Recycled Declaration

 

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Peter Breslin

“Happy Independence Day! Today, I declare my independence from jingoism, nationalism, American exceptionalism, starry-eyed sappy sentimental faux-patriotism, hagiography of our military forces and police and other public servants masquerading as unquestioning respect for heroism, willfully gluttonous and destructive consumerism masquerading as freedom.

I declare my independence from the tempting blindness to the entrenched corporate-fascist plutocracy that has slowly maneuvered a (bloodless?) global coup of politics and press.

I declare my independence from the State-sponsored story, the lies my teachers told me, the narrow minded, provincial and embarrassing ignorance of what it means to be not just an American but also a global citizen in a rapidly shrinking world.

I declare my independence from an all-too-convenient and unearned pride in an alarmingly deteriorating country where Constitutional freedoms have been slowly eroded or eliminated and where protest, speaking the truth to power and political activism (the very bedrock of our revolutionary origins) is now seen as, at best, ungrateful, and at worst, a form of treason.

I celebrate the true spirit of the American revolution and the American experiment today. I celebrate the human passion for freedom and justice, the universal longing for a better life, the grand ideal of a government of the people, by the people and for the people. I celebrate the greatness of America’s marginalized, disenfranchised, oppressed, exploited and apparently disposable people who have made it all possible from the bottom up. The poor and educationally short-changed who seem so easily put in harm’s way and who constitute the vast majority of our volunteer military, the suffering and homeless veterans who have been bought and sold on the market of questionable wars abroad, the labor force that sacrificed so much life and safety and comfort in the early part of the 20th Century for quality of life improvements we now take entirely for granted but that has been relentlessly disempowered and excluded from the economic and social conversation today.

I celebrate those who worship whatever God or Goddess they worship freely, humbly and quietly and in the true spirit of their faith, not obstreperously, legislatively and oppressively in the marketplace of public, civic ideals.

I celebrate the grand tradition of progressive thought and action in American history, represented by progressive education, progressive health, labor and work improvements, progressive programs to ameliorate suffering and aid the worst off among us, progressive attitudes about the privacy and security of our persons, papers and effects, progressive voting rights, progressive civil rights in their long, slow, painful unfolding, progressive and open ideals regarding the free exchange of ideas (including the least popular of those ideas), progressive attitudes of welcome and appreciation for those from other countries yearning to be free.

I celebrate America’s great innovators in the arts and sciences and America’s irrepressible spirit of not so much ‘why?’ as ‘why not?’ (to paraphrase Ornette Coleman). If there is any heft in the oft-repeated claim that America is the ‘greatest nation on earth,’ perhaps the anchor for that claim, ironically, rests in the most bold, progressive and innovative, most free and most humane and democratic of all of our contributions to the world.

If America has been great and exceptional in human history, it has done so along these lines: the greatest possible liberation of the human spirit, in spite of vicious and regressive attempts at oppression, for the greatest number. Empires are a dime a dozen throughout the centuries of our species. Tribalism, exclusion, oppression, greed, genocide, invasion and exploitation are dirt cheap and common in the human story. I celebrate an America that has been and perhaps still could be a true exception to these commonplace horrors.

Happy Independence Day! How free do you want to be?”

©Peter Breslin, 2010

Peter Breslin is a teacher, musician, PhD student in plant conservation biology at Arizona State University and writer who lives in Tempe AZ.

Unconventional Forms

From the ‘Pop-up Poetry’ series of workshops sponsored by StoryStudio Chicago
(http://www.storystudiochicago.com)

Sunday, April 30, 2017
taught by C. Russell Price 
(http://www.english.northwestern.edu/people/faculty/russell-price.html)

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Each of Russell’s poetic exercises from the Pop-up Poetry series (and I really wish I hadn’t missed the first workshop) stands alone as a path to deeper creative fluency,  but taken together they share a common intention: to startle the writer into thinking differently, to jump-start creative association and engagement with words and the world outside of us, to connect and communicate with the work and words of others.  It’s a curriculum both of surprise-folding old and new together, forcing a new perspective that takes us out of ourselves-and recognition: there’s material everywhere. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that as we sit there with blank minds and pages.

This final class in the series examined several lesser-known poetic forms, daunting in their rigid structure and requirements. We were instructed to dive right in and make them our own.

1. The Abecedarian

AbecedarianA

…an ancient poetic form guided by alphabetical order. Generally each line or stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet and is followed by the successive letter, until the final letter is reached. The earliest examples are Semitic and often found in religious Hebrew poetry.
 -The American Academy of Poets

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Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

So we wrote our ABC’s down the left margin of a piece of paper, and had ten minutes to generate a poem: a love letter to a person, place or thing.  Three imposed limits: the form itself, the time constraint, the theme.

I didn’t get real far. It was incredibly difficult.

After the divorce
Before the reunion
Coincidence? Or Fate?
David
Edged over
Found me at the table
God!
How weird!
I loved him when I was 20.

Yeeesh. And that was only the beginning of the alphabet. Imagine if I’d made it to K and Q and X.  And Z. The idea that the structural requirements might actually enable rather than inhibit expression made sense to me in theory; in practice….well, yeah. Maybe I could look at it as an exercise, like a musician running scales.

Yeah. That’s it. I was just warming up. There was a big crowd on Sunday, 10 people all told, with only a short time to go over what we’d done, so it was hard for me to tell how many others had as tough a time as I did (and doesn’t it always seem like other people are ‘getting it’ more quickly than you are?).

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2. Cento

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From the Latin word for “patchwork,” the cento (or collage poem) is a poetic form made up of lines from poems by other poets. Though poets often borrow lines from other writers and mix them in with their own, a true cento is composed entirely of lines from other sources.
-The American Academy of Poets

 Or, as Russell described it, it’s a sort of ‘chainmail’ made out of the pieces of other poems, ‘pulling a poem of your own out of the lines.’

We were instructed to go to the poetry section of the store and choose a book, either by a favorite poet or one entirely unfamiliar to us. We were then directed to page through the poems, cherrypicking a striking line here, another striking line there, then assemble them into something resembling meaning.

Because my confidence was a little shaky I went straight for this, as he has never let me down: Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 10.59.42 AM

We had ten minutes.

Cento
after Billy Collins

The tip of the nose seemed the first to be lost
If you tripped on a shoelace in the hall,
The air ionized as before a thunderstorm.

I heard the ghost-clink of the milk bottle
I fell in love with a wren
It played while I watered the plants
It repeated itself when I took a walk

There was a lot to notice that morning
My new copper-colored bicycle
The music of the spheres
I peered in at the lobsters.
How many things have I looked up
In a lifetime of looking things up?

It’s really sort of amazing what happens; it feels like the sense makes itself.

Again, there sadly wasn’t time to read them all aloud; we chose favorite passages and passed them around (this easily could’ve been a three hour workshop!).

3. Collaborative Poem
(*this is what I’m calling it; it may have a formal name that I don’t remember or know*)

It’s what it sounds like (remember the dread you felt in school when you were told to ‘pair off’ for some class exercise or other?): work with a partner, trading couplets back and forth: you write one, they write one, then you write one, etc.  We were instructed to arrive at a theme by brainstorming with one another, then get down to writing. I don’t know if everyone was as squirmy about this as I was, but it seemed like it.

Why? Why did we feel that dread in school; why did we (or I, at any rate) feel this way?

I think one of the reasons I am a writer is that I am shy, am too easily distracted from my own thoughts by those of others, need to mull my words over and play with my ideas before I share them. It’s a comfortable if not always optimal place, and when you are asked to work with someone else (for some reason, it’s not as difficult for me with a group as with a single partner), you don’t have the safety of privacy anymore.

Or something.

Anyway. My partner Calvin (I never learned his last name…sorry, Calvin!)  and I put our heads together. We were each skittish, I think (I know I was!), tossing the task back and forth like a hot potato. He said ‘you lead,’ and I balked, said something about being that dancer who prefers to follow (or not dance at all, unless I’ve had a couple of drinks), and we finally stumbled on Dancing as a theme.

Dancing Tango [a is one voice; b the other]

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a
Let’s dance
Tango is cool with me

b
I’m not much of a dancer
More a stand-against-the-wall type

a
Come off that wall
Stand tall
You win
If you don’t fall

b
Well I guess I’ll win then
Which foot goes where?

a
Look what they
Doing, shakin
Soft shoeing
Let’s steal a dance
Do that prance

b
They move so fast
Like they know what they’re doing
Maybe if I move fast
I’ll look like that too

a
A one and a two
A stolen soft shoe

b
Who’s leading? The follower?
Or do I follow you?

While putting this post together, I came across this, a collection of poems for two voices:

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4. Ghazal

Its restrictions belie an exhilarating freedom not found in other kinds of poetry. It becomes a liberating sort of puzzle.
http://ghazalpage.com

Pronounced ‘guzzle,’ this is a form I’d never heard of. Originating in Persia, its name originates in an Arabic root that means talking to women.  At its best, flirtation is a subtle art, with a particular and often daunting set of rules. The ghazal is no different.

With gratitude to Holly Jensen at ghazalpage.com, here are the rules:

  1. A traditional or free ghazal has at least 5 end-stopped couplets. Repeat: no enjambment  between couplets. A caesura or end-stop between the lines of couplets is common.
  2. Couplets are autonomous. They need not tell a single narrative, share a single voice, or use common imagery. You can even think of each couplet as its own small poem. They’ve been described as beads on a necklace: separate elements that combine to create a beautiful whole.
  3. The poet often refers to or addresses herself (or an alter ego/pen name) in the last couplet, directly or through word play.
    [in addition to meeting the above guidelines, a ghazal in English has three additional rules]
  4. The defining characteristics of a traditional ghazal are its rhyme and refrain. The refrain can be a word or phrase. The rhyme appears directly before the refrain. Every couplet ends with the rhyme and refrain. In the first couplet only, both lines end in the rhyme and refrain.
  5. Every line of the poem shares the same meter or syllable count.
  6. A ghazal doesn’t always follow every rule!

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I found this ‘ghazal defining a ghazal’ to be (a little) more enlightening:

Ghazals on Ghazals
John Hollander

For couplets the ghazal is prime; at the end
Of each one’s a refrain like a chime: “at the end.”

But in subsequent couplets throughout the whole poem,
It’s this second line only will rhyme at the end

One such a string of strange, unpronounceable fruits,
How fine the familiar old lime at the end!

All our writing is silent, the dance of the hand,
So that what it comes down to’s all mime, at the end.

Dust and ashes? How dainty and dry! We decay
To our messy primordial slime at the end.

Two frail arms of your delicate form I pursue,
Inaccessible, vibrant, sublime at the end.

You gathered all manner of flowers all day,
But your hands were most fragrant of thyme, at the end.

There are so many sounds! A poem having one rhyme?
—A good life with sad, minor crime at the end.

Each new couplet’s a different ascent: no great peak,
But a low hill quite easy to climb at the end.

Two armed bandits: start out with a great wad of green
Thoughts, but you’re left with a dime at the end.

Each assertion’s a knot which must shorten, alas.
This long-worded rope of which I’m at end.

Now Qafia Radif has grown weary, like life,
At the same he’s been wasting his time at. THE END.

A string of beads: the ‘string’ is its series of repeated Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 6.32.32 PMrhymed refrains, its ‘beads’ the images: ‘wine, roses, candles, birds, war, prayer, politics, jokes, deathbeds, and kisses…’ [Holly Jensen, ghazal.com]
I never quite found my footing with this one: *so many rules* with only a short amount of time left.

Clouds out the window, wool in a box
Ice in a plastic cup, handful of rocks

Seat back and tray table, cart in the aisle
Upright and locked, she says with a smile

You’re now free to move in the cabin…..

…aaaannnnd it peters out. Where’s that repeated phrase? Nowhere to be found. Why are those rhymes so lame? Best I could come up with. Not much came out on the page, but I was doing some real mental gymnastics; maybe that’ll help me the next time I take a stab at it.

What were the gymnastics, exactly? They were a struggle between the restrictions of form and the completely different restrictions of freedom. Russell mentioned hating the requirements of rhyme; it can shut down association and imagination…except when it doesn’t. They were a struggle between my own words and the words of others, an often noisy conversation, a jumble of sense and nonsense. It was a struggle between what hinders creative expression, and what enables it.  It was a struggle between private and public, individual and communal, original and borrowed; it was a struggle with the self-contradictory idea that rules allow freedom, and that freedom creates rules, almost requires them.

Poetry is, I guess, a humanity-wide effort, a democratic art: we borrow from others, generate from within ourselves, join the conversation. We build it in cooperation with one another: everyone who came before us, everyone who will follow. It’s an alphabet, a patchwork, a dialogue, a string of beads, a dance.  And when you’re jammed up, when you can’t quite complete that circuit between head and hand, mind and heart, ideas and images and words, ‘Steal everything!’ Russell said, then get out on the floor, write about dogs, and make something of your own.

Let’s dance
Tango is cool with me.

©Melinda Rooney, 2017
[Skeleton Tango by Laura-Anca Adascalitei]

 

Image, Metaphor, Simile

From the ‘Pop-up Poetry’ series of workshops sponsored by StoryStudio Chicago
(http://www.storystudiochicago.com)

Sunday, April 23, 2017
taught by C. Russell Price 
(http://www.english.northwestern.edu/people/faculty/russell-price.html)

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First, a word to the wise: unless you have a really good sense of humor, and/or a morbid fascination with your silly past self, you might want to throw away, unread, the journal you kept in the 8th grade (my mother kept everything, then sent all that everything to me). I was running late for this workshop, and it was the only notebook I could find. 

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I couldn’t even get the lyrics right. 

And here’s my Christmas list: 

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The upside was that I felt confident that anything I put in it today could only be an improvement.

Similes and metaphors are phrases likening two things. A simile uses ‘like’ or ‘as’; a metaphor is a little bolder, stating that one thing actually is another. ‘Does it dry up/Like a raisin in the sun?’ Langston Hughes asks of the fate of a dream deferred. ‘My mother is a fish,’ Vardaman Bundren muses in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It’s my conviction that our brains are wired to make these associations. We learn the world and life by comparing; it brings us a little closer to cracking the code of the essential mystery of things. We all do it; this is not merely the stomping ground of poets. Or, looked at another way: we are all poets. Spend some time noticing, over the course of the rest of today or even the next hour, how often and effortlessly you make an associative, symbolic link between one thing and another. Deployed deftly, honed and polished, metaphor is the resonant end result of an imaginative and intellectual process, the effort to engage with, understand, and express our experience of the world.

But it is also a fertile beginning, forging links between abstract and concrete, trivial and profound, self and other, life and story; cracking open locked boxes, setting all kinds of things in motion, pointing in all kinds of startling directions, setting writers and readers on a path both familiar and entirely strange. You feel for a moment as though the meaning in the words has visited from the outside: a whispered message, a bird on your shoulder. It has assembled you, rather than the other way around (and I think it’s a little of both).

‘What I want to do is ruin a word for everyone else,’ Russell said as the workshop began, explaining that they seek to link it so memorably to its association that readers can never hear that word again without the metaphor ringing in their ears.

And with that, we set out to ruin some words.  

We warmed up with a kind of batting practice fry, taking some tentative swings, warming up.


After listening to some examples from other poems, we were instructed to think of a body part or human quality: heart, eyes, courage, anxiety, then to freewrite our associations to it-concrete objects, specific details-for ten minutes (which as a writer knows is at once a very long and a very short time).  We then went back over what we’d written, bracketing the three IMG_3335.JPGmetaphors we liked best and sharing them around the table: an aging head is a rotary phone, a 60’s-era television without a remote, a plant with a tangle of roots that, when you pull it free, takes the exact shape of the pot it was in (these are mine; I shy away from taking those of others as I feel they’re not really mine to take, although this one is so good I just can’t help myself: a brain is a ‘machine made of meat’).  

Then it was time to step up to the plate (see how ingrained the habit is?). We were each given three small pieces of paper and instructed to label them: Noun, Verb, Adjective. Then, for fifteen minutes, we walked around the wonderful Volumes BookCafé in Wicker Park, searching for words. This was, as it was at the last workshop, an exercise in yearning and frustration: so many things to want, to sit down on the floor with and get lost in. But we had 15 minutes to find 15 words: 5 nouns, 5 verbs, 5 adjectives. The yearning was going to have to wait. 

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When we dragged ourselves away from the shelves and returned to the table we were instructed to sort our papers into three piles, which Russell then sorted, shuffled, and stacked. We each took one piece of paper from each of the piles, so that we had 15 words in front of us, 5 nouns, 5 verbs, and 5 adjectives, chosen by someone else

We were again given 15 minutes. We were to sit with the words in front of us, let them percolate, then cobble together a poem, bringing them into a relationship and compelling them to make sense, to arrange themselves in an entirely new way. 

*Frantic scribbling ensues*

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But then, oh God, about 7 minutes in, Russell says ‘…and now for the curve ball,’ and proceeds to have us pass our nouns to the person to our right, our verbs to the left, and our adjectives across the table, so that we each now have three entirely new lists of words to draw from…for a total of 30 words.  Then the frantic scribbling recommences, new words folded in, old ones discarded, a rearrangement of meaning and image and…metaphor.  

And voilà: a poem.IMG_3330.JPG

Here is mine. At the next workshop I’m going to solicit contributions from other participants; anything they’re willing to share I’ll post in my Anthology section, so stay tuned. 

A Viewing

Grandfather in the barber’s chair
Furred clippers revise him
That grumpy, glowing face
That wild hair
An unfettered armadillo once
A crafty crocodile
A roughneck

Furred clippers revised him:
Happy now,
Undisturbed,
Eyes iced-over jellybeans
His fingers carrots in the dirt
An empty house
An android, vanishing

…a work in progress, but hey, it beats this: 

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And I feel compelled to add that I think that the goofy scribbles in this old notebook from (okay, fine! I’ll just say it!) 40 years ago propelled me into what I wrote in it on Sunday evening: a series of meditations on growing old. A 54-year-old sidled up to her 14-year-old self and maybe told her a couple of things she’d never have known otherwise, and maybe I learned something from her, too. And now we’re sitting there together, tucked between the worn-out covers of a (79 cent!) composition book.

Inspiration is everywhere.

Thanks, Russell, for another wonderful workshop.

Oh, and Go Cubs!

©Melinda Rooney, 2017

Part 2: Stories

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Stories tell us that language was bestowed by divine powers: gods, God.  Nowhere in them (that I’ve been able to locate, at any rate; if anyone has found one, please post it in a comment!) is there an account of that mysterious transition, in people, from silence to noise to words to speech to meaning to human connection and communication. What did that look like? What drove it? Was it gradual or abrupt? Private or public? Did it resemble a child learning words? But children have others around them whom they imitate, you might reply; the first speakers, whoever they were, were flying blind.

In myth, speech and language are always a divine gift, possessed first by its giver (and often used to create the world; language is handy that way) and then passed along to human recipients, often to the considerable regret of both: ‘As soon as we got language,’ Mark Pagel wrote, and as I think I’ve quoted elsewhere, ‘we became a really dangerous species.’ Stories about language’s origins aren’t strictly about origins at all, or, rather, they are about the origins of language diversity, how humanity went, usually by way of disobedience or arrogance, from one language to many, and they are each of them embedded in Creation myths: accounts of how it all began, theories born of imagination and the need to explain (mercurial parents, for sure) that can never be conclusively proven. Every civilization, every culture on earth has its Creation myth. They’re wildly divergent and eerily similar at once, and we’ll look at them in more detail later. But for now, here’s a pitifully incomplete laundry list of the world’s various divine bestowers of the gift of speech:

  • The Ancient Egyptian god Ptah, patron of craftsmen, created the world ‘through his heart and through his tongue’: ‘simply by speaking a string of names, Ptah produced all of Egypt, the other gods…the cities and temples.’*

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  • Vak (later called Saraswati) is a goddess in the Hindu pantheon, described alongside her immortal companions in the Rig Veda, the Ancient Hindu scriptures dating from between 1700-1100 B.C.:

“She enables one to perceive, understand, and then express in words the true nature of things…she is the Mother, who has given birth to things through naming them….On one level, Mother Vak is sacred speech, including the hymns and ritual chants. On another level she is also ordinary speech among ordinary people. She is far more than speech and includes the power of perceiving, grasping the nature of things, naming them, and expressing the perception with coherence and form.

(with gratitude to https://shestirs.wordpress.com/tag/rig-veda/. Head over there for a wonderful description and examination of Vak)

Vak has a Japanese counterpart (the astonishing cross-fertilization of world mythology is something we’ll examine more closely later), Benzaiten, goddess of everything that flows: ‘water, words, speech, eloquence, music and, by extension, knowledge’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki)

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  • Ogma is the Celtic god of language, speech, and eloquence.

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  • Fabulinis is the Roman god of education and wisdom,  and is the protector of children: he teaches them to speak.

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  • Hermes is the Greek messenger of the gods, god of speech, and, interestingly, of tricksters, thieves, and all who live by their wits.
  • In the mythology of the African Yoruba people, Eshu is Hermes’ counterpart: a god who speaks all languages, he, too, is a messenger of the gods and a trickster.  (are you starting to notice an associative trend here?)Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 6.36.11 AM
  • Bik’eh Hózhó is the Navajo personification of speech. Storytelling is a powerful creative and social force in Native American traditions.

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  • Quetzalcoatl, literally ‘Winged Serpent,’  is the Aztec god of wind and learning, which are, when you think about it,  two essential components of speech.

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You get the idea.

Well, and who can forget this guy:

‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.’ [italics mine]

Every day for six days, God speaks, God names, and sees that it is good: the world blooms into being. God said…God said…God said. God is all-powerful, and he is all-powerful because he calls the world into being with words.

…and he bestows that gift upon Adam, the first man, who gets right to work with some naming of his own.

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And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

                                                                                             Genesis 2:19 [King James Version]

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for one thing, the serpent in the garden was also endowed with the gift of speech. Like all human ‘gifts,’ language is a double-edged sword: it can make the world, and it can destroy it. It can speak the truth, and it can deceive. It can kill and it can heal. It can be twisted into orders (‘But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.‘), pleas, prayers, oaths, promises, curses and lies.

Well, and then there was this whole mess:

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And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

                                                                                           Genesis 11:1-9 [King James Version]

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

(The Bible, among all of the other ways it can be read and understood, yields up so much about language: its power, its nature, its origin and dissemination, the gifts it bestows, the lethal damage it can do.)

For all of its great stories, though, this whole Divine Gift business feels a little like a cop-out, doesn’t it? At the very least, it’s a kind of magic-wand shorthand. Whether God was involved or not (and I have no idea), I kind of would like a few more specifics; we’ve grown accustomed to more scientific, rational accounts (which doesn’t necessarily imply that a power greater than we are doesn’t have a hand in things: greater powers tend to work in all kinds of ways).

As you probably already know from both sweet and bitter experience, language is both blessing and curse; God had some real regrets about having passed this particular gift along.

And there were some men who weren’t real thrilled about it, either.

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William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2

The godlike figure of Prospero, magician, philosopher, king, rules his own private island. He has only two subjects-his daughter, Miranda, and a hideous, half-savage servant called Caliban-until a handful of shipwreck survivors, among them the Duke who exiled Prospero to this place (hmm. Who do you suppose might have conjured up that storm?), washes up on the shore and sets the story of The Tempest in motion, a story shaped and arranged by Prospero.  For all his power, he regrets having taught Caliban language (much as God face-palmed as he looked down on Adam’s fall and the tower of Babel’s rise). The beast did not deserve it. And Caliban regrets having learned it, too: it has awakened him to all he can ultimately never have: intelligence, Aesop--s-Fables---The-Fox-and-the-Grapesdiscernment, noble humanity. It has given him a taste of these things, but, like the fox with the grapes, he can never have them. All he is able to do with words is curse his fate.

Max Müller, a German Sanskrit scholar, believed that myths were expressions of ideas that could not be conveyed in language. But I suspect that the drive to myth might just precede language, and shape it. In fact I’d go so far as to say it was the engine (or one engine, at any rate; it’s a long, long train) that drove its creation.

We were desperate for a story. And for a story, we needed language.

Why couldn’t I find a story that described humanity’s first tentative stabs at speech? Why is there no myth depicting the birth of speech in people? Invoking a deity was a way to explain what we could not comprehend, but maybe it’s more than that. Maybe the human origin of language has no myth because myth itself is the origin. It sounds crazy, but maybe the yearning for a story that explained the world to us, explained us to ourselves, came first; language followed. How do we tell stories without words? Cave paintings tell stories in images; why was that not enough? (and were they created before or after the birth of language?) Well, cave walls aren’t super portable, for one thing, and can’t spread like wildfire. We needed a way to carry our stories with us, and pass them around. My hunch is that the need to tell them was so innate, so powerful, that it drove the creation of the medium by which they are put out into the world, spoken and heard by us and others, binding us into communities of common effort, explaining, entertaining, world-building.

So my personal True Beginning is that language began as a way of defining, expressing, and satisfying our curiosity, our desperation to explain and understand. Language began, and was driven by, our need to know. And that need to know was best satisfied by way of entertainment: a good story.

 

EXERCISE

FIRST:
pull out your phone or laptop (OR, if this is used as an out-of-class assignment, go to the library too) and examine the Creation Myth of any culture you like (as with scientific explanations, there are tons!), and scribble a brief, summary description. As with the exercise from Part One, push past Wikipedia, although you can start there, as it has many references to other sources.
SECOND:
Sit quietly and come up with a story, a myth of your own, addressing the following questions:  1) How did everything begin? 2) How did speech and language begin? Depict your answers as scenes of a story. Write them down. 
THIRD:
Tell it.

As with the Science exercise, the research and writing aspects here can be tweaked to fit either into an in-class context or an out-of-class assignment.
Younger students, rather than being asked to do full-on research (although some modeling of this process is never ill-placed, IMHO), can be presented with a series of stories, ideally recorded and played.
During the telling portion of this exercise I pull my buttonhole-an-unsuspecting-student thing, asking him or her to repeat/summarize a just-told story. If he/she fumbles and stumbles I open it up to the whole group, then invite embellishments and additions (this is, after all, the way a lot of myths evolved: tellings, re-tellings, additions, deletions, repetitions, contradictions, the whole nine yards). I seek to establish a context with this exercise that will carry over into later stuff having to do with oral traditions, and the fact that so many stories came to life prior to the development of writing. The oral tradition has, of course, left its fingerprints all over every story ever told, and a big one has to do with how these stories got shaped and told so that they were remembered and passed along from one teller, and audience, to the next.

*Davis, Kenneth C. Don’t Know Much About Mythology. New York: Harper-Collins, 2005

©Melinda Rooney, 2017

Blackout/Whiteout

From the ‘Pop-up Poetry’ series of workshops sponsored by StoryStudio Chicago
(http://www.storystudiochicago.com)
Sunday, April 9, 2017
taught by C. Russell Price
(http://www.english.northwestern.edu/people/faculty/russell-price.html)

I promised the poet who taught the workshop that I would not steal any ideas. They laughed and said ‘Oh, steal them! Steal anything you want!’

All writers are thieves, after all, and the prizes we treasure most are words.

The workshop consisted of two parts.

Part One: Blackout

Step One
Two back issues of two different literary magazines were passed around the table, and we were instructed to open each at random and rip out a page. We each cringed a little, all avid writers and readers, loath to defile a book. All the same we closed our eyes, flinched, and tore. IMG_3307

Step Two
We were instructed to read quickly over them and cross out all of the words that didn’t ‘jump out’ at us.

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Step Three
Giving us 7-10 minutes, C. Russell instructed us to rapidly compose a piece consisting of the words we had not crossed out, going back and forth between the two pages from the two different magazines, dovetailing words together.

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Step Four
We went around the table, each reading our pieces aloud. I wish I’d thought to pull out my phone and film it (though that might have been met with protest, so maybe it’s just as well).  I wish I’d captured the amazement on both readers’ and listeners’ faces as we heard what we’d written spoken aloud, how each piece cohered, flowed, meant. Our instructor listened intently, scribbling madly as we read, noting one or another striking image, association, emotion, larger meaning. Then they read theirs to us, for as all good teachers do, they had done the same work right alongside the students.

Part Two: Whiteout

We repeated Steps One, Two, and Three, with three variations:

  • First, rather than using the pages we had torn out and marked up, we marked them up then passed them to the person sitting next to us, so each of us had an entirely unfamiliar set of words to work with.
  • Second, we got up and wandered around the bookstore where the workshop was being held, picking up one book and then another at random, choosing five words that jumped out at us and writing them down on another piece of paper. We then returned to the table and exchanged those.
  • Third, we were given 7 minutes to compose a poem out of the available material, but this time we had to ‘whiteout’: impose connecting words of our own to cobble together the un-crossed-out ones (and remember, they’d been chosen by someone else!) on the page. This was *really hard*.

Step Four
We went around the table, each reading our pieces aloud.  And while everyone agreed that this exercise was much more difficult than the previous one (we were using words we had not chosen, had been asked to impose words of our own onto them and cobble meaning together), on the whole, again, there it was: the same amazing experience, the same amazed reactions.

We had destroyed, then created; defaced and repaired; unwoven, then rewoven, obliterated meaning and brought it to life again in an entirely new form, with an entirely surprising shape.

How did that happen?

One of us spoke of how desperate we are for meaning, that we will seek it, and find it, or, failing that, insist on making it, in, or out of, the most random collections of things. We talked about how there are stories in everything, just waiting to be told.  We talked about how nice it was-as writers constantly worrying over our work, the possibility of eventual success, the inevitability of failure and rejection and the effortful determination to shake it off and stick with the work- to return to the thing that had made us want to be writers in the first place: the pure joy of literally playing with words. I thought about the freedom that rules and strictures make possible. I thought about how lonely writing feels, when the truth is it is about as communal as it gets: we are immersed in conversation with our characters, with one another, with (ideally!) our readers, with all of the writers and words we’ve ever read; the authors of the pages we’d marked up were, in a way, sitting there at the table with us. Would they be annoyed at our appropriation, our desecration of their carefully wrought pages? Possibly. I’ll admit I might’ve been. But I suspect not.  ‘Oh, steal them!’ they might have said. ‘Steal anything you want!’  After all, we weren’t stealing their voices. We weren’t appropriating their meaning. We weren’t telling their stories; only they can do that.  We were simply playing with the words they’d played with too, arranging them like Legos into something entirely new. We were recycling.

Think of the possibilities, C. Russell said: medical textbooks, cookbooks, travel magazines, each of them using words in very different ways: technical, descriptive, instructive, lyrical. Think of pulling words willy-nilly from each or all, mashing them together and seeing what surprising things simmer to the surface. I wish I had all of the pieces generated there to share here; I wish I had the pages so I could show you, up close, the scribbled ground from which the pieces grew.

Here’s what I do have.

Blackout
or
Motherhood: A Log of Regrets

Oh, litany and happy prospect,
You’re just like your father.
A peasant.

The press of many matters,
The South Seas,
The Sandwich Islands

Stop it, mother

Seizures
Amusement
Self-Pity
Invective
A volunteer fireman!

Stop it, mother

Your haircut of a father
A demigod, numinous, biblical, divine.
How could this have been my life?

Physical afflictions
A glass on the table
A pleasure and an honor
Grindingly dull, adrift on seas of island flowers
A hundred days

The press of many matters

A slow, meditative cloud
Wallows: malign, aggressive, fractured images
A shining past, exalted primogeniture
it might cost you a nickel-
Conjuring the myth.

You’re just like your father
A schooner, a captain, two crewmen, a second novelist

You must not call me, Mr. Stevenson. 

Whiteout
or
Passing the Bar

Perfect glasses, black and grey
The lawyer pursed her lips

Viewed the statue.
Remembering brick,
She said
 ‘There is one thought enough to kill me.’ 

She sets up her easel
Loud, marigold-colored paint
Pink and candy-blue,
Hydrangea bushes.
‘I don’t understand,’ she says,
‘all of the beauty and fashion of Rome.’

‘I can end this terror,
This posthumous existence, the sweat of 
Those boys.’
In the name of profit, she turns,
Questioning potted honey lilies and spiderplants:
‘Who is to say that I’m not a criminal myself?’

Indigestible words
Earliest days in Rome

Everything I have reminds me of her. 

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©Melinda Rooney, 2017

[For other workshops like these, and other writers’ resources in Chicago, please see http://www.storystudiochicago.com. Many thanks to Jill Pollack, founder and director, and all who work there, for what they make happen. Special thanks to C. Russell Price, *from whom I shamelessly stole*]

Part 1: Science

 

unknown-2The science of language is called linguistics.
So LINGUISTICS says (with a little help from archaeology)…
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                                            …that we really haven’t been at this for very long.

What were we up to all that time, in that massive ‘Prehistory’ pie wedge up there, aside from hunting and gathering, eating, sleeping, reproducing, seeking and finding or failing to find shelter, keeping ourselves alive, being born, growing older, dying? Maybe becoming human took all the energy we had. Maybe there wasn’t time or room for anything else. But what did humanity look like without language?

Why, and how, did the need to communicate arise? Doesn’t it seem like that was always there? How did this idea, kindled and stoked over eons, that we could make and shape noises with our mouths to exchange information, weave a social fabric, keep records, protect ourselves, tell stories, name all of the things of the world and take our place in it, become a reality

We’ll never know, will we?  For all its power, speech can only speculate about its own origins; it can only ask questions.   

There’s been a lot of guessing, though. The impossibility of arriving at an answer has never deterred us from inquiry; in fact it could be argued that it inspires it. Come to think of it, maybe that was at the heart of it: our incessant curiosity. Maybe words arose to shape all those unasked questions.

In 1866 the French Academy of Sciences, snowed under by papers and weary of warring theoriesUnknown and cranky scholars,  instituted a blanket ban on any further research into or speculation about the origins of language.  We will never know the truth, went the argument. We are beating our heads bloody.   Let’s move on to other things, shall we? Assez! Arrêtez!

But bans never work, right?  Stopping people from imagining, wondering, speculating? Good luck with that. The guesswork continues, the theories proliferate. Here are only a few from over the (many) years:

  • Self-Organization: briefly, the sum of the parts spontaneously adding up to more than the whole.images
  • Bow-wow. (also called the ‘Cuckoo Theory’): words are imitations of animal cries and calls. images-1
  • Pooh-pooh. words originate in exclamations in response to pain, pleasure, anger, sorrow, astonishment.bizarrolanguage
  • Ding-dong. the first words as echoes of a mysterious, resonating, cosmic vibration.screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-4-42-14-pm
  • Yo-he-ho. Language arises out of the grunts and expostulations of people working together: hauling heavy objects, for example. The sounds they made established a communal rhythm that made the work go more smoothly. giphy
  • Ta-ta. Pre-lingual humans imitated their hand gestures with their tongues, wagging them in concert with their waving hands.

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…yes, these are really the names of theories. Never let it be said that linguists have no sense of humor. 

But wait, there’s more! (…and this is a woefully incomplete list):

  • ‘Mother Tongues’ & ‘Putting the Baby Down’: unknown-1briefly (and simplistically), language originated in the bond between mothers and their children, in the interests of the survival of the species. These theories elegantly fold in the necessity of mutual trust as an essential element of communication between individuals: if you can’t trust your mother, who can you trust?  The circumstances and demands of prehistoric life (hunting, gathering, the fact that we gradually became hairless, so there was nothing an infant could cling to) made it impossible for women to hold their children all the time; they had to put them down in order to have their hands free to work. ‘Motherese’ developed, a reassuring murmur: ‘Mommy’s right here.’ There is even one theory that suggests ‘Mama’ may have been the First Word, the sound of an infant nuzzling at its mother’s breast. 600-07453952
    I’ll have lots to say later about how our individual journeys from birth to adulthood bear a striking resemblance to the big picture of human history and evolution (I wish I could, but I can’t claim this conceit; it is a spin on what Ernst Haeckel, a 19th century German biologist, put in fancier terms: ‘Ontogeny recapitulates Phylogeny.’ main-qimg-19ad9e44696a0bcb2af5fdda5c493a1e-cPut simply, an organism’s growth contains within it, stage by stage and step by step, that organism’s entire evolutionary history (the fact that this is not strictly true will have to be explained by better scientists than I am). But for the moment, how cool is it that the birth and infancy of language might coincide with the birth and infancy of each of us
  • Nativism: Linguist Noam Chomsky asserted mri_blackandwhitethat the deep complexity of language argued for an innate capacity for speech that came with a human being the way cars come with power steering: a ‘language organ.’
  • 200wBiosemiotics: way too complicated for me to explain well, but it’s the one that–forgive me–speaks to me most persuasively: 

    “… the deciphering of the genetic code has revealed our possession of a language much older than hieroglyphics, a language as old as life itself, a language that is the most living language of all — even if its letters are invisible and its words are buried in the cells of our bodies.”— Beadle, G. and M. Beadle, 1966. The Language of Life: An introduction to the science of genetics.

Kinda makes you understand how those guys at the French Academy of Sciences felt, right? Assez! Arrêtez!

EXERCISE
Individual or Group or Class: I mentioned that I’d compiled a woefully incomplete list.  SO….

FIRST:
Sit quietly and come up with a theory of your own.  Write it down (taking a moment to realize how integral the ability to write is to the ability to think. More on this later). SECOND:
pull out your phone or laptop and do a quick search for a theory I didn’t mention above (There are tons!), and scribble a brief, summary description. Push past Wikipedia, although you can start there, as it has many references to other sources.
THIRD:
tell us what you’ve learned of the existing theory, and what you think of it. Plausible? Implausible? Why? There’s no better way to understand an idea than to take a few potshots at it and see if it survives.
FOURTH:
offer your theory. 

[and then, if I’m lucky, conversation ensues.  Often, of course, nudging is required. Sometimes I’ll make a crack about getting a sense, now, of what the world was like before we could speak.]

[This is also when I pull a stunt that I repeat as necessary over the course of the semester/workshop/class/whatever venue I’m in at the moment. Once a student/participant has presented her spiel about an existing theory and offered her own theory, I turn to another student and ask him what his classmate just said.  There are initially some real deer-in-the-headlights reactions, and I make sure to apologize to the hapless victim. But repeated a few times, I’ve found it to be an incredibly effective way to get them listening to one another.]

[Sometimes I put part FOUR at the very beginning of the class/group/workshop/session, before the big old information dump up there. As I mentioned in a previous post, some groups or individuals need the inspiration of other ideas in order to generate their own; others want to jump right into it. Depending on what kind of time is available, I’ll do this exercise in class or assign it for the next one.]

Up next: Up next: STORIES!…Origin myths, legends, stories, magical thinking…also attempts to explain and understand.  When we bring art and science together we inch a little closer, maybe, if we’re lucky and diligent, to cracking the code.

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©Melinda Rooney, 2017

Silence & Noise

 

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What was your first word? Ask your parent(s). How did you get from silence to noise to speech? And was there ever total silence? From the time our ears form and open like flowers, science has revealed, we hear noise: our mother’s heart beating, our father singing, a barking dog, a sibling clomping down the stairs. Some expectant mothers press headphones playing Mozart against their bellies; the children of many musicians who recorded and performed while pregnant -Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth, The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, Sarah Blackwood of Walk Off The Earth-must have been born humming, their heartbeats’ rhythm already calibrated to melody and story and rhyme.

But when, and how, does the speech-light click on? When did you figure out that the noises around you-wind, waves, birdsong, car horns, human voices-were something you could make your own, produce yourself, attach to objects, twist around into meaning?

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You used your voice from the very beginning, of course, and even without words expressed yourself eloquently; ask your parents how they dealt with how you cried at night. But when did that whole word-making thing get going?  When did it click that a series of sounds named things?

There’s imitation, of course, perhaps the first learning tool, after befuddled, squinting attention, to come online. We’ve all seen (or if you haven’t yet, you’ve got a treat in store) how infants only a few months old will mirror a parent’s expressions. Fascinating research into what are known as ‘mirror neurons’ shine a light on the possible mechanisms of not only speech and behavior but the origins of empathy and human interconnectedness as a whole.  But I’ll leave that to the experts: http://www.brainfacts.org/brain-basics/neuroanatomy/articles/2008/mirror-neurons/

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They see your mouths moving, and noises coming out, and things happening as a result, and quickly discover how to make that power their own. [Science has a way of throwing cold, objective water on such magical ideas, however: studies have shown that this ‘imitative’ behavior in infants is overblown, exaggerated, inaccurate, attributable to all kinds of other things; until at least several months have passed their brains and behaviors and processing of stimuli aren’t sufficiently wired together to perform as complex an action as ‘imitation.’ But nearly all of the debunked claims were made about infants younger than three months…so we still have the magic; we just have to wait a little while.]

Pretty soon they’re taking a stab at conversation, even if the words themselves still aren’t quite there.

What was the first word?  And why? What gave someone-or generations of someones in a slow evolution of sparks of comprehension, like a chain of firecrackers-the idea that mouth-shaped sounds could represent, comprehend, even construct reality, could cement communities, ensure cooperation, enable survival?  It had to have been far more difficult than the task facing an infant; she, after all, is born into a world ringing with words and people who can introduce her to them. What was the idea and motive force and inspiration behind the first spoken images.pngword? Who uttered it? There was nothing to imitate.  Or was there?  The noise of winds and thunder and falling rain? Bird calls? Mammoth bellowing? Hundreds of theories have been floated, and while we’re able to zero in on some potential explanations with far greater acuity than we once were, we’re going to just have to get used to the fact that, when it comes to this particular question, we will never arrive at a concrete answer. The whys and hows of the beginnings of human speech died along with its speakers. By itself, with no one to remember and pass it along or, later, to write it down, speech dies on the air, and even when if it is caught like fireflies and passed from one pair of hands to the next, the glint gets dimmer and dimmer until it eventually winks out.

But guesswork is valuable in its own right. How typically human, right? Putting our linguistic minds to work to seek the origin of our linguistic minds; attempting to put into words how we once began to put things into words; questioning how we began to question, explaining how we came to explain. Even if we never get the answer, the questions we ask get us closer to the heart of the mystery, the mechanics behind the magic: the True Beginning.

leo-cullum-the-emergence-of-language-cave-woman-we-need-to-talk-caveman-uh-oh-new-yorker-cartoon
I’ve divided a brief (and I mean brief) summary of theories of language into two sections, and devoted a few posts each to them:
1) Science: the ideas and theories of linguists, biologists, anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, anatomists;
2) Stories: Philosophical and Religious and Mythological speculations.

[Depending on what age I’m teaching and the general mood and momentum of the class, I carve out a section of time either before (if the cylinders are really firing and people are animated and engaged), or after (if there’s more reticence and seeing some examples and ideas would prime the imaginative pump) we go over the Science and Art content. I ask the class/group/individual students to sit for a minute or two in *silence* and think about and imagine how speech began (I remind them to notice, too, that they can only do this with language, with words). Then it’s time for them to offer the class (or me, if it’s one-on-one) two things: a scientific hypothesis of their own making (with possibly some ideas for an  experiment that might support it), and an artistic explanation in the form of a myth, story, poem, or philosophical or religious reflection. I’ve had great luck with it.]

Up next: Part 1: Science. But first, a brief intermission!

Melinda Rooney ©2017

The True Beginning

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web2.airmail.net

Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. Even Science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit, and must fix on a point in the stars’ unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is at Nought. His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his; since Science, too, reckons backwards as well as forwards, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought really sets off in medias res.  No retrospect will take us to the true beginning; and whether our prologue be in heaven or on earth, it is but a fraction of that all-presupposing fact with which our story sets about.

-George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

We have to start somewhere. Where is the True Beginning, and what does it look like? What did things look like before the beginning? There were no books, no language, no words to describe it. If we cannot describe it, can we only imagine it? And can we go from imagining to knowing? Or does that only lead to more questions? (and is that a problem?) Must we settle for a ‘make-believe’ beginning? Is that going to have to be enough? (and is that a problem?)

It has taken years of experience, both in the classroom and out, for me to learn that the only place I can start is with the fact that I don’t know where to start, either in my own thoughts or standing in front of a group of strangers on the first day of a class about speaking, listening, writing, reading.  So much history there, a group of individuals with their own stories, opinions, ideas, questions. Some of them are tired, overburdened with jobs and loan obligations, confused, elated, distracted, in love, heartbroken, maybe a little hung over, any or all. If you hold still enough and let the silence stretch out, you can almost begin to hear beneath it the chaotic, conflicting, agreeing, harmonic buzzing of all of those thoughts.  So many lives, sitting in chairs.

So in my hypothetical class (remember this is an imagined hybrid, a cobbled-together thought experiment made of things I’ve done that worked), I start with silence. It’s unnerving for everyone. There’s lots of looking around, phone-checking, fidgeting.

What is it like to sit in silence? What is it like to have no memory, no language, no words? What is it like to sit in prehistory?

Because I am a storyteller, and a reader, and a writer, I think to start with books, then quickly realize that doesn’t go back far enough. Texting? Facebook? That jumps too far ahead. I have to go to cave paintings, the birth of spoken language-what the hell did that look like, anyway?-around-the-fire tales, scraps of spoken epics, cuneiform inscribed clay tablets recording the trades and inventories of ancient commerce, China, Sumer, the ‘Dreamtime’ of the Australian Aborigines in which gods and men roamed the outback, creating crisscrossing paths across its vast expanse, naming its features and speaking them into existence, inscribing them in swirls of dots on crumbling canvases.

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Artist Unknown https:/www.aboriginal-art-australia

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CALIE.org: Hubble Telescope Image of Thor’s Hammer nebula

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because I am a person who, as Anne Lamott once phrased it, is ‘all of the ages…[I]…have ever been,’ I think to start with birth, when silence ends and noisy life begins.

This has some promise: everyone in this room has being alive in common. They may love to read, or write, or talk, or all three; they may hate it. But all of them have a life, have had a childhood they are preparing to both leave behind and carry with them all their lives.

So, okay, we’ll go with life.

I break the silence, finally, to everyone’s relief, by showing them this:

We are born into a world that already exists, of course, in medias res, which is where all stories begin, but we each must make our own true beginning, take our place in the world by naming it and making it ours: creating it. We do that by reaching out and touching and testing at first, then gesturing, then making noises that eventually shape themselves into words, then with questions, then with imagination and experiments and ideas. In combining all of the above we make a story, and that story becomes the world in which we live. And in those stories are all of the questions and answers and experiments and ideas people have ever had. This class is going to examine some of them, and ask these people in chairs to join the conversation that makes the world.

So let’s start there.

Each Class/Workshop will include an Exercise that can be used either as a class activity or as a homework assignment. They will appear at the end of posts just as this appears: red, centered.

[NOTE: Some posts will include messages to those who might be interested in using this material in the classroom (or anywhere else, for that matter). These will appear at the ends of posts just as this appears: bracketed, italicized, in purple.]

©Melinda Rooney, 2016

Introduction

I’ve taught writing (and reading, and philosophy, and literature) to students of every age. It took me a long time to figure out that stories, and the fact that we are all storytellers, were my way in: they’re the bag of tricks, my song and dance, my sure-fire way to get and hold and focus attention. In the preschool classroom there was, of course, the RUG, where we’d sit and read book after book after book and construct around–the-circle stories of our own, each kid picking up the thread the kid beside him or her had spun, tracing it out, passing it on to the next kid. Goofy tangents and vivid detail abounded.  And, amazingly but maybe not so amazingly, inherent structure emerged, meaning and shape that connected each member of the little group to every other, and made something entirely new out of words and imagination. Once we had that, there was a reason why we traced letters in sand, copied them onto paper, arranged magnet letters on a metal board.  It was all about getting to the story. Sitting in that circle was where I began to dimly suspect that we are all of us, maybe even from birth, ‘wired’ for this.

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Jay Ryan, Regular Bears thebirdmachine.com

These were the easiest students, these little guys: still jazzed, amazed, unfettered in their imaginative flights, still discovering and feeling their way to all the cool things people are able to do and making them their own. I was unaware of it at the time, but my experience with 3 and 4 year olds had laid the groundwork for the approach I would take all through my career as a teacher of writing, reading, thinking, listening, questioning and arguing and discussing: reawaken that jazzed, amazed feeling about stories, about imagination, about the things people do with both spoken, written and read language, humanity’s most powerful tool.

It took elementary and high school kids a little longer, and the older they got, the longer it took: the journey back to wonder was winding and dimly lit. They were asking for more than magic-on good days wanting explanations, context, purpose; on bad days a shortcut, a snow day, head-on-desk naps, smartphone games and texts. Assignments piled up, pressure about Their Future was brought to bear, sitting and absorbing then mechanically repeating back information took precedence and then, suddenly, a lot of them were in college, a few of them sitting in my classroom, in a course that would require them to write, and read, and talk, and think.  With the exception of a few who appeared curious and engaged, it was a grim and apprehensive crowd.

Where to begin? It took me a long time to figure it out.  What follows is a hypothetical approach to the teaching of writing, reading, thinking, listening, questioning and arguing and discussing-a prototype, I suppose you could call it. It’s made of my ideas and experiences teaching at all grade levels, and the ideas and experiences of others; plans and exercises; clipped quotes and videos, passages from favorite books; the things that worked from all of the various classes and students I’ve taught.  I attempt to tailor the approach here and there to different age groups, although I’ve found from experience that there isn’t much tweaking required from one age to another: simplifying language in some places; shortening or lengthening various exercises, focusing on ‘external’ spoken and performed stories with younger children, more ‘internal’ written pieces for older ones;  dredging long-term memory with older adults, skimming the short-term with younger; dropping or adding some theoretical or historical offshoots. Its essential structure, though, aspires to one-size-fits-all. It’s a sprawling Dr. Suess structure, constantly under construction, never finished, new things tacked onto old, often disorderly, propped up with sticks: sloppy but with what I hope is at least a stab at coherence.  It’s ongoing; it’s accumulative; it’s recycled.

©Melinda Rooney, 2016

Next post: The True Beginning