Sunday, November 11, 2012

An Experiment with Post-Its and Other Materials

[This post continues conversations about the material dimensions of writing from my October posts.]

Building the Pile:

An exercise I’ve done with students in my writer’s block course involves asking them to bring several different types of paper and writing implements to class.
These materials are heaped on a table.
The heap should include a real variety of paper—be sure to include“marred” paper such as crumbled sheets from the recycling bin--as well as cardboard, fancy paper, a rejection note, the backs of envelopes, newspaper, and, of course, Post-Its. Any type of paper will do. Likewise, the heap should contain a range of writing implements—Magic Markers, crayons, mechanical pencils, cheap pens, fountain pens, red pens, green pens, stubby carpenter pencils, pens you hate to use, pens you love to use.
(I once used this exercise with students who were Industrial Design and Architecture majors, and they contributed an interesting assortment of graph paper and precision drawing pens.)
It’s helpful to do this with other people because an element of chance is introduced. They bring in writing materials that you have to deal with: ones you don’t pick or predetermine.
Next, freewrite for at least 15-20 minutes, picking up new types of paper when one is filled and switching pens and pencils every few minutes.

What Can Happen:
Look out for the moment in which the physical conditions of writing (those variegated materials) make you start to see your writing. When I say "see," I mean literally seeing the writing as an object coming into existence a few inches from your eyes.
Then look out for the moment in which that seeing of your writing brings a certain calm, a certain grounded and whole feeling. It's the feeling of being mindful, of being clicked into place into the Present moment.
You become a watcher—an audience for your own production of words. (You are in essence mindful, watching the words arise and change.) Everything slows down. There’s a sense of calm, peace, even a state of grace when watching one’s writing.

Why This Works:
I have noticed that when I am writing and it’s going well, when I come up with ideas that interest me, I often switch materials (using, for instance, a different colored pen). My handwriting also often changes—big rounded letters that to me are like drawing more than writing become compact and tiny in a sort of sneak attack, an ambush toward a finished document.
Other people might change the appearance of their writing by suddenly using ALL CAPS when they've found an idea.

What's happening in either case is that a person's relation to their words has changed. Rather than treating the material conditions of writing as invisible, the person changes those conditions (typeface, color of pen) to be in-sync with their changed relationship to words. The physical realities of writing in the moment are called upon to express what's going on in that moment.

The FULL SENSORY EXPERIENCE OF WRITING is important (something that I'll discuss in a later post). We should hear and see our writing while it happens.

The point for now is that writing with sundry materials (heap of paper types and pens) basically simulates the experience of finding an idea and wanting the physical language to reflect the fact that we have found something good.
Writing with mixed materials also heightens our awareness of the present circumstances of writing. We can't help but notice more the act of writing in the moment as our pen pressure and color changes and as the paper type forces us to notice how its texture is different than the previous type.

As a result, our attention is drawn to the moment and away from monkey-mind thoughts about the future (such as about imaginary audiences). The effect is similar to drawing one's attention for the first time all day to one's breathing: suddenly, we are Here and Now, and so are our ideas.

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