Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Making Connections

One reason I'm an advocate for the use of research blogs by professional writers is because I've concluded that the notion of writing as a solitary activity, and the image of writers and researchers working quietly in their garret (attic room, watchtower, or refuge-Webster’s Ninth) is damaging to writers.

The classic image of this is the poet Robinson Jeffers, who built his tower Tor House, on a spit of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Carmel, California. He built the house alone, hauling rocks from the beach, using mortar he mixed himself. Jeffers himself both promoted this romantic vision of the artist working alone against the forces of nature, even as he mocked the impermanence of everything human in his poem, “To the Stone Cutters.”

Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you foredefeated
Challengers of oblivion
Eat cynical earnings, knowing rock splits, records fall down,
The square-limbed Roman letters
Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain. The poet as well
Builds his monument mockingly;
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun
Die blind and blacken to the heart:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey of peace in old poems. (17)

Yet writers are not rocks, or even lonely poets. Even Jeffers was a creature who inhabited many social webs: his beloved Una, his sons and descendents, a few fellow writers, the producers of his compelling Medea which was a success, if not a sensation, during the Broadway season in 1948.

Knowledge is not produced in the garret. It may be polished there, and Virginia Woolf was correct in proclaiming that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write” (A Room of One’s Own 4). But knowledge does not emerge from solitude, but from the web of social relations which the writer inhabits. Woolf’s novels, stories, and diaries are a critical example of how knowledge emerges from such a web of connections. In a critical scene from her brilliant (and critically neglected!) novel The Years, Nicholas in a dialogue with to Eleanor, exposes the sterility of the romantic view of the writer/researcher/human living in isolation:

“The soul—the whole being,” he explained. He hollowed his hands as if to enclose a circle. “It wishes to expand; to adventure; to form—new combinations?”

“Yes, yes,” she said, as if to assure him that his words were right.

“Whereas now,”—he drew himself together; put his feet together; he looked like an old lady who is afraid of mice—“this is how we live, screwed up into one hard little, tight little—knot?”

“Knot, knot—yes that’s right,” she nodded.

“Each is his own little cubicle; each with his won cross or holy books; each with his fire, his wife…” (296)

The weblog is a genre of writing which enables those connections. And I think such connections can be very helpful in writing research.

For example, yesterday I was reading Eric Alterman’s MSNBC weblog, “Altercation.” Alterman noted that the GOP convention press releases indicated that a number of delegates were active duty military. He also pointed out that both Federal Law and Military Regulations prohibit military personnel serving in such positions.

Alterman’s claim was consistent with my own knowledge of military regulations, and curiously enough got me thinking about a stalled writing project of my own. Last year I received a small grant from the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military (CSSMM), at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The grant was to write an auto-ethnography describing my experiences as a career submariner who was called to testify before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee during the “Gays-in-the-Military” debate in 1993. I had written a draft of the piece, but two reviewers had pointed out that it seemed to be two separate prices of writing: (1) an analysis of how power allocations of space and time affected my development as a writer and speaker aboard submarines; and (2) the story of my testimony before the Senate. Yet when I tried to separate the two pieces, the second piece, the story of my testimony lacked a beginning, a place from which to launch the story which would connect it to the experiences of the audience at CSSMM, who I think are interested in how I overcame the military’s historical tendency to suppress diversity and debate. After all, they aren’t called the “uniform services” for nothing. Reading Alterman gave me that connection—the legal authority the military has over its members to prevent their participation in political debate, and the way in which they sometimes “relax” those restrictions when it serves the political agenda of the generals and admirals. That will be the real starting point for my piece.

Some other connections, noted in passing:

One interesting feature of these blogs is that your words are in cyberspace, and
Strangers may come upon them. The blogger software allows readers to comment in response to your pages (you can also turn off this feature). My first entry attracted the attention of a writer in Oklahoma http://juscuz.blogspot.com/2004/08/yummy-tax-cuts-part-2.html, who writes a political blog focused on the working class.

My students are also beginning to impress me with their use of the blog as a way to pursue and shape knowledge. I will single out two of their blogs today: Gina http://stiltnergl.blogspot.com, who has done a nice job of reading the Bizarro article and using his ideas in a very practical way. And Robin http://robzat.blogspot.com, whose blog I think nicely demonstrates the way we can use the blog genre to work our way towards the knowledge and subject matter which most interests us.

Works Cited

Jeffers, Robinson. Selected Poems. Ed. Colin Falck. Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 1987.
Mish, Frederick C. et al., eds. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1984.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. San Diego: Harcourt, 1929.
Woolf, Virginia. The Years. San Diego: Harcourt, 1937


Blogger robinbp said...

You spoke of your writing of the "analysis of how power allocations of space and time affected my development as a writer and speaker aboard submarines". Will you use this to begin the part on your testimony by now connecting this to the power military authority has over soldiers to prevent their participating in the freedoms civilians enjoy unless those freedoms benefit authorities purpose? (Whew! How's THAT for a long question?!) In other words, is it self-serving authority that you might claim dictates policy?)
Will you still include your own experience on the submarine affecting you as a writer?
It seems that if it was a negative affect, a use of power to limit or constrain your time and space BECAUSE of the writing, that would be the same thing as the self-serving authority mentioned by Alterman.
How interesting to me is the opening of that garret door, that solitary place. (Maybe that garret exists yet in our unavoidably unique understanding of each other.) It's nice to see another way.

2:54 PM  
Blogger robinbp said...

*effect....negative effect. rbp

6:10 PM  
Blogger Havana Daydreamin said...

Enjoyed browsing your blog. I agree about "connections." If we learn associatively then we also grow in the same way. I am a graduate student in Communications Design at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and maintain a blog unionsquarepark.blogspot.com for a new media class. I have visited several blogs here that are used for education and find the medium has great potential for communal growth and interaction. Good luck!

7:52 AM  

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