Sunday, March 31, 2013

Tasting Your Voice

Hamed Saber

"There is writing in my voice, and voice in my writing." -Overheard at an open-mike poetry event

Why even talk about writing or writers as having “voice”? I’ve been thinking of this in light of some of the readings my graduate students are preparing this week—articles such as Irvin Hashimoto’s “Voice as Juice: Some Reservations about Evangelical Composition” which disparage voice, at least as discussed by Peter Elbow and process-minded individuals.

To skeptics, voice-in-writing sounds like some sort of MFA program gimmick at best or else as a fool-hearty worship of the individual-as-artist. Others, like Hashimoto, see voice as a nebulous, anti-intellectual concept used by writing instructors for questionable purposes: “the term ‘voice’ may have become nothing more than a vague phrase conjured up by English teachers to impress and motivate the masses to write more, confess more, and be happy.”

But voice is more than “being original”—as in “she’s an original voice in contemporary American fiction.” Voice isn’t always so ego-laden. It doesn’t have to be about possessing some sort of uniqueness (like a fingerprint or DNA code) that becomes one’s good fortune in that it manages to make one attractive to readers.

In fact, there are quite a few noteworthy reasons to take voice-in-writing seriously. (I’ll talk about one here and others in a later post.)

Voice isn’t the claim receipt for originality. Instead, it comes down to tasting and hearing one’s own voice as one writes.

Being able to just notice one’s voice—no matter its quality—as one writes indicates that one is mindfully writing.

It’s as Walter Ong says in his marvelous book Orality and Literacy: if you see the water buffalo, that’s one thing, but if you hear the water buffalo, that’s entirely another thing. You’d better watch out! Sound means something is not static; to hear means presence and the possibility for engagement. Voice-in-writing is the activation of time.

There’s a sensory, real-time experience to writing, and hearing one’s writing (the inner vocalization as one forms words) is part of it. Voice is tied to the present moment of writing.

As you write, if you remain mindful, you hear your words echoing and refracting and then stabilizing in your own head—at a pace and in a condition that’s different probably from your normal speaking voice—but nevertheless recognizable as how you sound. You also feel the sensations of typing, of contact with plastic keys, of the movement of your finger bones, the hula-dancing of your wrists.

You might even be able to taste your voice—the after-image of the morning’s bitter coffee, the contact your tongue makes with the Stonehenge arrangement of different teeth, or how the tongue presses in calm moments at the back of certain teeth (you’re breathing through your nose)—like a shy child pressing into its parents legs.

When you write, if you can hear your voice, it means you are present. Voice-in-writing signals that something is happening in time and that you are sufficiently aware enough to witness it: moment to moment, word to word.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Thing Itself: Second Guest Post by Keith Hjortshoj


Keith Hjortshoj has sent along this follow-up post to his one earlier in the month.

Performance, in which the whole fate and terror rests, is another matter.

This sobering statement lands at the end of James Agee’s “Preamble” to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, following several pages of invective against publishers and readers who would fail to be moved, he predicted, by the realities of the fragile, damaged lives he tried to document. In this sentence Agee acknowledges, in the end, that the failure to live up to his intentions would also be his own, or that of language itself.

This fear afflicts all of us who write not just for ourselves but to and for others: that the products of our work will be unclear, misunderstood, misjudged, for reasons we can’t entirely control. And these doubts about the future of the product affect the process of writing, in the present.

In an earlier post I argued that while we are doing it, “writing” (as a verb) results from embodied movement and therefore from release into motion, not from control. When we include the dimension of audience, however, this first release is followed by another: the release of this “writing” (now as a noun and object) into the hands and minds of readers, where it begins a life of its own.

Most of our anxieties about this first release, in the process of writing, are really about the second: the quality and fate of the product when it moves beyond us. The desire to control its fate, or the fear that we can’t, makes release feel like a loss of control. Like helicopter parents, we are really trying to control in the present what will happen to this child in the future, when we “let go” and she has to face the world on her own. To those who care about their writing (or their children), we can’t argue that such fears are irrational. After all, as a young Marxist, Agee was most afraid that readers would view his book as “art” or “literature”; and that’s precisely what they did.

This is another reason for which the advice “Just write!” seems na├»ve or insufficient. For writers who have reason to worry about the fate of the product, it sounds like “Don’t care!” These things we produce do eventually represent us in various ways, with real consequences. Clearer advice, perhaps, is, “Don’t confuse the first release with the second, the process with the product.” The delay between them, in writing, buys you freedom and time, and concerns about the way the writing will strike the reader are the work of revision.

But there’s something else about this product and “performance” that unsettles us. Writing fixes language to the page, in a certain order, and when it’s released to the audience that order, now an object, becomes unalterable. If the act of writing is an embodied dance between language and thought, the dance then seems to be over. The product of this movement appears to be a static, skeletal rendition of the life that went into it: a frozen artifact of once fluid thoughts and intentions.

Perhaps this is why academic writers and their teachers, especially, become so obsessed with the formal, structural features of writing—with its organization, logical order, and “positions.” If writing (the noun) is an open window to the mind, as they tend to believe, they want to be properly dressed and posed for the occasion. Schematic outlines, notes, and other preparations for the performance might get their disheveled thoughts and words in order. And this is why academic writing is so often taught like anatomy rather than like dance, or music.

What we tend to forget, and therefore lose control over, is the way this language will continue to move, in the minds of readers, as a living thing. What continues to dance across that spatial and temporal divide, between the act of writing and the act of reading, is the sound of the human voice. When writers are tense, embroiled in structure, inattentive to their own voices, distrusting language itself, we can hear that too. That’s the uniquely human miracle of writing, so improbable that we can’t quite believe it ourselves. And it’s a dimension of writing that Peter Elbow examined closely in his essay “The Music of Form.”

Even James Agee, of all people, didn’t quite believe it. He wanted to make language record actualities, like a multisensory camera, and was afraid that he couldn’t. But what really comes across that divide, between his moving experience of Alabama and our eyes and ears moving across the pages of his book, decades later, is his own voice: his anger, empathy, and remorse, and his astonishing ability to ignite our own imaginations on behalf of others: “so that, wherever the weathers of the year have handled it, the wood of the whole of this house shines with the noble gentleness of cherished silver, much as where (yet differently), along the floors, in the pathings of millions of soft wavelike movements of naked feet, it can be still more melodiously charmed upon its knots, and is as wood long fondled in a tender sea:

Rolling and unfolding in the living rhythms of his voice, the resonance of one body in another, the beauty of Agee’s performance lies in the gorgeous failure of his intentions. Of course we read it as “art,” in the deepest and most human sense of the word, because that (like it or not) is what writing is. Defying time and space, as Eliot wrote, “My voice echoes/ Thus in your mind.”

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Another Day, Another Fail

Taped to the lid of my laptop in my study is a Post-It which says “Another Day, Another Fail.” I imagine that someone seeing this Post-It, someone who knows I am a writer, might find this overly pessimistic. Why point to failure? Shouldn’t you be warding it off?

Instead of pessimistic, “Another Day, Another Fail” feels joyous to me—a real celebration of the potential of any given moment. It’s an acknowledgement of groundlessness or the constant change of experience and that nothing is permanent—including  success or failure at writing. During a lunch break in my scholarly rewriting on the back porch last summer, I overheard a scientist on NPR talking about how for many, many days he would go to his lab, run the experiment, only to have it fail. “Another day, another fail,” he evenly stated. Of course, he kept going, and eventually, he did obtain interesting results, and something did develop, but it wasn’t guaranteed.
“Another Day, Another Fail” is an equalizer. It puts the same weight on “day” as it does on “fail.” Each moment arises fresh, anew. A moment passes: it contains failure. So what? Another moment arrives. It’s the avoidance of predetermined thought. I try to avoid predicting or evaluating the outcome of a writing session before it begins. If I don’t write a single word, so be it. If I write a ton, so be it.

In “Toward a Phenomenology of Freewriting,” Peter Elbow points to this need to let go of outcome: “In our culture, mastery and control are deeply built into our model of writing. From freewriting I learn how writing can, in contrast, involve passivity, an experience of nonstriving, unclenching, letting go, or opening myself up.”  

To work without expectation, that is the discipline of mindful writing. Or more precisely, to work without any expectation concerning outcome or product (and this is one alignment between mindfulness and process pedagogy). The one expectation is that one keeps trying—that one has a writing discipline. Along the same lines, Mike Rose, in his wonderful early article, “Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language,” describes how “unstuck” students were the ones who maintained fluid rules for writing—except for the rule that they would keep trying.

This mindset of openness to the experience prevents suffering in the Buddhist sense of clinging to what is pleasant (a good writing session, an acceptance notification, praise). For me, staying open to the moment is its own reward, is a source of energy, causes a good day for writing. To stay open to the moment is a form of acceptance that can be just as gratifying (well, almost…I admit it, I admit it) as an acceptance note from an editor.
What sort of invention strategy based on groundlessness and acceptance could you imagine for your own writing?  What would that writing session look like?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Guest Post by Keith Hjortshoj

Kevin Dooley

What are you actually doing? 

I am grateful that Keith Hjortshoj has given his thoughts to this blog. Keith's book,Overcoming Writing Blocks,has been seminal to my understanding of writing blocks and very insightful for my students. Dr. Hjortshoj is the John S. Knight Director of Writing in the Majors at Cornell University. He has published in Asian and Islamic studies in addition to Composition and Rhetoric.      

When I tell people that I teach writing as movement (or as “embodied movement”), I hope they won’t ask me what I mean, exactly. They rarely do. Perhaps that’s because the idea pleases them (they often smile when I say it) and rings true. We all want writing to feel more like dancing. Or perhaps the statement seems, in an oxymoronic way, vaguely obvious. When we write, after all, we are doing something, not just with our brains and our fingers but with our whole selves in space and time. And when people talk about this activity they use the language of movement. They say they got somewhere, that the project is moving along, or (if it isn’t) that they’re stuck, blocked, or running into trouble: not moving. They say that writing itself flows or is choppy, like moving water, or that it’s graceful or awkward. Writing can skitter across the page or plod along in dreary iambs, like a tired donkey. In fact it’s difficult to talk about real writing (as opposed to abstract plans for writing) without reference to motion.
If asked what I mean, I could just say that, honestly enough, and most people would be satisfied.

But I’m not, because the answers to the further questions they might have asked get very complicated, and I’m still in the process of figuring them out. What is moving, exactly? 

In some ways it’s the writer; in other ways it’s the writing, the language itself. And although these kinds of movement, of people and of texts, are related, they aren’t the same. Through coordinated movement of the embodied mind (self), sentences and passages move along the page and resonate, for readers, with qualities of a living voice now detached from the writer (who is doing something else). But we can’t reduce either of these dimensions of writing to the other. And when writers and their writing run into trouble, these distinctions become important. Saying “Just do it!” rarely solves the problem.

An example will help to explain why.

A graduate student who met with me every week, while working on his dissertation, typically arrived with less than a page of handwritten draft that set off in an interesting direction but ended abruptly. When I asked Carl why he stopped, he said that he got “stuck,” uncertain or confused, and really felt he needed to do further reading before he could continue. But then his ideas changed, he started a new page, stopped again, reverted to reading and thinking . . .

On one level, the problem seems fairly simple. Becoming fainthearted, Carl made the common academic blunder of confusing actually writing with reading and thinking about writing—two very, different but also embodied activities that felt safer. So I could have explained that confusion each week and said, again, “Don’t stop writing!”

But these explanations didn’t help, and one day I asked Carl to tell me exactly what happened at the moment he stopped, because I noticed that his handwriting gradually deteriorated and trailed off. He said, “The pen falls out of my hand.” As his doubts about what he was saying accumulated, he explained, his hand became increasingly cramped until he couldn’t hold the pen, and this physical inability to continue told him he had to stop writing and read, both to rest his hand and to collect his thoughts: to restore the physical and mental composure necessary for composing. Just keep writing? He couldn’t. (Carl wrote with pen, I should mention, because typing was even more paralyzing.)

Dualistic thinking will now tempt us to conclude that what we thought was a psychological (cognitive or emotional) problem was really a physical one, such as “carpal tunnel syndrome.” Time for the writing teacher to recommend physical therapy?
Not if the therapy is confined to a wrist brace or a set of exercises. Carl’s hand was connected to the rest of him, including his mind. When his fingers tightened on the pen, this effort to coordinate language and thought—to fabricate the kind of writing he felt unworthy to produce—gripped his entire being. As his hand began to cramp, the fluency of his thought and his writing deteriorated as well. Which was the cause and which was the effect? It’s impossible to say, and pointless to try, because these dimensions of the self are inseparable.

But this doesn’t mean the problem is hopeless. With awareness that writing (like everything else we do) is psychophysical movement, we can address the problem from either direction, through release. “When I’m falling,” Willem de Kooning said, “I’m doing alright. . .I’m really slipping, most of the time, into that glimpse. I’m like a slipping glimpser.” Like painting and walking, writing is falling into empty space, with trust in a mysteriously familiar ability realized in motion. Like walking, writing always results, in the moment, from release, not from control. Preparing to take a step, getting your limbs in the right position, thinking about the right way to take this risk, is not walking. Release your mind, release your limbs, and you move. It doesn’t matter which way you release first.

What about that risk, and the need for preparation? For the purpose of writing, there’s nothing wrong with preparation—with reading, or with thinking about what you want to say. But preparing to write is not writing and doesn’t necessarily lead to writing, any more than preparing to walk will get you anywhere. And in the moment, there is no risk in writing. This is why William Stafford called writing “one of the great, free human activities.” While you are writing, no one else is actually reading, or judging, what you say, so you are free to say anything. It really is like dancing, at home alone, with the curtains drawn, when you can release your body, release your mind, and move. When you release, mindful of this freedom, you can just dance. When you release (not before) you can “Just write!”

How does writing itself move, beyond us? That’s another complicated puzzle and topic, perhaps, or another post.