Category Archives: Magic and Writing

Be the wizard.

Might could be the case I’m into controlled chaos

In the American South, I have learned to say “might could” in a situation that is uncertain. And it might could be that I’ve put myself into a situation, the outcome of which is most certainly uncertain.

I’m taking a MOOC right now (E-learning and Digital Culture) and signed up for one after this (can’t even remember, but I know they’ll send me an email).

Then I signed up for another MOOC that I swore began May 18. I was so excited–that would have been after my spring term ended and just as summer began–perfect timing. I’d be finished with my spring MOOCs and starting my summer teaching (only one class this summer!). But not so. It starts March 18–smack into the middle of my spring term and not something I will be able to work into my routine in a reasonable way.

So. I’ll be unreasonable. I want to take this in a big way: a composition MOOC, “Composition 1: Achieving Expertise.” I’m just going to do it to the best of my ability. I’ll engage as I am with my current MOOC and invest early.

I’m dying to see how composition will be handled on such a large scale and how it might accommodate thousands of students and their writing. I know it’s going to be a terrific experience, because how could it be otherwise if I’m learning something? The instructor is an acquaintance, and I respect her thinking deeply. In fact, it was her article on performance and observation of writing instructors from a year or two ago that is changing the way I do that part of my job.

I know there are MOOCers who take a lot of classes at once, so I know I can do this. Partly, I know this because: 1) it’s free; 2) I don’t have to complete the thing. In fact, I may not have to do much work at all to get a lot from it. It’s not like I’m taking the course for freshman comp. I took freshman comp already (got a C and  a B in Comp 1&2, respectively). What I wonder is this: if such a course as this one might have made a huge difference in my writing life when I was starting college. I was a lousy writer, not because I was bad but because I’d had almost no training of any kind. Writing to me, upon high school graduation, was a mystery that only a few could figure out, or it was a gift that even fewer were given. Writing well was NOT something I could learn to do. In fact, these ideas were reinforced at nearly every step of my educational life.

I wasn’t taught to work on making my thinking clear then correcting for errors. I was encouraged to write it perfect the first time. Perfect. Oh. No pressure. Multiple drafts? What? Never. Multiple drafts were for the weak. We wrote and turned in what we wrote, all first drafts: good, bad or horrific. Spelling mattered right away–in the first and only drafts–and so did penmanship. I actually had a penmanship tutor for a whole school year because I was so lame at handwriting. (I did get to the point where I could write gorgeous cursive–but my “writing” was still crap.)

I was stunned when I finally learned the secrets of writing well (far into my college career): 1) writing can be learned; 2) thinking is more important than correct comma usage; 3) writing takes practice; 4) multiple drafts can be really deeply profoundly madly important; 5) proofreading can be learned and should be done last; 6) writing is collaborative; 7) writers need mentors (human mentors or mentor texts); 8) writers need to know the genres they are trying to write; 9) writers need to read a lot; and 10) writing is revision. This is not all I know about writing now, but MAN, if only I’d known about some of these sorts of things when I was younger.

Now, I try to teach writers these ideas (and more) by allowing a lot of freedom in the classroom. “Just write,” I say. I hope I haven’t swung too far the other way from: “Just write perfectly.” But I consider this chance I have to take a freshman comp class in my PJs for no cost but my time a wonder. Holy composition & rhetoric. What an opportunity. I can see what a colleague in my field is doing–get ideas, share my learning with my fellow students, and maybe even learn more about how to be a better writer. I know I do things in my blogging that might be confusing, so perhaps I need to learn something new/old to help. Why not? (Things I think I do as a writer, or habits, or tics I’m sure I have or suffer from: I write a lot of first drafts and don’t always revise–OMG–yes, I just said that; I overuse fragments by writing in phrases rather than independent clauses; I tend to write like I talk–totally; I think I abuse semi-colons; I write/type fast and make more typos than I care to admit; I will use a single word to make a statement. Nice. Right. Showoff.; I ramble around a topic and sometimes don’t always occasionally once-in-a-while frequently end up wrapping the whole thing up in a tidy bow at the end; I fool around a lot pretending to be a whole lot better than I am by using a $20 word when a $5 word might do (what a brat, right?); I’m pretty self-indulgent, too.

As a writer, I might could use some sustained thinking about writing and being a writer and achieving expertise. What is that anyway? Expertise? It might could be that I could polish off some of my expertise trophies I have shoved onto my shelves and left alone for too long.

I have nothing to lose but time. And really, that’s the only gift I have that I can’t get more of. I’d like to use my time in a positively, forward-movement, open kind of way. Life-long learning–it’s been hip to me since 1990 and a personal philosophy.

Hurricane from space.

Hurricane from space.

So what if my life is chaos? I’ve been called a hurricane and a whirlwind. Okay. I’m down with that. But surely I have some control over when I create or participate in the stormy chaos. Or do I only wish I was in charge of me? Wouldn’t it be great if I was actually making forward progress while storming through life? Might could be the case.

In April, there’s a Writing II class that begins. Taking that would just be adding to the storm, the chaos, the madness. Nope. I’m not going to sign up for it. No way. Not gonna happen. Ain’t my thing. Can’t do it. Never. Shoot. Might could be I’m already signed up.

[Image source: here.]


Filed under Magic and Writing, MOOC Journeys, Open Educational Resources, Open Everything, Open All the Time, Writing is Beautiful

What was I thinking? Me and ten years of the internet

Ten years ago, in 2002, I was working as a senior curriculum designer at a nonprofit company based in Washington, DC. The company sold whole school reform, writing and reading curriculum reform, and more. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d had a choice to make when I took the job in 2000, education/curriculum design for that company or knowledge manager for a company with offices in San Francisco, NYC, London, and Singapore.


Writing that now, I feel a sting. London and Singapore. Sigh. Did I make the right choice?

Of course, I did. In the intervening years, I never really left education and have been exposed to a whole lot of educational technology, and in that stream, learned so much about writing, editing, design, training, publishing, teaching, and mindfulness. I learned to breathe deep and make peace a path I travel rather than a goal I seek. I also learned when an opportunity was smacking me across the face and when I needed to make something happen or find the calm to let it pass me by. Living with regrets is no way to go through life: “shoulda, coulda, woulda” fundamentally sucks whether it underlies a general philosophy of pessimism (which I eschew) or whether it’s something I mutter under my breath again and again in a heinous fog of self-recrimination and despair (which I try to, also, avoid).

2012. Here I am then, about to undergo an unusual learning experience for me: a MOOC. And it’s all because of my need to learn, but it’s also possible because of the webinet, the interweb, whatever you want to name it–you could call it “the cybersphere of freedom for learning all one could desire” for all I care–just as long as it exists.

Okay, a MOOC is not totally weird for me, as I love to learn and once enrolled in a mythology class at a community college when I was getting my master’s degree because I needed more knowledge about myths than I had (no room or time in my schedule for a grad class on mythology–and it’s likely one wasn’t offered).

I bet it was called Mythology 101. It was a semi-correspondence course (I took this course over twenty years ago, but it’s pertinent for my overall discussion and rambling). Here are some of the numbers:

  • one professor
  • one PBS broadcast of The Power of Myth (Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell)
  • one mid-term (at the school or with a proctor)
  • one final exam (same)
  • one paper (snail mailed to the professor–and mailed back with comments and a grade)
  • 300 students
  • four books
  • additional readings as desired
  • one year
  • one initial meeting

Unlike what I imagine a lot of students felt who took that class, I loved it, and I learned a lot despite seeing the prof only a few times and never really talking with him nor ever hearing him say much (he did distribute extensive study/learning directions and a reading schedule with assignments–truly, the class was something like a hybrid correspondence course). I enjoyed the freedom of having my own schedule and the direction of an expert while I learned, even though it was one-direction only.

Still the best, after all these years.

Still the best, after all these years.

I read what was assigned and much more. But then I was truly motivated. I purposely connected with a couple of students who I talked to pretty regularly (by phone–this was 1991 after all–I only had a land line phone and a computer that was something like a glorified typewriter). I got an A. Of course, I was going to get an A. I decided I would do anything and everything to learn, though; the A would only be a symbol of my learning. I still can’t believe I did that. I was taking a grad class or two, working full-time, and had a long-distance relationship in full swing (oh, and my mother was dying from four different kinds of cancer–that was part of everything, every minute, every day–all the time). What was I thinking?

I was thinking: “There is no way I can have had any directed learning any other way than this one–so it’s this or nothing.” I had a year to complete all the work, take the tests, and get credit. PBS would air The Power of Myth twice in that time so I could catch it as I needed to, plus the local access cable would air it again for the class. I did it in a semester, but still, it was so low pressure. I could handle it and I did.

I would have done it without the credit, frankly; it didn’t matter to my degree. What mattered was the knowledge.

Regarding the MOOC I’m going to take this January, it’s about the knowledge. I couldn’t get this directed learning about e-learning and digital cultures any other way than this one. I have a busy life. (More complicated now if you can believe it–OMG–I’m saying: when does it get smooth? When does life get smooth!? Why doesn’t anything ever go smooth?) Who doesn’t have a complex and busy life? I can’t find time to take a full semester course right now, so I had to find other options (which exist! yea!), but more than that, I love the possibility of connections I’ll make (I’m already making). I loved talking to the two students in the myth class through that term, but think if I’d been able to meet up, virtually, with thirty out of the 300–what more might I have learned or discovered because of the learning we did with one another.

In the last ten years, the course I took in the early 1990s (if it still exists) would have mutated in wonderful ways, I expect, to become something like a MOOC, perhaps not “massive” and perhaps not “open,” but it was on a similar road–helping students learn who couldn’t otherwise, encouraging connections between students who could make those connections (locally, over the phone, I might have even exchanged letters with one of the students!). The Web 2.0, 3.0, 17.0, or whatever version we’re dealing with now, has changed everything. We are different learners than we were, and it’s a great movement forward.

But what the Web hasn’t changed is the need for humans to learn, to connect, to intellectually evolve. It’s allowed more of that to happen. It’s allowing human flourishing in ways we could have never imagined before. I’m so hip to that, because if we can’t get to the learning space, the learning space can now get to us. I’m in love. Truly, madly, deeply.

The MOOC has already allowed me (before it starts) to think about what I’m thinking, what I’m doing now, what I want to learn, and how I want to learn it. The internet has allowed me to be involved in learning in ways I couldn’t have dreamed of before this Information Age revolution, unless I’d been allowed to actually live in the Library of Congress.

Thank you, world of coding geeks and prolific web users, for growing the internet in the last ten years. I hope the next ten are as glorious for education. May we all keep learning; may our learning bring us all closer together.

All that is what I’m thinking, ten years after, twenty years after, right now.


Filed under Magic and Writing, MOOC Journeys, What I'm Thinking

Writing, writing, writing, or not, then writing again

I have to take breaks from writing. I don’t like it, but it’s the way the year cycles around: at some points in the year, I just have more time to write than other times. The end of every semester is a harrowing experience (not just for me, for students, too), and I never get done at the end what I set out to do in the beginning. My best laid plans always go awry. After years of this rhythm, you’d think I’d have it mastered. Not. Ever the optimist at the beginning of the term; ever the realist at the end. Never a pessimist.

I begin to miss writing after a few days of doing little but crisis managing schedules, curriculum, grading, wrapping up the term doing paperwork that is neverending really (and by paperwork, I mean emails and actual “paper” work–forms and such that have to be filled out in order to finish or start an event or action–sometimes online but sometimes on paper). That’s not writing as I think of it; though, it is technically writing: I have to, most certainly and always, be aware of audience, purpose, genre, and content.

What I mean by missing writing is I miss writing here or other blogs. I miss thinking in this medium. I enjoy the satisfaction that comes with words appearing on the screen that describe my thinking, action I wish to take, ideas that percolate and then are ready to be alive/shared, even the revelation of my neuroses or Neurosis. Writing has become tangible to me through online writing in ways that aren’t tangible for the writing I do in physical notebooks or journals. I do a lot of that writing and have several notebooks I write in consistently. Some I fill in just a few months; some are filled over the course of a year or so; I usually never keep the topics consistent, though–always grabbing one for whatever, whenever. It’s always a surprise then when I go back to see what I wrote or was thinking at any particular time.

A few of my writing notebooks for notes, art, graphs, charts, and writing.

But I love writing in the notebooks as I can doodle, too, and draw ideas in ways that I can’t using just words. I rethink room arrangements, chart curriculum, envision graphics to support ideas. Keep up a dialog with a book or speaker. But here, online, there’s the accountability of the public that does not come with my clandestine journal work.

And I miss this. It’s part of who I’m becoming. Always becoming.

I don’t carry on an active blogging life in the sense that I write in blogs all the time or connect to other bloggers, and/or engage in blogs that are about my professional or personal interests. It’s not that kind of blog (as I’ve mentioned before); this is a blog where I work out mentally. This is more for me than anyone. My intellectual gym, sort of. I definitely don’t go to this writing gym as much as I should, but it’s still here for me to work out in when I have time. And I always feel better after a writing work out. Though, sometimes I have been sore for a few days post-writing (neck, back, fingers, right arm, mouse hand).

What I can’t help seeing in that metaphor–blogging is a mental gym–is the correlation between how much I write and how relaxed I am or how productive I feel in all aspects of my life when I’m writing regularly. It’s very like exercise–in fact, there must be some kind of endorphin rush that accompanies writing because it makes me feel good and strong when I do it, and I feel puny and weak when I don’t.

A quick Google search yielded a scholarly article on endorphins and exercise that suggests it is a fine thing (something my grandmother knew in the 1920s from working on a farm, BTW). A lousy picture of of the citation and abstract is below–I suggest you click on the link rather than strain your eyes.

Check out this article–it’s old but it might be right.

I could have done a more thorough search through a library database, but you get the idea. Is not writing a form of exercise? I have to stretch (intellectually) before I do it; I have to be active and engaged while doing it; I have to be determined to keep doing it; I have to cool down after. I’m a stronger writer after it’s all over. Are not endorphins part of this process, then?

For ages, we have called getting ready to write doing writing exercises. I’m sure there are studies on the brain and writing which actually do justice to this idea, but I’m not going there today. I just want to speculate and allow my links and thinking and alignments to freely associate as they will–just to stretch my mind a bit as I get ready for the next writing I have to do. There’s a lot of writing on my agenda this summer. I am looking forward to all of it: institutes, workshops, articles, chapters, working on old stuff, new stuff, bizarre stuff, fun stuff. I’m also looking forward to writing here.

I want to post something every week, though, historical precedence suggests putting expectations on my work here isn’t always realistic. I’m working on my teaching/admin/human memoir as much as I can–and want to make this blog a garden for that work, but I have other writing that must be completed before I teach again in the fall. I’m okay with that.

I have a big calendar and a plan.

It won’t be easy. It never is. But being prepared for the activity of writing is the key, isn’t it? Can’t cook unless you handle your mise en place. Can’t sail a boat unless you practice sailing. Can’t score a touchdown unless you play football. Can’t slay a dragon if you don’t pick up a sword and swing.

But I have to be careful not to over plan so that all I do is plan and prepare–that can be a bad thing. Have you read this incredible children’s book? It’s a cautionary tale on that particular error in writing process–over planning (or a tale of inspiration, if you really do need to slay a dragon).

The Knight Who Took All Day by James Mayhew

This book is one of my favorites of all time. Not only does it impart a wonderful literal message for children, but every single time I read, I am moved to:

1) Always keep my eyes open to wonder and danger.

2) Assume that I can do something if I decide to.

3) Live as if I can change the world with bravery and love.

I have often thought that the dragon in this book could BE writing to many (or the knight’s lack of focus). Writing is hard (and dangerous? or intimidating?) and so lots of people feel it’s a magic gift that only a few have been given. Not true–on any of those fronts.

Anyone can slay the dragon of writing if determined and by getting the right tools, stretching, being ready, picking up the sword, putting on the armor, practicing. It’s not a gift; it’s not luck; it’s not magic. It’s knowing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and how it needs to be done. (Or, to be rhetorically specific, these are three concepts important to writing–and speaking–and they never get old for me: ethos, logos, pathos. Aristotle continues to rock in the 21st century.)

Writing could end up being a friendly dragon, a powerful and unexpected knight from an unexpected place (I can’t spoil the ending of the book by giving too much away!), and we might all find our way to a happier ending because of writing.

I’m happier because I write. Yes. Yes, I am. Right now, this minute. This second. Happier.

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Filed under A Writing Teacher Writes, Magic and Writing, Web Writing, Writing with Heart

English major’s loathe apostrophized plurals’

The button maker I bought from Dr. Don’s Buttons last year with program funding comes through for me again.

Today, I talked with a class of English majors about publishing, and Charles Dickens, and composition, Writing Spaces, and my bizarre life that weaves together all those things–oh, and geography sort of plays a part in this scenario, too.

I finished up a few buttons this morning to celebrate GIS Day tomorrow (that’s Geographic Information Systems for those in the know, or as I have taken to calling it: Geographic Information Stories).

GIS Day Button (the red square for Montgomery, AL was my idea)

I’m presenting at the GIS conference tomorrow afternoon, and I volunteered my button maker for the effort… and we needed a few more. I had planned on talking to English majors later today about how my academic and non-academic lives intertwined… thinking about that, making buttons for GIS, thinking about English, making buttons for GIS.

Aha. I needed to make buttons for the English majors. Wondrous. Another joyous occasion to share a button. I still can’t get over the button thing and really really really want to study the history of buttons and rhetoric, but when will I have time for that? There is no good time for intense study unless I just take the time, stealing from something else. There it is: I’m a time pirate, or I have to be in order to think or write or accomplish anything. (What am I stealing time from right now as I write and think? Eating. I’m starving and can’t wait to get these words out so I can go eat something.)

If I study buttons for awhile and think about their history and meaning and usage, where do I begin? For instance, would you say studying Constantinian numismatics is reaching too far back in visual rhetoric history to make a good starting place for this research? And yet, that’s where I begin to think about discs and persuasion. The below are two different coins (not the best representations, but there it is–I’m on a deadline–eating by 7 pm).

Notice anything unusual about these two coins?

Two separate coins struck at different times during Constantine's reign

Does the one on the left scream Roman Emperor and the one on the right Holy Roman Emperor? Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, then in 313 C.E., he issued the Edict of Milan promoting religious tolerance.

There’s a complexity about this time in history that’s too big to tackle here. Suffice it to say:

  • Constantine’s leadership was not always singular.
  • His conversion is reflected in his coinage.
  • He tolerated paganism and actively promoted Christianity (after he thinks he won an important battle because of it…).
  • His mother, Helena, was a Christian (she founded many churches throughout his empire–she was divorced–she never remarried).
  • She is believed to have found relics of the One True Cross.
  • She is a Catholic saint.
  • For my confirmation name in 6th grade, I chose Helena. (Fate at work here? Fate is a lovely crutch for amazing hindsight.)
  • In college, I fell a little in love with Constantine through a few history classes covering classical Roman and late antique Roman history (and into Bryzantine history thanks to Procopius–love his Secret History).
  • Encountering Constantine’s coins and thinking about what they represented was the first time I realized how visual rhetoric was so important to history and writing and, well, everything.

    Helena's own coins (struck about the mid-320s)

After that learning happened to me, I never looked at anything the same way again.

Never a church window, a coin, a piece of paper money, a movie poster, a book cover, a t-shirt, a hairstyle. It changed the course of my intellectual life in the most foundational way I could have imagined. Is this why I so love buttons and words and images in small round circles? I wonder.

Regardless of the origin of my fascination for round icons of any sort, I certainly am fascinated now. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about buttons in the last year. How do I square that with what I do as a scholar? Perhaps I don’t need to, or perhaps it will come to me when I need it, as I need it. Perhaps, this post is a start on a project to understand what writing and iconography (if that’s even the word I’d use to talk about the reverence of button collectors and makers and the like) have to do with one another.

And perhaps I hooked one English major today into thinking about rhetoric in a new way because of the button I made and shared. It ain’t coinage, but it has some value. As several folks were consulting on the wording this morning, we laughed long and hard about the whole business. That’s better than money.

Button for English majors (struck about 10 am, 15 November 2011)

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Filed under Constantinian Numismatics, Magic and Writing

Dear Open: I have been changed for good

Dear Open Movement,

Over a year ago I wrote about how I was transformed by my collision with you. I had an moment last night that is oddly linked with how I feel about you, the commons, Writing Spaces, teaching, learning, friendship, love, and more.

I watched an episode of Glee last night at 10 pm on Netflix. Why I did that I have no idea. I am not a Gleek. I’m not anything because I rarely watch television while it’s happening. I have about a ten-year lag most of the time for watching something popular, but I have seen Glee several times (the Rocky Horror Episode I watched three times on, and I love it. I love musicals. I used to sing and dance in musicals–and never was quite as happy as I was when part of a cast, even in a dinky town in a dinky production (you know it’s part of who I am to want to be part of a commons rather than working alone, though I love being alone–you get that). I haven’t done much of the singing/dancing thing at all lately (for a long, long time), but it’s not a thing that’s ever left my soul, though the act of doing it has left my life. So I’m a fan of Glee when I get to see it.

(Not like how I feel about you, Open. You are part of me all the time. We’re simpatico, one, inseparable, in it to win it, together, linked, connected at the hip.)

There is no good reason that I watched the last episode of the second season. I might have been scrolling through the options and was tired of 19th century British dramas. Or perhaps I was weary from watching hipster comedians riff on various issues of the day or their lives. I couldn’t find any SciFi I wanted to see. I desperately want to re-watch Farscape, but that’s for my Christmas holiday (and about a 90 hour commitment).

The Glee episode is titled “New York” and aired originally on 24 May 2011. (I was busy then. I’d just come back from a conference in Michigan and was into the second day of the summer session… and still dealing with the fallout from the spring term–no television for me.) In this season finale, the kids in the glee club travel to New York City for the Nationals–a sing off for show choirs. In one moment of sheer silliness and loveliness, two characters sneak onto the stage of Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz, to sing “For Good,” the last song of the musical.

I haven’t seen the musical Wicked, but I have read the book and another by the same author. Beautiful writer, beautiful story, beautiful concept. Naturally, I know of the musical and its success and have a six-degrees-of-separation connection with the woman who first played Glinda. As much as I’d like to see Wicked, it’s never been in my path. I’ve heard one of the songs sung a few times: “Defying Gravity.” A student did a brilliant presentation on that song and Victorian poetry in a class I taught a year or so ago.

So… I don’t know a ton about Glee and know even less about Wicked (the musical), but something compelled me to watch that episode. To say I was stunned by this song is to undervalue the stun factor. “Tasered” is a better word to describe how it felt. Like many things I do, I jumped in, all in, all the way, all the way open and embraced the moment for what it was: fully cool.

I woke up this morning and knew I had to write and share this with you, Open. It’s important for me to be open about this fully cool moment with you as I know you’ll appreciate it.

I’ll never find time to follow a show or go to a musical… or not this year. But this simple homage to Broadway and to music and to learning was just right, right now.

The way I feel about you is the way the characters in Glee and Wicked feel about each other. I thought about that all the time they were singing. The way you and I collided, leaving me breathless and wrecked on the shores of the future, was nothing short of spectacular, the doings of Fate. I’m still reeling. But “who can say if I’ve been changed for the better” by knowing you? I’m sure that you happened into my life for a reason, to teach me, to help me grow, to make me see the world differently. In return, I will give to you in some way, always. When you need me, you only need call, and I will be there. I am who I am because I have known you: “because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

Quoting the lyrics of a song is weak sauce, some might say, sentimental claptrap (even if it’s a Tony award-winner). Some might even say, “don’t quote, but paraphrase or summarize–use your own words, man, you’re a writer” but sometimes the words are perfection that someone has already said or sung before. Let’s not ignore the history of writing in general, or the writing of mash notes, in particular, eh? Mashing up songs/poems and letters is not news. I say I’m living the serendipity dream, the open dream. I’m remixing and mashing up (literally a little “mash,” right?), and doing my dance. I’m always doing my dance, thanks to you.

You get it, don’t you, Open? You get me and like me anyway. Thank you. You’re so exquisitely open.

Yours truly, ever open, E.D.

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Filed under All the Way Open, For Good, Magic and Writing

Grip the raven

Grip the raven. What does that sentence tell you to do?

That sentence indicates that whoever I’m talking to should “grip the raven.” It’s an understood or implied “you,” and an imperative sentence. Get your hands on the raven. Which raven I mean is in the photo below–it’s this raven. I mean “you.” Grip it. Grip it now.

Grip the raven! Now!

This is the stuffed and mounted raven that was owned by Charles Dickens named Grip. Yes. You read that correctly. (Victorians sometimes did this: stuffed a dead but beloved pet. They also made hair jewelry from the hair of dead–human–loved ones. I know. It’s so cringe-worthy.)

Grip was also the raven that was immortalized in Barnaby Rudge, published by Dickens in 1841. That book was reviewed by Edgar Allen Poe. And we all know about his raven in “The Raven.”

However, I’m not an American literature expert, so I didn’t really know that until I started poking around about Barnaby Rudge, a novel not often taught in British literature classes (to my knowledge), and a novel often considered one of Dickens’s less worthy efforts. (We’ll see. I’m teaching that novel in the spring term, 2012.)

The Grip you see here is the actual bird that Dickens owned, now part of the Gimbel Collection at the Free Library in Philadelphia. It was part of a large collection of Poe materials owned by Colonel Richard Gimbel (who also acquired a lot of Dickens realia and manuscripts and whatnot) which was all bequeathed to the library in 1970. Read more here.

In 1999, a librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Cornelia King, explained why this connection exists:

Connecting Dickens and Poe... not a literary coincidence.

It’s no accident. Poe was a master writer. In my bones, I know he knew of what he did.

And like an infomercial (but, in this case, about writing and literature), I beg you to hang in there with this post because: wait, there’s more!

Poe reviewed a volume of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems in the early 1840s for the same magazine where his review of Barnaby Rudge appeared, Graham’s Magazine (hugely important in American lit circles). The rhythm in “The Raven” is very like Barrett Browning’s in “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” (I confess, I don’t do a lot of scansion, but with a quick review of both–I can see a similarity).

Poe dedicated “The Raven” to Barrett Browning. She was flattered and thought him clever. Robert Browning loved the rhythm (and EBB did, too–not such a shock). She then mimics “The Raven” somewhat in her poem from the late 1850s about Napoleon III, ending most stanzas in that ode with: “Emperor Evermore.” That she was thinking about Poe when she was writing that poem seems like a colossal stretch (I haven’t found any letters which suggest she was), but what I like to think is that Poe was part of her history, Dickens was part of Poe’s, as she was part of his, too–both of them–and that because they were all invested in the same business, they were bound to sample each other and other artists, occasionally, to remix a bit here and there. To what degree this string of linkage was on purpose is a mystery unless each confessed to such influence in a letter, note, marginalia. But there are some things that are useful to say on such an occasion:

Writers read other writers and pick up a few tips now and again. These strategies or ideas or inspirations may be implicit or explicit. Writers may or may not be aware of what they are doing always. Inspiration at 3 am may be more like a remembrance of something lovely seen/heard/read before. Writers dip into the storehouse of knowledge when they write; they participate in a knowledge commons of a kind; and they collect the things that matter to them, ideas, words, phrases, rhythms, rhymes… then they write.

EBB often wrote with or against other writers (Byron, Dickens, Tennyson). It’s not strange that such a thing existed in literary production. It’s the kind of thing, though, that isn’t always apparent. It comes, for me, with time and as I expand what I know and how I know it.

I know what it is when I see it, though. It’s a collision of ideas when the ideas need to collide at a time when I need the result of that collision… boom. Best accept the collision or stand aside because here it’s coming.

I needed to know about Grip right now. I needed to laugh at the missing comma. I needed to find something fascinating to get me excited about Barnaby Rudge (it’s a novel about the Gordon Riots in 1780 for heaven’s sake). I needed to remember the way writers work and how writing works in mysterious ways for me.

I’ve been reading a long time now. I’ve been writing for a long time, too. And writing a lot lately. It makes total sense that such collisions come into my view as I wander around in English studies, in writing history, in British literature, in basic writing pedagogy, and across disciplines even (including geography). And this might be the best part of being a writer: being open to these sorts of collisions. “Chance favors the connected mind,” Steven Johnson says and writes. I like that. I believe in networks, and the commons, and being connected.

But I like to also think chance favors the open mind. Joseph Campbell wrote about openness a long time ago when he wrote about heroes with 1,000 faces (1948 or so). Heroes are champions “not of things become but of things becoming,” and that “myth is the penultimate; the ultimate is openness.” I think writers (indeed all of us) melt into a kind of commons, a source, (The Force in Star Wars–if that’s not too far-fetched for “you”–I mean, of course, the “you” who is gripping the raven while you read) from which we come, and to where we go, when we are open.

Openness is indeed the ultimate. It is the place we are in the 21st century. At the very least, it is where I am in the 21st century, and that may be enough.

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Filed under Interdisciplinariness, Magic and Writing, Reading & Writing, Victorians Everywhere

In which I refer to myself

I had such fun just now writing a post for a basic writing pedagogy class I’m teaching that I had to refer to it here. This is my blog; I’m the writer and I’m the audience; that post had to have some life in this location. It’s a bit of text that is more me than I might even be comfortable admitting, but there it is, part of history now.

I don’t do this too self-referential thing too often, but it was a post that was such a blast to write, and it’s prose that really addresses an internal crisis I have all the time: I loathe a typo. But I make them and so do the writers I admire the most. If I let that stop me, I’d never write again.

Still, I was exultant when I found a typo on the blog of a writer I adore (a professor at a university on the West Coast)–I even took a picture of the page so I could remember that I am not alone. It wasn’t as if I thought I was better than he is (because of one typo–so not a big deal), but it was exactly like this: if he could make that kind of error, then he was human, too, and perhaps admitting my human capacity for error was okay. Error is only as catastrophic as we allow it to be… not like a misplaced comma or a misspelled word is like dropping the heart in a transplant surgery: “Oh, nuts. Jim, could you grab that heart? It skittered over by your foot. Slippery devil.”

Would you say my being comforted by finding one tiny error on an admired blogger’s site was the writerly equivalent of watching Cops? I’d like to think not, but I suspect that’s exactly what it was.

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Filed under Magic and Writing, Winning is Everything