Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Combat of the Essay

Essay I wrote regarding my final thoughts, for the class, on the composition process. It's mostly about dragons.

Last time, I said that the first step in an examination of my writing process was to have a readable copy of
the assignment on-hand.  Although I still think that this is mostly
true and important to have on-hand, it won’t be true for much longer –
someday, I’ll have graduated college, and will have to establish some
sort of writing habits that are independent of assignments from
professors.  This is fine, as I’ve developed a new sort of process
and, to steal the title from a researchable technology in a game I’ve
been enamored with recently (an old PC game called Alpha Centauri that
is really one of the most intelligent games I’ve ever played – and
I’ve played a great many intelligent games), and I’d like to call it the same thing: Doctrine:Flexibility.

In the confines of the game, the technology allows you to begin
developing military units that are based around speed, agility, and
flexibility.  It is required in order to build any sort of naval, air,
or ground unit that is inside of a vehicle.  Although it’s required
for the tank-type platforms too, I believe that this is outside of the
scope of what I’m trying to say and thus will not attend to it.  The
technology, when you discover it, is accompanied by a quote from Sun
Tzu about being able to immediately adapt to any sort of changing
situation.  It’s also about not merely being able to adapt, but
understand exactly what it is your adapting to – and how best to
combat it.

I like to consider writing as a form of combat because I am a gigantic
nerd.  If you would but bear with me, I can explain some of the
similarities, and how they apply to my own process.  The first
component of the writing battle process is two-fold, and can be boiled
down to a single word: preparation.  This is the single most important
aspect of my writing process – before writing, I must have an idea of
what I will be trying to say.  This doesn’t necessarily have to be a
formalized thesis statement, but the concept – and my readings for it
– must have congealed sufficiently so that there is, at the least, an
image of the monster that I have to kill.  If I don’t know what the
monster even looks like – let alone its weakness (almost always the
belly) – then how am I to slay it?  Secondary, if only in concept but
not importance to this, is the proper armament.  I’ve always liked the
adage/cliché of not taking a knife to a gun fight, and this applies
well to this concept – if I’m going to be writing, for example, about
dystopic narratives present in early Norwegian black metal, then
listening to a bunch of rap music and reading about feminist theory in
the confines of Victorian Literature simply isn’t going to do me any
good – this would be the knife.  And really, why even bother with a
knife?  The goal is to win, not match weapons – always take the gun
with you, even if you know it’s a knife fight - perhaps, especially when you know its a knife fight.  Point being, always
have research and information relevant to exactly what you’re trying
to say, as these are the only weapons you get.

This arose for me personally even in the last day.  I decided to try
and make the argument that postcolonial literature is inherently
dystopic in nature, and that the two forms of literature share a great
deal in common.  Dystopic narratives and postcolonial concepts are
both quite nuanced and complex ideas, and more work than merely
reading the novels must be applied (it didn’t help that journal-based
research was required).  Strangely, I found that the best piece of
research for aiding me in defining dystopic narrative wasn’t so much
concerned with literature as it was with music – the piece was
actually about how industrial music and Dadaist art are incredibly
similar, and it merely used dystopic narratives as a bridge between
the two.  This was probably not the sort of research that I’d have
expected to use and lean heavily on in my work, yet it was – it turned
out to be a gigantic gun.  The research that was recommended by the
professor, which focused on Orientalism and then on postcolonial
literature, turned out to be the knives mentioned – although they made
for great supporting arguments, I found that they were almost too
abstract to employ as primary arguments.

Had I approached this assignment without an understanding of what I
wanted to accomplish, then I wouldn’t be writing this now – I’d be a
charred cinder of a man sitting, kind of, in my shabby, typical university-student living room.  My
research would have revolved around postcolonial concepts, and not
dystopian ones – and as said, you should never bring a knife to a gun
fight.  Although this speaks to the weapons that should be brought to
fight writing-dragons, it doesn’t speak to their weak spot.

This spot is different for every dragon and every battle.  This is, of
course, a metaphor for how you go about making your argument, and
requires a heavy volume of pre-writing for me personally, in addition to
free-writing and generalized note-taking.  I look at this as being
sort of like spending hours with dusty tomes about the dragon I’m
planning to fight.  In the context of the paper mentioned above, I
discovered – or, as has to be the case with things I’ve not done
before, decided – that this hinged on how well I defined dystopian
narrative.  I’m not going to write this out here – I’ve done this
twice in two papers in the last week and am really, honestly, hugely
tired of it – but by defining dystopian narrative in the way that I
meant to apply it, it enabled me to take three to five fundamental
concepts of it, and apply those individually to postcolonial and
Orientalist literature.  For those keeping score at home, I was
writing specifically about William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Orhan Pamuk’s
Snow (one of the most profoundly sad books I’ve read in a long time),
and Tariq Ali’s Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree.  By breaking down
dystopian narrative as I did, it enabled me to make arguments about
each of the three novels independent of one another, and, I would argue, more effectively that I could have otherwise.

I pictured this kind of like setting a series of anti-dragon traps;
one made with fire, in case he had frosty skin; one made of ice, in
case he had flaming scales; and one made of lightning, in case he had
watery eyes like a sappy bitch.  I also selected a corresponding
weapon, in case the dragon got caught in any single one of the traps
and could thus be dispatched accordingly, and also a shotgun in case
he didn’t fall into any of them.  Hey, this is my process, and I get
to make the rules: never bring a knife to a gun fight. It’s kind of like what Bruce Campbell said in one of the Evil Dead movies: “Good, bad .. I’m the guy with the gun.”

Of course, sometimes, no matter your level of preparation, you fail to
anticipate some attribute of the dragon: maybe he can burrow
underground.  Maybe he can spit giant spears, or maybe he has enslaved
a village and is holding is hostage – you didn’t even know that he
could do that!  The tomes don’t mention these kinds of things sometimes.  So too is it with
making literary arguments – sometimes, you run into problems that you
couldn’t have anticipated.  Sometimes, no matter how hard one tries,
arguments just can’t quite fit.  This again returns us to Doctrine:

In this situation, the Doctrine requires that definitions and
arguments be made of liquid and not stone – they must not be rigid,
because sometimes, the arguments, as they have been laid out, just
don’t work with what you’re trying to say.  Being persuasive is almost
always more important than being true to the argument, and sometimes,
this means arguing against fundamentally-held conceptions about the
idea you’re trying to manipulate.  For example, when asked about what
dystopian narrative is, or to mention a few dystopian narratives
they’ve encountered, they would say: it’s a story about the future
with a super-shitty fascist or libertarian government, like in 1984 or
Brave New World.  The Tariq Ali novel mentioned – Shadows of the
Pomegranate Tree ¬– takes places in al-Andalus and what is now known
as Granada during the time of Isabella and Ferdinand.  I think this
was sometime in the fifteenth century – just after the Muslim golden
age, and certainly before the European one.  So, how in the world can
a Christian, royal government removed five hundred years be considered
dystopic?  By the rigorous and clever employment of Doctine:

Finally: to get to the theory components of my process.  I’m
reasonably sure I’m exactly the sort of Neil Gaiman is, although I’d
like to think that I have a higher capacity for academic sort-of
stuff, if only because I’m in college, will be in college, and will
probably stay in college for my whole life.  Due to this, I kind of
have to have some capacity for academic writing – although I love
poetry, I love more analyzing the shit out of it and holding it up to
the standards of the modern, academic world than anything else.  Elitism is thy name.
Moving on: I made the argument in class that Neil Gaiman is a process
and New Rhetorician writer, and as I said, I find that I am both of these
things.  The former component should be somewhat clear by what was
stated about dragons, machine guns and speed boats, and also knives.
What I particularly like about the New Rhetorician model is this
capacity of creating truth from language – it acknowledges that truth
is a malleable, subjective thing, and that it is my responsibility –
and right – to create it and employ it where and how I see fit.

What is strange to me is how little any of the above applies to my
poetry.  In the last year, I’ve begun to take the craft more
seriously, and am finding that I only kind-of sort-of have a real
methodology for doing so.  Generally speaking, when I sit down to
write a poem, I have a very specific phrase or idea in mind.  Take,
for example, a poem that I recently had published in Prairie Margins;
it’s called Ataxia and is a pantoum, which is a cyclic sort of poem
that I find both irritating and engrossing – I’m big on formal forms,
for some inexplicable reason.  One evening, while returning home after
drinking with some friends, my car got stuck in my driveway because
apparently East Village has too many poor people in it to actually get
plowed in a reasonable amount of time.  Anyway, in the process of
digging it out and kicking my car, the idea of snow .. “clinging to
life like in a nuclear winter” came to mind.  This phrase swam around
my mind for several weeks, and eventually lead to Ataxia – the poem
itself came out bizarrely different than I’d expected it to, but then,
they all do.  Which is why I don’t really get how it happens.  I’ve
come to find, however, that the real craftsmanship in poetry has
nothing to do with the first draft, but comes rather in the editing
and re-writing of it.  “How can this be more clear or archaic?  How
can I modify this line to fit my syllable count (almost always ten or
fourteen) and to sound, well, awesome?”  In this, my poetry arises
through process writing.

I’m not quite sure that the New Rhetorician model applies to this – my
goal with poetry is never truth; indeed, on the first day of class,
the professor asked us what our goal with the form was.  Several
people alluded to establishing a sort of truth, an accuracy, an
honesty and purity of thought, emotion and form – my response was to
cloud reality and to confuse the hell out of people.  This still holds
true, even after formalizing my process and the craft – I don’t want
people to know my truths.  They can get their own – because, when I
write poetry, I am not the noble knight slaying the dragon, and I’m
not the guy bringing a gun to a knife fight.

I am the dragon, and I’m going to kill you.

No comments: