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2012 SWP Goodness (and not so goodness): Week Four September 19, 2012

 

                                “You have nothing to add to this conversation.”

 

This was the second sentence Kenneth Goldsmith ever said to me. It was the first day of his workshop, Uncreative Writing, which I chose because the description said absolutely nothing about “performance.” I was, along with everyone else who had been on campus since June 8th, suffering from an advanced case of week-four delirium exacerbated by prolonged exposure to greatness, anticipated loneliness (which I knew would set in the moment I bumped my suitcase over the threshold of my room at Snow Lion), and heat stroke. Perhaps that explains why I had, moments before Kenny G shot me down, been under the delusion that I had something relevant to say. In the wake of my public castigation, a few of my classmates paused in their over-stimulated squirming to offer an exhalation of commiseration, feeling for me in my lapse of judgment. Mr. Goldsmith, however, barreled ahead, either because I’ve perfected a talent for adopting an air of calm even when mortally wounded or because he simply didn’t give a good damn that one of his students was down and bleeding. Betting on the latter, I spent the last two hours of class in stubborn silence, alternately trying to decide if I should walk out or stay and see what other words of wisdom Goldsmith might offer.

Later that afternoon, when friend and SWP assistant Julie Kazimer asked how the workshop had gone, I came embarrassingly close to tears. In lieu of bursting into outraged weeping, I related the bruising my ego had undergone, concluding, in a very un-Annie Maier-like tone, “I think Kenneth Goldsmith might be an asshole.”

Julie asked if I wanted to switch to another workshop. Blame the heat, or perhaps my Catholic school upbringing—Yes, ma’am, Sister Vicious, I would like to come up to the front of the room so you can whack me on the head and call me a moron—but I really couldn’t decide. On one hand, I questioned the wisdom of taking writerly advice, otherwise known, in this instance at least, as an intellectual beating, from a man wearing a black hat, wide-striped shirt, and blue seersucker pants rolled several inches above sockless brown oxfords. On the the other hand, I suspected that such an amazing outfit would not appeal to, or even occur to, a person without some level of genius. Had it been week two, when I was still fresh, just hitting my stride, feeling confident and lively, the choice would have been easy. But it was week four and all I wanted was to go get a tattoo and drink my exhaustion into remission.

“Can I decide tomorrow?”

Yes, of course I could. I was at Naropa.

This then is the first moral of my story: If at first life slaps you to the ground, forget conventional wisdom, which would say to heave yourself upright and jump back into the fray, but forget too the overwhelming desire to run like hell and never return. Instead, lay there a moment. Think about the slap. How did it feel? What imprint did it leave? Was it even a slap? Look up at the sky. What are the clouds doing? Are they blue, gray, white? Is the sun shining, or does a light rain splash your unblinking eyes?

Once you’ve run through this or a similar list, then pick yourself up. Check for broken bones and/or blood. Do you need a bandage, stitches, a hug? Reassess. Only then, ask yourself, “What might I gain from diving back in?” Then go for it.

On Tuesday morning I was back in Sycamore, listening to Goldsmith expound on the ignorance of writers. Ah, I thought, maybe I’m not the first idiot he’s ever met.

Turns out, Goldsmith has met many idiots in his time, mostly in the form of students but also in the form of causes célèbres (“Success is for Hollywood.”), writers who waste time thinking about readers (“I’m not interested in a reader, I’m interested in a thinker.”), and artists who expect art to make sense in a linear, well ordered way (“Art does not play by the rules”). Indeed, such people form the basis of Goldsmith’s teaching method.

“This is stupid,” he repeatedly tells us in reference to various ideas, projects and assignments. “DON’T BE STUPID.”

Because I respect the mission, I forgive the delivery, and so shut off my brain—the anxiety ridden, under-confident part that blocks out so much of life—and listen. And in listening, I find myself captivated. Goldsmith isn’t thoughtless or brutal, as I believed. He doesn’t set out to piss off students. He sets out to make them square their shoulders and refuse to be intimidated. Given the benefit of a day or two, one comes to appreciate his brusqueness. Not because one likes being dismissed with the wave of even an articulate hand, but because one gets, perhaps for the first time, what all artists must accept in order to survive—time is short. Every one of Goldsmith’s indictments are delivered as reminders: given an ounce of opportunity, life will poke an extra-wide needle in your veins and suck out every gram of initiative, regurgitating your remains in slag heap of complacency and boredom. In between withering looks and repeated shouts of, “NO! Wrong answer!” he inculcates: Read this. Look up that. Check out this writer, this artist, this project. Pay attention. Share ideas. Do it all, he tells us, but do it with intention.

Each morning, we received the same exact assignment: Day 1: Take 3-5 pages of any piece of writing and replicate it. Day 2: Do it again. Day 3: Again. Day 4: And again. Sounds horrible, no? But it wasn’t. I can’t, in any reasonable amount of space, tell you why. The most surprising aspect of this assignment, though, was the amazing diversity of work it produced. By repeating the same exercise over and over, I learned to pay attention to every detail, every choice. “Chance operations,” Goldsmith told us, “remove the ego and create poems of choice.” However insignificant they may seem, each of those choices say “something about you as well as your source material.”

Imagine This:

  • Tom Phillips: http://humument.com/intro.html.  This is a long intro, but I encourage anyone interested in erasure, reappropriation, and/or William S. Burrough’s Cut-ups to read and explore Phillips.

  • Simon Morris: http://www.theagyuisoutthere.org/abotm/books/?p=1554. Conceptual artist who decided, after listening to a lecture by Kenneth Goldsmith it turns out, to retype Jack Kerouac’s On the Road word for word as a creative exercise and an “homage to the era that heralded unconstrained and improvisatory expressionism.” I find this idea fascinating, and can’t help but wonder how my perspective on writing might change if I were to undertake such a mission. Particularly if I chose a work that challenges my perceptions of normative understanding (Rulfo’s Perdro Paramo, for instance).  Can such a work be seen as an “entirely different text, one based on the original” (as Goldsmith states)?
 

I interrupt this program— September 5, 2012

Filed under: Naropa University,Writing/Words — Annie Maier @ 2:04 pm
Tags: , , , ,

To present not a word, but an idea, perhaps better called a device, word related of course, used by writers across the globe, but particularly in the US where we tend toward grammatical laziness and enjoy hatcheting the King’s English, which maybe at this juncture should be called the Queen’s English, to denote a pause or, more often, a derailment in one’s train of thought.

Today, I present The Dash, otherwise known as —.

Why the dash? Several reasons come to mind, or rather flit unbidden and out of control across the landscape of my ever metamorphosing, twisted-neuron and distantly synapsed brain. First, though, a definition, garnered, after an unreasonable amount of research, from the website of the Capital Community College Foundation, not because CCCF offers the best description, but because its tone, both informative and quirky (quirky being my hands down favorite word), beats the absolute hell out of that of Rutgers University and GrammarBook.com, both of which are, though equally informative, very, very, sub-Sonoran desert very, dry. That CCCF’s site also has a typo in the very first line, the presence of which makes me ridiculously happy in an “irony is essential to life” sort of way, is an additional bonus. So reporteth they (as per Lewis Thomas):

The dash is a handy device, informal and esentially playful, telling you that you’re about to take off on a different tack but still in some way connected with the present course — only you have to remember that the dash is there, and either put a second dash at the end of the notion to let the reader know that he’s back on course, or else end the sentence, as here, with a period (http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/marks/dash.htm).                                                                                                               

I decided to expound on the dash following three episodes involving not so distinctly related nouns: an hour of hot Vinyasa yoga, a large coffee swallowed in haste, and an open word document titled “Blog,” glaring at me with the unhelpful subheading “SWP Goodness Week Four.”

I don’t know about you kids, but I am sick to death of listening to myself extol the admittedly plentiful virtues of the Summer Writing Program. This is not the fault of Naropa University, nor of the program, nor, especially, of my week four instructor, Kenneth Goldsmith. No, the culprit is me. Or, more specifically, my habit of moving at a snail’s pace, particularly when blog writing. SWP has been over for almost two months to the day. Temperatures are down, at least in Boulder, tree limbs are easing their grip on chlorophyll-deprived leaves, and yet another presidential election lurks just weeks away. I’ve finished retooling my book, planned and held another NCWN regional meeting, and embarked on a series of yoga/pilates/aerial exercise classes at a new studio. Weather willing, I’m going to see Barack Obama speak (eloquently and with much passion) tomorrow noight, my daughter is closing in on her thesis, after which she will return home after a year in England, and my husband retires in two days. Which is to say, there’s so much going on RIGHT THIS MINUTE (at least in my caffeine-rinsed cerebellum) that I cringe at the thought of trying to remember exactly what I thought/felt/learned eight weeks ago while running between the Sycamore and PAC buildings on Naropa’s sweet campus. Not because I don’t want to share those many experiences (that was the week I got tattooed after all!), but because I feel my attention waning, and therefore cannot help but be concerned about you, my one or two faithful readers.

Which brings me to the dash. You’ll notice I haven’t used any dashes in this post, despite the fact that I am inordinately fond of them. Scattered as we all seem to be nowadays, the dash has taken over as a preferred mode of punctuation. In the middle of explaining the dynamics of 20th Century Russian poetry when a cow crosses your vision, calling to mind afternoons spent on Grandma’s farm and derailing the brilliant words of Osip Mandelstam? Toss in a dash! Expounding on the community-building capabilities of paper and pen (as opposed, of course, to that of the computer) when you remember you forgot to mention the last letter your Uncle Floyd wrote before being hanged by a troop of ill-groomed midgets outraged at skyrocketing paper prices? A dash saves the day.

And yet… And yet, the dash has, as do we all, a dark side. An insidious, hesitant, compulsive side that induces writers, myself most definitely included, to toss all rules of common sense and, dare I say it, decent grammar aside. Turning us into interruption prone, listener-negligent drones in pursuit of various brightly colored flights of fancy, skirting serious issues, losing track of vitally important yet now forgotten ideas, opinions, and arguments. Adopting a “playful,” even “whimsical” attitude toward words and thus risking our status as “serious” (ie, desperate for the attention of discerning audiences) writers. Here, for instance is the sage advice of GrammarBook.com’s Jane Straus:

While there are many possible uses of the em dash, by not providing additional rules, I am hoping to curb your temptation to employ this convenient but overused punctuation mark (http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/dashes.asp).

But wait. I should bracket that entire last paragraph, quote included, with a pair of what CCCF calls “emendations” (noun; an alteration designed to correct or improve a text), as it was not at all my intention to disparage the poor Dash, the em Dash if you will, but rather to explore my own wavering attentiveness, on and off the paper, and thereby try to decide for myself how I can possibly go back, or if indeed it is necessary to go back, and finish what I started (SWP Goodness) when all I want to do is howl about present day circumstances. Did such exercise work? Why yes, yes it did. Because I realize that I do indeed, for my own peace of mind (or piece of mind, both seem adequate here), need to complete my previous line of thinking.

Therefore, I interrupt my rambling, without hesitation, or further unmindful stalling, to offer this, the last installment in 2012 SWP Goodness:

But wait—this post is already too long.

 

 
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