A talk at Lillian Allen’s Experimental/Hybrid Writing class at OCADU

The class carpet.

I had the privilege of giving a talk/lecture for Lillian Allen‘s Experimental/Hybrid Writing class at the OCAD University. I had a few things lined up to do, but at the last minute I decided to wing it. The last time I talked about Uncreative Writing was last summer at the Power Plant which was a lot of fun (it’s where I met Lillian), however, Kenneth Goldsmith and his class asked the questions and I answered the best I could. Here I was given free reign by Lillian so I wanted to see what might come out of the class and the experience.

First, I went through my uses of the uncreative writing process. I brought in a receipt from a book purchase and wrote the following on the blackboard:

“Tell us about your visit today

and enter to win a $500 giftcard! Complete our survey”

I started off part the talk by pointing to the board and saying, “I wonder if a person or a robot came up with the phrase?” My point to start off my talk was that it didn’t matter. This is something we see in a receipt every day and it is text that provokes us. We either disregard it or we take the survey, or we grumble about how we won’t take the survey because it’s just another ploy by companies to take more of your personal information. Whatever we do or do not do, the text in that receipt provoked something out of you.

Then I rambled. I rambled about the road from poet to motherhood to writer’s block to writing poetry again, writing, and stumbling upon Uncreative Writing.

IMG_20140212_093157 (1)
Texts I brought to class.

I’m sure the class was a bit confused so I brought it back to them and asked them why they wanted to take this course. Most of them answered that they were intrigued by the course description, or that they were interested in taking their writing in a new direction, most of them wanted to explore. One person frankly said they wanted to fulfill a class credit. All very valid and good reasons. So then I asked them what they wrote. Most of them prose or short stories. One said they wrote a bit of micro stories. Another said they were interested in writing things using computer languages! While another blew me away when she said she tried to take texts from languages she didn’t know and translate them without a background in that language. She just guessed what the translation would be.

We can all be uncreative and that’s one of the beauties of the process. Mind you, while one is being uncreative, you end up being creative. It’s true! The most boring-est pieces of work I’ve done have been the ones that have provoked the biggest responses. My retype of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and my current writing Ulysses by hand has had me conversing with Joyce scholars that have been waiting so long to do something with James Joyce’s work before it became public access (talking with simple ol’ me about Joyce!). You should always give credit to your uncreative writing source and by doing my rewrites, I’ve given Joyce a new life for me. I appreciate Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus even more now. Thus by appropriating and by crediting (giving tribute to your source), you’re giving the text a new perspective for others to view it through.

I told the class my usual: being uncreative helps my creative side, it unblocks me. However, there’s a neat phenomena that occurs in the uncreative process. Whether it’s copying or writing my own creative work, I’m still creating because it comes of me. Nobody tells the painter that they’re copying a tree. They’re painting a tree. Nobody asks the construction worker that they’re copying a building plan. They’re building a building.

When you write a conceptual piece, you are recreating something that is already there, but passing it through the sieve, or alternate dimension, of a new brain. It’s like this (something I reiterated in class and I often reiterate in my film writing):

When a director films a movie, the viewer watches it and parses it through their brain. The movie playing out in their brain, which is mixed in with their experiences and their own biases, can be an entirely different movie than the director had planned. Stopping the uncreative is like stopping the viewer from watching the movie for fearing its interpretation.

I explained to the class that a lot of uncreative writing can be mundane to the point of boring.Yet there’s something rewarding about it. It’s meditative and it gives me a discipline for the writing process that I never had before. The first thing or last thing I do in my day is do my rewrite or copying. Then I post it, put it away, and start upon my day of reviewing or writing. Sometimes during the rewrite, I will notice something about Joyce or Orwell’s sentence structure or the words they use and I’ll make a note of it. Most of the time, though, the rewrite is a non-thinking escape. I don’t fret over it because the only effort I make is to rewrite the text. Sometimes though, I get an epiphany.

An epiphany! It’s rare, but it happens when I rewrite. It’s usually about the process. One of the students mentioned that he gathered that this uncreative process was much like the avant garde ready mades. You know it took me a few months to truly translate that from Goldsmith’s book. This student realized it from our discussion.

Text is art. Art is text. We’re bred in the same language virus monster. It evolves and it wants to transform. While I rewrite, I still write lyrical poetry, I still write essays, and I still write fiction. For me, it’s all on the same boat. I’d love to see where lyrical poetry goes from here. I’d love to see where the conceptual goes from here. And like many things there are lyrical crap and conceptual crap, but we stumble and move. That’s the key, though, language should move, and I believe that one of the ways we can evolve as writers is to try new things. As stupid or as meaningless as some things may sound, there are epiphanies and brilliance in the mundane.

John Cage was a genius at his most mundane. Andy Warhol excelled at recreating the minutiae of life (a simple soup can, into something colourfully brilliant. Math is beautiful and oh dear, can it ever be boring.

As I waited for the students to finish their in-class assignment, I stared at the carpet pattern in the room. It was series of interlocking silver curves on a black background. If my daughter had been in there, she’d have felt comforted by the carpet with its predictable pattern and it’s orderly fashion. She would have appreciated how the desks were lined up in a square pattern to face the lecturer with one blackboard at the front and a screen at the back. To many of us, the carpet is just a carpet. The room is just a room.

A poem is just a bunch of words.

The room is just a room.

We translate it through our brains into something new.

A poem can have a predictable pattern.

The room has an orderly fashion.

A poem is a new poem when it is read by the reader.

The movie is a new movie when it is viewed by the viewer.

A poem is a beautiful thing with so many possibilities.

I’m no professor and I did tend to ramble, but the class gave me some good discussions. After class, some of the students came by to chat about what they wanted to do with what they learned in class or what they got out of the class. One of them thought it was really cool that I had rewritten the Taxi Driver script by changing the main character’s gender.

I think there will always be a need for words. There will always be a need for change. Let’s play with that. Also write a sonnet or two. It’s all writing to me (it’s still rock n roll to me). That can also be boring, but no one ever said boring would always simple.


I asked the class to take the excerpt of Goldsmith’s Being Dumb and substitute “dumb” and “smart” with whatever two words first came to their heads, (I could’ve gone further and asked them to randomly pick a word from a newspaper or a box of soap, but experience has shown me to ease someone into it all and most of all, don’t let them have time to think! Sometimes people can be pretty hesitant in appropriating work).

The following is a class poem written by

Rachael McArthur, James Ray, Nyssa Komorowski, Jennifer Valencia (my sister joined me that day), Jazeen Hollings, and Matthieu Goupil-Lemay (with special guest: Kenneth Goldsmith): Experimental and Hybrid Writing Class Poem (pdf)


Recommended readings:

I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (Les Figues Press)

The PAP Manifesto

Notes on Conceptualisms: a dialogue between Vanessa Place and Tania Ørum

Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (NU Press)

Uncreative Writing (Columbia University Press)

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