Building an aural narrative from scratch (DHSI 2019)

I’ve had an extremely busy year—I graduated with my MFA, got a job as a Visiting Instructor at the same school, and got engaged to the love of my life. This blog/research update log has suffered under those circumstances. And it probably will continue to do so.

But. I’m making a post now just to share a piece of multimodal content I was lucky enough to create a week ago. Part of my job is working as a Digital Teaching Fellow with Kristin Allukian and other VIs, and it’s through that opportunity that I was opened to another one, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI). I was lucky to be invited (and given money) to go, and while there took a “Sound and Digital Humanities Class” with John F. Barber. The class was widely educational on both the nature of sound editing and aural storytelling, and I used the space to work on an aural narrative based on a scene from my book, The Aquanaut. The book is dominating my headspace this summer as I crack away at a final revision, and so it felt impossible for it not to leak its way into my learning of Audacity and sound design.

Here’s a taste, complete with the vocal talents of Colleen Kolba and otherwise made from scratch:

A Living(?) Geography of Fast Food

In the last two weeks, my students have finished turning in and presenting their digital storytelling projects, a slipstream of creativity and digital proficiency that I find difficult to match as a I tackle job prospects and worry about my puppy’s health. My students create interactive Twine stories set in fantastic worlds; they make gif comics and digital art paired with existential poems; and they trace their lineage using mapping and timeline programs, tracking imagination as it followed move after move and decision after decision, each ending up in my classroom.

When I approach my own mapping project, I can’t help but feel out of place. While my students often wow me with their approaches to setting and self—the way the light glows just right in a certain park, or the energy of a distant city’s bustling underground, or the oppressive weight of fluorescence and concrete in Cooper Hall—I’ve never felt the same attachment to geography. I don’t have much in the way of poetic sensibility, as I’ve already established in these pages. And it turns out I can’t find love for location either; at least not in any of the places I’ve lived in. At least not in my current mood.

So I’m doing a different kind of mapping project than my students. You might be able to tell from the title of this post: there’s not a lot of love lost on these markers.

Instead, what I offer in the above mapping project is a small twist of absurdity and (perhaps) foolishness on my part. My foolishness comes in two parts:

The First: that I believe fast food, as the source of so many of our country’s problems, is worth marking off and telling stories about.

The Second: that I have left this map open to editing, by anyone, at any time. If you were so inclined, you could write your own experience at a fast food joint, or your own life story as it relates to quick eats, or a memory of childhood inexplicably linked to a McDonald’s ball pit, as I’ve done.

Of course, the risk is that you could delete everything already written, if you so chose. That’s up to you, I suppose.

Encoding Poetry or: How I learned to love myself despite my failures programming

It may not be obvious from, well, anything I write or do or say these days, but I started my undergrad freshman year in the Computer Science department of my university. I was going to become a video game designer after mastering the exciting world of programming, and I was going to do so by skipping half of my computer science classes and nearly all of my calculus ones in order to… play video games.

Needless to say, I did not do well in the Computer Science major.

Which is a good thing, because if I did well in Computer Science (or at least in showing up to class), I’d probably be absolutely miserable right around now. Not because that line of work is generally dreadful (although it very much can be), but because my brain isn’t wired for programming’s precise, mathematical reasoning.


My brain works best and happiest on loose problems. It shows in my teaching every day: we set out to answer a question—usually an impossible-to-answer one like “where does our imagination live?” or “How do we keep a reader interested? (and do we even care about readers in the first place?)” For me, it’s less important to actually solve a problem than it is to attempt to solve it, since that’s where all the enjoyment of learning and living comes from. I’m a perfect fit for a humanities department. Not so much an engineering one.

It’s with this in mind that I turned to my next step on my planned journey of digital storytelling after my Twine story: Encoding poetry.

This was something of a double bind for me. I’m not much of a poet—I’m not sincere enough of a person. And, well, the coding.

So it should come as little surprise that the first thing I did when trying my hand at Processing (a self-described “software sketchbook” for java and other visual-programming languages) was simply print the poem I’d written. The lines of code looked a little something like this:


The issue was moving from simply printing that code to then forcing it to come across the screen at the time I wanted it to. My goal was to reproduce the kind of forced interaction that I’d experienced in other encoded poetry, like Annie Abraham’s work. That meant two things: the text to appear on click (simple enough), and the text to appear “typed out.” In the poem, which you can read at the bottom of this page, the speaker is the machine itself, interfacing with you—that doesn’t work if it’s a single page of text that you can read at your own pace.

Digital storytelling is often about control. Here, it’s about wrestling control away from the reader.

The issue is that I had no idea how to do that second part. I looked at examples, and while there were methods of making Processing print each letter in a different font size or capitalization, the actual act of printing each letter individually was either going to be a painstaking number of individual print commands, or was simply outside my immediate wheelhouse. This was problem with a concrete solution for sure: the answer was in the code database, and if I found it, it would work just as I would want it to.

But, like so many of my students, I wasn’t yearning to go through that process.

So I didn’t.

I gave up.

Or, well, I gave up on Processing. Halfway through a ninth or tenth coding-wiki page, I’d remembered something a friend and colleague of mine, Spencer Bennington, passed on after a summer at DHSI (and which he’d learned from John Barber). The core idea was: If you know you can do something with a simple software, why would you use a difficult software to do it? If the most important thing is the story or poem you’re trying to create in the first place, why add an extra barrier to that story or poem’s birth?

So it’s with that careful consideration/desperation that I present to you, in Powerpoint, “Please Compute:” (this links to the Powerpoint Online version; the below should run just the same).

Drafting a creative writing classroom constitution

It's been a hot minute since the last blog post here, which is because I've just finished (as of last Friday) my Masters in Fine Arts thesis, a novel called The Aquanaut Hotel. It's 320 pages. It's weird. And it took a very long time. But this post isn't about that (probably, assuredly, future ones will be). This post is about writing a new constitution.

Or, at least, the kind of constitution that a creative writing classroom can come to live by:

Constitution lesson 3.jpg

But before we deep-dive into what my "Imagination, Narration, and Description" class decided to include in their constitution, I want to spend a minute to frame why we were spending time in a creative writing class coming up with legislation at all in the first place.

We've entered the final third of our semester together. It's an introductory writing class, so we've spent a lot of time talking over things like what it means to be a writer and where writing comes from. The first unit is the "Noticing" unit, which is all about description and culture and subject matter for writing. The second unit is the "Imagining" unit, which is about the parts of our brain that influence writing and how we can encourage those parts to grow. The third unit is where we jump into the most traditional aspect of a creative writing craft classroom: "Storytelling." In this part of the semester, we're talking about what works. And that inevitably leads to a discussion of what doesn't.

Elmore Leonard's "Ten Commandments for Writing", as taken from   OpenCulture  . Craft books and websites on writing are full of this kind of advice, and almost all of them involve a rule that begins "Never..."

Elmore Leonard's "Ten Commandments for Writing", as taken from OpenCulture. Craft books and websites on writing are full of this kind of advice, and almost all of them involve a rule that begins "Never..."

I take a Freirean approach to my pedagogy, which essentially means I try to de-center myself and the things I believe about writing from our conversations in the classroom. While I'm happy to share my opinion when they ask for it, I'm much more interested in their journeys of self-discover and interrogation rather than a classroom full of mirrors attempting to mimic every action I would take. Writing is as much an act of introspection as it is of communication, and if I cut the knees out from under my students by forcing them into increasingly smaller boxes as writers, they're going to miss the part of writing that involves self-exploration.

Too often, introductory creative writers hold fast to rules given definitively--it's why every college-level fiction workshop has the odd student shouting "NO ADVERBS" and "SHOW DON'T TELL" at their peers' stories, an act that I think does much more harm than good. Rules like these diagnose real problems and attempt to solve them in a slash-and-burn, absolute manner. And that makes them unappealing to students.

Still, rules can be helpful. Especially for those students who are interested in literary publishing.

So to start the class, I asked my students to make a list of every rule-on-writing they'd ever heard of (or could remember and write down in five minutes). I told them to start with the ones they believed, but after that they should feel free to write rules they've heard but that they think are kind of bogus. Once they'd finished writing and they'd had the chance to talk over their responses with a partner, we made a list. Only, it was a list of bad advice:

Note: At the top of our board is the main question(s) for the day: "How do we keep readers interested?" and "Do we care about readers anyway?" These become more relevant for the constitution, which we'll return to. The "Bad rules" beneath them, whether I agree with their points or not, are answered with exceptions and reasons why they may not always apply.

Note: At the top of our board is the main question(s) for the day: "How do we keep readers interested?" and "Do we care about readers anyway?" These become more relevant for the constitution, which we'll return to. The "Bad rules" beneath them, whether I agree with their points or not, are answered with exceptions and reasons why they may not always apply.

We quickly discovered two trends in the rules that we had problems with as a class:

  1. Any rule on grammar or technical execution in writing was a stylistic choice. Sure, it's most likely true that you should use a semicolon in the correct way, but technical advice like "No adverbs" and "No contractions" and "Said is dead" (a bit of advice I'd never heard and vehemently oppose, but which is apparently taught in high schools?) were either boring or were context dependent.
  2. A lot of the rules we didn't like involved the use of absolutes. "Never," "Always," and "You shouldn't" were phrases that didn't mesh well with the goals of writing we'd discovered over the rest of the semester. There were plenty of times in which, the class argued, "You always need a hook" could be irrelevant to the genre you're writing in, or "always outline" didn't fit your aesthetic.

Our takeaways became incredibly nuanced, which was a joy to find as a teacher. My students weren't satisfied with "no rule will do" (although some certainly argued it), but insisted that guidelines were useful so long as we got to the heart of what they were trying to tell us. Then was the challenging part: they had to come up with their own rules. And like any good constitution, theirs would have to be designed to hold up to scrutiny.

Constitution lesson 2.jpg

The first thing was to make sure we weren't claiming something that couldn't be true by calling this a constitution for writing. One thing that we kept coming back to in discussion of "bad rules" was that people writing for themselves should be able to write whatever they pleased. So instead, we titled this (whiteboard) document CONSTITUTION FOR MINDFUL WRITING. That is, writing that cares about the experience of a potential reader.

You can read the bill of rights, so-to-speak, that we came up with above. These are rules about respecting the person reading your work. About writing from a place of sincerity. But there are caveats in the form of phrases starting with "avoid..." and "according to author's discretion." A student argued, for instance, that a satirical piece may want stereotypes--if only to poke fun at those who use them. We voted on each of these rules, reaching unanimous decisions on each. Funnily enough, a single student voted against the second rule, saying that, to him, fluff was sometimes useful. He's the reason we added the "or aesthetic" portion of the law--not everything was plot or character. (And, for the record, proved an example of every person's vote counting, a useful reminder in the flailing democracy we find ourselves in.) The only absolute had to do with plagiarism, which is fair enough, I think.

The rules themselves are absolutely useful for my students, writers who, if they haven't already, will now be thinking a lot more about the ways in which they present their characters and respect their readers. But the secondary benefit of the exercise--the one I actually see as more important--is that we can use this lesson in the future to talk about the ways in which techniques and rules and pieces of advice are guidelines for them to consider at their own pace. "This is a framework," I said at the end of class, "for how I want you to see the Storytelling Unit. We're going to talk a lot about what makes stories tick and what different writers do to keep readers interested. But that doesn't mean those rules necessarily apply to you."