Writing Exercise: Erasure, Interference, Noise, Distraction

Last exercise for my advanced creative non-fiction workshop. We’ve been reading Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary – riddled with redaction marks a government that couldn’t find him guilty of a damn thing, yet could not for 14 years see him to be innocent, saw fit to strike his voice through w/.

An ex on the eloquence of silence; on wrenching eloquence out of silencing.


First, to remind you of the assignment for your fourth and final essay, it’s

a text that incorporates erasure, interference, noise, or distraction. You can put a text of your own (it must be written for this course) under erasure like this or like this: ████. You can take another’s text and put it under erasure to elicit new meanings from it. You can do an audio essay and overlay a second track that makes your voice difficult or impossible to hear at key junctures. You can compose a hypertext that instead of offering a linear reading becomes a garden of forking paths. The possibilities are myriad. Crucial though is that your essay draw erasure, distortion, noise, or distraction into its formal body. In this way it becomes a study of how we make meaning at all.

For this exercise, make a first experiment towards that essay. No more than one page – if it’s on paper at all. I can’t imagine all the possibilities for you here. I can only say, I’m looking for language, written or spoken, that gets interfered with somehow, visually or aurally, in a way that sheds light on how we go about making meaning. (The redaction marks in Slahi’s book, included the way they are, do that, yes? How does Slahi insist on what he means, his humanity, when he’s shut up – imprisoned, silenced? He cracks jokes. He answers absurdity with absurdity. He writes, and gets his writing out there, replete with the redaction bars that speak his silencing.)

Learn too from examples posted – Johnson, Phillips, Bervin, Foer, Strickland, Wave Books. Ask yourself too, what’s missing from these examples that I wish were here? What could you add to this assemblage of interferences?

You could go entirely paperly, erase and/or illuminate a text, your own or another’s. If you erase someone else’s text, be sure to credit the source, and sure your work upon it’s transformative. You need not confine yourself to negation; consider illumination, á là Phillips; hands-on cutting or tearing, á là Foer; other ways of turning gap and omission into a sort of presence.

You need not pin yourself to paper either. I’m open to audio essays, hypertext essays, multimedia enterprises. Interference, noise, distraction can take the form – as we said today – of static, crowd noise, a robotic voice intoning “redacted,” many many things. (The MTA’s “mind the gap” comes to mind.) Our roundtables next week will be a chance to think through options.

I’d like to take these in Thursday, but if you are working off the page, and would like till next Tuesday to make that happen, I can give you till then.


I’m curious what they’ll come up with. It’s been a curious class, invented one week, enacted the next. Improvisatory. Creating a world one step ahead of what you see. I don’t mean I am, we are.

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Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

Can’t tell you how moved I am by this book. Opens my head and heart and spirit and helps me to love the great bawling mess of meat and lust and loss and peace all at once I am. I hope it speaks to my students also. Assigned it because they are, as a body, far more engaged with and alert to questions of gender, identity, fluidity, than I, and I wanted a book that would meet and maybe challenge us all there.

We’ll see how it goes next week. I’m guessing it will. Here are the assignments I put together for my creative nonfiction students this morning.

Journal no. 1

On page 5 Nelson makes the first reference to her book’s title. “Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use.” So we have an image of a voyaging entity that changes in all its parts and yet persists under a single name. And Nelson has named her book, not for the boat, but for those who voyage on it. What is she saying (proposing, hazarding, trying out) about love here? Is the image of the Argo, the Argonaut, applicable to anything else in or about the book?

Journal no. 2

The content of The Argonauts affirms fluidity over binaries and rigid categories – continuities. Gender is fluid. Eros itself is fluid, bonding lover to lover, parent to child, human to animal. Meanwhile the form of the book is full of discontinuities. Every time we move from one collage element to another, we leap across a gap. (Often even within a collage element, there are gaps to be leapt.) What do you make of this difference between the book’s content and its form? How might it serve Nelson’s purposes?

Writing no. 1

Begin a collage essay by writing two discrete (they need not be discreet) collage elements. Each can be about whatever you like, but they should be substantively different from each other, in content, technique, tone, theme, and/or diction. The differences between them should be alive – you, we, should feel a pulse of curiosity or excitement or WTF as we move from the one to the other. If you don’t feel that excitement, start over, because you’re not going to want to keep working with this material.  ¶ Other pointers. Remember the distinction between scene and exposition. When you’re doing scene, use your arsenal of fiction-writing techniques; rely on concrete significant details; embody your meanings in acts and events. When you’re doing exposition, avoid banal generalities, make your thinking interesting, fresh, alive, your own. Feel free to tear a page from Nelson and incorporate found materials – Deleuze, Irigaray, Plato, Lady Gaga.

States of America, Plural

Course description. In late cuz I be worked hard and in grief and perplexed.


Creative Writing Seminar: Creative Non-Fiction: “States of America, Plural”

Works of creative nonfiction are inherently plural. Multiple storylines, many angles of approach. At times we resist this plurality, want to make an essay singular, unified, find a single speaker, one tone, give it nice neat arc, a clear theme. The premise of this class is, what a shame it’d be if we could. We’ll be interested here in nonfiction that embraces plurality and builds it into its formal body. Multiple viewpoints. Braided storylines. Image and text juxtaposed uncomfortably. Unwanted erasure defiantly embraced. Oh, and meanwhile, back at the ranch, America too is inherently plural, as recent social and political upheavals have brought to light. America’s got the same questions going on – are we one by being narrowly one, or one by being broadly many? E pluribus unum, yo? So while we’ll focus, as we should, on students’ own creative explorations, they’ll be informed by texts that argue, in plural ways, that plurality is our power. Namely, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me; Claudia Rankine, Citizen; Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts; Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantánamo Diary. Evaluation will be based on a writing journal, regular creative exercises, co-teaching of part of one of the assigned texts, a final portfolio of mindfully and heartfully revised work, and active energetic participation in all aspects of our work together.


What would it be to manifest diversity without recourse to the word diversity? Am I just a Trumpy grump here? I don’t think so. Quick analogy, I only believe patriots who wave or wear no flag. NO – the patriot I most believed ever was the one waving the US flag upside down. Oh, he loved his country truly, and I honked my horn. I wave diversity likewise. It’s become a cloying sameness.