Book Review: Meander Spiral Explode (Design and Pattern in Narrative)

I have not read Jane Alison’s work before, but her latest — Meander Spiral Explode (Design and Pattern In Narrative) — has me curious what kind of experimentation she might do in her own fiction. Here, she leads us on an inquiry into patterns and design of stories that reach beyond the traditional narrative arc.

You know, very linear. This one:

Instead, she explores the other ways that stories might develop, and in doing so, Alison surfaces not just experimentation in fiction, but insightful ways to think about character and plot, and writing. She focuses mainly on the three aspects of her title: Meandering, Spiraling, Exploding and adds in Networking and Fractals, too.

This is a short, simplified explanation of my take-away of her ideas:

  • Stories meander when the narrative zigs and zags, from different perspectives or different points of view, when the writer has a place to get to, but is content to take their time. In fact, time is a key element here, and Alison’s deconstruction of how a writer can use time was fascinating.
  • Stories spiral when a writer uses repeating phrases and themes, and circles back on ideas repeatedly, sometimes slightly hidden and sometimes not. A story that spirals either moves towards its core or center, or it begins there and then shifts outward, giving the reader a different way of seeing what is happening.
  • Stories explode (or are radials) when they move from a central point, but move away at different speeds of time and direction, so that there is something keeping the story solid, but the anchor is faint. The radial points of the narrative connect, if only slightly.
  • Networking, or cells, are designs in which the frame of the story’s parts are nearly identical in design – one echoes another — and each part builds with the others to create the larger narrative arc.
  • Fractal stories start at a single place — an idea or theme — and then slowly and then suddenly expand out with near mathematical certainly, so that the first piece was merely a seed for what comes next, and so on.

The book is packed with fiction excerpts that Alison uses as examples of her thinking, and these small pieces of writing were interesting to read and think about, particularly in context of her insights. As a writer, I am now thinking about a story I have been working on — and how I might reframe its design — and as a teacher of young writers, I wonder how I might introduce different story arc techniques beyond the traditional plot design we often use (the one above).

Peace (in text and beyond),
Kevin

PS — At a point in her book, Alison notes that a friend sometimes takes her writing and transforms it into pieces of music. I was curious. Then, I found this musical adaption of Meander Spiral Explode on Youtube, and it fascinates me to no end.

This is what the composer — Christopher Cerrone — wrote as text with the video:

In April 2019, my friend Tim Horvath, a novelist, texted me, “Do you know Jane Alison’s ‘Meander, Spiral, Explode’? It’s a book that focuses on unusual structural elements in novels.” I always trust Tim’s suggestions, and I tore through the book over the next few days, finding it unique and deeply insightful. I experienced what Melville called “the shock of recognition”—seeing someone describe your own efforts (in this case, an in-progress percussion concerto) without ever having seen a note of it.The three words of the title seemed to pertain specifically to each movement of my concerto. The first movement—while dramatic and intense—seems to meander through different landscapes, where the gunshot-like sound of four wooden slats morphs into marimbas and bowed vibraphones while changing volume, key, and context. The second movement (played without pause after the first) is structured like a double helix. A rising scale on two vibraphones slowly expands, speeds up, and finally blossoms into a sea of polyrhythms. As for the last movement (again played without pause): the explosion seems fairly self-evident. A single exclamation point ejects lines of 16th-notes into the ether which return, again and again, to a white-hot core. The propulsive patterns in this movement constantly shift emphasis but always maintain energy. The end of the work brings us back to the first three notes of the piece, suggesting one more shape that Jane Alison discusses in her book: a fractal. The simple shape of the opening turns out to have contained the entire form of the work to come.

MusicMaking: The River Rides the Beat Beneath Us

This is a Loop Composition, inspired by a recent trip to the Delaware River Gap, where I tried to pay attention to the rhythm of a river that cut through the section where we were staying and working.

Along with the various waterfalls, where the sound came crashing down, there were calm sections, places where the water bubbled over rocks, narrowed gaps where the stream zigged and zagged.

Each of those sections of the river informed sections of this composition, as I worked to layer sounds and loops and beats together to capture my remembering of the riverway.

Peace (sounds like),
Kevin

Book Review: Song For A Whale

Wow. I was really blown away by Song for A Whale by Lynn Kelly. I bought this book on a whim, because I liked the gorgeous cover art and I am interested in any books with “songs” and music. I’m glad it caught my attention and that I read it. It’s lovely.

Song for A Whale is a beautifully-told story that centers on Iris, a 12 year old deaf girl struggling to make her way in a world of the hearing, and becoming more and more frustrated by the walls between those worlds. At school and at home. With a knack for fixing anything electrical — she can disassemble things faster than you can turn on the power and spends her hours at the junkyard looking for parts — Iris loves old radios, in particular, as she finds connections between the vibrations of sound – the way the waves of frequency move through the wires, which she senses through touch — and her own soundless world.

When Iris learns about a whale whom scientists reason to be either lost or not part of any pod due to its off-beat song (and maybe its designation as a mixed breed of whale), Iris is hooked on helping this whale know it is cared about. She decides first to write a song for Blue 55 (as the whale is known) in the frequency of his own song. Then she becomes determined to let Blue 55 hear the song she has written for him, even though it means heading out on an unexpected journey to Alaska with her mourning grandmother, without knowledge of Iris’ parents.

There’s so much to love here — from Iris as a complicated adolescent character overcoming odds through perseverance, to her passion for ocean science and mechanical engineering, to the need to connect to nature’s oddballs like Blue 55, to how sound and music might emerge as connecting points between people and the natural world.

This book is perfect for the middle school classroom, and the story gives thoughtful and emotional insights into the difficulty of fitting in, and of deaf students in a spoken world. You’ll root for Iris, and for Blue 55, and for the power of making a difference in the world. You may even sing their song.

Peace (in seas and beyond),
Kevin

PS — the story of Blue 55 is based on a real whale, sometimes called “the loneliest whale in the world” because it, too, had no pod. Lynn Kelly has a whole page of resources about whales and whale songs.

I liked this visualization, which comes from converting whale songs into manuscript music:

 

Book Review: Notes from a Public Typewriter

Now this is public writing. And a story of how an independent bookstore can be a hub of literary wonder. In Notes from a Public Typewriter, Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti tell the story of how Gustafson and his wife opened up a new bookstore in Anne Arbor, Michigan (against the advice of many) and put an old typewriter out for anyone to write on. They didn’t know if anyone would take them up on the offer.

Boy, did they.

This book is mostly filled with the typed notes, stories, poems, and snippets left by the anonymous writers who sat down at a typewriter and hit the keys on a typewriter. I loved the variety of the messages that the writers curate here, and the short narratives of Gustafson about his book store and about the typewriter project give just enough context (Uberti is an design artist who took many of the writings and created a visual wall display at the bookstore site, painting the words of the writers in the font of the typewriter).

The short pieces hint at larger stories, leaving gaps to try to fill in. There’s also appreciation in the lines here — a mix of humor and insight — and recognition of the power of the words we leave behind us.

After reading this book, you’ll want to either dust of your old typewriter (do you still have one?) or find a typewriter somewhere to remember the aesthetic feel of “before word processing.”  Hit the keys. Return. Start again. And then go support your local independent bookstore.

Peace (in keystrokes),
Kevin

NYTimes: The 1619 Project

We subscribe to the Sunday edition of The New York Times for features just like this. The 1619 Project is the entire special focus of yesterday’s NYT Magazine, and it is an amazing example of reporting, commentary, writing and exploration of a difficult topic. The premise of the entire project is that the roots of America are not traced back to 1776 and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but instead reaches back to 1619 — the year the first African slave ship hit the shores of this country and so began the horrible and disgraceful act of using people as chattel and goods.

And if 1619 represents the true start of America’s origins, the newspaper project argues, then slavery has become the key and elemental engine of all that is both bad and good in the country, as the magazine makes clear through an entire collection of essays, reporting, poetry, stories, art — all tracking the impact that slavery and African-Americans have had on culture, politics, freedom and more. Topics include Democracy, patriotism, health care, redlining housing districts, and more.

I’m not far enough along yet with my own reading to give a full review but the scope of the project is breathtaking. A collection of prominent African American writers are here, taking moments from timelines and then building off the events in creative, insightful pieces. And apparently, the newspaper will be continuing the 1619 Project into the year with more pieces unfolding.

You can access the project online and the New York Times has worked with the Pulitzer Center to create an entire website devoted to teaching and learning resources, with lessons and guiding questions and more. For example, this document has quotes from the pieces, with references and vocabulary, and inquiry questions, with an invitation for students to write their own commentary or poetry or create art.

Peace (reading it deep),
Kevin

 

Originality Reports Sounds Rather Orwellian


blank dossier flickr photo by theilr shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I don’t blame Google for adding a plagiarism detector into its Google Classroom suite. I suspect teachers have been asking for such a tool, given the ease of cut/paste from outside sources and from each other, and the cost of other service that do the same job.

In fact, last year, a colleague of mine in an earlier grade was worried about some students with the exact same language in an essay for a public safety project. One had shared with the other, via a Google Doc, and some text lifting had occurred, apparently. Perhaps it was an act of friendship more than theft.

I have mixed feelings about the use of plagiarism tools, from an educational standpoint, even though I use Google Classroom regularly with my sixth grade students (but not exclusively Google Classroom … it’s good not to have everything run through Google, for privacy reasons and for experiential reasons). I also realize that high school teachers might have a different approach than I have, given the grade level I teach.

First, the Originality Reports function that Google will be rolling out with Google Classroom in the near future (see Google’s info page) has this Orwellian vibe to the language of its name, doesn’t it? But it’s catchy, too. I give them that. Originality Report.

According to the company, students will be able to check their own work three times against the search database, before submitting a piece of writing, and then teachers can do a check, too. There apparently will be also be a future option to create an internal database of student writing, to be used as a database.

Student work that has been scanned with the tool is not retained or owned by Google. We search for what’s publicly available on the web. In the future, we plan to add an option for schools to have a private repository of student submissions – that they own – so instructors can see peer-to-peer matches. — https://edu.google.com/products/originality/?modal_active=none

Despite Google’s public statement of who owns the student work in the database, I worry about this gathering up of student writing and wonder (again) who owns the words that young people write in a school-sponsored online space like Google Classroom. This issue of ownership of material surfaced with Turnitin, right? And it just sold for $1.75 billion dollars. Plagiarism detection and gathering student work is big business.

As a teacher, I often thoughtlessly assume that whatever my students write, the writing is theirs. They own it. Perhaps I am naive. In fact, I know I am. Anything a student writes for me in a school online space is, in fact, now part of the school’s technology infrastructure, and I suspect those words written, either for assignments or for pleasure, are now owned by the school district. It’s probably in the terms of service. And, well, there’s something unsettling about that, even though I don’t worry about my specific school district. At least, I don’t worry right now, under this school/technology administration.

Is that good enough? Or is that just convenient for me, the teacher?

This also reminds us, as teachers, that we need to be explicitly teaching our students about the use of text, of original ideas and borrowed work, of plagiarism in a Digital Age. We can’t let a technology tool replace the actual teaching, and in this age of accessible text, it’s never been more important to advocate for originality of ideas and writing.

Google’s move towards Originality Report project has surfaced some questions that I have probably avoided with myself in adopting Google Classroom, in terms of student ownership of their writing, and I’ll continue to grapple with it.

I suspect students, living as they do in the Age of Everyday Privacy Invasion, don’t even give this kind of thing a second thought. Which is sad and frustrating. And this reality makes me even more aware of my role as the adult teacher in the room of children, the educator bringing them into an online space for school. I have an obligation to be vigilant in protecting their privacy.

What do you think? Am I making too much of this?

Peace (thinking),
Kevin

Visual Reflection: Park in Every Classroom Retreat

Visual Reflection: Park in Every Classroom RetreatI was lucky to be invited to join a gathering of National Park Service sites from the northeast for a week-long retreat to learn more and to think more about how to connect park spaces with schools and students as authentic learning experiences. I came away from nearly a week of sharing, presentations and discussions with a head full of ideas that my partners at the Springfield Armory Historic Site and I will be mulling over in the weeks ahead.

I used a new tool at Visual Thinkery called Storyline to get some basic “aha” take-away moments down before I forgot … particularly with school about to start … but also, with the free Write Out project coming soon in October, where park and public spaces are seen as resources for learning for schools and educational organizations. I layered some basic-takeaways with photos I took while at the Delaware River Gap Recreation Area, where the PEC retreat took place.

Peace (in the sharing),
Kevin

 

Why The End Is So Important (or, sitting through the movie credits with kids)

The last few years, I’ve noticed a clear trend with my sons when we go to watch movies, on the big screen in the theater or even on video. There’s a heightened interest in the post-credit video teasers. I’ve sat through more endless credit texts than ever (which, I suppose, is a good thing, to acknowledge how many people are working on so many aspects of a movie) just to see 30 seconds or so of video.

The other night, my son and I watched the Wolverine movie, Logan, and he was determined to see if there was a post-scene video on the disc, and then searched online afterwards, even though the movie is a few years old now and any post-credit scene would have already unfolded and long been outdated (perhaps this is what intrigued him most .. making the connections between what is teased and what really unfolds).

It was the Marvel universe who ramped up this phenomenon (see this listing of post-credit scenes in Marvel Universe), but now, I notice that my sons and my students often expect something on the screen, after the story has ended and the credits are rolling. They chat among themselves — in person and on social media — more about those small videos than about the larger movie, sometimes. There’s even a full website devoted to this concept (well, of course there is … probably many of them).

Which had me wondering about the draw of this.

First of all, from a movie production standpoint, this trend has to be viewed as a success. The movie companies get us to sit through the credits, and they get to promo some upcoming movie. Of course, they have to it with style and inference, and that “What?” quality to pique the interest.

From a viewer/fan standpoint, the viewing of the post-credit videos gives some cultural cache (I stayed to watch, did you?) and has some of the Easter Egg qualities that are dug deep into the modern digital media world (I found it, did you?).

It used to be that my boys (who have made their own films) and students all wanted to make bloopers whenever we made videos — in fact, they wanted to elevate the blooper to the forefront, right from the start, scripting blooper moments instead of capturing mistakes as they happened. Now, these post-credit scenes seems to have mostly replaced the blooper reel.

I guess what I find intriguing about all of this is the elevation of these scenes to equal status of the movie itself. Perhaps it speaks more to our attention spans (the videos are short, although you do need to sit for some time to get to them) than anything else, and feeds nicely into the YouTube viewing habits.

Peace (following the credits),
Kevin

Book Review: Memes to Movements (How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power)

I was expecting an academic examination of social media and memes with this book — first mentioned by my friend, Christina, at a National Writing Project retreat during a meme writing activity– and it was that … and so much more, too. Memes to Movements (How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power) by An Xiao Mina shines a light and lens on the ways that image and words, and messages, being shared over vast social networking spaces are impacting politics and more.

First, what is a meme? “Memes are pieces of content that travel from person to person and change along the way …” according to Amanda Brennan, a meme librarian, and Mina’s own definition runs parallel to Brennan’s idea. Mina makes the case, too, that memes are not just digital pieces but can have a life outside of technology.

Mina, in her book, also repeats an important assertion time and again that memes, by themselves, are not forcing cultural and social change, but that the combination of image, message, remix and virality are echoing and enhancing changes already afoot, through amplification of messaging.

Mina examines Black Lives Matter (and its oppositional movements, such as Blue Lives Matter) and the pink pussy hats (as physical memes) of the Women’s March in the United States, the Arab Spring, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong (now suddenly back in the news), the subversive use of memes in China, and the ways the Chinese government is countering such attempts, and more, all with a close look at how memes (digital and physical) are created, spread, have impact, and — for some — have long-lasting effects.

She also explores the popular conceptions of cats as the source for memes on social networking spaces, balancing a historical approach to how memes — remixable, shareable, riffable media — tap into something rich in people’s sense of storytelling. The intersections between art, culture and politics, along with an easy way to share, have made memes a powerful messaging platform, even if memes can also be untrustworthy (see Know Your Meme for where memes originally spring from)

Some of the more fascinating sections in this book involve China (where Mina has worked and done advocacy), in which activists often use memes to get around censorship through imagery and symbolism (the llama, or grass mud horse, has political meaning, for example) and support for those imprisoned by the government.

Just as you start to think, memes might be another tool for political change, Mina shifts her focus, showing governments — autocratic and otherwise — have started to reverse course on trying to block memes and now floods the networks with its own social media, in an effort to overwhelm users and create doubt about truth and veracity in the minds of users.

The writing here in this book is lively, and researched, and global on scale. If you have interest in social media and literacy, and the way viral messaging seems to be overwhelming the way people share news, jokes and information, then this book is well worth your time.

Peace (no meme necessary),
Kevin