Stylin’ with Kurt Vonnegut

January 28, 2011

To continue and extend our discussions on writing, a few prompts for us to think about, comment on, and discuss as you build on what others in the class share.

First, from the Vonnegut reading, “How to Write With Style,” did Vonnegut teach or remind you of anything useful? (I’ve read this piece SO many times, but always get something new from of it.) What did he teach you? (An aside: I got to hear Vonnegut lecture in college, a lecture during which several hecklers were thrown out. He’s always been controversial.)

Second, a similar question for the Revising With Feedback reading. What did you learn? What resonated most with you about the revision process?

Finally, from our textbook, what is your reaction to Carolyn Dowling’s statement that “writers of hypertext . . . might be described as the designers and builders of an information ‘space’ to be explored by their readers”? Elaborate on this statement and its implications for us as digital storytellers.

Also from the text, and a related thought, what does Rachel McAlpine mean when she admonishes us to “switch from ‘think paper’ mode to ‘think Web’ mode’?”

Our textbook provides a great deal of information and some of the latest research on credibility of information online. Were there any surprises here, or propositions you disagree with?

One of the key findings is that transparency has emerged as a key measure of credibility. Other than hyperlinking to sources,admitting mistakes and being up front about affiliations, conflicts of interest and potential biases, how can we communicate or create transparency? What should it look like online?

And any other topic or question or issue you’d like to raise from our first few weeks together as a community of writers. I think it’s evident in our sessions, but I’m having a great time, and your embrace of what we’re doing is really awesome. I’m glad we’re together on this journey.

Respond, please, by class time Monday, Feb. 7.

On writing well . . .

January 20, 2011

Pretend this is Sportscenter and imagine the big, thunderous graphic-and-sonic show opening, finishing with me sitting at the desk looking at a teleprompter. “And now, some highlights from the past week in Writing for Digital Media!”

I do want to re-cap some of what we’ve been discussing and attempting to put into practice. First, we should remind ourselves that writing is a craft, so it can be taught and it can be learned. I learned it. No one is born with skills. So we work at developing the skills of writing and thinking. What cannot be taught is talent and passion.

This is where the chapter 1 exercises (due in class on Friday) come in. They are meant to allow us some fun with words, but more importantly to encourage us to think and to live like writers.

We also talked about the myth of writer’s block. Writing is a job, and we go to work just like everyone else. It’s difficult to imagine someone in the physical plant here saying, “You know what? I’m just not feeling it. I have mower’s block. I’m going to play videogames until the inspiration to mow hits me, until the muse of lawncare floats into my living room and writes something true and mystical on the wall.” We may not feel inspired to write, but we go to work anyway. If there is no wind, row.

We all want to write well right now. And we all want even the first draft to be crystalline prose that moves people to tears and buckles their knees as they bow before such profound writers such as we. And of course that’s ridiculous. As Hemingway said, “All first drafts are sh–.” So we should allow ourselves to fail, and we should commit to several phases or stages of revision.

Zen motto no. 1: Revise. Revise. Revise. (Re-vision? Seeing again, seeing afresh!)

We also talked about some commandments of writing. The first: Sit your ass in the chair (the flip of the first commandment for reporters, by the way, which is to get your ass out of your chair. The world will not come to your computer). And do this DAILY! Writing is all about good habits. Every good writer’s habits are a bit unique, but all good writers have writing habits. That’s the point. Discipline and practice.

Our second commandment: Thou shalt not be obscure. We talked about prohibiting ourselves from using “it” and limiting to a minimum the use of personal pronouns like “we”, “them”, “he” and “she.” We discussed being concrete, precise, and taking the time and care to richly describe.

And our third commandment: Thou shalt show and not merely tell. We aren’t going to say, “Nashville is an awesome city.” We’re going to take the reader there; we are going to so carefully describe some aspect of the city — what it looked like, smelled like, made us feel — that the reader will KNOW it’s awesome, and we’re going to engage the reader’s imagination in order to do this.

We also talked about the different readings we can give our work, to look for different things, to read at different levels. Here are some of the great tips you guys came up with:

  • Read for grammar, spelling and punctuation (ground level)
  • Read for comprehension, as if you were someone other than the writer, challenging assumptions
  • Read for architecture, perhaps slicing it up at the paragraph level, laying it out and putting it back together
  • Read for tone, flow and pacing, perhaps doing so out loud so you can hear that pacing, tone
  • Read it backwards, to catch mistakes at the word level
  • Read only for the verbs. Circle them. Now get rid of as many of the passive “to be” verbs as possible, which often will mean flipping the whole sentence around, or putting the object now as the subject.

In at least one of these readings, we talked about challenging every adjective, every adverb. We discussed beginnings — the first line, the first paragraph, the first line of each section. Try removing the first paragraph and seeing if the whole isn’t better off (it almost always is in term papers).

Find that one line you love most. The one that came from God, that demonstrates to the world that you, sir or madam, are a brilliant wordsmith. And get rid of it. It’s probably for effect anyway. Remember — as writers we are “architects of meaning,” not interior decorators (no offense to them).

You are allowed two exclamation points all semester. Use them sparingly, and wisely. Zen motto No. 2: Less really is more.

To great writing. To better writing. . .

What is visual culture? What is culture?

January 14, 2011

There is no one definition of culture, but any definition should take into account that culture isn’t fixed, that it is something we do, something we make, something we negotiate with. In short, that it is a process.

Below I’ve provided several (very) different was of thinking about culture. For this mental exercise, you choose which one you like best, then elaborate with a paragraph or two on why you like that particular quote. Here are the nominees:

  • “Culture — the lifeblood of a people, the flow of moral energy that holds society intact.” –Gottfried Herder, who coined the term, in German (kultur), in the mid-1700s.
  • “Cultures are maps of meaning through which the world is made.” — Peter Jackson, film director
  • “Culture is everything you don’t have to do. Cuisine is culture, but eating is not; fashion is culture, but clothing is not.” — Brian Eno, musician and artist
  • “Culture is a process — fluid, interactive, communal, ongoing and always negotiated.” — Brian Carroll, Berry dude
  • “Culture is what we do with the contradictions in our lives.” — Carol Greenhouse, anthropologist, professor
  • ” ‘Culture’ names a rather amorphous entity. Human beings produce culture in the same sense that they produce carbon dioxide: they can’t help it, but the stuff has absolutely no value in itself. It’s just there. It is one thing to attribute a group’s characteristics to its culture; it is another thing to elevate that culture into a discrete set of traditions and practices in which the members of the group can take pride simply because they are, willy-nilly, theirs. Culture is only a response to the conditions of life; when those conditions change — and in modern societies they change continuously — culture changes as well.” — Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club
  • “There are at least two ways of using the word ‘culture.’ The evaluative use has been more common when we are thinking about ‘the arts’ and ‘literature’: to be ‘cultured’ is to be the possessor of superior values and a refined sensibility, both of which are manifested through a positive and fulfilling engagement with ‘good’ literature, art, music and so on. The analytic one is used in the social sciences and especially anthropology: it seeks to describe the whole system of significations by which a society or a section of it understands itself and its relations with the world.” — Cairns & Richardson, Writing Ireland

What do you think? What is culture? What is visual culture? What is it to you? What is it not? Post your response to these questions by midnight Tuesday (Jan. 18).