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.

This is all true.

“Nomade, 2007” by Jaume Plensa, found in Des Moines Sculpture Garden, Iowa
 Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

 

Everyone asks why there can be no fiction in Composing Self.

Exactly, I say. I say there’s enough to blow your mind in the world without having to stop and say:

But. Is. This. True?

I say, only those who don’t have to worry about the next meal and the roof overhead have the luxury of stopping to study this thing called “self” and why writers might create one. I say you’d better look around and share your voice with those too weak to speak and you’d better write true or you might be dismissed.

How real is this?

Let’s say:  911,395,855

That’s how many “undernourished people in the world right now” there are. Were. It grows by the second.

1,557,016,576 is the bigger number of the bigger number of “overweight people in the world right now.” Growing too.

Real time statistics fluttering up each second on StoptheHunger.com

Who could make that up?

Do you know how many bodies are – according to the very real “Famine Scale” – a “cause for concern?”

That real scale is made up of steps based on body counts, numbers per thousand, steps reaching toward heaven on piles of corpses creating an overall “Crude Mortality Rate.”  Is there any other kind of mortality rate from a preventable death?

These silent statistic sentinels hold back a monsoon. Behind each digit rounded to the nearest million

is a name,

a name with a real live birth date and a coming-too-soon death date

with mothers human

and fathers too

real

infants.

Meanwhile, we’re over here stuffing ourselves. Really really, I could write a story about that, replies the one who writes novels as if this has never occurred to me.

As if I’ve never read Hamsun or Kafka, García Márquez, or Lispector, or Morrison or Martel.

“But what about testimonial literature?” my friend from Argentina asks, the one who survived barely the unclean war and has lots of fiction to contribute.

“We call it fiction so no one can say, ‘that didn’t really happen.’”

I say, enough of that open door.

“But what about censorship? Your perspective is so Freedom of Speech American,” says my friend who won’t let me use her name or place her birthplace on the map.

Exactly, I say, my freedom means I can limit your “write to censor.”

And then, the intake of breath. And the question, as if I’ve never read Dante.

“Ah, but why allow poetry?”

They all ask this, as if I’ve somehow allowed myself to unwittingly be trapped by the “I.”

“Is poetry true the way nonfiction is true?”  They ask, licking their chops, waiting to pounce upon a debate I may be unprepared for. Yes, I say, and now I can let David Shields and his Reality Hunger Manifesto take over because he got to the page first.

“The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems.”

And I’ll defend further than David, to where my limb droops under the weight of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s line: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Poems are true the way music is true the way photography without Photo Shop is true, the way flesh and sunrise and dirt and death, birth and hunger and warm hands are true. The poet is the response, the mirror, the lens to reality. Poetic inspiration – quite literally, poetic inspirare from the Latin “to breathe” – is shaped by the willow whistle of crafted composition to give language to the universal human experience.

You can write a poem without a character, a poem about an apple, a pie, a sun.

You cannot write fiction without character.

I can’t keep track of every human right now.

I don’t want to add imaginary numbers to the people to keep track of in my heart.

Everyone asks why there is no fiction in Composing Self.

Exactly, I say.

It is all too true.

____________________________

What you just read, is one example of a manifesto.  Put, most simply, it’s “a public declaration of intentions, opinions or motives,” according to the authors of “Writer’s Community,” a blog dedicated to writer development.

Can you write a manifesto for your final?

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.

 

The coolest writing workshop ever…

happens in June, 2015.

If you’re sorry to see our Writing About Place class come to an end, remember that learning to write is a lifelong journey with myriad opportunities and Writing on the Edge sounds like one of the best. It’s especially well-suited for writers with curiosity.

DSC_0100

Grand Canyon                                                                             Photo by Catherine Keefe

Thea Gavin, Orange County poet extraordinaire and barefoot hiker, offers a 4-day writing workshop at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon from June 23-26, 2015.

Some of the topics listed in the class brochure include:

assembling the nature writer’s toolkit, paying attention, recording details, writing origin stories, lyrical storytelling, campfire story sharing, and discovering the singer and the song.

There’s complimentary camping at the North Rim Campground or participants can arrange to stay and the Grand Canyon Lodge. The class is open to all ages and writing skill levels.

Hiking difficulty is listed as a 1 out of 10 meaning “negligible elevation change” and distances of up to 3 miles.

Cost is $375.

Registration is now open. Find all the details at The Grand Canyon Association website here.

Do you want a job?

photo-48

Then you’d better learn to write because it turns out there’s more hanging on the line than just words. You’re very livelihood might be at stake.

In an article titled, “Why Johnny can’t write, and why employers are mad,” posted today on NBCNews.com, writer Kelly Holland says,  “In survey after survey, employers are complaining about job candidates’ inability to speak and to write clearly.”

Turns out effective communication is a skill needed in school and the real business world.

So what can you do to increase your effective communication skills?

1: Consider adding a Minor in Writing and Rhetoric to your degree program. Here’s a description of the minor from the ChapmanUniversity 2012-2013 course catalog:

In the writing and rhetoric minor, students explore why and how people create texts. The required courses provide students with a foundational understanding of the field of rhetorical studies. Electives enable students to study a variety of methodological approaches to the study of language and writing and to gain expertise in rhetorical analysis and the production of complex texts. The minor requires a total of 21 credits, 15 of which must be upper-division.

2: Continually look for ways that the writing techniques we focus on in our class translate to writing assignments in other courses.

3: Practice effective writing techniques even in your casual communication.  For example, which text is more effective?
Just saw a partially eaten deer on the trail. It’s about 100 yards past the first gate.
OR
Be careful of mountain lions today.

p.s.
These are real life examples of the trail chatter my fellow hikers and I use to update each other.   Is it too dramatic to say that effective writing may be a matter of life or death?