titled, “The Bubble.”  Or Dancing With The Stars,“Hollywood Night” episode in 2013, or in the films Eat, Pray, Love or Wreck-It Ralph.  According to its IMDb listing, it’s been included in a lengthy list of films, television shows, video games and remixed too many times to by too many DJs to name so you might have heard it at a party or music festival.  In other words, the song’s life has extended well beyond its birth in the disco era.

But is this the first time “Celebration” showed up in one of your classes? I suppose the even bigger question might be, what’s it doing here?

Like all good writing should, the answer begins with a story.

Imagine you enter a party.

Photo Credit: E. Beranek

I’ll let Kenneth Burke take the story from here.  If you’ve never heard of Burke, don’t feel bad.  He was a literary theorist, a philosopher, and a critic, among other things. His influence is wide among academics, yet he’s not a household name.  There exists a Kenneth Burke Society, a Kenneth Burke Journal, and his oft-told-in-university classrooms “parlor story” that explains a philosophy of academic inquiry which we’ll adhere to.  I quote from Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form.

Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When others arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before…The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. It is from this ‘unending conversation’ that the materials of your drama arise. (110)

This parlor, or party if you prefer, and its “unending conversation” is one metaphor for academic inquiry.  The literary art forms we’ll study and create this semester, and the analytical and aesthetic conversations we’ll have about them, have been going on long before we arrived on the scene in much the same way that humans used drums and horns and vocals long before Kool and the Gang created a song with enough staying power to outlast the end of disco. What does this have to do with you? Return to your imaginary parlor and the conversation you walk into.

…You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable…

It is from this “unending conversation”..that the materials of your drama arise. Nor is this verbal action all there is to it. For all these words are grounded in what Malinowski would call “contexts of situation.” And very important among these… are the kind of factors considered by Benthem, Marx, and Veblen, the material interests (of private or class structure) that you symbolically defend or symbolically appropriate or symbolically align yourself with in the course of making your assertions.

R.I.P.

To be sure, the unending conversation will go on long after you and I leave the party, even life itself.

But right now we are in Kenneth Burke’s imaginary parlor. So, let’s make something memorable happen.

Words in the Wild

world is a book                      Poly Canyon, San Luis Obispo                                             Photo by Catherine Keefe

What did you see this weekend? What surprised you? What did you learn?

I saw the writing on the wall.

I took this photo during an exploration of Poly Canyon where the learn-by-doing projects for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students in the College of Architecture and Environmental Design are open to the air and free to the public.

According to the Cal Poly website:

A portion of Poly Canyon encompasses a nine-acre outdoor experimental construction laboratory that for more than four decades has been the host site of several structures designed and built mostly by students of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design.

On a quiet November Saturday I saw families climbing in and out of seemingly abandoned structures and groups of students following leaders in brown straw hats. I saw piles of crushed, empty green plastic party cups. Green is the Cal Poly school color. Go Mustangs! I saw Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, smashed and flung below The Cantilever Structure. And I saw a small leg bone, presumably from an animal, about the size of a baby coyote. I saw The Shell House and The Stick House and The Underground House where I took these photos. I saw a plastic pan with dried black paint and a roller.

words on walls

 

I bellowed to cows I saw across the canyon. I saw vineyards and brocolli on the bush in a field and a flock of turkey vultures, which I later learned is called a wake. I learned that San Luis Obispo is one of California’s oldest communities.I saw the infamous downtown Bubblegum Alley where I stuck a chewed wad of Wrigley’s Extra Polar Ice. 

I saw three good friends.

I learned that life offers every surprise and delight you need, if only you stop to look.
What did you see this weekend?

For more information on Poly Canyon, check out Inside San Louis: Architecture Graveyard Hike.

I was here

As you head off into the world to explore somewhere new, think about how your presence might alter the space.

peace

Fall. Peace.     Trabuco Canyon, CA                                        Photography by Catherine Keefe

How does the act of writing create or perpetuate myth about places?

Is there any such thing as an impartial observer?

What of our past do we bring to our present experience?

“Take only memories, leave only footprints,” Chief Seattle once said.
Will you write about memories or footprints?

“I’m eager to explore my new surroundings,” an ENG 103 student wrote.
Will you take the spirit of exploration with you, or approach the experience as a drudgery homework assignment?

Be attentive as you explore.
Be open and curious.
Be aware that your presence will linger after you’re gone.

As active agent, you determine what kind of silk or wool or nubby yarn this experience will become in the tapestry of your life.

Sneak peek

Writing About Place syllabus is almost ready to launch.

Trabuco General Store

Trabuco Canyon, CA             Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

The course is inspired by this Joan Didion quote from The White Album.

“Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner… a great deal of Honolulu has always belonged for me to James Jones… A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.” Joan Didion from The White Album.

Here’s to figuring out how to claim our place.