Sunday, February 20, 2011

Writing Torture

Once again, I find myself in the same place as my students must find themselves, staring at an assignment, wondering how the hell I'm ever going to complete something that doesn't seem to be bubbling with any juice. Each week, my Lighthouse Writers' essay class has a short 500 word assignment we need to complete and bring to class. Each week, this is usually not a big problem, since something seems to immediately inspire. These assignments are usually modeled after an essay we are assigned to read, such as this week's essay by Phyllis Rose, "Tools of Torture: An Essay on Beauty and Pain."

To help myself generate ideas for the assignment (weave two seemingly unrelated topics together), I do what I tell my students to do: brainstorm, ponder, generate lists of opposites, ponder, and explore some ideas with brief freewrites. Nothing, a state I'm certain many of my students face when I give them what I think is a less than problematic assignment.

Today, though, after awakening with the assignment on my mind, I came up with the following. Perhaps it's not quite the assignment, but the assignment inspired this.

Dear Teacher,

This assignment is making me mental. For the past five days I have cogitated, brooded, meditated, and finally surrendered. When I first considered the assignment, I figured what could be so difficult about weaving two dissimilar subjects together into an essay; after all, my life is a study of contrasts, so doing battle on the page and finding the DMZ shouldn’t push me into a writerly fit of discarding every idea. I keep channeling Walt Whitman’s “Noiseless Patient Spider,” imagining casting my own filament into a world of topics, yearning for a connection.

On the page I begin to make lots of noise, hoping to discover a lengthy list of sound possibilities to discover.

Idea 1: Pair up a visit to the dentist with an exploration of spiritual angst, highlighting the notions of helplessness and surrendering faith to another being. Discarded because I already feel helpless.

Idea 2: Detail a description of a wasp sting and weave that together with the horrendous things people have said to me about being queer and Jewish. It seems an ideal match, at first, much like my ideas of vacuums and diets, cars and online dating, and laundered integrity.
Discarded because my clichéd ideas sting, and I can only recall a handful of horrendous things people have said.

Idea 3: Since clichés are occupying the seat usually held for inspiration, I ponder returning to idea one, but this time pairing a former propensity to cancel dentist appointments with the art of revision, since I easily avoid returning to my words.
Discarded because I might simply cancel the appointment with the essay.

Idea 4: After discarding idea two, I immediately become encouraged by the cliche. I think I might effortlessly entwine the concept of an extended metaphor essay poorly rendered on a mound of clichés with bad food/wine pairings. I could mix together a bit of bubbly and sickeningly sweet cake with all the rotten ideas that torture my page.
Discarded because I have nothing original to say about bad food/wine pairings.

Idea 5: Since food has intruded upon my creative process, I consider eating as fodder for inspiration; the perfect place of disjuncture looms a block away. Off to the Breakfast Palace I wander, musing about the potential of mixing grease with royalty. Searching the menu, I try to tease out clues, word prompts that might just ignite an idea that cannot be ignored.
Discarded because I want to simply eat and dismiss obsessing about essay ideas for at least one hour.

Idea 6: Cheap and easy appear to be my mantra, so I decide to follow that thread, finally settling on the ultimate combination for the essay--fast food and romantic comedies. Both are predictable, cause me stomach pain, and basically leave me feeling like I’ve wasted precious moments of my life.
Discarded because that’s all I really have to say about the topic.

Idea 7: Surrender and create a list of all my failed attempts.

Faithfully conflicted,
Your student

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