Monday, May 21, 2012

Kiara Huertas ’14 on making ink trails between post-it notes

Kiara Huertas ‘14
Major: Creative Writing
Minor: Religion
Hometown:  Waterbury, CT

To an Ex-lover

We are not bombs waiting to explode beneath each other’s feet,
scattering limbs until I cannot tell where my frame ends and yours begins.

Neither are we paintings waiting to be finished by the next artist that passes.
And while I may be like a fruit spoiled by sun on a windowsill,

I hear my own cry beginning to rise from rubble,
baby girl, no one can ever steal your shine.

I still look upward as if the sky could exonerate me.


Imagine this: every time you come across something in life that you want to remember, you pull out a post-it note and scribble down details about it. You might scribble down a nice thing that someone said about you. Maybe you record a sentence or two about that one moment, when the sun shined on water so perfectly, you couldn’t help but think of the most recent conversation with your schizophrenic mother—when she didn’t sound crazy. Maybe you scribble about the first time you realized your best friend was no longer your friend, but you don’t write on the post-it that your friend isn’t your friend anymore because you haven’t learned that yet.
Instead, you describe the quick flicker in her eyes that you might have missed but didn’t. You don’t write anything more about the flicker either, you just write that it was there, and what it looked like, but not what it meant. You’re not ready to discuss such things yet.
            Eventually you start to color code your post-it notes. You scribble down the things that you remember fondly on the pink post-it notes. On the blue ones, anything that feels like tears, or anger, or all the times that a white person responded to the rolled r in your last name with: I have a good friend that’s Mexican. On the yellow ones, you write the things you haven’t quite decided how to feel about, like prep school, which ultimately equipped you with more words and more ways to use them to depict all of these moments, but also inspired more than a few of the blue post-it notes.
            Imagine now that your room is overflowing with post-it notes. They are on the walls and the bed post. They are on your desk and computer, and covering the whole window so that you can’t see sun, or rain, or people walking by. There are so many post-it notes that you’ve even filled your underwear drawer, so you resolve that you have to do something with them. You have to be able to open the window without fearing that some of your post-it notes will fly away before you can make them something beautiful. So you sit Indian-legged in the center of your room and start peeling away at the post-it notes that you can reach first. They aren’t necessarily the most compelling post-it notes, but they are the ones that you can grab without rising. You don’t know exactly what to do with these post-it notes, but you know you’re not ready to rise again and you don’t.
            Now that you’ve started to read the post-it notes, you begin to cry over them, making ink trails between them. Suddenly it hits you: you’re not crying over any single post-it note but at the joy of having them…to remember. The thing is, as you remember, you don’t look at the post-it notes the same way. You decide that they don’t do enough for the memories, and you need to record them in a way that surpasses scribbled, abrupt words. So you begin to string post-it notes together on a page. The page is longer and wider, so you weigh it down with words too heavy for post-it notes. You use words in a way that makes you ache so thoroughly that it doesn’t feel like pain; it feels like metaphors spilling from rooftops because the clouds got too heavy to hold them (that’s the best way you can describe it anyway). This is the joy of writing: deliberately placing post-it note memories onto a page so that those words don’t just sit where you stuck them. They fly now from mind, to mouth, to ear, to soul, and back again, and the movement is so great, so unsettling, and grounding, that you stay right there, on the middle of your floor, Indian-legged, and you breathe the breath of someone just trying to take it all in.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Prof. Roger Rothman on Fluxus, the creative excitement of starting a new project, and the need to rewrite.

Roger Rothman, Associate Professor of Art History

What writing project(s) are you working on right now?

I am writing a book on Fluxus. Fluxus was (and still is) a loose group of artists (Yoko Ono is perhaps the most famous) from around the globe (most from the US, Germany, France, and Japan) who sought to blur the boundary between art and life. Much of what they did was simple and silly, and I’m especially interested in exploring the complex and serious ideas that were hidden underneath. The book will focus on the American artists in the group and will examine the connections between their work and the ideas that drove the various social and cultural upheavals of the sixties. My argument is that the political dimension of Fluxus is far more significant than people have thought. At this point, I am still early in the writing process. I have been on sabbatical this year and have been collecting information on different artists as well as historical accounts of the sixties. I’ve also taken a few trips into New York to look through the archives at MOMA and meet with individuals who were (and still are) involved in Fluxus.

What do you love about it?

My favorite part of the writing process is the beginning, when new ideas hit me and the shape of things changes suddenly. As I take notes and concoct arguments and theories, the writing I do causes the various artists, artworks, and movements to rearrange themselves in my mind. Obscure events and concepts move into focus while other things and ideas that I had taken as central move to the periphery. It’s a period of creativity in which it feels like I am both the one who is moving the different parts and, at the same time, a passive witness to parts moving themselves. It’s very exciting and I think it’s this that keeps me hooked to writing because I have to admit that almost all of the rest of it is hard and painful and unpleasant.

What about it (if anything) is driving you nuts?

Indeed much of it drives me nuts. The first frustration comes when my words hit the page; they almost always lack the eloquence and clarity and conviction that they (seem to) have in my mind. As a result, it takes a long time for me to turn the mess of the first draft into something I can say I’m happy with. It’s also the case that my revision process is far from linear. My second draft is never a simply refinement of the first. It’s almost always a complete rewrite (and often that’s the case with the third and fourth drafts). In light of the messiness and non-linearity of my process, I’ve gradually come to recognize that I need to have huge chunks of uninterrupted time to focus on writing  (anything less than three hours is too short): it takes me at least an hour to clear my head and get to a place where the words will come out in anything resembling a coherent fashion. I suppose it’s a consequence of my monomaniacal personality. Doing more than one thing at a time is almost impossible.

How would you describe your writing process?

I begin by taking tons of notes—both data that I’ve collected and ideas I’ve come up with. Over time, I watch as the ideas shift and expand and contract and mutate. When I feel that the process has slowed down to a point where things seem settled and my time yields diminishing returns, I make a very simple outline. In fact, it’s really just a list. Each idea that I think is needed gets a single line. I’ll then move the individual idea-lines up or down the list so that they fall into an order that seems to make sense. Sometimes I’ll make a powerpoint to arrange the works of art that I plan to discuss so that I get a sense of how the text might flow. Then I start turning these idea-lines into paragraphs. Sometimes a few idea-lines will be clustered to make a single paragraph; sometimes a single one will grow into a handful of paragraphs. This part can be fun because it often yields up some interesting surprises. I’ll usually need to go back to do more research and will find that some of the ideas I thought were central should really be pushed to the background while others should be moved to the fore. As each idea-line is replaced by full paragraphs the writing mutates bit by bit into full draft. Then the rewriting begins. Things will be taken apart and new paragraphs added. New research will be done to supplement an idea that hadn’t occurred to me earlier. When it seems like everything that needs to be there has found its proper place, I play around with the sentences and individual words. I try not to over-polish, partly because I’ve seen how easily the shine of vibrant sentence can be scrubbed out of existence, but also because I just get tired and want to stop. The process ends when I can’t stand to look at it anymore. Then I send it to friend and hope I get a positive response. If I don’t get a positive response I usually cry a little, wait a little, and then start tearing it apart yet again.

What kind of feedback on your writing do you find most helpful?

The most helpful feedback I get on my writing comes in the early stages: I like to hear how a reader responds to the main argument and evidence. Often I learn that I’ve incorrectly predicted some key suppositions that a reader brings to the text or the sorts of questions that the reader is most interested in having me answer. Feedback at this point has a huge effect on how the draft develops. Since the text is still in its infancy, hearing that I should cut it up and move stuff around is not nearly as frustrating as it is after I’ve worked to get it into what I think is its final shape.

What would you like students to know about you as a writer?

I am not a natural writer. When I was a kid I was a poor and disengaged writer (and reader, too). It’s only after many years that I have become comfortable with a keyboard beneath my fingers; so I suppose I am a good example of how it’s possible to become an effective writer through nothing more than persistence.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Prof. Logan Connors on managing multiple writing projects and how “writing makes you a better writer.”

Logan Connors, Assistant Professor of French

What writing project(s) are you working on right now?
Right now, I'm writing an index as well as publicity materials for my upcoming book, Dramatic battles in eighteenth-century France: philosophes, anti-philosophes and polemical theatre. I'm under the gun--the book is set to be released this summer by Oxford University's Voltaire Foundation! I'm also working on an outline for my next book, a critical edition of France's first patriotic tragedy, Pierre De Belloy's Le Siège de Calais. Besides those two big projects, I've got some conferences in Europe this fall (I'll be on leave in Paris next academic year) that I am starting to brainstorm. I also have an article on eighteenth-century prisons that is due in the early fall--it's in the very early stages. Busy times, I guess!

What do you love about it?
I love the fact that my first book project is finally coming to an end. Dramatic battles has been in the works for five years and it feels great to see it come into fruition. I also love the brainstorming process for new projects. I feel that all ideas are on the table and anything is better than nothing at this point!

What about it (if anything) is driving you nuts?
I'm pretty sure that indexing is one of the most excruciating jobs in the world! A big thanks to Sarah Schaefer ('14), my research assistant, who is helping me tremendously with that! Another tough thing is the moment when loosely organized ideas need to become concrete sentences and paragraphs. Funny how this is always a time when it seems incredibly important to clean my desk or check baseball scores online. 

How would you describe your writing process?
Before coming to Bucknell, I had the opportunity to work with Simon Harrison ( Simon was my housemate and co-worker at the Ecole normale supérieure in Lyon, France; he was also my writing partner (highly recommended for anyone who needs to be held accountable for his/her writing!). Back in 2007, Simon and I were both struggling with our dissertations so we read a bunch of books about how to be more productive writers. The suggestions for how to write more (or better) can be all over the place but there is one piece of advice in most of the literature on writing: you have to write often to achieve desired results. I think there are these myths like "you should wait for inspiration" or "you need a huge chunk of time to get anything done." This may be true for some people (although I doubt it) but not for me; I try to carve out at least 30 minutes - 1 hour each day and write. It may sound bizarre but you'd be surprised what you can get done in just 30 minutes. I guess it took me about a decade to learn that you need to actually write to achieve good writing results. Duh!

What kind of feedback on your writing do you find most helpful?
I think my favorite type of feedback is what I would call "optimistic honesty." Optimistic because the reader knows that you can do better but honest enough to really let you know if an idea (or paragraph, or sentence) is solid. My dissertation director at LSU was, and remains, a fantastic model of "optimistic honesty" (Kate Jensen:$Content/Jensen?OpenDocument). 

I write in English and in French and I really appreciate when my French readers whip out the red pen and go to town on me. I have to say, they usually tack more towards honesty than optimism. 

What would you like students to know about you as a writer?
I think that my students appreciate how open I am about the writing process. I'm always harping on them to "start early" but I share my own weaknesses and fears about the whole process (and the fact that I need to set artificial deadlines for myself because I don't just naturally start early!). I guess the number one thing that I would like them to know is that I was a very unsuccessful writer in college. I started projects too late, I didn't take the time to read the directions, I didn't revise, and I certainly didn't proofread. I struggled for years and I struggle now. But I want them to know that writing makes you a better writer. It sounds very basic but it's true. Talent is great but anyone can learn to write better if they write more often.