Sunday, May 3, 2009


“People often sound dumber and more incoherent on paper than they really are.” – Peter Elbow, Writing with Power

As a writer I am fascinated by the many ways in which people relate with their own subjective process of writing. This is not a unique fascination on my part, but I do wish to focus on the subjectivity of writing here.

The nearly illiterate laborer who writes a shopping list of boards and nails and glue for building a closet, with their misspellings, lack of order, rough handwriting and omissions presents an example as intriguing in what is revealed by ‘text’ associated with a human creator, the list maker, as with the workings of a highly refined poet, a potentially more subtle list maker. We will try to avoid novelists, short story writers and flashers for our examples and focus on seemingly polar extremes.

The laborer in general hopes that their effort to write will result in someone going to the lumber yard, purchasing the appropriate materials, and returning with those materials to the worksite. That they write ‘screws’ means something to them, but the person standing in the aisle faced with a vast array of hundreds of different kinds of screws may feel at a loss for detail. Long ones, short ones, stainless steel, galvanized, brass, slotted or exotic, wood or machine?

The poet we do not always know what they hope for in their composition and in part the delight we often have in not-knowing and the potential to discover may be our most compulsive reason to read their list, but even with a poet there is usually something, some end-goal that they generally aspire toward as a result of their effort.

Granted that when a poet writes ‘screw’ it can mean many more things than intended on a lumber shopping list. In the case of many young writers the word brings up an image of horny birds with plumage where the poesy list making is a hope to attract sex. This intention, this motivation is prevalent and transparent on the internet for anyone who has a mind to look around the aviary. For some writers it is a desire to remain in a paid position and a need to publish, a need to get a quota of closets built in order to remain monetarily viable. Regardless it is difficult to imagine no motivation to exist prior to poetic composition, any more than that there would be no desire to assemble the parts needed to build a closet if the actual desire of the list maker is to drive a truck, and not to build a closet.

There is a phenomenon that occurs in the process of written composition in which the writer, be they laborer or poet where they know, understand, and imagine more than what they are able to convey in the text that they have written.

I stand in the hardware store and I look at the list and say, “Exactly what type of screw am I supposed to purchase here?” That question, if one actually cares to know the answer, initiates a process of having to find out, to seek out, to trace down, to call on the cell phone and ask, “What do you mean by this?” Or, it results in, “Gosh, I don’t know. I will get the blue ones and see if they work.” Either the originating writer of the shopping list gets what they need, and they move on with building closets, or they do not. The reader of a poem gets what they need, or not, or move on.

If one accepts that the intent of an author is not important to the reading of a text, then for a writer to leave out maybe three-quarters of the story may result in a text that is generally useless or at the least unsatisfactory to very many readers.

This is one reason why if you are inclined as a writer to write a story for closet builders that a primary suggestion is that the sentences are kept simple, and short, very brief, and minimal. If kept to simple communications, like ciphers, it is hard to imagine anything left out, and very easy to imagine a whole host of received meanings, none of which need be bothered by the need to buy the rightly needed type of screws.

In the case of my being able to call up the laborer and ask them for clarification I do not stop for more than a nano-second to determine a theory of poor communications through written media (Ugh, I should have asked him when he handed me the list!), we simply want to know what kind of screw we are supposed to put in our cart. This immediacy is aligned with the point-and-shoot school of conflict resolution. But in the case of a poet, particularly when they are deceased, there is not always very much to go on. Not a whole lot of ways to call them up on the phone and say, “WTF did you mean by ‘blue concrete carport dizzy in the genome’?”

Though I will admit that I am a proponent of phone calls to the dead, rarely do they respond. As likely to respond as a celebrity poet.

So, for an example: A daily record of weather information specific to Podunk, presented as a poetic composition may be of interest to Podunkers (a crossroad in the NY State Finger Lakes region), but remain inaccessible to all those not of Podunk, who never visited Podunk, and who have no idea why there is a prevalence of pig farmers in Podunk. Bet you did not know any of that.

And when I visited Podunk, climbed through the fence and walked right out there into the field and read that Weather poem for those farmers they were curious in their reception. Though weather is relevant to their livelihood they were hoping for a story with beginning, middle and end, a good joke line or a moral to it all, and not a need to decipher the aesthetic history of weather. Possibly there was a semiotic sign-symbol gap, my delivery was mumbled, or we can blame it on the weather. Here I thought that my voice was admirably attuned to the universe. Water is water. Sun is sun. Pig shit is pig shit. Not knowing quite what to do with me they invited me to dinner that evening where I proceeded to drink their bourbon -- then later on the somnolent porch I tried to hit on their least attractive daughter.

One does not need to be a critical enthusiast or academic extremist in order to feel that there is an inadequacy that can, if one so desires, but rarely does one really desire, to trace back to the poet and dig out of them what it was that they may have meant, or that they imagine it is that they were conveying. It takes a mental reader to read minds through a relatively blank text, and that mentation is very much like work. There are those instances when the motivation to write a list is to avoid substantive work. “Gosh, rather than measure and cut this board to make it exactly fit I will spend fifteen minutes with a pencil to my lip, and write this list.”

This came up to my mind yesterday in reference to something totally alien to creative writing or shopping lists, it had to do with how an estimate for construction work is formulated by one individual working in a solitary mode, without need to necessarily play with others, and how they can themselves, all to themselves without interference be very satisfied with dollar numbers that make sense to them, but have no attachments of ‘roots’... in that I mean here that a person from the outside coming at the estimate cannot easily see where it came from, how it was assembled, or what any of the assumptions were that went into forming it, or informing it, or sometimes not informing it.

So, desiring a list that is comprehensible to our general state of flow through confusion we ask for transparency. The level of transparency is that we are given what they see, what is transparent to them, but somehow lacking in the details to make any useful sense out of the information whatsoever. It is kind of like where faith begins.

I am reminded in math exercises in school the discipline to trace back to the origination and the habit of leaving behind calculations to delineate a trail that was followed... I admit a habit we wean ourselves away from when we use a calculator... but at some point people contained within their selves seem to lose the need as individuals to know from where it was they arrived.

“We got here. It is a wonderful sunny day for a picnic. What is your problem?”

But this does not do well for the needs of a reader, who very well may want to know what is missing in a story, or very much need to know what is missing in a cost estimate, or exactly which screws to purchase, if given the reasonable opportunity. In the final end it occurs to me that the majority of the world functions on not paying very close attention. In my mind this lack of attention is a good thing.

What I derived from this line of thought is that the solitary individual may or may not be transparent to their selves... they may not have that level of “understand thy self” for there to be a consciousness on their part that they need to translate out of their own cloud of understanding, or fug, or whatever goes on inside, all those bright shiny imaginings that go on wily nily in their head, and to understand that to be transparent to the world-at-large, or a readership or your fellow construction team, one needs to be to a degree rigorous in transparency to oneself, at least to nail down details and communicate them accordingly so that people who are other than and outside of oneself can take action, either action to build a closet or action insofar as to read a story and understand some of it.

“The father, as ruler of a realm of pig manure, is also associated with anality and waste, a common association frequently uncovered in psychoanalysis.” -- Ken Sanes, frm Mad Max as a Disguised Account of Personal Development: Ethics, Independence, and The Family Drama