“My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.”
When looking back over the last few months, I am noticing a positive shift in how I read, write, and observe. In my very first blog post, I wrote that I wanted to become more attentive to the details found in the texts that we read over the semester, as opposed to the more obvious narratives that stretched through them. To put it metaphorically, I wanted–and continue to want–to look beyond the color of the house and more into the structure of the building. This is not to discount the narratives, of course. In poetry, I don’t find this as difficult; unless you are dealing with an epic poem, there is usually less text to work with. I can read a line in a poem and stop, figure it out, and move to the next line. That method works with poems, but not as well with novels, especially one as meticulously crafted as Big Machine. Because we read the novel in sections, I had to read very carefully, knowing that I couldn’t use the dump truck method with this text: reading as fast as I can and then dumping what little I retained into the discussion portion of the next class, and moving on to the next text. The chapters that we read had to be read slowly and thoughtfully because I had to REMEMBER the material for later class discussions and or blog posts. Not only remembered, but the material had to be retained. By looking at the syllabus, I could see that the material in this class was going to recur and recur again and again, just like the fractals in Ron Eglash’s book.
There are dozens of themes that I could focus on in Big Machine, but the one that was glaring to me was that of shame/self-hatred and self-doubt. I noticed it in the beginning chapters of the novel and then stuck with it throughout the remaining chapters. In my first blog post, I talk about specific examples: “stink of failure had followed [his, Ricky’s] relationships for years,” tossing salt onto the sidewalk without gloves on, and the most obvious one, his heroin usage. Later we find out that Ricky largely blames himself for the death of his sister, but up until this point, the self-hatred didn’t make a whole lot of sense. I had to practice thinkING in order to make connections between the self-destructive behavior and thoughts as well as the narrative of the novel.
Through the blogging assignment, I had to loosen up big time. I hadn’t noticed how difficult it was for me to write in a more casual tone. Although adding research to the blog posts is something that we could do, I found myself being tempted to make each and every post a mini research paper with a proper MLA format works cited page at the end. That can be chilly and not exactly the conversational tone that the blogs are supposed to have. I think that with all of my “noticings” this semester, the blogging assignment brought my attention to the biggest revelation of all: I am often tempted to hide behind my writing. Blogging was scary for me because I was bringing more of myself to my writing than ever before, linking my experiences and thoughts to the texts and course concepts as opposed to just presenting my research.
Before the handout on paratextual elements, I had never paid much attention to the acknowledgments, epigraphs, and other material added by the editors, author, printers, and publishers. I think I saw what most see when they pick up a book: cover, some praise, skip, skip, skip, skip, ok, chapter one. I didn’t see it before, but there’s a plethora of information that adds to the narrative in these paratextual elements. The anthologies that we read from, Call and Response and Angles of Ascent, really taught me that. When we read bits from Larry Neal’s “The Black Arts Movement” in conjunction with Joyce Ann Joyce’s response, “The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism,” I was struck by how the paratextual elements shaped both responses. Where the editors give Neal the title of “a brilliant writer,” Joyce is called, “the most outspoken critic of Henry Louis Gates’s poststructuralist approach to African American literature.” Yikes. Neal is praised highly in the section written by the editors, and Joyce, although not discounted, is not given the same praise. Before, I would not have noticed how the biographies of the authors would shape the reading experience; most likely, I would have skipped over them, jumping into what I considered to be the “actual text.” This was one of the greatest examples of what I kind of knew from working on Gandy Dancer, but is becoming more evident: to be an editor comes with great responsibility.
This tied in with one of the instances that I found profoundly interesting in class. When we read “Bloodchild,” it was tempting to look at it through the lens of slavery, even though Butler has said over and over and oh-vah (Parks) that “Bloodchild” is NOT about slavery. So, if we had the knowledge of what the story was NOT about, why was it that what we kept wanting to go back to? I think it’s context. Right before we read “Bloodchild,” we had spent some time with two narratives from Call and Response: Douglass’ and Jacobs’. I’d never noticed how much the layout of the course affects the student’s interpretation of materials, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw how it’s not just material that we are presented within a classroom setting; it’s everything. What we encounter inside and outside of class all adds to the lens through which we see the texts we read. That’s cool, but I think it could also be dangerous. During one of the group discussions of Big Machine, I saw this in such a powerful way, that I crafted my seventh blog post around it. Biblical names pop up all over the novel: Solomon, Cain, and Judah. While I related the names back to their Biblical character, other classmates did not. Because of my text-periences–I’m making up a new word here–the lenses through which I saw the character was much different. In a similar way, another classmate was much more familiar with Lovecraft than I am and was able to find similarities and reverberations of his work in Big Machine that I would have never noticed.
As we moved forward in the semester, and I grew more attentive to intricacies, we read what I found to be the most difficult text in the course: The American Play. Here, I had to cling to the tiny details that I was familiar with in order to make sense of what in the world was going on. And there wasn’t much that I was familiar with. The narrative didn’t make much sense to me; if I wanted to understand anything, I was going to have to find a life preserver. During my high school days, I did quite a bit of acting, and my uncle writes screenplays professionally. I felt like I had an “edge” on understanding the material when I found out that we were reading a play; I was dead wrong. There are no stage directions, character descriptions, or anything else that would feel familiar to me in Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom. How do I operate in a textual world where I am so unfamiliar? I noticed after reading in class that I have avoided texts that I do not feel comfortable with already. By throwing myself into Parks’ work, I had to take every word for what it is, and often I didn’t even know what it was. For me, Wild Kingdom was a grab on point for me. I grew up watching Animal Planet and shows like Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures and The Crocodile Hunter. After doing some investigation about what Wild Kingdom was, I found my footing through relating the show to other shows that I was familiar with. Yes, my life preserver was not as “academic” as maybe I would have hoped, but it helped me form a vision for what the character or Dr. Lutzky would look like. After I was able to picture the characters a little bit more, the play felt more approachable. Although, I’m still not sure what it is about.
As platitudinous as this statement could sound, this semester has been one of tremendous growth for me as a writer and thinker. I’ve become aware of things that have been swirling around me for years and just haven’t been brought to my attention. Or maybe I just hadn’t opened my eyes enough to SEE them. If I wrote about each connection that was made throughout the semester, this essay would be far longer than would be enjoyable to read, so I tried to simply highlight the biggest ones. I think that I met accomplished what I set out to do this semester: notice the little things that are actually big things. Through this reflection process, I am noticing that I noticed.