Considering Text

I grew up in a text-heavy world and I had a job as a newspaper journalist in a writing-heavy field of work, but even then, changes in how text – words, prose, etc. — was being used by writers and readers alike was afoot. I remember when the national newspaper, USA Today, became an experiment (criticized and at times mocked in the newspaper industry, at first, as being a blow to literacy) of how to prioritize visuals before text, with its use of flashy charts, diagrams, photos, and other visual media. That criticism collapsed as USA Today turned a profit while many traditional newspaper lost a bundle, or closed up shop completely. My old newspaper is a shadow of its old self.

I remain an avid writer, working mostly with words, just about every single day.

Yet I have long been fascinated by how we can expand the notions of “composition” to push ourselves, and our students, to consider what’s beyond the idea of just text (as important as the written word is, and always will be, in my own mind) to include other forms of media. A book I had helped edit years ago — Teaching The New Writing — was an attempt to explore what composition looked like in classrooms where technology was becoming part of the learning experience.

Teaching the New Writing 9780807749647
It would be nice to say we have found a balance, where text/words and media/technology mingle in tandem for deeper meaning. However, in working with young writers, it does seem that words have lost much of its primacy in favor of image, video, gif, etc. There may be many reasons for this — attention spans, screen devices, brain development, etc. The Pandemic sure has thrown things for a loop.

I’m not naive in thinking that the way I learned to communicate with words and writing and text will always remain the way that my students will learn, so I have long balanced helping them develop the art of writing (stories, essays, etc.) with the art of creating media (image, video, audio, games, etc.) to show how one form can partner with the other.

This blog reflection stems from some thoughtful comments left in a post the other day where I shared a mostly wordless video (my Ten Steps walking video project) and from two posts (here and here) that Terry Elliott shared over at his blog, where he indicates his own explorations of ‘text’ as an idea. The graphic above (Text is Gravity) is a remix of the first lines of a poem of his.

In a bit of unanticipated convergence, I visited and explored a text-based Virtual Reality exhibit from Laurie Anderson that was, in fact, centered on text — stories, letters, and more — inside an explorable space surrounded by word and letter. It reinforced the notion, to me, of how text itself remains a constant in how we navigate and understand and experience the world, no matter the technology. Of course, Anderson follows her own vision, and not all VR is likely to be centered on text as her work here is.

I hope we don’t reduce our world of communication to only the visual, and I don’t suspect that will happen. But trend lines for short videos (TikTok, etc) and visuals (Snapchat, etc) in the younger generation — coupled with a decrease in overall book and longer text reading — is something that all of us, educators and parents and others, need to keep an eye on, and maybe work harder to demonstrate the power of words, as a means of thinking and reflection as much as for communication.

Peace (writing it loud),

Wandering The Chalkroom (Laurie Anderson’s Text-based Virtual Reality)

(image via

It was a hot, humid day here in New England, so we took our teenage son to the MassMOCA museum — a huge, cavernous modern art extravaganza created out of an old manufacturing complex. It’s cool in there, in both degrees and art. We hadn’t made reservations in advance — it was more a hit-the-road on a whim kind of day — and we took a chance to see if there was any room for us to explore the Laurie Anderson Virtual Reality exhibit entitled “Chalkroom

No luck, the attendant informed us, as the day was booked solid in advance. Dang. We knew our son would enjoy a VR experience. We wandered away, slowly, but a few minutes later, we heard the attendant calling us back. ‘Come on,’ he informed us, with a smile, and a secretive wave, ‘I’ll let you in,’ and he led us into a completely dark room with virtual reality stations set up.

If you know anything about Laurie Anderson – musician, visual artist, writer —  you know she is full of interesting experimentation. The Chalkroom VR takes that to another level altogether, fusing technology with immersive text. The Chalkroom is based on a live exhibit she created years ago for the Guggenheim in New York, in which she converted rooms with etched writings in chalk. In this VR version, the visitor in immersive goggles flies and wanders through a fascinating landscape of virtual writing and art. It’s difficult to describe. Anderson created the experience with collaborator Hsin-Chien Huang.

(image via

In one room called Cloud, my favorite, you use the VR set to pull words off the walls and create a swirling cloud of letters and words, so that you end up standing in a maelstrom of texts set in motion. In another called Tree, my other favorite, you come upon a tree, whose leaves are letters and words, and you can either fly up through the branches, causing letters to fall and float, or once at the top, channel down along the trunk of the tree. In another called Rain, you are standing above a puddle of water, as rain in the form of text, comes falling around you. In another, called Writing, you shine a line on the walls, and write your own texts, scribbling lines that are made out of other words, so that her writing becomes your ink, but only temporarily, as you then watch your graffiti lift off the walls, float off and disappear.

Laurie Anderson’s voice, meanwhile, is whispering in your ear the whole time, providing snippets of story and text, a gentle hum of the artist perched on your shoulder even as you are invited to make your own choices about what room to explore and what to do once you get there.

I am often a skeptic to the emergence of Virtual Reality as the next step for creative composition — the whole Meta World thing bothers me because I know how companies are already gearing to exploit the experience for financial gain — but Anderson’s work has opened my eyes a bit wider for other possibilities, for the way that Anderson and Huang so effectively merges text and story and technology and sound together into a fascinating experience within her imagined world.

I love that text itself is key component, too, (white chalk writings set against a dark background) as she uses letters and words and phrases to chalk the walls and floors and ceilings, and then invites the viewer to explore those terrains, which sometimes open up into wider narratives and compositions in the virtual world. It’s also worth noting the tension between the old school writing (chalk boards) and the new (virtual reality), as Anderson bridges the past with the present/future.

Peace (writing it on the walls),

Flash Fiction (NCTE)

Flash flickr photo by uphillblok shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I saw a call for a piece of Flash Fiction from NCTE (stories had to be exactly 150 words) and so, earlier in the Spring, I worked on a short piece, and I asked some National Writing Project friends to read and workshop it with me, and I ended up with this:

She scanned the room of students with the trained eye of a veteran thirsty for truth. The suspect hid behind a mask. There might have been some clandestine whispering. It was hard to tell anymore with mouths hidden under a veil of protection. Only their eyes showed, and most were brimming with comments they would keep to themselves, for now. Still, she had encountered obstacles in other inquiries before and she was nothing if not tenacious. One didn’t remain in this position for many years without a sense of patience and purpose. A sneeze erupted from the back of the room. Her gaze snapped to attention. A boy removed his mask to wipe his nose – now she definitely heard whispers: “Ewww! That’s so gross!” – and there, on his lips, were the tell-tale aquamarine trails of the stolen Cool Blue Gatorade. “You!” she shouted. “In the hall. Now. And bring Kleenex!”

Here is the call by NCTE, and then the teacher/writer Padlet (not too many contributors) but the student Padlet has a good collection of flash fiction stories.

Peace (shortened for length),

Book Review: Two Heads (A Graphic Exploration of How Our Brains Work With Other Brains)

Although not in an all similar in content or style, Two Heads (A Graphic Exploration Of How Our Brains Work With Other Brains) reminded me a bit of Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening for the way in which deep and difficult concepts are rendered more clear for a reader through the mix of text and graphic art.

Two Heads — written by Alex Frith with art by Daniel Locke, with ideas from Uta Frith and Chris Frith — explores the science of the brain itself, and the complex and intriguing ways that our brains work or don’t work, particularly in social situations, with other people in the mix. The graphics and the writing here are fun and engaging, even as the explanations are rather necessarily dense and complicated, as the book dives into focused neuroscience concepts.

This book, like Sousanis’ book (which was his graduate thesis), is a definitely a scientific exploration, complete with references and citations to more than 300 studies and papers, and it never skimps on the science of the brain, whether the book (through the characters of Uta and Chris Frith, both esteemed figures in the worlds of brain science and psychology) is exploring autism, instinct, empathy, cooperation or free will.

Their main shared focus, as indicated by the subtitle, is how people’s brains work differently and more efficiently, and more creatively, when they are cooperating and collaborating with others (with some exceptions) and how the brain itself functions and adapts in different situation, and what it might mean for us all. I’ll be thinking about the book’s concepts for some time to come.

What makes the book so readable is the playfulness of the writing (by Uta and Chris’ son, established author Alex Frith) and the artwork over hundreds of pages by Daniel Locke. Locke turns brain concepts into visual art in so many inventive ways, and Alex Frith brings his parents to life on the pages with great compassion, making the husband-wife team not only understandable but lovable, too.

If only more academic textbooks were rendered in the format of graphic art …

Peace (thinking on it, deeply, with others),

Music Playlist Poems (via Write Across America)

The National Writing Project is once again hosting a traveling online writing festival called Write Across America, and once again, I keep missing the live events and coming to the prompts a bit late. Whatever. I still enjoy the experience and a few weeks back, the Chippewa Writing Project in Michigan hosted, with a music theme that I could not resist.

They had a slew of Michigan-rooted musicians, groups and songwriters, and I chose five to work with, listening to their music as I wrote my poems. I also used the opportunity to continue to work on my draft and revision skills, working and reworking this set of poems over many days. You can read the text of the poems here, if that’s more to your liking.

Peace (and music),

Ten Steps: Flowers

Here is the latest in my Ten Steps video series, in which I am making short videos of ten photographs in a row on a walk. Each video is one minute long, using a long fade between images, and an ambient soundtrack. I have a cool idea I’m working on for how to bring all of my ten steps together.

And these are the last five videos I shared:





Peace (walking it),

Story Portrait: What Some Of My News Reading Says About Me

NYT Story Portrait

I am a subscriber to the New York Times. I started up not long after Trump was elected and I have continued onward since then. As a former journalist, I am a news junkie, for sure, and I enjoy the Times for its depth of coverage and voices.

I noticed a feature called Story Portrait that kept popping up, and so I followed the thread. It’s no surprise that my news article browsing is being tracked by the newspaper — we are data, after all, and if I wanted to avoid that, I could get the paper version every morning. Story Portrait appears to gather and collate topics and headlines from assorted articles I have read over some period of time, and spit out a word cloud of sorts.

I tried to find the explanation behind the algorithm, to understand better how it works, but I could not. I did Story Portrait, anyway, because I was curious and I figured, the Times already knows what stories I have clicked on to read, and for how long, so I wasn’t giving them information they didn’t already have. (Although I wonder if they are going to use people’s results for some advertising blitz that I am not aware of or notified of).

The result was sort of interesting, with some topics and headline titles (sleep issues are nothing new for me but the new year has not been better, alas, and articles about school often get a close look) and it includes some of the pieces my wife has been reading (chicken dinner) as well as myself, since we share an account together.

You can even read it as a sort of a poem. Other than that, I am not sure the particular value.

Peace (and portraits),

Poetry: I Am Audience

I’ve been trying to work on some longer poetry this summer, using the invitation via National Writing Project colleagues in the NWP Studio space to spend more time with a poem in the draft/revision stage. This poem — i am audience — was one of the first poems I had been working on, and then I left it for a bit as I struggled with the final version, and then I returned to it to find a finishing point.

The poem captures the early arrival to a concert, with a spectator sitting, watching the musicians and crew getting ready for the show, with those unguarded moments and actions as their own kind of performance (sort of a John Cage concept, I guess). I spent quite a bit of time tinkering with the text of the poem in a document, working and reworking lines and phrases, and then I decided to make a visual/video poem via Lumen5. I asked my friend, Terry, to look at different drafts of the video, and his input and suggestions were helpful and appreciated.

I’m not sure how I feel about the final version, though. I think the video is too long.I was aiming for under 3 minutes but when I tried that, my narration got rushed. Too many words. I tried an alternative version with no voice narration at all but I didn’t feel as if it had the impact I was aiming for. Too much reading.

Finally, yesterday, after letting the poem sit for a few weeks, I re-recorded it, adding time to the video, allowing my voice to slow down and settle in a bit, and it worked, despite the length. (but I still think smaller poems work better as video poems).

Peace (in the audience),

Book Review: Concord

I wasn’t sure what to expect with Concord, a historical novel of New England by Don Zancanella, and I took it out of the library after reading a positive reference to it somewhere (now forgotten in my memory).

The short review: I really enjoyed it, from start to finish.

Now, I am admit I am pretty biased towards stories about writers, and Concord centers on that Massachusetts community right when Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Sophia Peabody, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne were in the same circles (only Emerson, as the elder here, had established himself at the time and setting of the novel — the others are all young and upcoming thinkers, writers, artists who have yet to make their marks on the world to any degree).

The chapters unfold, in present tense voice, through the various characters, and it is a fascinating use of historical documents and journals, as Zanacanella weaves an engaging narrative of these characters, diving deep into the inner voices and unfolding literary ambitions and emerging artistic communities that were centered around the small towns of Boston (Concord is just outside Boston).

We care about the characters, and knowing what they will come to write and create years from where they are in the story, it’s quite fascinating. I found Margaret Fuller to be the most intriguing character here, and one I knew the least about, but Hawthorne and Thoreau are interesting, too, as we learn more about how their upbringing and family inform who they are, and then inform the writings that still exist today.

As I was reading Concord, I was reminded of recent examination at various creative scenes (what Brian Eno calls “scenius”), and how the mixture of people with similar visions seem to find themselves together, pushing each other, encouraging each other, bringing a vision into being through a shared working environment.

Now, it should be noted that the characters here are white, middle to upper class New Englanders (although some of the families are struggling financially), and they are mostly privileged enough to have the time to sit around and write, or paint, or edit journals, and more. Who else at the time was making art? Plenty, I am sure, and lost to the world. Connections matter.

That fact of the world doesn’t take the pleasure out of reading this well-written novel, though, and I recommend it. (And I see he has a new book coming out this summer, about Mary and Percy Shelly, and Lord Byron … adding that to my read-later list).

Peace (in the text),