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Connections

When I am writing literary criticism, I generally feel connected to the work’s imagery; an analysis of the figures of speech leads me to the meaning.  In the two critical essays I wrote, commissioned by the Scribner’s series American Writers, however, my connections were to the authors whose work I was trying to elucidate. Although critics should try to avoid speculating on authorial intent, in these two instances I had known the authors when I lived in Vermont and felt a personal, as well as a professional, responsibility to do their work justice. The authors were famous and respected in Vermont; outside the state, their names were not household words. Reading their entire oeuvre to identify the main themes, as I perceived them, was a momentous task.

In personal essays, on the other hand, I feel connected to my subject; for example, I have written several pieces about my husband in which I felt a close connection with him. The first was his memoir, which I helped him write before his death. I collected representative works—a short story he wrote when he was in China with the Marines in 1944; a speech he gave to a United Nations agency on the importance of reproductive rights for women—as well as articles about him and letters to and from him. I interviewed him about specific aspects of his childhood—his elementary school, his best friend, his dog (which accompanied him to law school), and his camp in Canada, where he was a counselor before the War. While in the present his mind was sometimes confused, his memories of the 1930s and 1940s were clear and evocative.

The second piece, written after his death, was an elegy, for distribution to family members. The process of writing this salute to him was an unusual experience: the words flowed easily, summoning up imagery whose origins I could not begin to explain. This close connection I felt with him was based on his importance in my life for over fifty-six years.

The villain of my elegy was a character I called “Mr. Death,” in homage to E. E. Cummings’s poem:

Buffalo Bill’s

defunct

who used to

ride a watersmooth-silver

stallion

and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

Jesus

he was a handsome man

and what I want to know is

how do you like your blue-eyed boy

Mister Death

 

Attached: Memories.

People save pictures, so why not save pieces of writing? Just like old photos, I feel as though pieces of writing come with attached memories. When you look at a picture, your mind immediately jolts to that moment in time. A specific memory is captured for you to treasure and look back on. My old pieces of writing have the same effect on me. For that very reason, I often find it hard to let go of certain pieces. In fact, I keep quite a bit of my writing; whether it be notes from past classes, essays, poems or personal letters. And when I stumble upon old writing of my own, I instantly travel back to what was going on in my life at that time. Even past emotions rush back to me—was I happy? Stressed? Excited? Frustrated?

Of the many pieces of writing that I’ve kept, my first five page research paper—dated all the way back to 8th grade—particularly sparks some vivid memories. We were pretty much allowed to write about any topic that interested us, so I researched and wrote about the Titanic. I was obviously obsessed with the movie (or maybe just Leo….) and wanted to learn more about the real story. But before we even began writing the first essay draft, our teacher had us gather information, make an outline, and then create notecards for each paragraph with important facts to include. I can remember walking home from school with my best friend and sitting on my living room floor sprawled out with our notecards everywhere. We would watch What I Like About You and Reba, eat some snacks, work on our papers, and then go to soccer practice together. While working on the paper, we would say things like “oh my gosh, how are we ever going to write FIVE pages?!”  It literally seemed near impossible at the time.  Yet, to our surprise, we both managed to make it happen.

To me, it’s moments like the one I just described that make it worthwhile to keep your writing! It’s so refreshing not only to look back on how much progress you’ve made as a writer, but also embrace the continuous journey of writing and the memories that follow.

Treasure hunts and trash.

“Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes
Here are we, one magical moment, such is the stuff

From where dreams are woven
Bending sound, dredging the ocean, lost in my circle
Here am I, flashing no color

Tall in this room overlooking the ocean
Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth
There are you, you drive like a demon from station to station.” – David Bowie, “Station to Station”

I wish that I could tell you that I saved every piece of my writing. I saved some, but not all.

I have folders in random places that I should probably organize, along with the rest of my house. I have poetry from the time I was my high school literary magazine’s editor, and news clippings from when I wrote for my college newspapers. Stupid short stories I wrote for friends, that were stupid on purpose, and little poems I received in return (for example “Meg, I lost a tooth. It hurt… but I love you…the dream came true…Blouses for sale near the ocean blue. – Kelly” [she didn’t lose a tooth, and I don’t recall what the hell the dream/blouse thing is – my best friend is just incredibly, deliciously weird]). I even have notes that I passed during class and ones that were written to me, during study halls and math classes (sorry, Mr. Piccone). I have song lyrics from ex-boyfriends on notebook paper and heavyweight paper with calligraphy practice. Plays that I swore I would direct and mundane packing checklists from the 9 times I’ve moved. I have stories I wrote in fifth grade all the way up to text messages that I never delete. I am absolutely a packrat when it comes to not just writing but anything that holds memory or sentiment. I am not materialistic, but sometimes tiny things hold volumes. And that is why I have little treasure boxes in my house (they’re really just regular boxes). They hold things that for me are priceless. I can sit with my legs pretzeled on the floor and follow the archives and dust bunnies to revisit the good and bad of the last twenty years or more. But I don’t have everything.

Usually this doesn’t matter, but every now and then, I’ll remember some random thing that I wrote, immediately want it, and realize that I cannot find it. Nor will I ever find it, because it is lost forever. And that makes me sad (and “I can’t find it anywhere” angry – hate when I can’t find things). Technology, which you would think might help to corral and keep writing safe, actually does not. There are many hard drives either floating out there, refurbished or destroyed by now, that contain my writing in digital form, and it was all trashed after the computer got some virus or just stopped working. I never bothered to retrieve it somehow.

I never used to rehash my writing, but recently I have begun to do just that. After some sessions at the CWE with Peter taking a look at my poetry, I began to feel more comfortable with saving stuff, letting it marinate, and then coming back to it to revise. I was usually more impulsive with poetry: I wrote it, it’s some pure emotion on paper, I don’t want to alter it. In retrospect, that seems utterly ridiculous. And the ridiculousness is pretty evident in most of the poems I find from ten or fifteen years ago. But looking at them does make me understand how far I’ve come as a writer. Pretty darn far.

I’ve also become more comfortable remixing and reworking old information (within reason – I do NOT mean reproducing information) for academic papers. If you find a topic you love, there’s no reason that you can’t revisit it multiple times, and add what you’ve learned over time. I’m doing this a little bit for my thesis and so are several of my friends: building on knowledge, layering it, and allowing your argument (and yourself, as a writer) to be amoebic.

It’s important to remember that your writing is yours. That seems like a silly thing to say. But you own it, and you should own it. You can keep it close, keep it in a drawer, remix it, delete it, rewrite it, burn it, or rip it into tiny pieces for confetti. It’s still yours, a mark you’ve left, a moment in time. Even if it’s a text message saying “I miss you” or “You suck,” “I love you” or “leave me alone.” Or anything in between.

As our posts on meaningful writing demonstrated, we all have something we’ve written that, even if we no longer physically possess it, it’s ours and always will be.

So maybe this will be the year that I get a big file cabinet and organize all of my writing. Make it double-sized, because my son hasn’t started writing yet. But when he does…

It will usher in a new era of packrat-ing. The most treasure-y, shiny, special, and organized treasure chest there ever was.

Straight Outta Montclair

Straight Outta Montclair

A Collaborative Rap

Brought to You by MC Christie and Eazy-E

You are now about to witness the strength of writing knowledge.

Straight outta Montclair, crazy consultants named C. and E.
From the gang we like to call the CWE.
When we’re called in, it’s time to begin.
Grab the pencil, man, why don’t you sign in?
Have a seat, we’ll be right with you.
When Jamie skypes, I’ll come get you.
At my station, we’ll set some expectations
And have a conversation about punctuation (and other stuff that doesn’t rhyme)
Your top issues and concerns, we will address.
But I’ll let you know we might not get to all the rest.
I’ll read and then you’ll see
When to use and not use an apostrophe.
Next I’ll direct you to the Digital Dash
Which will help you with all your writing problems in a flash.
While this is all good, let’s do all that we should
to make sure that your central claim is understood.
I’ll ask you questions to get your thinking going,
And then perhaps your ideas will start flowing.
Ya man, we got a tentative cc.
I think you’re right where you need to be.
It’s the end of the session, now you’re not stressin’;
you came here and learned a valuable lesson.
One thing before you go, do you need a confirmation email, yo?
Yes? I’ll send it to your address
And then you can forward it to your profess….or.
Glad I could be of aid; don’t you worry about the grade.
With renewed confidence, you got it made
I hope you come again; It doesn’t matter when.
We’re here to help you any way we can.

Please Save Your Writing!

Please Save Your Writing!

Last weekend, while I was deleting unnecessary drafts from my computer, I discovered a forgotten folder filled with old files dating back many years—field trips from South Africa, themes for literary studies, and a few sketches. The sketch reproduced here, “Heroine,” exemplifies the use of allusion, which is a figure of speech, a comparison. Allusion to literature can be an alluring device in fiction as well as in critical essays. Literary references are tricky, however: the writer must choose between how much to reveal about the source and what inferences to leave to the reader.

Heroine

            Lily Vance is lying quite still, very tall and straight, on a stretch of white sand. Is she in the shade or the sun? She is in the sun, but a man is leaning over her, blocking the light. He bends even closer and takes her sun-warmed hand in his cool one. Is he going to kiss her?

“Mrs. Vance? Do you know where you are?” She looks up into his face. It is young and earnest. Dark eyes. Dark hair cropped short. Glasses. He is not going to kiss her. She feels a pang of sorrow and tries, but is unable, to remove her hand from his.

“You are in the hospital,” his voice says.

She wonders if she cried aloud during labor. Did she beg for gas, like Catharine Barkley? She visualizes herself as a statue, lying cold and inert, while Frederick Henry walks out into the rainy night. Why hadn’t he been there?  He was off having a hamburger and a cold one while she was bleeding to death. Just what one would expect of a man like that, a deserter.

“I am going to look into your eyes with this little light,” says the voice. Is he a doctor? Is he going to probe for the treasure deep in her brain, as he does with the young woman in the Stafford story about the interior castle? He is a cruel thief, she muses. I have been in a terrible automobile accident. Lily shuts her eyes and swims to the other end of the pool, or the lake, or the sea, or wherever she is.

“Your daughters are here, Mrs. Vance, and I am going to let them come in for a minute.”

She tries to think about her daughters. If she has grown daughters, then she is not in the delivery room.

“Mom, I’m Maggie.” Lily feels cold lips on her cheek and warm hair on her face as someone leans over her, kisses her, and then sits down beside her.

“Hello, my darling. Do I have enough sun block on?” Lily can’t turn her head to look at the person who thinks she is her daughter. “Shouldn’t you be wearing a hat in this hot weather?”

“Mom, you’re not at the beach. You’re in the hospital. Don’t worry. Everything is under control. We’ve called the school. Sarah is here, too.”

“Hi, Mom,” says another woman. “How are you feeling?”

“I wanted him to kiss me, but I think he was too shy,” says Lily, smiling at the ceiling. There is a television set on the ceiling. She finds that odd but probably not for her to say. Perhaps she is a houseguest.

“I want to talk with you today about Elizabeth Bennett,” Lily begins. “I think you will find that the scene at Darcy’s estate is surprisingly erotic . . . .”

“We’ve called the school, Mom, and someone—a Mrs. Jemson—is taking your tenth-grade class. She will tell them all about Elizabeth and Darcy.”

Lily can sense his presence in the room, and when he leans over and takes her hand, she begs, “Heathcliff, take me to the window and let me see the heather.” She tries to lift her arms to put them around his neck but is unable to move them.

There is talk in the room, but she can’t make out the words. She tries to think of heroines whose surnames began with “V.” Maggie Verver. Alice Vavasor. Eustacia Vye. Fleda Vetch. Sophie Viner. Lily Vance. Who is Lily Vance and why does the name sound so familiar?

 

 

 

 

“Life’s a long song, but the tune ends too soon for us all.”

A lot came to mind for the December blog post (meaningful writing you’ve given or received). Letters and emails from mentors/professors, notes left on windshields by my friends and poems written by my sophomore year prom date. None of these seemed to fit the bill, and honestly seemed a little self-serving. And embarrassing.

So over time, because I’m late on this post and had time to think about it, my thoughts wandered instead to a letter that I wrote to my grandpa, and a letter that I wrote to three of my younger cousins.

I began to think about the way that writing is a huge part of our lives, but it’s also a big part of what happens when our loved ones leave this earth, too.

When I was 13, my grandpa passed away. He was hiking with his hiking group and had a heart attack. He was 64.

Grandpa had hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and then some, driving his little pick up truck to all kinds of places, camping, collecting little things to bring home to my grandma. Not when he was a sprite 25 year old, but in his early 60s, after he retired. He had a decent-sized library in his house, on everything from Harry Truman to yoga (which he practiced weekly). He was a self-taught man, since he never finished high school – he moved around a lot as a kid. He absolutely loved to read, and was one of the smartest people I have ever known: so intelligent, but not boastful in the least, or pretentious (probably the result of his self-taught status). He was a Korean War veteran, who met my grandma through her brother. She thought he looked handsome in his uniform and liked that he was quiet and shy. He liked her high Polish cheekbones and dark hair. They had three girls and a boy. He and my grandma were ridiculously hard workers in order to support their children, and for years they only saw each other in passing when he worked the night shift at a factory. Grandpa was ahead of his time in the way that he viewed the world and the people in it. He was practicing yoga in the sixties before it was the big movement that it is now. His friends were African American and Asian during a time of intense racial prejudices. He practiced mediation, but was also not opposed to getting in the kiddie pool with his kids in the summer and chilling out with a beer. He listened to stuff like Johnny Cash and Roger Miller, but his real love was classical music. Beethoven’s 5th was one of his favorites.  He was quiet, soft-spoken, but loved his children and grandchildren more than life itself. We used to read the Sunday comics together and watch Devils games. He took me to the Museum of Natural History and made me gazpacho. He had a huge garden in the backyard, with green beans, squash, lettuce, cucumbers – all kinds of deliciousness – and I would help him pick everything. A row of mint plants lined the garden, so we would chew some as we filled our baskets with the ingredients that would later be our lunch or dinner.

I wish that I knew him better, and that I told him how much I loved him.

When he passed, I wrote him a letter telling him so, and put it in his front pocket. We scattered his ashes on the top of the mountains where he was hiking, so he finished his hike. He made it to the top. And my words went with him.

I didn’t make the same mistake with my Uncle Dave. Before he passed at the age of 47 after a short battle with cancer, I told him, within the hospice walls, how much I loved him, how he was in many ways more of a father to me than my father, how he inspired me to work harder, to do better.

My uncle had three sons. He was a contractor, he owned his own tile company, and some of his work was even featured in Architectural Digest.  His clients, and everyone he met, were his friends. He was a volunteer EMT in his small town in Northern NJ, and had a kind of bravery that few people possess in emergency situations. He was also a truly modern man: Uncle Dave was usually the one that cleaned the house and cooked dinner for the family. And man oh man was he an amazing cook. When he hosted holidays, I made sure to wear pants that were very loose, not just because of the food but also because he would frequently play “AM Gold” from the 70s, everything from Harry Nilsson to Sweet and after a few glasses of wine, would be dancing in a way that was thoroughly self-depricating, and I would often join in. He always made my favorite apps, bought special trays so that we would have our very own ginormous leftover containers, and would ask you if you had enough to eat about six times throughout the day. It didn’t matter if you said yes, he was feeding you more. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone work so hard. He usually worked 60 hour weeks (of hard labor, not a desk job: he was in excellent shape because he was lifting 50 lb. spackle buckets on the reg and ate very healthy), and still managed to find time to spend with his sons and volunteering. His sons were his world, and he was an amazing father, and he passed the idea of giving back to them: they often (and still do) served at soup kitchens during the holidays. A couple of years before he passed, we started a routine where he would call me during the week after dinnertime, and we’d chat about life. I’ll never forget those conversations and the wisdom that he shared with me about all sorts of things. He was a cynical man, but had no sharp edges. He was full of love, humility, energy and sweat. He allowed his actions to speak for him.

I have never been so scared in my life, as when I watched him, the healthiest, strongest person I had ever known, fight cancer and lose.

But when he passed, I took his wisdom and his love with me forever. I was about to turn 30, and his passing changed my life forever, for the better. It was a huge part of the reason that I decided to go back to school and get my Master’s degree. If you dislike something, remove yourself from it. If you love it, pursue it. Life is too short to not do what makes you feel good, accomplished, and alive. His passing taught me that the things many people waste their time on, the negativity, the anger, judging and criticizing others to gain some sense of security or control – dwelling and bathing in those feelings – is just a shame. A real shame. I try my best to follow his example, which I can sum up very simply: help others.

I felt it was important to tell his sons, my cousins, (then 15, 13, and 11) about the man that was their father, my uncle. I felt that telling them would not do it justice. I express myself better through writing. I also wanted to give them something that they could keep forever. So I sat down and wrote everything I could remember, everything I knew about my uncle. I ended up writing many, many pages over several days.  I’m sure that by now, that envelope and the pages within are worn beyond measure. And that gives me some sense of comfort, but more importantly, I hope it gives them a fuller picture of their dad, a beautiful human being.

A few weeks after he passed, my mom received an email from someone they had gone to high school with, who saw the notice of his passing in the newspaper. This person, someone she did not know, told her how they remembered my uncle as someone that would make everyone laugh, who would readily help others no matter how much it required of him, and how he just made everyone feel special. Another piece of writing, another piece of light in the darkness.

Writing can be a way to help someone stay here, just a little bit longer. To say what couldn’t be said when they were here, right in front of you. And there’s a lesson and a warning there. Writing is a beautiful way of creating. But it is not a substitute for what we have here, now, in front of each of us. People that we love.

Writing serves many purposes, but it is not a substitute for telling someone how you feel, face to face, using your voice, your eyes, your touch. If you’re lucky enough to love someone or many someones, tell them often. Show them often.

Uncle Dave had this quote on his refrigerator: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense” (Emerson).

When he passed away, I took that down in my journal as a way remember him, and my grandpa, and what they taught me. They taught me impermanence, of course, but they also taught me about serenity and nonsense, and the vast difference between the two. I know that they’re so proud of me – which unfortunately sounds like a trite thing to say when someone passes, but it’s not. They are proud of me, and they are proud of me for being proud of myself, too. Neither of them were perfect, of course, and neither am I – far from it. But that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s what we choose to see and celebrate.

You have a choice each day to sow love or discord. It’s really so incredibly easy, when you think about it.

In honor of 70s AM radio, here’s something you might hear at my uncle’s house on any given holiday (from 1972): I Can See Clearly Now, Johnny Nash.

You can roll your eyes. You can find fault in just about anything. You can work to demean people and their choices, and live a life of ego and exceptional cynicism, competition, superiority, condescension, etc. etc….

But I hope that you choose love, and that you let your heart speak and show it whenever possible.

One for the Archives

Ask me to throw out old clothes, and I’ll do so without a fight. I may have just had to have that floral peplum top from Anthropologie but at least now I’ll have room for another equally as necessary top to add to my wardrobe. Ask me to throw out old pieces of my writing, however, and, Houston, we have a problem.

When it comes to writing, I’m a hoarder. Just this past May, I was cleaning out my car and came across my senior thesis from high school – clearly, I clean out my car often. Up until that point, everything that had left the car had immediately entered the trash bin, but I couldn’t let this paper go. That’s not to say that the paper was exceptional. In fact, it was far from it. I had written about the three types of “noting” in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. As far as what I meant by “noting,” I’m not sure how I would explain it, which probably gives you some indication as to how well the paper was executed. It’s not a paper I’m particularly proud of, despite receiving an “A”. So why did I insist upon keeping it?

Archiving my writing, whether it be academic or personal, serves multiple purposes. Often I refer back to my previous writing to give me a boost in confidence. For instance, this semester, I walked inside an English classroom for the first time in over three years. My writing skills had accumulated a lot of dust during that time, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to meet the professor’s expectations. In the days leading up to the beginning of the semester, I pulled out a few essays from my senior year of undergrad and began reading. One outlined the trajectory of grief displayed by the protagonists in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Another explored Noah Webster’s mission to make the English language American. The final documented the rise in film adaptations of novels. Each was different in terms of audience, structure, and tone; yet, I was proud of my ability to adapt to the needs of each assignment. I liked the flow of each piece; the transitions between ideas were solid, and my voice, that elusive quality of writing, was present and distinctive. Perhaps this is reading a bit too much as me stroking my ego, and in many ways I was. At that point in time, however, it was exactly what I needed to enter the classroom motivated and confident.

Not all of my past writing is laudable, and some pieces I’d prefer to forget – read burn – but keeping them on hand allows me to not only see how much I have grown as a writer but also reminds me that I can and need to continue to learn and improve. The ability to critically assess your writing is one of the best tools you can have as a writer. Without it, you’ll become stuck and, in turn, frustrated as you’ll find that your work will be not be as well-received as you expected it to be. That’s why, good or bad, I save my old work, because whether the result of rereading is a pat on the back for a job well done or a kick in the butt to do better, both are equally beneficial and, to some, equally as enjoyable.

Correspondence with an Elf

Dear Emily,

My warmest greetings from the chilly North Pole! My name is Ariel, and I am one of Santa’s many helpers. We have been very busy this Christmas season, preparing toys for all the boys and girls across the world. The Nice List is very long this year, and I believe I spotted your name near the top of it! I really enjoyed reading your letter and will let Santa know that you will be leaving out 15 cookies for him. He sure loves his cookies! …

I was six years old when I received this letter. It was five days before Christmas, and I was getting anxious. I had sent the letter like forever ago (read three weeks) and had yet to hear back from Santa. My mother had told me to be patient. It’s a long way to the North Pole, and they’re kind of busy. But I was kind of a nervous wreck. See, I really wanted this American Girl doll. Not the normal American Girl doll like Samantha or Kristen. I wanted one called a Bitty Baby. Bitty Babies were AWESOME! You got to customize your Bitty Baby to have blonde or brown hair, blue or green eyes. You also got to name your Bitty Baby and create her wardrobe. With these decisions made, you then signed your Bitty Baby’s birth certificate and VOILA! You became a mother at six. But I digress. The point is I really wanted a Bitty Baby for Christmas, and I needed to let Santa know. But how? I thought about telling the Santa in the mall, but when I told my brother, he said that that guy really wasn’t Santa but some old guy named Larry. So clearly, that was NOT an option. Then my mother suggested that I write to Santa and write I did.

I wrote Santa the most fantastic letter. It was on white, sparkly construction paper, and I used red and green crayons – very festive, very WOW. In it, I made sure to mention how good of a girl I had been throughout the year; I had helped my mom and dad, did good in school, and limited my fights with my brother to two a day. I also may have thrown in that I had been in the hospital for a week to get my appendix out – the sympathy card is always useful. Then I got real. I described to Santa, in detail, why I wanted – no, NEEDED – the Bitty Baby. At the age of six, I was ready for more responsibility; I was ready to be more fulfilled with my life. And to accomplish these two things, I HAD to have that Bitty Baby. So, I pleaded my case as best I could, and when I sealed that envelope and dropped it in the mail slot, I crossed every appendage and hoped all would work out.

Cut to forever later, and FINALLY, I got a response. Not just a response, but a response from ARIEL! As someone who loved the Little Mermaid and watched it so many times, my parents had to buy two more copies because the tapes would fry out, I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I was that Ariel, the elf, wrote to me. And what she said was MAGICAL! I was on the NICE LIST and near the TOP of it! But the BEST part, the ABSOLUTE best part was that she thought she saw a Bitty Baby being wrapped up for someone named Emily in Sparta, NJ. And of course, there was no other Emily in Sparta, NJ except for me. So it is safe to say, I was thrilled past infinity and beyond! (What up, Buzz?)

M
Leading up to Christmas, I had strutted my chubby self around for days, showing my friends, teachers, and mail lady the letter Ariel had sent me. Needless to say, they were impressed. Not many children get responses from Santa’s helpers, especially not a cool one named Ariel. But as satisfying as this was, I was still impatient. Christmas couldn’t come soon enough. And then it did. Despite the many gifts that were under the tree that morning, I couldn’t tell you what I received that Christmas besides my little miracle from Santa the Stork. She was gorgeous. Red hair, blue eyes, a green onesie with a purple headband. I give you three guesses as to what I named her.

Just kidding!

Three tomatoes are walking down the street- a poppa tomato, a momma tomato, and a little baby tomato. Baby tomato starts lagging behind and Poppa tomato gets really angry, goes over to the baby tomato, and smooshes him… and says, ‘ketchup!’ (Backlog Blog.)

For October (I know, I’m behind), we were supposed to write in the voice of an author or two we admire. I was originally going to write a James Brown/Hunter S. Thompson thing, but there would be a lot of symbols (“#%@$!!”) in place of curse words and it’s just not the same. So instead, I got to thinking about the concept of remix.

A remix takes existing material, alters it in some way, appropriates those materials to make something new. It’s like the objective for October’s blog post, to write in a specific, recognizable style, but change it significantly to make it your own.

Recently, for a course, I read a few chapters of Lawrence Lessig’s book “Remix” and it kinda blew my mind; specifically this one quote:

“Text is today’s Latin” (78).

The interesting thing is that I often remix and don’t even realize that I do. In my blog posts for the CWE, my posts are quite remixed. I frequently approach writing my blog posts by using a lyric to get me started (today it was a movie quote). In fact, when I think about it, it is often songs that get me thinking about a potential blog post or a creative piece of writing. Or any piece of writing, for that matter. For me, it’s a way of entering a text, meditating on a text, understanding it, writing about it and discussing it.

But getting back to Lessig’s assertion that “text is today’s Latin,” I have to say, with some small hint of shame, that I actually never considered this, even in the midst of my thesis work, which largely revolves around this idea that the canon (texts) are a sort of intellectual or elite status symbol. Why is it that we cling so severely to TEXT, to the ESSAY, to these arguably outdated modes? We privilege the author and lit crit so much that their ideas frequently take precedence over our own.

For this previously mentioned course I had to create my own remix, and I decided that my remix would change Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction into a romantic comedy.  I approached it with a perfectionist Type-A personality that is very useful for writing essays, but not as useful for creating remixes. Because remixing is a creative process, in some ways, the beauty is in the imperfections. It could be the most completely polished piece of video, but it’s ultimately meant to be subversive and subversive-ness is never pretty. It’s messy. I had to be okay with allowing my perfectionist side to take a rest, and allow my playful side to come out and frolic. This was difficult for any student who is typically told not to do just that, including me, a grad student. My process for approaching this assignment was also messy. It did not come together like an essay, outlined and bulleted with precision and care, then slowly hanging muscle and tissue and flesh on a skeleton, constructing a living, breathing organism. But, like an essay, it was a thoroughly recursive process and required a lot of revision. I ended up spending a TON of time on the creation and revision of this remix. Hours upon hours.

I think that the general consensus is that this constitutes “playing” – but I can assure you, it’s not. It’s fun, it’s creative, but it’s work.  The fact that you are using a movie, a song, a tweet, an image of a painting, etc. does not mean that any less effort was put into the project, does not mean that you’re not thinking for yourself, and it does not mean that it’s not challenging. As with alphabetic text, you are creating a powerful message, and that message takes time and hard work to construct.

But why do I feel as if accusations of plagiarism and a sort of intellectual scoffing still occurs when there’s a discussion of remixing Shakespeare with Moonrise Kingdom, Milton with Lewis Black’s standup, Dickens with Dylan? What if we started to cite song lyrics instead of critics when we write about a text? Probably big fat fails. That has less to do with familiarity and more to do with a sense of protecting the institution, (reminding me of Mina Shaugnessy’s phrase “Guarding the Tower”). Adopting a sense of propriety over intellectual property that you’ve begun to think of as uniquely your own is dangerous. For everyone, except for Shakespeare or Dylan.

“Just before our love got lost you said,

‘I am as constant as a morning star’

And I said,

‘Constantly in the darkness. Where’s that at?

If you want me I’ll be in the bar.’” – Joni Mitchell, “A Case of You”

There’s the missing lyric from this post (you didn’t think I’d post without one, did you?!). And it totally applies to what I’ve been saying in this blog post, too, if you can open your mind to the relevance and the beauty, the wisdom that’s just under the surface, rearranged and made new.

Meaningful Words

Homemade gifts and cards are the essence of childhood. When you’re young and have a limited income reliant on the tooth fairy and chores, homemade creations are your only option. I reminisce back to the days when I made a card for every occasion. I really took pride in my works of art. They were colorful, vibrant and often filled with a cheesy quote or message inside. Just like Hallmark, I even had my own signature logo on the back of each: “A Christie Card Production” in a big heart.

As I grew older, I began to think my homemade creations were childish and a waste of time. Homemade cards quickly became replaced with your typical cards from CVS or Walgreens. In my eyes, the messages in these cards were much more profound than anything I had ever wrote. Yet, one very special day changed my whole perspective on this.

My grandparents passed away a few years ago, and my mom and aunt were in the process of selling my granparents’ house. We spent a weekend cleaning out their belongings and sorting through old memories. We found a drawer filled with pictures ranging from the 1930s to present day. It was certainly a trip down memory lane for my family. But for me, there was something even more worthwhile in there. In that same drawer was a stack of all the homemade cards I had ever given them. It were those that they kept, not the fancy Hallmark cards. This got me thinking that my own words are much more meaningful than I once imagined…