On Following Strangers and Shimmering Pictures

Upon reading Didion, Orwell and Sullivan’s explanations of why and how they each write, I was especially moved by Joan Didion’s “Why I Write.”

At first, I wasn’t sure how much I was going to have in common with Didion’s viewpoint.  I was a bit put off by Didion’s claim that writing is an “aggressive, even hostile, act.”  I have trouble qualifying writing in general as aggressive or hostile.  Yet when Didion explained that writers often attempt to subdue the hostile act with frequent use of qualifiers or evasions, I thought of my own work.   How often have I rearranged sentences, tried out a dozen different words or deleted a particularly brazen statement to tone down a piece of writing I think may seem too abrasive or harsh for a particular medium?  As Didion explained, writing is an intrusion into a reader’s world.  By putting our disagreement with a popular opinion or a memory we found particularly moving into black and white print, we’re asserting that our ideas and words are worth recording and reading.  To thrust those ideas into the world of complete strangers, whether through a blog or newspaper, certainly takes gumption and a big of aggression, even if not always hostility.

As I continued to read Didion’s thoughts, I was particularly touched by one idea.  In fact, this concept has been engrained in my mind since reading her essay.

As Didion explains, her stories are inspired by shimmering pictures that infiltrate her mind, flourishing in her imagination and growing into characters and plot lines.  Each picture carries a unique story and potential and the job of a writer is to be a steward of those pictures.  According to Didion, “The picture dictates the arrangement.  It tells you.  You don’t tell it.”  So although writing requires a level of confidence and aggression, it also requires a level of humility.  The writer must not get in the way of the stories these shimmering pictures have to tell.

Didion’s method made me think of stories inspired by actual paintings, like Girl With a Pearl Earring, a novel by Tracy Chevalier based on the painting by Johannes Vermeer. Something about that painting shimmered for Chevalier and brought an entire novel to life.  As Didion explained, sometimes the images can be something the writer witnesses, something I recently discovered for myself.

Johannes Vermeer’s painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring, the inspiration behind Chevalier’s book.   The painting is now on display in New York’s Frick Collection.   Image from: npr.org
Johannes Vermeer’s painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring, the inspiration behind Chevalier’s book.
The painting is now on display in New York’s Frick Collection. Image from: npr.org

In an acting class I’m in this semester, we were recently given an unconventional assignment that I soon realized was, as Didion would say, finding shimmering images and thinking about them for a while.  Our professor asked each of us to follow a stranger whom we found interesting.  We were to observe every detail about this person, from where he held tension in his body as he walked to where his eye focus was.  Then, we had to create the details his life from his occupation to where he was headed.

When I began searching for my subject, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, I found myself drawn to an African American man of about 58 years who walked with an unhurried pace, quiet swagger and tired kindness.  As I followed him from a discreet distance, observing the way he warmly waved at several people, kept his right hand in his pocket and let his left arm swing easily while looking side to side, I let his image shimmer and began to imagine who he might be.  I imagined that he had one daughter who lived far away in Boston with two children, his greatest source of joy.  I decided the quiet sadness etched into his face was from the death of his wife a few years ago and the fact that he couldn’t bring himself to move out of their home, even though it had more space than he needed.  I pictured him reading the newspaper and drinking decaf coffee and decided he had been teaching for 23 years at University of Michigan.  Yet, I couldn’t decide what subject he taught.  Nothing from Economics to Philosophy seemed quite right.  It wasn’t until I continued to write about him and flesh out the details of his character that I could finally decide he taught Psychology.  As Didion so astutely says, sometimes we write because we need to discover answers to our questions.

Putting this on paper, I find myself eating my words.  After all, what is more aggressive and, yes, hostile than following a complete stranger, inventing his life and putting it on paper?  Not a whole lot.  Yet, that’s exciting.  As Didion says, “You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer.”  After all, these pictures are what breathe life and inspiration into honest and brave writing.  That’s the kind of writing I want to create.  Thanks to Didion, I have a sudden yearning to seek out and treasure these shimmering images and follow them with words wherever they may go.

The Cape

When we were asked to choose a topic that we were passionate about, one place came to mind, Cape Cod. It is my favorite place in the world and if you are wondering why, you can explore my ePortfolio.

My ePortfolio is not about “why I LOVE Cape Cod.” However, I found that when your passionate about something, it shines through your writing. I did not have intentions of gett as personal as I did with the Gateway project of re-purposing and re-mediating. There were even times when I avoided getting personal, and would sacrifice the quality of my writing to maintain privacy. In the past I have been able to get away with this, not fully exposing myself through my writing. But the writing process, that was so strongly emphasized in this class, did not allow me to keep up the walls. It was like each piece came after me with a different weapon: my original piece with paper, re-purposing: scissors, re-mediation: rocks, and then the two “re” pieces came at me all at once with giant boulders, demolishing every wall.

The gateway course has helped me discover who I am as a writer. And even though I am still at an early stage in this discovery process, the most improvement I have made yet was influenced by this class. (See, everything in life is a process!). I am excited to approach writing with new techniques. My strongest newly learned technique is sharing who I am through my writing.

Learning About Simple Things in a Complex Way

Right now, I don’t want to learn about simple things in a complex way, and most people don’t, as the reading, “The Big Picture” decided. I  think that there is merit in hiding simple ideas in complex thought, however, I also think I am lazy and have to do other things like think about complex ideas in an oversimplified way (Physiology 201).

Do you think that there is value in obstructing simple concepts? I think so. Take “Street Haunting” by Virginia Woolf. Her prose is complex, marbled with description and difficult language, and the events are so strange that the reader is not really sure if and when they are happening. In analyzing the beautiful prose and the construction of the story, a reader can find simple concepts. Cheezy as it is, someone could effectively argue, “it’s about the journey” or “experiences are better than material possessions,” etc. But if Virginia Woolf just wrote those things on a poster and attached a sunrise or other picture that always seems to be on inspirational posters, her work would no longer be beautiful (in my opinion). The beauty of her work, I think, is the covering up of simple concepts with beautiful language and a story, and making the concepts available to the reader only if they wish to see them.

I admire and enjoy simple concepts explained well in complicated ways, but I don’t want to have to see any of that sort of writing right now.


Assessment: Material vs. Value


After reading Yancey’s article, I decided to “assess” my homework progress for today. I think I’m doing fairly well considering I woke up at 1 in the afternoon. I had a quick breakfast, recapped the weekend with my roomies, packed my backpack, put on my new flats, and headed to my favorite study spot–Starbucks.

I decided to read the Yancey article before even turning on my computer. You’d be surprised how long it would have normally taken me to read a 5 page essay like this had I been tempted by Facebook and all the Halloweekend pics. And now here I am writing this post, essentially assessing Yancey’s writing.

I like how she opened her article by mentioning the “Mom Overboard” articles in the New Yorker. It frames her argument about self-assessment and the unfamiliarity of the process. “We are, she suggests, assessed in a material way.” I agree completely with this. We try hard in school so we can get good grades on our report cards, we strive for all A’s so we can be valedictorians, we want top-notch GPAs so we can get into prestigious universities. And once we are accepted into these prestigious universities, we pull all-nighters and study obsessively so we can get good jobs, make a lot of money, and have successful lives.

We are constantly assessing ourselves–through numbers and grades–everything quantitative. I see it as simply “checking off” the boxes in life, but where is the value in this? We are conditioned to think in terms of grades and, because of this, we fail to notice the meaning of our work.  As Yancey mentions, we need a way of determining if things are going well. Our own self-assessments and introspection may serve a larger role in the measure of our success than the letters scribbled on top of our papers.

One thing I hate about the current standard of grading (the material-based assessment) is the clear-cut letter/number grades but lack of reasoning behind the assessment. This type of grading is very subjective and varies depending on who’s grading your work. I recently got 99/100 on a take-home assignment. I should be happy with this high grade, but instead I am left wanting answers–why did I get one point deducted? Where did I go wrong? What’s the big difference between a 99/100 and a 100/100? Couldn’t the GSI just have given me the perfect grade? I’ll never know…

But if value-based assessment would have taken place in the situation above, I would probably have my questions answered. The self-reflective comments would give my GSI a look into my thought process and help facilitate a conversation between me and the GSI. This would help me see where I went wrong and how to improve my writing in the future. I agree with Yancey that this dialogue is essential to the writing process.

What is Writing?

Source: My Photo, Edited via Picnik

Writing as Death.

“One of the most startling paradoxes inherent in writing is its close association with death.” Excuse me, what? Well I completely disagree with this statement (as is clear in my “Why I Write” essay).  I have never once associated writing with death. If anything, writing is like birth: a chance to reinvent yourself to the world. I do see how writing is able to be resurrected by readers, but why does it have to die in the first place?

Writing as a Technology.

I never really saw writing as a technology, but that’s probably because there are so many other technological things that are more obvious in the sense that we grew up in an era of digital revolutions. When I think technology, I think computers, ipods, cell phones, tvs–but I do not think writing. As I think more about it, I guess some form of writing had to go into each of these technologies.

Writing as Pictures, Pictures as Writing.

It’s interesting how something as complex as writing began as simple scratchings on a stone. I still think writing and pictures go hand-in-hand. Just think back to the books you read when you first learned how to read. Chances are, they were full of  mostly pictures accompanied by a few words.

Writing as Magic.

I think writing has some magical components, but I don’t associate it with magic in the oracle sense mentioned in the reading. That is taking things too far…And who are these “Glamor Grammar” girls? All I thought of when I read this part was the Glamour (as in fashion) girls!

Writing through Scribes.

When I read this part, I instantly thought of my sister who currently works as a medical scribe. I never knew this concept of having someone else record your thoughts and words for you dated so far back.

Writing as Solitude, Writing as Social.

I agree with Ong that writing is a solitary task. When I write it’s essentially just me, my paper, and the thoughts in my head. But writing is just as social as it is solitaire. I immediately think of the writing workshops we do and how much of a conversation takes place between the reader, writer, and text. There is nothing alone about sharing your writing with the world.

 Writing with a Voice.

When you write, you have to consider how you would say the written words out loud. What tone do you want? What message do you want to get across to your readers? These are the types of questions worth asking.  Although writing may seem passive and silent; simply words on a page, writing is just as alive and active as the spoken word.

Writing as Rhetoric.

Personally, I don’t enjoy the word rhetoric. I hadn’t even really heard it used until this year. I think the word rhetoric complicates an otherwise simple concept of “how to write effectively.” If you want people to write effectively, you should communicate to them in a language they understand.

Writers Read and Readers Write

As I read Brandt’s piece, I began to think about my education as a child. Did my teachers teach me to read or write? In Elememtary school, both reading and writing were emphasized equally. But as soon as the basic skill of reading was mastered (“The boy kicked the ball. Then he ran home.”) the focus shifted to how to become a better writer. All throughout junior high and high school my teachers helped me improve as a writer, but being a good reader was basically expected. I’m thinking this may have something to do with why I despise academic reading, but am pretty good at explaining myself in words.

Brandt provides examples of on-the-job training associated with writing. I think it’s common to emphasize what one can produce (through writing) and forget about what one can take in (through reading). But if these two forms of communication go hand-in-hand, shouldn’t we put just as much time and effort into raising effective readers?

“Creative writing is especially popular among the group doing the least amount of reading, the young.” I suppose I fit in to this description. I have always enjoyed writing creatively much more than reading.

“If reading makes us more informed, independent, innovative, productive and free, what does writing do–accept apparently make us less inclined to read?” At first this sentence made me mad. Writing does so much more than make us less inclined to read. I think writing is more innovative, productive and free than reading. When I read, I feel confined. But when I write, I feel free to express my inner thoughts.

Brandt redeems herself by including the positive feelings of workday writers: “…and the pleasures they derive from what can only be called authorship, including the satisfaction of feeling their words enter and at times alter the environments that surround them.” I can relate to this feeling of satisfaction and pleasure that occurs when I write. I love the quote Brandt includes from a freelance writer. It embodies how I hope to feel as a freelance writer in the future.

I think Brandt did a good job of explaining the relationship between reading and writing and how our world is changing in terms of both.

Spilling Your Heart Out in Words

I chose Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper and Kerry Cohen’s Loose Girl. Both of these pieces of writing are excellently written and intellectually engaging, and for that reason, I would like to emulate both.

I’ll start with My Sister’s Keeper. Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you I do not like to read, unless it’s a woman’s magazine or lively blog post. Whenever I was assigned summer readings in high school, I would literally jump up and down screaming in excitement each time I finished a book. But my mom and sister would not stop raving about My Sister’s Keeper, so I decided to give it a shot.

Once I started reading the book, I could not put it down. This book’s controversial topic and unique writing style was so engaging. I selected My Sister’s Keeper because it is one of the only fiction books I have enjoyed reading so much. Picoult’s words jump off the page and put you at the center of the action. This is what I strive for when I write. To me, without emotion and personality, there is no need for words. When I read something, I like to feel the truth, the sincerity, the passion behind a subject and Picoult does an amazing job of this.

Each chapter of the book is written from a different character’s point of view and is also printed in a different font. It helps the reader distinguish who’s saying and feeling what and when these words and emotions come out. I would love to write a book that expresses such a challenging topic in a style and tone that engages readers like me. There are so many unexpected twists and turns in the book; it’s no surprise it was turned into a movie.

Now on to Loose Girl. You may question the credibility of a book with that title, but believe me when I tell you it was one of the most engaging, powerful books I’ve ever read. It’s a personal memoir of Kerry Cohen’s struggle with promiscuity and addiction to male attention. I read it after seeing recommendations on a blog I follow and write for.

Loose Girl is very detailed and descriptive from the very start of the book. Instead of slowly opening up as a writer and expressing herself more and more as the personal memoir progresses, Cohen leaves nothing to the imagination from page one. I selected this piece because it reveals what the author is thinking and feeling. It’s very personal, and at the same time, easy to relate to. This is the kind of writing I plan to do.

“The unforgettable memoir of one young woman who desperately wanted to matter, Loose Girl will speak to countless others with its compassion, understanding, and love.”

By being so honest and engaging, Cohen gives a great message to women and girls. The vulnerable topic of Loose Girl is almost blinded by Cohen’s strength as a writer. I hope to someday write about touchy subjects in a way that portrays confidence so my readers may learn and grow from their inner struggles.

I admire these writers for spilling out their hearts in words.

Why I Write – 9/8/11

I found both perspectives of “Why I Write” touched home with me, yet in different ways. George Orwell mentions that he started to write because he was lonely as a child and would make up stories. Although as a child I was lucky enough to never feel particularly “alone,” I spent the greater majority of my childhood making up interesting stories. Even as a young child I always was looking to entertain. I wanted to be the center of attention and in order to do so, I always had something interesting to share with my “audience.” Both Orwell and Didion mention having a way with words and enjoying the way they sound when strung together in a specific way. This is something that I first felt with the spoken word. It was only as I matured that I began to realize that I found even more enjoyment with the written word. Orwell mentions “four great motives for writing,” which he believes that every writer has to some degree. I agree with the first three at face value the way he describes them, but the way Orwell describes the fourth motive, Political Purpose, stood out to me. It is important to point out that the “politics” Orwell speaks of are not just politics in the sense of government, the way we would normally or instinctively think of politics, but the whole politics of society. People write to share and most times persuade people to understand their view points and opinions. If I think of politics in this way, I believe this is my main motive for why I write.

So What’s the Role of A Writer?

Orwell and Didion seem to agree that a writer must have a certain confidence, or maybe even arrogance that makes them believe that what they have to say is worth the time of others, and that it deserves recognition. The “I” is being imposed upon the reader, and with it, a perspective and a message. The writer is egotistical, self-centered and vain, and is really only publishing his or her work for attention.

Despite this recognition of the seemingly bossy and assertive “I” that writers impose, Orwell and Didion seem to think that there are circumstances in the world that require the commentary of the writer—circumstances whose affects might not be immediately evident to all of society, and that need to be discussed, analyzed and criticized. Having a political purpose and an historical impulse, as Orwell notes, seem to be the driving force of the writer in these scenarios.

So if we push selfish tendencies aside, what should the motivations of a good writer be? It seems as though Didion would agree that a brilliant piece of writing is not the result of personal commentary of a writer. Her perspective on the role of the writer resonates with me when she discusses imagery: “The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture…It tells you. You don’t tell it.” Intense observation of detail is something that I think makes a good writer, and allowing for a situation or an event or an object to speak for itself. This is what it seems Didion is saying.

Writers are, in a sense, the medium through which the lifeless and the mute reveal their story. They are listeners and observers before they are writers. They may have motives that aren’t entirely benevolent—as all humans do. What distinguishes their work, however, is what they want it to ultimately accomplish, and the different voices and perspectives they invoke to reveal that truth.

Why Do They Write? Why Do I Write?

George Orwell

George Orwell’s in-depth recollection of his childhood was interesting to me. It made me wonder if my childhood is to praise for the writer I am today. I suppose it’s true to some extent; I’ve always had a desire to express myself whether it be in a locked away diary, private blog post, or article for the world to see. Here’s how Orwell’s motives for writing apply to me…

  • Sheer egoism: Yes, I do enjoy seeing my name in print. It makes me feel accomplished. But then again, who doesn’t like to feel this way–writer or not?
  • Aesthetic enthusiasm: I love it when I produce a perfectly crafted sentence. Reading my wisely written prose is almost as fun as seeing a brand new fall runway show, and trust me, fashion is another form of beauty in the external world.
  • Historical impulse: Straight-forward and to the point.
  • Political purpose: Politics are not my cup of tea. I write what I like; I don’t try pushing any secret agenda on readers. Orwell did say the first three motives outweigh this one. But then he goes on to say how everything he writes that lacks a political purpose is lifeless. When it comes to my own writing, I disagree.

Joan Didion

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking…What I want and what I fear.”  So do I. I live for the moment when I can open up a blank word document and type everything and anything that comes to my mind. Some of it makes sense and some of it doesn’t.  A bundle of ideas and reflections that feel much better on paper than in my head. Didion knows what she’s talking about. The idea of turning pictures into prose is something that I can relate to. All writers view the world differently and it’s in our power to write how and why we please.