Exercise: Eavesdropping

Last writing exercise of the quarter. In earlier carnations of this course I’ve given it early on and it’s never gone as well as I thought it maybe should. Was ready to give up on it as a pedagogical near miss.

This time though, with some tweaking, a different timing, and some reminders of what else we’ve talked about, something new has kept happening. I get to get glad all over again seeing what they’ve done. I’ll ask one last time for their okays to post some.


Go somewhere people talk. Listen in on their conversations. Try to spend at least an hour there, scavenging for interesting bits of speech or interaction. Do your best to write them down just as you hear them. Don’t use a tape recorder — mis-hearings are as interesting as hearings.

At home, look through the material you’ve gathered. Underline the bits that excite your interest or curiosity (listen to those antennae). Write them out on a new page. You might choose only a single phrase, or a single exchange, or bits and pieces from all through your notes, depending on the material, and what in it moves you.

Working with those seed materials, and making up as little or as much as you want, create a scene half a page long. It should have a beginning, middle, and end, but it doesn’t need to be a complete short story — you can, and probably should, imagine it as a scene in a longer story.

All scene. No exposition. Objective point of view. Most of the words should be spoken by a character. Keep dialogue tags (“she said,” “he said”) to a minimum. Avoid ponderous verbs (“declared,” “stated,” “hinted,” etc.) and adverbs (“wittily,” “angrily,” etc.).

A few reminders advisements provocations —

  • Remember the iceberg. Ninety percent of the story is not in the words but in what the words suggest or imply. Tune those antennae to subtext.
  • Dialogue gets interesting when characters talk at cross-purposes (e.g., answering a question with another question, changing topic, ignoring the other person’s change of topic.) Also interesting are unusual expressions that reveal a personality, and leaps or gaps that hint at unspoken emotion. (These are all ways of creating subtext.)
  • Every phrase should contribute something new to the scene (e.g., developing character, establishing conflict, moving plot forward).
  • As writers we try to avoid clichés. But people often talk in clichés. For this exercise, avoid the clichés you hear, and stick to the curious, the strange, the interesting.
  • If you’re having trouble getting your scene to resonate, try writing it twice as long — a full page — and then make cuts to create interesting dynamics or juxtapositions.

Finally. Go somewhere unusual people have unusual conversations. Try to make it a place you’ve never been before. Try to listen in on people who are unlike you and the people you hang around with.

Out of Sumer,

I tell my students to trust their boredom, it’s good guidance, better than any outside feedback or creative writing precept can be, when attended to rightly. So when I found I was, at a recent reading I was part of, bored by parts of what I read, I took note.

Revisited really quite excitedly the manuscript, Dumuzi, which I had thought done. Ended up abolishing all the prose poems, compressing the best bits into a preface, which then took on its own life. Herewith. Rated PG13 which for me is pretty risqué.


OUT OF SUMER,

Dumuzi, god of the new, the new green, to be drawn down broken. Flees gazelle to his sis and she reads his dream. Bro she says don’t tell me that dream. Okay so well fire gone out in yr hearth’s desolation of yr green fields she says. The rushes thick round you galla says. The tall firs in terror round you galla says. Run says.

Sent by Inanna the demon galla hover an inch over the earth bright drought angels pursuant. Justice an in-law turns Dumuzi snake and hands and feet the hands and feet of snakes he runs.

Galla working undercover offer sis a water gift a grain gift a corner office gas and groceries for life to give him up nope. They strip her rape her pour in orifices hot pitch nope. When has a sister ever given up a brother they giggle little to large.

A friend upgives Dumuzi and galla fat and thin harvest him. Scale the perimeter barricades and throw down and perforate that face with nails and smush with shepherd crooks that skull. Shit, you’re not even sleeping, nuff faking say. Get the sweet bloody fuck up they say. Hands bound and iron round his neck with aspect of a warrior caught pressed in clay and proud downed head and spade beard okay says show the way.

Some later find his body in a roadside ditch outside the city. A holy fly tells them where. Son my son mother says as mothers must in wars of sons the face is yours the spirit’s gone from. Deal is, fly gets to hear any quarrel any bar diner bedroom anywhere. Come spring, comes Dumuzi, arrogant, wist­ful. Your broad hand lover Inanna says is manna and your sweet little wee toe’s nectar. I stroll with him sings among the standing trees and stand with him sings among the fallen trees.

And their life is orchard. And he wants to want nothing but take joy in her joy. And he’s to be milled packaged traded shipped bought and sold soiled broiled roasted baked and eaten.

At the king’s lap stands the rising cedar.
Plants grow high by their side.
Grains grow high by their side.

When they tire of riding the holy hard-on Inanna gathers her me together for an excursion. The me are powers won from her drunken father Sweetwater back in the day. Dagger and sword and descent to the kur and measuring rod and line and dark bright dress and unbinding her hair and cocksucking assfucking lovemaking weeping and consolement terror dismay and passing judgement conferring power animal husbandry plundering cities and running away and ascent from the kur and spear arrow quiver bow knife AK47 RPG ICBM crows eating eyes on village greens town squares redbrick college plazas faceless high glass offices and lamentation purification bare attention compassion smack acid crank and scribe and stylus and cylinder seal ironwork carpentry leatherwork star of morning star of evening sacred mountain caduceus rosette a fistful of river and bull sheep scorpion apple tree kindling fire extinguishing fire gathering family dispersing seed voice of the whirlwind broken to voices and crown of the grasslands and a black seducing eye-paint and a friend taken too with her partway.

She takes a road no one turns on to the kur underearth where names go to die and her way crosses his every moment at right angles. What says is this as the guard strips her down. Shut it dirt bitch says our ways are perfect immaculate metamorphosis. Shorn of her me. Crown of the grasslands. Double strand of small beads. Wedding gold. Lapis measuring rod and line. Innermost robe.

Naked to throneroom where Queen Thing Mind kicks and slaps punches and cuts and hangs her dear sis up on a wall. Slab of rotting meat hung on a hook.

That sad friend calls 911 gets the dad-man on the line and not too sauced for once he flicks dirt from under his nails and beings of his fashioning, kurgarra (moth), galatur (bee), descend from on high to sprinkle pharmaceuticals on the corpse.

Inanna ascends behung with galla. Comes in turn on her faithful friend her grieving son her other grieving son. I shan’t give up who serviced me well says and with her galla walks on. In Uruk comes upon Dumuzi sitting under an old apple tree. Lost in a thought. Enthroned don’t bow. Anagram, enthorned. Take this one says. Whatevs he says and flees &c.

Ineluctably ariseth. Anagram, hastier, raiseth. I’m shaking why.

On disjunction (II)

Disjunction often comes of suddenness—may be suddenness itself, given body, a form found.


Had my students working Tuesday on deep description. Pick one from this clump of grape leaves and describe it with sufficient devotion that another here, given this whole lot of leaves, hearing your account of yours, could pick that one out, unerringly.

They did and did and all good. The followup: Tune your antennae to beginning now and pick one phrase in your description that resonates beginningness. Write it at the top of a new page. Now tune to ending and pick one phrase that sings endingness. It goes at the bottom of that same page. Now, moving quickly, the first thought then the next first thought, write the paragraph that gets you from top to bottom. One restriction—can’t be about a leaf.


If each thing touches every thing (Indra’s Net) then disjunction is just in fun. No disruption except of our sense of disconnection. Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Not everything but every thing. Means there’s all the space to move.

Blake - MHH plate 27


The way I put it in a poem that never found a public home.

The ease with each part touches each adjacent part.
Apples in a wood crate on a foldout cardtable.

Oh god he’s quoting himself make it stop.


Thought, as they worked away, too easy to sustain a through-line here, need to shake it up. OKAY I said STOP. On whatever word, or mid-word, stop. Draw a big dash. (Drew an em-dash on the board.) Put a period after it. (On the board.)


The way it came to me in mountains once when I was struck dumb by the perfect of each altogether and entirely open stone. You have all the space you’ve ever needed and have always had. You have all the closeness you’ve ever needed and have always had.

Snagged in a language of one who regathers himself after invasions and evasions as dimly as fiercely remembered. And, the insight didn’t keep me from being a somewhat total asshole to the woman I was there with and did stick with me through it, a year more, then she didn’t any longer, so.


A period after it and now pick up in a new place. Some other new subject, whatever, anything. Just don’t go on saying what you were. Day by day make it new. Day by day? Word by word.


To start, each word, anew. Meant to get to Tender Buttons. Sounds good, for another night than this, rain flying at my windows all.


POSTSCRIPT. After a dissipated start my afternoon class spent ten minutes talking about one line break and without repeating ourselves! The line:

Her

Teaching phil (expandated)

Go figure. Work on another teaching statement for another job app snagged my active engaged interest. Results here. Wary be, some loftiness ahead. And still enamoured of the pilcrow.


The more I write and teach the less I know. In my writing, most of a poem now is found in the moment at hand, in what senses, breath, and mind, each attuned to each, have to say. In that same spirit of unknowing, though, I am less prone than I was, as a young teacher, to think my process a template for my students. More and more they teach me how to teach them. I teach revision as re-vision, deep new seeing. Some students see newly by reworking one body of words: with each pass they come closer to what they meant, or might mean anew. For others, revision means turning the page; rework­ing one piece, they worry it to death. So I have students try it both ways and work with them as they come to a sense of their own practices. My workshops emphasize non-evaluative feedback. I find peer comments are more perceptive, and student authors more receptive to them, when praise and advice are set mostly aside. This ap­proach has a downside—the ego wants to be fed and may complain when it’s not—but I find most students come to prefer it before long. I emphasize the “writ­er’s antennae”—the capacity for close attention to the texture of your moment-to-moment experience of your own writing. I find faithful attention to those tingles of excitement, those pulses of boredom, guides composition and revision more reliably than any creative writing precept or external feedback. And I believe everyone has that capacity, though it’s often obscured by self-doubt or anxiety. A lot of teaching creative writing is showing how to wipe mud off a jewel. All the methods I use in the classroom—peer critique, small group work, class discussion, wacky writing prompts—are meant to foster that process of clarification. Many also ask students to work with differences of background and temperament they may have with their peers. For instance, I often put students in pairs to restore line breaks to a poem I’ve set as a para­graph. One is to make sure the line breaks are expressive, the other that the line itself has integrity. Each has to contact her felt sense of the poem’s language, and to feel through how new lineations will create new patterns of energy. And each has, as she articulates her perceptions, to accommodate the perhaps quite different values and priorities of her partner. In this way, the sort of difference a line break is, brushes against the sort of difference another person is. The values I’ve set out here, self-aware­ness, self-inquiry, empathy across differences, have meaning beyond the creative writing classroom. They are, to my mind, crucial to any humanistic education, and have something real to offer the business major, the nurse in training, the nascent physicist. And creative writing has ways of eliciting these values maybe not to be found elsewhere.  But far fewer of a given school’s students will take a creative writing workshop than take a general education course. So it’s important to me, in my general university courses, which at Western are capped at 60 or 75 students, to carry over all I can from my practice as a creative writing teacher. I rarely lecture for more than two or three minutes at a time. My mini-lectures are usually impromptu—offered as our conversation seems to warrant. I make a point of learning everyone’s names, and make getting a student’s name wrong a point of fun at my expense, to model that I’m learning, too. Really a pretty small expense. I use small group work so everyone can collaborate in their own education. And I give assignments that draw on both creative and analytical faculties—per­form­ance projects, formal debates, journal assignments that ask students to write a soliloquy in blank verse or a scene in the post-apocalyptic creole in which the novel we’re reading is narrated. My hope is that, through activities like these, students will draw their creative, intuitive, emotional, and analytic faculties closer together, and they will be more available to them in their other coursework, their careers, and their social and spiritual lives.

Teaching phil

(Spillover from a job app. Why am I putting it here? Someone might be curious? And, I was having fun with the pilcrow.)


Teaching Statement

The more I write and teach the less I know. In my writing, most of a poem now is found in the moment at hand, in what senses, breath, and mind, each attuned to each, have to say. In that same spirit of unknowing, though, I am less prone than I was, as a young teach­er, to think my process a template for my students. More and more they teach me how to teach them. I teach revision as re-vision, deep new seeing. Some students see newly by reworking one body of words: with each pass they come closer to what they meant, or might mean anew. For others, revision means turning the page; rework­ing one piece, they worry it to death. So I have students try it both ways, and work with them in conference as they come to a sense of their own practices. My workshops emphasize non-evaluative feedback. I find that peer comments are more perceptive, and student authors more receptive to them, when praise and advice are set mostly aside. This ap­proach has a downside—the ego wants to be fed and may complain when it’s not—but I find most students come to prefer it before long. I emphasize the “writ­er’s antennae”—the capacity for close attention to the texture of your moment-to-moment experience of your own writing. I find that faithful attention to those tingles of excitement, those pulses of boredom, guides composition and revision more reliably than any creative writing precept or external feedback. And I believe everyone has that capacity, though it’s often obscured by self-doubt or anxiety. A lot of teaching creative writing is showing how to wipe mud off a jewel. All the methods I use in the classroom—peer critique, small group work, class discussion, wacky writing prompts—are meant to foster that process of clarification. Many also ask students to negotiate differences of background and temperament they might have with their peers. For instance, I often put students in pairs to restore line breaks to a poem I’ve set as a prose para­graph. One is to make sure that the line breaks are expressive, the other that the line itself has integrity. Each has to contact her felt sense of the poem’s language, and to feel through how new lineations will create new patterns of energy. And each has, as she articulates her perceptions, to accommodate the perhaps quite different values and priorities of her partner. In this way, the sort of difference a line break is, brushes on the sort of difference another person is.


POSTSCRIPT. Reading about the pilcrow in Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. Good fun and some neat finds. But dreadful editing. Dangling modifiers so thick methinks I need a machete. Come on, Norton, you’re better than this.

The writer’s antennae

Early in the quarter I draw a stick figure on the board.

Slide1

And here, I say, are the writer’s most important tools.

Slide2

Your antennae are how you pay moment-to-moment attention to the texture of your own felt experience. The good news? Everyone in this room has antennae. (They’re not so sure it’s good news.)

Everyone has them. But a lot of student writers don’t know they have them. Or they know but they don’t trust them. Or they would trust them but they have trouble hearing the signals.

And so one theme of the weeks to come is,

Slide3

it’s good guidance. Excitement, curiosity, expansion. Another,

Slide4

it’s just as intelligent as your pleasure is. Dismay, contraction, anger. You might not think so but it’s as great a gift.

And then I put them to work, noticing spots, in something they wrote for that day, where they feel noticeably excited or bored. Because that’s how the signals register. Not as good ideas but as immediate spontaneous intuitive perceptions.


POSTSCRIPT. Notes drawn from a presentation last spring for a panel called “Poems of Ours We Hate.” Hope, when I have time, to post the whole powerpoint thang, with animations! voice-over! For now just its title — “Dismay. Erasure. Monsterface.”