Thursday, May 17, 2012

Lobject's Reflection

It’s been difficult to being writing a reflection piece without a deadline. April's daily deadlines  motivated me and kept me focused. I’ve learned throughout this blogging adventure that I write best with deadlines, particularly at the end of the semester. I also write best with others. Coauthoring this blog has been emotionally and intellectually stimulating. It took more of me than I expected, and reflecting continues to be a demanding process.

I was inspired by Doug Hesse, Nancy Sommers, and Kathleen Blake Yancey’s discussion of their object writing at CCCCs in March. Their stories were personal, deep, and reflective. I knew my adventure would be emotional, too, but I didn’t anticipate being so intimately involved with Kerri and Patrick’s writing journeys.   

I liken this writing adventure to having two pen pals I’d never met, sans harassing the mailman. Each day I checked the blog, anxious and ready. Each day I discovered, learned, reflected, wrote, and read. Each day I was surprised.

When I picked a new piece of paper from my husband’s favorite baseball cap, I was first date nervous. I knew the objects in advance, and I had judged some as uninspiring and others as writeable. Shame on me! I judged my chosen objects more than the others. Kerri and Patrick’s objects were blind dates; if we didn’t click, it was ok. My objects were carefully selected and then I immediately hated and loved them. I felt the same way about my writing. Some days I just hit submit after 30 minutes of composing, ready for the object to be behind me. Some days I read what I wrote over and over, editing and revising and picking up each word like a fragile egg.   

I was emotionally tied to these objects in a way I didn’t anticipate. I was having a great day when I wrote on left sandal and became depressed. I was having a crummy day when I picked wedding band and the object lifted me. I always looked forward to writing.

I enjoyed every piece Patrick and Kerri wrote. They always surprised me. The objects surprised me, too.

I’ve known Kerri since college. I room with her at conferences once or twice a year. I knew the favorite sweatshirt she was going to write about was her Harvard one. She let me borrow it in St. Louis and it is the most comfortable sweatshirt. All month I was sure. April 30th came around and Kerri’s favorite sweatshirt post described Peter (Ruby’s friend) on The Cosby Show.

I so enjoyed Patrick’s poem on day 11. I read it multiple times, trying to figure out how the ladle lead him from consommé to Buddha—an image I never expected. The simple complexity of this poem was admirable to say the least. Then, I drew ladle on day 12 and the unexpected happened. While I adored Patrick’s ladle, my ladle did not. It was angry and confrontational. My ladle poem is the unforeseen result of this hostility.

I thought most of my writing was terrible after reading Kerri and Patrick’s, particularly their narratives. I struggle to connect ideas on the page. When they write, it seems effortless. They are having a brilliant conversation and the words accidentally end up on the blog. Of course, I know writing isn’t like this. Still, the best writing appears effortless and that’s what I saw day after day in Kerri and Patrick’s posts. Before we started this, I knew they could write well. But every day, their writing has continued to amaze me.

I wouldn’t want to have this experience with anyone else. I am thankful that my company during an outdoor lunch on a cold, rainy day outshined the dreariness and our conversation lead to getting to know my friends and my writing better.  

The freedom of writing on objects helps writers explore. We write what the object tells us to write. We write where the object leads us. We look at each object differently. My blackboard isn’t Kerri’s blackboard. My penguin isn’t Patrick’s. If we added one more or ten more writing partners, I believe no one’s vinyl record or bookmark would be the same as another. The individuality in this experiment strengthens each participant’s contributions.

Perhaps educational value can be found here both in the freedom of an object and the unique experiences an author brings to the object. This objects give permission to reflect and imagine, yet also take the blame if, once on the page, the words don’t seem to work. No pressure, anything goes writing.

Reflecting on what each object means to me—some close, personal friends; others distant like we’d never met—tells me about myself. I know each object we wrote about, but I chose to remember some more closely and keep others at a comfortable distance. Some objects were amiable. Some objects were prejudged. The white page I wrote on was never blank at all.

I didn’t always like the final product, but I needed the wouldn’t-this-be-cool adventure to propel my summer writing. I’ve already begun revising and reworking. Although the 30-day writing exercise is officially over, I feel like I’m just getting started.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Aftermath: Pobject reflects

A week or so ago I posted on my last object, "blackboard," putting a cap on our 30-day project.

I miss it.

It ain't over yet, though: we all agreed that once done we'd take some time to unpack and reflect on our experience in performing the exercise. How did we feel, how did we act, and what did we think, as we wrote? What did we find out about our objects, our selves, and each other, through our writing? What will we carry, from this project, with us into our future writing? And how will this project figure into our futures more generally?

I'll try to answer some of these questions here, though I'm sure it'll take a few more weeks/months/years to realize the full impact the project's had.

Well, where to begin?

First of all, I might say (with uncharacteristic immodesty) that I'm tremendously proud of the writing I did for this project. Several of the poems are among the best of those I've written lately, and I enjoyed the personal narratives as well. I wrote fewer pieces of short prose fiction than my friends...I believe "aloe" was my only one. Several of the poems had fictive elements, though many were based on actual people or events.

Second, I'm impressed (and humbled!) by the writing my friends did! Wow. I'd write my piece on a certain object, and a few days later one of K. or L. would pull the same object and write her piece and I'd think "gee, I wish I'd thought to say that!" Clearly they're both smart, sassy, and superlative writers, to an extent I might have guessed before but wouldn't have known. I had to find that out.

That's ultimately what's struck me most about this project: how quickly I came to know my friends more deeply through their own words. This quick acquaintance doesn't shock me much when it comes to L., for she and I just met about two months ago at the 2012 Conference on College Composition and Communication. It's understandable...even expected...that I'd learn a lot about her through such a collaborative project. On the other hand, I've known K. for some time now (I met her at the Carolinas Writing Program Administrators conference at Wildacres in September of 2008), and I found I learned just as much about her through 3 x 30 = 90 as I did about L.

Granted, we all did some soul-searching and soul-baring in these here posts...but all of that searching and baring was mediated by the objects about which we wrote. I didn't write about my childhood for the sake of writing about my childhood, but for the sake of a house key, a sandal, a vinyl record. These objects evoked memories and emotions I'd buried long before. Symbols of great potency and salience, they, each, held at once the premonitory power of an oracle and immeasurable talismanic protection.

How can we account for this? It makes sense, if we believe William Carlos Willams's famous dictum, "no ideas but in things!" We have a tendency to tokenize, to signify, to create connections. We are meaning-making machines, we human beings. We dislike disorder, and we imbue all that we see around us with structure of some sort. Every little thing around us means something, and if that meaning doesn't manifest itself of its own accord, we find meaning where meaning may not at first be.

How healthy is this? I found myself wondering as I wrote this last paragraph. Must everything mean something? Might we be better off just letting things be the things they are? There's likely more meaning in this than in any meaning we might impose.

The project's not going away anytime soon. The three of us have plans to talk about our experience at this coming September's North Carolina English Teachers Association conference in Charlotte. I've already started to spread the word about the project's community-building efficacy: a couple of days ago I included a description of the project (and an 8-or-so-minute miniature version of it) in one of the sessions I led for a communication-across-the-curriculum workshop my friend Jean put on for her faculty at UNC-Charlotte. It went over very well there, and several faculty indicated they'd give it a shot in their classes this coming term. I think I'll do the same, as an ice-breaking exercise on the first day of class, and as a reflective piece to refocus reflective energy at appropriate points throughout the semester.

To be continued, I'm sure, as more ideas come...

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Day 30 (at last!): Pobject's blackboard

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get to writing this last piece for the project. I think it’s a little bit of “I don’t want this to end” and a little bit of “this one’s really close to home,” given that much of my life has been spelled out on blackboards for the past god-knows-how-many years. As a mathematician, it kind of comes with the trade.

There was a time when I would have told you that the blackboard was a sacred space, and every symbol placed on it a hieroglyph with deep and recondite meaning. As the classroom itself exuded an aura of numinousness, the blackboard, if you leaned near enough to it, would smell of ozone, would pulse and vibrate, would be hot to the touch.

I once write several draft chapters of a magical realist novella in which the central figure was a fair-to-middlin’ mathematics graduate student who experienced a blow on the head after falling from a table he’d climbed upon at the front of class. After the accident, he acquired the ability to simply see to the heart of any mathematical proof, like Will Hunting on a peyote trip. The story was narrated by another grad student, not quite so bright as the first, who struggled mightily to understand everything, and he was enviously aweful of his friend’s new talent: everything mathy came easy to the guy. However, the savant soon lost his passion for doing math because it was now an effortless enterprise, and he envied his still-normal friend’s dedication to the craft.

A morality play about the dangers of truth manifest?

Maybe I’m making too much of it.

I don’t feel that energy, that electricity, when I’m at the board these days. (And I spend less time at the board, and write less on it, than I once did.) It’s simple surface, a clean clay slip. It receives only what it’s given, and has no inherent mysteries of its own. It’s pure potential. In this it mirrors us, little mirrors ourselves, giving and taking as we bounce around the world trying to make sense of it all.

No energy, no electricity, but something stronger, truer, real: if I put my face on the cold fake slate, I can hear echoes of myself, and echoes of my students, and of anyone else who’s ever put their thoughts there. Murmurs of meaning, nonsense, insights, epiphanies. It’s all there. It’s all inside of us. At the end of the day, we are all we have.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Day 29: Pobject's honeysuckle

Our back yard wasn’t big, I know now. Each visit back made it smaller, and I wonder how we ever played ball back there. The clotheslines cut the porch off from the patio, which was nothing but a covered concrete slab slapped onto the back of the garage. The patio faced north. To the west were the compost bins and woodpiles, stacked against our neighbor’s fence.

The north fence, ten feet from the patio’s far edge, was covered with honeysuckle vines, tangles of green with bright white flowers and bulbous red berries. The berries drew the birds in bunches: there was no shortage of sparrows and finches of all sizes, from tiny pine siskins to chunky evening grosbeaks.

One particular summer the grass was littered with the latter for several weeks, chattering clumps of plump gold-blazed, brown-yellow birds. I’d seen small sparrows flock our lawn like that before, falling in in swirling clouds, but never birds so big as the grosbeaks. Their descent would have been apocalyptic, had they not been so beautiful.

The birds in turn drew the neighborhood’s outdoor cats. My father, Audubon member and wild bird aficionado, took the birds’ side. He bought a large catch-and-release trap and baited it with tuna. Whatever cats he caught got a thorough hosing-down before being let go. Few tangled twice with his trap.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Day 28: Pobject's rocking chair

The chair, physical manifestation of her chaired professorship, was made of black lacquered wood with gold lettering on its decorative back. It stood unceremoniously to one side of my colleague’s office, piled chaotically with books and papers, post-it notes exploding from both.

I sat in a simpler chair, one with a soft green vinyl seat and unadorned wooden arms. I pulled it closer to her desk, and we broke the ice with a story of the beach-themed party her departmentmates threw her for her 60th birthday. “Complete with sand, inflatable palm trees, and a playlist of Beach Boys songs looping endlessly on the computer.”

What’s the comfort in a rocking chair?

Does the back-and-forth swing remind us more of life in the womb or life on the porch?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Receipt for gas

Monsters of Folk:  On the Road

Featuring (from left to right) Mike Mogis, M. Ward, Jim James, and Conor Oberst

M:  <staring out of the window while lightly playing an acoustic guitar> Seems like every where I go, the sky is falling.

Mike:  Really?  <genuine surprise and interest>  I haven’t noticed any rain at any of our destinations.  <his speech gaining momentum>  If I had to use one word to describe all of them together, it would be… lovely.  Our tour has been lovely

Jim:  <with authentic curiosity> Do you guys think it is kinda silly that my solo work is billed as Yim Yames?

<no response.  Not even a flinch, as if they had heard the question multiple times before.>

Conor:  <browsing through the tour bus fridge> Is it the destinations that really matter, man?  <his rifling becoming more frantic> The road is beautiful.  The road heals.  The road… <a frustrated clanking coming from the refrigerator> I thought there was more vodka in here. <his eyes not stopping the search in the fridge>

M:  You finished the last of it this morning, man. <staring at the strings on his guitar as if he were speaking to them>

Conor:  <thoughtless reaction>  Shit.  <angry, as if he just heard M’s answer>  SHIT.

M:  Go on… about what you were saying… about the road’s beauty and its healing… <followed by a slight grin>

Mike:  <scrunching up his nose with laughter>

Conor:  <an angry glare>  But that was my shit.  <anger’s fumes fade to innocence>
Who drank it?


M:  You did, man.  <silence and blank stares>  This morning.  Around 3 am.  You said something about the President, chugged the last of the bottle, watched an episode of the Kardashians, and then passed out on the couch.

Conor:  <vaguely remembering>  Shit.  <searching out the tented windows surrounding them>  We’re in the middle of nowhere…

Mike:  <giggles erupting into laughter>  And it is now…

<humor lost on Conor at this moment>

M:  <cool; paternal, even> I’m sure the next truck stop…

Conor:  <not cool; childish, perhaps> That will probably be hours!

M:  Yeah, man…  It is only noon.

Conor:  Shit… Crappy crappy shit…

M:  Man.  <somber and observant> This is, like, as worked up as you get.

Conor:  Fuck off, Mike!

Mike:  <giggling> I didn’t say anything!  <through the laughter>  We will have to stop for gas sometime soon.

<a few minutes pass>

Jim: <quietly, to Conor.  Another authentic question> You were watching the Kardashians?

Conor:  Shut up, Yim.

<friendly laughter surrounds> 

Day 27: Pobject's left sandal

Was this sandal lost, or left behind in haste?
Whose is it? Does it belong to
Odysseus, bound for Ithaca, or to Christ, lost
in the midst of fleet-footed ministrations
to threadbare lepers?

And why the left one – I ask myself –
is there some theological significance to
this sinister circumstance?

I am older now
than Dr. Lopez was when he explained
how if we were to build a computer encompassing
all of everything (every you and me, every random daffodil,
every Oxford comma) it could help us peek
under tomorrow’s hood.

That dog won’t hunt, not barefoot, besides.
Maybe the left one was just too snug?

Kitchen Countertop

Characters and players

Salt shaker 
Pepper grinder
Large, brushed metal container
Medium, brushed metal container
Small, brushed metal container
Cobalt blue apron hanging next to counter
Box containing Elliott’s birthday present from Aunt Bev
Children’s Claritin box
Kurt Vonnegut biography
DMV registration reminder
Anthropology catalogue

Late one Tuesday afternoon.  Early spring.  Windows open upstairs but not downstairs.  Close to the end of the workday.

DMV registration reminder:  (filled with anxiety) I’ve been here for a week.  A week?!  They know I am here; they know what to do with me.  Is it really that complicated?!

Children’s Claritin: (only slightly annoyed) Relax, Reggie.  It’s not like you are forgotten or, worse, thrown away like most of the other stuff that has been here.

Kurt biography:  Yes.  They have laid you out with care and respect.  I feel that is quite clear.  It is only a matter of time.

Registration:  (obviously offended)  With care?!  She spent more time thumbing through that new catalogue than she did reading me!  She laid that piece of garbage out with as much care as she did me.

Anthropology catalogue:  (joking sarcasm)  Hello?  I am right here?  I can here you talking about me.

Biography:  Don’t feel poorly, Catie.  She received me as a Christmas gift and has only taken the time to flip through me.  She may, eventually, end up giving you more attention than me.

Box containing Elliott’s present:  Hi.  Hello, I’m Package.  I don’t think I have had the pleasure of meeting everyone, but I was wondering something.  You see, I apparently have presents for some kid’s 5th birthday, and I was wondering when that may be.  And also, do you know if there will be a party?  And if so, do you think I will be given then or may it be before or…

Large container: (interrupting with a grumpy tone) Dag nab it!  For crying out loud!  None of us care about you, ya cardboard crate.  Some of us have jobs to do!  I need to be well rested if I am going to be ready bright and early when it is breakfast time.  I mean, I do hold…

Small and medium containers, salt and pepper, and Claritin in unison:  (mocking in a loving manner)  “Their favorite cereal.  We know.”

Large Connie:  Just because some of us are to be of use…  Nothing but spiteful discrimination… (trailing off)

Salt:  Whatever!  We are all of use.  I mean, some days, I am of use at every meal.  Talk about needing rest! 

Pepper:  (deep, sexy voice)  You do work hard, baby.  Everyday.  Some stuff just don’t understand.

Blue apron:  (wining, but only slightly) I’m not sure she even remembers I am here.  Some days I wonder if I am really here.  She walks past me… puts stuff on the counter… in the trashcan… Doesn’t even give me a glimpse! 

Biography:  I wouldn’t feel bad, Colbie.  From what I’ve seen, she hardly knows the kitchen can be of use for cooking – (snickering) except maybe on a couple of holidays.

All the stuff: (laughter and giggles all around)

Large Connie:  (still laughing) Yeah, and maybe a late night snack.

(laughter building)

Biography:  One that doesn’t require anything… except maybe the microwave!

(hysterical laughter)


Biography:  (whispering)  Do they expect us to bow or something of the sort?  The humiliation... (yelling)  WE ARE INANIMATE.  (whispering again) They are almost as bad as she is! 

Left sandal