Thursday, October 20, 2016

Leaf by Niggle

Poster for the theatrical version
The work of J.R.R. Tolkien is known worldwide, both through his books (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings) and though the numerous audiobooks, plays, and films based upon them. Many regard the Rings trilogy as among the greatest works of "high fantasy" literature ever written, and there are more than 250 million copies of Tolkien's books in print.

But until quite recently, very few people seemed to know, or care, about the brief parable Tolkien published in 1945, Leaf by Niggle. Then, just this year, a curious thing happened: a theatrical version starring and directed by Richard Medrington became a surprise hit, and, for the first time since its original appearance in the Dublin Quarterly, it was published as a stand-alone book. The reviews of the play have been stellar, with the Guardian punningly referring to it as the "Lord of Small Things," although its reviewer, as have many of the readers of the book, puzzled over what it's really all about. And that's the thing -- as Medrington muses in a preamble to the play, almost the moment the story begins, "the possible meanings “double, treble and quadruple” before your eyes."

And it's an intensely visual story, though presented without illustrations (save the cover), a tale of a would-be artist in an imperfect world, with considerable ambition but only modest talent, "the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees." Niggle knows that, at some point, there's a journey he has to take, which he ought to pack for -- but in the meantime, he has something more important to attend to. It's a grand painting -- in part composed by sticking together several smaller canvasses -- which depicts an enormous tree, within which are nesting birds, as well as a far-off range of snow-capped mountains. His work, however, has its costs: his garden is neglected, and he finds himself cursing and muttering uncharitable things (to himself) whenever he's interrupted. Which he is, particularly by his neighbor Parrish, who seems to have little regard for Niggle's great work, and is critical of his neglected property. Things come to a head when the local building inspector arrives, demanding that Niggle's canvas be taken and used to patch Parrish's leaky roof! And just then, to top it off, he learns that his long-postponed journey must begin.

Is Leaf by Niggle a metaphor for Tolkien's own work? After all, his conception of Middle Earth was, like Niggle's painting, a lifetime's labor, in which some smaller things (The Hobbit) were patched onto other things (The Lord of the Rings), and yet so much was left unfinished (The Silmarillion). Doubtless Tolkien, like Niggle, hated interruptions, and yet was always, unfailingly, polite about them, yet really kind-hearted (though grumblingly at times). But perhaps Niggle is also all of us, with some larger thing we imagine and wish to be our life's great task, our escape from the mundane things of everyday life, our great reward -- and yet, again and again, life breaks in!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Putting away childish things

In reading over your first collective projects, one of the recurrent themes is the departure of childhood, and of "childish things." As children, we're encouraged to use our imagination; as adults, it's suddenly time to stifle our curiosity and put our collective noses to the grindstone. Indeed, modern education seems almost designed to assassinate the spirit, to replace curiosity and passion with dulness and complicity, and mere fanciful tales with what the "Common Core" curriculum describes as "informational texts." College, at least in theory, is a place for exploration, for renewal of passion, and the finding of a vocation -- but too often it, too, is reduced to a mere utilitarian list of skills, goals, and "outcomes."

So where do you see yourself in all this? Where is the line between childhood and adulthood, and should we, indeed, put away our childish loves? What does the college experience have to do with this, and what are your expectations for this institution and yourselves as you embark upon your college years? For this in-class writing, take as your prompt one of the three quotations below. You may agree, disagree, or simply be stirred to write about the claims made in these passages -- but begin, in any case, by stating your response to them as clearly as you can. Then go on to address these larger questions as given above.

Here are the three writing prompts for today:

It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom. Without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. -- Albert Einstein

Passing hence from infancy, I came to boyhood, or rather it came to me, displacing infancy. Nor did that depart,—(for whither went it?)—and yet it was no more. For I was no longer a speechless infant, but a speaking boy. This I remember; and have since observed how I learned to speak. It was not that my elders taught me words (as, soon after, other learning) in any set method; but I, longing by cries and broken accents and various motions of my limbs to express my thoughts, that so I saw and remembered that they called what they would point out, by the name they uttered. And that they meant this thing and no other, was plain from the motion of their body, the natural language, as it were, of all nations, expressed by the countenance, glances of the eye, gestures of the limbs, and tones of the voice, indicating the affections of the mind, as it pursues, possesses, rejects, or shuns. And thus by constantly hearing words, as they occurred in various sentences, I collected gradually for what they stood; and having broken in my mouth to these signs, I thereby gave utterance to my will. Thus I exchanged with those about me these current signs of our wills, and so launched deeper into the stormy intercourse of human life, still subject to parental authority and the beck of elders. -- St. Augustine, Confessions.

For our knowledge is unperfect, and our prophesying is unperfect: but when that which is perfect is come: then that which is unperfect shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I imagined as a child: but when I became s a man I put away childish things. Now we see through a glass darkly: but then shall we shall see face to face. Now I know unperfectly: but then shall I know even as I am known. Now abideth faith, hope, and love, even these three: but the greatest of these is love. -- St. Paul, I Corinthians 13

Friday, September 30, 2016


Allie Brosh, from "Menace"
We all know about costumes. From playing "dress up" at home, to halloween, they've always been a part of American culture, though sometimes relegated to the eventually put-away basket of "childish things." More recently, though, at events such as ComiCon and its spinoffs, dressing up as one's favorite comic book or film hero (or villain) has risen to new heights, as adults have poured enormous time and money into what's been dubbed "cosplay." This art reached either its zenith -- or, depending on your view, its nadir -- when Bryan Cranston crashed ComiCon in a cosplay mask of his character, Walter White, from Breaking Bad. So was it Bryan Cranston cosplaying Walter White -- or was it Bryan Cranston cosplaying some nobody cosplaying Walter White. An almost existential crisis ensued.

Because, in one sense, everything is a costume, from a business suit to a bathrobe, and even our most authentic selves are, at least in part, performance. Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players" hints at this, but in more recent times, scholars of performance theory have looked at "performativity" as, in fact, the deepest layer of identity, not its shallowest. Perhaps it's not just Frank Abagnale -- whose ability to transform, chameleon-like, into an airline pilot, a doctor, or a college professor inspired the film Catch Me If You Can -- but all of us who, even when doing what we actually do, are performing.

So costumes, then, have a power -- a power to make or alter one's identity. Never has this been made more poignantly clear than in Allie Brosh's story "Menace," in which a dinosaur costume transforms her into -- well, into a dinosaur, with nearly disastrous results. But because adults like to feel that they should grant their children the pleasure of imaginative play, it takes some time before her parents put two and two together and realize that it's the costume that's "doing" it. And so they dispose of it, as as Allie describes it, "And so my reign of power came to an end, and I slowly learned to live as a person again."

So for this assignment, choose a costume. It could be an actual costume that you wore for Halloween, or a costume you might design and wear yourself today. The first part of this assignment is for you to describe this costume in words; omit nothing, and be as vivid as possible. Include some statement as to how this costume did, or would, make you feel when wearing it.

Then, give or send this description to another member of your group, and get a description from someone else (in the 4-person groups, you can exchange with a partner; 3-person groups should do a 'round robin' where Person A gives their paper to Person B, Person B to Person C, and Person C to Person A). Once you've received the description of this costume, your assignment is to draw it. Include as many of the details as possible, and see if you can't also give the person an expression which shows how the costume makes them feel. Look at Allie Brosh for inspiration -- she's managed to take the most basic, wobbly-lined, almost primitive kind of drawing on a computer tablet, and turn it to genius. Use any materials of your choice, and any technique: crayons, painting, collage, fibers, ink, and glue. Don't show your drawing to the person whose description it is before Tuesday's classa meeting. I'll see you there!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

I'm gonna sit right down and write myself a letter ...

Ancient Greek Love-letter
What makes a letter a letter? Human beings seem to have been writing letters from the moment we started writing. One of the oldest cuneiform tablets discovered – it’s nearly 4,000 years old -- turned out to be a complaint about a bad business transaction by a copper merchant named Nanni. One of the oldest letters known in Britain, written in Roman script, is a birthday invitation from one Claudia Severa to her sister Lepidina; it dates to the first century A.D.. Letters have been written on stone, clay, papyrus, bark, sheepskin, and paper – and now, of course, on the far less durable stuff of electronic space. A novel can be composed of imaginary letters – it’s known as an “epistolary” novel, and letters can be addressed to anyone, whether or not they are real. Every year, tens of thousands of children write letters to Santa Claus, and the U.S. Postal service offers to send responses, if the letters are posted to North Pole, Alaska. Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple opens with a letter to God, and C.S. Lewis once wrote a book consisting entirely of letters from one demon to another.

IN 1941, my father, who was then just fourteen years old, wrote a letter, addressed to "whom it may concern," in which he described his life plans. He then hid the letter in a box, and hid the box inside a wall -- where it was discovered fifteen years later when the house was torn down. Remarkably, he had actually followed just about the path he'd planned when he was a teenager. In her book Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh describes finding a letter written when she was ten years old, and addressed to her future self. The interesting thing about this kind of letter is that it’s actually possible for it to be properly delivered. So for this project, we're going to sit right down and write ourselves a letter ... 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

My Object, Myself

We all have them -- or had them. Many were quite simple -- a lucky coin, a ball of lint, an acorn from a trail in the woods of summer camp, an old house key. Some were more elaborate, with promises of mystery and adventure: one of my own childhood treasures was my PF Flyers Secret Decoder Ring. Never mind that PF Flyers were sneakers reserved for total dorks (any cool kid would have had Chuck Taylors, or at least Keds); the ring, complete with a transparent rotating dial that could encode and decode messages, and a secret compartment to store them in, was cooler than cool.

In childhood, there seems to be a pure delight in things that becomes more difficult as time goes by. We change, and our favorite things change with us; the toys of yesterday lie forgotten in our attics (a scene evoked in the Velveteen Rabbit, a book I would argue isn't for kids at all, but adults, who have "put away childish things"). We leave them, or lose them, or try to bring them along even after the magic has passed, and they've become merely the memory of the things they were. Could we have them back again, we would almost have to create a sort of museum, complete with glass cabinets and explanatory signs, telling others -- and reminding us -- what they meant, and when, and why.

And there are other sorts of objects as well -- objects of fascination, or terror, whose associations bring back hatred, dread, or sorrow. Such objects are at the core of the David Mamet story, "The Rake," which includes not only that implement, but also a glass table, lockers that can't be locked, a game in which the parents pretend to abandon their children, and real-life dramas in which they do. Some objects -- guns, switchblade knives, brass knuckles -- live only to harm, while others, seemingly innocent, can still be turned to harm. And, to protect us from such things, there is yet another class of objects which seem to shield us from misfortune: a charm bracelet, a lucky clover, a St. Christopher medal, or a magic ring.

When I was only about one year old, my great-grandfather Elbert gave me two old silver-certificate dollar bills; these were then being phased out of circulation, and finding one was seen as a sign of fortune. Along with them, he included a note to me: "I am sending you a couple of of "Lucky Bucks" to give you a good start in life -- may you collect a million of them." That hasn't happened -- yet -- but I still carry one in my pocket everywhere I go. After all, who knows?

So what's your special object? What thing, among all things, best represents you, your aspirations, your sense of yourself? Over the next week, we'll be sharing these objects, and finding ways that, through drawing and writing, we can use them as spurs to a kind of language that does the same thing for us today that these objects once did when we were children.

Saturday, August 27, 2016


It's usually a criticism of someone who, foolishly, is bothering to do something that's already been done -- no need to re-invent the wheel! -- but it's also an apt description of what writers do when they begin to write. After all, there are only so many themes, so many characters, so many words in the English language, and only so many ways of combining them. Add in the additional constraints of genre and form (short story? Personal essay? Epistolary novel?) and it may soon seem an impossible task. Which is why, perhaps, so many writers today struggle so mightily for originality.

Of course, there was a time when originality, as such, wasn't held in very high esteem. Every single one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was based on pre-existing story, as were nearly all of Shakespeare's plays. One could say, certainly, that at the level of language these writers were innovators, but part of what enabled them to be bold with words was the fact that their listeners already knew something of the tales they (re)told. Even once the "novel" -- a genre once named for it newness -- took hold, a great many of its basic plot-lines were recycled. And yet, in this restless recycling of all that has been said, there yet remains something new -- a voice, a tone, a manner of connecting one thing with another, that feels particular to a certain writer, however universal her or his themes.

And, truth be told, college writing -- the vast majority of which is composed, critiqued, and consumed solely within the Bizarro world of writing classes -- is not usually meant to go anywhere, to endure, to reach wider audiences. It's rather like a vast practice session or dress rehearsal for a play that is never going to be staged, which of course makes it even more maddening to do (and to teach)!

So here, in this class, we're going to take a different approach: we're going to write as though the "wheel" -- in our case, the usual constraints and rules of academic writing -- had not yet been invented. What might a paragraph look like, if captured in the wild? What sorts of play and interplay might writing have, say, with drawing or photography? What if, instead of confining our words to the computer-screened page, we were to scrawl, scratch, engrave or emboss them, paint them with a brush? And most of all, what if we were to undertake the task of writing without any thought as to where we were "going" with it, or what it might all eventually mean. What if -- dare I say -- we were to write for the sheer fun of it?