Ray Johnson, Mail Art, and Renewal

In my studies of Black Mountain College this semester, I have focused on the artist Ray Johnson, whose mail art is my inspiration for a project I am currently working on. Ray’s art revolved a seemingly cyclic pattern of destruction and renewal. He was constantly using his own art as part of new pieces, and then destroying or damaging those new pieces in some way, such as puncturing or slashing across them. His correspondance (misspelling intentional) school of art consisted of sending his art, or fragments of it, to his friends through the mail. These pieces fluctuated in their composition—from pieces of his past art, usually collages, to new, small pieces—and in their participatory element. His intention was collaboration, for his recipients to alter and pass on these cards.

I’m currently taking part in this correspondance school, or reviving it, or honoring it–one of those. It’s been hard to cut up my old art to make new pieces, and perhaps I’ve taken the easy way out by staying away from pieces that are too important to me. But Ray’s focus on destruction and renewal is very inspiring. Below are some of the mail art pieces that I’ve made–I have yet to send them to people, so they are still lacking in the participatory element. They’re all about the size of a postcard.

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My friend and I are planning on doing a flash flash fiction exchange similar in theory to this over the next year, when we will be living away from each other. I think artistic collaboration, especially written, goes unappreciated a lot of the time, but I’m hoping to start engaging in it more.

Thesis Thoughts

At this moment, I am sitting in my university library, exhausted, procrastinating, and did I already mention exhausted? Yeah. The future is pinwheeling towards me a little faster every day, and it’s not going to slow down until June 25th, when I get back from Ecuador. In between now and then: final thesis edits, final exams and projects, graduation, and right back to Ecuador without even a week to breathe, much less write.

All of that said, I’m here to do some reflection on the most arduous writing process of my life to date: my senior thesis, product of two summers of ethnographic research in Ecuador. Here are some observations about writing the damn thing that might be useful:

  • At every stage, I thought, “at least that’s done. the rest will be easier.” At every stage, I was wrong. Every part was just as hard.
  • I skipped my first class ever (unrelated to sickness or being out of town) to pull, not an all-nighter, but an all-evening-and-all-morning-er. I have since skipped another class. It felt very good.
  • Even after everything, I still basically have the first draft of a solid paper. Were I to take this process further, I would need to start from the ground up.
  • Breaks! are!! necessary!!!
  • Somehow, someway, it got done, and it will keep getting done. There’s just no other option.

I think most of that can apply to creative writing as well as academic…except the last one. When you’re not working under a strict deadline, there is not otherworldly force demanding it complete. There’s just yourself. So if I had to try to turn this into some advice about writing, it’s to cultivate some measure of intrinsic motivation in yourself. You need some way to guarantee, if not perfection, than completion.

Nit-Picking

As I am preparing for my thesis defense on Wednesday and also recovering from a rollicking drag show last night (my vocal cords are gone), here are some nit-picky writing resources. Take them all with a grain of salt: there are exceptions to every rule.

6 Questions and 6 Rules

8 Laws of Foreshadowing

43 Words You Should Cut from Your Writing Immediately

Phrase Frequency Counter

Rookie New Writer Moves

Re-Reading: The Secret Garden

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A while ago I came to the conclusion that if I felt the need to re-read a book, then, by gosh, I would. I’m sick of the mindset that colors re-reading as useless. It’s a constant weight that forces me ever-forward: keep abreast of the industry, look at all the new books out I haven’t read, look at all the classics I haven’t read! But I’m training myself into shrugging off that weight in order to let myself (re)read what I want. If I want to re-read a book I read in elementary school, then I’m going to fricking do it.

That said, I’m re-reading The Secret Garden at the moment! I’ve been feeling the urge to do so for a few weeks, and finally checked out a lovely illustrated version at the library. As a child, I found the book immersive–in fact, I still think that no scene has every drawn me in so strongly as Mary Lennox running against the wind in the moor, full of joie de vivre. It’s reassuring to know that the effect has not been lost over the years: the book is still as evocative as the first day I read it. That’s always a risk with childhood books, that they will disappoint you in not feeling the same.

That said, I could do without the racism. There’s about two dozen too many references to the Indian “natives” and white superiority. Before I re-read it I thought I might recommend it to my little sister, but now I’m unsure. Even if she doesn’t understand the not-so-subtle ugliness, it will linger somewhere. If I do give it to her, it will be with a serious conversation about the issue. It’s really making me wonder how much of those ideas absorbed as a child from books like this.

All that said, I am thoroughly enjoying the book, and the wild moors and broad Yorkshire accents remain beautifully formative influences on me. it’s refreshing to re-acquaint myself with the story, and refreshing to let myself, instead of forging on to the next new thing.

Writing Spaces

Two weeks later and I’m back in (west) Asheville, currently writing at Dobra Tea. It’s an amazing little tea shop–you can go sit in the back at low tables with cushions in dim lighting, or, like me today, you can sit up front in a cozy naturally-lit area near some wall plugs. You are given a bell and a tea encyclopedia and vegetarian snack menu. I am currently enjoying my favorite tea in the world (Black Dragon Tea) and some mochi while procrastinating on editing my thesis.

It’s a great environment to either focus or fall asleep, depending on which part of the shop you’re in and how tired you are. So much of writing depends on the space you’re in. I’ve generally conditioned myself to be productive in any cafe-like environment, but in libraries it’s touch-and-go: sometimes I can write for hours at a time, sometimes I get trapped in a loop of distraction. I’ve gotten a lot better about focusing over background noise/music, but if people are speaking loudly near me, I still tend to eavesdrop.

Anyone else out there have particular writing space needs? Feel free to comment with your own idiosyncrasies.