Sunday, July 21, 2013

Blogging via Moleskine: the Pedagogy of Transcription

Writing in Slate, blogger Justin Peters describes his blog-post writing process:
I’ve always enjoyed writing things by hand, but I didn’t formalize the process until I started blogging daily for Slate. Almost every morning, before the day starts and I start drowning in emails, I go to a coffee shop with a pen and a small Moleskine notebook. There, I try to conceive and write drafts of two separate posts before 10:30 a.m. Then, it’s back to my apartment, where I shed my pants, transcribe, and refine what I’ve written. (One of the nice things about writing my posts by hand is that it allows for a built-in revision process.) 
I can write in my notebook anywhere and everywhere. I will frequently bring it with me and dash off a rough draft while in transit—waiting for the subway, sitting on a bus. This is very convenient, as it allows me to be productive on the go without having to own a smartphone. (My current cellphone is at least 10 years old … but that’s a story for another time.)
This reminds me of something I saw close to thirty years ago, and I forget where, maybe 60 Minutes?, but it was a profile of Woody Allen and he described how he'd write short pieces for the New Yorker by long-hand on a legal pad before typing the piece for submission. But more to the point, Peters observation on revision recalls this bit from Craig Fehrman:
In the last 30 years, however, technology has shifted again, and our ideas about writing and revising are changing along with it. Today, most of us compose directly on our computers. Instead of generating physical page after physical page, which we can then reread and reorder, we now create a living document that, increasingly, is not printed at all until it becomes a final, published product. While this makes self-editing easier, Sullivan thinks it may paradoxically make wholesale revision, the kind that leads to radically rethinking our work, more difficult.
Fehrman's piece draws much from the work of Hannah Sullivan and her recently published The Work of Revision ( Sullivan's main focus is on how technologies -- cheap paper, typewriters for faster drafting -- made possible the kind of revision that literary writers (Hemingway, Wolfe, Pound, Eliot, and other modernists she studies) did. But what's key is that the act of switching  -- or not switching -- composing media, from pen and paper notebook draft to online draft (or not), alters how writers revise.

In teaching writing, then, there's a virtue to be found and built on in urging writers to use varied writing tools, everything from audio notes recorded via a phone, to a series of tweets, to notes on napkins, to drafts in notebooks, to writing in discussion boards, to drafts in a word processor, or entries in a blog, and so on. Moving one's thinking on an idea from writing space to writing space, from writing tool to writing tool, from writing occasion to writing occasion lets an idea both age and blossom in the way wine does. With any luck,  no idea would be served before its time (and place and purpose and audience).

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On the Death of My Wife's Cat

Ebony beloved cat of Barbara Crowley-Carbone, died, after 20 years of devotedly sleeping on her head most nights, in his owner's lap on Sunday, July 7. He is buried in our backyard, in a place that will become a small flowerbed, likely perennial bulbs that will bloom early each spring.  Ebony was predeceased by a brother, Bogart, who died of kidney failure in 2004, and a sister, Simba, the runt from their litter, who died at two weeks old, found tightly curled --and very stiff-- on a sun-streamed bedroom pillow. All three cats were as dark as Ebony's name, with small triangular Siamese faces, and, if you looked closely, tiger stripes of a deeper black.

Ebony lived to and died from old age and his final months came with weaker vision, less spring, confusion that left him wailing on occasion, and towards the very end, it seemed, the search for a quiet place to let go of living. And so we'd find him in places he never went before: a very tight spot behind a book case, behind a book bag under an old school desk, asleep on top of basket of keys that sit atop a cabinet where we store coffee and tea, and, for some reason only after a bath, he'd sleep in the litter box. But still, his favorite place to sit, was on my wife; if she sat on the couch to grade, he'd walk over her legs, across the math-paper pile on her lap, and climb to her neck, and settle, with his head under her ear, fore legs over her shoulder, and rump on her breast.

Combined with summer heat and a new-to-her cat allergy, the location wasn't the best of places, but as often as not Barbara would take a Zyrtec, shift the papers to her left and his rump a bit to the right, adjust her bra, and let him be, knowing he had little time left.  And on the not-times, when things were too hot or itchy for her, he'd wander over and sit on me. I don't like cats on me. The rule of thumb for pets in our house is that they don't belong to me. I don't feed them, hold them, groom them, pick up after them. I'd occasionally flick a string at the cat to get him to jump, or throw a toy his way, but I was just as likely to toss a pillow to get him off the bed, or a dish towel to get him down from the table. Still, as he got weaker and weirder, it got harder to push him away, and so in the last few weeks he'd come to me, searching for the same location. I'd tuck a couch pillow on my lap, lacking as I do the perch he found with my wife, so he could climb to where he wanted to be. It made reading or writing a trick, and so when he came my way, I'd often switch to a gin-and-tonic and Netflix moment as a bribe to myself to be kind to him in his dotage dolorous.

Ebony, in his dotage, allowed on the coffee table so he can look at the skinks.

Still, for the odd crying jags, the more frequent search for new quiet spaces, the increased lap time, there were moments when Ebony would be or try to be himself: his appetite stayed good until the last day or so, when he switched to water; he'd pop his head up at the window when a rabbit stopped outside of it to eat the clover that grows in our yard; if one my daughters trailed a cat toy, he'd follow after it (though they had to play the game in slow motion); and he'd come to the table for scraps, sniffing and beseeching for a nibble of pork, chicken, fish, or pop-corn if we had a fresh-popped batch.

My kids got in the habit of sneaking him food because when Bogart, his brother, was alive, if Ebony didn't finish his breakfast before Bogart had finished his own, Bogart would Bogart Ebony's food, shoving him out of dish with a head bump and a look. So Bogie was plump, Ebony thin, and my daughters in empathy got him hooked on scraps. And that habit held on to the end, an end marked by the things that come with getting old punctuated by habits from a life lived. He carried on, doing what he could on his own when could, crying honestly when he was lonely and confused,seeking time with those he was about to leave behind, and despite occasionally doing things that would be embarrassing -- sleeping in a litter box when wet of fur -- seeming never ashamed of who he was and how his days were spent.

Strange to say, for a pet that wasn't mine, whom I grudgingly acknowledged, and certainly didn't love, I do miss his presence. I think in maybe the same kind of way George Bailey discovers, in It's a Wonderful Life, that he's happy to see even the exasperating broken newel on his staircase. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to be one pet less, and that much closer to no litter dust or stench, no pet food odor, no scratch marks, no dander, and all kinds of wonderful no mores to come (after the remaining cat moves out with my daughter if she ever can afford to move out). And so as happy as I am to have cat-things diminished, Ebony will be missed. Maybe because when he begged for a bite, the kids had a running joke they'd make, or when he did one of those dumb things cats do, like slide in panic on a new-polished floor, my wife would laugh a certain way because it was him, and that laugh, that one special one for that occasion, won't be heard again.