Intensity and Playfulness: Students and Artists Online

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To start preparing for my spring semester creative writing course, I’ve been reading two new books (in addition to Vikram Seth’s Two Lives and Anne Carson’s Decreation), that have nothing ostensibly to do with the evolution of my teaching with Web technologies: John Berger’s Here Is Where We Meet and Robert Coover’s A Child Again. I journeyed into these books not just for the pleasure of it all, but to remind myself that teaching creative writing is mostly an offline experience. I wanted to pay deliberate attention to words on pages; after all, my office is dominated not by computer equipment but by books and paper:

I know how to keep my online writing/reading/thinking self separate from my I-love-the-feel-of-page-in-my-hands self. Or so I thought. The deeper I find myself within the marvelous holds of these fictions, essays and inventions, the more I realize how much I’m looking for a dose of art, of experiment, of play to bring into the classroom blogs, podcasts et al. Indeed, as I read post after post by bloggers I routinely turn to, recounting this uneasy present we’re in as edubloggers looking at what needs to be be done, what can be done, but how far we have to go to get there (is it the moment when we stand atop the cliff, mesmerized by the dazzling lagoon beneath us, afraid to dive?) I find the wild, irreverent inversions of Coover and the marvelous threading and blurring of time in Berger calming me down, showing me how ridiculous it was even to contemplate a separation.

In my struggle to piece together the fragments, conversations, discoveries and shifts in my classroom and blogging, I’ve for a moment forgotten the importance of story itself–and that is what these books are reminding me: to enjoy this process, the telling of the story of this wild moment and not worry so much about getting my head around the changes. I’ve got to keep in mind what Flannery O’Connor said: “If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.”

From the bookflap of Berger comes this description:

This is a unique literary journey in which a writer’s life and work are unseparable: a fiction but not a conventional novel, a narration in the author’s voice but not a memoir, a portrait that moves freely through time and space but never loses its foothold on the present, a confession that brings with it not regret but a rich deepening of sensual and emotional understanding.

And from the slipcover of A Child Again:

Casey returns to bat. The Pied Piper pipes again. Little Red Riding Hood is not safe yet.

Robert Coover, one of the true revolutionaries in American fiction, presents a new collection of short stories, revealing the cruelty of puppets, the perfection of a jigsaw puzzle, and the lonelinesss of the invisible man. Outlandish and precise, menacing and humane, this collection finds new life in our oldest tales.

These writers remind me to make connections, to make fun, to invert and make new–to draw upon the past intentionally as I move headlong into this future, and to learn from writers who have managed to keep language bristling and new as they tell the stories of our time. I am reminded of the playful language inventions of Patricia Eakins and the essays-and-novels of Carole Maso. These writers have much to teach me as I urge my students to work with and in this transparent, collaborative, connected Web medium to push language and our notion of what language is and how we write and how we create worlds with our readers/interacters. Ah, I’m not saying this well.

Back I go, then, to Roy Ascott’s brilliant Telematic Embrace, to an essay he wrote in 1966, in which he wrote:

This cybernetic process of retroaction generates a constant stream of raw and familiar relationships, associative links, and concepts…At this early stage of a radically new culture, the artist is doing little more than explore his new relationship to the spectator. He is searching for new ways of handling ideas, for more flexible and adaptive structures to contain them; he is attempting to generate new carrier-waves for the modulations of contemporary experience,; and he is searching the resources of technology to expand his repertoire of skills…The modern means of communication, of feedback and viable interplay–these are the content of art. The artist’s message is that the extension of creative behavior into everyday experience is possible….He will continue…to provide a matrix for ideas and feelings from which the participants in his work may construct for themselves new experiences and unfamiliar patterns of behavior.

So here I am, back to the blog, drawn here to puzzle out the unfolding story, how we’re trying on this language of connection, this new writing, remembering to look to the artists, those who write books and those who play within the Web, such as dispatx art collective (artists collaborating on theme-based projects in the transparent world of the Web, and now adding blogs for ongoing process reflection and viewer feedback), which is embarking on a new project, the description of which ends with this explanation:

The theme is underpinned by countless interconnected forms of communication, drawing on the rich history of human utterance and phonology: its consideration suggests a simultaneous reassessment of how we define language and semantics, and highlights an inherent philosophical discourse concerning how we can think about thought, or use language to explore language.

We’ll follow this project, commenting and participating with artists outside the classroom as we muck about with words, sounds and images inside the classroom–and with layered, conscious connectedness.

We’ll also follow the January writing adventure of fellow student, Remy, from his initial about-this-blogging post and a response he received through the coming month. Remy explains:

I will use this blog to explore travel writing by documenting my own travels and adventures, exploring the processes of getting at this style of writing. I want to rob myself of the image and force my writing to exist in the present, reflecting on the immediate instead of working to stir up memories of smell, temperature, color, etc. later. I wonder, ‘Will this writing evolve?’

The point of my blog, though, is not for you to solely follow me around and live vicariously through my experiences. I want this blog to become an open forum for anyone and everyone to communicate ideas, thoughts, photos, you name it I want to foster conversation, generate new ideas, build a community of thinkers. (Enough with the clichés, right?) But this is what I want to do. Read my stories and comment on my adventures, on my thoughts, and on issues that stir inside of you. If nothing more, I hope that you enjoy these stories and my photography.

And Jeff comments:

I like to think of Rem’s current travel-blog as piece that can be used to emphasize the anatomy of an experience, the time-lapsing of a curious mind and the trickle-down process of personal evolution. The medium of incremental and embedded journaling is a prime medium for teaching a reader about the telescoping of experience from a single moment to a time period at large and through its revision as it passes into hindsight. I think we readers are very lucky to get to dip our fingers in and taste whatever our fella is up to and also to stir the pot with our own updates and insight. So let’s enjoy the ride and give him some good material for his blog.

This is something I haven’t yet done much in my teaching with social software–look into the unfolding process of Web writers and artists beyond ourselves as a way to understand our own writing–both process and goals. We now have so much rich material to bring into our classrooms, to talk about, to play with, to extend. Artists feel overwhelmed, at a loss, at some point in the creative process. My student writers need to get used to the feeling of freefalling. Why shouldn’t we be feeling this way, too as teachers? Especially now? And so as I feel overwhelmed by the amount of information and applications bombarding me, and frustrated by my shortcomings and an educational system unshaken from its inertia, I will remember how I feel this way every time I try to write. Artists have always been at the edge, looking back over their shoulders, commenting, provoking and distilling as they leap into the unknown .

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