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.

Finding Your Writing Fix in Online Classes

June 14, 2017 § 18 Comments

x rae_mosaicBy Rae Pagliarulo

I’ll admit it — I’m a little bit of a conference junkie. I love using writing as an excuse to go places and meet people and yes, take a little time off work. I go every year, without fail, to Hippocamp, situated right in the middle of charming Lancaster (and filled to the brim with other CNF lovers like me), as well as the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, a small–but–mighty conference that lets poets take over Salem for a weekend of words and witching. So earlier this year, when I first learned about the Iota Conference, where Penny Guisinger has been hosting weekends of writing on the beautiful and scenic coast of Maine each summer. I was instantly wooed. I cyber-stalked the Iota website, trying desperately to come up with ways my hectic schedule might allow for it, but no matter how many things I rearranged, I couldn’t make time with a brand new job and several other immovable commitments to contend with.

Right around the time I was seriously considering having some of my organs harvested so I could afford a last–minute trip to Iceland for NonfictioNOW (be careful not to search for the conference attendees’ posts on social media — you’ll die of jealousy), I saw that Iota was starting a new online component. I could get my fix with a short class about an interesting topic, AND I could stop researching the value of a black-market spleen? It was a no–brainer.

The key to success in online learning lies between two things that are notoriously hard to control — technology and humans. Without easily navigable technology that makes logging in, communicating, and accessing resources simple and intuitive, as well as a group of people who are dedicated to remaining engaged — posting in the discussion boards, responding to their classmates’ questions, ideally paying attention to the class for more than an hour per week — you’ve got little more than a good idea and a WiFi connection. Thankfully, the class I decided to take from Iota Online had both. For four weeks, myself and nine other writers dove into Writing Flash Creative Nonfiction with Penny.

Each week, Penny posted a link to a YouTube video lecture and uploaded a handful of readings that supported the week’s focus. For a short course, it was comprehensive — we looked at the form itself and what was possible within it, and discussed situation, story, scenes, revision, and the senses. After reading the pieces each week, we discussed them, argued about their merits, and sang their praises. The discussions could have landed flatly, after each person uploaded their paragraph-long summary. But our instructor, even from afar, was able to be diligent about challenging us, asking questions, and suggesting additional readings or craft articles. It kept the conversation moving, and it kept me from mentally logging out of the course site after my “assignment” was done. I wanted to keep talking, and debating, and finding new authors to obsess over. The interactions I had on that message board mimicked the ones I craved as a conference junkie, but were somehow better. Here, I could debate the finer points of sensory detail and sentence structure with a New England psychologist, a Midwestern academic, a European expat artist, and a Canadian freelancer — and no one would know if I wasn’t wearing any pants.

At first, I was afraid that I would have trouble finding things to write about. I tend to be a tad long-winded when it comes to my CNF (which is why I was drawn to this course in the first place). What if I couldn’t rein myself in enough to keep it under 1,000 words? But by reading a TON of great flash CNF, I started to process my thoughts in short, vivid bursts, looking for brief but undeniably rich moments where before, I might have seen pages of exposition. Stories that seemed impossible to tame (too much backstory! all that context!) suddenly boiled down to handful of telling moments — watching a movie with a crush, looking for Christmas lights in a dingy basement, shoveling snow on a Saturday. With feedback from my generous classmates, and personalized feedback from Penny, I kept honing those brief moments of light and color into what they were meant to be — flashes.

Writing itself is the ideal activity for distance learning. Diverse opinions from new writers and readers are what make my work stronger. But it’s not always feasible to take a week off work and travel to a conference or residency. Online writing classes do the hard work for me — they collect individuals who are passionate about writing and share an interest in learning this new thing (scene work, dialogue, speculation, character development, whatever), and create a space where we can gather. Interestingly, having all our feedback posted publicly seemed to encourage my classmates and I to dig deeper with each subsequent week. By reviewing each other’s insights on a single person’s work, we could agree on an excellent point, and more importantly, offer unique insights that would complement what had already been addressed.

In a somewhat surprising way, I was able to access this jolt of creativity and energy — the kind I usually only find at conferences — without leaving home. At moments when I craved a change of scenery, I committed to completing my Iota classwork at a coffee shop or collective work space, where I felt able to focus completely without worrying about the laundry, or the bills on the table, or the many, many teen dramas I have yet to binge on Netflix.

Maybe it was poetically appropriate for a flash CNF class to be brief, but it was clear that by the end of our four-week class, my colleagues and I had barely scratched the surface, and better yet, we’d all gained this new toy that we wanted to keep playing with. In the end, I was left with pieces of writing that made me more excited than I’d been since I finished my MFA thesis. I couldn’t wait to get them out into the world. So far, they’ve been to a couple of readings, been submitted to a handful of online magazines, and helped me gain admission into – you guessed it – a writing conference.

_______

** Iota’s upcoming classes are now open for registration.
__

Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as an editor for online magazines, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.

IOTA: Inspirational Space, Inspired Writing

January 9, 2017 § 4 Comments

By Melanie Brooks

zz melanie

Melanie Brooks

In the summers of my childhood, my parents would load our pop-up camper with dented pots and pans, melamine dishes, a Coleman stove, deep, rectangle coolers filled with easy-to-cook food, mosquito coils, sleeping bags, pillows, board games, and whatever else necessary to sustain our family of six for a week in the outdoors. They’d hitch the trailer to our wood-paneled station wagon, load us all in, and set out from our home in Moncton, New Brunswick, to destinations around the Canadian Maritimes. The Bay of Fundy region was a favorite, and we’d often travel by ferry from Blacks Harbour to camp on Deer Island or Grand Manan Island. Day trips would take us to the third of the “Fundy Sisters,” Campobello, for hikes on its pristine trails or visits to the beaches and lighthouses that inhabit the island, home to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s summer retreat. These vacation days stretched long in the luxury kind of way. Time that in “the real world” rushed us from one necessary thing to the next, took on a different cadence. We were together. We were focused on each other and, for a little while, we were in-tune to the quiet beauty of the world around us. Nostalgic images of these family trips by the sea nestle in the folds of my memory.

iota (14)

The Roosevelt Cottage, Campobello

Thanks to Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, directed by author Penny Guisinger, these memories reawakened when I spent four days last August in a charming cottage turned conference center overlooking Friar’s Bay in FDR International Park on Campobello Island. Under the guidance of visiting faculty – author and Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore and poet Mark Doty – I dove into the world of crafting short-form prose. Daily workshops, facilitated discussions and nightly readings provided me the opportunity to immerse in community with twenty-six other writers, a fundamental refueling for my motivation to keep plugging away when the confines of my desk and laptop feel lonely.

But, Iota’s setting, this quiet, unassuming New Brunswick Island, also held that familiar tug toward what was once, for me, home. A separate world almost, where people like Theresa, our facility manager, represent nine generations of island residents. A place where life isn’t quite so hurried.

There, embraced by briny air, breeze-rustled leaves, pebbled shores, and panoramic ocean views, I found what I tend to forget I need the most: space. Space to ignore the pull of responsibility to work and family. Space to disconnect from public events and politics. Space to, for just a little while, dwell in simple tranquility. My mind was free to wander in that space to creative intersections where language and images collide to make something meaningful, even beautiful. I wrote. Words. On the page. And some of those words were actually good. Good enough, at least, to take home to work on some more.

How fitting that a conference called “Iota” helped me to understand that surviving this writerly life is not about excess. Sometimes all we need is a bit. A bit of space. A bit of time. To linger a little. To breathe a little. To remember that just a moment can fill us completely.

__

This year’s Iota conference will be held July 8-11, with faculty members Abigail Thomas and Debra Marquart. Information on registration can be found on the Iota website.

__

Melanie Brooks is a writer and college professor from Nashua, New Hampshire. Her recent work has been published in the Washington PostBustle, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus MagazineWord Riot, the Huffington PostModern Loss, the Stonecoast Review, and The Recollectors. She was awarded the Michael Steinberg Prize for Nonfiction for Solstice Literary Magazine’s Annual Writing Contest, and her first book, Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma, is forthcoming with Beacon Press in February 2017.

Loons, Fox, Wind, and Pines: Life at IOTA

August 26, 2016 § 7 Comments

iota doty (1)

Our writing desks at IOTA

By Ryder Ziebarth

Just this past week, I took a busman’s holiday: four days at the Iota Conference of Short Prose in Campobello, New Brunswick, the former Roosevelt family compound on an island in Canada. The Inn is accessed by passport and a small bridge from the town of Lubec, Maine, the Easternmost point of the United States—a treat to myself, and a break after a receiving my MFA this June and starting right in on a memoir.

I am from New Jersey and it was quite a trek. Two planes from Newark (some lost luggage,) then a two-and-a-half-hour car ride north from Bangor, Maine. Once there, I entered a world so visually breathtaking (blueberry barrens, blue skies, coastal views) and stepped into a place and time so luxuriously unspoiled, my writer-self began scribbling long before my hands were off the steering wheel of my rented Jetta.

Penny Guisinger created Iota as her semester thesis project while a student at the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine in 2013. The conference, now in its fourth year, was fully attended with several repeat customers. Writers from states far afield including Maryland, Ohio, New York, Texas, Maine and Canada came for daily workshops led by guest writers Dinty W. Moore (Brevity founder and editor) and poet and memoirist Mark Doty. From Wednesday through Friday morning, we talked about all kinds of short forms–from micro-flash and flash, to short essays, memoir and prose poems. We read, swam, wrote, walked, napped, listened to song lyrics and music, discussed process and projects, and even celebrated a participant’s news of winning a Writer’s Digest prize. All this on a wraparound porch with views of a blueberry speckled lawn sweeping right into the Bay of Fundy.

iota (4)

Prince Cottage, site of the IOTA Conference

We slept in cottages with our windows wide open to the sounds of loons, fox, and wind through tall pines. We ate, and then ate some more of the best homemade food we have ever eaten, including a lobster dinner with strawberry shortcake for dessert. We were also served heaping portions of readings from new and recent works from Mark and Dinty, Penny (from her book, Postcards from Here), plus author/feminist Arielle Greenberg. Just when we thought we were stuffed to the gills with food both for the stomach and soul, there was a late night feast of truly amazing readings from nearly all of the conference participants.

Did I get ANY writing accomplished? Absolutely, but even more than that I had fun. My goal in taking a four-day short prose workshop was to remind myself to stop digressing in the narrative of my work, to tighten up my sentences and therefore, the content of the memoir.  But I came away with so much more than just the lecture notes and workshop exercises I had bargained for: Dinty’s “Invisible Magnetic River” and Mark Doty’s poetic and useful advice toward writing short, concise prose: “Give enough complexity to honor the subject, but be brief enough to honor the reader.” A quote that will grace my work space on an index card.

I also came away satiated with new writerly friendships, connections in a world that can be at once as lonely and solitary as it is intrusive. I relished the company of a lovely woman who kept me company on the long car ride to and from Bangor who was struggling on a memoir of her own, and the kind young writer who encouraged me to let go of my resistance to read my work in the evening group, and another who shared her story with me of her choice to write prose poetry rather than the essays she had churned out for years. Some had published one or two books, some had shiny new book deals, many were teachers, some had published in literary journals, some were still struggling to find their niche; but all of us had two things in common, a love of reading and writing. It was the perfect vacation, busman or not.
__

Ryder Ziebarth completed her MFA in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts and  is currently working on her first memoir, Cedar Ridge Farm: The Life, The Death and the Restoration. Ryder is an Associate Editor for Tiferet Literary Journal and a literary advisor for the Nantucket Book Festival. Her daughter is the fifth generation to have lived on the family homestead in New Jersey with her mom, dad, and three West highland terriers.

Iota: Short Prose Conference

March 25, 2015 § 2 Comments

DSC_5904A note on the upcoming Iota Conference from Penny Guisinger and a reflection on the event from Sven Birkerts:

Iota: Short Prose Conference is a place that celebrates the small in a world often ruled by heft. Participants gather at the Cobscook Community Learning Center, near Maine’s easternmost tip, for a long weekend of writing, relaxing, and learning. We also do a lot of talking, mostly about books. This year’s conference is July 23 – 26. Applications are due by June 23, but apply by April 15 for an early-bird discount!

 The focus is on short works: essays, flash, fiction, micro-everythings, prose poetry. And the definition of “short” is up for grabs. If you can write it, or even get it started, in a morning, you can workshop it that very afternoon. This year’s faculty will be Brevity Special Projects Editor Sarah Einstein and Richard Hoffman, and every participant will workshop with both of them. We’re thrilled to welcome them both!

This will be Iota’s third summer. The following is a reflection on the experience of teaching at Iota by Sven Birkerts, a faculty member from the conference’s first year:

I was invited to be an instructor at the very first staging of Iota, Short Prose Conference, which was held late in the summer of 2013 on Campobello Island off the northern coast of Maine. For once it was easy to tell people where I was headed: to the easternmost point of the continental United States. That struck an original note. As did the conference, start to finish.

Sven-for-Brevity

Sven Birkerts at Iota

I love the early days of things, the premieres, trial outings—love that improvisatory freedom of action before things crystallize, as they invariably do, into ‘this is how we do things.’ Small by design, it had the energy of first formations. Here were seventeen students and three faculty, gathering for the first time in a grand lodge. The first night we dispersed ourselves about the big room, the windows giving onto a prospect of tall pines and distant ocean. There were introductions, instructions, the usual business of first nights everywhere. But I also felt the almost immediate emergence of a distinct group spirit, which I can assure you is not the usual business. This had much to do with Conference Director Penny Guisinger and her associates at the Cobscook Community Learning Center, who between them had found exactly the right note. How to describe it? Expectant yet relaxed, exuding an improvisatory confidence. Which proved to be justified. Penny had brought together a diverse group of students and instructors who wanted nothing more than to talk about books and writing.

This came clear the next day as we dispersed to our various workshop locations, none without some view of pointed firs or distant water. The sizes were right, and—certainly in my case—the interactions were right away both lively and exploratory. Getting down to business, exchanging manuscripts, we knew that we were inventing much of the business as we went along. How like writing! The balance of activities was also smartly considered. Workshop time, writing time, down time, and in the evenings after dinner a wonderfully varied set of offerings: readings by instructors one night, students another, with musical guests bringing something original and briny into the mix.

Another of the day’s activities, one of the best,  was a late-morning to-and-fro in the big room—instructors informally conversing about various craft-related topics and then students joining in with their own thoughts, questions and war-stories. Again, that sense of converging intensities.

I know enough about these kinds of events to know that success is not guaranteed, that it depends on the coming together of innumerable factors—from personalities to organization to leadership. Planning takes you only so far and then the inner life of the thing asserts itself. Or–where things are too programmed, too this or too that– doesn’t. Here it did with great energy, humor and grace, and for this I thank the enthusiasm and fresh directorial instincts of Penny, who knew when to say “let’s try that again,” and “that was amazing!” and when to just break it all up and start laughing. Serious or antic, underneath it all we felt her literary devotion; we knew that this undertaking was the product of literary passion, not some market calculation. She was right there with us, arguing her views, reading her work, and making us feel like we were taking part in something really good. Which we were. The conference was engaged and purposeful, offering a craft-savvy jump-start to those who needed it and an invigorating tune-up for those whose engines were already running.

 If you want a long weekend to work on your short forms, join us!

(Oh, and there’s always lobster. And Peruvian chocolates. Just sayin’.)

For more information, contact Penny at: iota@cclc.me .

__

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 ReviewThe New RepublicEsquireThe Washington PostThe 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.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Iota at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: