I’m taking a drawing class, and the teacher, in his introduction, talked about how children draw. He said that even if a child is looking at a shoe, what she will draw is her iconic idea of “shoe,” not the shoe sitting in front of her. We adults will be no different unless we work at it. He wanted to teach us how to see before he taught us how to draw: “Understanding drawing is like understanding your visual system.” Placing some shoes on the table, he asked us each to draw one. The results all looked like shoes, but none really looked like the shoes in front of us.
Our teacher is David Rosenthal, an Alaskan artist who grew up in Maine. He tried to go to art school in the 1970s, but he only lasted 2 semesters. His teachers said, “We don’t teach you to draw, we teach you to be creative.” But he wanted to learn technique. Finally, he taught himself, and now he’s a well-known landscape painter. His work hangs in galleries, homes and museums including the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.
Next, David held up a pencil, saying something like, "Hold your pencil straight up and down on your paper and look at me. Now, when I move my pencil down, you move your pencil down. When I move my pencil to the right, you move your pencil to the right. Keep your eyes fixed on the pencil in my hand. Don’t look at your paper.” We watched intently, making random lines. We followed automatically, entranced. “You’re learning to see.”
A funny thing happened while we were drawing. The room got quiet; we were focused in a calm, meditative sort of way. I expected 15 minutes of drawing a paper bag to be interminable. But when David said “time’s up,” my thought was, “I haven’t even begun to see this bag.”
Finally, David asked us to really look at a shoe to see all of its lines and parts. We were to use the level of focus and concentration we developed in the blind contour exercise to draw what is actually there. Don’t sketch, don’t be “artistic.” Basically, we had to tell the truth, as well as we could, with our drawing. That was a bit of a revelation. I’ve drawn, or maybe just doodled, since I was a kid, but I don’t think I’ve ever tried to really see what I was drawing and represent it as well as my human hand can. Here’s the kicker: it was hard. Drawing accurately takes intense concentration and constant revision. It meant that I had to stop myself from putting a shoelace down lower because it was easier, or have a simpler insignia because it maybe looked better. It turned out that the most important part of drawing that shoe was getting the foundation, the proportions, right. If the outline was accurate, all the correct little pieces had places to go.
Drawing the simple shoe, despite my increased focus, I began to think about my writing. Am I scrutinizing my work as carefully as I am this shoe? Am I really seeing or listening to what I’m writing about to make sure I’ve captured, as well as a human can, the truth of what I see? David Rosenthal acknowledges that art is interpretation, saying, “When you see one of my paintings, you’re seeing the way people see [a landscape], not the way a camera sees it.” He won’t give up until his landscapes represent what he sees as closely as possible. That seems to be an important distinction—in writing and in drawing—we’re capturing the truth of what we see. This can’t be an empirical truth, since it’s subject to our interpretation. It’s part of the job, and part of the fun to arrive at a drawing or an essay that comes as close as possible to showing what our minds see.
I think about how hard it is to see things sometimes. When I was a kid, my Great Aunt Nancy, who had a great eye for detail in the natural world, could be walking along anywhere and spot a four-leaf clover. I never figured out how she did it. In her essay “Seeing,” Annie Dillard describes the folks who have an eye for particular minutiae as “experts” or “lovers.” As opposed to a herpologist who can spot a rare snake, Dillard says “I see what I expect.” She says, “I used to be able to see flying insects in the air,” alluding to the fact that children have a keener eye for small detail than adults. I think that seeing takes practice. When I go out mushroom hunting each season, on the first day, I find practically nothing. My eyes haven’t adjusted to seeing what I’m looking for. Then, I may spot one or two of the bright red Dermocybe mushroom I use for dying yarn. The next day, they will be everywhere. It takes practice. My eyes and my mind will have gained the narrow focus to find see what I want to see.
In nonfiction, of course, we write through our human lens, but we need to make sure we’re writing what we see and hear, not our preconceived notions of an event. In order to practice seeing in my writing, I’ve decided to extrapolate “blind contours” to a written exercise. I regularly take 10 minutes and describe, without looking at my paper, something that’s happening around me. I write words and phrases, not worrying if I have complete sentences. The result is scribbles, not for public consumption. I begin methodically, the same way we do in the blind contour exercise. I start at one corner of a room I’m describing and work my way across, then slowly up and down in rows making sure I don’t skip anything. I take the time to describe minutiae like the crinkle of a plastic bag on a table, or the way the light reflects off of a silver CD lying askew. I notice two things: one is that yes, as in the drawing exercise, I find my focus increased and my ability to “see” what’s there gets better as I practice the exercise.
Secondly, I notice that I have to work hard to stick to just “blindly” describing what I see. My mind moves to explain the familiar objects I see, and to interpret those that are unfamiliar for my unknown reader. Robert Root, in “The Art of Seeing,” a chapter of his book The Nonfictionist’s Guide, says that the meaning of what we see “changes with the eye of the beholder, particularly when the beholder sees with the eye of the participant or the eye of the spectator. The art of seeing depends upon perception, observation, close attention, but also upon the identity of the viewer.”
The more I practice my written “blind contours,” the more I feel I can see the tiny details in a scene or an object. The thinking involved in this exercise awakens my mind to all the contours, the subtle lines and the details of my subject.
NOTE: This piece was originally published in "Flashquake."
Neither Rudolph nor jambalaya
I have to admit that when I first started teaching in the low-residency MFA in writing at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, I experienced massive culture shock. It wasn’t just the reindeer jambalaya in the dining hall. I’d spent my childhood and half my adult life in apartments in New York City. More recently I’d lived in San Francisco. I was used to high-rises, museums with troves of world art, and Zagat-rated evenings.
When I first started teaching in Alaska, I struck up a conversation in the dining hall with a nonfiction student. I asked her where she lived.
“On an island off the coast of Alaska,” she described. “It’s about the size of Manhattan.”
“And how many people live there?”
That flummoxed me. How could I relate to a state where there are more mountains than skyscrapers, more rivers than restaurants?
I think it was the field trips that started to win me over. We traveled as a group to a stream in a huge park within Anchorage, and I got to see salmon spawning, their final act before they expired. I witnessed the underwater dance of a female after she had let loose her roe, coaxing a male to cover the eggs with a mist of milt.
Another time we hiked in the Chugach National Forest on a glacier that was a blue I’d never seen before, so spectral it glowed. I got to hike alongside faculty member Nancy Lord, then the Alaska writer laureate, who explained that the brilliant magenta flowers springing up along rushing run-off were called fireweed because they were the first to reappear after a forest fire.
But even more than the landscapes of far-greater-than-IMAX proportion and beauty, I got to like the Alaskans themselves. I’ve come to admire their heartiness and positive outlook. In San Francisco, we start oozing self-pity as soon as the temperature sinks below 50 degrees. You rarely hear an Alaskan complain about one of the longest and darkest winters on earth.
In the small towns of Alaska, playing an instrument, telling a good story or joke, writing and reading work aloud, are all survival skills that are more valued and cultivated than in many urban or suburban circles. The students in Alaska also have life experience to burn.
Northern Renaissance Reading audience
Many people in Alaska also appreciate literature. When Program Director David Stevenson announced at the first summer residency that we were going to have a public reading every single night, I thought it was going to be a marketing disaster. If you did that in New York or San Francisco, the audience would quickly dwindle to nil. But in Anchorage, a good audience turned out every night, partly because many Alaskans, who spend long winters indoors, really treasure good books and readers.
Much to my surprise, I’ve come to love Alaska. I look forward all year to the twelve-day residency that the students, faculty, and staff spend together in Anchorage, with its camaraderie, intense discussions of literature, memorable readings, and late-night outings to the Blue Fox bar. This program is that rarest of creatures, a true literary community. And I’ve even come to welcome those meals when the menu features reindeer jambalaya.
A number of years ago when I briefly considered pursuing a Phd after completing the MFA, I presented a paper called “A Canon of One’s Own” about the way we pick and choose books that add up to our personal reading lists. I was takin a break from writing workshops and enjoying a semester of contemporary lit when the professor handed out a call for papers he’d received in the mail (remember mail? This was maybe 1992). The conference at St. Louis University was called “Firing the Canon.”
As you would expect from that title--especially if you’ve read the Curtis White 1996 essay “Writing the Life Postmodern” David sent us--the general attitude was revolutionary and deconstructive. It was great fun listening to speaker after speaker advocate for various alternatives to the traditional, Tweed Era (as White calls it) linear realism dominating most of the 20th Century. I particularly enjoyed a Robert Coover devotee declaring that hypertext would be the common widespread form of creative writing in a matter of years. (Coover’s pet project may not appear to have changed the publishing industry if you look only in bookstores. But the fact that I bent this essay to respond in part to comments by Lisa et al, is actually an example of the interactive author/reader platform that hypertext predicted.)
Aside from the great keynote speaker, Gerald Graff, what I remember most about going there to present my paper was the fact that I was the only writing student, the only MFA seeker in all the cocktails and crudites receptions filled with doctoral candidates. The only person there intending to write something resembling literature, not to become adept at dismantling it. As White points out, there was (maybe still is) a distinct view that artists and theorists are not intended to mingle, especially inside the head of a writer. I can’t complain. Even the scary feminist critics were nice to me; it was like being a harmless, not-too-bright cousin at a family reunion of geniuses. Still, it was a little unnerving to imagine them sinking their incisors into something I might write one day.
Reading the Curtis White essay took me back to the early nineties when I was taking literary criticism classes over the vehement objections of my writing mentor, who drew a line in the sand between artists and theorists in creative writing. “Criticism will kill your work,” my mentor argued. Basically he said theory doesn’t produce anything but more theory, not art. That was true: it was tough enough having my own incompetent internal critic second guessing me; having everyone from Aristotle to Leslie Fiedler weighing in was murder on productivity. But that was only half of it. What he should have said was, “You’re just not smart enough to do both.”
I eventually discovered that for myself, the slow way--several History of Lit Crit, Modern Lit Crit, and Aesthetics classes later.
You might note when you read White’s essay that even the most well known, more or less mainstream writers he names who are capable of handling both the philosophy of fiction and the writing of it as well are monster talents. Barth, Gass, DFW are the only ones I’ve read (except for bits of Kathy Acker’s wonderfully raunchy erotica). Those are tough acts to follow, and finding yourself constantly falling a little short of those guys can be as disheartening as the day you look in the mirror and admit you are never going to be Franz Kafka.
So when you finally realize you that Derrida is having a little fun at times but mostly you can’t understand him, and that Barth can be very entertaining when he’s not boring, and that In The Heart of the Heart of the Country was correctly declared “an almost perfect novella” by John Gardner but you are never going to write anything like that (and maybe nobody else is either) it comes down to one of two choices: You either “capitulate to the flow of signs” as White quotes Baudrillard saying, and get ecstatic about it when you are able, OR you go back to your writing stripped of all the pretensions--that is if you don’t just quit. A couple years of lit crit can do that to you. It’s like working in a four star restaurant and then going home and trying to cook to those standards. I’m not a bad cook. But the typical weekday dinner slammed together in a half hour last night was a sausage and calamari in fresh tomato sauce dish I made up some years ago; it remains a favorite with both me and my wife, but nobody is going to mistake it for haute cuisine.
I’m never going to cook like Thomas Keller. And I’m never going to be a monster intellect like Gass and Barth and David Foster Wallace and Curtis White. But I have to eat, and I find cooking meals far more rewarding than eating somebody else’s food. Same with stories. I like them, always will. And I still like to write them--even if I understand that they are simple, home-cooked, more or less realistic, linear narratives and fail to comment on themselves or on art in general in a sufficiently postmodern way.
We are fifteen years beyond the date of Curtis White’s essay. How much has writing changed in that time? How noticeably postmodern has it become? Well, I started this blog wondering out loud how open-minded our writing program can become before the diversity of individual reading materials creates a kind of paralyzing entropy. I loved White’s metaphor of all of us driving fast cars on superhighways only to find out there is “nowhere to go that isn’t the same place.” Maybe the postmodern fact of life is that the question is no longer whether we are going to study vampire/werewolf detective romance novels or not. The question is which ones, and who is going to pick them.
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