Sven Birkerts: On Writing, the Distractions of Technology, and Iota

May 9, 2018 § 3 Comments

An interview conducted by Sarah Einstein,

picture-of-svenEssayist Sven Birkerts writes often and compellingly in defense of the artfulness of the essay and its ability to connect us to the sublime. He worries that we’re losing that artfulness to the pull of technologies that clamber for our attention; attention that we need if we are to create or experience art.

Nothing could better describe my own problems with writing at the moment. Even writing this, I’m pulled away by a New York Times “Breaking News Alert” that, really, isn’t particularly pressing. Just another pronouncement from Trump about the Stormy Daniels case, which I could well have waited to read until this evening and probably have gotten by with never reading at all. But everything feels so urgent right now, and so fragile, that it’s difficult to leave the constant demands of the 24-hour news cycle behind and do the quieter, more complex work of contemplation that fuels the personal essay. So I was excited to have the opportunity to talk with him about this very problem, and I’m anxious to (try) to implement his suggestions.

________

EinsteinI’ve been thinking about the essays in Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age quite a bit lately. I first read it in 2015, when it seemed common-sensical to me that both to create and appreciate art, we must resist the temptation to let the internet train us to be gadflies. I read the essays with easy agreement, even if I sometimes checked Facebook between them.  And then, of course, the world changed and it was possible not to know the state of the nation if one looked away for more than a few hours. I’ll admit I lost a good six months of productivity to the constant pull of this disaster and that outrage, so sure at first that each one must surely be the last one. It’s only lately that I’ve been able to pull myself away from what I like to imagine was deeply engaged citizenship, but which I am sure was more political rubbernecking, at the hourly pronouncements from the press. 

I’m wondering if you think it’s less, or more, necessary now for us to unplug from the constant intrusion of technology, given that it often intrudes to tell us about some new degradation to our democracy? How do we consider carefully when it seems that what we consider is, right now, in such constant turmoil?

Birkerts: You ask the question of the hour, and it frets me daily. We can’t not tune in to crisis-time in the West, but neither can we let our already threatened inner independence get snuffed out. It seems important to distinguish between staying informed and—your good word—“rubbernecking.” Gawking at the “breaking news,” feeling full of dread but mildly titillated, too,  we not only burn up huge amounts of time, but we get more deeply implicated in the system that brings us the spectacle—a system which jumps from network news to Facebook to Twitter, and keeps us in thrall with the promise of the resolving next thing. 19th century novels were often published in serial form and structured to the logic of the cliff-hanger, as were soaps and prime-time series after them. Now it’s “breaking news” and click-bait.

The more entangled we are, the less oxygen there is for the formerly free-standing “I.”  And also the less content. If you spend much of the day free-styling between platforms, what do you have to work with in the soul-making department, and what will you use to make your art, if art is what you make?

What we need to do is regularly break the media spell. The hypnotist snaps her fingers and the guy on the stage stops acting like a duck. We break the spell not by weaning, but by suddenly stopping. Power failure—“where did you put the candles, hon?”  And we need to do this as often as our reliance warrants. Which is something only we know—how deep in we are.  By stopping we get an update on our addiction. By staying stopped for a while, we give unmediated existence—what used to be called “life”—a chance. You can’t just unplug and be reading your Knausgaard the next minute. You need some time to once again become the person who can do so.

Great advice, Sven—take it!

zz Sarah-EinsteinEinstein: In a letter to Poetry Magazine, you wrote that you’ve encountered a “withering away of a felt secular connection to something that might be called transcendent” in the culture of our time. I imagine this connection, itself, requires the sort of attention you argue for in Changing the Subject. How can we get this access to the sublime through art back, or do you think it’s lost to us for the time being? Are there writers today who you think are particularly good at fostering this connection?

Birkerts: I like Theodore Roethke’s words here. He wrote: “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.”  I have to believe that for all the media saturation and distraction, that “means” is still viable. But it’s not an easy thing, is it? I will use the old word “soul” and say that our souls—our secular souls—need some saving. Art is a path of attention, of concentration, and in the process, both of making and of experiencing, we are taken out of the nervous percolation of the moment and immersed in the other time. Duration time—which is time during which we are unaware of time whirling by. Absorption. This is the natural habitat—it’s why we were allowed to be children once—and we do recognize this as soon as the immersion happens. But then we forget, need to be reminded again and again that it’s there. The hypnotist’s finger snap.

My big word for a long time now has been “attention.”  It must be paid, as Arthur Miller wrote.

Einstein: What do you wish people were paying more attention to at this moment? Is there something you wish we’d pay less attention to? 

Birkerts: The ordinary, just for starters. Life begins at home. The dust motes hanging in the light, the cat doing its yoga stretches. The thing registered is less important here than the registering itself. This kind of perception is at the same time a means of self-perception. It completes a circuit. It may not have a further end, and doesn’t need one.    What we are doing when we watch or scroll and click is something different. The attention I’m talking about fixes on the real time/space existence of the thing, whatever it is. Scroll-attention happens in a separate time/space zone and it is, given the nature of electronic media, always asking us to lean toward the next thing.

Einstein: What advice do you have for essayists who want to find their way to artfulness in these distracted times?

Birkerts: Hmmmmm….Find ways to keep believing that what you feel needs to be said does need to be said. This means a regular checking in with the true origins of the impulse of the project. It also means keeping company with your kindred, the writers who move you to emulation.  As you are writing ask yourself the simple question:  “Am I having fun?”  I mean this in the craft sense: “Is my sentence-making interesting and surprising to me?”  Do not fear the digression—it may be your unconscious tugging at your sleeve.

iota doty (1)Einstein: You’re one of the workshop leaders at the upcoming Iota Conference, which consists of four days spent on Campobello Island just over the Canadian border. I’ve been twice, once as a workshop leader and once as a participant, and one of the things I valued most about it was the opportunity to let go of distractions, to focus for a while on art with others of a similar bent. Can you tell us a little about what participants can expect in your workshop? 

Birkerts: Given that I’ll have two days with each group of students, I hope to use exercises and conversation to help the writers get closer to the urgency and insistence of their respective projects. I won’t say more, but that is the teaching impulse I feel these days.

Want to study with Sven Birkerts at Iota this summer? Dates are August 15 – 18. Visit www.iotaconference.com while there are still seats available.
____

Sven Birkerts is the author of nine books and has been editor of AGNI since July 2002. He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. He has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic,  Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, and Mt. Holyoke College, and is director of the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars.

Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir and Remnants of Passsion, and her essays have appeared in Ninth Letter, The Sun, Whitefish Review, and other literary journals. She is the founding editor of Signal Mountain Review and teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her online course Memoir Writing for Happy People runs June 1 – August 31 at Iota Short Prose Online.

Brevity Podcast Episode #9: Rhiannon Navin and Ander Monson

April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment

This episode, Brevity takes a detour into fiction, speaking with debut author Rhiannon Navin about making fiction from fact and how she turned her real-life emotional experience into a novel. Then it’s back to our regularly scheduled creative nonfiction, with Ander Monson, editor-in-chief of Diagram.

Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.

Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below.

Next episode, it’s time for our listeners’ very own One-Minute Memoirs! Audio Editor Kathryn Rose and I will discuss what made the winning submissions stand out, and how to make your own story pack maximum punch in minimum space. And you’ll hear 15 fantastic, very short memoirs.

 

Show Notes: Episode #9 People and Books

Find out more about:

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

Ander Monson

Letter to a Future Lover

Paul Monette

The Mezzanine

Turtle Island

Casa de los Ninos

Charley Douglas and the “laff box”

Useful Adjectives and Adjectival Phrases to Describe Ander Monson:

  1. phenomenal
  2. maverick
  3. self-involved
  4. trickeration-loving
  5. asinine
  6. straight-shooting
  7. family-betraying
  8. law-breaking
  9. ne’er-do-well
  10. bad boy
  11. future addict
  12. serious and accomplished
  13. brainy but beautiful
  14. chubby
  15. crazy
  16. more than likely delusional
  17. poetryish
  18. encyclopedic
  19. whale-kicking
  20. profane
  21. piratical
  22. regretful
  23. sympathetic
  24. criminal
  25. pensive
  26. bright but misguided
  27. hurt, badly, baldly
  28. good
  29. trying real hard to be good

Additional music by John Stebbe, Ars Sonor, and Kai Engel via freemusicarchive.org.

________________________________

Allison K Williams is the host of the Brevity Podcast.

On Shoveling Snow During a Blizzard and Writing Memoir at 26

April 2, 2018 § 10 Comments

Katie HS Square (3 of 1) (1).jpgBy Katie Simon

“What kind of writing do you do?” It is snowing heavily outside, and I am at a party, ice flaking off my quilted boots and melting into puddles on the hardwood floor. I get asked this question frequently, not just by buzz-cut, twenty-something, plaid-wearing, men like the one in front of me, but by people of all hairstyles, ages, and clothing preferences. I know what this man expects me to say: short stories; poetry; hot takes on pop culture trends. I am 26 years old, and anything I write must be imaginary or ephemeral.

I squirm in my boots, stare out the window at the weather I just escaped. I hate this question. “Memoir,” I say.

“Huh.” He looks at me skeptically. Even without asking my age, he has a general idea. I look younger than I am. “Kind of funny for somebody your age, don’t you think?” I wonder about the walk home and if the sidewalks will be cleared if I just wait out this storm a little while longer, if I manage to make it through this conversation.

I don’t owe him an explanation, though I have one I know will effectively wipe away his doubt. I could tell him I’m finishing a book about the gap year I took during which I contracted the plague in Uzbekistan, was raped by a stranger in a Tel Aviv alleyway, and found myself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution. Though mentioning this project appeases would-be skeptics, I don’t like sharing it. I don’t want to perpetuate the misconception that a young person needs to have had an unusual life to write a memoir. So, standing in my friend’s apartment, my fingers still thawing from the frozen weather outside, I shrug and change the topic.

During a blizzard, you start shoveling while the snow is still falling. It seems counter-intuitive. Why bundle up and bend against snowflake-filled wind when you could just wait for the snow and wind to stop? Those who’ve braved blizzards, New Englanders like me, know better.

My book is about a sequence of events that took place largely in my eighteenth year. When I started writing, it was less than a year later. I was nineteen years old and knew I probably hadn’t even lived the ending, but I wrote anyway, because I knew my story needed to be told. I took workshops with widely published authors who advised me to write my story as quickly as possible and get a book deal before graduating college. “Just write it really close up,” one professor told me. “You don’t need to have an older narrator’s wisdom if you present the facts to the reader without judgement.” While his advice may work for some, I didn’t take it.

You start shoveling during the blizzard so you have a pathway to work yourself out once the snow finally stops.

I didn’t write my book as quickly as possible. I stuck my unfinished manuscript in a drawer. I worked on other writing. I took a break from writing altogether. And when I finally returned to the book I had started six years before, I was unequivocally grateful to my teenage self for having the audacity to write her own story as it was unfolding. What I wrote in college, though mostly rewritten, overhauled, or simply cut, has been invaluable to the process of finishing the draft I have today.

You start shoveling during the blizzard so you can see the outline of the sidewalk when you dig later on, so you don’t scrape cars or break your shovel on fire hydrants.

Those early pieces gave me a blueprint. I got down the details of events and characters and settings I wouldn’t otherwise have remembered. I built up the eighteen-year-old’s persona with such intricate interiority that going back and reflecting, even just a few years down the line, proved much easier; the ways in which my perspective had changed were immediately noticeable. Without having my teenage point of view down on paper, the persona, so recently embodied, would have blurred with the narrator.

You start shoveling during the blizzard because if you don’t, by the time the last flake has fallen, the snow in front of you may be so deep and dense you can’t break through its icy surface, not even a dent.

I wrote memoir at nineteen because even though I hadn’t yet lived my book’s ending, I intuitively knew I had to get words down on the page. So that when, six years later, I faced the enormous, incomprehensible task of writing a book about my life, I wouldn’t be so overwhelmed that I waited, and waited, and waited, hoping it would make the task ahead magically easier.

Don’t wait. Write memoir when you’re young, even if haven’t yet lived your story’s ending. Shovel when the blizzard is still raging outside.

_____
Katie Simon is writing a memoir about the year she contracted the plague, was raped by a stranger in an alleyway, and found herself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Health, Entropy, BUST, Women’s Health, and elsewhere.

 

Treading Uncomfortably in Social Media

February 5, 2018 § 12 Comments

Jennifer Lang small head shotBy Jennifer Lang

In fall of 2006, Facebook made its debut appearance, available to anyone with an email address over the age of 13. The following year, my 14-year-old son joined and helped me create a profile so I could monitor him. But I just wasn’t into it, and he didn’t need me there. “Why do you want all these people you barely know to see this post?” I asked him on more than one occasion. “It’s so public.”

When high school classmates I hadn’t seen since graduation in 1983 sent friend requests, I mocked not them but the medium. When people posted birthday wishes for worldwide viewing, I squirmed. When I missed a childhood friend’s son’s bar mitzvah, asked to see photos and she said check Facebook, I felt hurt.

By the time Facebook became a verb, my page had withered from inactivity.

When we moved from New York to Israel in 2011, another new immigrant said, “If you want to know what everybody’s up to in this town, scroll Facebook at the end of every day.” I’m not proud, but I turned into a Peeping Tom, skimming people’s posts on a still irregular but more often basis. I neither liked nor commented.

That same year, I opened my own yoga studio and started posting. I taught writing classes and started posting. I launched my blog and posted it. Using it professionally didn’t bother me as much as personally. One new friend teased me, calling me old-fashioned, and email—always my preferred means of communication—obsolete.

Three years later, I entered a low-residency MFA in the U.S. where I made writer friends every one of whom, it seemed, posted with abandon: links to essays, photos from residency, calls for submissions. Sometimes I responded. Sometimes I didn’t. Something still held me back from liking news about a friend’s pet passing or an old classmate’s cancer or a colleague losing a job.

During my second-to-last residency, I attended a panel on literary citizenship, a term I’d never heard before. Its gist: how important it is to support each other, to share each other’s work, to comment for the writer to know and others to see. When our class graduated, one of my friends gave a lecture on a related topic. A year out of school, I attended a writers’ retreat in Ireland, where the instructor insisted we devote a certain number of hours a week to social media, to reading our fellow writers’ stories, to responding to them, to understanding the give and the take in this community.

All throughout these years as writer, I’ve been practicing and teaching yoga too. Back in New York, I attended a weekly teachers’ practice offered by my teacher, Susan. She taught me how to jump from an arm balance called Crow to a low push-up, how to transition from Crow to headstand, how to jump into handstand with both legs. When a fellow yogi mentioned that she was scared to fall, Susan said, “I get it. Me too. Sometimes we might. And that’s okay. Because if we always stay comfortable in our poses and in our practice, if we never let ourselves fall, we’ll never grow.”

Now, whenever I open Facebook, I think about those who have taught me the meaning of being a good literary citizen and about Susan’s message. I think about how in order to grow I have to push myself to tread in uncomfortable territory.

Ten-and-a-half years after I created that first profile, I check it often, to read posts and pieces that otherwise might not have flashed before my eyes, to applaud writers for their beautiful words and to spread them around on social media. I’ve even joined Twitter. On the early vs late adopters scale, I’m on the extremely late, uber slow side, Jennifer Lang, the laggard. I’m not proud, but at least I’m present.
____
Jennifer Lang’s essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Assay, Ascent, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Full Grown People. Honors include Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominations and finalist in 2017 Crab Orchard Review’s Literary Nonfiction Contest. Find her at http://israelwritersalon.com and follow her @JenLangWrites as she writes her first memoir.

Click, Scroll, Select, and Drive: Navigating the Digital Essay

September 6, 2017 § 3 Comments

Eric LeMay’s new interactive collection Essays On The Essay And Other Essays asks readers to click, scroll, select, and “drive” through the first collection of its kind. “LeMay is the future of the essay,” says Ned Stuckey-French, “but fortunately he’s here now.” In this interview, Sarah Minor writes to LeMay about the tensions between the tradition of the essay and the space of the screen.

Brevity-Interview-Minor-LeMay

__
Sarah Minor is a writer and designer and the editor of the Visual Essays series on Essay Daily. Her writing appears recently in places like Mid-American ReviewCreative Nonfiction and The Atlantic. In 2017 she will join the faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Find her digitally at sarahceniaminor.com and @sarahceniaminor.

Let’s Be Bored!

June 22, 2017 § 22 Comments

The first screens that bothered me were in minivans. Back around 1998 when an in-car VCR first was a thing I asked my mother, “But when will the kids be bored?” I remembered long family car rides from Florida to Canada and back every summer, staring out the window, making up games in my head about the dividing line, learning to read the map, playing Alphabet or Punchbuggy, counting cows. I remembered the year I decided–decided!–I would no longer get carsick from reading.

I’m sure big chunks of those rides were boring. And don’t get me started on my Dad smoking with the window cracked. But they were also where I developed some of the life of the mind. The ability to think and dream and plan and guess for hours at a time, unbounded by schedules or plans or classes or teams or “having something to do.”

As an adult, it’s my phone that gets me. Before I carried a computer in my pocket, I was a lot more in tune with the world around me. No matter how virtuous my New York Times digital subscription feels, it’s still not the same as leafing through the physical paper, reading articles I didn’t pick but caught my eye. I don’t think clickbait counts.

On my way home to Dubai yesterday, I had a six-hour layover at Amsterdam Schipol–enough time to go into town and walk around. I’d racked up huge data charges on the last layover here, so I kept my phone in airplane mode and I kept it in my purse. It occured to me I hadn’t done that for a while, so I started a list in my notebook of all the things we used to do before we all had smartphones:

Used payphones.

Bummed change for payphones.

Begged and pleaded with the convenience store clerk to please give us change.

Resentfully bought a single jawbreaker or Fireball to get change.

Got lost.

Were on time to appointments, instead of texting running bhind b thr in 10.

Tried restaurants we didn’t know anything about because they looked cute outside.

Looked out the window.

Saw words we didn’t know and wrote them down to look up later.

Couldn’t take a photo unless we’d remembered our camera; couldn’t see what the photo looked like until it came back from the photo lab in the corner of the grocery store.

Read ads and billboards and posters.

Figured out train and bus timetables.

Asked strangers for directions.

Looked around a new neighborhood to find out what kind of stores were around.

Whistled or waved for taxis.

In Amsterdam I did in fact get lost, figuring if worse came to worse I’d get a taxi back to the station, or even ask someone for directions. The Dutch have terrific English, but I’m sure I could have squeezed out some charades for “train” if it were, say, rural China. I knew from the pink-lined windows I was in roughly the Red Light District, and went on a quest for something I can get in Amsterdam but not in Dubai (not that thing, the other thing.) Finding what I wanted by chance felt triumphant. I tried to figure out “Moeder’s Keuze”–I guessed “mother’s kiss” but later found out it’s “mother’s choice” and if anyone Dutch knows why that’s heading a sandwich menu, let me know. On the train back to the airport, the man across from me mouthed into his cellphone, “I’ve sort of glossed over where I’m staying, I think she thinks I’m going to be in Amsterdam tonight,” and I wrote that down for future dialogue.

Don’t get me wrong–I still value the ability to get accurate travel info, settle arguments, and take a picture every time I want. But my phone sometimes cuts me off from adventure and hazard and spontaneity. It’s certainly not doing anything for my mood when I check Twitter upon waking. I already turn the phone face down when I’m writing, and it’s time to stop whipping it out every time I have a free five minutes. I don’t need to zap gems or solve puzzles or learn a French verb or even read something edifying to get ideas/think through a writing block.

I need to be bored.

 

______________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She still plays Alphabet by herself on long drives.

 

Social Media Summer Cleaning

June 20, 2017 § 14 Comments

I did another self-funded mini-Amtrak residency last week. One of the best parts of the train is inconsistent/slow wifi and poor cell reception. I spend a lot of time looking out the window and thinking thinky thoughts. Another best part is shared tables–Amtrak seats strangers together until a dining car table is full. And usually, that’s pretty awesome.

Last week, the man beside me began dinner conversation by passing out scraps of paper with his name and “bn.com” so we’d know where to download his books. Give the man credit–he was of an age that paper media was probably a more comfortable way to connect than whipping out a smartphone and asking for our Twitter handles. Unfortunately, he also brought up a strong political position over the salad course, at which the lady across the table joined me in a chorus of, “Oh, we never talk politics with strangers!”

Maybe because the day before I’d heard a strong political position from my beloved hairdresser that made me rethink whether the terrific face-framing layers were worth it, or because that morning I’d gotten into a tussle with a stranger on Facebook, it hit me pretty hard to hear another diatribe in a place I thought was safe.

As writers, we’re “supposed” to “build platform.” Get to know people in our field, online and off. We tend to accept most friend requests, join most groups that seem vaguely simpatico, check what’s happening online like it’s a duty instead of a way to duck writing a tricky sentence (guilty!). Until November 2016, this all-access plan was mostly good. Since then, I’ve found a lot of my social media time feels like running through a paintball game.

Click–Bam! Racism!

Click–Pow! Horrible event I care about! Where’s my senator’s number?

Click–Zap! Surprise bigot in the comments!

Maybe you’re feeling some of this, too. And as the Social Media Editor around here, I want to give you permission (nay, encouragement!) for a good summer clean-out. Look through your Facebook friends–anyone you truly don’t remember? You don’t have to unfriend them, just unfollow. (For a more gradual process, check the birthday notifications. Anyone you don’t care enough to wish a happy day to can probably be unfollowed.) If nastiness pops up on a friend’s feed, block the source and you won’t see them any more. Every time you see something awful on Twitter (that isn’t a citizen’s duty to be aware of) mute that account.

What kind of social connections do you want to be making? What idea exchanges do you want to have? Instead of waiting for the sore spots to get poked, take ownership. Pick one day a week or one time a day to participate. Decide what topics you care enough to engage on and let everything else go–even if you have the BEST FACT EVER to refute with. Start a newsletter (Tiny Letter is pretty easy) so that it’s you reaching out when you choose, and people who email you back are likely into what you have to say. Remember social media as a place to have fun, and share silly memes, make jokes, and express your personal voice about your garden, your dog, or your writing process.

When I got into the train dining car the next morning, I saw the male author headed my way, and I whispered into the hostess’ ear that I’d rather not sit with him, please. She put me at a table with a couple. I asked them where they were from. “Seattle!” chirped the woman. We talked about Broadway musicals and mime and their children and my husband, and I didn’t once bring up my book.

 

___________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Shhhhhhhh…

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Writing and the Internet category at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: