An Invitation to the Carnival: An Experimental Essay
We’ve loved having Georgie Fehringer as our Virtual Resident for the past month. For the final component (for now!) of their Virtual Residency, Georgie has written an experimental essay on craft. Keep an eye out for Georgie’s involvement with EWF in the future!
An Invitation to the Carnival
Because verse is easier to read
As my undergrads remind me
Their faces twisted with displeasure at a 40-page reading
Until discovering it is in verse
At which time they issue a collective sigh of relief
Because they inherently understand line breaks give space for breath
Even if they do not understand, or remember my early semester explanation of the word verse itself.
But my undergrads are also often perplexed, if not outright angry, at experimental works.
They are confusing and obtuse!
They are unreadable!
They long for text they can easily intake!
But experimental work shouldn’t be thought of as difficult.
I give them prose and they sigh.
I give them poetry and they wither.
I give them a craft essay in verse and they breathe easy?
There is a deeply held belief that is obscuring the truth of the matter.
Successful experimental writers are always engaging with accessibility.
How does one balance the needs of text and reader?
How does verse offer up broadly the rules of engagement and allow for the content to be transformed?
How does one create something experimental that invites instead of rejects?
Experimental writers are always thinking about momentum
And white space
And deep-seated need
Experimental writing is always about change that cannot be thwarted
Like a hurricane at your door
Your only choice is to let it in
Even though it may end in disaster
Or like a new friend bursting on the scene
Unwittingly there to change everything.
Experimental writing is always shifting from the extremely unrecognizable,
the disregarded, hotly debated, misdiagnosed, misclassified and just outright weird
toward an ever-growing new normal.
Once Joan Didion was an experimental writer.
Now what she made might just be called journalism.
No longer New.
The experimental text’s main goal is to be defiant.
Its main goals depend so deeply on the battle that is its birth.
A writer has battled tooth and nail to get it into shape for presentation.
Its constructed existence is the only way it is capable of existing.
This doesn’t mean an experimental work shouldn’t be allowed to be opaque or confusing
But that it takes into account its own difficulty in getting across its ideas.
The writer’s goals are different than the text’s.
The text’s goal is to come into existence.
The writer’s goal is to translate it for our edification.
When your story can only be told one way
When your story can only be told one way
just be clear as to why.
Experimental writing is often called inaccessible because it doesn’t adhere to accepted practices.
Or more than just not adhering it outright disregards them.
We shouldn’t blame it.
It is the only way it is able to exist.
But accepted practices are not always better or even easier.
My undergrads gladly will read 40 pages of the same writing in verse over 10 pages of prose.
A memoir, a craft essay, an academic research paper in verse was once unthinkable.
It’s not radical to write something in verse.
I could break up Lacan into verse and they would find it easier.
But there is a difference between just breaking something up into verse
and writing something that inherently benefits from adherence to that specific structure.
I assign them analytical essays in dialogic poetic structure and it is suddenly easier,
even though they’ve been made to learn a whole new set of skills to do exactly the task they’ve been training to do for over a decade.
Even though they have a disdain for poetic forms,
for thesis statements and analytic arguments,
they are suddenly able to engage with them.
What’s interesting isn’t only that expectations are subverted by unexpected forms.
What’s interesting is that they so easily buy into participating in something they only recently thought to be outright literary showboating, unintelligible trickery, entirely indecipherable, much less enjoyable.
And this happens because even though the methods are experimental they have been given enough reason to buy in.
What the experimental form has done is allow them to express themselves in a way that feels more truthful to their own ideas.
They may be being tricked but they have agreed to engage.
Because I have seemingly offered them an opportunity to break the rules.
Even though all that is really happening is an opportunity for them to make their own.
This also offers me a place of engagement.
New games to play.
Who wants to read 30 academic essays?
I buy into the wackiness because I also find joy in their text message essays, their one woman plays, their verse-heavy analysis.
I find something alive in seeing what they are able to create
When given the freedom to create how only they are able.
Surveying the Land
To start I might ask myself,
Why do I love poetic prose?
Why am I mystified at a work that twists itself physically around the page?
That invents new mediums of telling that I must then school myself in?
Because there is a personal relationship.
I am not an invisible reader meant to just float along with the story.
I am present and accounted for by the text.
Like I have been given an invitation to the carnival.
A location to engage and play and enjoy my time spent.
In my own work, I try to offer the reader their own invitation.
What does a claustrophobic stream of consciousness bring to an essay
that an outright factual explanation does not?
How do I forefront a reader’s experience
that experientially pushes them towards a better understanding of my own?
Or, What does a new form achieve that I am entirely unable to achieve in a traditional structure?
How can I invoke a sense of frustration of slipping in and out of time?
Or, how do you transcribe the reading of a 15-year-old email, written mostly in long lost MSN chat speak, read out loud over the phone to someone who has never seen the text, back to the page?
(NE way, “w/b- means write back…no prob jen.. im hre to help ily2)
The chat speak can’t exist as anything but itself
Over the phone ily becomes *ILLY*
Any becomes *En-EE*
lest we get lost in translation.
“EN-EE way, Double-You/Bee- means write back, lol why did we write like this, im hre, Aitch-Are-EE to help ILLY-Two, and she sent this in 2006 over AOL can you believe it?”
The layers of time overlapping each other
How do I let them exist simultaneously somewhere other than my mind?
How do I let them live on a page without forcing them into places they were never meant to be?
What am I willing to try?
What rules am I willing to break?
How might I be a co-conspirator in their physical translation?
How do I show the way it feels to speak and listen?
Without losing myself in the linearity of the page
Without losing the intentions of the text in my education’s demands for normality?
And most importantly how to get a reader to trust that this venture is worthwhile?
We have to first convince a reader that the game we offer is playable.
That we are not just asking them to watch us engage in intellectual masturbation for the sake of our own enjoyment.
That the confusing construction is really there for their sake.
To bring them closer to the text.
To the writer’s individual understanding of how to express what the content is trying desperately to show.
To ease them along what might seem confusing, without leaving them absent a hand to hold in the night.
I am not suggesting that just presenting something in an easy to understand manner is enough.
It is not just clarity of form a reader needs to buy in.
It is clarity of purpose!
It is an understanding that an experimental work is an event we wish them to engage with.
It is an understanding of why engaging with something that looks complex will enrich them.
That it might even leave them thinking something new about their own world when they walk away.
So, how do we create an experimental work that is an inviting event?
Another way of asking this is, How to experiment and play and explore our own ideas in a way that entertains and respects the presence of the audience?
Remember we are always asking someone else to join in on the game.
Even while juggling multiple experimental tactics.
Even while scratching an intellectual itch.
The first thing to focus on is playability of the game.
If we were to think of this type of writing in the terms of a board game,
a deeply complex, well-formatted experimental work could be thought of like Settlers of Catan;
there are a lot of rules.
An experienced player can have a lot of fun playing,
but that is because they know the rules.
They may have memorized the rulebook,
and that type of knowledge takes time and effort;
it takes the desire to keep trying and learning to play.
Experimental writers need to be deeply aware of this;
you may need to bring someone along who has played before.
A narrator to explain how to read the work
or a very specific laid-out list of rules
and then the time and patience to allow the player to learn.
For example, the use of language in Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a work that is famously thought to be an obscure and obtuse work, may look like:
Cha tries multiple tactics to get the reader to follow along.
Aller a la ligne C’etait le premier jour point
Elle venait de loin point ce soir au diner virgule
les familles demanderaient virgule ouvre les guil-
lements Ca c’est bien passe le premier jour point
Open paragraph It was the first day period
She had come from a far period tonight at dinner
comma the families would ask comma open
quotation marks how was the first day interroga-
She makes a rule of only spelling out punctuation and then follows it.
She doesn’t make an english reader first self translate from French
and then spend their time figuring out why the punctuation is so odd.
Maybe it is Obvious but Games Should Be fun
Talk to people about how the work makes them feel.
Keep in mind that games should be fun:
if your wordplay is working people should laugh or chuckle
or at least do that thing where you blow air from your nose.
It can’t just be hard work.
There has to be reward.
And the reward can’t be I finished it and now I never have to look at it again,
because that is actually a punishment.
Remember the reader isn’t you.
Try and make sure you are keeping track of what only you as the author know
and what the reader knows.
The reader can’t read your mind unless you let them.
That is your whole job isn’t it?
To plant things in their head.
Writing can be fun –
writing something complex can be joyful and satisfying –
but the person we’re focused on is the reader and we cannot forget that.
If a player has a Settlers of Catan set but no rulebook at all,
only the most dedicated of the dedicated could even begin to set up
and new players are shut out altogether.
Without rules, adding any more complexity has the potential to push the game from indecipherable to unplayable,
even for people willing to give it a chance.
Length and Momentum
Remember to allow the reader to rest.
Sometimes the prize needs to be easy.
Have you been referencing Lacan for 2 pages?
Are you weaving those ideas into something else equally as difficult?
Throw in something understandable.
Make the game momentarily easy for the reader by doing the work yourself this time.
Explain things in a way someone who has no understanding could understand.
Don’t say, Object petit a is the unattainable, the object cause of desire.
No one who hasn’t studied the concept knows what that means.
Personally, I like to add in pop culture throughout my work,
not just in places where things need to be explained,
because I know a large number of people relate to it
and it’s not something that’s viewed as work,
it’s mind-numbing entertainment.
Humans love mind-numbing entertainment.
It makes us feel good.
The reader deserves a break sometimes,
so let them be the watcher
laying at home eating Lays on their couch.
We don’t want to forget that they have the ability to change the channel anytime.
It’s a Relationship
A writer who is more caught up in being clever than in being game maker
makes an unplayable game.
Culturally we often think all experimental writing is unplayable.
It’s just new.
It might be a bit scary,
but more often then not it wants to welcome you in.
Towards the prospect of an experimental relationship,
I only hope to dissuade writers from becoming so caught up in the battle, the game,
that they forgot to leave the reader an entryway.
I hope for an increased care towards the experimental-writer-to-reader contract.
The one between writer and reader that should state clearly This text is for us.
This game is made for our enjoyment.
That doesn’t mean engaging with experiment is always easy.
Like any relationship it is work.
But it is work toward the benefit of everyone involved.
We could have kept these words locked in our heads,
like the proverbial riddle at the start of a quest,
to which we have answered incorrectly
and left you, reader, alone.
We shouldn’t blame the text.
If it is obtuse for its own sake it is only the failure of the mind-to-page translation.
It is only in the failure to honor the contract.
To make the rules of engagement clear and apparent.
To offer us an invitation to play.
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