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Awake/Asleep: Thoughts for January 25, 2020 Craft Talk

Looking forward to my craft/let’s-get-writing-with-more-power-and-accuracy talk at Moxie Road gig in Mill Valley, California, on January 25. (Link at the end of the post.)

Awake vs asleep: I am talking about a few ideas around writing craft; for instance, one of my observations over the years is how my writing students and clients want to tell me a story but they don’t know what the story is about. What does that mean? All stories are the story of thought and the story of action in different proportions, in different modes of covert and overt. Just having a story to tell is not enough. You need to know why you are telling it. Otherwise, you might as well just go the local cafe or bar and hold court.

My children in Iowa City when I was a graduate student in the MFA program. Yes, I had two young children, ran a magazine, taught undergraduates, and took a full load of graduate writing courses. I am very proud of each of these accomplishments, with the mother part being number one.

Moxie Road productions: January 25, 2020 — come see me!

Creativity in Times of Ecological Collapse

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It’s us on a Sunday in Northern California, a day when there is bright sunlight and the peachy amaryllis is blooming in some quasi-pornographic explosion of color and form.  It’s a day when we are yet partially frozen in position on the grey couch, staring out the wide sliding glass doors at the sea. It is a day when we are trying to parse what is the role of creativity in times of ecological collapse.

It’s us holding each other close with our voices and words and thoughts. We are not hiking today although we could hike and talk. Instead we are simply sitting, holding one another’s wrists. We both write about ecologies and think about ecologies and some days this makes us sad. We try to not allow the sadness, the sense of loss, to wash over us relentlessly. But we have learned to embrace the feelings as we embrace each other, as we bat ideas around.

We’re talking about ecological collapse—the sixth extinction and we are talking about creativity. I am asking this question: Is creativity simply another form of distraction when we face down all of these existential questions around the death of ecologies as we know them?

We’re trying to understand our own compulsion to write on a sunny day when Australia is on fire and the Iranians have withdrawn from the nuclear agreement.

We’re trying to talk about climate crisis, which is often our topic and we are talk about how complex and broad it is. And in one manner of thinking, it is. But what if the problem with our thinking is that it is not complex at all? That we have been trained to think that it is complex. See, little lady, this here’s a complex world and you cannot begin to understand how complex it is. What if we stop thinking about complexity and instead think about simplicity.

We’re trying to sort through this concept, this idea of environmental thinking being overly dominated by ideas of not doing things, like driving cars and eating burgers and buying plastic bottles of shampoo. It’s about doing more of the good things, like standing still and staring at the sky, thinking about the cosmos.

We’re also trying to grasp our ecological presence and how we represent ourselves in words and build worlds with our writing and art — this is a topic of keen interest to us. The concept of being one, unified ecology on Earth — all of us, from the bees to the clouds — has been for a me quite a profound aspect of daily life. The idea that aspects of ecologies live in a spatial and temporal scale that is super-human, as in, we cannot know it because it’s too massive to be known.

Philosophers write about this in the language of philosophers.  What we are thinking about is how most of us are not philosophers in the classical sense and that’s a good thing. We are thinking about how art and writing help us to understand what it means to be human and in these times what it means to be human means what does it mean to be a colleague in all these changing circumstances, in our case equally with the banana slugs, the coyotes, and euc trees, who reside with us here. Here is where we walk. Sundays are good days for sharing quiet, ordinary thoughts about ecologies.

I am speaking about creativity on January 25 at this lovely Moxie Road event. I hope to see you there — we’ll be talking about how we maintain and nourish a robust writing practice within our complex (and simple) lives.

4th Annual New Year, New Moxie Writing Retreat
JANUARY 25, 9 am, The Hivery, Mill Valley

Eco-Thoughts: How the interview activates listening in these days of distraction

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I am completely in love with my genius Eco-Thoughts editor at The Believer, Hayden Bennett. He and I have never met in person, we talk via keyboards and sometimes phone. He offers so much support and warmth across this collaboration.

We are collaborating, with our interview subjects, on a new monthly column for The Believer, Eco-Thoughts. Here is the latest one, with Joanna Zylinska!

I am thinking about how important the interview is as a form, and thinking about how we should teach it in the MFA program at CCA. The interview is an exercise in close listening and the interview is a stay against the distractions of our times. It is about seeing and hearing another human. Its very form, the interplay, the tossing back and forth of ideas, slowly building.

I am thinking about how much is revealed about the human soul and heart and mind in the form called the interview. I am thinking about how when it goes right, and when there is a meeting of brains, a sort of sweet, smart knowledge is generated that can only happen in that form.

 

A Tourist Flight Crashes in Antarctica: Hundreds of Rolls of Film, Human Perceptions, and What It Means for Seeing Climate Catastrophe

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The Barne Glacier, and in the distance, the world’s southernmost active volcano: Mt Erebus

When NZ Flight 901, on a tourist flyover to the Ross Sea in Antarctica from New Zealand, vanished from the airwaves 40 years ago this month, there remained hope the plane would yet make it back. That the silence meant the airliner’s comms had failed but they would make it back. The plane and all 257 people on that DC-10 would make it back. As night fell, people held onto that hope and residents of New Zealand’s South Island were told to turn on their porch lights,  to create an illuminated path to guide the plane back to Christchurch.

When I arrived in New Zealand as a research scholar in the Antarctic humanities, it struck how this story was not told in any of the Antarctic museums. The crash had reverberated across the country for years — and I met many, many Antarcticans who had either known passengers or who had been part of the recovery effort. Yet it was not considered a public story. In fact, when I asked about the crash, when I started digging into materials about the crash at archives, it was met with tinge that I was a tad vulgar to do so.

I then spent months searching archives in New Zealand towns and cities to parse a story of  a horrific Antarctic tourist disaster — particularly eery and haunted research — no surprise given that I was looking at records of a catastrophe and the subsequent lengthy inquiry.

Erebus Flt 901: Litany of Lies launches November 18 and it brings back many memories for me. Chapter 11 in my book, The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica looked at the crash through the lens of archival research and interviews.

Instead, I focused on the materiality of the investigation and then how the story was told in books, in the news, and in a handful of small exhibitions.

Many nights, from my home in the hills of Lyttelton, New Zealand, I would stare out the window at the busy port, and try to parse the facts as stated. There were so many weird aspects.

On one hand, there were hundreds of rolls of film, taken by the passengers in the hours proceeding the crash. They were tourists, they were all snapping away. I wrote about the look and feel of these images, which were shot from those tiny plane windows, which often appear in the photos, framing the blue and white ice landscape below.

As I read and re-read the expert testimony on the case. I kept coming back to the words of one of the witnesses, Professor Ross Henry Day, an expert in human perception. He talked about how humans might not see a 12,000-thousand-foot volcano in their path.

I wrote, “Before he gave his opinions, he studied passenger photographs and the meteorological conditions at the time of the accident.

“He said that the effects of white out are insidious in the extreme. Even on the ground the effects are not recognized by the affected individual until a gross error has been made, such as walking into a snow bank or falling into a hole.

“But understanding what means to not see in white out required a further explanation of a concept he called the mental set.  What can we see in poor visibility conditions, he reasoned, was determined in large part by the expectations of the observer. Thus, as we scanned a landscape, certain aspects of it were privileged over others for more detailed attention. The final step, then, was for the observer to interpret the selected material.

“To put it another way, we cannot see what we are not looking for, or when our physical means of seeing diminishes during white out, the mental set takes over. What we expect determines what we perceive.”

This insight has stayed with me particularly as I think and write more about climate catastrophe and ecologies these days. I wonder if this is not somehow why we don’t act to do more to stop emissions, to eat less meat, to slow down our hyper-capitalist markets? Perhaps it is a question of the mental set in the end and not being able to see what we do not believe because in the case of climate and shifting ecologies, we look out the window and it is yet still a beautiful day.

A Fire Makes Its Own Weather

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Or some thoughts for my talk at the

2019 Re-Imagining End of Life in San Francisco

My pal Mara Holt Skov invited me to present the work of the ECOPOESIS Movement at Re-Imagining End of Life, city-wide gatherings from Oct 24 – Nov 2, 2019, in San Francisco. So I sat down today to prepare my talk. I got lost in my thoughts and before I knew it, the sun was setting over the Pacific. But it was the unusual orange-sherbet glow on my wall that caught my attention. The smoke from the Kincade fire, burning in Sonoma for five days and expected to burn at least until Nov 7, had amplified the colors in eery ways.

I am writing a talk that thinks about David Bowie’s song “Fashion” from Scary Monsters, and how he was responding to what was called the New Romantic movement in London, from about 1978 to 1980. The bands dressed in ruffled shirts,  nun-habit sorts of jackets, had architectural or flouncy hair, sported extreme make-up, the more outrageous the look, the better, all carefully pulled together for effect. Spandau Ballet, Talk Talk, Duran Duran, among others. Their sound was electro dance and they were in conversation with David Bowie’s remarkable spirit of reinvention.

I was thinking about reinvention and thinking of the 1980s and how in 1988, James Hansen testified to the US Congress that there was clear evidence of global warming. And how we needed to pay attention to our contribution, as humans, to re-shaping the Earth’s atmosphere. And we needed to act.

Of course, we heard this and then we did nothing. We kept eating foods from the agro-businesses, burgers and crops grown with ever-more intensive chemical helpers. We kept driving our cars, and in fact in America, the cars got bigger and pounded out more CO2. We did not build strong public transit options. We celebrated the extraction industries, the mining, by buying and indulging in their products to fuel our homes and businesses. We just kept right on burning our little fires, as it were. Then we all fell headfirst into the dream and lie of the tech bros and started burying our faces in screens. Who had time to worry about global warming! The systems were so complex it was impossible to see a way out. Wasn’t someone else working on it, too?

This leads us to a question, so shall we look at it? If we think about the song “Fashion,” we see Bowie responding to the New Romantics who were in turn responding to him. He has a particular point of view: He refers to the goon squad, we are the goon squad, that dictates a particular fashion behavior, and it seems he is not entirely on board. I have read interpretation that this strict adherence to the outrageous for the sake of the outrageous, he felt may have been saying, it was akin to a sort of cultural fascism. And he wanted us to look at it.

So what does this have to do with ecologies or end of life? Well, let’s say the discussion is how we all adhere to certain stories of our reality, how we see what we are all getting up to? That we can agree there are hard-sided realities in fact — like the Pacific Ocean is a reality.

Then there are our shared stories of how things are, more like the borders we draw between countries. Borders are a fiction that we all agree on. When we start disagreeing with these stories of how things are, the extreme end is, of course, revolution.

I think what ECOPOESIS is inviting us to do is far from revolution but it is indeed a form of revolt.

With ECOPOESIS, we have invited people to gather together with us to think about ecological topics and to make what we call “embodied messaging” about them.

When we first met in April, we gathered around one writer’s ideas and then we made expressions of how we feel about the times in which we live, using the text and the making to shape feelings and responses.

But before the final works were made, we spent hours in the morning focusing on another organizational tactic, which asked people to define three words that were occupying our minds: Remain, Resist, Retreat. ((In fact, we could have used any of the “re–” words we had gathered for our list. Recreate. Renovate. Reshape.))

What I am thinking I might talk about during my ECOPOESIS paper for Re-imagining end of life, is how now is the time to re-think our stories of how things are. And to tell better stories, stories that have more power and accuracy based on our shifting ecosystems and real needs to adapt and change, perhaps very quickly.

How we can push away the onslaught of apocalyptic visions of the looming future, a future where all of us, including humans, go extinct.

Or go to Mars.

Or get new AI headsets to allow us to think more quickly and adapt faster, or whatever the plan is in that department.

I am thinking that all revolts start as thoughts and then they become embodied. You refuse to give up your seat on a bus. You march to the sea to get salt. You stop going to school on Fridays to protest inaction on climate change.

I will publish the talk here.