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Extra Curricular

by Holly Willis

Creative Critical Writing

In 1993, I was a graduate student in a Critical Studies Ph.D. program studying independent, avant-garde and feminist film and video, figuring out how to write about them, and thinking about what it meant to write at all. I adored high theory—the thickness of it, the heady political ambition, the philosophical complexity. But I liked zines and the wild world of alternative publishing, too, along with the community of readers eager for experiments that these publications augured. My advisors discouraged involvement with Filmmaker—a career-killer, for sure—and when I was offered a short-term job at Variety one summer, they rolled their eyes. But both Filmmaker and Variety were life changing for me, if in different ways. With Filmmaker, I learned how a single publication can help shape a culture; at Variety, I learned about subversive writing tactics. For example, I managed to slip a story about early feminist game design into a special issue on video games, and I wrote about David Blair’s Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees, now dubbed “the first film on the Internet,” in 1995! Both in fucking Variety! Sure, I was also churning out advertorial on a weekly basis, but it was thrilling to think about this kind of cultural code-switching.

It was around that time that Mark Pritchard, co-editor (with Cris Gutierrez) of the zine Frighten the Horses: A Document of the Sexual Revolution, got in touch. He wanted a piece on my hero, Kathy Acker, and I cheerfully agreed to take the assignment. I tackled a stack of Acker’s novels, dog-earring pages and underlining phrases; I perused the archive of odd publications featuring her work; and I fashioned what I thought was a damn fine piece about the fluidity of identity and subjectivity in postmodern fiction. 

Mark sent it back. He said that not only could he not publish it, he could hardly read it. He said, “Tell me how her work makes you feel.” I was dismayed, then pissed. What I feel? Feelings had nothing to do with critical writing! I considered reneging. But it was Kathy Acker. So I tried. I started a sentence: “Kathy Acker makes me feel…” and then somehow wrote, “…like a boy.” And it began. I wrote a series of paragraphs, each of which started with “Kathy Acker makes me feel,” and the piece emerged from there. I had to admit that it was a cool way to write, tapping into something personal. It was also a little embarrassing, uncomfortable, vulnerable. I sent the piece off, hiding my queasiness with a lavish title: “Wild Dogs Howl Beneath the Gangrened Limbs of the Old: Kathy Acker’s Fucking Literature.” Mark liked it. He printed it. And Kathy Acker sent me a note shortly thereafter to say how much she enjoyed the piece. 

I wish I could say that I developed a brilliant writing practice informed by emotions and the body, by poetic language and rhythm, and that an auspicious career was spawned soon thereafter. But I had a dissertation to write, and after that brief foray, my writing slumped back to the turgid academese that was expected; emotion and the body dutifully squelched. 

I thought about the demise of that writer a lot last January when I taught my new Creative Critical Writing course to Ph.D. students in the School of Cinematic Arts at USC. The goal of the class was to treat critical writing about media with the love and care bestowed on poetry—to consider words, sentences, punctuation, rhythm, lineation, even the design of the page. The goal was also to play, to experiment and to tap into forms of knowledge generally eclipsed in an academic context.

I was inspired in part by intellectual mentors who voiced a similar desire to attend to the practice of critical writing more carefully. In “The Masked Philosopher,” for example, Michel Foucault writes, “I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it.” 

It would light fires!

I was inspired. I decided we would meet for the class in the recently refurbished Fire Station 15 space just off campus. The week before classes began, I sent the enrolled students who had enrolled an essay by Aimee Bender titled “Light the Dark” from a book edited by Joe Fassler: titled Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler. The essay describes Bender’s experience with a particular poem by Wallace Stevens and her decision to memorize it. As she takes the poem into memory, she learns a bit about the power of language. She writes, “When language is treated beautifully and interestingly, it can feel good for the body: It’s nourishing. It’s rejuvenating.” She goes on to talk about her own writing practice and the way she listens and waits for mystery to help shape her sentences. “For me, the only way to find something comes through the sentence level, and sticking with the sentences that give a subtle feeling that there’s something more to say.” I wanted the students—anxious, over-worked, divorced from their creativity—to feel that sense of sustenance in language and to maybe even sense “a subtle feeling.” I asked the students to memorize a poem, and to be ready to work when they arrived on day one.

There were other inspirations as well. For example, bell hooks talks about her dismay at being taught to be a critic rather than a writer in her essay, “Remembered Rapture: Dancing With Words.” She writes, “The critic, we learned, was superior to the writer.” She continues, “We also learned that this position of superiority sanctioned dominance, that it was accorded by virtue of location, by the critical act of looking over and down on the writer.” hooks decides to refuse the position of critic, preferring to revel in language. She says, “As a writer, I seek that moment of ecstasy when I am dancing with words, moving in a circle of love so complete that like the mystical dervish who dances to be one with the Divine, I move toward the infinite.” 

On the first day of class, the students arrived and milled around the large, open space of the former garage for a pair of fire trucks, chatting. I walked in and said, “Look.” They stared at me. “Look!” They began to look around nervously. “Look. Look at the space around you. Move.” They quietly put their things down and began to look around, at the floor, the ceiling. I walked more briskly, saying over and over, “Look.” 

The whole thing was mortifying to me, but this is an exercise used by Joan Scheckel as part of The Technique, which she created for guiding people to experience a profound sense of self, and it is riveting when she leads it. In it, the group shifts from studying the space, to looking at each other and then engaging in an extended eye-to-eye stare while being encouraged to stay open, to receive the look of another. For my students and me, the exercise was intense and awful and yet totally awesome. We lasted about 30 minutes—and in the process, we began to reclaim the act of looking, which is central to our practice as writers. I took it as a great sign that only one student subsequently dropped the class. 

Over the course of the semester, we studied everything from Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book, designed like a phone book, to Lydia Davis’s “Foucault and Pencil” and Tisa Bryant’s brilliant, deadpan depiction of racism in film in Unexplained Presence. The reading list was vast and included Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Maggie Nelson, Gary Indiana, Hollis Frampton, Susan Howe, Bhanu Kapil, Paul Preciado, Wayne Koestenbaum, Lia Purpura, Chang-Rae Lee, Eileen Myles, Michel Serres, Hélène Cixous, Gaston Bachelard, Claudia Rankine, Erin Manning and many, many others. We read creative nonfiction and poetry, hybrid critical writing that attends to language, and creative writing that references theory. We thought about text as texture; about writing that takes up space; the intersection of cinema and the word; a haptics of writing; the launch and the swerve; openings and endings. And we watched typography in motion, listened to audio and voice experiments, meditated in gallery spaces, moved our bodies like punctuation marks and generally tried to disrupt the academic writing practices that demand logic, order and coherence.

And the students wrote brilliant, beautiful, weird pieces, and they used all kinds of media. One piece was an essay on a single sheet of paper about 22 feet long, with lines of letters making words in long strips

l

i

k

e 

t

h

i

s.

You had to bend in half over the page and shuffle backwards down the length of the paper to read it, piecing the words together to make sense. Another student made an audio recording of her voice and the scratching of a pen to reflect on the censored voices of women in Iran. Someone rewrote the work of Maurice Blanchot using a substitution technique. Another, inspired by the Oulipo group, wrote a very strange essay, strange because it lacked the letter “e.” Another embedded a scathing critique of filmmaking in the borrowed form of a screenplay. Someone shared “notes” written on her phone during the week with the rest of the class in a kind of public/private performative writing. Another student pulled a single frame for every minute in a feature film that she is obsessed with, and wrote a brief essay for each. There were poems and prose poems, Tumblrs and Twines with nonlinear pathways through fields of words. If this sounds gimmicky, it wasn’t. The act of writing playfully but studiously investigated form and voice and attended to the tangle of authority, point of view and pleasure; in addition, the students were incredibly generous and enthusiastic readers of the work produced. 

There is so much more to say about a burgeoning community of writers passionate about a reinvigorated arts writing practice. Arts writing programs in colleges and universities are growing in number, and many academics—known for their critical acumen—are publishing work that attends very creatively to language and form. I am thinking of Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart’s work-in-progress titled “The Hundreds,” in which each piece is either 100 words or a multiple of 100 words. “What’s a concept or a theory if they’re no longer seen as a truth effect, but a training in absorption, attention, and framing?” the authors ask. Claudia Rankine’s groundbreaking Citizen: An American Lyric, a devastating examination of racism that melds poetry, essay and images, demonstrated just how powerful hybrid forms can be, and Rankine’s collaborative video projects were yet another inspiration for the class. Finally, Johanna Drucker recently published Downdrift: An Eco-Fiction, which is a novel that allows the UCLA professor to explore the impact of humans on the earth through fiction rather than traditional critical writing. Taken together, all of these projects join a longer history of practices that entangle creative and critical, blurring boundaries and devoting overt attention to the relationships among idea, form, voice and rhythm in the process. 

Despite the flurry of terms and the proliferation of exhilarating examples all around us, the starting point for our class was simple. It was Mark Pritchard’s imperative: “Write about how the work makes you feel.” That alone is enough to propel thinking and writing—thinking through writing, writing through thinking—for at least a semester!

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