Make English Majors Show Their Work

Make English Majors Show Their Work

If you didn't know, I moonlight as a copywriter. It's nice money and I control how much money I make / how much work I have at a time. Don't get me wrong; it's also a huge pain in my ass. For many reasons. But the biggest is without a doubt the fact that everyone in America thinks they can write. You can't.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming that this blog is a shining beacon of quality. I usually write these in one quick session and maybe, maybe, I'll proofread them. This blog is a hobby. My professional one gets a little more scrutiny from me.

The Hubris

Any copywriter can tell you about the client (or agency superior) who has constant edits for their writing – most of which actually detract from the writing. That's because they do no have in mind how the audience would read it; they have in mind how they would write this. As a writer, you can never match their voice. It's a faulty way of measuring the subjective quality of a piece.

But advertising is a stubborn old mule.

Most people are only concerned with getting the right answer. For those of you who did not grow up in 80s or later, this may sound familiar. There was a time that math class was only concerned with the right answer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIKGV2cTgqA

Math Education ('Maths' to the British in the audience) hit its stride and started teaching how to do math instead of how to get the right answer. I never got multiplication in elementary school until a teacher showed me how to do lattice multiplication. I never got another multiplication question wrong ever again. Because I didn't have to do it in my head. I learned how to multiply.

Unfortunately, writing never received the same treatment.

The Problem With How We Teach Writing

At best, students will be able to do a rewrite of their English paper. They'll get spelling and grammar corrections, but not edits of how to improve the structure of their paper. If they do get structural edits, they may be based on a premise that the student didn't intend to convey.

In math and physics, we'd always have points taken off for not showing our work. The same should be true for English majors.

When students turn in a paper for English class, they should have to turn in an outline, short responses to the research books they read, and quick answers about what their premise was. Otherwise we're not teaching writing; we are teaching students that getting the right answer is more important than doing it right. And that's how we get clients and bosses who think they can write – but never had to work for it.

Sadly, it'll take more than just changing how an English degree works to fix this. Not every professor knows how to write or even how to grade work in progress. They're a product of this system, too. I got my English degree from one of the most renowned programs in the country. I didn't learn how to write until I became an intern at a magazine after graduation.

What Playwriting Gets Right

Even though my English classes didn't teach me how to write, my Playwriting professor did.

(See? There is a reason this is on my creative writing blog!)

We had to talk about concepts for scenes in class. Our monthly journals were reflections on our writing processes. Our peers even helped us describe in one sentence what the main character's objective was in each scene. We were graded on process.

Later, while trying to figure out how to be a journalist and copywriter, I'd return to my playwriting knowledge. Writing in both of those fields has a goal of conveying a feeling to an audience. Oh hey, that sounds like an objective. And each paragraph is a tactic for getting the reader to feel something. What's fun about writing for the web is that you get to UI/UX design, writing a new pages for if you succeed or fail in your objective to make the reader feel something.

So if you have a playwriting education, you're probably more qualified for that technical writer job than a run-of-the-mill English major.

Lessons Learned from Self-producing a Reading

Heartbreak: New Plays by Mackenzie Worrall

If you want it done right, sometimes you have to do it yourself. That's why I'll usually produce my own readings for works in progress. I hit up the owner of Kafe Kerouac who very generously lends his coffee shop out to literary groups around the city. If you're in Columbus, I can't emphasize enough how much of a help Mike is to the local scene. (Plus, the Toni Morrison is to die for.)

I did a few things differently than the last time. So... maybe, just maybe, these lessons will stick for the next reading.

1. Marketing is Important

This is something I know. I tried some new things this time (Facebook! Telling people in person!), but my turn out wasn't as high as last time. In part, that was intentional. My audience last time was so huge that I don't think I got a lot of quality feedback. To fix it, I intentionally advertised less.

The result? I knew all but two people personally. More people stayed for the feedback, but it was almost entirely positive comments.

Yay, my ego.

However, I organize a reading to hear the negative things. So. Next time. Tell fewer people in person; advertise more around town in coffee shops. This awesome poster (partly seen in the featured image of this post) was handmade by the talented Maddie Gobbo and only Facebook got to see its glory. So far. It's too awesome to stop using. It'll see the light of day again.

2. Have Someone Else Run Your Talkback

The amazing and super, super smart Chris Leyva ran the talkback after the show. This is something I love to do, but I also know that I'm too close to my own work to do it right. This was the first time someone else took the reigns for me. Even if I could only give him credit for talking while I frantically wrote things down, that would be enough to be life changing.

However, Chris took the conversation in valuable and interesting directions. He pursued lines of thought I would've glanced over.

That night was also his first night seeing my plays. I gave him no preparation. (Thanks, Chris!)

Lesson learned? Always have someone else run your talkback. And if possible, make that person Chris Leyva.

3. Skype is an Acceptable Rehearsal tool

I've never used Skype outside of my marketing work. This time, I used it to rehearse two separate actors who couldn't attend my main rehearsal. The play was mostly monologues. With Skype, we did a face-to-face reading and I gave each actor separate notes. The reading was their first time doing it together.

You know what? It worked.

Now that I know Skype is fine, I may start looking for actors outside of Columbus. I can rehearse them ahead of time and they can come in for the reading. Wow. Modern technology, am I right?

Thanks

Finally, I can't thank the following people enough for their involvement. Adam Greenbaum Latek, Emily Bartelt, Alexander Sanchez, Scott Riser, K.C. Novak, Jordan Shear, and Amy Hall were my talented group of actors. Madeline Gobbo for the poster, Ethan Roberts of Cinema Parmesean for the recording, Mike and Kafe Kerouac for the space, and Chris Leyva for making it all worthwhile.

More info to come on what happens to these plays! The submissions process has begun. I'm also planning on producing them right here in Columbus. Don't worry. I won't let you miss the announcement when that happens.

Taoism in the Everyday

Tao in the Everyday

I've joked that I'm an "armchair Taoist". While I don't talk a lot about religion (I'm still grappling with it), I think that Taoism comes closest to expressing my beliefs. Also, it's core text is a marriage of poetry and art. It's hard not to be attracted to that. Growing up a Lutheran, it was easy to find comfort in the ten commandments. Easy, plain rules that summed up religion. But what I liked about them as a kid, I grew up to have troubles with. A lot of "thou shalt not"s and all that. Instead of being told what not to do, I found that Taoism offered seven lines of advice on how to live your life – seven things to do.

居善地,心善淵,與善仁,言善信,正善治,事善能,動善時

In my favorite translation (that lives next to my bed), these come off just as simply in English.

Live in a good place. Keep your mind deep. Treat others well. Stand by your word. Make fair rules. Do the right thing. Work when it's time.

I've used these at marketing agencies and various jobs to describe my aesthetic and approach. There will probably never be a time when I don't identify with these lines. I'm posting this today (New Year's Eve) in lieu of any resolutions. Instead of new goals, I'm reminding myself of these overarching themes in my life.

Sidenote: I've been thinking about getting a tattoo for awhile. This is the winner. Kind of bulky in English, so yes. I will be that d-bag with a Chinese tattoo.

Kind of hard to put that much Chinese together, though. Still searching for a good way to make this minimalist. Any ideas? You can reach me via the Contact button at the top.

Reading Emptiness

Reading Emptiness

"How much emptiness can you say you've read?"

That's from the illustrious Griffin.

To be fair, it was sort of a crack at one of my favorite authors (Anne Carson) and her penchant for using negative space in published works. It borders on art.

BUT, it feels like an apt description for how to read a play. Also, how to write them I guess. Play scripts should be about the emptiness. Each play is ambiguous. You don't know who will direct or act in your script, you don't know who will see your production, and you don't know what other works they've seen before this. A theatrical play should be intentionally ambiguous.

Or, as my writing instructor at Second City told us a director once said to him about writing stage directions: Fuck you, that's my job.

Beats/Pauses/Silences are permission for readers to imagine succinctly in a play script. In teaching, we talk about how to connect with different types of learners. Kinesthetic learners need time and permission to play – even briefly – in an hour-and-a-half class. The two minutes they have to play with the problem in front of them is time to refocus and refresh their brains. I think this is true of plays also. These moments of emptiness give you temporary permission to imagine what could be happening on stage. They engage your ability to tell the story and give you a chance to set expectations for what you think might happen next in the story – only to have the story satisfy or rebuke those expectations later.

Harold Pinter is, of course, the master of such things.

Every line is a realignment of expectations and frustrating rebuttal to whatever you might've been expecting from the last insatiable pause you sat through. It's a cocktease. And some Pinter plays I admittedly love (Celebration) and some I hate (Homecoming). So I'm not saying drop everything and read Pinter, but you should at least know who he is. He is the most recent playwright to win the Nobel Prize (correct me if I'm wrong please, internet).

Pinter aside, every play script is rhythmic exercise in emptiness. Anne Carson may write for visual emptiness and they may be why I enjoy her work, but I can say I've read quite a bit of emptiness even without counting her poetry.

--------------

For further reading: John Cage (composer of 4'33") on silence:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcHnL7aS64Y

 

From a Talk with Zadie Smith @ Wexner Center

From a Talk with Zadie Smith @ Wexner Center

This weekend I saw Zadie Smith at the Wexner Center. Like returning from an Available Light show, I left ready to write. While I felt so-so about her debut novel, White Teeth, I am interested in reading some of her later work. That's what I love about author talks; they give you context to a person's work. In Smith's case, she's left behind her multi-cultural comic novels for the time being. She wrote a few of those, went into an essay phase, and she's now writing work that is less about the humor of everyday life.

Or so I've gathered from the talk.

There were a bounty of references to her latest essay (and one of my favorite as a copywriter and creative writer), 'Find Your Beach' from The New York Review of Books. However, that's very new. She led the talk (whose subject was race and culture in literature) with a reading from 'Speaking in Tongues' (2009). This set the mood for her own personal experiences with adapting to different 'languages' as she moved between classes and among other races. And it wraps up with an elegant deconstruction of Barack Obama's appeal and his own ability to changes 'tongues'.

What followed her reading was part talk, part Q+A, and all wit. I can only include what I wrote down when I wasn't laughing.

 

On gentrification: "Nobody is saying it's more fun to be shot up in the streets than it is to eat cupcakes. Obviously, cupcakes are great. Smith goes on to talk about returning home to a neighborhood that's been gentrified, after all the tax funds have been dumped into it. She summarized it as 'humiliating'; as if you weren't worthy of this attention when you lived there. "It's not a city if you can't have relatively normal people living in it. Nothing to do but eat cupcakes."

On writing: "Writing is always about trying to be more honest."

On why she writes multi-culturally: "It was lovely to read Jane eyre, but she's got nothing to do with me. Where are my people, you know?"

On past vs. present: "That's true. There's nothing interesting about my present."

 

For me, the best part of this talk was the fact that she sold out the Mershon Auditorium. It's rare to have an outspoken, level-headed literary personality nowadays. Seeing Zadie Smith in person is a pleasure and one that I highly recommend to any individual interested in fiction or writing.

NOW-ISM: Abstraction Today [Pizzuti Collection]

The Pizzuti Collection is the new kid on the block for the Columbus art scene. Having only been around about a year now, not many of the locals will know where it is or even that it exists. The Collection, however, is a rare artistic gem for the Columbus community. NOW-ISM: Abstraction Today is their current show, and there has never been anything like this in Columbus. CMA has never had such an extensive show, and the Wexner Center is too small to curate a show like NOW-ISM. If you have any interest at all in modern art and live between Indianapolis and Philadelphia, you need to see this show.

This show exhibits a kind of playfulness you won't see in larger museums. The artists selected were playful with color, playful with line, playful with context. The result? A stunning collection in a modern gallery. This is the kind of art I wish that Columbus had more of. Granted, these are mostly artists who are fairly known in art circles (I'm assuming).

I wanted to hit on a few of the most striking pieces. I visited the Pizzuti Collection a couple months ago, but I'm still thinking about these works.

 

Looping (2007-08), Mindy Shapero

Looping, Mindy Shapero

The lighting in the Collection's online gallery photo doesn't do this justice. When I visited, this sculptural piece was on the balcony. Sunlight illustrates the colors present much better than the promotional shots. The upper portion of the piece is a vivid collection of color, sculpted with the illusion of intense, fast movement. It could be something out of a Starburst commercial.

What makes this large work interesting is its juxtaposition with the piece beneath it. The angular, black 'rock' under the flowing colors stands in stark opposition to the free-flowing motion above. The two also never touch. They are completely separate objects.

For me, this piece is about creative opposition. One object without the other would be boring. Yet as interesting as the sculpture appears at first glance, you don't even notice the half of it on the ground. One would not be nearly as thought-provoking without the other. Shapero produced my favorite piece in this show.

 

An Advice from Grandfather (2010), Haluk Akakçe

An Advice from Grandfather, Haluk Akakçe

I can't quite place what I love about this piece. I think that the offbeat, flat colors are what do it. Could also be the angles of the 'landscape' in the background. Then again, it could be that these forms make me think of a Lovecraftian family's day at the beach.

Akakçe's work is definitely unique. There's no denying that. There's something slightly sexual about this piece for me, too. Dark and sexual. It doesn't make me think of abuse, but rather unfulfilled fantasies. But that might be the bit of Lovecraft seeping in again. Darn you, Cthulhu!

The blurb on the Pizzuti Collection page is amazing, especially since I hadn't initially written any notes about this piece. That's part of the magnificence of a collection with an art library, though. Piste's resources are second to none (locally, anyway).

 

Evaders (2009), Ori Gersht

Evaders (2009), Ori Gersht

I am a sucker for video art. And Ori Gersht's Evaders is intriguing, harrowing, and tedious in its intensity. I mean that last part in a positive way. The tone of the piece plateaus quickly and begins to communicate a driving anxiety surrounding an ultimate horror of death, made worse by the hopelessness of the single possible glimmer of goodness.

Evaders tells the emotional story of Walter Benjamin's flight out of Nazi-occupied France. And the escape is historically only an attempt. Mr. Benjamin killed himself rather than be repatriated to the Nazis. The film, while not Aristotelian, tells a complete emotional story. Which is all I ask of film art.