All posts by Janel

Janel is a mother, writer, reader, runner, lover of outdoors, cook, friend, and dreamer. She's married to James, with whom she has three children: Evelyn (13), Charlotte (10), and Calvin (6).

Several Layers of Writing about Writing. About Writing

Link: https://medium.com/bereavement-and-mourning/2f7a2f1dc473

Description:

“Telling a Story of Stillbirth: Accepting the Limits of Narrative” is my way of grappling with the discomfort I felt when I found out that my collection of essays, They Were Still Born: Personal Stories about Stillbirth, would come out in paperback this summer. I realized that, along with excitement and gratitude, I felt a startling dismay. I set three goals in writing and publishing my digital essay: first to work through my own ambivalence and to puzzle through why I found the story I had worked so hard to get into print troubling now; second to give voice to the way that grief and narrative changes over time; and third (probably the least important) to use a different platform to help publicize my collection and reach new readers.

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Process:

I began by writing some reflective vignettes. They came out in whatever form they wanted to. When I reached the end of one, I would just hit enter a couple of times and start something else. Of course, I can do that ad nauseam (and judging by the number of people who visited my essay on [Medium] only to flee when they saw an estimated reading time of 14 minutes, perhaps my final version is still too long!). But when I had a few thousand words, I stopped and starting trying to find the threads to weave together into a coherent whole.

I took the essay through four distinct drafts. Several chunks from my earliest drafting did end up in the final version. The hardest part was deciding how to navigate the disjointedness of writing about writing about loss. I wanted my readers to experience some discomfort, but I didn’t want it to be so much that they were completely thrown off.

Then the question arose of platform. I put the entire essay draft up on a wordpress site I created for general book promotion. But it didn’t work there, and visually it was too long of an unbroken stream of text. My peer group suggested putting it on its own site and then just linking as needed.

Finally, I ended up publishing the essay on Medium because I loved the simple, clean aesthetics of the site, and I also wanted the ability to add it to various collections on the site.

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Affordances and Constraints:

Writing my essay online and on Medium specifically offered the ability to link,  to promote my work in a community, and to revisit and revise it later. I like the way the whole essay looks and reads. It’s like a beautiful, very pared-down magazine.

Interesting constraints came up when I tried to embed links in the essay. Medium’s simplicity does come at a cost; it was not possible, as it is in WordPress, to set links to open in a new tab or new page. So anytime a reader clicked on a link, it would take him or her away from my essay. I ultimately decided, rather than risking the loss of readers, I would place asterisks and then have a “links” section at the bottom of the piece.

Will Self’s “Kafka’s Wound”

I wish that something had miraculously shown up in my inbox or Twitter feed that suited the category of “new digital writing.” Alas, nothing did. Instead, I located a digital essay by Will Self titled “Kafka’s Wound.” [Edited to add that I had forgotten that this had been one of the first examples Joe had offered of digital work.  :

falling ]

In this longform (8200 word) essay, Sef brings his reading of Kafka to life through a web of associations.

I do not think it is necessary to read the entire text of his essay to get a feel for the work he is doing of editorial, historical, and creative connotation. Interestingly, the London Review of Books sponsored this project, which took 14 weeks and many people’s labor to make. The explanation for the essay states that the goal was to use “digital technology to loosen and enhance the structure of the essay,” and it certainly does that. Although Self wrote the main body of the essay, “much of the additional content was researched or created by over 70 others,” presented in various forms including music, digital media, videos, photography, and drama.

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The user interface permits readers to open and close bubbles to the right side of the essay. There is also a freeform navigation web menu at the top of the page for readers who want to browse through the the material that way. I found that more compelling than reading the entire essay straight through. The various supplemental–and yet that’s not quite the right word–elements of the digital essay actually served as entry points into Self’s rather heavy prose.

The very reason I respect this piece of work–the quality and expansiveness of it–are the very reasons I also nearly chose something else to share here. It is really overwhelming to see such a massive undertaking so beautifully pulled off. Overwhelming in an admiration sort of way. Also in a holy-smokes-I-couldn’t-ever-create-something-of-that-scale way.

 

They Were Still Born Digital Essay

Fellow woodchucks,

Working Title: Writing Memories, Making Meaning: Narrating Grief Over Time

Quick Description: I am creating a website to help create a better web presence for my book, They Were Still Born: Personal Stories about Stillbirth, which is coming out in paperback this July. As part of that project, I am writing a reflective narrative about the limits of narratives, particularly about narratives that grow out of grief, loss, and trauma. The essay will not appear on the front page of the site, but on a page under the title “Writing Memories, Making Meaning.” 

Summary of Argument: This essay is more concept-driven than argument-driven. I revisit the impetus for creating the collection and then share the process I’ve gone through to accept the uncomfortable incompleteness inherent in writing personal narratives. I conclude with the realization that my relationship with a published narrative is similar to my relationship with my daughter’s memory in a broader, more diffuse sense.

Questions for my Readers:

  1. I am torn about how theoretical or scholarly this piece of writing should be. My instinct is to keep it spare in terms of citing others because my audience will be people searching for the book as opposed to readers who want to understand how my ideas about this topic of narrative limitations relate to other writers’. However, I also am concerned that my essay may not doing enough. There is an element of self-referentiality (naval gazing?) to this essay that has me concerned. Would you like to see me engage with other texts more?
  2. My piece is intentionally a bit disjointed. Does this form/content connection work for you as a reader, or is it unnecessarily frustrating?
  3. This is a more technical question. I want the website to be a) inexpensive but b) good-looking. I registered the domain name theywerestillborn.com (yay!) but am still working through hosting as well as how the website itself looks. If anyone can point me in useful directions for tools or guidance to improve the aesthetics of the website, I would be really appreciative.
  4. I would like to include links to several pieces of writing my contributors have done about this or similar topics. Does it make sense to include them as links at the bottom of the page with my essay? Or should they be on another page on the site?

Thank you for your time and feedback!

Link: www.theywerestillborn.com

All White Remix

When I walked into Alison West 206 on February 11 for my first day as an English instructor, I expected to have at least one black student in my section. But no. When I called roll, white person after white person said “here.” And when they look at me (and heck, even at the headshots of the people whose writing we read), it’s all whiteness.

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Why does this matter?

It matters because that isn’t reality.

So when Banks writes in Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age that his purpose is to scratch and interrupt, to play between two disciplinary conversations, one about African American rhetoric and one about composing in multimodal forms (2), I want to go with him. I find his writing to be self-reflective, engaging, and inviting.

But I also feel hypocritical because I haven’t figured out, as a white person teaching white students, how to talk responsibly about race and power. Or more importantly, how to do the work that Banks writes about in his compelling social commentary about rhetorical strategies used by digital griots.

How can DJs’ creative and rhetorical moves come into play when I’m teaching white first year students how to enter the scholarly conversation? Or to see the bibliographic essay as a mixtape, as Banks suggests? How can I help students try “sampling” through their use of someone else’s idea that is vital enough that they don’t just cite it but make it a “looped” and “continually repeated” part of their own creations (26)?

I feel convicted because I know that Banks is right that the “acts of writing, the social networks and cultural contexts in which they occur, and the technological networks in which they take place and are disseminated still involve systems of power, still reflect relationships  between individuals and groups within those systems” (154). My own writing as well as the E110 writing I assign are embedded within a “system of power” that unconsciously excludes or dismisses voices and perspectives of minorities, even as the academy tries to make room for people whose voices were silenced for much of history.

In short, I am utterly persuaded of the richness and possibility in flow, layering, rupture, and remix of hip hop. That process (and indeed, the product of a remix) appeals a great deal more than the staid and patchwritten research paper drafts that cross my desk.

On the positive side, the technologies available to us and to our students can open up startlingly rich combinations, as Banks deftly and creatively discusses (and indeed, performs) in his book.

The question I am left with is this: if “black griotic traditions call for an approach to writing that is committed to the range and flexibility to ‘teach in the idiom of the people'” (155), what can we do if the people in the classroom are. all. white? What then?

The Horribly Static Codex

For my digital essay project, I want to engage with the dark side of having a published book.

Earlier in March I got the word from my publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, that my book, They Were Still Born: Personal Stories about Stillbirth, is coming out in paperback later this year. As Katie (who was in the office when I found this out) can attest, my initial reaction was profound relief and joy. The first print run of my book has sold out and now it’s going into a trade paperback printing. This is great for a lot of reasons.

But if it was all sunshine and roses and happiness, I wouldn’t have much to take on in a digital essay, would I?

I’m conflicted because the essay I wrote for the book is fine; it was true when I wrote it. It was “right” for the collection. But it’s not where I am now, or even who I am now. It certainly doesn’t capture the most important elements of what I learned from my daughter’s death.

Yet it’s what goes out between covers anytime someone buys my book. Amazon ships it out, people read it, and that piece of writing represents, in some limited capacity, the story of Beatrice and what I learned from her. (Not to mention that I was 26 when I wrote it. I thought I was so wise then. I imagine I’ll look back chagrined at my current self 6 years from now…)

Of course, I knew even at the time that I had to choose a particular entry point for my essay. It’s not possible, in a few thousand words, to show it all. In picking a specific angle, I closed the door to all the other stories I could tell, all the other shades of significance. I said no to a lot of things to say yes to one.

That’s why I’m so frustrated with the book form. I celebrate the book’s continued life, but I also resent it. I resent that it isn’t a website instead (though that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun to say as having a book!), where the stories could link to each other, and readers could add their own narratives. I wish the book was somewhere, like one of my book’s contributors prompted and wrote on her own blog, contributors could share where they are now, several years further down the road. This wouldn’t change the original stories, but it would enable some addendums and follow up materials to be published, too.

This digital essay is my space to do this work, to ask those questions, to write another story, to say yes to something else. This is the form I wish my book could (have) take(n).

  • Texts/Materials: My essay will take for its genesis the text of my book, They Were Still Born. I will also bring in collaborative text that is newly generated among myself and a group of the book’s original contributors.
  • This new project will take up the question of what happens to stories born of trauma after they have been published. What are those texts afterlives? How do writers relate to their words after they are cemented in time, unchangeable, and sent out into the world of readers? Is it possible to reopen those texts and do new things with them even if they are published in a form that is unmalleable? Can people collaborate anew and what kind of product might better reflect the ways in which our work has informed or conflicted with each others’?
  • I think that Google documents will be the most apt platform for writing some sort of shared document. I then envision doing short video podcasts reflecting on the process, and posting the longform reflection on WordPress.
  • Can you identify a text that could serve as an approximate model for the sort of piece you’d like to compose? No.
  • What questions do you have at this point for me and your colleagues? I mostly would love to hear any feedback you have about this idea. Is it too self-referential? What aspect of what I’ve written intrigues you and what aspect(s) could you do without? What would you most want to know about that I’ve alluded to here? Finally, and possibly most importantly, I haven’t done much significant collaboration before, so I’m not sure how to best capture the versions we write collectively, or even how to show that in the final product.

I hope you’re all enjoying your break, and I look forward to hearing back from you when you have the time to respond.

Alone in the Archive, Together in Google Docs

Those of us in the Transatlantic Gothic seminar submitted our archival research papers today. The assignment asked us each to choose one of the course texts and investigate its afterlife and reception by doing research in library databases and other primary sources. We did not sign up for specific texts, nor did we discuss our research questions in the confines of the class. It was a purely private exploration, just me and the archives and digital databases.

Once the papers were safely submitted to the professor (uncontaminated by secondary source materials or, apparently, the influence of others), she encouraged us to post our completed papers in the Sakai class forum so that other students in the class can read them. Finally, we devoted a few minutes at the end of class for is to share the scope of what we found.

Even that gesture toward sharing and commenting on each other’s work is more than in some grad courses.

Although grad students are frequently together—in seminar, in our super-tight cubicle offices—we often read and write alone.

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Scrolling through a document, all alone.

 

In Planned Obsolescence, Kathleen Fitzpatrick argues for a significantly more open and collaborative reading and writing community. She writes about “new conversational publishing practices”* in digital forms and shows that our obsession with being original and proprietors of our intellectual property are keeping us from adopting these new means of sharing and publishing our work. We need to see that “some of the most important work that we can do as scholars may more closely resemble contemporary editorial or curatorial practices, bringing together, highlighting, and remixing significant ideas in existing texts rather than remaining solely focused on the production of more ostensibly original texts.”

I crave this. I love the open exchange of ideas on this blog, from comments and suggestions on my writing from colleagues, and from the forwarding of a link or title of an article that someone I respect thinks would interest me.

But currently, those mechanisms for collaboration and sharing my writing happen only because I seek them out, extracurricularly. I sometimes feel sheepish asking a friend (see especially the ever-compassionate Katie Wright and bad-ass Carolyne King) to take the time to read a paper I’m writing in order to give me feedback. I ask myself, How good should it be before I ask them to offer reader reaction? Some of this is pride—I don’t want to waste anyone else’s time with my shitty first draft. I want my ideas to be somewhat formed before someone other than me opens my document. And yet I don’t want to wait until I’m so far into the drafting process that a nudge or wrist slap from a reader I respect can’t shift my thoughts in a more productive way.

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This is a video of a cat helping a dog open a door. It’s a metaphor.

While much of the time I spend reading and writing is, by necessity, alone time, the most invigorating and momentum-building work I do comes when I am challenged by another writer responding to / critiquing / pushing back against / extending / asking me to clarify my ideas.

I resolve to seek out ways to make my writing more public (I admire scholars who draft in public like Dr. Michelle Moravec and those who blog like Frederick Coye Heard), and in doing so, making myself vulnerable to criticism. I also commit to making sure that I, too, engage in helping my peers create, strengthen, and share their writing with a broader audience.

Together, I believe that we can set a new model for ourselves of inculcating helpfulness. As Fitzpatrick writes in her conclusion, “the new communication systems that we develop for networked environments” are scary, but they’re also “generative,” and we must be willing to continue remaining open to the discomfort of “instability, of the frighteningly uncertain, of the wide-open and new.” It feels weird, it feels scary, and it doesn’t always feel good, but we’ve got to do a better job of embracing more open and collaborative/conversational means of writing, commenting, editing, and publishing.

*I have a Kindle version of the text and don’t have page numbers. I’m sorry.

Last Bastions of Read Only Culture?

“RO culture speaks of profesionalism. Its tokens of culture demand a certain respect. They offer themselves as authority. They teach, but not by inviting questions.” (Lessig 84)

Like Michael has already pointed out on his blog post, the dichotomy between Read Only and Read/Write culture Lawrence Lessig portrays in Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in a Hybrid Economy is a flawed one.

For me, the final breakdown of Lessig’s definitions of RO and R/W occur when he mounts an apologia for some places in our society that necessitate Read Only content. RO culture, Lessig writes, “is critically important, both to the spread of culture and to the spread of knowledge. There are places where authority is required” (85).

So what are his ironclad examples?

Congressional laws.

Guidelines for administering medicines.

Flight plans on commercial jetliners.

Um. All of those examples, while content created by “professionals” or “authorities” in their field (84), quickly reveal the very collaborative remix qualities from which Lessig tries to protect them.

For example, what texts carry more power than legislative documents? Very few. But legislators draw up laws with input from other elected officials, advocacy/lobbyists/special interest groups, lawyers, and political constituents. Congressional law does not live “on a wiki,” but it also does not appear on stone tablets from a higher authority. Frequently it mashes up pieces of other laws piecemeal. This (often frustrating) process requires several hundred elected officials to make laws, but hardly ever original material from scratch.

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The example of writing guidelines for medicine dosing seems less Read Only than Congressional law, but not for people who see the underbelly of pharmaceutical research and development. We trust the dosing information on the Tylenol bottle we give our children, but even so we must take into account what we know about our own child’s health, weight, and previous history with the drug. Additionally, the research that goes into such guidelines changes over time and medicines are frequently pulled from the market when we know more. Hardly a great example of unwavering authority.

Finally, flight plans, like Congressional laws, take into account a tremendous amount of data in order to plot an ideal route. But ultimately, pilots and flight crew can and should have the power to improvise and respond to new information. It may be tough to make that argument with the ongoing mystery of Malaysia Air Flight 370, but it doesn’t change the fact that Lessig’s three supposed best examples of firm RO culture are neither as authoritative nor as unremixed/remixable as he indicates in his book.

In short, traditional content providers and artists are already complicit in remix culture.

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By Ryan Shaw

A more compelling argument Lessig makes in Remix: we must reimagine our relationship to R/W cultural practices and habits because the change has already come. College-aged students and their younger siblings have never experienced a world without highly visible remixes. If companies and lawmakers cannot figure out how to benefit from and encourage the current and continuing trend of remix/collaboration/R/W creation, the future is indeed dire. But not for the reasons they say it is.

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Dawn Endico on Flickr http://bit.ly/1gyP3yh

Now You See It, Now I Don’t: How Schools are Failing Our Children

My fourth grade daughter reports that of each school day, she only enjoys 40 minutes. And surprisingly, it’s not lunch and recess.

For less than an hour, she and a handful of other “advanced” students leave the regular classroom and spend time in “enrichment” class. There, Evelyn and her cohort read (more) challenging texts, debate how to solve difficult word problems, and craft creative responses to writing prompts.

“Something I really like is when we break into groups and each group has a set of algebra problems to do,” says Evelyn. “I feel like I learn better that way because I have something that I can share with the other people, and seeing what other people did helps me too.”

As far as enrichment goes, Evelyn’s teacher requires nothing remarkably collaborative, challenging, or interdisciplinary. Yet compared to how learning happens in my daughter’s regular classroom, the approaches taken by her enrichment teacher look revolutionary.

When she goes back to class after enrichment, Evelyn must then make up the work she missed in class; she often brings home a stack of worksheets and worry about whether she will earn an NP (Nearing Proficiency), MP (Meeting Proficiency), or EP (Exceeding Proficiency) on her next standardized test. (How someone can *exceed* proficiency is beyond me, but that’s quibbling over semantics.)

In other words, the learning she and her friends do in enrichment isn’t seen as replacing or even extending the regular curriculum. She still must complete every worksheet in order to ensure solid results on the standardized test that Delaware requires she take three times a year, every year.

When I talked with my daughter about some of the classroom projects Cathy Davidson writes about in her book, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century, she expressed admiration and a tinge of jealousy. The process-based methods used by innovative teachers like those at Voyager Academy and Quest 2 Learn were both alien and appealing to her.

Mostly what she longs for is to learn in interesting ways. Nearly every subject–from science to social studies, language arts to math–has the potential to interest her and her classmates, but the perpetual testing cycle and limitations of time and focus discourage fun, curiosity, and questions.

The elementary-aged kids I talk to know that the system is broken; they know that standardized testing, at least in its current form, is a chain hanging around their teachers’ (and by proxy, their educations’) necks. But they’re trapped.

“Standardized tests just show what you wrote. They don’t show what you actually know,” explains Evelyn. “Something like a project can show how much a student cares about their work.”

Evelyn, limited by her formal school experiences as well as by her youth, would probably admire Davidson’s idea of an “exciting end-of-grade test” (130). Davidson proposes an end of year “synthesis” that students would create that would use what they had learned that year. The project would show “each child what he or she could do in the world,” and these ideas would be on display at an “idea sale” (130).

In my searching online for a video intersecting with Davidson’s theoretical concepts and my hopes for my children, I found a video made by a class of 7th graders in Joanna Sanders Bobiash’s Grade 7 class at École Wilfrid Walker School. The video, which won the 2009 “Best in Class” Best Buy Contest, grew out of a collaborative text written by the students based on their goals for the future and the impact of technology on their lives.

See the video here (I’m having trouble getting it to embed from tubechop).

Now, there are many other more polished videos available on Youtube, even those ostensibly made by middle schoolers. This one did not stand out to me because of its professionalism; the video footage and editing is fine and the audio quality is okay.

What moved me deeply was getting to hear the words and voices of young adolescents speaking their goals and dreams. Not by themselves in private. Not to a friend or family member. But as a team, to the world (and in two languages, no less!).

One young woman says, “I want to share my work with the world and learn from their feedback.”

That simultaneous confidence in reaching out and acknowledgement of what one has yet to learn, it seems to me, are at the heart of Davidson’s manifesto: “Confidence in your ability to learn is confidence in your ability to unlearn,” writes Davidson, “to switch assumptions or methods or partnerships in order to do better” (86).

Schools that encourage and reward that simultaneous confidence (learning) and awareness of personal shortcomings (unlearning): that’s what I want for my daughters and my son.

But when another thick packet of worksheets and workbook pages land on the kitchen counter, it’s hard to feel hope that a place like Ms. Bobiash’s 7th grade class and Q2L and Voyager Academy are more than rare mirages in an educational morass.