Saturday, November 22, 2008

And Here You Are a Writer, Infinitely Original and Endowed with a Sensibility that is Charming though Beyond the Understanding of the Vulgar.

We made Dadaist poems again yesterday. This is a longtime favorite. Sometimes the chance arrangement of words brings insight. Sometimes it brings thought-provoking combinations or funny juxtapositions.

Think dangerous again


Hunting at small claws

The Dada artist Marcel DuChamp said,"a stained glass window that has fallen out and lies more or less together on the ground is of far greater interest than the thing conventionally composed in situ."

I'd like to take this opinion about my house. Shouldn't the clothes, books and toys be more interesting scattered everywhere, than tucked away where they belong?

As an aspiring novelist I ought to have this opinion about the house, the car, the yard. There is simply more information in a wet sandbox with tracks than in a featureless expanse of sand. After all, no one but Edward Gorey wants to set a story in a Featureless Expanse.

The more order, the less there is to describe.

The more order in a life, the less story there is to tell. We're not interested in the guy who gets up every morning at 7am, reads the paper and has buttered toast and coffee for breakfast, arrives at work at 9am sharp, punches out at 5pm and so on, day in and day out, except insofar as his life is a ticking time bomb. If at the end of Chapter 1 his life isn't in smithereens were unlikely to read on. After all, we know what is coming next.

It would take infinitely long for me to describe my kitchen to you right now. Would I start with the salmon on the counter, or the bucket in the sink, or the egg yolk dried onto the plate? Shouldn't this be good and creative? Even though it might be good for me to think so (I might get more writing done), hating the mess is what writing is really about.

It is about taking life and imposing order.

About creating a character whose life has a narrative arc. About distilling the meaningful bits and tying them up with a pretty pink bow of circularity or unexpected irony.

I write this blog because it brings order out of chaos. My house may look like an earthquake hit, my days may be repetitive, my car may be a breeding ground for fruit flies, but here I can make it all have order and meaning. Not too much order. I'm not going to type a string of s's


and have perfect order and predictability and almost no information.

But not too much information, either. Information without order is just what the universe, in all its second-law-of-thermodynamics wonder, gives us plenty of.

I guess I'm part of the vulgar masses: I'll take the stained glass window in situ.

I know a lot of people who knit. I am not a knitter. When I am the only person in the homeschool mom circle at park day who is not knitting people sometimes ask if I knit. And I say things like, "I don't knit. I weave tales." Or, "I do texts, not textiles." Which, the last time I said it, came off as pretty obnoxious. As if I thought texts were more important than textiles. Which is not true.

I just like word play.

And the whole writing/weaving/living thing. The three fates, life is a thread, the thread makes the fabric of our lives, the narrative thread. Writing and knitting are all interwoven and if you don't believe, let me spin you a yarn.

But I have never wanted to knit. And I think I know why. A string is already perfectly ordered. Whether it is stretched out straight or wrapped around a spool, or even in a ball, it is pretty easy to describe. But then you take that thread and go making it complicated!

This is not to say that the complications aren't beautiful.

But the sweater, or even the lowly sock, is still much more twisty and unpredictable, chaotic even, than a simple thread. I mean look at those patterns. Even the description of how to make a sweater can give you a headache, let alone the real-life thing.

If you object to my description of a sweater as chaos check out this New Yorker article on the guy who filled his whole apartment with a homemade computer he built to digitally assemble photos of a tapestry. The tapestry was a living, breathing, twisting, shrinking, expanding thing that did not yield itself willingly to flat photography.

I profoundly admire the work and mastery that goes into making these sweaters and laces and socks, but to be honest, the thing I like best about sitting in a circle of knitters is when they make a mistake and have to take it all out. I just love to see that complexity dissolving effortlessly into a single string.

A knitter knitting an afghan starts with a perfectly ordered string and makes it just complicated and unpredictable enough. A writer writing a novel starts with the chaos and disorder of life and tries to string it all into something that hangs together.

Same goal, from opposite ends.

Both are great to curl up with on a winter afternoon.

Some people write and knit, which could probably lead to all sorts of insights.

But it is not for me. I mean, after all, somebody went through all the trouble of shaving that stuff off an animal and combing and carding it into fibers that go the same direction and washing it and dying it and spinning it.

I just can't face undoing that hard-won order on purpose.

It would be like smashing a stained glass window.

It turns out that, despite what the vice principal of my high school said, after that unfortunate event we won't go into here, I am no iconoclast.

I can't even bring myself to cut up magazines. To make our Dada poems we photocopied the text and then cut it up.

How To Make a Dadaist Poem
Method of Tristan Tzara

To make a Dadaist poem:

  • Take a newspaper.
  • Take a pair of scissors.
  • Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
  • Cut out the article.
  • Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
  • Shake it gently.
  • Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
  • Copy conscientiously.
  • The poem will be like you.
  • And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
    -Tristan Tzara

Here's your chance to be endowed with a sensibility beyond the understanding of the vulgar. Click on the title to go to an online Dada poetry generator, no paper, scissors or tape required. Just virtually cut and paste something you like into the window and click Go!

I did a few lines from my post.

simple you

But you


any thread me

any chaos

thread moaning, as chaotic even still than any

characterization of

sweater is

about If


chaotic point then thread

Hmm. Better than the original.
Maybe I should take up knitting.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I just found your blog and really enjoyed this post, as both a knitter and a homeschooling mom.

The paradox of motherhood is that I am more spent and overwhelmed and yet deeply contented than I have ever been. And somehow that is about all the chaos that I'm swimming in these days. My husband and I have a mantra in moments of insanity with the kids: "Our house is so full of life." Which is wonderful. And exhausting. But we wouldn't have it any other way.

Looking forward to exploring the rest of your blog!

Susan said...

Hi Barbara, I found your blog the other day and you inspired me to get out some card stock and let Greta have fun making stationery. Thanks for stopping by and dropping me a note. I love your mantra. My kids are trying to navigate the house without touching the floor. This requires jumping from the kitchen counter through the kitchen door...closing eyes...taking deep breath...Our house is so full of life.

D Hochron said...

Wow. This post should be in The New Yorker. Although, I hope, not in one of the issues which may not be salvageable after being dropped in a hot tub here at Esalen. The very tub in which, not twenty four hours earlier, I (may have) shared a birthday suit soak with Amy Smart.

patricia said...

I must say, for someone who likes a perfectly ordered string, the train of thought on this post is anything but. It's as twisted and interesting as any cable I've ever knitted!

I love the Dada poem generator. I'm sticking that link into my pocket. A similar activity has been very popular with writer's workshop groups I've facilitated for kids. I stole the idea from Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge and her book Poemcrazy. I have the kids collect words and write one each on the back of an "admit one" ticket. I encourage them to collect all types of words: verbs, colors, place names, latin botanical and animal names, emotions...Then they move them around and create poems. It isn't as random as the Dada poem activity, but it gets them paying attention to how words sound and look together--and it's a tangible example of how writers are word collectors. Always a lot of fun.

I'm off to bed to puzzle out the connections between knitting and writing...